‘It was 50 years ago today’: Sullivan, Beatles strike early chords of rock mythology

BeatlesIllustration by Frank Neufeld

Feb. 9, 1964 was a momentous occasion in our cultural history.

That night cemented television’s important role in the creation of what we now look back on as ‘the Sixties,’ a time of great social turmoil and change that continues to resonate 50 years later. And, oh yes, that was the night the Beatles made their first U.S. appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, the most important and influential American television variety program.

Over the next few weeks, we will hear, read and see a great deal about the impact of that television appearance.

As author Jonathan Gould observes in his magisterial cultural history, Can’t Buy Me Love: The Beatles, Britain and America, “the great upsurge of adolescent fervor that the press called Beatlemania would coalesce into one of the main tributaries of a broad confluence of pop enthusiasm, student activism and mass bohemianism that would flood the political, social and cultural landscape of much of the industrialized world during the second half of the 1960s.”

What Gould, and most other authors, commentators and critics, ignore or downplay is the role of television in circulating the images of the Beatles and other young male and female groups and solo performers, a virtual style guide for American teens, as well as its part in creating the generational identity of the Baby Boomers.

Rock ‘n’ roll gave the variety program, the television genre most threatened by generational change and preferences, and starting to show its age by the mid-1960s, a new lease on life. In the years just after the British Invasion, increasingly anachronistic variety programs booked rock groups to boost their ratings. Rock ‘n’ roll’s greater cultural influence was reflected in set design, cinematography and the occasional experiment with lighting. Variety shows, to remain viable, played an important role in shift of cultural authority and musical hegemony from the preferences of the older generation for adult pop to a younger taste for rock ‘n’ roll inflected musical styles.

The Ed Sullivan Show arguably facilitated this shift more than any other.

Sullivan’s (or his network’s) attempts at censoring acts like the Rolling Stones, the Doors and Bob Dylan became rock culture legend and fueled its outsider mythology. The importance of performing on the Sullivan show as a sign an act or group had ‘made it’ is thereby obscured. Rather than focusing on moments in which acts were censored or compromised, which are surprisingly few, I suggest it is better to consider what it meant for Sullivan to feature rock ‘n’ roll acts regularly and consistently on the program that, more than any other, defined the entertainment mainstream for 25 years until its cancellation in 1971.

After a decade and a half as Sunday night family entertainment offering ‘something for everyone,’ The Ed Sullivan Show began to change.

In 1960, Sullivan replaced his long-time producer with his 29-year-old son-in-law Bob Precht.  Precht, 30 years younger and less socially conservative than Sullivan, was more attuned to the transforming cultural, social and entertainment landscape. By 1963, Precht had overseen the hire of a new director who favored sharper camera work. He tapped a young Yale MFA graduate with an architecture degree from MIT as set designer.

Sullivan’s show began to look crisp and modern, to reflect the Space Age rather than the vaudeville stage. 

A new choreographer brought style and panache to formerly tired dance routines. Precht instilled more professionalism, reflecting the technocratic efficiency of the era rather than the comparatively haphazard, “put it on and see what works” ethos of Sullivan’s vaudeville aesthetic. The Sullivan program was therefore ready for the British Invasion, and what came after, well in advance of it – not because of any great ability to read cultural change, but because of the host’s drive to stay on top of the ratings while continuing to deliver on his weekly promise of something for everyone.

Sullivan long had scouts working for him around the world. They served to keep Sullivan’s program current and interesting.

In 1964, one of these scattered talent scouts was a young employee of the Lew Grade Organization, Sullivan’s long-term contact in Great Britain. His press clippings about a new musical phenomenon, sent to Precht and presumably forwarded to Sullivan, are what likely persuaded Sullivan to book the band, sight unseen, for their historic February 1964 appearances.

Sullivan later spun his own tale of how he “discovered” the Beatles when his plane was delayed on the tarmac at Heathrow by Beatlemaniacs welcoming their heroes back from a Scandinavian tour. The veracity of Sullivan’s account does not matter as much as its meaning. He booked the band sight unseen in order to beat his competition and to gather a large audience for his sponsors, and in so doing, unwittingly turned himself into a rock ‘n’ roll impresario.

This is not to apologize for acts of censorship, some of which, like the Dylan episode, were made by the network censor, not Sullivan. It is to read other information alongside the rock mythology that depends upon asserting a contentious relationship between ‘the mainstream’ and rock ‘n’ roll, especially as the memory of the Sixties fades into nostalgia and increasing selective memory. 

By presenting rock ‘n’ roll acts consistently and frequently in the Sixties, the Ed Sullivan Show and its host acknowledged the genre as an emerging and important part of an evolving mainstream. The small number of censored moments also contributed to a sense of generational solidarity. Younger viewers could, for example, interpret Mick Jagger’s eye-rolling as he sang Let’s Spend Some Time Together instead of Let’s Spend the Night Together, as an act of rebellion against the very mainstream that they were rapidly joining. Sullivan’s censoring of the Stones, not the fact that a few years later he and a production crew went to Los Angeles to record them for an appearance on the program, a recognition of the group’s power and presence in a new mainstream, is part of the selective memory that informs rock mythology – a mythology that would not exist without the event that started it all, the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show on Feb. 9, 1964.

Norma Coates is a professor in the Department of Music Research and Composition and Faculty of Information and Media Studies. Her first powerful childhood memory is a quick glimpse of the Beatles performing at Shea Stadium in 1965 on her TV.