That’s why the Beatles were such a big deal. From the moment they strummed those electric chords, wagged their mops of hair, and smiled those beaming, ironic, isn’t-this-cool-but-also-a-bit-absurd smiles, we all knew it was something from a different galaxy. (And, given how rarefied foreign travel was then, England might as well have been in a different galaxy.)
A slew of clueless scholars and columnists have mused, over the decades, that the Beatles caused such a sensation because they snapped us out of the gloom brought on by the Kennedy assassination, which had taken place the previous November. This is silly sociology. Look at these DVDs or at any footage of a Beatles concert or a Beatles mob. It’s extremely doubtful that any of these teenage girls were cheering, screaming, palpitating, even crying with joy as some sort of catharsis to their anguish over Lee Harvey Oswald’s deed in Dallas. Meanwhile, their parents, who were the ones more likely traumatized by the death of the president, remained tellingly immune to Beatlemania.
The Beatles took hold of our country and shook it to a different place because they were young, because their music had a young, fresh feel, and because—this is the crucial thing—our parents didn’t get it.
Ed Sullivan didn’t entirely get it, either—and why should he have? He was even older than our parents. Legend has it that, on a trip to England a few months earlier, Ed saw the commotion the Beatles were causing and thought he’d book the lads on his show as a novelty act—until their manager, Brian Epstein, insisted on top billing. You can imagine Ed thinking: Top billing for these kids? Above Frank Gorshin, Myron Cohen, Gordon and Sheila McRae? Above Hollywood’s delightful Mitzi Gaynor?!
The day after that Sullivan show, every boy came to school with his hair combed down as far as he could manage (which, in most cases, wasn’t very far). Some went out and bought Beatle wigs. Or saved up to buy a guitar and then got together with friends to form a band. And this was OK, as long as you didn’t play too loud. The Beatles’ rebelliousness was playful, not menacing. (Ed frequently praised them, in his introductions, as “fine youngsters.”) Their sexuality had an androgynous element—that long hair and such pretty faces (except Ringo, the funny mascot of the group). They were a palatable transition to the truly menacing figures to come—the Rolling Stones, later punk rock, and beyond.*
The timing of the Beatles was perfect. 1964 marked the emergence of the Baby Boomers as a social force—and the Beatles were the vehicle for their ascendance as a cultural force. What records were the No. 1 hits on the pop charts before the Beatles took over the slot and stayed there for years to come? Bobby Vinton’s “There! I’ve Said It Again,” the Singing Nun’s “Dominique,” and Dale & Grace’s “I’m Leaving It Up to You.” The Beatles changed the charts forever. You can draw a line in the historical sands of popular culture at 1964. A lot of pop music that came after that point still sounds modern today. Almost all the pop music that came before that point sounds ancient.
On Feb. 9, 1964, The Ed Sullivan Show was the stage on which this change was dramatized. The Beatles were the young and the new; almost all the other acts were the old and the stale. That night, at least to every kid I knew, the future looked clear, happy, and ours.
Read more of Slate’s coverage of the Beatles at 50 from Blogging the Beatles.
Correction, Feb. 10, 2014: This article This article originally misstated that the Rolling Stones didn't perform on Ed Sullivan until 1967. The band first appeared on the show in 1964. (Return.)