It Was Forty Five Years Ago Today! (Sept. 12th)

The Beatles made four unforgettable live appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show, February 9, 16, 23rd 1964, and one more, over a year and a half later on September 12, 1965—forty five years ago this coming September 12th, which is five days after the re-release of this fascinating and endlessly entertaining 2 DVD set.

While the fourth appearance was almost anti-climactic, the first three rightly retain a mythological status, with an amazing 73 million Americans tuning in for The Beatles’s first appearance. In those pre-VCR, pre-400 cable channels days, The Beatles literally appeared out of nowhere, drove the teenagers in the audience crazy, and then disappeared, leaving the kids gasping for air and wondering whether they’d actually seen their idols, or hallucinated them. There would be no taped playback at home, or excerpts on “Entertainment Weekly.” The Beatles didn’t make “the rounds” and visit other shows, because there really weren’t any. Some still shots in Life or in some teenybopper magazine were the best that could be hoped for.

These legendary performances, videotaped and/or kinescoped (transferred to film off of a television picture tube), shot in black and white, have been seen sporadically over the years, and seven Beatles songs were part of Rhino’s 9 DVD box set Ed Sullivan’s Rock’N’Roll Classics. For those old enough to remember having seen them live all those years ago, watching the performances now resurrects the original experience’s powerful adrenaline jolt, and no matter how many times you repeat the experience, the power and the mystery of the feedback loop between performers and audience remains.

Theories abound: it was three months after the Kennedy assassination and teenagers, profoundly saddened by the loss of the young President needed an emotional relief, or it was, like the seasons, part of a musical cycle, that peaked with Elvis last time around. Whatever your theory, watching The Beatles (hardly neophytes, having seasoned themselves performing in Hamburg’s nightclubs) feed off of the audience’s physical and emotional frenzy, still makes for powerful television, and still leaves a residue of mystery.

Looking back now, one can see just how cool and professional the foursome were. Despite the hair (which wasn’t all that long), the outfits and the raw music, these guys were showmen, each with his own vivacious charm, each knowing exactly what pose to strike every stage time second to get the crowd going. The posing, the mugging, the smiles were more carefully orchestrated than the music—or so it appears watching now. Yet it was done so subtly, so quietly and so skillfully, it all flies smoothly under the 21st Century radar screen. It is still magic.

Watching the excerpts on the Rhino box brought all of the Sunday night-before-school memories back, but what was missing was the context. The Beatles were on The Ed Sullivan Show, a variety show that booked an hour’s worth of guests. How much more interesting it would be to watch the entire hour, I remember thinking to myself when I first got the box.

Back in 2003 Andrew Solt, music historian, television archivist and producer of many memorable music history specials (such as 1979’s “Heroes of Rock and Roll” hosted by Jeff Bridges) put together a two DVD set containing the complete hour long Sullivan shows on which The Beatles performed, including the commercials.

That set went out of print but now it’s back on UME’s Hip-O imprint in a slimmed down package and priced low at $19.98, though you can find it online for under $15.00. There is some bonus material here that I don’t remember being on the original but I could be mistaken and I can’t access the original because it’s packed away right now.

If you were there the first time around, the rising curtain and Ray Bloch’s musical intro will catapult you back in time 39 years in a musical measure. If you’re too young to remember, you’ll watch fascinated as world’s collide: the old vaudeville days seemingly giving way to what we think of as “the ‘60’s” as quickly as Ed Sullivan could shout “The Beatles!”

The first show opens with Sullivan telling the audience that Elvis’s manager Col. Tom Parker has sent a telegram to The Beatles wishing them luck, and then recounting all of the exciting shows so far this season thanks to Topo Gigio the Italian mouse, and The Singing Nun, among others. But before The Beatles, come commercials for Aero Shave and Griffin Shoe Polish that have the musty smell and feel of 21st Century Republican Party rhetoric. Right wingers, take a chill pill.

Sullivan returns and introduces The Beatles to wild screams and they sing “All My Loving,” followed by Paul’s “Til’ There Was You,” from the Broadway show “The Music Man”—probably chosen to keep the adult audience from switching to “The Steve Allen Show” on NBC.

The Beatles had sung the song on their American Capitol Records debut Meet The Beatles, but here Paul has learned to pronounce the word “saw” correctly: on the album he says “I never sore them at all ‘til there was you.” During the songs, simple white superimposed lettering identifies the boys by name. When it’s John’s turn, in addition to his name there’s “Sorry girls, he’s married.” The first set ends with a frenzied “She Loves You,” and then the show seemingly returns to the innocent 1950’s.

Watching the 3 tunes makes it obvious that Paul is the consummate showman, mooning his eyes to the audience, that George, gracefully fingering that monstrous black Gretsch hollow- bodied electric strapped around his neck is a serious, accomplished guitarist, that Ringo is just having a great time and not thinking too much and that John, surprisingly, is not too comfortable, and holding something back.

An Anacin commercial, with totally hip, ahead of its time "twang bar" music that could have been written and arranged by “Twin Peaks” composer Angelo Badalamenti follows. Other performers on the show (those poor folks) include English music hall veteran Tessie O’Shea, a magician, the cast of “Oliver,” including the very young future “Prefab Four” Monkee Davy Jones and the great impressionist Frank Gorshin who begins his monolog thusly: “Well, it’s an election year and the stars will be out campaigning for their favorites….well a funny thing occurred to me: what if these stars should suddenly decide to run for these offices themselves? They’d have not trouble getting votes because of their popularity, and in just a short time, the stars will be running the country.”

That was shortly before Ronald Reagan threw his hat in the ring for Governor of California and almost forty years before Arnold Schwarzenneger did likewise. Also appearing was a horribly embarrassing comedy duo that thought they were the next Nichols and May. Two more Beatles performances and a team of acrobats end the show.

I won’t run through the other shows, except to say that the second show live from Miami Beach’s Deauville Hotel—and presented as a kinescope— is another time-piece as fascinating as sociology as it is as musical entertainment. The comedian Myron Cohen tells a joke about two old Jews in Kruschev’s Soviet Union that is identical to one that made the rounds on the Internet back in 2003 when this set was originally releases, about Attorney General John Ashcroft’s visit to a public school where the kids ask some tough questions and disappear. Maybe you’ve heard it. The great Cab Calloway puts in an appearance on the 3rd show (though he sings “Saint James Infirmary” and “Old Man River” instead of “Minnie the Moocher”). The Florida audience (mostly vacationing New Yorkers) is hilariously clueless. The kids are subdued compared to the New York audience and the adults mostly sit there stonefaced.

Cilla Black sings “September in the Rain” on the fourth show from 1965, but by then The Beatles's film classic “A Hard Day’s Night” had come and gone, and the group had stopped touring regularly. They opened gamely with tunes from Beatles ‘65/Beatles For Sale (“I Feel Fine”, “I’m Down” [with John on electric piano] and “Act Naturally”), which Ringo sings with great charm and humor. For their second performance of the night they do “Ticket to Ride” and “Help” from their forthcoming second movie and Paul does his unforgettable sweaty solo turn on “Yesterday” backed by strings. Surely that one made the skeptical oldsters sit up and take notice.

As we later found out, Lennon’s “Help” was a literal cry for help and watching him closely during this performance you can see the strains. He also appears to have gained a lot weight. His call out for the song includes a “thank you” to the audience that drips with sarcasm and cynicism.

Change was in the air for The Beatles and for America. Even the commercials had changed. Back in ’64 it was all “happy family” time. In ’65 an Anacin commercial features a husband returning from work and screaming at his wife “Ellen please, I just got home from work DON’T RUSH ME!” We’d never before seen such intense negative emotion in a television commercial. Fortunately, two Anacins returned “happy family” time and though we don’t see it, we can be sure the happy couple made it on time to their P.T.A. meeting.

At the end of the show Ed announces that next week’s show would be the first in color and videotape provides a Beatles encore under the closing credits, interrupted by a pre-recorded Dick Van Dyke inviting viewers to watch his new show on Wednesday nights “If you’re free.” Van Dyke’s straight into the camera (and into America’s living rooms) approach is in sharp contrast to Sullivan’s and most TV hosts at the time, who addressed their studio audience, with viewers at home being passive observers.

Off the road and not as sharp as before, the first part of The Beatles’ initial legend was running out of steam. Rather than basking in the audience’s adulation, the four seemed relieved to get off the stage after Sullivan yet again told him how well behaved they were. No doubt Sullivan was moved to say that because of opposition to The Beatles from the mid-sixties versions of today’s reactionaries (do I have to name them?).

Still, the 1965 performances are electrifying and watching in 2010 it’s amazing to see how much the young McCartney looks like Lindsay Lohan (honest!). A year after their first appearance, the world seems to have changed on The Ed Sullivan Show. For one thing the sound improved dramatically (though it was pretty good in 1964 too) and the Ed Sullivan Theater stage had been modernized, losing the old-style drapery curtain replaced with a more angular look and the decision was made to light the audience that had previously been hidden in mysterious darkness.

Maybe you’ll be lucky as I was, to see, in the middle of an audience pan, someone you know. Amidst the sea of screaming girls at the 1965 show there in a tie and jacket, was a cool, composed, analytical appearing Harold Bornstein, a kid I’d graduated Jamaica High School with the year before. Amazing. I wrote that paragraph in 2003 and a few years later attended my 40th high school reunion where I ran into Bornstein. What a total asshole he was that night. I can’t believe he got to see The Beatles live.

The live television production was incredibly primitive by today's standards, but the monophonic vacuum tube sound—especially at the 3 New York shows taped in what is now The Ed Sullivan Theater where David Letterman’s show originates—is crisp, rich and immediate. A synthesized 5.1 channel track is also available but stick with the mono. Highly recommended for you, for your kids, for the kid in you and for everyone. Watch it Sunday night at 8PM for the full effect!

If you’re of the age where you remember watching these shows live, the feeling watching them now is magically energizing and will have you walking on air for days afterward, while perhaps pining for those much simpler days filled with so much future promise. If you’re under 25 and reading this, I’m not sure what you’ll think and feel watching this white bread world about to explode into an alternative universe, but you’ll surely enjoy the ride.

Ashley's picture

There is no question that The Beatles and their music is an all time favorite. Up to this day, people are still fond of their songs. - Carmack Moving and Storage