Saturday, February 8, 2014

Hurricane of Love: The 50th Anniversary of The Beatles Appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show

The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show 

When The Beatles appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show on Sunday, February 9, 1964, it was the night America stopped mourning the murder of President Kennedy a few months earlier. At first, shortly after that tragedy, record producer Phil Spector thought he had the answer to America's sorrow. He had released a joyous Christmas album filled with great rock 'n' roll holiday songs by The Crystals, The Ronettes and Darlene Love. Perhaps in a better time, The Crystals singing "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" would have provided the appropriate yuletide spirit, but the album bombed. During the Christmas of 1963, one month after the murder of JFK, nobody cared if Santa ever came to town. But that Sunday evening in February, over 74 million American viewers were finally ready to move on, and share in The Beatles' exhilarating appearance. They tuned in and bided their time with the cast of the Broadway production of Oliver!, impressionist Frank Gorshin (who would ultimately play the Riddler on the 1966 spoof TV series Batman), and singer and banjo player Tessie O'Shea – but, who would remember them fifty years on? From the moment Paul McCartney opened his mouth to sing "All My Loving," everyone else became irrelevant. What came before, or what was to come after, wasn't a consideration. What people heard was astonishingly new, a fresh vision of America coming right back to them. The spirit of the New Frontier, which many felt was left for dead in Dallas, was again sparkling with intensity.‘

‘The Beatles did something special – not so much to revive that American music from which they drew so much, but to add meaning to it,’’ Dave Marsh wrote in his book The Beatles' Second Album. ‘‘Part of what America loved about The Beatles was that they appeared not as gods but as mortals whom the gods had blessed.’’Their first daring marketing move, as blessed mortals, that night was actually to kick off with ‘‘All My Loving’’ rather than ‘‘I Want to Hold Your Hand,’’ the Number One song that had just paved the path to their American arrival. In choosing ‘‘All My Loving,’’a tune with no instrumental introduction, they made sure that it was their voices that would make immediate contact with their television and studio audience. After following with the ballad ‘‘Till There Was You,’’ they tore excitedly into ‘‘She Loves You,’’ ‘‘I Saw Her Standing There,’’and finally ‘‘I Want to Hold Her Hand.’’ That night, The Beatles cast an image on Ed Sullivan that was far removed from the sexually leering and dynamic provocations of the hip-shaking Elvis. ‘‘What America saw was an image of unaccustomed elegance,’’ wrote critic Albert Goldman in The Lives of John Lennon. ‘‘Accoutered in dark, tubular Edwardian suits that exaggerated the stiff, buttoned-up carriage of these young Englishmen, The Beatles resembled four long-haired classical musicians, like Pro Musica Antiqua, playing electric lutes and rebecs and taking deep formal bows after each rendition.’’Goldman described Lennon as ‘‘looking positively dignified, his aquiline nose and full face giving him the appearance of a Renaissance nobleman.’’

Paul McCartney singing "All My Loving"
While the viewing audience was enthralled, the critics were less than enthusiastic. The New York Times thought The Beatles were basically a fad. The Herald Tribune thought they’d bombed. Newsweek called their music a disaster, lacking in rhythm, and only expressing naive romantic sentiments. The Washington Post, in the same American city that first launched ‘‘I Want to Hold Your Hand,’’described them as homely and asexual. While most parents were concerned about the group’s long hair, there were many who found their image too clean and innocent. For a band that had forged their identity in dark clubs and basements, how could they look that innocent? ‘‘[They] look so innocent because they are absorbing the innocence of those around them, reveling in the last time that they will ever be so new to an audience, that any audience will ever be so new to them,’’Devin McKinney remarked in Magic Circles: The Beatles in Dream and History. The Beatles connected with the mass audience in a completely new way. They didn’t cater to audiences in the traditional manner of most performers, who would coddle their partisan crowd in order to win their loyalty. The Beatles did something that would ultimately prove more dangerous – they set out to change people’s lives. The band’s impact carried a powerful potency that not only lifted a nation out of its sorrow but also created in its place an opportunity for people to step out of their own shadow and into the limelight.

Arthur Lee, who within a few years would launch the Los Angeles psychedelic band Love, was in his 27th Street living room convinced that he’d found his freedom the night he saw The Beatles on Ed Sullivan. Guitarist Joe Walsh sat in front of his television, his head bobbing excitedly to the music, saying ‘‘Yes!’’ while his parents shook theirs, ‘‘No!’’ In his Florida home, the young Tom Petty claimed that he was considering becoming a farmer until he had an epiphany while watching The Ed Sullivan Show. He, too, wanted to play a guitar in front of live crowds. John Sebastian recalled that the Lovin’ Spoonful, who would merge jug band blues, folk, and rock ’n’ roll, was born the night he saw The Beatles on Ed Sullivan at
Cass Elliot’s house. It was there that he met future co-founder Zal Yanovsky. The Beatles’ appearance provided an indelible moment for one Vincent Furnier, who would later be reborn as Alice Cooper. ‘‘I just sat there in my living room in Phoenix with a huge smile on my face,’’ Cooper told Johnny Black of Mojo. ‘‘My parents looked like they were in the audience of ‘Springtime For Hitler’ from The Producers.’’ That same year, Furnier would start his own band called the Earwigs with some of his pals. They donned some Beatle wigs and entered the school talent show. ‘‘We were so bad,’’ he recalled. ‘‘[B]ut I loved the attention. Girls started talking to me [and] I got hooked on the limelight. That’s why I went into rock ’n’ roll,
for fame and sex.’’

