Sullivan and the Beatles Changed America — Surprise?!

I confess to being a tad surprised how much I enjoyed CBS’ recent, 2-1/2 hour retrospective: The Night that Changed America/The Beatles: A Grammy Salute. The tribute to the super-group’s February 9, 1964 maiden appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show was broadcast twice last week — and I was among its audience. Having grown up a non-apologetic “Elvis guy” — yes, I admit the whole “Elvis vs. the Beatles” squabble is a silly one — I didn’t really arrive at musical appreciation of the Fab Four until my younger brother became a vocal fan sometime after I left home. The more he exposed me to the stand-out range and quality of their work, the more I had to concede: whatever else you want to conclude about the lads from Liverpool, they knew there way around a hummable tune (or two or three or…).

As with any prolific act, John, Paul, George and Ringo had their share of underwhelming numbers: the vulgar and lazy “Why Don’t We Do It In the Road”, notorious but simply awful “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”, and musically dispensable “Back in the USSR” come to mind. And I deplore their eventual and unfortunate dalliance with the Maharishi and glamorization of illicit drug use — but there’s clearly no denying their explosive American debut constituted a watershed moment for modern music; and for Western pop culture across the board.

Last week’s commemoration underscored, among other things: when covering one of the Beatles’ ubiquitous standards, it’s recommended a performer does what, wisely, most of its guest-artists did — stick with the basic, already-proven melody, respecting the original arrangement and minimizing any cutesy flourishes and gimmickry. Why mess with what has been winning devoted listeners for five decades? 

Once again, I was pleasantly surprised the majority of the stars settled for that approach, capably taking on their respective and well-known Beatles’ compositions. For me, ELO’s Jeff Lynne and the Eagles’ Joe Walsh particularly acquitted themselves well. Katy Perry (!) turned in a thoughtful version of “Yesterday” (and did it without flashing her cleavage!). John Legend and Alicia Keys on “Let it Be”? Also very nice. 

Low point of the evening: Formidably talented though he may be, and though it’s briskly lauded, Stevie Wonder’s “We Can Work It Out” just doesn’t do anything for me. Too much tinkering, for my tastes, with what stands a favorite Fab Four classic just the way it is. 

Watching Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr — the only two of the famous Liverpudlians still with us — skillfully singing and playing their instruments reminds us: contra not a few aged rockers who ineptly and painfully keep cranking out their former hits, senescence doesn’t have to spell the collapse of one’s youthful vigor and talents. The quartet’s beloved drummer, now seventy-three and always the eldest of the bunch,  displayed nothing-short-of-startling physical robustness. Granted, in this era of status-quo hair coloring and uncomplicated cosmetic surgery, I assume Ringo’s had some “work done” — but if so, he got his money’s worth! His voice, such as it is, has held up admirably; and when he wasn’t behind the drum kit, he bopped around the stage like a spirited, albeit slightly awkward, kid. 

McCartney at seventy-one? Similarly, doing okay for an old bloke. His pipes, always in a class by themselves, were undeniably a bit wobblier than those of his more boyish self — but they got the job done, nonetheless. On guitar and piano – he also handles the bass — the multi-faceted Sir Paul laid out more-than-proficient renditions of several Beatle perennials, including “I Saw Her Standing There” and “Hey, Jude”. The raucous energy of his “Sgt. Pepper” turn, frankly, astonished me.

And when both of them moved into the sweetly contagious “With a Little Help From My Friends”? Nothing less than eye-mistingly heartwarming.

Abilities put on display like the Beatles’  additionally bring to mind: every human being is stamped — though certainly refractedly — with the image of God. Since the Creator Himself served as the original template for mankind’s design, all the beauteous best we see in our neighbors — or our iconic superstars — remains a flawed but meaningful reflection of the glory that has existed ontologically in Him from eternity. Sure, the masses misuse, even pervert, the endowments, aptitudes, faculties lent them by the Maker of All Things. That in no way lessens the reality of their source. Every good thing — even those neglected or corrupted — comes from Him (James 1:17).

