Fifty years ago Sunday, the Beatles first appeared on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” You’ll almost surely see clips of them on the news this weekend, or on tribute shows, japing with the press, smiling those cheerful smiles, singing “All My Loving” — and you’ll probably think, “Oh, they were so cute.”
That’s today’s conventional wisdom: The Beatles were cute and unthreatening. The Rolling Stones — now, there was your threat. And the Who, smashing their instruments. And numerous others, against whom the Beatles were supposedly a dish of vanilla ice cream.
It’s ridiculous. If there’s one canard I’d like to see these anniversary festivities flip on its head, it’s that one. To the America that existed then, the Beatles were plenty threatening. To understand why, you have to understand the music scene of the time, and how utterly new the Beatles were in every way, how totally uncategorizable.
Here’s the quick, well-known background: Rock ‘n’ roll was born in 1955 and was immediately seen as a danger by the day’s reactionaries. “Jungle music” and all that; white children screaming for black performers. In a few years’ time, the industry tamed rock ‘n’ roll. Elvis went to the Army. Chuck Berry went to prison. Bobby Vinton went to No. 1. Chew on this little fact: On the American Billboard charts of the hits of 1963, not a single No. 1 song featured an electric guitar solo.
Then, February 1964 — boom! No one had made or heard sounds like these. Here’s a crucial truth that goes totally unappreciated today: They were loud. Those Beatles songs don’t sound loud now — “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “It Won’t Be Long” and the other early ones. And it’s true that other groups came along quickly and got louder still.
But by the standards of the day, they were cacophonous. Here’s how the Nation’s critic, Alan Rinzler, put it in 1964 after a Carnegie Hall concert. In an article headlined “No Soul in Beatlesville,” Rinzler wrote that the music was “electrically amplified to a plaster-crumbling, glass-shattering pitch,” and was “loud, fast, and furious, totally uninfluenced by some of the more sophisticated elements” of the pop scene.
Rinzler was certainly correct that the Beatles didn’t sound like what was topping the charts at the time. Did I mention Bobby Vinton above? The No. 1 song the week before “I Want to Hold Your Hand” commandeered the spot was Vinton’s awful (and I don’t hate him; he had some decent hits) “There! I’ve Said It Again.” A song from the Big Band era. And the No. 1 album before “Meet the Beatles” parked there for 11 weeks? “The Singing Nun.”
For sure, there was great, edgy music coming out of Chicago and Detroit and Memphis. But most popular music was relentlessly mediocre, candied, bleached of anything that might produce in its pubescent listener an impertinent or certainly a sexual thought. Even Elvis, once so raucous, was now producing lame ditties like “Good Luck Charm.”
And then suddenly, this glass-shattering, two-guitar noise. And with all those crescendos and climaxes and screams.
Lyrically, the songs may have been about holding your hand and dancing with you. But musically, a lot of the songs were frankly sexual. The extended “ahs” of “Twist and Shout,” followed by those screams; the build-up coming out of the bridge (“I can’t hide, I can’t hi-i-de”) in “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” They’re mild compared to what we can hear today, but in 1964, these were unambiguous musical emulations of sexual climax, aimed smack at a teenage audience, which did not miss the point.
In that first wave, in early 1964, most adults mocked the group. Highbrow derision came not just from the Nation but the New Yorker, the New Republic and the New York Times. This music was dismissed as a little disease that would pass.
And it’s true that all this wasn’t seen as subversive yet. That would take another year or two, when the disease hadn’t abated but, rather, metastasized and started taking over the culture, becoming dangerous.
But just because it wasn’t seen as subversive doesn’t mean it wasn’t subversive. The 1964 Beatles may not have been overtly anti-authority, but covertly, they certainly were. They were even, in their way, political. Their platform? Joy, excitement, pleasure. Within their aura, the future — that distant and sober thing for which the young people of 1964 were supposed to plan, so they could inherit the responsibility of upholding the greatest way of life the world had ever seen — evanesced. That fact alone made many in the establishment nervous, and rightly so.
So celebrate this anniversary, but celebrate it the right way. Don’t call them cute.
Michael Tomasky is a columnist for the Daily Beast and editor of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas. His new e-book is “Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!: The Beatles and America, Then and Now.”