Today is the 50th anniversary of one of the greatest moments in rock & roll history—& for many, the definitive moment in rock & roll history—The Beatles playing The Ed Sullivan Show.
If JFK's assassination in late November 1963 was the real start of the 1960s in all of its foreboding doom, The Beatles on Ed Sullivan was the bookend piece less than 3 months later, wherein the 1960s received its sense of effervescent hope. Indeed, the two events needed each other—on one level, The Beatles were the '60s phoenix that arose from JFK's '60s ashes. The fact that The Beatles landed at the newly-rechristened JFK Airport only cemented this fact. As The Beatles arrived in the New World, it was in a place where JFK lay silently all around them—literally.
But such philosophizing about timing and culture is not to diminish The Beatles' grand achievement. They were, at the end of the day, the greatest rock & roll unit ever assembled, & the songs they sang—"All My Loving," "Till There Was You,"& "She Loves You," later followed by both sides of their American breakthrough hit, "I Saw Her Standing There" & "I Want To Hold Your Hand"—represent modern rock at its essence; indeed, if one event ushered in the transition from the classic rock era of Elvis & Chuck Berry to the modern rock era of The Beatles, Bob Dylan, & The Rolling Stones, this was it. & like JFK, we can see a changing of the guards—The Beatles had received a welcoming telegram from Elvis & the Colonel that Ed Sullivan read on the air.
As a rock & roll moment in time, The Beatles playing Ed Sullivan's only real competition is Elvis recording "That's All Right," Dylan plugging in, Hendrix at Woodstock, The Stones at Altamont, & The Beatles' own release of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band some three years after playing Sullivan's program. (To see my own tallied list of the 100 Most Important Moments In Rock & Roll, click here.)
But in a way, The Beatles playing Ed Sullivan trumps them all. Their performance allowed the later events to happen in the first place, which in turn validated Elvis's breakthrough moment that came before it. If classic rock had given way to the bland pop of the early '60s, would Elvis be as influential today? There's no way to know for sure, but I did always find it telling that when The Beatles hit #1 in America for the first time with "I Want To Hold Your Hand," the song they knocked off was Bobby Vinton's "Blue Velvet."
Kinda says it all—yeah, yeah, yeah.