The Brits who changed America that evening half-a-century back provide no exception. However they ended up developing and investing their creative capabilities, the Beatles ultimately can trace them to a beneficent Heaven. 

And all those tumultuous throngs of shrieking, swooning teenyboppers? Greeting the foursome at every step of their American inaugural? There’s an aspect of that kind of unabated passion that’s head-scratchingly charming — but it shouldn’t be held in reserve only for rock-n-roll phenoms.

People were created to live with fruitful purpose, taking up redemptive causes, bequeathing a life-affirming mark on planet earth. That, obviously, requires focused enthusiasm, a simmering inner-fire. They’ll either tap into divinely ordained assignments or settle for obsessions with – if anything – hobbies, trivialities, self. Or maybe pop supergroups? Or, they’ll misdirect their zeal into fixations of an altogether more blatantly diabolical provenance.

Finally, the Beatles survive as illustration of human history writ small: brightly upbeat beginnings, followed, almost predictably, by a curdled, gloomier draw-down. Video of them circa 1964 shows a troupe of wide-eyed, open-faced, relatively innocent young chaps – mischievous, not mordant, impish, not yet irritable. Within five years, four fellows who’d volunteered they’d been close enough to comfortably keep each other company when cooped up together in hotel rooms, had practically disintegrated into solo acts who happened to be inhabiting the same albums. Consider the devolution of John Lennon: from handsomely puckish but likeable frontman to embittered, shaggy weirdo (eventually the creative force behind the thematically execrable “Imagine”.)

It was really quite sad – and all the consequence of a blight which has stalked the human race for eons: the fallen state of sinful humanity.

So, the Beatles/Ed Sullivan tandem “changed America”? Yes – in ways arguably good and bad.

For the biblically and historically literate, really not much of a surprise there.

Image: Courtesy of:

About the author: Steve Pauwels

Steve Pauwels is pastor of Church of the King, Londonderry, NH and managing editor of

View all articles by Steve Pauwels

  • Marge

    To God alone be the glory. And my the lives He gave us not be wasted. Great encouragement and beautiful reflections.

    • sjplwc

      Thanks, Marge.

  • jubilee

    Thats right!! it has been 50 years.
    I am in my mid fifties and remember how the music was BEFORE the Beatles came. The songs had ‘happier tunes’ IMO, but since they came, the music got HARDER.. along with them being the Evangelists for Eastern Religions.
    Although the earlier Beatles pre 1967 sounded like Buddy Holly, and the Everly Brothers and even did songs like Besame Mucho, and Till There Was You from THE MUSIC MAN, the latter stuff got HARDER, and even I in my younger years listened to oldies.
    NOW the groups that come out SINCE the 70s seems like ‘baphomet’ with the male/female mixtures, PInk Floyd Alice Cooper, KISS with their weirdness, etc.

  • StingRay

    What a bizarre review. Especially the conclusion. I think, Rev. Pauwels, you, like John Lennon later on, took it way too seriously. After all, it’s “only rock n roll!”

    • sjplwc

      There’s very little in life that is “only” anything. LIfe is terribly serious — including life’s music which influences peoples’ feelings, opinions, choices like few other things. Again, musically the Beatles’ were very talented and left us a cache of some great songs. Some of their influence, however, was less than beneficial. I stand by that conclusion.

      • StingRay

        Well said, sir. I guess my perspective is that the Beatles, like anyone else, puts their product out there and if people take it too seriously or read anything into it that causes them to have problems (i.e., like when John Lennon’s murderer became deranged after reading Catcher in the Rye), then it’s their fault and not the fault of the producer. As John himself said: being for a revolution is fine, but when you go to talk about destruction, count me out.

