Young kids, young medium combined to create a unique moment

Looking back on Beatlemania


Musical moments that capture the attention of a national audience — and beyond — never seem to be in short supply. Last week, Bruno Mars set a ratings record with 115 million people watching his Super Bowl performance. A few months ago, the talk was about Beyonce’s surprise album. And there is still discussion of That Miley Moment at the MTV Video Music Awards.

But moments that spark a musical revolution? A dramatic altering of the pop culture landscape? A true moment for historians to analyze? Rare indeed, which is what makes the 50th anniversary of the start of Beatlemania so remarkable — and so unlikely to happen again.

“The media has gotten so fragmented now. . . . There’s 50 things in a marketing plan for an artist today,” said Revolt TV President (and former MTV executive) Andy Schuon. “The ability to fan that fire and to give it the kind of intensity that ‘The Ed Sullivan Show’ could get doesn’t exist today.”

Sunday marked the 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ performance on “Ed Sullivan,” their first appearance in America. Nielsen says 45 percent of all TV sets in use at the time were tuned in to the broadcast, with fans and the uninitiated alike gathered shoulder to shoulder in their living rooms.

The Beatles landed on a trigger point when they hit America. It was a sonic boom in pop culture, spurred by talent, timing and luck, that is still rattling the windows.

“This was a seismic shift in American culture, and it gave the teenagers not only a voice but a way of being, a way of thinking that had never occurred before,” Beatles biographer Bob Spitz said.

“Previous to the Beatles’ arrival here, teenagers were an appendage in the family. After that, the teenager became one of the dominant forces in the family. They became a marketable force, and that didn’t happen with Elvis. This was pure.”

Grammy Awards producer Ken Ehrlich, who produced Sunday’s TV special “The Night That Changed America: A Grammy Salute to The Beatles” on CBS, vividly remembers the electricity surrounding the British band’s appearance as he gathered with friends at a boarding house in Athens, Ohio, near the Ohio University campus to watch the show.

Fans’ interest had been stoked expertly thanks to their recent hits, including “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” and a promotional campaign that included mop-top wigs.

“Everybody was waiting for it,” Ehrlich said. “People hadn’t seen them. There weren’t VCRs, there weren’t DVRs. There was nothing. If you didn’t see it on one of three TV channels, you didn’t see it.”

A generation of baby boomers — teenagers just turning 13 and 14 — was poised for the moment. The relatively new medium of TV, the growing media culture in the U.S. and a burgeoning postwar affluence allowed millions of teens to bond through the Beatles’ black-and-white broadcast, which began with a mop-top-shaking version of “All My Loving.”

“Entire families wanted to see what was going on here because the phenomenon of the Beatles arriving here was so spectacular, so different from anything we’d ever experienced before, and everybody wanted to look at it,” Spitz said. “The kids wanted to look at it because they wanted to be like the Beatles, and the parents watched it because they wanted to see what they were up against. Really. It was kind of like a morbid fascination.”

It was a unique opportunity. Millions of kids and the equally young medium of television were coming of age. The two found each other willing allies. They combined with factors that made the moment so startling and powerful it simply can’t be re-created in our hypermedia age.

For example, every major pop star in the world — including Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr — appeared or performed at last month’s Grammy Awards. More than 28 million people tuned in — a huge number in modern television — but one that pales compared with Feb. 9, 1964, when at least 73 million viewers tuned in.

The competition for the Grammys was legion. Besides all the other entertainment on more than 100 other channels, there is Netflix, video games, apps, ESPN, Facebook, Twitter, Spotify, iPads and Kindles, all vying for attention. Even Mars’ gigantic audience last Sunday was smaller than the Beatles’ audience on a percentage basis.

In a recent interview, Starr said he didn’t know the magnitude of what was about to happen when he played with his band mates that night in New York.

“Incredible!” he recalled. “It was ‘Ed Sullivan,’ it was a big show. We didn’t know while we were playing that 70 million people were watching — but it was being in America that was so exciting” for the Beatles themselves. “All the music we loved was in America; it came from America to England.”

While holed up at their Manhattan hotel, they were interviewed by the city’s leading deejays, which in itself was an amazing experience for them.

“With Murray the K and Cousin Brucie, we were on the radio — we were in the hotel rooms on the phone to Murray the K. You didn’t have anything like that in England. The whole experience was just incredible,” he said.

In another interview, he recalled, “At this moment, Paul and I” — the two surviving band members — “are the only two people who know what that experience was like, and it was incredible.

“The Beatles are the Beatles — let’s be honest,” he said. “There was no bigger band in the land, and I don’t really believe there is any today, you know?”