America Meets the Beatles

CDS faculty look back at a 50-year-old TV appearance that changed America

Beatles on Ed Sullivan

It looks a bit crude by today's standards: black and white footage of four guys playing rock music -- live, no lip-syncing. A studio audience full of screaming girls.

But some 73 million households, just under half of America, watched The Beatles as they performed five songs on "The Ed Sullivan Show," on Feb. 9, 1964.  

On the 50th anniversary of their performance at Studio 50 in New York City, media from Rolling Stone magazine to CNN are paying tribute to the show that launched the band in America and further catapulted their growing worldwide fame that started the year before back home in England.

What made their Ed Sullivan appearance such an iconic part of American history?

Everything from their look to their sound, say experts at Duke's Center for Documentary Studies (CDS).  

"The Beatles on Ed Sullivan could be seen as the first television event that went 'viral,' " said Elizabeth Phillips, communications coordinator at the center.

While there was no social media or other Internet tools back then to help propel their stardom, watching the band perform that night launched more than just a horde of copycat bands and fashion trends from mop-top haircuts to Beatle Boots.

"Screaming young women greeting the Beatles -- these photos document the emerging liberation of female sexuality of the 1960s," said Bonnie Campbell, art director at CDS.

Alexa Dilworth, publishing director/editor of CDS Books, believes the band symbolized the 1960s ideal of oneness.

"The Beatles symbolized the as-yet unrecognized dreams of liberation of all kinds, both individual and communal," he said. "Their ability to harmonize called us to a vision of the 'beloved community' envisioned by the civil rights movement, where all sing together as one." 

Who knew? Definitely not the band at that time. When greeted by thousands of fans when they landed in New York on Feb. 7, 1964, they wondered if the president had also landed.

Musically, John Lennon and Paul McCartney would become a legendary songwriting team, creating classic rock and pop hits that continue to get widespread airplay and iTunes downloads. At the height of Beatlemania, the band even held the top five spots in the singles chart.

Despite the abundant love, not all critics were amused.

"Today the Beatles' music stands for quality -- most people would say it's far more intelligent and interesting, musically and lyrically, than other pop music -- then and now," said John Biewen, audio program director at CDS. "Yet at the time, the music reviewer for Newsweek found their tunes so devoid of merit that 'most adults confidently predict' they would quickly fade: 'Musically, they are a near-disaster: guitars and drums slamming out a merciless beat that does away with secondary rhythms, harmony, and melody. Their lyrics (punctuated by nutty shouts of "yeah, yeah, yeah!") are a catastrophe, a preposterous farrago of Valentine-card romantic sentiments.'

Added Biewen: "Compared to what? Cole Porter? Irving Berlin? Mozart? This documentation of the Beatles' early critical reception cannot be separated from the fears of change, liberation and sexuality that the music itself unleashed on the show Feb 9, 1964." 

In addition, CDS director Welsey Hogan said the band borrowed from black music, as much of rock had. She noted that Lennon's first band was a skiffle band, "adopting this lesser-known African-American musical form popularized in the UK in the 1950s."

"For all the positivity their upbeat songs generated, it seems important to contextualize the Beatles' music itself as documentary evidence of the blurry share/steal bridge between white and black cultures," Hogan said. "The Beatles in 1964 became another example of whites popularizing musical forms innovated by blacks. In this case, the Beatles were safe enough for white suburban teens to embrace, unlike B.B. King or Howlin' Wolf. The images and footage of 1964's Beatlemania reflect a sea of whiteness."