Passing the Test

This weekend makes the 50th anniversary of the coming of the Beatles. To the United States, that is. They had been around and popular in Britain for over a year, but barely heard of on this side of the pond. It is hard to remember, or for those born later, to conceive of the limited awareness of what was going on in the rest of the world at that time. True, trans-Atlantic jet travel had been around for awhile, but the instant communications provided by satellite and Internet was years and decades away. American popular music was pretty much indigenous. Imitations of it might have been popular to some extent in Britain and Europe, but the was little reciprocity. No British music artists outside the classical realm had any traction in America. Anyway, most fans on one side of the ocean paid little attention to the popular music on the other.

On Friday February 7, 1964, the Beatles landed at the newly named John F. Kennedy International Airport in anticipation of their appearance on CBS’s Ed Sullivan Show. (Note: the days of the week this year 2014 match the 1964 dates until the end of February, when 1964 got an extra day.) This first appearance on American national television (they appeared twice again in subsequent weeks) is considered a watershed in pop music culture, and was the vanguard of the British Invasion that set the music scene during the rest of the 1960s and later. Popular music became truly international.

The Ed Sullivan Show, formally known as the Talk of the Town, was one of the first nationally broadcast television variety shows, and it ran from 1948 through 1971. It was certainly the most influential, and was the breakout venue for Elvis, Buddy Holly and the Crickets, the Supremes, and others. What has been regarded as first rock and roll song, Bill Haley and the Comets’ “Rock Around the Clock”, had its first nationwide exposure on the Sullivan show.

By early 1964, the Beatles were not completely unknown in the United States. There had been a story in Life magazine of the band’s wild popularity in Britain. “I Want to Hold Your Hand” had been released by Capitol Records on December 26, 1963, and managed to make it to Billboard’s top spot by February 1. Accordingly, there was a great deal of anticipation for the band before they arrived. Ed Sullivan had noticed the popularity of the Beatles during a visit to England, and offered to pay them top dollar to appear on his show. The story goes that manager Brian Epstein, sensing the vast United States market, offered to appear for a much lower remuneration if the Beatles could get top billing for the show, and appear multiple times. Sullivan agreed; the rest is history.

The February 9, 1964 show, broadcast in black and white as color television had not yet become standard, opened and closed with Sullivan introducing the “BEAT’ls” in his usual monotone. Their openers were “All My Loving” and “Till There Was You” and they closed the show with “I Saw Her Standing There”, “From Me to You”, and “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” The latter song was played, seemingly, at least once every half-hour on pop music radio stations for the next month or so. The band appeared twice again that month. On April 4, 1964, The Beatles had the top five singles at one time on Billboard Hot 100, a feat never again equaled, and they dominated the pop music scene for most the next six years before they broke up in 1970. They reached their apotheosis with the Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album in 1967.

Almost immediately following The Beatles was the British Invasion’s second star Dusty Springfield, who started the “blue-eyed soul” phenomenon. Close behind were the Rolling Stones (still together and touring, though their membership partially changed over the years – the mainstays, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, and Charlie Watts are still there), Peter and Gordon, The Animals, Manfred Mann, Petula Clark, Freddie and the Dreamers, the Mindbenders, Herman’s Hermits, The Dave Clark Five, and numerous others.

Outside of popular music, and its related culture, how are we to assess the significance of the Beatles after a half century? That is a hard question to answer. Did the Beatles really change anything, or was their extreme popularity and the scene they brought with them a result or reflection of what was happening in the world at large? Their phenomenon was certainly made possible by the technological advances made up to that time, particularly those involving the speed of travel and communications. The tyranny of distance was on the wane, but, nevertheless still had a ways to go. One thing seems to be clear, the Beatles’ songs and recordings, and the number of covers other artists have made of their songs, are still popular today and continue to be played and listened to. The ultimate standard by which art is judged is the test of time. Fifty years later, the Beatles are still passing that test.

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