February 2024

On February 9, 1964, 60 years ago this month, The Beatles appeared for the first time on The Ed Sullivan Show. I remember the buzz that preceded the appearance because the older sisters of some of my friends were talking about it on the school bus. I was only seven, so whatever fuss the media were making about The Beatles didn’t get to my eyes or ears. My dad was working for a local radio station, but it didn’t play rock’n’roll and I don’t remember him or my mom talking about The Beatles.

The Beatles

I certainly wasn’t aware of the groundwork laid for The Beatles’ first actual appearance in the US. CBS News did a segment on the group in December 1963, and in early January, NBC presented footage of a Beatles performance in the UK on The Jack Paar Show, a precursor to The Tonight Show. The sequence of events that led to The Beatles’ sudden, swift popularity in America has been retold many times in books and articles. It’s likely that when Mark Lewisohn finishes the second installment of his projected three-volume history of the band (Tune In, published in 2013, brought them up to 1962), the story of how things unfolded may turn out to be more prosaic.

Even the group’s popularity in England was unprecedented and unexpected. Hard work, including grueling stints at clubs in Hamburg, Germany, had sharpened their playing and performing skills, and when The Beatles returned to England they built a large and loyal following in Liverpool, their hometown. Brian Epstein, who ran the record department of his family’s Liverpool music store, became the group’s manager and worked hard to secure them a record contract. When EMI Group signed The Beatles, it was to its Parlophone label, which was known for classical music and novelty records.

Popular British rock acts in the late 1950s and early 1960s, such as Cliff Richard and the Shadows, weren’t in danger of displacing American acts from the UK charts for any length of time, let alone making any headway on US radio. The Beatles became a bigger phenomenon in Britain than anyone expected, but EMI’s US label, Capitol Records, took a pass on the group’s first four singles. Two smaller labels, Vee-Jay Records and Swan Records, released them instead, but “Love Me Do,” “Please Please Me,” “From Me to You,”, and “She Loves You” went nowhere when they were first released in America.

Epstein finally convinced Capitol to take a chance on “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” The label scheduled it for a release in January, but a deejay in Washington DC got a copy of the record from a stewardess who had picked up the single when she was in England. It had been released there in late November. The deejay, Caroll James Jr., played the record, and it generated listener calls on the station’s request line. James made taped copies for deejays he knew in other cities, and airplay on those stations also resulted in phone requests to hear the song again. Capitol brought forward the release date to late December; by the middle of January, it had sold a million copies.

Ed Sullivan had been interested in having The Beatles on his show for some time. In October 1963, he was at London Airport (since renamed London Heathrow) to catch a flight back to the States when he saw 1500 excited fans waiting for the band’s return from a short tour in Sweden. Sensing that the group might catch on in America, he met with Epstein in New York City that November. The Beatles would appear on The Ed Sullivan Show a total of three times in February 1964.

The Beatles

By the time The Beatles landed at JFK on February 7, 1964, “I Want to Hold Your Hand” had spent five weeks in the number 1 spot on the request list for New York City’s powerhouse radio station, WABC, and “She Loves You” was at number 2. Three thousand American fans greeted The Beatles at the airport, and Capitol moved them quickly to a press conference, where they displayed the wit and charm that had helped to make them popular in the UK.

CBS received 50,000 ticket requests for The Beatles’ first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, and the show itself drew 73 million viewers. It remains one of the most viewed events in American television history. It was also a defining moment in rock’n’roll and pop culture. Many future rock musicians were inspired by seeing The Beatles on TV.

American musicians who were already active changed direction after hearing The Beatles and seeing how quickly they caught the public’s attention. Bob Dylan and Brian Wilson were both so moved by the group’s fresh songwriting approach that they adjusted their own goals. The Byrds were just one of many groups whose members were so impressed by The Beatles that they moved from folk music to rock.

It’s frequently said that a cultural event or a particular artist changed the world. In the case of The Beatles, it’s true. After they conquered America, the rest of the world followed. Soon, British musicians were everywhere; and in the States, things happened quickly. In January 1964, when The Beatles hit number 1, the only other British act on the charts was Dusty Springfield. By the end of the year, the Zombies, The Rolling Stones, The Searchers, and the Dave Clark Five had joined them.

The Beatles

The myth persists that The Beatles rescued pop music from the bland Bobby Rydells and other lightweights who, legend says, dominated the charts. Actually, when The Beatles landed in the US for their Ed Sullivan appearance, an impressive and varied list of artists were popular: Leslie Gore, Major Lance, Martha and the Vandellas, the Beach Boys, and Rufus Thomas are a small sample of the acts in the charts at that time. The Beatles did help shift the emphasis to bands, as opposed to individual performers; and in time, pop groups would be expected to write their own songs if they wanted to be taken seriously.

