It's been 50 years since The Beatles first appeared on Ed Sullivan, to an audience of screaming, hair-pulling, ecstatic (in the classic sense) teenage girls. Cutes in suits, you might call them, like (and, of course, nothing like) countless other bands of the time that wore skinny ties and shared microphones and said "oh" and "yeah" and "baby."
Later, they'd get weird; experimental, rebellious, more transparently and transcendentally high than maybe any band ever, at least to hear the music tell it. They became legends, they became celebrities and movie stars. They had a dark breakup like so many great loves, and they went their separate ways, and one of them was shot and one died of cancer, and they became a story as well as a band.
But back then, when they appeared on Ed Sullivan, they were just a band. A really good band, a really popular band, a phenomenally exciting band. But they were a band. And you hear those songs, I mean, "All My Loving." Is that a great song? Or is it just a really, really, really good song? "Till There Was You," they borrowed from The Music Man. They stole it from Broadway, the sweetest, corniest kind of Broadway, too. The Music Man wasn't the Rent or Hair of its time; it was just a pretty little show about an Iowa librarian. Imagine bringing those lyrics to teenagers now: "There were bells on the hills, but I never heard them ringing; no, I never heard them at all till there was you." If they didn't roll their eyes, their parents would.
Back Before They Were Genius
That wasn't all the Beatles were lifting, of course; they were voracious appropriators. Almost half of their first album was covers. And from early on, they were dipping their buckets deeply into Little Richard and Motown, most of all, both directly and indirectly. Not just that though, they would later do country like "Act Naturally," not to mention "When I'm Sixty-Four," which sounds like exactly the kind of simple, music-hall ditty their audience might have wanted to get past.
In those early days of getting to know Americans, the Beatles performed songs that would live forever, like "I Wanna Hold Your Hand," and ones that are for fans, like "This Boy." These aren't the songs that people will tell you changed everything musically speaking; purists usually point to later albums your Sgt. Pepper, your White Album, your Revolver and Abbey Road for that. At this point, they were pop stars, they really were, so much so that John Lennon was introduced to American television audiences with the caption, "Sorry Girls, He's Married." Their music was exceptional, but it was joyfully, spiritedly, danceably pop.
In their later years, the Beatles would appeal to the American mythology of genius: the dark creatives at war over one's new partner, the trips to see the Maharishi and the flights of fancy like Magical Mystery Tour. Early on though, when they were pop stars, they appealed, and still do, to our fascination with alchemy.
On their own, later, what they produced was sometimes brilliant, but also sometimes ... well, common. They read as pop stars again, sometimes shaking their piece of the earth, but more often seeming strangely mortal. Wonderful, but mortal, even before John Lennon died the kind of death that brought about its own songs of grieving, just as Buddy Holly's death had five years before the Beatles came to the United States.
A Superhero Origin Story
But back then, even those of us who weren't alive know perfectly well it was a thing that we, on the other hand, have never seen. Not all at once, not in one band. From movements, maybe. From MTV. But not all in one band have we ever watched everything change as fast as everyone pretty much agrees it did. From these guys who would later prove capable of folly and even schmaltz was this explosive, energizing, resonant music that managed to get respect despite being hugely popular with teenage girls, which is very, very difficult to do. Only a few months after John F. Kennedy was assassinated, something really good happened. And it was a band.
If arrival in the United States makes an origin story at all, it's not an origin story like a hard-working professional has; it's an origin story like a superhero has. The lights come on, the man says "The Beatles!" the band starts playing, and it's just music on a variety show, but people are still talking about it 50 years later. Why? Is it just the music? Is it just the very good songs and the smart choices of source material? Was it us? Was it Kennedy? Was it timing?
It was the music; musicologists can explain and could even then how surprisingly complex some of this material was, and how much more carefully arranged it was than much of the pop available at the same time. And it was appeal that can't exactly be quantified; you can hear it when you put those albums again and hear a song you love, and then another one, and then another one, and eventually you realize that even the lionized form of this band doesn't convey how much they sank into our bones, whether we were here for them or not.
I was born the year they broke up for good, only months before Paul McCartney filed a lawsuit to dissolve the band. But of all the bands that weren't active when I was alive, none comes close to the influence of this one. I can remember putting the records on (we used to have these round black discs with grooves in them and we would scratch them with diamond needles to make music come out). I can even remember what the lyrics looked like on the album sleeves, even though I didn't have the first clue what a lot of them meant.
When I was in college, over a holiday weekend, a radio station somewhere ran every recorded Beatles song from A to Z, and my friend taped it to cassette and eventually copied it for me. They'd left only one out, and if you could identify it, you could win money. (It was "Please Please Me," easy to spot since it failed to follow "Please Mr. Postman." My friend didn't win.) So for years, I had ratty old cassette copies of Beatles songs, not in album order, but in alphabetical order. It was one of the bands I listened to, even though Lennon had died by then.
Later on it was genius, but that early stuff, that early stuff is as close as you're going to get to magic. The differences between this band and a million others aren't easy for a layperson to put her finger on. It's mysterious: take this band, add this audience, add this music, pick your moment, and it goes. And 50 years later, we've never gotten it to happen again.
Many thanks to my pal and amateur Beatles-ologist Marc Hirsh for his help with this piece. Anything good, he helped with. Anything bad was all me.