50 Years Ago Last Night

On February 9, 1964, The Beatles, the greatest rock-n-roll band of all-time, made their first American television appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, opening with All My Lovin’ and following up withThere Was You and She Loves You. They later closed the show with I Saw Her Standing There and I Want to Hold Your Hand. The British Invasion had begun.
A then-record 73 million people tuned in (over 45 percent of American households, nearly identical to the rating this year’s record-setting Super Bowl achieved),making it one of the seminal moments in television history. Now, 50 years later, people still remember exactly where they were that night (I was in church). Sullivan’s famous introduction follows in full.

“Now yesterday and today our theater’s been jammed with newspapermen and hundreds of photographers from all over the nation, and these veterans agreed with me that this city never has witnessed the excitement stirred by these youngsters from Liverpool who call themselves The Beatles. Now tonight, you’re gonna twice be entertained by them. Right now, and again in the second half of our show. Ladies and gentlemen, The Beatles! Let’s bring them on.”

Those last four words were drowned out by the screaming. The Beatles weren’t unknowns at that point, obviously. I Want to Hold Your Hand was already #1 on the charts and 10,000 fans met them at the airport before their Ed Sullivan appearance. But Beatlemania was about to shift into the highest possible gear.

You may have seen last night’s special commemorating the event and you may read about it in lots of places (here, for example; Josh Brown examines some business lessons from the Fab Four here). But I’m particularly struck about what the class of critics — those people charged with deciding what’s good, what works, and what will last –then thought about the group that would attain GOAT status and change the course of popular music as never before.

Bugs About BeatlesThe next issue of Newsweek magazine’s cover featured The Beatles (they obviously wanted to sell magazines). But inside, the review of the lads’ debut on The Ed Sullivan Show was ugly. “Visually, they are a nightmare: tight, dandified, Edwardian/Beatnik suits and great pudding bowls of hair. Musically, they are a near-disaster: guitars and drums slamming out a merciless beat that does away with secondary rhythms, harmony, and melody. Their lyrics (punctuated by nutty shouts of ‘yeah, yeah, yeah!’) are a catastrophe, a preposterous farrago of Valentine-card romantic sentiments.” The article ended with the following prediction, “…the odds are they will fade away, as most adults confidently predict.”

That prediction looks ridiculous in retrospect, obviously, but Newsweek was hardly alone, as The Los Angeles Times reported yesterday, sparing not even themselves.

The Los Angeles Times: “With their bizarre shrubbery, the Beatles are obviously a press agent’s dream combo. Not even their mothers would claim that they sing well. But the hirsute thickets they affect make them rememberable, and they project a certain kittenish charm which drives the immature, shall we say, ape.”

The Boston Globe: “The Beatles are not merely awful; I would consider it sacrilegious to say anything less than that they are god awful. They are so unbelievably horribly, so appallingly unmusical, so dogmatically insensitive to the magic of the art that they qualify as crowned heads of anti-music, even as the imposter popes went down in history as ‘anti-popes.'”

The New York Times: “The Beatles’ vocal quality can be described as hoarsely incoherent, with the minimal enunciation necessary to communicate the schematic texts.”

The Chicago Tribune: “The Beatles must be a huge joke, a wacky gag, a gigantic put-on. And if, as the fellow insisted on What’s My Line?, they’re selling 20,000 Beatle wigs a day in New York at $2.98 a shake — then I guess everyone wants to share the joke. And the profits.”

The Washington Post: “Just thinking about the Beatles seems to induce mental disturbance. They have a commonplace, rather dull act that hardly seems to merit mentioning….”

The good news for the reviewers is that none of them stood alone. The reviews were remarkably unanimous, among critics and parents alike. The bad news — of course — is how wrong they all were. The power of youth in culture and in the marketplace was about to be displayed as never before.

By this point, my readers shouldn’t need to be reminded, but we humans are truly dreadful at forecasting and predicting the future. The next time you’re tempted to make a prediction, think about The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show and think again.


2 thoughts on “50 Years Ago Last Night

    • What a fabulous night! Katy Perry was touching on “Yesterday”, and all the other renditions were wunnerful. But Paul and Ringo killed me with the “Sgt. Pepper’s” intro followed by “With a Little Help From My Friends”.
      But wait, there’s more: “Yellow Submarine” was a smash. (I still love you Ringo). I was happy to see Yoko having a good time. Sean and Danny Harrison, too. The best part of the ending was Paul on “Hey Jude” with Mr. Starr backing up on drums.
      The whole evening was as religious as midnight mass in St. Peter’s.

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