I’m cheating a little bit this week: I’m featuring a calendar entry because of what’s not on it, instead of what’s on it.
Of course, it’s hard to fit a cultural revolution onto a little square of paper, even if you’re inclined to try.
My grandfather would not have made a special note on his calendar to watch “The Ed Sullivan Show” that Sunday night. The Blumenau family tuned in just about every week, somewhere between habit and religion, no matter who was scheduled to perform.
And they were all there in the living room that night — the 77-year-old piano-teaching grandma, the fiftyish parents, the 20-year-old son home sick from college, and the teenage daughter — watching as four charming Britons picked up American popular culture and dropped it on its crewcut ear.
The Beatles were not unfamiliar to Americans — or young Americans, anyhow — when they kicked into their first number that night. In the New York area, they’d already owned the top spots on hit-radio stations for a solid month.
WINS’ Murray “the K” Kaufman, the first of many nominees for “Fifth Beatle” status, was riding his Fab Four connections nonstop on the air. And over at WABC (or “WABeatleC”), the weekly surveys from January and February 1964 show the station eagerly shoveling everything and anything Beatles onto the playlist — from album cuts, to “Tony Sheridan and the Beatles” obscurities, to cash-ins like Donna Lynn’s “My Boyfriend Got A Beatle Haircut.” (More on that in a moment.)
Still, the group had plenty to prove. If they’d gotten up on network television and frozen under the stage lights, they might have been dismissed — not just by the older generation, but by the young as well, who are always prone to backlash when they perceive excessive hype.
But John, Paul, George and Ringo didn’t freeze or choke. And as a result, even 48 (!) years later, the Beatles’ five-song “Ed Sullivan” debut remains a pleasure to watch.
The band exudes charm, energy and confidence. They’ve drilled this act in a hundred musty ballrooms across the pond, and they’re more than ready for their close-up.
And every song is crafted or arranged with ear-catching creative fillips, from George’s surprisingly dexterous chording on “‘Til There Was You,” to Paul’s high harmony the second time through the bridge of “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” (“And when I touch you I feel happy inside”), which still gives me goosebumps every time I hear it.
But what did the five people in the living room on Hope Street — a scant 40 highway miles away from Ed Sullivan’s theater — think?
Pauline “Grossee” Blumenau, the piano-teaching grandma
My Aunt Elaine says: Girls watching them on the Ed Sullivan show were screaming and fainting, and your grandparents and Grossee could not comprehend what all their hysterics were about. Even I thought they went a bit overboard.
The people who owned the music store where Grossee purchased music for her pupils predicted the Beatles would soon be over and done with. Many adults hoped so, I think.
William Blumenau, paterfamilias and keeper of the calendar
My dad says: My father didn’t tip his hand; I suspect he thought it was pop culture nonsense.
Corine Blumenau, homemaker
My dad, again: I’m quite sure Corine was impressed with their dress and cleanliness (Chuck Berry or The Rolling Stones would not have appealed to her), and their early politeness with Mr. Sullivan. Although their HAIR struck people at the time as revolutionary. Up to that point John F. Kennedy (OK, and Elvis Presley) had just about the longest hair on the planet (I myself had the requisite crew cut from my early teens through college). Turns out they were more roguish than the Stones, but Brian Epstein cleaned up their appearance before they came to the U.S., and he succeeded in making Corine if not a fan, and least not a detractor!
Rod Blumenau, college-age son, jazz fan with a sideline in Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley:
I thought the music was light-weight, a type my roommate Bruce Allen would derogatorily call “teeny-bopper” music. In my case it wasn’t that I preferred music with more profound meaning, but that I really couldn’t stand two-guitar, bass guitar and drums groups of any sort. Much preferred horns, or at least keyboards, or at least a nice bluesy groove (e.g. Chuck Berry). “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” didn’t meet any of my criteria!
Elaine Blumenau, high school student:
Basically all my friends, especially the girls, were aware of the Beatles, and their impending appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. Your Grandma, Drawing Boy and Grossee always watched the Ed Sullivan Show and I usually watched when I was around, but I made a point of watching it to see what this Beatles thing was all about. I have to admit, they were pretty cool, and I liked their song, “I Wanna Hold Your Hand,” which was the first one to come to our shores, I think. I liked “She Loves You” even more.
Of course I watched the next two programs [the Ed Sullivan Shows of Feb. 16 and 23] when they were to appear. My current boyfriend was there for one of the shows, and he combed his hair forward like the Beatles did, to try it out.
When they first came to town, my favorite was Ringo, but then I liked Paul, and later came to appreciate George for his depth. John seemed a bit arrogant, but his songs were incredible too.
I doubt anyone in the living room that night would have guessed that Elaine’s take on things would be closest to the truth over the long term.
(Of course, I doubt even she would have anticipated the sheer force of the Beatles’ song power, musicianship and charisma. She would not have predicted the creativity and beauty of “Penny Lane,” or the breathtaking climax of “A Day In The Life,” or any of the genius scattered so liberally throughout the White Album and “Abbey Road.” But she was right: There was definitely something to this Beatles business.)
All these years later, three of the people in the living room on Hope Street are gone. So, for that matter, is the living room.
Three of the players on TV that night have passed too, if you count Ed Sullivan.
And Elaine? Well, we’ll give her the last word:
The best thing about the Beatles, was that they evolved, both in music and appearance, along with our culture. Other bands came and went, particularly from England (the Beatles had opened the door to British bands’ popularity in the U.S.) However, the Beatles changed their style to incorporate classical music, Indian music, etc. etc., and kept evolving!
As for me, the Beatles represent my youth and growing up, and their music is still amazing. … The Beatles really were the representatives of our time, but their music will transcend all time.
I think she’s right, again.