If you look back at early articles written about the Beatles, they show that the lads didn’t get much love from North American entertainment writers when the group first arrived on this side of the pond. Writers dismissed the Beatles as a “fad,” a “nightmare” and even a downright “catastrophe.” The remarks now seem laughable, especially as fans get ready to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the group’s first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. When the Beatles took to that stage on Feb. 9, 1964, it was a turning point in pop culture and music history in the 20th century. Beatlemania had arrived.
There were 73 million people who watched the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show that night, according to the show’s official website. (And, yes, there is a website for the show, even though it ended decades before the Internet was created.) The Beatles’ appearance led to a TV viewing record at the time, while the corresponding fan frenzy at the show hadn’t been seen since Elvis Presley performed there in 1956. (The amazing Elvis video can be seen by clicking here, while clips of The Beatles’ performance can be seen here.)
The Beatles’ songs had been roaring up the charts in the months leading to the Ed Sullivan show and their first album, Please Please Me in 1963, was a smashing success. The show’s website recounts a number of stories about the Beatles’ historic appearance. It notes that the group’s manager, Brian Epstein, didn’t want to book an appearance in the United States until a Beatles song hit #1 on American charts. Once that occurred, Epstein and Sullivan had dinner at a New York hotel, striking a deal that would see the Beatles get top billing on three shows and $10,000 cash.
To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ first appearance on Sullivan, there’s been a daily dose of articles, posts and news clips this month, which will culminate with a CBS special The Beatles: The Night That Changed America this Sunday, Feb. 9.
When the Beatles took to the Ed Sullivan stage on Feb. 9, 1964, fans went wild, but many music critics were harsher in their reviews. It made me wonder what theCalgary Herald said about that night 50 years ago, so I asked Herald digital research whiz Norma Marr to see what she could find.
For starters, she discovered a review of the show from Calgary Herald entertainment writer Bob Shiels, who wrote: “I believe the correct term for the phenomenon is Beatlemania. This means that whenever you hear a group called the Beatles singing, you flip your wig, scream and perhaps pass out. The Beatles, from Liverpool, England, were guests on the Ed Sullivan Show Sunday night and will be back for two more appearances. Ed Sullivan is a cautious man. He had arranged to have the New York police department ride herd on the teenage crowd. It was a wise precaution. In England the Beatles have sometimes been in some danger of being torn limb from limb by their fans . . . It is difficult to describe their act except to say that for some reason it causes teenage audiences from Liverpool to New York to go right out of their minds. The Beatles are showmen. There is no denying that. They whip up quite a storm and they seem to enjoy their work. Before you denounce it as sheer idiocy, bear in mind that you would probably do something similar if someone would pay you for it . . . Acts such as this don’t usually last very long. While they do, who am I to argue with them?”
The Herald writer wasn’t alone in predicting an early demise for the Beatles. U.S. News & World Report said the Beatles were a fad. Time magazine had already reported that “their songs consist mainly of ‘Yeh!’ screamed to the accompaniment of three guitars and a thunderous drum.” A record exec – Dick Rowe, head of Decca Records – had earlier noted, “Guitar groups are on the way out . . . The Beatles have no future in show business.”
And, Newsweek Magazine said of the Ed Sullivan appearance: “Visually, they are a nightmare: tight, dandified, Edwardian/Beatnik suits and great pudding bowls of hair. 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 . . . The odds are they will fade away, as most adults confidently predict.” (Copies of this issue of the magazine, with its Beatles cover, often sell for around $100 or so when they come up for auction.)
At the Herald, Norma Marr also uncovered some other early Beatles gems from the archives, including this photo (at right, near top) of near-hysterical fans in Calgary’s Grand Theatre when the movie Hard Day’s Night opened here in 1964, along with an accompanying story: “. . . The film began with nothing but wild screams. The noise was so loud you had to close your eyes to try and stop the pain . . . Someone in the balcony complained because he couldn’t hear the sound but his efforts were as futile as it would be to get the Beatles a haircut. The show had been on more than five minutes (and) the Beatles had spoken but no one had heard them . . . ‘I love him,’ screamed a blonde who was now beginning to pale from constant jumping. She had interrupted Ringo’s first line. The movie was one hour and 28 minutes long and with only two minutes left to play not one set of vocal chords had weakened. Take 1,300 youngsters yelling once every minute and you have pandemonium. Add at least four fainting or swooning spells and the result is chaos. The show was good but the crowd was better . . . A tiny blonde fainted as she left the Grand but was revived, checked for her Beatle button and left the theatre.”
As for those early predictions that the group would be a fad, I think we all know how the story ended. The Beatles ultimately sold more than one billion records around the world. In 2014, they received theGrammy Lifetime Achievement Award; Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, the two surviving Beatles, performed at this year’s Grammys; and, Paul won anotherGrammy award for a new song he helped write and perform. Some fads just never go away.
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A 1964 newspaper ad: The Herald of the day included an ad from Glenn’s Music in Calgary (below), promoting the TV appearance and six “45s” of Beatle songs that were available at the store.
The release of the Beatles movie A Hard Day’s Night prompted the below Herald article, with one conclusion being that while the movie was good, it was perhaps even more entertaining to watch the crowd of screaming fans.
As music and history lovers mark the 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ iconic appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show this weekend, a Calgary university instructor says the Fab Four’s contributions are as worthy of study as Shakespeare. “The Beatles are the most important, most influential performers of the 20th Century, and possibly all of history,” says James Istvanffy, who instructs a 12-week Beatles course at Mount Royal University. “That degree of excitement, we’ve never had before and we’ve never seen since.” Much like Shakespeare, Istvanffy argues, the Beatles wrote about love, passion and spirituality. But they were also unafraid to address more controversial topics such as religion and politics in their music. Read the full story by Eva Ferguson by clicking here.