This Sunday, Feb. 9, is the 50th Anniversary of The Beatles first appearance in America. It was on that date, just about halfway between my 8th and 9th birthdays, that 4 boys stepped onto the stage on the Ed Sullivan Show and changed my life, and arguably the lives of every person on the planet.
I have no recollection of having any interest in, or even knowing about, popular music before the Beatles. I don’t even know why I watched the Sullivan show that night. Maybe I sensed the excitement of my big sister Nancy (who knew everything, as big sisters do), or even my Mom, who I remember sat with the rest of us in the living room as we watched on our RCA Black & White TV. One thing that stands out in my mind was wishing all those teenage girls would shut up so I could hear what they were singing! Imagine my delight the first time I was able to put a needle down on one of their old 45s on our “record player” and listen to “I Want to Hold Your Hand” sans thousands of screaming adolescents. I was suddenly interested in listening to the radio for more of this thing called “Rock ‘n Roll.” (Of course, growing up in a small town in Nebraska with one radio station, this type of radical “noise” was deemed inappropriate for their format. We had to get our music at night, from a station called KOMA, over 700 miles away in Oklahoma City, OK)
But it wasn’t only my life that changed. The Beatles are the original “Rock Group”. They spawned the phenomenon known as the British Invasion with other groups like The Rolling Stones, Peter and Gordon, The Animals, The Who, The Kinks, The Dave Clark Five and, as the guy on the late night K-Tel commercials used to say, “many, many more.” Rock ‘n Roll undoubtedly has its roots in 1950’s America with people like Elvis, Bill Haley and the Comets, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and others. But The Beatles seemed to give it wings. Maybe it was their haircuts, maybe it was their energy, and maybe it was their boyish good looks, but no one can deny that the kids from Liverpool jump-started what we know today as the genre of “Rock” music—a genre that began most as commentary on the angst of teen love and evolved into our generation’s vehicle for social commentary on anything from war and violence to free love, homelessness and disease.
Every guy in my class wanted to get a “Beatle” haircut, which didn’t involve much cutting at all when I think about it. Maybe we should have called it a “hairgrow.” Under the influence of the Fab Four, crew cuts and flat tops were out—long hair was in! We didn’t seem to mind that more hair necessitated actually shampooing and taking care of it. We discovered things like dandruff and split ends, and always had that plastic comb in the back pocket of our trousers. Our status was determined by how far we could pull our bangs down the front of our face.
Now it’s been 50 years. I look back at pictures of myself and my classmates with that long hair and think that we were all a bunch of dorks. I look back at pictures of the Beatles from that era and they still look at ease with those haircuts, which ironically would be conservative today.
It’s been 50 years and I am astounded by the fact that their last performance together, on the rooftop for the documentary Let It Be, was in 1970—just six years after they arrived on our shores. But still the Beatles live on. We watch Sir Paul McCartney or Ringo Starr perform and we feel the presence of John Lennon and George Harrison over their shoulders. We step into an elevator and hear “Yesterday” for the 80-zillionth time…and the Beatles live on. They resurface every Sunday morning during the “Breakfast with the Beatles” show on your local Classic Rock station. They reunite almost every evening for the “Love” show at the Mirage in Las Vegas. They will live on this Sunday again, when CBS airs “The Night That Changed America: A Grammy Salute to the Beatles.” I’ll be watching, running my hands through what’s left of my hair, singing along under my breath, and wondering where the hell the last 50 years went. I can’t help but think that The Beatles have made those 50 years a little bit more joyful to experience. And I can’t help but think it’s more than a coincidence that this year the Olympics are back in the U.S.S.R.