  • Snoopy

    I don’t see where they changed much – We had “Rock n Roll” long before THEY got here. But in their first one week tour in the USA they took a little over $17,000,000 back to England TAX FREE!!

  • Joseph C Moore USN Ret

    As I watched the Sullivan show that night I was perplexed at the fervor over an obviously amaturish group. They did become more polished after some time and a lot of professional musicians help.

    • TheDoctorWhoCuresCancer

      The Beatles were little more than a product launch. The media created a buzz ahead of time and got enough people into a frenzy to see them on the Ed Sullivan Show. The Beatles continued to use that launch model with great success for their entire careers.

  • Toastertreat

    The Beatles gave us everlasting optimism and only ONE sentimental sad song imo, which was Yesterday. Even A Day In The Life was not REALLY sentimental. Anyway, this optimism supercharged generations to follow to realize the power of music, and as the author says, and admittedly lost on many, the glory of God.

    But let me add a few things to what the author said. The Beatles didn’t really glamorize drug use, They simply experienced it, and for a short period expressed those experiences in song. And without exception, the references were cleverly hidden. Mostly it was people hearing what they wanted to hear. Lennon was cynical about the whole Maharishi thing. He hated the whole experience and rejected it outright after Maharishi made a pass at Mia Farrow. Sexy Sadie was Lennon’s indictment of it. It’s all in the new book “All The Songs,” which details the inspiration for, well, all the songs.

    Looking back, five years is such a short span for such a burn out. And even if Yoko Ono hadn’t attached herself like a barnacle to Lennon in the last days, who knows how long they would have lasted. The flame that burns the brightest burns the shortest.

  • sandraleesmith46

    The Beatles certainly DID change America and NOT for the better, as many believe. They helped usher in an unhealthy racket that creates ill health in listeners who spend hours every day bathed in that sound. In the mid-’60s, just about when they turned up here, studies were conducted on the effects of volume on human health; in the mid-’80s the studies shifted to the qualities of sound, in search of why children were presenting with hypertension among other disorders not usually seen until middle age, without the presence of some precursor disease. That racket they produce is anti-homeostatic; homeostasis being that condition of optimal health in humans. BUT it’s also addictive, as much as heroine or cocaine, so when you try to warn people away from it the reaction is predictably IDENTICAL!
    Not long ago, a man killed because of too loud and annoying “music”; as one who has long been very sensitive to that racket myself, I can understand; it can in susceptible individuals, provoke agitation to that degree! In less susceptible individuals, it just damages your body in many ways by raising your adrenalin and cortisol levels and keeping them raised as long as you’re in that environment.

    • jubilee

      again, looking back on it. It’s possible it was WHEN they came out as well as WHAT they did (i don’t know who or what group invented ‘power chords’ which are very LOUD, but i know it was in the late 1960s). In 1967, everything seemed to go ‘crazy’ and the drug culture stemed from that….we as a culture went downhill, after 1968 when no-fault divorce mainstreamed.. ( you had to go to states like NV to get one before) and now, this is 3 generations of fatherless homes, and kids today wont even get married, because of fear. When couples live together, their marriages tend to be shaky and they divorce anyway.
      What we older people need to do, is to try to get some WISDOM into these millenials. Tell them to NOT LIVE TOGETHER under any circumstances–and no sex (i know thats a hard one) so when you do get married, you only have each other and your marriage could go the distance better.

      • sandraleesmith46

        I believe it was the group The Who, which first used those, in the UK, but it was the Beatles who imported them; at least I’d never heard them here until then, for all we did have Elvis and Ricky and a few other notables before that. It was slow at first, but within a few years, NOTHING in the “pop” field came out without that.
        I also recall the 6 week visits to Reno or Vegas to get unhitched, because it took a 6 week “residency” to do so legally. Or you could go to Mexico for the quickie too. I also remember the “ban the prayer” laws and so on, all of which began in the mid-to- late ’60s. That was the SAME time when the APA caved to the ACLU and homosexual lobbies and removed that behavioral disorder from the DSM IV, which was published in the early ’70s. Interesting how it all conflates, isn’t it?

