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The Beatles on Ed Sullivan 50 years on

By Malcolm King - posted Friday, 7 February 2014

It's 50 years ago this weekend since The Beatles walked on to the Ed Sullivan Show (9 Feb 1964) in America and changed musical history. It was the culmination of five years hard slog.

After numerous knockbacks by other record labels, in the autumn of 1962, The Beatles manager Brian Epstein had persuaded George Martin, the head of a small EMI imprint Parlophone, to give them a listen. They were rough but had charm. Martin took a risk and signed them and the rest is history.

They returned to Abbey Road in September to make their first release, the single Love Me Do, with a new drummer, Ringo Starr. Love Me Do makes the Top 20, and Please Please Me makes it to No. 2 in the charts.


Three years of continuous gigs in Liverpool and later Hamburg had toughened them up. They hung out with kids who were into existentialism, drugs and sex. In Hamburg, these were the children of the SS and the Wehrmacht soldiers. Lennon and McCartney started writing their own songs in dingy hotel rooms. There were no reality TV shows in post war Germany or England. There was too much reality as it was.

The 1950s may have been relatively snug for the generation that endured the Second World War, but their teenage children saw the period as a stifling drag against which they kicked with rock and roll.

The Beatles had freshness and a defiantly working-class charm opposed to the bland vanilla bands of the time. Beneath the suits and haircuts, they were Teddy Boys. Lennon could speak with his fists as well as his guitar.

They conquered Britain but their big break was the appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. Some 73 million Americans tuned in that night, the largest viewership in the history of television to that point.

They opened with "All My Loving" to hysterical screams from teenaged girls in the audience. The Beatles then followed with "Till There Was You," before wrapping up the first set with "She Loves You." They closed the show with "I Saw Her Standing There" and "I Want to Hold Your Hand." Beatlemania was born.

President John F Kennedy had been killed just 77 days prior. Young Americans were looking for new dreams; new heroes with new visions. They found John, Paul, George and Ringo.


It would be wrong to say that four lads out of Liverpool had any idea where they were going or what they were doing. There was no set manifesto. According to Ian Macdonald in Revolution in the Head, they defined themselves by what they were for and against.

"They were against soul-numbing materialism; they were for imagination, self expression, Zen. They were against society's approved depressives (alcohol, barbiturates) and for stimulants life marijuana, amphetamines and mescaline. They were against rationalism, repression and racism and for poetry, sex and jazz." It was a heady brew.

They were masters of the glib throwaway line and put-down. "As usual, there is a great woman behind every idiot," John Lennon said. Reporter: "Who writes the music?" John Lennon: "What music?" Before the Ed Sullivan Show appearance, Ringo Starr was asked what he thought of Beethoven. "I love him, especially his poems."

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About the Author

Malcolm King is a journalist and professional writer. He was an associate director at DEEWR Labour Market Strategy in Canberra and the senior communications strategist at Carnegie Mellon University in Adelaide. He runs a writing business called Republic.

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