“You went to New York for the first time? So did I.”

I thought I was over talking about the Beatles for awhile, after spending Sunday fully submerged in Ed Sullivan Show anniversary madness, but today I read an oral history of another Beatles event celebrating its 50th anniversary: Their concert at the Washington Coliseum on February 11, 1964. The Washington Post published the story, which culled anecdotes from concertgoers, photographers, hotel managers and a former Beatle to create a delightful read, full of stories and insights I’d never known.

There are so many stories bubbling under the surface of commonplace events, just waiting to boil over. Well, I guess the Beatles playing D.C. wasn’t necessarily “commonplace.” But it’s not one of the major moments that spring to mind when thinking about the Beatles in America – you spend those thoughts on the Ed Sullivan Show and Shea Stadium.

Every story in this oral history is fascinating, but these were my favorites:

John B. Lynn, son of the Washington Coliseum’s owner: “It was such an unusual event and it was a windfall. He [his dad, the owner] took the profit and used it to buy my mother a new Lincoln Continental convertible for her birthday. We came home from school and he said, ‘The Beatles concert bought that for your mother.'”

I can just picture a dad pointing to the awesome new car in the driveway, shrugging and thanking the Beatles for a new car.

Linda Binns Liles, who was nine years old that day and rode the train from New York to Washington in the same car as the Beatles:  “I introduced myself to Ringo Starr and promptly sat down and started talking with him. ‘You went to New York for the first time? So did I.’ We had a normal conversation. I was sure he was interested in my fourth-grade teacher as much as I was interested in what he was doing. Paul McCartney, who had me calling him Uncle Paul, asked me if I was coming to their D.C. concert, and I was like, ‘No, I’ve got to go to school tomorrow.’ I was perfectly serious.”

I love how this captures the newness and thrill of America for the Beatles. “You went to New York for the first time? So did I.” Ringo could not have said anything more perfect. Liles’ story brings the spectacular train scene from A Hard Day’s Night to mind.

I also loved a quote from Paul, still dripping with that Hard Day’s Night cynicism when remarking on the tone of press conferences the band did in the United States: “The press conferences were quite funny. It was always: ‘Hey, Beatles, is that hair real, or is it a wig?’ Well, that’s a very good question, isn’t it? How dumb are you? But we didn’t mind it at all. We expected it. It was a completely different world. It’s not like now where you’ll find all these kids writing for the Internet. It was elderly, balding gentlemen who smoked a lot — grown-ups looking disapprovingly at the children having too much fun. We knew it wasn’t hard to beat that kind of cynicism. It was like a chess game. And the great thing was, being four of us, one of us could always come up with a smart-ass answer.”

America enthralled the Beatles, but they still knew what they were going to get. They were in on the joke, and they played along, giving us so many wonderful stories to remember in the process.

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February 9, 1964

Fifty years ago today, the Beatles played the Ed Sullivan Show for the first time, and music in America changed forever.

black and white beatles ed sullivan

That day seems so magical to me. Part of the reason I love it is because it happened on February 9. What ever happens on February 9? It’s the dead of winter, and in 1964, the country was still reeling from JFK’s death. Some of the sadness was lifted when that British band took the stage on American TV. In his introduction of the band, Ed Sullivan said it best: “…this city never has witnessed the excitement stirred by these youngsters from Liverpool who call themselves The Beatles.”

The Beatles were different, and that gigantic television audience knew it. I think the root of my love for the band is that they were wholly different. They didn’t come along and play better versions of the same kind of music that had been around for years. They played music no one had ever thought was possible. No one had even imagined that kind of music existing. The Beatles created it, and everything was different afterwards.

Looking at February 9, 1964 from my vantage point in 2014, what really fascinates me about the Beatles’ first Ed Sullivan show appearance is that nothing like it could happen today. No one band, person, movie or television show could capture our collective attention anymore. Sixty percent of the American TV audience watched the Beatles’ performance. Today, you wouldn’t get 60 percent of people to tune in for live coverage of an alien invasion.

I was thinking about this earlier in the week after reading a fantastic New York magazine interview with Saturday Night Live producer Lorne Michaels. Discussing the differences between how SNL did comedy in the 70s and how it does comedy now, he noted:

At that point, you had a complete unity generationally—in music, movies, politics, and sports. It’s much more fragmented now, so half the people watching Drake’s show, maybe 60 to 70 percent, didn’t know him. Even news is fragmented now. There used to be much more cohesion—everyone saw the helicopter take the people out of Saigon. I don’t know whether people know what’s going on in Fallujah right now.

We don’t have the same cultural touchstones anymore, but I don’t necessarily bemoan that. We have a wealth of amazing media options. I’ll watch my obscure TV show, you watch yours. Everyone’s happy. But with our fragmented media world, nothing will bring us together in the same way. You have to wonder if a band like the Beatles would break through with the same force in 2014, but it’s hard to put their music in today’s context because today’s music wouldn’t be here without them.

