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49 years ago today, one of the most significant cultural events of the 20th century took place: The Beatles debuted on The Ed Sullivan Show. Less than 90 days after the country was horrified by the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the arrival of the Beatles provided a much needed diversion. As quaint as it may seem now, their hair and music was deemed dangerous and controversial and the media ran with it. The event almost singlehandedly broke the nation out of its collective mourning.
The Beatles first live performance on American television was a watershed event; one of those rare moments in popular culture that millions of people experienced simultaneously and had seared into their collective consciousness (according to Wikipedia, 73 million people watched that night — about 45% of all of the TVs in the country. By comparison, last week’s Super Bowl was seen by a paltry 20%). Countless future musicians were minted watching the black and white images that Sunday night. Everyone wanted to be a Beatle. Further, the appearance marked the end of the relatively pastoral 50s and the beginning of the momentous changes of the 60s that would change the country forever. We can debate the effect that had on our culture and the country, but the fact that the Beatles lit the fuse that night is undeniable.
The video above is a restored and remastered version of the complete Sullivan show set. Everyone has seen moments — Sullivan’s introduction with his weirdly Frankenstein-like posture, the screaming girls, the Beatles smiling and their mop tops swaying. But do yourself a favor and watch the entire 13 minute video. What is so striking and perhaps now overlooked is that these guys could play. And they were playing — no Beyoncé style lip-syncing going on here. At this early stage in their careers, they were already a great band, due in no small part to the fact that the Beatles had paid their dues. By 1964, they’d been together for close to 8 years, playing the bars of Liverpool and Hamburg. They had the infectious music and charisma to push through the tiny flickering television screens across the country. And as we now know, almost 50 years later, the talent to make them the best band in history.