Friday, February 9, 2024

And two days later


Often considered one of the seminal events of the 20th Century, The Beatles performed for the first time in the US on The Ed Sullivan Show.  I often wonder what my grandpa thought, since my mom says he was a huge Ed Sullivan fan, and never missed the show. 

By the time they arrived, they were already the number one act in America, per the American music charts.  No big deal today.  In 1964, however, before modern global tech, it was a huge deal.  Their appearance that night would net the largest television audience to date.  A full 40% of the US population tuned in that night (to put it in perspective, we would need a show with 132 million viewers to match it today).  

The next day, almost everything in pop culture and music changed.  The BBC once commented on the impact of The Beatles on a generation.  It was pointed out that something similar had happened in America after Pearl Harbor.  The next day after the attack, Americans by the thousands rushed out to join the military.  The day after their appearance on Ed Sullivan saw a spike in sales for not just records, but for musical instruments as well.  Record stores and music stores reported surges in sales over the following weeks.  And the hysteria didn't end in America or England, but swept across the world by the end of the year.  

And yet this was merely a smidgen of what was to come.  The exact reason for the Beatles' impact has never quite been pinpointed.  Historians, sociologists, psychologists and others have tried to figure it out over the decades.  Nobody has ever quite found the answer.  But as was pointed out on the anniversary of their Abbey Road album, it's impossible not so see the seismic shift in social and cultural trends in the years following the Beatles' global ascension.  And not just in music, but fashion, language, attitudes, film, you name it.  For better or worse, they made their mark in history far beyond the massive impact they had on the world of modern music. And in many ways it all began on Feb 9, 1964, with their appearance on Ed Sullivan.

Reporting after the event.


  1. At times in history there just seems to be something... some energy or collective need that is building and longing for some outlet. Then a person or group hits just the right time, place and chord and BAM - there is the outlet.

    I'll admit I'm not a huge Beetles fan, but the history is fascinating.

    1. Oddly enough, I learned about the Beatles from my dad. Hardly a rock fan, he did like several of their songs (from the early days). When John was killed, I was in the 8th Grade and was shocked by the international reaction, imagining up until then they were just this group I liked. Then sometime in high school PBS showed a documentary that had been shown on the BBC (a doc about rock musicians back then being noteworthy). I was stunned to see just how influential and world changing they were. And that sort of thing always warms the cockles of my historian's heart. It's probably why, when you look at things I like and am interested in, they often occupy that 'change in direction' category where history is concerned (Hastings, Pearl Harbor, Citizen Kane, LoTR, Star Wars, and The Beatles).

  2. I was ten years and one month old on the day of that first appearance. My parents, mostly out of curiosity, also watched, because the band was already a media phenomenon due to the way several of their songs had rocketed to the top of the Billboard 100 within days after their U.S. release. (Note, they also appeared on Ed Sullivan the next two Sundays, which I believe was the only time any artist was on for three consecutive shows.) Mom and Dad were favorably impressed with the performance, which was obviously not lip-synced, and as time went on my Dad, a trained musician, grew to appreciate their compositional skills, especially how they used harmonics and rhythms in ways that were, at that time, quite innovative in popular music. And many of the most successful rock musicians of the following years, the era now commonly known as "classic rock", spoke glowingly of the influence of The Beatles on their own music. See, for example:

    Their impact on popular music alone is immeasurable. Whether they caused, or were simply a result of, the cultural upheavals of the 1960's is an interesting topic for discussion. I don't purport to have an answer for that one.

    1. That's awesome. Like I told Nate, the fun part was that my dad - no fan of rock - actually liked some of their music, and he was the first to point me toward them (I wasn't around in 1964).

      As for their influence, they're often seen as more a catalyst than a cause. Sometimes it was their immense popularity making something mainstream. They certainly weren't the first to go psychedelic. But when they embraced it for Sgt. Pepper, psychedelia suddenly became all the rage. They did cause the British Invasion. Which was more than merely Brit musicians able to have hits in the US. It actually signified the toppling of America's singular dominance of pop culture exporting that it enjoyed following the war. That they did cause (which is why their Sullivan appearance is considered so important). Their true influence in terms of purposeful change, however, was their musical innovation and shaping of popular music, as well as making rock the default genre for the years to follow. And that doesn't even touch their huge impact on the actual nuts and bolts of recording technology and method and doctrine. So while there were many different ways the influenced, they certainly influenced as much as anyone, that's for sure.

  3. The headline performer that night was Mitzi Gaynor. She was interviewed about it decades later. She said she met them backstage and they were quite cordial.


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