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Arts & Music

Writer recalls how Beatles changed his music, culture in 1964


Published:   |   Updated: February 9, 2014 at 12:32 AM

Was it the mop-top haircuts? The cheeky attitude? The fun, easy-to-sing-along music? The British accents? The mod suits?

All of the above?

Fifty years ago Sunday night, Feb. 9, 1964, four distinctive lads from Liverpool appeared on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and America screamed — at the least most of the teenage girls flipped for John, Paul, George and Ringo.

Girls loved them. Guys wanted to be like them. I didn't scream. But I was hooked. I went from crew cut to bangs not long after that night. I put Elvis and Motown on the backburners and bought every Beatles album that came out until the group broke up in 1970.

They changed my music. They changed my culture. I was a 16-year-old rock 'n' roll fan on that night, and like just about every teen in America, I wanted to see this odd-looking group that shot to fame with “I Want to Hold Your Hand.”

We all knew the words because the song had been played a zillion times on the radio since its American release in January of '64. Ten million copies (45 RPM on vinyl) sold in just 10 days in those pre-iTunes, pre-Twitter, pre-Facebook, pre-YouTube, pre-smartphone days.

And, OMG, we watched the Beatles perform live in black and white on a primitive 25-inch TV screen.

“The Ed Sullivan Show” wasn't broadcast in color until August 1965, one week after the Beatles fourth and last appearance on the show. There was no high definition, and if the rabbit-ear antennas weren't turned just right, the picture was fuzzy.

It didn't matter. The Beatles looked and sounded great to me. My father was not impressed, but I think he was a Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin kind of fan. My younger sister liked any good-looking young performer from Paul Peterson to Dave Clark. So she was pleased. The only downer was that there were other acts on the show and it wasn't in color.

That first appearance was watched by a then-record 73 million people, 45 percent of the homes with TV sets. It was one of those historical shared moments at the video hearth, a place where we gathered to mourn the assassination of John F. Kennedy a few months earlier.

On this February night, we saw John Lennon and George Harrison on guitar, Paul McCartney on bass guitar and Ringo Starr (real name Richard Starkey) on drums.

They performed five songs — all burned forever in my memory: “All My Loving,” “Till There Was You,” and “She Loves You.” There was a break after the third song, followed by some other acts, including impressionist Frank Gorshin (the Riddler on TV's “Batman”). A footnote on that night: A young Davy Jones appeared on the Sullivan show from the Broadway cast of “Oliver” He would later join The Monkees.

Sullivan was smart to hold the audience. The Fab Four came back to perform “I Saw Her Standing There” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand.”

To see it today, the production looks incredibly simple, especially compared to something like the over-produced Bruno Mars/Red Hot Chili Peppers Super Bowl half-time show we saw last week. But for the teens of that generation, they were exciting, fun and different.

I was in awe of the group. At school, the next day, there were discussions among my pals about all the screaming girls and how we wished we could get that kind of attention. We speculated that old man Ed Sullivan probably hated the music. We joked about those haircuts and those accents. Someone said the hairstyle was a copy of the Three Stooges' Moe Howard. And we thought the songs were just all right.

Yes, we were jealous. But in the days and weeks that followed, my buds came to embrace the British invasion.

The Beatles' early music was catchy and mostly about love or lost love — things teens identify with. But it was the Fab Four's personae that hooked me. I thought they were cool. Paul was the heartthrob; John, the intellectual; Ringo, the clown; and George, the quiet one.

Just as the mainstream, sensible adult critics had been unimpressed with Presley's debut on “Sullivan” in 1957, some ripped into the Beatles the next day.

Newsweek reported that “visually, they are a nightmare” in “tight, dandified Edwardian beatnik suits and great pudding bowls of hair.” The New York Times music critic dismissed them as “hoarsely incoherent,” and the Times TV critic wrote that the group was relatively tame compared to the frenzy in the audience.

He compared their haircuts to Captain Kangaroo's do. Some schools banned the so-called Beatles-cut.

It only inspired kids like me to emulate the Beatles. It was the hair, at first. But as the Beatles grew in their musical range and content, I followed along, too, as I grew through “Rubber Soul,” “Revolver” and “Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.”

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