If you didn’t grow up with the Beatles, the quality of the group that’s most defining — the degree to which they towered over the culture — is almost impossible to communicate in any organic way. I don’t mean to be patronizing to my Gen-X friends (although they’ve never been shy about patronizing me), but if you’re too young to remember the Beatles, you probably won’t get it. You’ll think: Okay, Michael Jackson meets Star Wars — I know, they were that big. But they weren’t. They were bigger. They may not have been bigger than Jesus, but they were as big as Jesus. Depending on how old you were (I was a little kid, which may have been the ideal age to drink in their incandescence), they enveloped you, spoke for you, and, simply by virtue of being in the world, made that world seem the rare and inviting and intoxicating place you always wanted it to be.
The eternal paradox of the Beatles is that their constantly shifting images and ever-changing music made their identity as a group not more fragmented and diffuse but more powerful and defined. They weren’t the mop-topped early Beatles or the natty silk-uniformed showmen of Sgt. Pepper or the let-their-hair-down hippie ruffians of those four iconic photographs included in the White Album or the tough, wise, saddened family-man cynics of Let It Be. They were all of them at once. And starting with Rubber Soul, the special quality that the Beatles’ songs took on was this: Every last one of them felt different from every other one of them. That’s why even the mediocre ones didn’t matter: They were all part of the story that the Beatles were telling — a story of endless mutation and endless possibility, of life revealed, of a joy that could take an infinite number of forms, the way that joy does every day. The Beatles were shape-shifters who acted out for the rest of us, in their music and images, the jubilation of life as a moment-to-moment discovery. In A Hard Day’s Night, they were shown, in their cheeky, frolicsome way, to be gods at play in the world (at the end of 90 minutes, they re-ascend to heaven in a helicopter), and their message had an elemental magic: We float above you — but really, we are you. And you are us.
What strikes me today, on the 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, is that if you go back and look at the Beatles on Feb. 9, 1964, when they performed live before an American television audience of 73 million, what you’ll see is trapped in a grainy video time capsule, but the sensation of transcendence that the Beatles incarnated is all right there in front of you. It’s worth noting that a lot of what we remember, and have made iconic, about that first Beatles Sullivan show — the whole mythological moment of it, the girls screaming and crying, the feeling of rock & roll exploding into the living rooms of straight, fuddy-duddy, black-and-white, spirit-of-the-1950s America — didn’t start with the Beatles at all. It was there nearly 10 years before, in 1956, when Elvis, his hair a loose and inky pompadoured assault, the danger of his hips sliced off by the bottom of the TV screen, first performed on Ed Sullivan. The revolution really began there. But Elvis, like every other rock star of his era, from Chuck Berry to Jerry Lee Lewis to Dion, was performing from one side of a mythical masculine divide. He was the sexy life-force star, and we were the fans. The Beatles, that night on Ed Sullivan, reached over that divide and invited the audience to join them.
On the show, Sullivan, in his carny-barker stoicism, goes on about “these youngsters who call themselves the Beatles,” and then, when he introduces them, saying, “Ladies and gentlemen…the Beat-les,” he says it like it’s a foreign word, and his next words are completely drowned out by that collective teen-girl scream — much higher pitched than the one that greeted Elvis, a real thunder clap of ecstatic hysteria. It’s the first time that we’re really hearing the power of the Boomers. (They’ll always drown out whoever else is talking.) Seen now, the opening moments of the Beatles’ first song are so cathartic they’re like something out of a Scorsese film. The excitement of “All My Loving” is there in its nervous throttling speed, in the beauty of the rapidly alternating major-minor chords and the walking bass and the fast-motion guitar triplets, but the camera, right out of the Mad Men era, moves in on the Beatles very slowly, creating an electrifying tension. From those opening seconds, the song seems momentous — larger than itself.
The first close-up is of Ringo, who looks sweet and a little dorky and glad to be there. But then the camera fixates on Paul, with his dancing eyebrows, his head cocking back and forth with every phrase, and you look at this 21-year-old lad, and he’s an absurdly poised and twinkly and self-satisfied entertainer — a baby George Clooney of early-’60s rock. As a kid watching the Beatles, I used to marvel at how they all looked like brothers, with the same thatchy hair and thick eyebrows and English bone structure and those mouths, when they were singing, that were shaped like lemons — big and round and poised at the corners. They weren’t just singers, they were smiling pop showman-comedians, topped off by the bowl cuts that were really the deceptive beginnings of long hair. After a minute, “All My Loving” has a guitar break, which is George playing cheesy rockabilly, and it reminds you, for about 10 seconds, of the roots of the music you’re listening to — the bluesy bounce of rock & roll. But then “All My Loving” becomes a Beatles song again: the thrumming triplets, the chord progression that’s like a stepping stone between the exhilaration of feeling “all my loving” and the melancholy of missing that feeling. Ringo, in his next close-up, looks pensive, almost Bobby Kennedyesque. This is bittersweet music that locates the delirium of love within something wistfully melancholy.
The next number, “Till There Was You,” is one of those bad Beatles covers I used to wonder why they bothered including on their early albums (I guess it was to make them more “relatable” — but still, a song from the 1957 Meredith Wilson musical The Music Man? Ugh!), and on the Sullivan show, it’s basically a palette cleanser, a chance to flash the names of the Beatles on screen, so that we’ll know who these new characters are. The famous line that accompanies John (“Sorry girls, he’s married”) is unintentionally hilarious, not just because it’s like something out of an ancient fanzine, but because he’s the one member of the Beatles who doesn’t look married. His wolfish gleam already gazes ahead to the moment when the Beatles would cast off their cuteness to become something more grand and revolutionary and even, at times, dangerous. Yet what they were doing on this show was revolutionary too. They were creating a theater of pop that merged masculine and feminine emotions.
The essential drama of that first Sullivan show is the drama of four young men singing to the (hysterical) girls in the audience. Yet unlike Elvis, the Beatles take on the trappings of the young women they’re singing to. Those pudding-bowl mop-tops soften their faces, and when, during the three-minute detonation that is “She Loves You,” they follow the line “Yes, she loves you, and you know you should be glaa-ad” with Paul and George wiggling their heads together at the mic in an ecstatic, high-pitched “Wooooooo!” it’s the song’s money shot, with more than a hint of a (female) orgasm. It’s a sign that these boys truly know who the “she” in “She Loves You” is, and where she’s coming from. The Beatles’ awesome mutability begins on this night. From the start, they are boys and girls, happy and sad, rockers and melodic demons, earthly musicians and gods. They are already showing you that the world can be everything.