Pop-Ed: The Beatles on Ed Sullivan and Its Impact on Music

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Compile a list of the most important dates in pop-rock history, and a handful would compete for the top spot.

The day Les Paul invented the solid body electric guitar. The day ‘Rocket 88’ or ‘Rock Around The Clock’ were released. The day Elvis Aaron Presley from Tupelo, Miss., walked into Sun Records to record a birthday gift for his mother. The day Berry Gordy founded Motown.

But really, the answer is Sunday, Feb. 9, 1964.

 

It was on that date — 50 years ago — that the world was introduced to four men from Liverpool with shaggy hair, matching suits, and a driving backbeat. The Beatles, of course, were already huge in their native Britain and ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’ was a No. 1 hit on American radio. But when they took the stage on The Ed Sullivan Show that night, it was the first time they reached millions on television. People could actually see the exuberance when they performed. Billy Joel — and many others — still say it was the moment they realized what they wanted to do for a living.

It was the night The Beatles became most the important band to ever exist.

No, that’s not hyperbole. Over the next six years, The Beatles would lay the blueprint for most modern music that followed. Among their innovations:

1. The Importance of Songwriting
John Lennon and Paul McCartney weren’t the first rock ‘n’ roll singers to write their own tunes — Johnny Cash, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, and Bob Dylan did it first. But even more than Dylan, The Beatles made it a requirement if you wanted to be considered a serious artist and not just a pop star.

2. Sarcasm in Rock
The slick, cool, above-it-all rock ‘n’ roll attitude was common among many of the great blues musicians of the early 20th century. Elvis had it, too. But The Beatles were something else: They were goofy, charming, off-the-cuff — and hilariously sarcastic in interviews. Just watch the jester-like John Lennon and deadpan George Harrison command the news conference they held after arriving in New York for the Sullivan show. They were the Marx Brothers in mop-tops. With them, pop music acquired a sly sense of humor.

3. Pop Eclecticism
Hank Williams was country. Marvin Gaye was soul. Elvis was rock. And of course, Johnny Cash mixed country with rock, while Buddy Holly mixed rock with country. But The Beatles meshed it all together. Listen to their debut album — 1963’s Please Please Me — and you’ll see hints of blues, rockabilly, R&B, and girl-group pop. The Beatles didn’t really have a formula — which was, and still is, a radical idea. Then, with every album, they expanded their sound. By the time The White Album was released in 1968, they were tackling reggae, folk, chamber music, sound collages, and lullabies.

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4. Music Videos
In essence, their first appearance on the Sullivan show was the birth of music videos. People tuned in to see what rebellion looked like. In turn, music became something visual. You could actually watch George Harrison’s guitar solos. You could marvel at John and Paul giddly mug for the camera. Soon, they were making their own movies and promo clips. They were a band that needed to be seen as well as heard. It’s was the idea that fueled the creation of MTV 17 years later.

5. The Album
Before the Fab Four, albums were simply collections of songs and odd tracks thrown together to give the masses something to buy. But The Beatles fashioned albums as their own, complete entities. And it didn’t start with 1967’s Sgt. Pepper. Even A Hard Day’s Night feels like a unit, as does Rubber Soul. You can separate the songs from each album, but you are always reminded what record they came from.

6. The Album Cover
Album covers once featured glorified promotion photos. But the front of Beatle records were always so vivid: The stairwell shot of Please Please Me, the avant-garde sketches of Revolver, the sidewalk portrait of Abbey Road. (We’ll forgive them for the strange multicolored star explosion of Magical Mystery Tour.)

You could fill libraries with analysis of The Beatles’ other achievements in the wake of Feb. 9, 1964. How they helped make it cool to play sitar and music-hall piano on rock records. How they launched their own record label at a time when that was unthinkable.

But there’s something even larger at play here. A friend of mine recently quipped that The Beatles were nothing but the 1960s version of a boy band. Others have told me they were a silly pop act compared to the raw rock of The Rolling Stones or Led Zeppelin. Everyone’s entitled to their opinion, but both views seem short-sighted.

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Yes, the Sullivan show appearance was the biggest example of how the Beatles pre-dated the Backstreet Boys with screaming girls and pop hysteria. And yes, the Stones and Zeppelin were swampier and dirtier and bluesier. But it’s not just that The Beatles wrote their own songs and played their own instruments that made them greater than a prefabricated pop act. It’s that The Beatles aren’t merely influential; they are still a fantastic band. Of course, they helped mold so many genres — world rock (‘Norwegian Wood’), folk-rock (‘I’ll Cry Instead’), psychedelic (‘Rain’), trance (‘Tomorrow Never Knows’), alternative (‘I’m Only Sleeping’), heavy metal (‘Helter Skelter’), twee pop (‘Martha My Dear’). But all of those songs continue to be respected not just because they were groundbreaking and led to something else. They remain some of the most well-crafted, memorable songs of the last 100 years. They weren’t only building blocks. They are still monuments of perfection. Bands keep striving to create music that matches The Beatles’ genius.

And that’s why when you watch that Sullivan show performance on YouTube, it still feels palpable. It’s not just because you know this was a historic moment. It’s not just because your parents have told you where they were when it aired. It’s not just because you know The Beatles were important. It’s because of their sheer energy, the excitement of ‘All My Loving,’ the pristine chord changes of ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand,’ the cool way they handle themselves. It’s a moment that never feels like a museum piece. Fifty years later, Feb. 9, 1964 is still alive.

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Lost Songs: The Early Beatles (Brent Johnson)