Sunday marks the 50th anniversary of the Beatles appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show, and it is being treated as an historic milestone.
It is hard for you youngsters -- you kids in your 40s and 50s -- to imagine what a phenomenon they were. I was 10 years old and in fifth grade, and so I was not precisely in the cross hairs of Beatlemania. My sister was 16, and she was dead-center in the cross hairs, and she dragged me into our parents’ bedroom to watch the Sullivan show on the portable TV on the dresser.
The Beatles were very good, and their music endures. But they also had the benefit of some historic, demographic and technological breaks. In addition to being talented, they were lucky.
1. There were just three national networks in America. There was no cable. There was no Netflix or Hulu. Three channels, kids, as hard as that is to believe. Everyone was tuned to one of those three, so there was a massive audience for the Ed Sullivan show. The next day, everyone was talking about the Beatles, and their funny haircuts and accents.
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2. The country was awash in teenagers. Moms and Dads started having babies like crazy when the war ended. By 1964, the oldest of the 75 million or so Baby Boomers had just started college. Back home, the high schools and junior high schools were overflowing with their younger siblings. There was a huge market for performers somewhat edgier than Bobby Vinton.
I would not argue that the Beatles’ first set was particularly edgy. (All My Loving, Till There Was You, She Loves You.) But sung with a working-class UK accent, under a mop of hair, with tremendous energy and -- what was with those suits? -- it was like nothing that had ever been seen on TV here. Kids went nuts.
3. There was a Beatles wave starting to crest in late 1963 in the U.S. “I Want to Hold Your Hand” was released at the end of December and it started selling like crazy in the abovementioned exploding teen market. It was Number 1 by February. So when the Beatles appeared on American network TV for the first time, they were all over the AM dial. The appearance on the Sullivan show took the wave and turned it into a tsunami.
4. Parents pretty much hated the Beatles. Hated them, mocked them, made fun of their hair. I don’t need to say much more. This made teenagers even more passionate about the Beatles. Some years later, these teenagers would grow old and hate, mock and make fun of rap music. Heh.
5. There was, of course, no iTunes, no MTV, no Pandora radio, no friends’ compact discs to rip, no mp3s to trade back and forth. No satellite radio. FM radio was in its infancy.
So music tastes were dictated by a few record companies and a few Top 40 radio stations in each market. So if Arnie “Woo-Woo” Ginsburg wanted to give “She Loves You” heavy rotation on WMEX in Boston, that’s what my friends and I heard. It was an improvement over “The Monster Mash.”