Mystery ’Train Song’ Has Beatles Experts Divided

Bill King takes a look at a mystery track that has surfaced recently …

The buzz in Beatles circles the past week or so has been a rare recording that appears in the film “A Hard Day’s Night” and may or may not have been done by The Beatles.

The music is heard briefly during a scene aboard a train in "A Hard Day's Night."

The music is heard briefly during a scene aboard a train in “A Hard Day’s Night.”

Here’s the story. Legendary collector Dave Morrell, who has a new book out, guested on Chris Carter’s “Breakfast With The Beatles” radio show on KLOS-FM in Los Angeles and played a 30-second stereo version of the “Train Music” that blared from a transistor radio Ringo turns on in a famous scene of the movie where The Beatles are in a train compartment. An older passenger objects to the music and turns it off.

Although the music is only heard in the film for a few seconds, it is part of the longer clip played by Morrell, who said the recording was found in a box labeled “The Beatles.” According to a Beatles Examiner report, it was auctioned in the past on eBay with this description: “The cardboard EMITAPE box is 5 inches in size, & has a piece of green colored Twickenham Film Studios paperwork partially attached to the back of the box, with several other torn off pieces of the old paperwork housed inside the box, this green paper is quite brittle from age, one can make out the words ‘Hard Days Night’ handwritten on the faded document.”

The clip can be heard here.

But is it The Beatles? Those who think it is cite an entry in John C. Winn’s book “Way Beyond Compare” that says: “…the film producer, Walter Shenson, eventually verified the music was actually performed by the Beatles, presumably during the sessions for the soundtrack the week prior to the start of the filming.”

However, Winn subsequently has backed off from thinking it’s The Beatles after hearing the full 30-second track.

“It sounds to me like some band trying to imitate the Beatles’ sound,” Winn told Beatlefan. “Once I heard the full recording in good quality, it was pretty clearly not them.”

It’s notable that so far no one has been able to produce the interview where Shenson supposedly made the statement. Asked where he got that information for his book, Winn told Beatlefan: “I don’t have a citation for that — my source was Doug Sulpy’s ‘Beatles Audio Guide.’ He wrote: ‘According to Producer Walter Shenson, it’s them. Accept that or not, as you will.’ Perhaps he would know the origin of the Shenson claim.”

Beatlefan tried to get an answer out of Sulpy, but so far hasn’t heard back from him. If we do, we’ll provide an update.

Opinion on the track is greatly divided. Is it really The Beatles? Or some generic beat group stuff put down by someone else for the film that allegedly wound up in an EMI box labeled “Beatles” because it was used in a Beatles film? If it was the Fabs, it’s odd there’s no EMI documentation on that session.

Radio host Carter told Beatles Examiner he believes it’s The Beatles. “I think it’s ‘them’ for the following reasons: It sounds like them. The tape box said ‘The Beatles.’ If it was another group, that other group would have claimed it was them sometime in the last 50 years! It was found along with other music not used in the film by George Martin. And lastly I trust the sources [Morrell and fellow collector Ron Furmanek]. The big question is why it’s not noted in the Beatles recording history data. My guess is it might have been recorded during a George Martin Orchestra session. It was just recorded ‘live’ and did not have a track sheet.”

However, besides Winn, a number of other Beatles scholars who have listened to the recording either don’t believe it’s the Fab Four or are unconvinced by the current evidence.

I asked longtime Beatlefan contributing editor Allan Kozinn of the New York Times what his gut told him about the “Train Song” recording. “My gut tells me it’s not The Beatles, but I’m open to the possibility that it is,” he said. “Listening to it, my feeling is that while it doesn’t sound like any of their recordings, it’s easily within the parameters of what they could play — and if they were trying to sound generic, or perhaps, Shadows-like, rather than Beatly, that could easily be the result. The lack of documentation is a persuasive point, but it’s not necessarily dispositive. They could have recorded the track on the film set (where they had their equipment). Unfortunately, the only person who could probably tell us definitively, is Paul. But Paul’s policy these days seems to be to refuse to answer researchers’ questions, and then to tell them where they were wrong (or write a song about it) after they’ve published.”

Richard Buskin, author of a number of Beatles books (including the new “Beatles 101″), believes it definitely is not The Beatles. “It doesn’t sound like them whatsoever,” he said. “George/John playing surf guitar? I really don’t think so!”

However, European Beatles expert Roger Stormo noted that, “Even though it doesn’t quite sound like them, it could still be them. The drums don’t sound like Ringo, but it could be Paul. It could be them trying not to sound like them. If it was anybody else, then someone would have stepped forward to claim the credit for it.”

The latter point seems to be the strongest argument in favor of it, but is that enough to make the leap that those who believe it is The Beatles are making?

Robert Rodriguez, author of the “Beatles FAQ” series, initially thought it was The Beatles. “To me, it was reminiscent of ‘I Saw Her Standing There’ — a driving Chuck Berry-esque rocker, in ‘E.'”

And, he said, “the lack of documentation isn’t necessarily a deal-breaker either. I would like to believe that Paul or Ringo would remember one way or another, but I kinda doubt it. So at this point, until something more substantive surfaces, I wouldn’t take the assertion that it is them as gospel, though I wouldn’t dismiss it either.”

(Beatlefan has sent inquiries to Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr through their press offices but so far hasn’t heard back.)

Longtime Beatles discographer Wally Podrazik said that, on listening to the track online, his gut reaction was: “Why are they saying this is The Beatles?”

Podrazik said he “was trying to fit the piece into the picture of the group from [Mark] Lewisohn’s ‘Tune In.’ It is established that they could fill long hours covering any kind of song, and could probably churn out just such an instrumental riff … BUT in the controlled atmosphere of filming/the tight schedule of putting together the songs for the film (and more) in the studio, why on earth would they bother? The only argument for it is might be the group members wanting to have their music permeate the soundtrack. But since they already had George Martin creating instrumentals throughout, even that doesn’t hold up.

“If somebody came up with documentation I’d say: OK, fine. It’s them, if you say so. But absent that, it does feel generic.”

Speaking from the fan perspective, Beatlefan contributing editor Tom Frangione said: “Having heard the track, I must say it doesn’t ‘sound’ to be them. Even for an off-the-cuff bit, just comparing it to the sound of their playing (say, BBC sessions) at the time, and even the instrumentation (to say nothing of stylistic things — I’m not a drumming expert, but those don’t sound like Ringo rolls and fills). My own vote is nay.”

