Forty-five years ago this week–February 9, 1964–the Beatles made their first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. I was six years old and don’t remember much about it, but my mother never tired of telling the story of what happened that night in the Goldblatt household.
We owned one television, a black-and-white Motorola monster built into a battleship of walnut cabinetry that also housed a record player, a radio tuner, and stereo speakers. My five-year-old sister and I functioned as remote controls for my father, who, when he was home, would lie on the couch and exercise absolute dominion over programming. The arrangement was more onerous than it sounds; wherever we were in the house, whatever we were doing, if my dad wanted to change channels, one of us had to run into the living room and do it.
#ad#The payoff for our labors came on Sunday night at eight o’clock, when we’d gather around the TV–my mom and dad on the couch, my sister and me on the pine-green carpet at their feet–for Ed Sullivan. It was the only program we watched together, a coincidence of agendas: My dad liked the show enough to watch it straight through, my mom liked the idea of having the family together at the end of the weekend, and my sister and I liked staying up past our usual 7:30 bedtime. On a typical Sunday night, according to my mom, my sister lasted until 8:15; I’d start to doze off 15 minutes later. By 8:45, we’d both be conked out on the carpet, ready to be toted to the bedroom we shared as soon as Sullivan signed off at 9:00.
But February 9, 1964, was different. My mom said you could sense it from the start of the show. There was a buzz in the studio audience that came through the speakers and seemed to take hold of me and my sister. We were suddenly up on our haunches–as skittish, she said, in her Louisiana twang, as long-tailed cats in a room full of rocking chairs. She had just enough time to notice the difference before Sullivan introduced the Beatles, and the crowd broke into a torrent of screams . . . at which point, my sister and I rushed the TV. The two of us sat mesmerized, perhaps a foot from the screen, as Paul McCartney began to sing “All My Loving.” We did not move the entire hour, not even during the commercials. Afterwards, when my mother tried to tuck us into our beds, we kept kicking the covers loose. She got us settled down after half an hour, but around midnight, she was awakened by several loud thuds. She ran into our room and found us jumping up and down on our beds, literally bouncing off the walls, making nonsensical noises that sounded vaguely like Beatles songs.
It’s difficult for baby boomers to convey to their children, and now to their grandchildren, the otherness of the Beatles. There was, of course, the sheer size of the phenomenon. Beatlemania was a kind of collective derangement, an abrupt skewing of popular perception. By April, the group held down the top five positions on the Billboard magazine chart and had seven other songs in the top 100. That meant that if you turned on a radio in the spring of 1964, you heard a Beatles song. I remember thinking that the Motorola tuner was a Beatles music player; once I turned it on and heard Louis Armstrong singing “Hello Dolly,” and thought the thing was broken.
But Beatlemania went beyond radio. The girls in my first-grade class would sing Beatles songs as they lined up in the schoolyard, then break into spontaneous screams until the teachers shushed them. I remember a boy named Andrew crying in the back of the classroom because his mother made him cut his hair, which he’d wanted to grow out like the Beatles. My best friend, Eddy, who was a year older than I was, persuaded his parents to buy him a Beatles single–I’m almost sure it was “A Hard Day’s Night.” I remember going over to his house and staring at it. Not playing it; that was too risky. Just staring at it, the paper sleeve and record together . . . and then, holy of holies, the vinyl itself. Eddy set it down on the pillow of his bed, and the two of us stepped back and venerated it.
Even in 1964, though, no one could have predicted that by the end of that decade the Beatles would bear the same relationship to popular music that Shakespeare bore to the English drama of his time: clearly within it, yet curiously beyond it. Just as there is no explicable way to get from Nicholas Udall’s Ralph Roister Doister to Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, so too there is no way to get from Leiber and Stoller’s “Jailhouse Rock” or Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti” to John Lennon’s “Revolution” or Paul McCartney’s “Helter Skelter.” Given the landscape of musical influences available to the Beatles, what’s the logical precedent for “Eleanor Rigby” or “I Am the Walrus” or “Golden Slumbers” or “Nowhere Man” or “Penny Lane” or “Across the Universe” or the entire Sgt. Pepper album? The question that jumps to mind with each of these recordings is: Where the hell did that come from?
