It Was Forty Years Ago Today! (Feb. 9th) The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show

The Beatles made four unforgettable live appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show, February 9, 16, 23rd 1964, and one more, over a year and a half later on September 12, 1965. While the fourth was almost anti-climactic, the first three rightly retain a mythological status, with an amazing 73 million Americans tuning in for The Beatles’s first appearance. In those pre-VCR, pre-400 cable channels days, The Beatles literally appeared out of nowhere, drove the teenagers in the audience crazy, and then disappeared, leaving the kids gasping for air and wondering whether they’d actually seen their idols, or hallucinated them. There would be no taped playback at home, or excerpts on “Entertainment Weekly.” The Beatles didn’t make “the rounds” and visit other shows, because there really weren’t any. Some still shots in Life or in some teenybopper magazine were the best that could be hoped for.

These legendary performances, videotaped and/or kinescoped (transferred to film off of a television picture tube), shot in black and white, have been seen sporadically over the years, and seven Beatles songs were part of Rhino’s 9 DVD box set Ed Sullivan’s Rock’N’Roll Classics. For those old enough to remember having seen them live all those years ago, watching the performances now resurrects the original experience’s powerful adrenaline jolt, and no matter how many times you repeat the experience, the power and the mystery of the feedback loop between performers and audience remains. Theories abound: it was three months after the Kennedy assassination and teenagers, profoundly saddened by the loss of the young President needed an emotional relief, or it was, like the seasons, part of a musical cycle, that peaked with Elvis last time around. Whatever your theory, watching The Beatles (hardly neophytes, having seasoned themselves performing in Hamburg’s nightclubs) feed off of the audience’s physical and emotional frenzy, still makes for powerful television, and still leaves a residue of mystery.

Looking back now, one can see just how cool and professional the foursome were. Despite the hair (which wasn’t all that long), the outfits and the raw music, these guys were showmen, each with his own vivacious charm, each knowing exactly what pose to strike every stage time second to get the crowd going. The posing, the mugging, the smiles were more carefully orchestrated than the music—or so it appears watching now. Yet it was done so subtly, so quietly and so skillfully, it all flies smoothly under the 21st Century radar screen. It is still magic.

Watching the excerpts on the Rhino box brought all of the Sunday night-before-school memories back, but what was missing was the context. The Beatles were on The Ed Sullivan Show, a variety show that booked an hour’s worth of guests. How much more interesting it would be to watch the entire hour, I remember thinking to myself when I first got the box.

Now, Andrew Solt, music historian, television archivist and producer of many memorable music history specials (such as 1979’s “Heroes of Rock and Roll” hosted by Jeff Bridges) has put together a two DVD set containing the complete hour long Sullivan shows on which The Beatles performed, including the commercials. If you were there the first time around, the rising curtain and Ray Bloch’s musical intro will catapult you back in time 39 years in a musical measure. If you’re too young to remember, you’ll watch fascinated as world’s collide: the old vaudeville days seemingly giving way to what we think of as “the ‘60’s” as quickly as Ed Sullivan could shout “The Beatles!”

The first show opens with Sullivan telling the audience that Elvis’s manager Col. Tom Parker has sent a telegram to The Beatles wishing them luck, and then recounting all of the exciting shows so far this season thanks to Topo Gigio the Italian mouse, and The Singing Nun, among others. But before The Beatles, come commercials for Aero Shave and Griffin Shoe Polish that have the musty smell and feel of 21st Century Republican Party rhetoric. Right wingers, take a chill pill.

Sullivan returns and introduces The Beatles to wild screams and they sing “All My Loving,” followed by Paul’s “Til’ There Was You,” from the Broadway show “The Music Man”—probably chosen to keep the adult audience from switching to “The Steve Allen Show” on NBC. The Beatles had sung the song on their American Capitol Records debut Meet The Beatles, but here Paul has learned to pronounce the word “saw” correctly: on the album he says “I never sore them at all ‘til there was you.” During the songs, simple white superimposed lettering identifies the boys by name. When it’s John’s turn, in addition to his name there’s “Sorry girls, he’s married.” The first set ends with a frenzied “She Loves You,” and then the show seemingly returns to the innocent 1950’s. Watching the 3 tunes makes it obvious that Paul is the consummate showman, mooning his eyes to the audience, that George, gracefully fingering that monstrous black Gretsch hollow- bodied electric strapped around his neck is a serious, accomplished guitarist, that Ringo is just having a great time and not thinking too much and that John, surprisingly, is not too comfortable, and holding something back.

An Anacin commercial, with totally hip, ahead of its time "twang bar" music that could have been written and arranged by “Twin Peaks” composer Angelo Badalamenti follows. Other performers on the show (those poor folks) include English music hall veteran Tessie O’Shea, a magician, the cast of “Oliver,” including the very young future “Prefab Four” Monkee Davy Jones and the great impressionist Frank Gorshin who begins his monolog thusly: “Well, it’s an election year and the stars will be out campaigning for their favorites….well a funny thing occurred to me: what if these stars should suddenly decide to run for these offices themselves? They’d have not trouble getting votes because of their popularity, and in just a short time, the stars will be running the country.” That was shortly before Ronald Reagan threw his hat in the ring for Governor of California and almost forty years before Arnold Schwarzenneger did likewise. Also appearing was a horribly embarrassing comedy duo that thought they were the next Nichols and May. Two more Beatles performances and a team of acrobats end the show.

I won’t run through the other shows, except to say that the second show live from Miami Beach—and presented as a kinescope— is another time-piece as fascinating as sociology as it is as musical entertainment. The comedian Myron Cohen tells a joke about two old Jews in Kruschev’s Soviet Union that is identical to one that made the rounds on the Internet just a few weeks ago about Attorney General John Ashcroft’s visit to a public school where the kids ask some tough questions and disappear. Maybe you’ve heard it. The great Cab Calloway puts in an appearance on the 3rd show and Cilla Black sings “September in the Rain” on the fourth show from 1965, but by then The Beatles's film classic “A Hard Day’s Night” had come and gone, and the group had stopped touring regularly. They opened gamely with tunes from Beatles ‘65/Beatles For Sale and closed with songs from their new film “Help.” Off the road and not as sharp as before, the first part of The Beatles’s legend was running out of steam.

Maybe you’ll be lucky as I was, to see, in the middle of an audience pan, someone you know. Amidst the sea of screaming girls at the 1965 show there in a tie and jacket, was a cool, composed, analytical appearing Harold Bornstein, a kid I’d graduated Jamaica High School with the year before. Amazing.

The live television production was incredibly primitive by today's standards, but the monophonic vacuum tube sound—especially at the 3 New York shows taped in what is now The Ed Sullivan Theater where David Letterman’s show originates—is crisp, rich and immediate. A synthesized 5.1 channel track is also available but stick with the mono. Highly recommended for you, for your kids, for the kid in you and for everyone. Watch it Sunday night at 8PM for the full effect!