And what does a longtime musician intimately familiar with The Beatles’ music think? “It doesn’t sound like The Beatles to me,” Beatlefan contributing editor Jeff Slate said. “The recording doesn’t have that Abbey Road/George Martin sound … at least, in this rough sounding version. … They were better musicians, frankly. The drumming is the giveaway, right from the start. … The drums feel rushed, pushing the beat, not at all like Ringo. The intro isn’t like anything else Ringo ever played in my memory, and those fills! They’re more like Pete Best than Ringo (and I don’t mean that in a good way).

“I may be stretching here, but they also sound like a righty. The bass doesn’t lock in with the kick drum or even play around it like Paul did, even in this era, and it’s quite rudimentary. The rhythm guitar has some of John’s trademark style, but John tended to use lots of 7ths in songs in ’64 and this is more punky and straightforward. Finally, George wouldn’t be caught dead playing those solos.”

Sums up Slate: “Basically, this is too rushed and pinky feeling to my ears. But it’s conceivable that they just rolled the tape and cranked it out in one really brief pass, though I’m not convinced. Abbey Road were (and are to this day!) too anal about documentation. Maybe it was done somewhere else like the BBC, but their schedule wouldn’t really seem to allow anything else that wouldn’t be documented unless it was from a very early test session and was a scrap that had survived.”

And, going to the man many consider the ultimate source on all things Beatles, what does Mark Lewisohn say? When contacted by Beatlefan, Lewisohn said he didn’t think it was The Beatles on the tape, but, as with everything else, he awaits further information with interest.

Others think that, barring direct evidence that it’s not The Beatles, there’s no harm in assuming it is.

Furmanek told Beatles Examiner, “Why not? Until someone comes up with the 100 percent positive proof of who it actually is, why not believe?”

But to Buskin that’s “a ridiculous line of ‘reasoning.’ On that basis, why research anything? The bottom line is, aside from the instruments being played, that short recording bears as much resemblance to The Beatles as the George Martin Orchestra’s Muzak. So, until/unless we know otherwise …”

Feel free to share your thoughts on “Train Song” and whether it sounds like The Beatles.

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 24 Comments

‘Guitar With Wings’ — Laurence Juber’s Photographic Memoir

Juber- guitar with wings coverHere is an expanded version of Bill King’s review of Wings guitarist Laurence Juber’s book that appears in Beatlefan #208 …

“Guitar With Wings: A Photographic Memoir” by Laurence Juber with Marshall Terrill. Foreword by Denny Laine. Dalton Watson Fine Books, Deerfield, IL. Published May 2014. 256 pages, signed, numbered limited edition hardcover in a slipcase and CD. $100.

With a degree in music from London University’s Goldsmith’s College and past membership in the National Youth Jazz Orchestra, Ivor Laurence Juber wasn’t your typical rock ’n’ roll session player when, at the suggestion of Denny Laine, Paul McCartney tapped him to be lead guitarist in what turned out to be the final Wings lineup.

“So, Laurence, what are you doing for the next few years?” Macca asked at the end of an informal jam that served as Juber’s audition.

Actually, the revamped Wings’ run — which also saw Steve Holley new to the band on drums — ended up being barely three years, only two of which saw much activity.

Fortunately for us, though, Juber was cognizant of the rare opportunity he was being given — he refers to working with Paul as attending “McCartney University” — and he took his camera along with him as the new Wings rehearsed and recorded in Scotland, finished off the “Back to the Egg” album in picturesque Lympne Castle, toured the U.K. and traveled to Japan (where Paul’s arrest for pot possession ended up ultimately grounding Wings permanently).

And so we have this collection of Juber’s intimate shots of McCartney at work and play with his band and loving family. The young musician obviously thoroughly enjoyed his time with McCartney, and so what we get are fond reminscences and pertinent musical details rather than tell-all gossip about Macca and his missus. No cheap shots at Linda’s role in the band, either. In fact, Juber says, “There was a certain tone to a Wings record and Linda’s vibe and voice were essential ingredients.”

Hardcore fans may not get quite as many session details on the individual tracks as they’d wish, but there still are plenty of worthwhile nuggets from sessions for the “Rupert” demos, “Rockestra,” and “Cold Cuts” tracks as well as the “Egg” album and its videos.

While most readers no doubt are primarily interested in Juber’s time with a former Beatle, Juber and Terrill’s telling of Laurence’s life before and after Wings (with even a bit of family history included) won’t bog you down. And there’s the occasional fun detail, like how “With The Beatles” was the first LP bought by the middle-class Jewish boy who got his first acoustic guitar at age 11. (His first concert, however, was Gerry and the Pacemakers with Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas.)

And even before Juber was invited to join Wings after playing in the house band on a Denny Laine solo TV appearance, there were brushes with Beatledom: playing on a Cleo Laine session produced by George Martin, performing on the soundtrack of the James Bond film “The Spy Who Loved Me” (which featured Ringo’s future wife), encountering Macca in a studio men’s room in the summer of 1977, learning of the death of Elvis from fellow student Mike McCartney at a Transcendental Meditation retreat, and bumping into Denny, Paul and Linda at AIR studios, where they were mixing Linda’s “Oriental Nightfish.” Denny recalls Laurence saying to call him if they “needed some guitar.”

They did just that in early 1978, asking Juber to come jam. Although a Beatles fan, he wasn’t really up on McCartney’s solo work at that point and had to borrow his brother’s Wings LPs to prepare (though they ended up jamming on Chuck Berry tunes and reggae grooves).

While short on group gossip, the Wings portion of the book does include Juber’s appraisals of his fellow band members. Holley, he says, added “an edge and tougher sound to the band” with his drumming. Laine proved a good creative foil for Macca with his “r&b voice, rock guitar prowess and gypsy/folk sensibilities.” And Linda, he writes, was “the spirit” and the glue holding everyone together. “Things just worked better with Linda in the room.”

The final incarnation of Wings first worked on the song “Same Time Next Year” (intended for the movie of the same name but not used). Work on the next album began at Paul’s Scottish farm in June 1978, and Juber provides just enough musical details to keep gearheads happy, noting which guitars and studio gadgets were used on which tracks.

Fun details include Juber recording the 12-string guitar part for “We’re Open Tonight” while sitting in a stairway at Lympne Castle, the band spending “some serious time” on the ultimately unreleased track “Cage” (the title of which came from the notes on the guitar of the riff: C-A-G-E), and one session being spent placing microphones around Paul’s Rolls-Royce to capture the sound of a car horn, only to see McCartney and producer Chris Thomas eventually decide that the part worked much better on a mini-Moog.

