(saki's writings are always a highlight of rec.music.beatles and we're very pleased to be able to post this here. It was written for the 33rd anniversary of the Beatles' arrival in America and appearance on "The Ed Sullivan Show," but its sentiments are timeless.)
It doesn't take much to change history. Any little twists of fate will do it. The obvious ones are the stuff of schoolbooks. A bullet. A coup d'etat. A liberation. But that's politics...or raw fate. And that's what really matters, so we're taught; all else is secondary.
History's subtlties, on the other hand, surprise us. Culture bends so imperceptibly with this miniscule weight that before we can detect the new direction we are irretrievably altered. The works of kings and presidents are distant; they affect the way we see the world, but not the way we see ourselves.
To experience historical change on our level, it helps if we have an artist to lead the way.
In a sense, the artist---working with words, color, image, sound---sets off a little coup in us all. But it's a delicate process.
A musical revolt, for instance, doesn't burst forth like a rocket. It's made up of discrete steps---some false, some sure.
If it's the right move at the right moment, it takes hold of our consciousness. Before we can protest, its melodies are a part of us, and our whole world of sound begins to change. We hear an echo in ourselves from the composer's notes, and it's as though we vibrate with parallel resonance.
This is the anniversary of one of those revolts.
We didn't resist; Americans were strangely prepared to be swept away. For more than a month before February 7, 1964, the new order was making itself known. Their songs were emblazoned in our airwaves. You heard them every hour. If you couldn't remember the band's odd name, you surely remembered their sound, familiar and yet unutterably unique.
Imageless, they still had a persuasive effect on music listeners. Before we knew (or were shocked by) these odd-looking young men on Sunday-night television, we heard haunting harmonies and an irrepressible beat.
To pop-music fans long fed on the waning melodies of fifties rock giants (the greatest of whom were either dead, in the army, or in jail), this seemed a new repast. It's difficult to describe now just how uncommonly distinct was its flavor.
And in fact, it wasn't. American listeners didn't know it yet, but the Beatles were serving us mainly our own music, blended and spiced with lyrics of their own. But it didn't sound like American rock and roll anymore. Filtered through their own creative mill, these songs pummeled the ear with promise. It's clear we were ready and willing to be conquered on that Friday thirty-three years ago.
Oddly, our conquerors had doubts. They held us in their grasp, and yet they were sure they could not touch us. America had the greats already; it was the birthplace of rock and roll. Why, the young men wondered as they flew across the Atlantic, would America want *them*? What could they offer us that we had not already invented?
Perhaps the Boys were really too innocent. After all, they'd only just swept through the UK during the previous year, and Europe that autumn. Those lucky listeners had almost a full year of watching the Beatles' rise to fame, but the States had been slow to waken to outsiders. Few British artists had ever reached the American top 10.
Maybe that contributed to the Beatles' refreshing disbelief. The airport craziness in New York *must* have been for someone else, they felt. And even after hearing the screams, seeing the manic press attention, they still couldn't believe how many of their own songs were being played on American stations. They phoned home to the BBC to tell British fans the astonishing news.
It was mutual astonishment. We by them, they by us.
And it's hard to understand it now, after so long---yes, the haircuts really seemed bizarre; the matching grey suits otherworldly; the choruses ("Yeah, yeah, yeah") were lampooned *and* lauded, and no one could tell for sure whether it was all a joke or the most profound phenomenon to hit music in a decade.
But it was their appearance on Ed Sullivan that Sunday night that replaced the exotic tang of novelty with the vivid infectiousness of their talent. Live and on-camera, the Beatles conquered their last frontier.
Today we're still reeling (and rocking!) from that revolution.
You can relive it better than ever, these days, now that videos of those momentous events are cleanly and legitimately available. This might be a good weekend for settling down with the visuals--- the Maysles Brothers documentary and their first Ed appearances are nicely packaged together on VHS and laserdisc ("The Beatles First U.S. Visit"). And those of you who watch AMC will note that they plan to commemorate Ed Sullivan Day (Sunday February 9th) by running "A Hard Day's Night", "Help!", as well as the documentary on the making of "AHDN". Somebody there has a sense of history. :-)
You don't even have to apologize to anyone for your musical taste. The Beatles are mainstream now; they're the Old Guard, the status quo, "classic rock" if not stonily anachronistic to fans of more modern musical magma.
But no matter what your age, you can still sense in yourself the electric effects of that moment when their music was new.
Because once, this music was new for you, and you felt its spark, no matter when or how it happened.
That's one of the music's great gifts to us. We all want to change the world. The Beatles really did it. And they changed our world, too, to our great good fortune.
That's my kind of revolution. :-)
Want to comment? Click here.
Get back to the home page