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The Night the Beatles Invented Fun

The Night The Beatles Invented Fun

Sixty years ago, on February 9, 1964: The Beatles make their legendary American debut on The Ed Sullivan Show. A record-shattering 73 million people tune in to see John, Paul, George, and Ringo for the first time. It’s the biggest audience any musicians have ever faced. But there’s no evidence that any of the Fab Four are the least bit worried they might fail. The U.S.A. gets a look at these cocky kids, hears their radical new electric noise, and—crucially—sees a theater full of girl fans screaming in ecstasy. By the time the lads get ten seconds into their first song—Paul sings “close your eyes and I’ll kiss you”—it’s all over. Millions of people fall in love at the exact same moment.

Sixty years later, The Beatles’ Ed Sullivan debut is the ultimate archetypal pop explosion, even though the vast majority of Fabs fans weren’t alive to watch it. It’s a moment when you can see the whole human concept of “fun” transform in real time. The most fun-obsessed civilization in human history comes face to face with the Beatles, and realizes they’ve been doing it all wrong until now. Everything else on The Ed Sullivan Show—puppets, acrobats, jugglers, magicians—will never cut it again. It’s like a donkey race, and the Beatles showed up in a Maserati. 

But February 9 is more than just the night that Beatlemania finally takes over America. It’s the turning point in the history of fandom. The teenage girl fans are in charge, driving and defining the moment. Nobody can ignore or dismiss them now. The girls are running the show, and everyone knows it, especially the band. So it’s a whole new pop phenomenon. It’s the night the Beatles invented fun as we know it. The world has never been the same. 

John, Paul, George and Ringo kick off the show with three songs: “All My Loving,” “Till There Was You” (from The Music Man), and “She Loves You.” 

They’re bursting with exuberance, with close-up captions to help viewers tell them apart. You can’t help noticing the camera loves Paul slightly more than the others—John is the one who gets his own microphone, but Paul gets most of the close-ups. The theater holds 700 people, but it sounds like a few million girls are packed in there, screaming and crying and pulling their hair. 

Ed Sullivan is absolutely terrified. He’s supposed to be the host here, the authority figure—but he’s visibly scared of these girls, losing control of the room. After the Beatles play, he raises his hands and yells, “Quiet! You promised!” The act who has to follow the Beatles? A magician doing a salt-shaker trick. Oh, this poor miserable bastard. Later in the show, the Beatles play two more songs, “I Saw Her Standing There” and “I Want To Hold Your Hand.” Sullivan comes out to express his gratitude—but not to the boys in the band, or the audience. He thanks the New York Police Department, for their crowd control all week. 

At the end of the night, Sullivan finally forces himself to acknowledge the fangirls in the house. “I want to congratulate you,” he says with a frozen smile. “You’ve been a fine audience. Despite severe provocation.”

Ed Sullivan was the king of American TV for decades, running his Sunday-night variety show until 1971. It’s tough to see now why he had this job—he’s stiff, grumpy, mumbling like he just downed a Klonopin slurpee. But he was the man who decided what America had for entertainment. The band returned to play his show the next two Sunday nights, including a Miami Beach show where they got second-billed to South Pacific hoofer Mitzi Gaynor. 

It’s one thing to watch isolated clips of the Beatles in their three Sullivan gigs, but it’s a real revelation to watch the full episodes, and marvel at the banality surrounding them. Jesus, these shows suck. The first night, they do indeed get followed by a magician, Fred Kaps, who’s fumbling nervously through his act, muttering, “I should have rehearsed this.” It’s the most pitiful flop sweat ever captured on camera. Then it’s the cast of Oliver!, a comic doing movie-star impressions, a Welsh music-hall vet named Tessie O’Shea, plucking her banjo for her theme song, “Two-Ton Tessie from Tennessee.” Not a single amusing moment in sight, just a smug sense of minimum standards being met.

The Beatles really do look like they’ve just crashed in from another planet. Their emotional commitment, brash loudness, wild humor, four-way team spirit, has no connection to anything else happening tonight. John Lennon is intense, severe; George Harrison grins like he just learned how; Paul McCartney radiates confidence; Ringo Starr radiates Ringo. They play and (especially) sing like they’re reading eachothers’ minds. All together now. 

They don’t just make the rest of the show look corny and obsolete—they make it look cynical, phony, like nobody else has their hearts in it. Four working-class Liverpool lads, jumping on their chance to break free from dreary old Europe, finally set loose in the America of their dreams. The home of the music they worship: doo-wop, rockabilly, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Ray Charles, Elvis, Buddy, Smokey, Carole King, Phil Spector, Motown, New Orleans, the Shirelles and Crystals and Ronettes. They’re as desperately hungry for America as America turned out to be for them.