Juber says he suggested using a noted trombone player on one section of “Baby’s Request,” but Paul preferred to create a faux “bone tone” on his mini-Moog. Laurence notes with some satisfaction that when Macca re-recorded the tune for his 2012 “Kisses on the Bottom” project, he went with a real trombone solo.

And then there was the chance Laurence got to play bass on “Love Awake.” Naturally, he was nervous since his boss was one of the world’s most celebrated bassists, but, he writes, “Much like his own production mentor, George Martin, Paul has a knack of putting you at ease to bring out the best in a creative situation.”

Juber’s track “Maisie” also was recorded during these sessions, though it didn’t make the album. (It’s on the 10-track “Standard Time” CD that comes with the deluxe edition of this book.)

During the sessions at Abbey Road, Juber recalls, George Martin popped in, followed shortly by George Harrison, with whom Juber bonded over a yoga philosophy book. (Seven years later, Juber would get to work with Harrison on a “Shanghai Surprise” session.)

An interesting aside is that Juber had to turn down a Rick Wakeman session during this time because Paul wanted Wings “to appear as an integrated band, rather than a group with added session players.” It was disappointing, he says, but “I was happy that Paul had such faith in this current Wings lineup.”

paul squeezebox by juberThere are lots of session photos, taken in natural light with fast film and no flash so as not to be intrusive.

Juber also provides many shots of Paul, Linda and the band members interacting with the McCartney children. I was particularly taken with a great shot of Linda tenderly kissing young James and another of Denny with Stella.

Also covered in the book are the making of some of the “Back to the Egg” promo videos, the proposed but never filmed “Band on the Run” movie for which Willy Russell wrote a script, the work on the “Rupert” soundtrack demos, and the Rockestra session in October 1978 with John Paul Jones, John Bonham, Pete Townsend, Kenny Jones, Dave Gilmour, Ronnie Lane, Hank Marvin, Bruce Thomas, Ray Cooper, Gary Brooker, Tony Ashton and Jimmy Page’s amp (Page himself didn’t show).

Juber reveals that the gathered superstars were unaware of the film crew hidden behind false corners in the studio — so it’s not surprising that difficulties getting releases from everyone involved resulted in the film never being released.

Although working with a Beatle, Juber’s life in Britain had not changed all that much, though he bought a home. It was when Juber and Holley were sent to New York to promote the “Back to the Egg” album — and he began being recognized on the street by fans — that Laurence realized “that The Beatles were held in a very different perspective in the States compared with the U.K.”

The story of this last version of Wings culminates with the fall 1979 U.K. tour. Rehearsals were held in a cabin near Macca’s Peasmarsh home: “With a Little Luck” was tried but didn’t work well live; however, they did learn two new numbers: “Wonderful Christmastime” and “Coming Up,” which Paul had recorded on his own.

Juber feels that Wings’ last days as a concert band have been unfairly maligned, not least by Macca himself. Most of the issues that arose on the tour were strictly technical, like a buzz in the P.A. in one city, he says. “I think that caused Paul’s recollection that we were a bit under-rehearsed, which is not borne out by the live recordings.” By the two nights in Glawgow, Juber says, the band was “firing on all cylinders.”

And then there were the Concerts for the People of Kampuchea. I love Juber’s description of how during the Rockestra performance of “Let It Be” it dawned on him that no one was going to step forward and take the guitar solo, so he did it. “That moment is one of my own career highlights and I was sufficiently transported that I was not bothered by a somewhat inebriated Pete Townsend peering over my left shoulder.”

A tour of Japan was to come next, but we all know what happened there — Juber was with Paul when the pot was found in his luggage and had a close call with customs agents who wanted to take a screwdriver to his newly bought 1957 Les Paul Goldtop!

Although Macca’s bust essentially doomed Wings, the band officially continued, with Juber traveling to France in 1980 to record with Paul, Linda and Ringo Starr for the latter’s “Stop and Smell the Roses” album. Notes Laurence: “It was quite magical to watch [Paul and Ringo] interact.”

Wings regrouped that October to begin rehearsing tunes for the “Tug of War” album, on which they would end up not playing, and in January 1981 the band did some polishing work on some of the tracks planned for a “Cold Cuts” compilation that never came out. The last track they worked on was a remix of “Same Time Next Year” — so, ironically, that proved to be both the first and last track Juber worked on with McCartney.

Juber deals honestly with the end of Wings. He believes that the issue from earlier in the year of the competing versions of “Coming Up” (Paul’s solo version was on the “McCartney II” album but U.S. DJs preferred the live Wings B-side version) underscored “the reality that Paul’s artistic direction and that of the band were diverging. … His attention clearly was not on the group.”

So it wasn’t a big surprise when the decision was made that the band would not accompany Paul and Linda to Montserrat for the “Tug of War” sessions. Macca called Juber and said that George Martin didn’t want it to be a Wings album, but rather a Paul McCartney album with session players. But, Juber says, “I think [Paul] was passing the buck onto George.”

And so Wings came to an end, with McCartney choosing to go the solo route from that point on. Eventually, the idea of any sort of Wings reunion became moot with the death of Linda. Juber says Macca told him at the time of the “Wingspan” retrospective that “as much as he couldn’t imagine a Beatles reunion without John, a Wings reunion without Linda could not be a reality.”

Juber’s book chronicling the last years of Wings is a fitting tribute to an underexamined period of McCartney’s career, and Wings fans in particular will find both his pictures and the eloquent text an enjoyable addition to their library. This handsome volume has 475 images, some in color and quite a few running a full page or larger, gorgeously printed on glossy paper. (The shots of Wings on their 1979 U.K. tour were taken by Juber’s brother Graham.)

A regular trade edition of the book also is planned.

William P. King

 

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

50 Years On: The Truth Beneath the Blather

50 beatles small

Beatlefan Executive Editor Al Sussman takes on all those whiners from Beatles fandom making so much noise on social media of late …

Well, it certainly has been an interesting few months in the Beatleworld. There was the run of 50th anniversaries of the historic events that culminated in The Beatles’ breakthrough in America, the release of important new books by Mark Lewisohn and Kevin Howlett, a second official set of Beatles BBC recordings, followed in December by the release of a 50-plus track package of studio outtakes and more Beeb material via iTunes to keep said material in copyright in Europe.

In the new year, there was the release (for the second time, in most cases) of CDs of The Beatles’ U.S. albums and the appearance on the Grammy Awards of Ringo Starr and Paul McCartney (who, during this same period, had racked up another Top 5 album with “New” and five Grammy wins).

