“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.

Step on the Gas and Get in the Limousine

Editor’s Note: I haven’t followed the Oregon baseball team closely enough this year to devote a whole post to their playoff success (they won their four-team regional this weekend), but what’s better than your team handing you opportunities to watch live baseball for free? Yay for a Super Regional.

Baseball note aside, this post is really about the Beatles since that’s pretty much all I think about these days. (Though I have devoted a little time in the last week to defending my Honors College thesis, which, after a few revisions are made in the next few days, will pass with honors!)

Since we talked about it in class Thursday, I’ve wanted to write about Abbey Road – specifically, the album’s 16-minute ending medley. Though I’d now consider Sgt. Pepper my favorite album, the Abbey Road medley is probably my favorite “chunk” of Beatles music. (Some people have favorite songs, I have favorite chunks. Reading it back, that sounds pretty gross.) Before I launch into exactly why I love it so much, hear its brilliance for yourself:

“Changed perspective” seems to be the theme of my experience in Beatles class. “You Never Give Me Your Money,” the medley’s opening track, has long been a favorite jam of mine, but more for the EPIC guitar section (2:09-2:28) than anything else. Paul McCartney wrote the song as everything in the Beatles’ world was going to pieces (the “you” refers to Allen Klein, their manager at the time, whom McCartney distrusted). To give you a sense for how depressing the time was, Ian MacDonald, author of Revolution in the Head, says this: “To anyone who loves the Beatles, the bittersweet nostalgia of this music is hard to hear without a tear in the eye.” I’m not crying over this music, but the joyful innocence was gone once I understood its context.

That aside, this song contains one of my favorite Beatles lyrics: “One sweet dream/pick up the bags and get in the limousine/soon we’ll be away from here/step on the gas and wipe that tear away.” I have no idea what these words really meant to Paul, but to me, they’re a symbol of freedom: escaping a dreary situation by getting in a fast car and riding off into the sunset, toward your dream.

I don’t want to ruin the medley by picking apart every song, but I will say I’m partial to Paul’s contributions. “Sun King,” “Mean Mr. Mustard” and “Polythene Pam” (all John’s songs) are alright, but “She Came In Through the Bathroom Window” (Paul) is another favorite, especially because I now know there actually was a girl who came through the bathroom window of Paul’s house and stole a picture of his father.

MacDonald calls “Golden Slumbers” and “Carry That Weight” the “heart of the medley.” I remember the latter tune being a favorite when I was younger, before I understood its place in the medley, and I still love it today for the way it incorporates sections of “You Never Give Me Your Money” while featuring all four Beatles in the chorus vocal.

Writing about “The End” depresses me. Its final line is arguably the Beatles’ most famous, but what I really love is the opener:  “Oh yeah/alright/are you gonna be in my dreams tonight? Paul’s rock n’ roll voice gets me every time.

Of course, “Her Majesty” was tacked on as a hidden track so it’s technically the end of the album, but man – what a way to go out. I almost feel guilty for analyzing the medley as much as I just did. Sometimes, you just have to sit back and listen to that 16 minutes of musical brilliance.

While nothing can really top that, I had to toss in a few other highlights from the past two weeks (and no, this was not a conscious attempt at writing the longest blog post in history):

Highlight 1: We Have a Crush on Paul McCartney c. 1967

My friend Kelly (also in the class) and I have come to terms with the fact that, to meet our biggest celebrity crush, we’d need a time machine. Any out-of-class conversation devolves into gushing about Paul’s status as the handsomest and most important of the Beatles. (Why am I admitting this?) Anyway, we just can’t get over this video of “Hello Goodbye” from 1967 (the Beatles recorded it for the Ed Sullivan Show in lieu of performing live). Watch and see how Paul is obviously the most endearing.

We also think Paul is the highlight here (His meta-reference to “Fixing a Hole”? Adorable!):

Highlight 2: The White Album

I was disappointed we didn’t spend more time on this one in lecture, but in listening to the album on my own, I found two songs I always knew existed but never really listened to: “Martha My Dear” and “Happiness is a Warm Gun.” I now count both among my all-time favorites.

