Sullivan and the Beatles Changed America — Surprise?!

Written by Steve Pauwels on February 18, 2014

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.

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Steve Pauwels is pastor of Church of the King, Londonderry, NH and host of Striker Radio with Steve Pauwels on the Red State Talk Radio Network. He's also husband to the lovely Maureen and proud father of three fine sons: Mike, Sam and Jake.