The next night, a Grammy-driven CBS-TV special saluting The Beatles was taped, with performances by McCartney and Starr (separately and together), but also a number of contemporary or semi-contemporary acts.

It all climaxed two weeks later with a very exciting weekend-plus for the 50th anniversary of The Beatles’ arrival in America and their historic live debut on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” New York City alone had a series of concerts and events under the umbrella heading Fab50NYC while the Fest For Beatles Fans very successfully returned to NYC even as the marquee on the Ed Sullivan Theatre was made to look as it did 50 years before.

A casual observer would probably think that this might have been the best time to be a Beatles fan since the rollout of the “Anthology” project in November 1995. But that same casual observer would have gotten quite a different impression through a perusal of social media outlets and blogs over those last months of 2013 and early 2014. Indeed, the chief impression would have been of a terminally cranky fandom prone to premature overreaction, minute overanalysis, and a good deal of musical elitism.

The fact that some 8,000 turned out for the NYC Fest and that the Grammy salute attracted such a large (for 2014 network TV) audience that an encore telecast was shown just three nights later was almost beside the point, given the volume of noise coming from at least a portion of Beatles fandom.

What sort of noise? Well, when advance word of the package of 1963 recordings being released in mid-December leaked out, but nothing had happened shortly after midnight on the date of presumed release, there were online cries of a “public relations disaster for Apple,” despite the fact that Apple has never addressed the recordings and the European copyright issue. Some nine hours later, of course, the package went up on U.S. iTunes and was greeted with complaints about the compressed sound on the half-century-old BBC performances.

That was nothing, though, compared with the caterwauling that went on after the announcement of the release of the set of The Beatles’ U.S. albums and a subsequent statement that indicated certain tracks that had been released in the U.S. in reverb-slathered form in 1964-65 would be replaced by the best available sources from the 2009 remasters. Despite the fact that no one had heard as much as a note from even the sampler that preceded the set, one would have thought that the “Mona Lisa” had been defaced.

There were days of social media squalling that the albums with which people grew up (in the U.S., that is) were not being faithfully re-created for this set of reissues. Of course, the complainers conveniently overlooked the fact most of these albums were being made available separately in physical form and all the tracks would be available separately via iTunes and the other digital music platforms, so it was necessary to represent these albums and especially the individual tracks with the best-sounding versions, while still keeping the spirit of the American releases. Besides, these complainers very likely already had CDs of most of the Capitol Beatles albums, with the 1964-65 U.S. mixes via the widely praised 2004 and 2006 “Capitol Albums” sets.

Predictably, when the “U.S. Albums” set was released in January and turned out to be a very listenable commercial product with only a handful of tracks that didn’t conform to the ’60s mixes and superior packaging to the 2004-06 sets, the level of noise coming from social media dropped precipitously. Yes, Doug Sulpy devoted an entire issue of The 910 to a pretty negative dissection of the set, but Jeff Slate’s more evenhanded (and far shorter) take in Beatlefan #206 is closer to reality.

And then there was the reaction to both the Grammy Awards telecast and the CBS-TV salute to The Beatles two weeks later. First, on Grammy night, there was the whining about why Ringo played with McCartney’s band on “Queenie Eye” and not a Beatles song, despite the common knowledge that both would be performing on the Grammy Beatles salute that would be taped the next night.

Then, after the Feb. 9 telecast of the salute special, the elitists came out of the woodwork to complain about the acts who performed on the show, particularly the more contemporary ones like Katy Perry and Pharrell, as if they weren’t worthy of performing Beatles songs. Obviously, these are people who have never seen the abysmal “Beatles nights” on the alleged “talent” shows on network TV. The only way to make Beatles songs boring is to put them in the hands of the mediocrities that emerge from shows like “American Idol,” not proven 21st century hitmakers.

Witnessing all of this blather, the aforementioned casual observer probably wonders how there could be so much excitement over The Beatles 50 years on if their fandom is so relentlessly negative. Well, the truth is that all of those bloviators in Facebookland and the Twitterverse and various and sundry blogs and podcasts make up a very loud but decidedly minor segment of the real Beatles fandom, a 21st century echo of the media naysayers who pooh-poohed The Beatles 50 years ago.

In “Changin’ Times: 101 Days That Shaped a Generation,” I examine how the nearly all-male and middle-aged U.S. media of 1964 rejected The Beatles as nothing but a teen fad that was greatly helped by the alleged emotional fallout among the young from the assassination of President Kennedy, completely ignoring the group’s music or its members.

In the book and in previous pieces I’ve done on The Beatles’ breakthrough in America, I’ve noted that the crucial elements that made them arguably the greatest of all pop culture phenomena was the group’s very new, high-quality music and the unique personalities that emerged from each member.

Fifty years on, those are still the elements most important in the ongoing Beatles phenomenon. No other act — especially one that basically ceased to exist 44 years ago and two members of which are gone from this life — could have produced the kind of palpable excitement that was very much a part of the mid-winter scene in New York in the first week of February 2014.

And a crucial reason for that excitement is the multi-generational appeal of The Beatles. Looking at the audiences at the Fab50NYC events and the attendees at the Fest, one would have seen several generations, ranging from toddlers to white-haired baby boomers, who, as writer/NYC Beatles tour guide Susan Ryan put it in a fan-shot video, “like The Beatles and like their songs.” And those are the people who make up the largest segment of Beatles fandom.

I’ve come to realize this in recent years, in my various roles with the Fest, particularly trivia and “Name That Tune” competitions, participating in chat room discussions with the Beatle Brunch Club, and hearing fan requests and messages to the various weekend Beatles radio shows, on terrestrial and Internet radio.

1 album cover

But the most tangible manifestation of this is the ongoing success of the biggest-selling album of the 21st century’s first decade and the only real competition for Adele’s “21” for this decade’s sales leader, the 27-track collection of Beatles No. 1 singles called “1.”

As I’ve pointed out numerous times before, “1” is an album that, over some 13 ½ years, has been mainly bought by or for young Beatles fans or casual consumers of their music. In that time frame, every time there has been the kind of spurt in sales of Beatles albums that we saw in the weeks immediately after the 50th anniversary hoopla, “1” has been the sales leader. And, by a wide margin, “1” has been the biggest-selling and most commercially successful of ALL of the 44 years’ worth of post-breakup Beatles releases.

Yet, many of the hardcore “fans” who spent so much of this winter whining about the iTunes package or the “U.S. Albums” set or Maroon 5 performing “All My Loving” on the CBS special don’t own “1,” or bought it only as a completist and look down their noses at it as some needless collection that only “nonserious” fans would want.