However, great songwriters were already at work in pop: Brian Wilson; Smokey Robinson; Holland, Dozier, and Holland; Goffin and King; Bacharach and David; and more. Soon Bob Dylan would move to rock, and the charts would be filled with British Invasion bands whose writers, including Jagger and Richards, Ray Davies, and Pete Townshend, would vie for attention and dominance.

The Beatles and their peers in the UK ushered in a period of musical experimentation and change, and American musicians responded with their own burst of innovation and creativity. Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” was as culture-shaking as “I Want to Hold Your Hand” had been, and The Byrds, Simon & Garfunkel, and other groups deftly met the challenge of the British Invasion and created their own sounds.

In the 1960s and well into the ’70s, pop music was a hothouse of constant change, with groups and singer-songwriters using different approaches from album to album to remain fresh. The Beatles recorded 12 LPs from 1962 to 1970—I’m referring to the UK releases—but even in such a short career, their records can be divided into early-, middle-, and late-period works. The same is true of their contemporaries; especially Dylan, whose shifts in direction were perhaps even more abrupt. The producers, writers, and groups at Motown also expanded their musical ambitions as styles changed, and James Brown created his own world and gave us funk.

The Beatles

It was an exciting, constantly changing pop-music universe. It’s true that The Beatles set the pace, but it’s also true that many other bands and songwriters upped the ante with their own great records. The Beatles were fortunate to have created an atmosphere in pop music that caused others to challenge their supremacy, driving them to do even better work.

I’m retelling this story in part because The Beatles were remarkable, and their music and cultural impact continue to resonate with so many of us. I’m also telling it to illustrate how different our world is today. Our current media landscape is massive, varied, and fractured. Choices in 1964 were more limited. Media insider Bob Lefsetz wrote in his blog recently: “In the sixties we lived in a monoculture. AM radio was pushed to you and everybody knew the same songs.”

Later, FM radio helped popularize bands, but it didn’t create as strong a sense of community as AM radio had. It also didn’t have AM’s reach. FM stations are local or, at best, regional. AM stations can be powerful, broadcasting across hundreds of miles. My friends and I in central PA used to listen to stations from Chicago and Boston. If a song caught our attention, we’d call our local station and request it. You’d have to wait to hear it, and that anticipation made it special. If you really liked it, you’d buy the single. FM radio would create that same excitement for LPs.

The Beatles

The world that The Beatles helped create—with constant growth and change in pop music, and new discoveries in recording techniques—is long gone. Musicians during that era had a captive audience. Now, by contrast, there are countless television outlets, and music can be streamed from numerous sources. Each of us can choose when to watch or listen to whatever we want. Marshall McLuhan’s concept of a global village was a lot easier to grasp when the number of media sources was small. It’s hard to imagine any pop musician, any movie, or any television show having the cultural impact of The Beatles.

Even as the rock era fades, The Beatles remain the gold standard in rock music, and they embody the ’60s for many people—for baby boomers in particular. That’s perhaps more than any single body of music should have to bear, and it’s certainly something that John Lennon pushed back against. Apple Records and Universal Music continue to keep The Beatles front and center, with the full encouragement of the surviving Beatles, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, as well as the cooperation of Yoko Ono and Olivia Harrison, the widows of John Lennon and George Harrison.

Given the endless reissues of Beatles recordings, such as the recent expanded and remixed versions of The Beatles 1962–1966 and The Beatles 1967–1970, it’s possible to experience Beatle fatigue. I have complicated feelings about the remixed, reconstructed versions of the albums that have appeared since 2017’s 50th anniversary release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Many of them sound very good, but to use current technology to sonically “improve” the original recordings seems like an attempt to alter history.

The Beatles

The Beatles, their producer, George Martin, and Abbey Road’s recording engineers were brilliant at using the means available to them at the time to create recordings that other musicians would later emulate. Studio technology had to be developed to enable other producers and recording engineers to more easily do what Martin, Geoff Emerick, and others at Abbey Road had achieved with The Beatles. The newer, alternative mixes of Revolver and subsequent albums are fine, but the originals are the benchmark, and should always remain available.

Along with many of my friends, I feel certain that The Beatles and many of our other favorite artists will be a part of music history forever. Time will make its own choices, and we can’t really be sure what will last and what will fade. It doesn’t really matter. For now, it’s enough to enjoy the music that has been a part of our lives for as long as many of us can recall. To echo the words The Beatles sang on Sgt. Pepper’s: “A splendid time is guaranteed for all.”

. . . Joseph Taylor