In the grand historical narrative of the rock era, “The Sixties” officially began exactly 50 years ago, when the Beatles appeared on “The Ed Sullivan Show” for the first time on Feb. 9, 1964. They played, girls screamed and everyone – everyone – fell instantly in love with John, Paul, George, Ringo and all things Beatles.
It’s a nice story, and much of it is true enough. But as is often the case with constructed narratives, some key details aren’t quite accurate. While the kids may have understood, “The Man” as represented by America’s mainstream media mavens of 1964 most decidedly did not. For example, the New York Herald Tribune’s review of the Beatles’ first “Sullivan” show went like this:
“Without their shaggy-dog moptops and their sensational buildup, they would be four nice boys with a total of one weak voice and one weak beat that rolls more than it rocks. ... Talentwise, as they say on Madison Avenue, the Beatles seem to be 75 percent publicity, 20 percent haircut and 5 percent lilting lament. They’re really a magic act that owes less to Britain than to Barnum.”
The Washington Post struck a similarly condescending tone, calling the Beatles “imported hillbillies who look like sheep dogs and sound like alley cats in agony.” The Washington Times dismissed their musical talent as “minimal.” Newsweek was even harsher, calling the Beatles’ performance “a catastrophe, a preposterous farrago of Valentine-card romantic sentiments.” And the Miami Herald dubbed them “wailing weirdies.”
As subsequent decades confirmed the Beatles’ stature as one of the 20th century’s most important acts, such reactions have been largely glossed over. So how was it that the mainstream media got this so wrong?
“The mainstream has been trying to kill off rock ’n’ roll from the beginning,” said Thomas Brothers, a professor of music who teaches classes on the Beatles at Duke University. “It was the same rhetoric you heard about early jazz, rock, later rap – primitive, dangerous, chaos, sexually overt, anarchic, corrupting. The Beatles and their music was viewed as a threat.”
It’s worth noting that it wasn’t just the American media that missed the boat on the Beatles. So did the record industry. The head of one British label turned down the Beatles in 1962, saying that they had “no future in show business” because “guitar groups are on the way out.”
Even after the Beatles became the toast of England in 1963, Capitol Records (the American division of the band’s U.K. label) couldn’t be bothered releasing their records in the U.S. – which is why the Beatles’ earliest American singles came out on small independent labels. And one of the biggest reasons the Beatles got their shot on “Ed Sullivan” was that Sullivan himself just happened to be passing through London’s Heathrow Airport in 1963 and witnessed firsthand how thousands of enthused young Brits greeted the band on its return from a performance in Stockholm.
Considering all that, the “Beatlemania” that swept America in 1964 seems less like an inevitability than a happy accident. The Beatles played to a then-record television audience of 73 million viewers on “Ed Sullivan” that first time, a figure representing almost 40 percent of the entire U.S. population.
One of the kids watching that night was Chapel Hill singer-songwriter Danny Gotham, who was then 9 years old. He was instantly smitten.
“There were like two channels back then, so everybody knew about it and watched,” said Gotham, who has organized a “Fab Four at Fifty” tribute show for Sunday night in Carrboro. “And it was like Cupid shooting an arrow right through my heart. It did something very profound. I’d shown some interest in music before, but after ‘Sullivan’ I was all set and ready to go.”
So was the rest of America’s youth. By April 1964, the Beatles had a dozen singles on the Billboard charts – including numbers 1 through 5.
“I was 12 when the Beatles came to America and there was this incredible sense of, ‘This is for us, not the grownups,’ ” said Steve Slon, editorial director at the Saturday Evening Post. “Things used to go viral back then, too, like Hula Hoops. Still, Beatlemania was bigger and faster. It wasn’t just the music, it was a feeling of ownership and independence. Parents would set rules and guidelines, and this was a generation making up new rules and disregarding the old ones.”
The grownups did not go gently into that good night. Conservative commentator William F. Buckley fulminated that the Beatles were “so unbelievably horrible, so appallingly unmusical, so dogmatically insensitive to the magic of the art, that they qualify as crowned heads of anti-music.” Talk-show host Jack Paar said they represented “the end of British civilization.” And even fictional secret agent “James Bond” got in on the act, quipping in the 1964 movie “Goldfinger” that drinking champagne at the wrong temperature was “as bad as listening to the Beatles without earmuffs.”
“It’s easy to look back now and ask how the media got it so wrong,” said Robert Thompson, a pop-culture professor at Syracuse University. “But that first performance on ‘Ed Sullivan’ was just a few songs and a lot of screaming, which does not lend itself to serious criticism. You automatically assume a lack of gravitas when you see a crowd of 15-year-olds liking something. I mean, it’s taken a long time for many of us to accept that Justin Timberlake is really talented.
“Anyone who gets that screaming adolescent hormonal response immediately goes into a category that’s hard to take seriously. Critics in 1964 didn’t have the benefit of hindsight from the Beatles’ subsequent body of work. The people getting paid to review this stuff responded pretty much exactly how you’d expect.”
By the time the Beatles released “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” in 1967, they were fully established in the media as artists worthy of serious consideration. It’s probably no coincidence that Rolling Stone, a magazine premised on the idea that rock music deserved to be covered with gravitas, began that same year.
“It’s a story as old as time,” said Thompson. “Nobody bought Van Gogh’s paintings during his lifetime, but they make sense now that we have the history of modernist painting and abstraction. Great art is by definition unorthodox because it’s breaking new ground, which makes it hard to compare to anything else. Before ‘Ed Sullivan,’ the Beatles were not important in 1964 like they are in 2014. At that time, it was all potential energy.”