“It was 50 years ago today…”: The Beatles on Ed Sullivan (Would YOU have known how great they would become?)

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ famous appearance on the Ed Sullivan show. While reading through the numerous newspaper articles about the significance of that appearance, I’m struck by the number of eyewitnesses who are quoted as saying they had no idea of the Beatles’ future greatness. Fair enough, but sometimes there’s an implication that older, more experienced musicians were somehow clueless and “missed the boat.” With this in mind, I decided to look for clues in the Beatles’ early music that would hint at things to come.

The Beatles were actually on the show for 3 consecutive Sundays, in February, 1964, and performed songs like All My Loving, Twist and Shout, and the Broadway show tune Till There Was You. This was 2 months before I was born, but watching it now, I hear a hardworking, charismatic group play nice versions of cover tunes and a few catchy originals. Not as musically polished as American artists like Chuck Berry and The Isley Bros, but with tons of charm, enthusiasm and yes, talent.

Keep in mind that as Bob Dylan recently pointed out, the early 1960’s were actually an extension of the 50’s, and the “flower power” 60’s as we think of them didn’t begin until 1966 or 67. No one watching the Sullivan shows could know either the culture’s or the Beatles’ potential for change, and I frankly think that if the group had continued with their early sound, they may well have been eclipsed within a few years by some new sensation.
What the Beatles lacked in musical training and what I call “ease of playing,” they more than made up with musical curiosity, a disciplined work ethic, and a natural talent that was just beginning to fully bloom.

I thought it would be fun to try to find any musical clues in their early work that would hint at the glory to come. I found some fascinating musical moments. Here are a few of them:

1. “And I Love Her” (George Harrison’s guitar solo)

Listening to George Harrison’s guitar solo on “And I Love Her,” I hear a young musician carefully playing a worked-out solo. At this time, Harrison was only one step above a talented amateur, and nowhere near the guitarist that Chuck Berry was. But Harrison brings something a little different to his solo: he occasionally slides from note-to-note. It’s a little crude, and not particularly bluesy. Instead, it seems like he’s trying to express his feelings in a highly personal way. This is fascinating in light of the fact that in 1965 Harrison fell in love with the music of India and learned to play the sitar, which features this type of note-bending and sliding. When we listen to Harrison’s glorious solo work on such late Beatles songs such as at the ending of “Come Together,” we understand the full implications of these early attempts at self-expression.

Here’s “And I Love Her”

and “Come Together”

2. “Ticket To Ride” (Ending)
“Ticket To Ride” has a few notable portents of things to come, including the song’s exotic, multi-layered rhythmic groove. But it’s the ending that I want to focus on here. Instead of ending the song in a traditional way, the Beatles suddenly launch into a lively, rollicking hoedown. It’s a fun, slightly bizarre ending that would reach new levels of adventure later, at the end of experimental tracks like “Strawberry Fields Forever.”

“Ticket To Ride”

“Strawberry Fields Forever”

3. Their overall harmonic conception

The Beatles began their career by emulating American rock and roll, with an occasional ballad thrown in for contrast. But even when they could barely play their instruments, they were already breaking out of the “3-chord rock and roll” mentality. They worked tirelessly to expand their harmonic palette, for instance insisting to producer George Martin that they include the famous jazz chord at the end of “Twist and Shout.” (Martin thought it sounded old-fashioned and out of place in rock and roll.)

I think there are several reasons for this broad harmonic concept. For one thing, they grew up in England which has a slightly different harmonic sensibility from America. English church hymns, for instance, have a different harmonic sound than their American counterparts, including modal chords and such. I noticed this immediately the first time I attended an English church service. “The Call,” by Ralph Vaughan Williams, is a good example of this. These kinds of chords found their way into even the early Beatles’ songs.

The Beatles also had a remarkably ‘open’ concept of how their music should sound, free from preconceptions. McCartney recalls playing a ‘wrong’ chord while composing a song, but liking the chord so much that he included it, even though it brought the song into a distant tonal region. They embraced their ‘mistakes’ more than most artists do, with sometimes spectacular results.

So in retrospect, yes, there were abundant clues as to what was to come. Would I have recognized them at the time? Probably not. But I had a great time listening to these early Beatles recordings and finding these little traits that were later fully developed into their mature style. Have you found any other examples? Leave them in the comments section below. I’d love to hear about your insights and discoveries!

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