Fifty years ago this week, the Beatles first appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show, giving America its first taste of what became known as The British Invasion. As a little girl, I remember the excitement surrounding this appearance; in fact, my parents let my five brothers and sisters and me stay up “late” to watch the show.
Coming from a big family, I used those older than me as sounding boards and the verdict was in: my older female cousins were originally unimpressed by the Fab Four, preferring instead to continue to imitate the dance steps and hairstyles of girl groups like Martha and the Vandellas and the Shirelles, while the boys, especially my brother Marc, loved the Beatles instantly and within months he and all his friends were playing guitars and forming their own groups. Beatlemania was here and spreading, and would leave the American music industry in its wake.
Of course there was rock and roll in America long before the Beatles’ breakthrough and there were other groups who wrote and played their own music; most notably the Beach Boys and the Four Seasons, but the general music industry, of which rock and roll was only a small but growing segment, still depended on the talents of experienced specialists; composers, arrangers, and producers. But that was soon and forever to change with the worldwide ascent of the Beatles.
As the now familiar story goes, the Beatles evolved from The Quarrymen, a skiffle band led by John Lennon and Paul McCartney. Skiffle was a term that originated in the American South to describe a sound produced by inexpensive instruments and requiring no technical knowledge to perform. Essentially, a skittle group was a garage band; made up of primarily young middle-class males who had no formal musical training and most often, as in the case of the Beatles, could not read or write music.
Before the Beatles became England’s revenge for the Boston Tea Party, mainstream American music was still in the hands of professionals. From the 1920s to the 1960s, traditional American pop music rang out from Tin Pan Alley to Broadway, encompassing the jazz and swing from which the Big Band sound came. Then there was country music, which, by the early 1950s, had combined with rhythm and blues to become rockabilly, which, with its traditional three-chord progressions, became the basis for early rock and roll, spawning Elvis Presley, Bill Halley, and others.
The Motown sound also burst on the scene at this time, bringing great American music to the nation. Things were indeed changing, but much of the control of the creative content still rested in the hands of songwriters like Holland-Dozier-Holland and Leiber and Stoller, who continued their happy marriage with the performers. But the advent of the Beatles changed all that.
It was not only the writing, arranging, and performing their own songs, what essentially separated the Beatles was that they managed to synthesize pop music with rock, making it palatable to all ages. With their boyish haircuts, their zany cheeriness and penchant for syrupy love songs, they managed to counter what most of the older generation found threatening in the looks and sounds of “harder” rock: the sexual gyrations of Elvis, the sneer of Jerry Lee Lewis and the howling absurdity of Little Richard.
Of course, all this rapidly changed, as the Beatles, both leading and following the progression of the hippie era, began to dabble in drugs, Eastern religions, and rebellion. A decade that had begun with the Duke of Earl, ended with Sgt. Pepper. A friend of mine who joined the Navy in 1962 told me that after serving on long tours in the North Atlantic on an icebreaker, when he finally returned stateside in 1964 he hardly recognized his home, saying, “All hell had broken loose!” And indeed it had.
Gone were the poignant and haunting melodies of George Gershwin, the witty lyrics of Cole Porter, the virtuoso playing of Artie Shaw and Duke Ellington and the sweet and smooth arrangements of Nelson Riddle for Nat King Cole or Frank Sinatra. Gone too was the comforting feeling that American culture alone could produce artists and musicians that would appeal to Americans of all ages. And although a semblance of this structure continued in some areas—most notably in Nashville and Motown—this is what the Beatles hath wrought: the production of popular music became the purview of amateurs; and foreign ones at that.
Ironically, one of the songs played by the Beatles on that famous February night 50 years ago was “Till There Was You,” a lovely tune from “The Music Man,” which was written by Meredith Wilson; the Iowa-born composer, conductor, playwright and musician who was a member of both the John Philip Sousa Band and the New York Philharmonic. Broadway meets the Mop Tops: did they ever sound better?