The Earwigs 
Dee Snider, of Twisted Sister, never got to see The Beatles on Ed Sullivan because of his father banning television in the home.‘‘The energy at school the next day was so intense over that performance that, based just on what I was hearing, I said, ‘I’m gonna be a Beatle,’ ’’Snider declared in Uncut. ‘‘I subsequently became a serious Beatle fan. Eventually, I found out I couldn’t be a Beatle. I had to be a rock star.’’He would dramatize that transformation in the video for his 1984 hit song ‘‘We’re Not Gonna Take It.’’As for the many young girls who gave The Beatles their screams, they may not have had ambitions to be rock stars, but their hysteria was never harmless – or innocent. ‘‘The spectacle was not tender but warlike,’’critic Geoffrey O’Brien wrote in Sonata for Jukebox. ‘‘The oscillation between glassy-eyed entrancement and emotional explosion, the screams that were like chants and the bouts of weeping that were like acts of aggression, the aura of impending upheaval that promised the breaking down of doors and the shattering of glass: this was love that could tear apart its object.’’You could feel in that hurricane of love the possibility of someone being torn apart, as easily as someone being embraced. Author Steve Turner also saw, within that potentially violent dynamic, these screams as a response to The Beatles’ call for total freedom. ‘‘The call to freedom that came from The Beatles led these girls into a state of abandon,’’ Turner wrote in The Gospel according to The Beatles. ‘‘For the duration of the concert they could completely ignore society’s rules for appropriate conduct.’’Within the shouting and wailing was also the sensation of being transported into another place, the place Lennon had defined for listeners in ‘‘There’s a Place.’’ It was a state of consciousness where, for the duration of the concert, fans were no longer bound by the constraints of reality.

The impact of Beatlemania that weekend of The Ed Sullivan Show became the subject of a charming 1978 comedy by Robert Zemeckis (Used Cars, Back to the Future) called I Wanna Hold Your Hand. The film follows six New Jersey teenagers who scheme to get to New York and meet The Beatles. Written with Bob Gale, who also shared credit on Used Cars and Back to the Future, Zemeckis affectionately treats the quest of this motley group of friends as a coming-of-age story where The Beatles’ visit dramatically alters their lives. Of course, nothing goes as planned. Rosie (Wendie Jo Sperber) who is crazed about The Beatles never actually gets to see them. Pam (Nancy Allen), who is planning to get married and takes the trip as a reluctant participant, ends up in The Beatles’ hotel room caressing Paul McCartney’s bass guitar. Tony (Bobby Di Ciccio), who represents the last vestige of Fifties’ greaserdom, loathes the group, yet he finds an unlikely ally in Janis (Susan Kendall Newman), a folkie who initially hates the commercialism of pop. I Wanna Hold Your Hand cleverly illustrates how The Beatles united a generation by creating cultural alternatives that transformed our value system. Although the film has little of the inspired slapstick of some of Zemeckis’s later work (especially the comic peaks he reached in the tall-tale outrageousness of Used Cars), I Wanna Hold Your Hand still gleefully captures a moment when people’s lives were shaped by pop dreams. It’s a genial look at the stalking of pop stars, where benevolent, eager teenagers get caught up in the thrill of having their lives touched by experiences larger than themselves.

Nancy Allen and Wendie Jo Sperber in I Wanna Hold Your Hand

The folk singer Phil Ochs once wrote in his song "Crucifixion," a powerfully somber number that took the pulse of the national mood after JFK's killing, that "behind the greatest love lies a hurricane of hate." So as commentators celebrate the anniversary this weekend, an event that took America out of that huge national tragedy in Dallas, it's difficult to embrace the euphoria of that moment on Ed Sullivan without opening the door to the horror of another assassination: the murder of John Lennon in 1980, a killing that cast a nightmare shadow on the group's utopian dream and our own participation in it. I Wanna Hold Your Hand also cast its own nightmare shadow and not just in the stalking murder of Lennon two years after the film was released. Theresa Saldana, one of the performers in I Wanna Hold Your Hand, plays Grace, an aspiring photojournalist out to get the perfect picture of The Beatles, the one that would make her career. Ironically, Saldana's own career became tragically altered when she herself became a victim of a similarly determined celebrity stalker. Almost a decade after I Wanna Hold Your Hand came out, she was stabbed repeatedly by a crazed fan who had been obsessing over her for years. While Saldana would eventually recover, she never did continue her acting career. She became instead an advocate who helped other victims of violence, and aiding those innocent prey who were no longer sure that they could trust holding anyone’s hand.

- Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of Zappa,Randy Newman's American Dreams33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask ReplicaArtificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

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