And that’s how the hardcore begin to sound as cynical as the media of 1964. In obsessing over mixes and in which channel the guitar is placed and whether Take 17 of a given song sounds superior to Take 9, they’ve stopped enjoying the music and are never happy or satisfied with anything.

It’s as if they now live just to criticize this or that aspect of new releases, as if Beatles music is now just something to be analyzed and criticized, rather than really listened to and enjoyed for its considerable musical merits.

They’re all wrapped up in why the mix isn’t “the one I grew up with.” Or McCartney singing “Queenie Eye” in his “old man voice” on the Grammy show. And how dare Katy Perry deign to sing “Yesterday,” and in such a torchy, overly dramatic way, even though female vocalists, in particular, have been singing it that way for five decades! And on and on …

Hopefully, our casual observer will back away from social media land, pick up “1” or the reissued “Meet The Beatles!” or the “On Air” BBC collection and let the still nearly irresistible music of the entertainment phenomenon of two centuries drown out the blather.

— Al Sussman

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 12 Comments

CBS Beatles Special Got the Important Stuff Right

paul ringo salute point

Bill King reviews CBS’ “The Night That Changed America: A Grammy Salute To The Beatles” …

As I’ve written before, I didn’t listen to Top 40 radio much before The Beatles, so when I tuned in to “The Ed Sullivan Show” 50 years ago on Feb. 9, I’d actually never heard a note of the Fab Four’s music until they launched into “All My Loving,” the first song they performed on that historic telecast.

That was also how, half a century later, CBS launched its anniversary special, “The Night That Changed America,” with black & white video of the impossibly young-looking Fab Four segueing into Adam Levine and Maroon 5 doing a faithful rendition of the song.

I wasn’t sure what to expect out of this two-and-a-half-hour special, taped Jan. 27 at the Los Angeles Convention Center, since the Grammy Awards folks behind it had chosen an all-over-the-musical-map approach in lining up talent (an attempt at something for nearly everyone, basically). So there were contemporary pop stars, indie rockers, r&b stars past and present, a grunge legend, classic rockers, a modern blues-rocker, a couple of Nashville performers and, of course, the two surviving Beatles.

What we got turned out to be a pretty entertaining evening of music that thankfully never lost sight of its purpose: paying tribute to the biggest rock act of the past five decades.

The special included more clips of The Beatles performing on the “Sullivan” show, frustratingly brief snippets of interviews with Paul and Ringo Starr (separately and together) conducted at the Ed Sullivan Theatre in New York City by David Letterman, whose CBS “Late Show” originates there, plus interview clips with “Sullivan” show staffers, members of the audience at that 1964 telecast, and one of the other acts from that original show. There was also a rambling, fitfully funny comedic bit with Monty Python’s Eric Idle, who also narrated the well-done biographical segments on the four Beatles.

Most (not quite all) of the musical matches ended up making sense, even if the lineup of celebs introducing various segments — LL Cool J, Kate Beckinsale, Anna Kendrick, Johnny Depp, Jeff Bridges and Sean Penn — seemed pretty random.

joe jeff dhani something

After the telecast opened with the hybrid Beatles/Maroon 5 number, the latter band was given one all to itself and provided a creditable, though unmemorable, rendition of “Ticket to Ride,” sticking pretty much to the original arrangement. Then came Stevie Wonder on “We Can Work It Out”; a sort of Beatles extended family combo consisting of Jeff Lynne (of ELO and Traveling Wilburys fame), Joe Walsh (now Ringo’s brother-in-law) and George Harrison’s son Dhani performing “Something”; folk-popster Ed Sheeran doing a solo “In My Life”; John Mayer and Keith Urban trading vocals and guitar solos on “Don’t Let Me Down”; Katy Perry (wearing what looked like a beach tent) singing “Yesterday”; Imagine Dragons sitting on stools doing “Revolution” on guitars with just a foot-pedal for rhythm; and Foo Fighter Dave Grohl (who referred to The Beatles as “my Mom’s favorite band, my favorite band and now my daughter’s favorite band”) and Lynne teaming up on “Hey Bulldog,” a personal favorite not just because of my University of Georgia leanings.

Next was the frankly overhyped reunion of Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart as the Eurythmics for “The Fool on the Hill,” followed by Alicia Keys and John Legend at facing grand pianos for “Let It Be”; Pharrell Williams (complete with that goofy Vivienne Westwood hat from the Grammys) and Brad Paisley (in his own goofy hat) together on “Here Comes the Sun” (also featuring acrobats from the Cirque du Soleil Beatles musical “LOVE”); and, in the evening’s pre-Beatle high point, Gary Clark Jr. and Walsh on lead guitar and Grohl on drums for “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” (the dual guitar solos toward the end drew cheers from the audience).

Then it was time for a mini set by Ringo, backed by the house band — featuring Kenny Aronoff (drums), Lenny Castro (percussion), Chris Caswell (keyboard), Peter Frampton (guitar), Rami Jaffe (organ), Steve Lukather (guitar), Greg Phillinganes (keyboard), and Don Was (bass), who also served as musical director. Ringo did “Matchbox” (guitar solo by Frampton), a rocking “Boys” (with Ringo on the drum kit and both Lukather and Frampton taking guitar solos) and “Yellow Submarine” (which saw Ringo go out on the stage runway into the crowd).

That was followed by McCartney and his ultra tight touring band doing “Birthday,” “Get Back,” a rousing “I Saw Her Standing There” (Beatle spouses Nancy and Barbara were seen dancing while Yoko did some sort of airplane thing and John Lennon’s son Sean played air guitar). Next was “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” which segued into “With a Little Help From My Friends,” and sure enough Ringo trotted out and took the lead vocal alongside Paul. Starr then took to the drums and Macca to his psychedelic piano for “Hey Jude,” which wound up with all the evening’s performers onstage for the finale.

sing along salute

Both Paul and Ringo paid tribute to the two missing Beatles, Lennon and Harrison, with Starr noting: “We were in a band. It’s called The Beatles. And if we play, John and George are always with us. It’s always John, Paul, George and Ringo.”

Seeing Ringo and Paul together onstage was, of course, a thrill. Neither’s voice was in top-notch shape, but considering their age and the magnitude of the moment, that was sort of beside the point. And even with the frayed vocals, they still were head and shoulders above everyone else on the bill.