  • CharlieFromMass

    Interesting thoughts. I’m not enough of a Beatles fan to have wanted to watch that. Now, I actually wish I had. Sounds like it was an interesting couple of hours.

    On a side-note, one of my closest friends went to see Sir Paul at Fenway last June, and said it was hands-down one of the best concerts he ever saw. He sounded great and put on a great show, as well. The only thing that compared excitement-wise was a few short months later when the Sox won the series at home for the first time since 1918.

    • sjplwc

      CharlieFromMass, interesting how people’s perceptions vary — I heard someone say not long ago that they had seen Paul live and his that voice was dreadful — that’s why I was surprised at how good it sounded — all things considered — on the Beatles/Sullivan special. BTW, if you poke around on the internet (YouTube?) I bet you can find the broadcast, or at least big chunks of it.

  • ProudGGDOfAConfederateSoldier

    I’ll never forget my Grandpa’s horrified reaction to them that night on Ed Sullivan. I was 6 years old at the time and thought they were great. It took me almost 50 more years to understand and agree with Grandpa’s assessment.

  • TheDoctorWhoCuresCancer

    The Beatles were okay. I sort a liked their early songs, mostly because I didn’t know much better.

    What the Beatles are more than anything else is a dramatic example of what a successful “launch” of a product can do. Every visit and every album was a product launch.

    You see Apple do the same thing. New movies have launches, where they show previews months before the movie is due to come out. It creates a buzz.

    The Beatles did it to perfection time and again. By the time they got here to be on the Ed Sullivan Show, everyone was primed for the greatest happening in TV history even though in reality it was nothing special.

  • coalgateOps

    Those of the liberty school understand that voluntary associations of free people are capable of far more than detached central planners.

  • Hetero Lingo

    As Lenin asked: Who decides what is fair for whom? Who decides how much their relatives and political supporters should have? And on, and on.

  • nvrat

    I remember well the night the Beatles appeared on the Ed Sullivan show. At the time I was not impressed by their music (still not). I guess because I grew-up in the Rock and Roll era of Presley, Beach Boys and Rhythm and Blues. After watching the kids sign on to the European life style and emulating the laziness of the Old World and socialist freebees, I said then that was the beginning of the downfall of America. Looking back at the encroachment and the creation of Hippy`s, Love Children, Socialization of our Schools, Universities, Judicial System and Politicians I don`t believe my estimation was to far off.

  • Organix

    Since liberty offers only the opportunities and risks of developing one’s talents, it puts people under a pressure that is often resented.

  • james warren

    Lennon’s “Imagine” is “thematically execrable”? Its themes are actually quite congruent with much of the data, evidence and facts surrounding the research on the historical figure of Jesus. The song reaches for peace, sharing and bringing God down from his celestial throne to work His way in our secular world.

  • Plow Comms

    Darwin’s theories of evolution were preceded by theories of cultural evolution regarding the relationship of Sanskrit to the Greek language.

  • FC White

    “and no religion too”.

    Like it or not, that’s becoming more true every day. And I’m a proud member of the “non believers” having been brought up in a VERY conservative, fundamentalist home and church.

    And more and more Americans are following the sensible path of non-belief. And The Beatles were a large part of that for me, my siblings, and all human beings.

    John Lennon—one of the few true, “Modern Saints” showed us the way with his masterpiece, “Imagine”; and despite your efforts, you’ll hear it a lot more often than any “Christian” song in the years ahead.

    What you call “thematically execrable”, Mr. Pauwels, I call enlightening and empowering. I am so genuinely and sincerely sorry for you.

    I hope one day you’ll join us and the world will live as one.

  • Matt D.

    Once freedom is confused with power, the ways in which the word “liberty” can be twisted toward centralizing the power that destroys true liberty are virtually unlimited.

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