But it’s also an America full of fan hysteria—when you watch the Beatles on TV, you can’t take your eyes off the girls losing their shit. That’s the essence of Beatlemania: the teenage fangirls are in command, making this whole moment happen. Everybody else came along, but the girls got there first. These screamers can no longer be condescended to, as a quirky sideshow to pop music. Suddenly, they ARE pop music. They’re right there on camera, front and center, not just part of it but in charge.

Beatlemania was always about direct communication between these boys and their fans. Paul knew it from the start. “At the time we were 18, 19, whatever,” he told Mark Lewisohn in 1987. “So you’re talking to all girls who are 17. We were quite conscious of that. We wrote for our market. We knew that if we wrote a song called ‘Thank You Girl’ that a lot of the girls who wrote us fan letters would take it as a genuine thank you. So a lot of our songs—‘From Me To You’ is another—were directly addressed to the fans.”

“From Me to You” might be one of the least bearable Beatles hits, but Paul’s right about that title. “So ‘From Me To You,’ ‘Please Please Me,’ ‘She Loves You.’ Personal pronouns. We always used to do that. ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand.’ It was always something personal.” 

The world has never stopped marveling at those early tunes—they sound more intense than ever in the new 2023 Red Album remixes, with Giles Martin doing miracles with the bottom end. But at the time, they spoke loud and clear to those fans. They kicked off the tradition of boy bands paying tribute to the fandom, whether it’s the Backstreet Boys’ “Larger Than Life,” One Direction’s “Girl Almighty,” BTS’ “Moon,” or the Ramones’ “Ramona.” The Beatles never forgot the girls who got there first. However sarcastic and mocking they got about all the nowhere men they met in the music world, they always had the deepest respect for those girls. Even George, the one with the most bitter complaints about living through Beatlemania, wrote the heartfelt tribute “Apple Scruffs.” Across his 1970 triple-vinyl solo epic All Things Must Pass, these girls are the ONLY ones who get a kind word out of George, besides God.

It couldn’t be more different from Elvis on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1956, where Sullivan is the authority figure. He announced, “Elvis will never appear on my show,” until getting his ass kicked in the ratings lowered his moral standards. (Elvis was famously shown from the waist up, but only on his third and final Sullivan gig; the first two had full frontal Elvis.) So the narrative is Elvis appealing to the host, to earn his grudging approval. The 21-year-old country boy is there to impress Mr. Sullivan. The room might be full of howling fans—he slips in a “thank you, ladies,” after “Don’t Be Cruel”—but it’s all about Sullivan finally praising him as “a real decent, fine boy.”

Nothing like that is happening with the Beatles. There’s no pretense that the host likes them, or that they’re seeking his blessing. Tonight is something he couldn’t prevent, so he’s just trying to contain the damage. The girls are the ones who screamed this gig into happening. Sullivan can yell “Quiet!” at them all he wants, but he can’t shut them up. Nobody could.

The Beatles’ U.S. invasion was a two-week full-immersion crash course in the American culture they’d always envied from afar, in all its crudeness and violence and vulgarity. They especially loved Florida. “Miami was incredible,” Paul recalled later, in the book Many Years From Now. “It was the first time we ever saw police motorbike outriders with guns.” The Fabs were also impressed by “all the lovely gorgeous tanned girls.” As Paul admitted, “It should have been ‘Can Buy Me Love,’ actually.”

Miami cop Buddy Dresner was their bodyguard down there, tutoring them on the fine points of American life. “I took ‘em to the first drive-in movie they went to,” he told Rolling Stone in 1984. “Gave them their first grilled-cheese sandwich.” He taught them to fish. “We used to watch TV. We were watching a show called The Outer Limits and I said, ‘If I had one of those guns, I could zap all the criminals.’” Paul asked him about that word. “‘Zap?’ I said. They never heard that word before. I heard they put that word in one of their songs.”

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They did—John sings it on the White Album, the moment in “Bungalow Bill” when “Captain Marvel zapped him right between the eyes.” But there’s an even better “zap” in A Hard Day’s Night, which started filming just a few weeks later. The boys are backstage, getting hair and makeup done for TV. (George asks the stylist, “Hey, you won’t interfere with the basic rugged concept of me personality, will you madam?”) Paul has a Shakespearean moment in the mirror, quoting the soliloquy from Hamlet. “Oh, that this too too solid flesh would melt…ZAP!” The word was a symbol for them of the electric energy of American culture. But they knew they were the ones zapping America.

That’s why Beatlemania resonates now. It’s the ultimate ideal of a scream-worthy fan phenomenon, the one fans and stars keep reliving out. A couple of years ago, Paul McCartney played MetLife Stadium in New Jersey, on the eve of his 80th birthday. But he couldn’t resist telling the crowd, “Give me a great big Beatles scream!” It’s the original “mania,” driving the story from “Love Me Do” to “Now and Then,” ever since the night the fans took over once and for all. Sixty years later, we’re all living in the pop future that these girls screamed into existence.

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