Otherwise, I’d say the best performances were Clark, Walsh and Grohl’s sizzling “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” Grohl and Lynne bashing out “Hey Bulldog,” Lynne, Walsh and Dhani doing a fine “Something” (the younger Harrison looking and sounding uncannily like his dad), Keys and Legend’s gospel-tinged “Let It Be,” Sheeran’s simple, acoustic “In My Life” and the guitar workout on Mayer and Urban’s “Don’t Let Me Down.” I was a little disappointed at first the Dragons didn’t do “Revolution” in their normally outsized style, but I enjoyed their acoustic approach and sparkling harmonies nonetheless. Stevie also doesn’t have quite the voice he used to, but his “We Can Work It Out” (which was a hit for him way back when) was funky fun.

However, I’ve never liked Annie Lennox and I didn’t think much of her performance. Katy gave an interesting but only partially successful reading of “Yesterday,” with an unusually low, breathy and emotional delivery. I don’t think the number or arrangement really suited her; she didn’t seem her usual confident, sassy self. And I didn’t think the odd pairing of Paisley and Williams really clicked at all.

I also was a bit disappointed we didn’t get more of Paul, Ringo and Dave at the Sullivan Theatre, but from what my friend Rick Glover was told by a tech at the show, a DVD is probable and likely will have expanded interview segments.

A few notes about what we didn’t see on the CBS telecast: Macca’s first number, “Magical Mystery Tour,” was cut and “Hey Jude” was edited, with Paul’s trademark call and response routine trimmed. Also, after the performance of “With a Little Help,” Ringo said, “Paul McCartney! Or, Sir Paul, as some like to call him … but I never will!” However, those last four words were not heard on the CBS telecast. That wasn’t the only bit of brotherly teasing, though. If you looked carefully during the number, when Ringo sang, “What would you do if I sang out of tune, would you stand up and walk out on me?” Paul mouthed, “I would.”

All in all, it was a largely satisfying TV special that paid suitable tribute to one of the most important nights in pop culture history.

(Special thanks to Rick Glover and Randy Dry! There’s much more on the Beatles tribute show in Beatlefan #206, with on-the-scene reports and photos from the concert. If you’d like to get a copy, a sample issue costs $7 in the U.S. or $10 abroad, U.S. funds only. Credit cards accepted, as is PayPal (payable to goodypress@mindspring.com). Be sure to specify you want Issue #206. Send to P.O. Box 33515, Decatur GA 30033 or email goodypress@gmail.com.)

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Sunday Night That Changed My World

beatles sullivan group shot

This memoir by Bill King originally was published in Beatlefan #87, February 1994. A slightly reworked version of it serves as the foreword in Al Sussman’s new book “Changin’ Times: 101 Days That Shaped a Generation.” …

There was something different about the sketch my buddy Chip passed to me in class one day in early February 1964.

Chip was always drawing, but usually it was outrageous hot rods and grotesque drivers inspired by “Big Daddy” Ed Roth’s Rat Fink models — the rage among the sixth-grade boys at Barrow Elementary in Athens, GA.

This time, however, instead of a hot rod it was a drawing of four musicians with pudding-bowl haircuts — like Moe of the Three Stooges — standing behind individual bandstands a la the Lawrence Welk show.

“Great,” I said noncommittally. “What is it?”

“It’s The Beatles,” he said excitedly.

“What’s that?”

“It’s a great new singing group from England that’s gonna be on ‘Ed Sullivan’ Sunday night. And they’ve got LONG hair! You’ve GOT to see them.” (Chip himself hadn’t seen The Beatles at that point and was using his imagination when it came to the nonexistent bandstands.)

Now a singing group appearing on “The Ed Sullivan Show” wasn’t something I was likely to get too excited about. My family’s one radio was kept tuned to the local middle-of-the-road station, and my only regular exposure to rock ‘n’ roll had been watching “American Bandstand” to laugh at the dopey teenagers and their stupid dances.

And long hair on guys? You’ve got to be kidding, I thought. I had about the longest hair in my class and that simply meant my summer crewcut had grown out enough so that I could comb it. Sounded weird.

But, being half-British, I was intrigued by the fact that they came from England. Besides, Chip seemed excited about this, and he was the guy who’d initiated the class into the Facts of Life the previous spring, so you didn’t dismiss lightly anything Chip was excited about.

There was just one problem. The first part of “The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh” was airing on “Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color” that Sunday night, and the last half-hour of Disney on NBC clashed with the first half-hour of Sullivan on CBS.

Still, as the week progressed and I read about The Beatles being greeted by a mob of 5,000 screaming fans at New York’s newly-renamed Kennedy International Airport, and noticed that even my mother was talking about them, I found myself getting excited — and I still hadn’t heard a Beatles record.

This was completely out of character for me, but so much about the arrival of The Beatles on these shores 30 years ago was out of character for that time and place.

At school, our only previous British fascination had been with notorious party girl Christine Keeler, though we weren’t sure exactly what she’ done other than pose nude, as Chip informed us. British rock ‘n’ rollers never had made it here before. Yet The Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand” soared to No. 1 and was followed onto the charts by their earlier records — by April, they occupied the top five spots on the chart, a feat never equalled.

Until The Beatles, rock ‘n’ roll in general was only a peripheral thing for me and my friends. At age 11, we were basically Disney kids, more interested in the Swamp Fox and Marshal Dillon than the Top 40, though we liked some of the folk music on “Hootenanny”. Up to that point, the biggest pop culture event in our lives had been the birth of Pebbles Flintstone the previous spring. (Chip won additional esteem by becoming the first to be able to draw her.)

Looking back at 1964 — and it boggles the mind to realize that’s now like looking back at the Great Depression when we were kids — we obviously were ripe for some sort of cultural upheaval. Camelot was over and the headlines the day The Beatles landed in America told of LBJ pushing the Civil Rights Bill, Castro cutting off the water to the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, and Jimmy Hoffa, who hadn’t yet found his way to the endzone of Giants Stadium, standing trial for jury-tampering. Still, for us, it was a pretty white-bread world, not much different from the Eisenhower ’50s. (Mattel also introduced G.I. Joe that same day.)

Our frame of reference was limited: Cable hadn’t arrived, so we had only three TV channels (plus the educational station). CBS and NBC only recently had expanded their newscasts from 15 minutes to a half-hour.