I’m kicking myself for not taking advantage of more NYC-based Beatles events leading up to this 50th anniversary, but I am definitely going to visit the Beatles exhibit at the New York Public Library before it closes in May. The Beatles popped up all over the place on TV this past week, though, including a segment on NBC Nightly News (it doesn’t get more perfect than Brian Williams talking about the Beatles) and David Letterman’s awesome week-long tribute to the band. Letterman’s show, of course, tapes in the Ed Sullivan Theater, where the Beatles actually played on February 9, 1964. When Paul McCartney visited his show in 2009, he talked at length about the Beatles’ first Ed Sullivan appearance:

This week, Letterman had all his music guests play Beatles songs. Lenny Kravitz’s “Get Back” was pretty great:

Fifty years later, the Beatles are still a cultural force, and their first Ed Sullivan appearance is still a television milestone. February 9, 1964 was quite the day.

Weekend Goodness: The Beatles in the USA and SNL’s Wes Anderson horror movie

*Random thoughts from the weekend about the Beatles and television, because why not.

Crazy fun fact I learned this week: The first time a Tamla/Motown song was ever played on British radio, the Beatles were playing it.

This knowledge comes from a Paley Center event I went to Friday evening, a talk with Beatles scholar Mark Lewisohn, who just released the first of a comprehensive three-volume set on the band, titled “Tune In.”

Lewisohn was talking specifically about the American music that influenced the Beatles, and about the band’s 1964 visit to the United States. I had some familiarity with the topic thanks to the Beatles class I took in college, but this added so much depth to my understanding.

Rather than simply rattling off some of the Beatles’ influences, Lewisohn talked about how these American acts specifically influenced the band. It wasn’t just “they listened to Elvis, they listened to Carl Perkins.” He went into why the Beatles were drawn to certain acts, and what particular elements of the early performers’ styles they tried to emulate. One point I found particularly interesting was about the different ways Elvis and Buddy Holly influenced the group. Elvis, they worshipped because of his onstage persona. (“Elvis was absolutely God to the Beatles,” Lewisohn said. “Well, they weren’t yet the Beatles. But he was God.”) They knew right away Elvis wasn’t a very good guitar player, but they wanted to move and perform like him. Buddy Holly, on the other hand, didn’t have Elvis’ moves, but they wanted to play the guitar as well as he did.

Talking about the Beatles’ first visit to the US, he went beyond the Ed Sullivan Show and talked about major differences the Beatles noticed between the United States and Britain, particularly with regards to television. They just could not get over the in-your-face nature of US TV ads – how even the broadcasters themselves delivered commercial messages. Lewisohn said they found that hilarious. Albert Maysles, a documentarian who followed the Beatles during the 1964 trip, joined this portion of the talk, and a clip from his film was shown, of Paul explaining to a group of people the difference in TV advertisements. I didn’t write it down word-for-word, nor can I find the precise clip online, but he did a great newsman impression, something like “The situation in China is very bad, and did you know, you should be drinking…” as he holds up a bottle of something. It was charming, of course.

(Another great Paul moment – because what Paul moment isn’t great – was also from the Maysles documentary, when New York radio host Murray the K had each of the Beatles announce his station call letters, WINS, on the air. They all attached some joke to it, but Paul’s was the best: “W-I-N-S Winston Churchill.”)

Oh, and about the Motown-on-British-radio fun fact…isn’t that nuts? I can’t remember the exact date, but the Beatles’ rendition of “Please Mr. Postman” was the first Tamla/Motown tune to play on British radio.

Completely unrelated, but another wonderful moment of culture from this weekend…

Saturday Night Live‘s spot-on parody of what a Wes Anderson horror movie might look like.

Despite my nagging Royal Tenenbaums obsession, I’m not a Wes Anderson buff. I think I’m just intrigued with the way he carries so many of the same elements through each film…Bill Murray, Futura, made-up book titles…plus, his movies are so nice to look at.

This SNL trailer parody was just perfect. I mean, it captures everything Wes Anderson is known/loved/hated for (although now that I think about it, where’s Bill Murray?) and has the most wonderfully pretentious title: “The Midnight Coterie of Sinister Intruders.”

What I love about this:

  • Alec Baldwin as the Narrator – Alec Baldwin was onstage during Edward Norton’s monologue, but I didn’t connect the dots until my roommate pointed it out during the clip. Duh, Alec Baldwin was narrating a Wes Anderson movie.
  • “Me and Julio Down by the School Yard” as the music, because it’s the soundtrack to my favorite part of The Royal Tenenbaums.
  • Edward Norton’s excellent Eli Cash impression: “Hey hun, I think we’re about to get murdered.”
  • “The New York Times calls it, ‘You had me at Wes Anderson.'”

The rest of the episode was solid, but this was a gem. That is all.