Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Because the internet really needs another Beatles “50th Anniversary” post, I wrote one.

If you’ve exposed yourself to the internet or your television set in the past few weeks, you’ve undoubtedly already heard that this Friday, February 7, marks the 50th anniversary of the Beatles landing at JFK airport in New York City for the first time.  Two days later, on February 9, they played The Ed Sullivan Show to an audience of 73 million viewers, the then-largest television audience in history.

As a proportion of the American population at the time, more people watched the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show than watched the Super Bowl last Sunday – 2 in 5 people in this country watched; 86% of television sets that were turned on were tuned in.  Before Ed Sullivan, we were a nation in mourning, JFK's assassination not yet three months behind us.  After Ed Sullivan, pretty much the entire sixties happened.

Clockwise from top left, 1998, 2002, 2005, 2004.
I wasn't around for any of this - I was negative 18 when Pan Am Flight 101 touched down in NYC - but I can get away with acting like I was because I didn't have to look up the Pan Am flight number I quoted earlier in this sentence.  I am what we (unimaginatively) call a “second-generation fan.”  Back in middle and high school, riding the Beatles Anthology wave, I devoted myself to Beatles scholarship with the type of all-consuming fire that only teenagers and people with personality disorders possess.  I've been to Liverpool twice.  I’ve walked the Abbey Road crosswalk on four separate occasions.  I've seen Paul McCartney five times in concert and Ringo once ("...he pointed right at me and there we were, singing together!!!" I wrote euphorically regarding the latter).  I've been collecting Beatles magazine articles and newspaper clippings since 1997 - over half of my life - and the handful of times I've found anyone willing to play me in Beatles Trivial Pursuit, my favorite part of the game has been answering everyone else's questions along with my own.

So despite my age, I, of all people, am more than aware that it has been fifty years since they first set foot on U.S. soil.  (As a group.  George visited his sister Louise in Benton, Illinois, a few months prior, late in 1963.  The house he stayed in is still a private residence though it was briefly turned into the Hard Day's Nite Bed and Breakfast around the turn of this century.  When I went, I stayed in the "Paul" room.)

From my perspective, the biggest difference between this round of reminiscing and the "thirty-years-ago" nostalgia that swept me up in the nineties is our increased sense of reverence.  I still have newspaper articles (see two paragraphs above) seriously debating whether the Spice Girls were "the next Beatles."  It was an outrageous thing to argue, even then, but what’s interesting in hindsight is that anyone was discussing that in the first place.  Can you imagine someone on a major media outlet making a sincere argument today that a new band (er, “musical act”) was on par with the Fab Four?  Of course not. That would be pop culture sacrilege.  The Beatles, as an entity, no longer exist in the form of four youthful Brits who were flawed, funny, and wrote good music; they are two dead legends and two living icons.  They have been canonized, and maybe even a little sterilized, distant and no longer touchable to the rest of us.

Which I find kind of sad.  After all, what made the Beatles' arrival in America special in the first place wasn't that they landed and everyone understood this was something we'd be talking about fifty years later.  It was special because that thought never crossed anyone’s minds.  They had weird hair and cracked jokes at their first press conference and then they stood in immaculately tailored suits and politely sang for us on national television.  That was why we couldn’t take our eyes off of them.

And that’s why, as we drown in an avalanche of remastered CDs, new books, and television specials to mark this anniversary, I feel like we’re kind of missing the point.  All of our commemorating seems less of a celebration of them and more of a celebration of us commemorating them.  Everyone’s scrambling to make sure we know that they know how important this is.  That for countless reasons, there will never be anything like them again, and the very fabric of the society we now live in was altered by what they created at their prime.

Which of course is true…except we didn’t know that then.  In 1964, America didn’t look at the Beatles and see prophets; we saw four vaguely similar-looking guys, quick with a witty comeback and unfailingly gracious to a doting Ed Sullivan.  Before they were A Cultural Milestone, they were musicians on a television show with no grander aspiration than to entertain us.

I won’t be able to resist watching the two-hour special that CBS will air this Sunday night, jammed with guest stars and flashbacks and (surely) way too many commercial breaks.  I may even enjoy it...  But for all the effort that went into pulling it together, for all the words pouring into newspapers and the internet this week (guilty as charged!), for all the solemn reflection in the books, and the painstaking digital recreation of Capitol’s botched line of American Beatles albums, what I’m not seeing a hell of a lot of is the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show.

What we could use right now even more than Katy Perry belting out “Yesterday” (which, along with most of the other songs on CBS’s special, is anachronistic to this anniversary anyway) is John, Paul, George, and Ringo.  If we’re doing all of this because they made such an impact half a century ago, maybe what we should all do is just shut the hell up and cede the floor to them.

Maybe instead of all of this, we should have just rebroadcast that February 9 airing of The Ed Sullivan Show

Would doing so have the same impact as Maroon 5 dressing up and recreating their performance?  No, and that's the point.  They were the Beatles.  And in terms of entertainment value, even fifty years on, it's impossible to improve on the original…

Beatles with Ed from the Smithsonian.  Girl watching television from Meet the Beatles For Real.


  1. This is fucking great, Becky! We really needed this blog so thanks! What's so funny (from someone who was there) is the huge fucking deal that was made of their "long" hair. That's nearly all anyone talked about - their neat clean styled-by-Astrid hair. Funny that.

  2. P.S. I loved watching their performance and I love the picture of the little girl in from of the television.

    1. I knew you would appreciate this one! :) I've been so *not* into this whole deal and I had to sit down and figure out exactly why that was. For my 22nd birthday, my parents got me the DVD set of all four Ed Sullivan appearances (three in 1964, one in 1965), complete with the original commercials and everything. Those DVDs are so fun (and bizarre), in large part because the Beatles performances still pack a punch and almost everything else seems dated and dumb. I think this weekend I'll sit down and watch the 1964 shows...that seems much more appropriate than spending a bunch of money (and time) on things that don't add anything to what was already there...

      And I love that picture of the little girl, too! That was a random Google find. (I hope it's not Photoshopped. If if is, I don't want to know. :))

  3. Alright, I admit it: the 50th anniversary special was kind of awesome! Although I stand by it not really being about the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show... But as a tribute to the Fab Four in general, good times. :D