Westerns and doctor shows were big (the girls loved “Doctor Kildare”), folks still were singing along with Mitch and Jack Benny remained a Tuesday night fixture. Dr. Richard Kimble had just begun his run from the law on “The Fugitive” and other new programs included “The Patty Duke Show”, “My Favorite Martian”, “Burke’s Law” and, in what passed for avant-garde TV at the time, the Orwellian “takeover” of our sets each week by “The Outer Limits”. On the cover of TV Guide that week were the wholesome lovelies of “Petticoat Junction”, a spinoff of the No. 1-rated hit, “The Beverly Hillbillies”.

Someone once compared The Beatles’ arrival to the moment in “The Wizard of Oz” when the film switches from black-and-white Kansas to colorful Oz. We hadn’t really been exposed to much that was exotic, and The Beatles were certainly that.

So, at 8 p.m. on Feb. 9, 1964, 73.9 million of us, including many parents, tuned into the Sullivan show, making it at the time the most-watched program in history. (Nowadays, it ranks 20th.) At our house, we nearly wore out the channel selector going back and forth between Disney and the Fab Four. It was as if I were caught in a cultural tug of war between my Beaver Cleaver/Opie Taylor childhood and the wide-open new world The Beatles were ushering in.

I don’t need to tell you which side won.

That night, after the Sullivan show, I clipped all the Beatles articles out of the Sunday papers and did something else that was a first for me: started a scrapbook.

“Elvis is Dead,” I wrote in colored pencil on the first page, “Long Live The Beatles!”

Thanks, Chip.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Beatles Saved Him From Being a Nerd

beatles first sullivan color

Marc Catone writes about how the arrival of The Beatles in America 50 years ago had a transformative effect on his young life.

Picture a 13-year-old boy in early 1964. His hair contains a thick layer of the world’s worst greasy kid stuff, shiny metallic braces criss-cross his upper teeth, and to top it off, he carries a briefcase to each of his 8th grade classes. Yes, that’s right … a briefcase. The only thing missing is a pocket protector.

In case you haven’t guessed, that boy was me. I was the most unhip and uncool kid in my junior high school. Although I liked rock ’n’ roll whenever I heard it, I had no idea what singers were popular, the names of their records, and which radio stations played their tunes. My record collection consisted of novelty songs like “The Battle of New Orleans,” “The Monster Mash,” “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini” and one Chubby Checker dance tune.

All of that changed in 1964.

Every Friday night, my parents watched “The Jack Paar Program” on NBC-TV. On Jan. 3rd, I was watching the show when Jack presented a film clip of a rock ’n’ roll group from England. He prefaced the film by rolling his eyes and making jokes about the band. Despite his teasing, what I saw that night changed me. I could not believe my eyes and ears as I watched four guys sing a song called “She Loves You.” They wore their hair like Moe of the Three Stooges, but they sang the most original sounding music I had ever heard in my life. The mostly female audience was screaming, swooning, and crying in response to them. The sound and image evoked pure excitement.

That was my introduction to The Beatles and the mania they created. I was captivated by everything I saw … the guys with strange haircuts, screaming girls, but most of all I was in awe of the music itself. The harmony was sweet, yet discordant. The tune was haunting, yet joyful. “She Loves You” charmed and mesmerized me. After hearing it only once, I remembered the tune exactly.

A week or so later, I was riding in our family car with my father. Dad was about 40 years old and not a fan of rock ’n’ roll. He had the car radio tuned to a local station that usually played songs for adult listeners. However, as we drove past the Old Oak Restaurant on Liberty Street in my hometown of Danbury, CT, the sound of pounding drums and wails of “she loves you … yeah, yeah, yeah” filled the car. Instantly, I recognized it as the song by that British band I saw on TV. Once again, I was transfixed by the sound.

I didn’t realize it, but The Beatles were starting to get a lot of radio airplay in America. Their song “I Want to Hold Your Hand” had been rush-released on Dec. 26. Originally, the record was set to come out on Jan. 13, but due to increased demand, Capitol Records moved up the date. By mid-January 1964, “I Want to Hold Your Hand” was on its way to be the first No. 1 song for The Beatles on this side of the pond. “She Loves You,” the first million-selling record for The Beatles in England, had been released in the USA in mid-September 1963, but never reached the Top 100. When it was re-released in 1964, “She Loves You” soon became the No. 2 song behind “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” eventually rising to the top of the charts in March.

During the last week of January, I overheard kids in my 8th grade homeroom talking about The Beatles. I found out that the group was coming to America the following week. Every conversation was dominated by their imminent arrival. A girl named Aura showed me a teen magazine with a photo of The Beatles in it. Another homeroom buddy told me where all the New York City rock ’n’ roll radio stations were on the dial. Soon, I was listening to Cousin Brucie, Harry Harrison and Murray the K on WABC, WMCA, and WINS respectively. A whole new world opened up for me. Overnight, I went from “L7” to hip. But, best of all, in less than a week, The Beatles were flying from Great Britain to the newly named JFK Airport in New York. They were going to make three consecutive Sunday night appearances on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”

Living in Danbury, only 65 miles from the Big Apple, all of our major media came from Manhattan. During the weekend of Feb. 7-9 in 1964, every newspaper, TV channel and radio station from New York carried nothing but Beatles. The group members were a breath of fresh air and won over the hearts of reporters at their airport press conference with their mocking replies and humor. They didn’t take themselves as seriously as we did. Although The Beatles came from a country across the sea, they could have been aliens from outer space. That’s how foreign they appeared to Americans in 1964 when they conquered New York, a city in a frenzy unlike any other before or since.

By the time they played the first notes of “All My Loving” on the Feb. 9th “The Ed Sullivan Show,” I knew all four Beatles by their individual names, and owned both the “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “She Loves You” singles. Starting in February 1964, my life revolved around The Beatles, their music, concerts and movies. At age 13, I said goodbye to comic books and baseball cards and immersed myself in rock music, Top 40 radio, and the eventual change in my physical appearance. Gone was the grease in my hair and into the garbage went my briefcase.

And now it is 50 years since the arrival of the British Invasion on American shores. It was a very long time ago, but I can still remember that weekend when America fell in love with The Beatles and young people were transformed forever more. So, thank you John, Paul, George and Ringo for your music, being the catalyst for many changes in society, and adding to our collective joy.

But also, Fab Four, thank you for saving me from becoming a total nerd.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

SOMETHING FOR EVERYONE: A Tribute to Ed Sullivan

beatles sullivan points

Here, as the first in a series of posts that we’ll have marking the 50th anniversary of The Beatles’ U.S. debut, is an essay by Bill King on the man who made it possible for 73 million Americans to get to know the Fab Four on Feb. 9, 1964. This piece is reprinted from Beatlefan #62, February 1989. A slightly different version of this article previously appeared in Beatlefan #32.

