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1964: Beatles' TV appearance sparked cultural revolution

Victoria-born pop music aficionado Glenn Parfitt recalls the moment the Beatles first played on the Ed Sullivan Show. It was 50 years ago Sunday, and Parfitt was six.

Victoria-born pop music aficionado Glenn Parfitt recalls the moment the Beatles first played on the Ed Sullivan Show.

It was 50 years ago Sunday, and Parfitt was six. He and his three older brothers sat on the living room carpet (aquamarine shag) clustered around the family TV. All through Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color, the boys could barely contain themselves until the Beatles finally appeared.

“I still remember the three of us sitting around the TV. Us being totally drawn in and our parents making the usual parental jib-jabs about it not being real music and commenting on their look.

“My father’s biggest obsession seemed to be how could a guy like Ringo play the drums with such a big nose,” he said. “And my brothers were saying, ‘What’s with Dad?’ ”

But Parfitt, who has since documented the tastes, sounds and influences of popular music in Victoria on his website the Royal City Music Project, said the Beatles’s appearance on Ed Sullivan marked a huge transition, even in Victoria.

They played All My Loving, Till There Was You, She Loves You, I Saw Her Standing There and I Want to Hold Your Hand — and everything changed.

Before the Beatles, pop music in Victoria was mostly inspired by the blues. Little Richard sold out Memorial Arena in 1957. Teenage boys cuffed their jeans, slicked back their hair and rolled up cigarette packs in the sleeves of their white T-shirts. They milled around street corners affecting their look and doing little else.

“This was a point in Victoria where kids hung around in gangs doing just, whatever. But after the Beatles, it became even cooler to be in a band,” he said.

“And with the Beatles, came the whole wardrobe, the different look. There was even a downtown store in Victoria called Carnaby Street where you could by Nehru jackets and look just like the kids in England.”

Musicologists, pop-culture watchers and historians agree the Beatles’ appearance on Ed Sullivan kicked off an enormous cultural shift that went beyond music.

For the first time since the Second World War, American culture got a pushback — from England. English bands, starting with the Beatles, played an American invention, rock ’n’ roll, but somehow it was different. They stepped away from the typical blues-inspired series of verses or rock ’n’ roll verse, chorus formula.

Beatles songs came with a structure of verses followed by a chorus. But they went further, breaking up the pattern with musical bridges.

Within these bridges they played outside the verse melody and chorus, but the notes remained at home enough to stay part of the song. Think of I Want to Hold Your Hand. It begins with the verse, “Oh yeah, I’ll tell you something I think you’ll understand.” It’s followed by the chorus “I want to hold your hand.” But later the bridge arrives, beginning with “And when I touch you I feel happy inside” to save the song from being repetitive and dull.

Wynn Gogol, Victoria-based author of The Artful Songwriter, a musical textbook, said the Beatles, with their song structures and sound techniques, paved the way for what is now considered popular music.

“It wouldn’t be a stretch to say they invented pop music as we know it today,” Gogol said.

After Sullivan showcased the Beatles, youth idols changed. Previously, performances by entertainers such as Little Richard and Elvis Presley had been mildly suppressed. But TV, then a booming medium, allowed the Beatles to stroll in with their own look, sound, manners and accents into North American living rooms.

Young people developed for the first time an international, confident viewpoint, different from their parents’. So as the 1960s progressed, they turned out in Canada, Britain and Europe in sympathy and support for Americans opposing the Vietnam War.

Michael Real, professor of communication and culture at Royal Roads University, said the Beatles’ arrival signalled a move away from postwar Cold War “suburban staidness.”

“It took us into the cultural revolution of the 1960s with its counterculture, anti-war, drug subculture and the hippies.” Real said.

“And it was symbolized most clearly by the Beatles’ long hair, which by later standards was not very long, but in 1964 it was pretty radical.”

Victoria poet Wendy Morton was living in Carmel, Calif., in 1964 working as a teacher. Morton knew singers including Joan Baez, and ran into Bob Dylan in a coffee shop. But it was not a happy time. Only two days before her 23rd birthday, on Nov. 22, 1963, President John Kennedy was shot, and Morton and millions of others mourned the loss of a leader whose youth and freshness had offered so much.

“So the Beatles came on Ed Sullivan and it was like they were a balm for the whole world,” Morton said.

“It seemed like the whole world was about to be shattered. And they sang things like I Want To Hold Your Hand.

“And we wanted them to hold our hands and make the pain go away.”

That personal outreach in the lyrics, words that sent young women into near hysteria, is one of the effects that also set the Beatles apart from other bands of the time, said music professor Colleen Eccleston.

Eccleston, who teaches a course on the Beatles at the University of Victoria, said the band’s lyrics had an intimacy not often found previously in American pop music.

They often sang in the first person, as in “I” want to hold your hand. They spoke with a sensitivity, singing things like “this boy” who still wants you even if you are with “that boy” who isn’t good enough.

“When you listen to I Want to Hold Your Hand there are all these climaxes and you can hear the notes all rising as the girls pee their pants,” she said.

Eccleston also noted the Beatles had a maturity, confidence, even cockiness, American kids hadn’t seen before. The American media would have loved to trip them up, but they couldn’t.

“Even when you watch them on Ed Sullivan, or the Washington concert right after, there is a kind of wisdom to them,” she said. “American teens didn’t have that.”

Sooke resident Dave Gallant, now 66, said he remembers 1964 as a time of surf music that included groups such as the Ventures.

“Then the Beatles came out and it blew everything away,” Gallant said.

He had first read about the Beatles in magazines such as Life. Then he caught them on Ed Sullivan. Within a year, he was lining up overnight at a movie theatre in his hometown of Montreal to catch the first showing of the movie A Hard Day’s Night. By morning, the queue stretched around the block.

His high school band switched its focus, and by his last year they were playing Beatles songs. They even had a lead singer who could have been John Lennon’s twin, and they were asked to play for the girls at his segregated Catholic high school.

“They opened up the curtains, and there were maybe 150 girls there and they all screamed, like we really were the Beatles,” Gallant said. “At that point it occurred to me, ‘This is what I want to do for a living.’ ”


See Sunday’s Times Colonist for more stories and recollections on the 50th anniversary of the Fab Four’s first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show.

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