For each generation’s most popular musicians, from Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, and Judy Garland to Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, and the Temptations to (I suppose) Eminem, Mariah Carey, and Beyoncé, there’s a traceable progression to their musical development, a discernible link with what came before. What set the Beatles apart was that they seemed to conjure their greatest work out of the ether–or maybe out of the breath of a muse.
Consider the first verse of “For No One”: “Your day breaks, your mind aches / You find that all her words of kindness linger on / When she no longer needs you.” The subject matter couldn’t be more familiar–in essence, breaking up is hard to do. But the mood is Thomas Hardy. The compactness is William Carlos Williams. The rhythms and internal rhymes are Emily Dickinson, with hints of Dylan Thomas and Gerard Manley Hopkins. There’s nothing remotely like it in popular music. Now consider that the words were written by McCartney, who was 23 at the time, who set out to write a pop song, not a work of literature, and who, by his own admission, never put as much effort into his lyrics as Lennon did.
#ad#When asked once whether he himself was a genius, Lennon replied, “Yes, if there is such a thing as one, I am one.” Whether Lennon was correct is debatable. He was no intellectual giant–“Imagine” is melodic and moving, especially given what we know of his fate, yet it’s as trite and grandiose as a mass-produced sympathy card. His inability to see through Yoko Ono’s bluff art is forgivable, perhaps, as the indulgence of a spouse, but not otherwise. On the other hand, Lennon did have flashes of exquisite clarity throughout his life, even towards the very end, as in the justly celebrated line from “Beautiful Boy”: “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” He also had a largeness of sensibility that both reflected and shaped the times in which he lived. Does that amount to genius?
The question of genius becomes less debatable when asked collectively of the Beatles. If there is such a thing, they had it–in spades. Indeed, the strongest evidence of their collective genius is found in the unimpressive post-Beatles careers of Lennon, McCartney, Harrison, and Starr. Lennon, who had once appeared to some an amalgam of Jonathan Swift, Lewis Carroll, Buddy Holly, and Howlin’ Wolf, devolved into Lenny Bruce with a guitar and a howling Oedipus complex. McCartney, who as a Beatle seemed to channel George Gershwin as often as Chuck Berry, became just another Brill Building–caliber singer-songwriter, a harder-edged Neil Diamond. Harrison, who had developed into a great songwriter through osmosis, released one magnificent triple-LP solo album, All Things Must Pass, consisting primarily of a backlog of Beatles-era material, and then a string of ever-more-unlistenable records before hooking up with a group of fellow has-beens, including Dylan and Roy Orbison, to form the intermittently palatable Traveling Wilburys. Starr, after the success of his solo album Ringo, went on to become a nostalgia act, even now peppering his stage performances and interviews with two-fingered peace signs straight out of 1970.
Clearly, in the case of the Beatles, the whole was greater than the sum of its parts. But isn’t that a hopeful sign for the human condition? There’s potential in each of us, perhaps, for greatness–a potential that cannot be gauged or accounted for, a potential that cannot be tapped by social engineering, because the formula for its realization is mysterious. (What would a happy childhood, a structured adolescence, and a formal musical education have done to John Lennon?) Of course, the overwhelming majority of us will never be truly great at anything. But the potential for greatness, even if it’s rarely realized, is the first and final counterargument to the grim sterility of materialism. We’re more, the Beatles remind us, than the cells of our bodies, more than the atoms of our cells, more than our drives and appetites, more than our economic relation to the state and to one another.
Under just the right circumstances, we can transcend the deterministic logic of what we are and come to the truth of why we are. Being the Beatles was the why of Lennon, McCartney, Harrison, and Starr’s lives. It was their raison d’être, their teleology, their lasting contribution.
And it was what had me bouncing off the walls 45 years ago this week.
– Mark Goldblatt writes from New York.