What Was So Important About the Beatles’ Appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show?

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Feb. 7 2014 7:06 AM

Teen Spirit

What was so important about the Beatles’ appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show?

140206_CBOX_BeatlesArrivingUSA
The Beatles wave to fans after arriving at Kennedy Airport on Feb. 7, 1964.

Photo courtesy Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons

This Sunday marks the 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. In 2004, on the 40th anniversary of the performance, Fred Kaplan explained the significance the event held for the teenagers of the 1960s. His article is reprinted below.

Fred Kaplan Fred Kaplan

It may be impossible for anyone who wasn’t living at the time to grasp how much the country changed 40 years ago this Sunday. On Feb. 9, 1964, at 8 p.m. ET, the Beatles appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show.

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Everyone knows the rough outlines: the Fab Four mop-heads from Liverpool, their journey to America, thousands of teenagers screaming in the streets, the subsequent “British invasion,” and the transformation of rock ‘n’ roll.

But Americans under, say, 40 have had to take the historic importance of these events on faith. Listening many years after the fact to those early Beatles songs (“I Wanna Hold Your Hand,” “She Loves You,” “Please Please Me,” and so forth), they must have wondered—must still wonder—what the fuss was about. These are fairly sappy tunes, compared with what followed, from not only the Beatles but other bands.

A 2003 DVD clears up the generational mystery. The two-disc set is called The Four Complete Historic Ed Sullivan Shows Featuring the Beatles, an inelegant but meticulous title. It contains all four Sullivan shows on which the Beatles made live appearances—the three Sundays in a row in February ’64 (Feb. 9, 16, and 23) and their return on Sept. 12, 1965—not just the parts with the Beatles but each hour-long program in its entirety, commercials included.

Not only is it a fascinating time capsule (and a teary piece of nostalgia for those of us who well remember the broadcasts from our youth), it also provides an unvarnished picture of the popular culture of the era—and, thus, the impact that the Beatles had on it.

To a degree that young Americans couldn’t comprehend today, The Ed Sullivan Show was American popular culture. More than 50 million Americans—over half of the TV-viewing audience at the time—tuned in to it on CBS every Sunday night. (More than 70 million watched on the night of the Beatles’ debut.) It was a variety show like no other, with animals, acrobats, puppets, plate-twirlers, stand-up comics, nightclub singers, scenes from the latest hit musicals and ballets—all the acts personally selected by this odd-looking, odd-talking, otherwise untalented ex-gossip columnist.

As John Leonard put it in his wonderful essay, “Ed Sullivan Died for Our Sins,” “Never before and never again in the history of our republic would so many gather so loyally, for so long, in the thrall of one man’s taste.” In an age when televisions had only three channels, Leonard noted,

Ed Sullivan was a one-man cable television system with wrestling, BRAVO and comedy channels, Broadway, Hollywood and C-SPAN, sports and music video. We turned to him once a week in our living rooms for everything we now expect from an entire industry every minute of our semi-conscious lives.

Watching these shows now on DVD, we reach one conclusion very quickly: Most of the stuff on “Sullivan” was crap. And the stuff that wasn’t bad (and some of it wasn’t) was, for the most part, very old—not old in the sense of having been aired 40 years ago, but old hat, even at the time, relics of the Borscht Belt: hack impressionists, dreary puppets, lame parlor magicians, and mediocre starlet-singers. (Who remembers that Mitzi Gaynor—or “Hollywood’s delightful Mitzi Gaynor,” as Ed introduced her—had such a lousy voice?)

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