On Sunday February 9th 1964 The Beatles appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show, sparking scenes across the US of young girls screaming in palpitations of frenzied fandom. It was the mop-topped Liverpudlian’s first live appearance on US TV, and over 73 million Americans gathered to watch the show. The Fab Four performed All My Loving, Till There Was You, She Loves You, and at the end of the show, after a prerecorded piece by another group that no one remembers, I Saw Her Standing There and I Want To Hold Your Hand. What became known as The British Invasion, as a huge range of British pop groups brought the sounds of the swinging sixties to the US, had well and truly begun.
However, the critics were not so receptive. Eminent music critic Theodore Strongin wrote in the New York Times on February 10th;
The Beatles’ vocal quality can be described as hoarsely incoherent, with the minimal enunciation necessary to communicate the schematic texts. Two theories were offered in at least one household to explain the Beatles’ popularity. The specialist said: “We haven’t had an idol in a few years. The Beatles are different, and we have to get rid of our excess energy somehow.” The other theory is that the longer parents object with such high dudgeon, the longer children will squeal so hysterically.
Conservative commentator William F Buckley Jr, writing in the Boston Globe in September, 1964 said;
An estimable critic writing for National Review, after seeing Presley writhe his way through one of Ed Sullivan’s shows, suggested that future entertainers would have to wrestle with live octopuses in order to entertain a mass American audience. The Beatles don’t in fact do this, but how one wishes they did! And how this one wishes the octopus would win….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’.
An unidentified editor in Newsweek on the 24th of February, said;
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…
Taken at face value, I would have to agree. If you miss the irony of the yeah yeah yeah’s the songs of this period are for the most part cliched pop syrup banged out with some rough and ready harmonizing. The music is a clangorous caterwauling. Till There Was You, perhaps the best song of the set, was written by Meredith Wilson for his 1962 musical play, The Music Man (performed by Shirley Jones in the film). Paul McCartney had heard Peggy Lee’s 1961 version. In the Beatles performance you can hear some of the sweet enigmatic reflections of later genius ballads like Norwegian Wood and Hey Jude.
It’s quite hard to imagine the same group exhorting ‘Shake It Up Baby Now’ and ‘Yeah Yeah Yeah’ would develop into performers of a raw, powerful tour-de-force rock masterpiece like Helter Skelter, or the moving, emotive storytelling of Eleanor Rigby or A Day In The Life.
To celebrate the anniversary Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr will be appearing on The Late Show With David Letterman in the same studio, now called the Ed Sullivan Theater. In the lead up, Letterman has also been hosting a Beatles tribute, featuring guests including Sting, Broken Bells, The Flaming Lips, and Lenny Kravitz performing Beatles tunes.
Apple TV have also created a special Beatles channel for the anniversary, presenting a 14 minute re-mastered edit of the Beatles’ appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. Well worth watching, as it is one of the defining moments of contemporary popular culture. If you don’t have Apple TV you can find some unrestored clips by hunting around on the internet. Given the reaction of most critics and parents at the time, the advertisement for Anacin at the beginning seems particularly apt.
If you happen to be a younger person and thought old dinosaur music from the dark ages was irrelevant, according to the Nielsen SoundScan report for 2009 (Nielsen SoundScan are the company that records and compiles musical statistics, including the Billboard Music Charts), eccentric rapper Eminem was the biggest selling artist of the first decade of the 21st century, with two albums released topping 32.2 million albums sold.
In second place for total sales at 30 million, with no new music releases, you guessed it – the Beatles. The 2000 release, a best of compilation titled simply 1, was the number one selling record for the entire decade, selling almost 11.5 million copies. Sales of their back catalogue of classic albums accounted for the rest. They beat NSYNC, Britney, Linkin Park, Usher and Madonna, and everyone else.
So if a group that started out doing covers of somewhat dubious yeah yeah pop songs could go on to develop into the most loved and most popular, the most influential and simply probably the best band of all time, does that mean a modern pop phenomenon like Justin Bieber could do the same? Well, a monkey can wear a hat, but it’s still a monkey. So no. That’s not possible. Forget I even posed the question.