It sometimes takes you a while to realize when something is over. The excitement of the 1960s was that way, spilling over into the much duller ’70s. On a Sunday night in October 1974, though, the realization that the ’60s era was truly over came with the news report on the radio.

They said Ed Sullivan had died.

Granted, Sullivan was not just a symbol of the ’60s. In 24 years on TV, beginning with the “Toast of the Town” show in 1948, the man they called the “Great Stoneface” became synonymous with Sunday night TV itself. But to those of us who grew up in the ’60s — especially those of us whose lives were changed by the arrival here of The Beatles — Ed Sullivan’s name always will conjure up that decade, and the impact he had on those years.

By the time we who were born in the latter half of the Baby Boom began watching TV, Sullivan already was an institution. The man with the hangdog countenance and wooden gestures couldn’t act or sing or dance or even do a very good job of saying someone else’s name. Said an early rival, Fred Allen: “What does Ed Sullivan do? He points at people. Rub meat on actors and dogs will do the same.” Comedian Alan King, a frequent Sullivan guest, put it more kindly: “Ed does nothing, but he does it better than anyone else on television.”

Sullivanisms were legendary. Like the time he got his afflictions confused and closed a show saying, “Goodnight and help stamp out TV.” Or his coaxing the crowd on a 1965 show: “Let’s hear it for the Lord’s Prayer.” And then there was the time he was chatting with singer Jack Jones during the dress rehearsal and said, “Wasn’t Allan Jones your father?” to which Jones replied, “He still is.” It got a laugh, so Sullivan decided to keep it in for the broadcast. But when the cameras were on and Jones came over to chat, Sullivan’s question came out instead as, “Is your father still alive?”

Despite all that, this wooden, nasal-voiced newspaper columnist somehow managed to make himself the king of variety television.

Variety was the operative word. he stuck in something for everyone and pretty soon he had the whole country watching his Sunday night hour on CBS.

It wasn’t just the variety of acts, however, that made Sullivan’s show so popular or made him such an important figure in TV history. Sullivan’s real talent was in seeing talent in others — especially unknowns — and acting on his instincts.

Fred Allen got it almost right when he jibed: “Ed Sullivan will be a success as long as other people have talent.”

The names of the show business figures launched by Sullivan are too numerous to list completely. But Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, Dick Van Dyke, Paul Anka, the Tijuana Brass and even Elvis Presley (whose Sullivan appearances had more national impact that his earlier TV shots) entered the American viewing audience’s consciousness through their Sullivan exposure. Sullivan also was the first TV variety host to feature black performers prominently.

Because of the pervasive power of TV and Sullivan’s willingness to sign new, up-and-coming performers, he helped mold the pop culture of a nation. And never was that more true than in February 1964, when Sullivan took a chance and headlined four young musicians from Liverpool, England, thus helping to touch off a musical and cultural revolution that was to make the ’60s the chaotic but vital decade we now remember so fondly.

The key to Sullivan’s longstanding success was his innate understanding and democratic presentation of mass culture during the years before our tastes became so narrow and splintered as to render video vaudeville a thing of the past.

Sullivan had his competitors — Steve Allen and Jack Paar among them — but he outlasted them all. Only on the Sullivan show could you find the Bolshoi Ballet, a dancing bear, the latest pop music sensation, show biz evergreens like Bob Hope and Frank Sinatra, poet Carl Sandburg and the stars of Broadway plays — entertainment spanning decades and continents — all in the same 60 minutes.

Watching the Sullivan show was a painless education in pop culture. Teenagers anxiously awaiting The Beatles or The Rolling Stones had to listen first to the likes of Robert Merrill singing one of the great operas or watch a folk dance being performed.

Sure, Sullivan’s show had its clinkers. Rarely will you ever encounter anything as intrinsically bad as George Hamilton — clad in a white Nehru jacket and black turtleneck — frugging his way through a white-bread rendition of “Dock of the Bay”. But at the same time, it was only through the Sullivan show that millions of non-New Yorkers got to see Richard Burton and Julie Andrews performing excerpts from their memorable Broadway performances in “Camelot”. And without Sullivan, how many of us would have gotten to see the brilliant Rudolph Nureyev dancing with Dame Margot Fonteyn? When was the last time you saw ballet on prime-time commercial network TV?

Perhaps it was his newspaper background that made Sullivan view TV as an opportunity to present a little of everything; perhaps it was just a calculated effort to grab the largest audience possible. Whatever the reason, Sullivan’s eclectic style widened the scope of TV variety and the viewing experience of his audience.

Eventually, part of the show’s appeal became Sullivan himself. Not because he ever became a polished performer, but because he did just the opposite, staying the same “stumbling, bumbling, fumbling perpetual amateur” the critics blasted when he first took to the airwaves. People loved watching Ed Sullivan mispronounce a great star’s name (he never did figure out Dionne Warwick).

Said Carl Reiner: “Love is like Ed Sullivan. You can’t explain its hold on you, but after a while, you take it for granted.”

We took him for granted then, but anyone looking back at the ’60s must conclude that TV had a tremendous — probably the greatest — impact on that period, and Ed Sullivan had a tremendous impact on both TV and those who watched it. Without Sullivan, could The Beatles possibly have conquered America so quickly and had such an immediate acceptance in this country? Sullivan knew their potential, based on Britain’s experience. But he was the one with the mass audience in this country — an audience that became The Beatles’ on three successive Sunday nights in February ’64.

Of course, life changes constantly and TV changes with it. Variety shows, including Sullivan’s, began to go down in ratings as the maturing TV generation became jaded and nightly reports of killing halfway around the world and the realistic comedy of “All in the Family” ushered in the New Television. And so Ed Sullivan went off the air in 1971 — dumped unceremoniously by CBS — and Sunday night became just another TV night.

Still, like the ’60s themselves, it didn’t really seem Sullivan was gone at first. He hosted occasional specials, and impressionists continued their stiff-necked mimicry of him. Then, before we’d really had a chance to say thank you properly, came the reports. Ed Sullivan was dead at age 73.

The pillars of the ’60s have long since crumbled one by one. LBJ’s Great Society is now only an almost-forgotten phrase. Revolution is passé and college students worry about getting a good enough job. Former ’60s radicals worry about getting a BMW. Disney is the name of a conglomerate that makes adult-oriented movies. John Lennon is dead. And Sunday night is now the domain of detectives and video wanted posters.

That may be fine for some, but I miss the dancing bear.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments