Monday, Mar. 31, 2003

"Yeah, Yeah, Yeah!"

Feb. 9, 1964

They had first set foot in the U.S. only two days before. But their records — and their publicity — had preceded them: the Beatles, Britain's Fab Four, the sensation of Europe. Their single "I Want to Hold Your Hand" had just hit No. 1. That afternoon in Manhattan, hordes of fans — mostly adolescent, mostly female — surged in the street outside CBS's Studio 50, where the lads were rehearsing for their debut on the closest thing that era had to a national entertainment forum: Ed Sullivan's Sunday-night TV variety show. Later, a lucky few hundred of the faithful were seated in the theater. Well, sort of seated. They squirmed and thrashed and leaped up and down. They screamed and squealed and wept and shrieked.

To the reporters who were there, of whom I was one, covering the event for TIME, the noise was what seemed new. Surely these kids were louder, more frenzied, than Frank Sinatra's fans had ever been, or even Elvis Presley's. Sullivan made a pact with them before the show: Keep it down while other acts are on; otherwise you can do what you like. So when the Beatles performed their five songs in two sets, the treble din engulfed the theater. You could hardly hear the music, but what did that matter? The Beatles' sheer presence was the point — their air of wholesome charm and cheeky wit, their instinctive connection with their audience. (It would be another year or two before albums like Revolver and Sgt. Pepper showed that they were a musical phenomenon too.)

Sullivan, standing in front of his false curtain at stage right, peered out warily at the hysteria. You could almost see him thinking, What is this? What's going on? Many of us in the press were equally bemused, as probably were most of the estimated 73 million viewers who tuned in that night.

But Elvis knew. Earlier in the day he had wished the Beatles well in a telegram that couldn't help being symbolic. Elvis spoke as a product of the '50s. After the watershed Sullivan show, '60s pop culture, and all that it portended, both exhilarating and tragic, was in full cry.