The Beatles invade again

By Rich Heldenfels
Beacon Journal pop culture writer

beatles09cut
Britains Beatles make a windswept arrival in New York in this Feb. 7, 1964 file photo, as they step down from the plane that brought them from London, at Kennedy airport. From left to right, Ringo Starr, John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison. One of the most tumultuous welcomes in pop history is to be recreated next month when UK officials and a tribute band recreate the Beatles historic 1964 landing at JFK airport, in a bid to spark interest in Beatles-related tourism to Britain. (AP Photo)

I was 12 years old when the Beatles played on The Ed Sullivan Show for the first time on Feb. 9, 1964. Wasn’t much of a rock ’n’ roll guy either. But there had been all this talk about the band, and the guys’ long hair and unconventional jackets (no collars — how radical!).

Something was in the air. The band had a reputation going in. Chuck Schodowski, then working for Ernie Anderson’s Ghoulardi show, remembers seeing a network news feed about these guys with “weird haircuts” being the hottest group in England. They were also ripe for mockery; Schodowski used the footage on Ghoulardi, but substituted Who Stole the Kishka? on the audio track.

More humor would come. But so would adulation. On that first Sullivan night, the four young men — Ringo, the oldest, was 23 — played five songs, girls screamed, and within about a week, I had a copy of their first Capitol Records album. I still have it. So many copies of that record were sold, it is far from a rarity; you can find used ones for $10.

Now here we are, 50 years later, and people are celebrating the occasion. There have been sundry local Beatles events. CBS at 8 tonight (Sullivan’s time slot) will devote 2½ hours to what it calls “the night that changed America.” The Beatles are resonant across generations — popular even with people who were not even near conception when they first played Sullivan. Yet they confirmed their American appeal in an environment that is largely alien to contemporary audiences.

So many of the performers from that Sullivan night are dead: card-trick expert Fred Kaps, impressionist Frank Gorshin, singer Tessie O’Shea — and Davy Jones, later part of the Monkees but on that 1964 night performing as part of the cast of the musical Oliver.

Sullivan’s show ended in 1971, and the man himself is gone. So are two of the Beatles, John and George. (Do we really need to speak of them with last names?)

The black-and-white video would turn off viewers who have long demanded their movies and TV shows be in color. The sound of the Beatles on that night — four men, four instruments, three voices (Ringo largely content to drum) — now seems so spare; Bruno Mars at the Super Bowl made more noise.

Though aural and lyrical complexity would come soon enough, the songs for Sullivan were all simple odes to romance and desire: All My Loving, Till There Was You, She Loves You, I Saw Her Standing There and the song that initially defined them in such a nice-lads way, I Want to Hold Your Hand. (In three appearances on Sullivan in February 1964, that was always their last song.)

And what was this Till There Was You stuff? Were we really building a musical revolution on a show tune — from The Music Man — and guys in jackets and ties?

Yes, we were. Because context is everything. The Beatles’ hair wasn’t so much long as combed forward, a defiant shake of the head to grown-ups groomed by Brylcreem and Vitalis.

We don’t have shows like Sullivan’s anymore. Since 1948, he had been offering audiences a mix of acts in a Sunday-night hour. In a time when many homes had just a single television set, Sullivan presented enough acts that everybody would like something — and a performer you did not care about would lead into one that you enjoyed. (The Beatles customarily appeared early and late on Sullivan, early so viewers would tune in promptly, late so they — and the studio audience — did not disappear before the last “haaaand” echoed across the theater.)

Thus the Beatles sang and played three songs, then Kaps came out, then the Oliver cast and a solo turn by star Georgia Brown, and other bits including Gorshin, O’Shea, and the comedy duo Mitzi McCall and Charlie Brill. Only after all that did the Beatles do two more songs — followed, as the show wound down, by a team of acrobats.

Is it any wonder that the Beatles seemed so remarkable? Their songs were electric and fast, the result of performances in tough European clubs and close listening to American pop, especially R&B. The Rolling Stones would be even more explicit in their admiration of black American music, but the Beatles acknowledged their roots, with one early list of their faves including Ray Charles, another performer who embraced a range of pop styles.

And, again, those songs appeared in a startling context.

In that respect, we were hearing something that young people — schooled in R&B and early Motown and breaking out of the Teen Idol era — had unwittingly longed for. It was much like the emergence of Elvis Presley, another musical polyglot, in the previous decade; people didn’t realize they had been waiting for Elvis — or the Beatles — until they appeared, fully formed, and we thought, yes, that’s it.

And if the adults in the audience felt uneasy, wouldn’t they at least warm to Till There Was You? As loud as the screams may have been, there was a certain harmlessness to the Beatles, at least at this time.

In retrospect, aside from I Saw Her Standing There, the Beatles’ songs from that night are far from my favorites. There was a lot of girls-love-cute-boys in the hype at the time; one early album came with pictures of the guys, each with “John loves,” “Paul loves” and so on written underneath, and then a heart-shaped space for a devoted fan to paste her picture.

But a stage was being set for listening that went into their more challenging and interesting work. I would follow them from vinyl to cassette to CDs and downloads. I once wrote a freelance piece where the cash-strapped editor paid me with dubs of all his Beatles recordings, including bootlegs. The songs are in my head, and in my life — the latter, as you know, the title of a great Beatles song.

Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal and Ohio.com, including the HeldenFiles Online blog, www.ohio.com/blogs/heldenfiles. He is also on Twitter (@RHeldenfelsABJ) and Facebook. You can contact him at 330-996-3582 or rheldenfels@thebeaconjournal.com.


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