Paul is the only Beatle performing on “Martha My Dear”; since the band members worked separately on much of the White Album material, Paul recorded this in a day with the help of session musicians. No one considers it a standout in the Beatles’ catalog, but I think it’s beautiful (and for whatever reason, I envision it as theme music to a Mary Tyler Moore Show-esque sitcom).

Opposite the simplicity of “Martha My Dear” is “Happiness is a Warm Gun,” a Lennon song. It sounds like three songs in one, and I really love Lennon belting the title lyric in his best ’50s do-op impression (around 1:38).

Highlight 3 – The Rooftop Concert

The Beatles’ rooftop concert is an iconic image for any music fan, but I never understood the circumstances under which it was played. On January 30, 1969, during the Let It Be recording sessions, they decided to play an impromptu concert on the roof of Apple Records’ building, without announcement (or the proper permits). Police shut them down after a few songs, but what a set. This footage of the concert (later included in their Let It Be movie) is awesome, but the true brilliance is in the footage of office workers and cops on the street finally catching on to the madness.

Tuesday is our last lecture and we’ll cover the band’s legacy. If gleefully writing 1,000 words about it is any indication, I’m not ready for that class to end! If you have a favorite moment/song/video from the Beatles’ later years, or would like to divulge your embarrassing Beatle crush details, I am eager to hear.

Tough Act to Follow

Editor’s Note: This is the first of at least a few posts inspired by a class I’m taking on the Beatles. More details below.

Fred Kaps. Frank Gorshin. Tessie O’Shea. Wells and the Four Fays.

What do all of these people have in common?

They had the misfortune of performing on the Ed Sullivan Show on February 9, 1964. Just like these four people:

This term, I’m taking a class called “The Beatles and Their Times,” and it is the greatest class ever (hyperbolic but truthful). I wish it was four hours long instead of two. I read the textbooks for fun. (The books are here and here. Both are great; the former is indispensable if you’re a Beatles die-hard.)

Today, we watched a few clips from that February 1964 episode; the first of the band’s several Ed Sullivan Show appearances through the years. Of course, it’s always a treat to watch them: Observing each Beatle’s unique stage presence, laughing at the insane reactions of female audience members, realizing halfway through the song that you’re sort of singing out loud and your seat neighbors would probably like you to stop.

We also watched Wells and the Four Fays’ indescribably strange acrobatics routine (it started with a woman in a gorilla-esque costume and ended with a guy and girl doing a hybrid boxing-gymnastics bit, if that gives you an idea). As if that wouldn’t have been ridiculous enough on its own, they performed right after the Beatles’ final song of the night; talk about a tough act to follow.

Thinking that would make an entertaining blog post – hey, look at these poor people who had to perform after the Beatles! – I spent more time than I care to admit searching for their routine online (in class, we watched from a DVD set of the full Ed Sullivan Show episodes on which the Beatles performed). With no luck, I realized that was the story: Performing on the Ed Sullivan Show was a big deal, but they leave behind no evidence for today’s average American to consume.

I wonder what went through their heads when they heard the Beatles would play. Were they mad about being thrown from the limelight? Or were they excited by the potential for a larger audience?

What really gets me, though, is how many people watched. Sixty percent of the nation’s television audience! 60! I don’t see 60% of Americans ever watching the same thing at once these days; people even DVR the Super Bowl. As weird as that Wells and the Four Fays routine was, it would have survived in some small way had it been performed today, likely in the form of a mocking Twitter hashtag and a few YouTube clips.

I feel a little sorry for the acts whose performances so paled in comparison to the Beatles that they only survive as footnotes in stories about the Beatles. Mostly, though (here comes the fangirl!), all this thinking about TV ratings and YouTube just has me appreciating the Fab Four even more. We may have more choices as far as entertainment today, but it’s really about the quantity-or-quality debate. It can be fun to watch everyone get their fifteen seconds fame, but it’s a blast to watch people who got fifteen minutes (and then some) while truly deserving it.