Clips of The Beatles playing on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1964 have become part of American popular culture, to the point that everybody remembers watching that historic first appearance, even if they didn't actually watch it, or weren't even born yet. It's like Jimi at Woodstock, Dylan plugging in at Newport, Dennis Hopper flipping-off the redneck in the pickup -- a seminal moment.
But what everybody remembers is the Fab Four playing "All My Loving," the first song on their first televised appearance on Sullivan's variety show, complete with glimpses of screaming girls. Not until the release of this DVD set could we watch all four of the entire programs on which the Beatles played in 1964 and 1965.
If you want to see why the Beatles took the entertainment world by storm, just watch these shows. These four working-class English boys, barely into their 20s, blow away everybody else on the stage. Every other act seen from the perspective of 40 years in the future seems woefully dated, but the Beatles remain a breath of fresh air.
There are no variety programs on television any more -- at least not in the U.S. There were many that came after Sullivan's: some good, like Johnny Cash's and Carol Burnett's; some bad, like Donny and Marie Osmonds'. Sullivan's was a relic, and was on its way out. The boost given to it by the Beatles helped it survive a few years longer than perhaps it should have. It lasted in part because Sullivan had a long history in the New York entertainment world, and a lot of clout because of that history. But his show was a dinosaur, he a stiff host standing to the side and introducing mostly mediocre acts that are embarrassing by today's standards. It was heavily weighted toward singers and dancers from the musical stage and the nightclub circuit, most either on their way down, or on their way up, but not very far. Aging English music hall star Tessie O'Shea sings a medley of show tunes; Mitzi Gaynor lays on the dumb blonde shtick even as she sings her medley; Cab Calloway sings cheesy Vegas-style renditions of "St. James Infirmary" and "Old Man River"; and Cilla Black, for whom the Beatles wrote a song that was later recorded by Three Dog Night ("It's For You") warbles "September in the Rain" and "Goin' Out of My Head" in her thin voice.
And that's the relatively good stuff. There are also sleazy sleight-of-hand artists and silly acrobatic acts, comedians and impressionists that range from boring to embarrassing, and puppet acts that play to racial and ethnic stereotypes. Comics Allen and Rossi still are entertaining, and the cast of the musical "Oliver!" performing "I'll Do Anything For You" is worth watching if only to see a young Davy Jones, later to be a member of the Monkees, on the same stage as the Beatles. And an impressionist named Frank Gorshin was unwittingly prophetic with his routine on what would happen if -- ha, ha! as if! -- Hollywood stars somehow got elected President and such. Imagine!
And the advertisements... a couple of things are notable about the ads. One, how bad they were; and two, how blessedly few of them there were. When Ed announces a commercial break, more often than not, it lasts a minute, for one product.
Thankfully, with DVDs, you can easily skip to the good parts.
The third show, broadcast on Feb. 23, 1964, was actually taped first, on the afternoon of Feb. 9, before a studio audience of about 720. They sang only three numbers: "Twist and Shout," "Please Please Me" and "I Want to Hold Your Hand." Their energy level was incredible, especially compared with the show they performed live later that night, which is the one everybody remembers now. In that Feb. 9 broadcast, it was almost all Paul's show: he sings lead on "All My Loving," "I Saw Her Standing There" and "Till There Was You," and is the dominant voice in duets with John on "She Loves You" and "I Want to Hold Your Hand." On the Feb. 23 show, it's John in the lead on two of the three, "Twist and Shout" and "Please Please Me."
In between those New York shows, the Beatles had some vacation time in Florida, and taped an appearance there with Sullivan in the Deauville Hotel ballroom. The lighting was much harsher, but the sound was almost infinitely better. The voices blend, the instruments are beneath the vocals but all still very audible, and the crowd noise is less noticeable. The three-part harmonies on "This Boy" are sublime, and John's abilities as a soulful shouter are highlighted. The only other number they didn't play at one of the other two shows is "From Me To You," another John-Paul duet, but their rendition of "All My Loving" is the best of any of the programs. Ringo seems particularly energetic, and keeps the tempo up on all of the numbers on the Florida show. This is driving rock 'n' roll, worthy of its name.
A year and a half later, the Beatles taped a Sullivan show as part of their short 1965 U.S. tour. They performed in August for a show that was aired on Sept. 12, the first of the "season" for Sullivan. The change in these boys is clear. They're more relaxed, looser, and having lots more fun. John, in fact, is a little too loose. Clearly stoned on something, as confirmed by Larry Kane in his book about the 1964 and '65 tours, Ticket to Ride, John garbles the lyrics on nearly every song.
Speaking of the songs, there's much more variety this time. John leads on his soulful rocker, "I Feel Fine," trading guitar licks with George in each verse. Paul does his best Little Richard imitation on "I'm Down," while John channels Jerry Lee Lewis, playing runs with his elbow on a tiny electric piano. And the drummer sings a Buck Owens country song, "Act Naturally," after introducing himself, "...all nervous and out of tune, Ringo!" Paul, mugging mercilessly, contributes spot-on high harmonies.
In the second set, John leads in a duet with Paul on "Ticket to Ride," with George playing the signature jangly riff and Ringo beating out a martial tattoo. Paul takes up the acoustic guitar for a solo turn on "Yesterday," with strings provided by Sullivan's pit orchestra. And John hilariously boots the lyrics on "Help!" while Paul and George, singing the response parts on the other mic, frantically try to get him back on track.
Ed Sullivan knew where his bread was buttered, and he also knew a class act when he saw one. He effuses over these boys, complimenting them on their bearing and behavior as goodwill ambassadors for England. No pelvis-wiggling, just vivid and lively songs, professionally delivered by four young men in sharp suits who bowed in unison after every number.
Within a year, the Beatles would withdraw completely from live performance to concentrate on realizing their vision in the studio, and in the process turn a teenagers' dance music into an art form. These shows catch them at the beginning of their climb to world superstardom, and again as they neared the peak of Beatlemania. It was a short and wild ride, and these gigs are important parts of the story. No fan should be without this set.