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It was 40 years ago today … or, at least, this month

Julie Bender | Tuesday, February 17, 2004

February is the 40th anniversary of the Beatles coming to America. From the moment their Pan-American Flight 101 landed in New York and those four lads from Liverpool set foot on American soil, the world would never again be the same. They had already taken England by storm, leaving the nation in a swirling frenzy of Beatlemania, and now here they were ready to conquer America.

Ed Sullivan, host of the famous Sunday night television staple The Ed Sullivan Show, had witnessed the British Beatlemania first hand while in a London airport with his wife in October of 1963. So impressed with the clamor these “Beatles” made, Sullivan contacted the group’s manager and asked them to appear on his program before the word Beatle had even been uttered in America.

With Sullivan’s promotion and hype, the Beatles began to gain some attention stateside. Capitol Records finally released the “I Want to Hold Your Hand” single in late December 1963, and soon kids were calling into radio stations asking them to play Beatle songs non-stop. The truth be told, the Beatles had already been rejected multiple times by U.S. record companies, and their singles released on smaller labels had all flopped. Thanks to Sullivan, though, all this was now changing.

By the time the Beatles landed on American shores on Feb. 7, 1964, they had the number one song in the country and the number one place in the hearts of teenage girls everywhere. The screaming fans who assembled to greet them when they got off the plane in New York were only a small taste of the mania that was to follow.

Two days later, when the Beatles appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show, 73 million fans tuned in to watch history in the making. The jowly Sullivan, who had been hyping the Beatles for weeks, announced, “Ladies and gentlemen, the Beatles! Let’s bring them on!” Before he could even finish his sentence, the roar of fans in the audience drowned him out. Their screaming, their tears and their uncontrollable passion filled the next eight minutes, shocking both Sullivan and the Beatles, neither of which had imagined the uproar and pandemonium the band was capable of creating. The Beatles tore through three quick numbers, “All My Loving,” “Till There Was You” and “She Loves You” before exiting the stage for the other acts of the night. The audience, however, remained itching for their encore performance of “I Saw Her Standing There” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand.”

No one had ever seen anything like it, including the Beatles. In later interviews, Lennon is reported as saying of Americans, “They’re wild, they’re all wild. They just all seem out of their minds. I’ve never seen anything like it in my life.”

As wild as the fans were, those watching on television got to both see and hear the full show, and to them, the Beatles were the wild ones. Their mop-top hair, their cocky poses, their loud music – it was new and shocking. Young people loved it, old people were startled by it, and everybody had an opinion about it.

Sister Susan Dunn, the rector of Lyons Hall, remembers well the Beatles’ first Ed Sullivan appearance. “I was a junior in high school,” Dunn said. “Their little heads were bopping up and down on the television. It was very bold.”

Notre Dame Classics professor Catherine Schlegel, who was only eight years old at the time of the Beatles’ Ed Sullivan appearance, also remembers the show vividly.

“It was the high point of my young life,” she said. “I was totally blown away by them.” Schlegel also remembers the response her mother had to the scruffy mop tops.

“She said ‘I give them three months – they’ll fade out like the Singing Nun did.”

Lucky for Beatle fans everywhere, Schlegel’s mother was proven wrong.

Almost overnight, the Beatles became a household name, and by April of that year, they had the top five songs in the country. With their quick wit and cheeky humor, the Beatles charmed the American press and soon their hair, their clothes, their speech and their music were a ubiquitous presence in the United States. As the Beatles set out on their two-week tour after their first Ed Sullivan performance, most Americans, like Schlegel’s mother, thought they were just a passing craze. Little did they know that this band would be the major cultural influence for the next decade and would continue to be a relevant force in music even 40 years after their first landing in the U.S.

For the next two years, the Beatles toured in the maddening tornado of Beatlemania, running from hotel to plane to bus in attempts to escape their crazed fans. It wasn’t until their 1966 Candlestick Park performance in San Francisco, Calif., when the Beatles finally decided that touring was no longer a real possibility for them. Their music was becoming too advanced for onstage reproduction, and the constant audience screaming made touring more of a burden than a pleasure.

Solely a studio band from 1966 until their break up in 1970, the Beatles made some of the best music in rock ‘n’ roll. Every album was totally different, with songs only of the highest quality. The Beatles opened the doors to experimental sounds with Revolver. They single-handedly started the psychedelic movement with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club. Their so-called “White Album” was a fantastic collage of four men slowly heading their separate ways.

And, in 1970, they did just that. John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr were officially over as a band, but not before they had changed the course of modern music forever. Their influence was so great that, even 34 years after their break up, they are still winning grammy awards and influencing new musicians at every turn.

Even fans who weren’t there to witness the Beatles on Ed Sullivan still owe a debt of gratitude to those four loveable mop tops. To thank the Beatles personally is, of course, impossible, but at least fans can resort to the old sing-a-long of the Beatles fan club, “We love you Beatles, oh yes we do. We love you Beatles, and we’ll be true. If you’re not near us, we’re blue. Oh Beatles, we love you!”