The picture above is one of the signature images of the 20th century. It stands toe to toe with such greats as Einstein sticking out his tongue, the American flag on the moon, Marilyn holding down her skirt, and the sailor kissing the girl in Times Square on VJ day. The photo of shaggy British kids in collarless jackets playing (or at least “playing”) for an audience was no more iconic than a shot of Justin Bieber appearing on “The Tonight Show.” What made the picture special was the history the Fab Four would write from that moment on.
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Fifty years ago, the Beatles landed in America to play three nights on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” a popular live variety program at the time. (For a modern audience, it would be as if Conan O’Brien‘s show had the cultural clout of “American Idol.”) Sullivan had given important spotlights to artists such as Elvis and Buddy Holly, and in the years after the Beatles would be instrumental in promoting the careers of most of the pantheon of boomer rock as well as entertainment icons like Bill Cosby and The Muppets. But it’s questionable whether anyone but television historians would remember Sullivan were it not for those winter nights in 1964.
For a generation that can pull up pretty much any filmed musical performance on a whim on YouTube, or even the generation that grew up with an MTV that actually played music, the impact of the Beatles' debut on TV is a little hard to explain. For boomers, this was not only their first chance to watch this band from across the pond that they had heard so much about, but in many cases the first time they would see a rock band perform “live”…ever.
While groups of screaming teens would create a legend and a cultural history, there were plenty of adults who were creating a business that still thrives to this day.
The Fifth Beatle
The person most responsible for the rapturous greeting the Fab Four received when they arrived stateside is almost certainly the band’s original manager, Brian Epstein.
Epstein, who died of a drug overdose in 1967, was often called the “Fifth Beatle” by both John Lennon and Paul McCartney, a much coveted title. Epstein saw the band performing in a small club in Liverpool and spotted a rough gem in need of polishing. He had them trade in their working-class jeans and leather jackets, beer and cigarettes for the clean-cut “shaggy choir boys in matching collarless jackets” style. He encouraged John to watch his weight and downplay his marriage to be more appealing to female fans.If you drive a car I’ll tax the street, if you try to sit I’ll tax your seatIf you get too cold I'll tax the heat, if you take a walk I’ll tax your feetTaxman! (George Harrison)
Most entertainingly, Epstein essentially muscled the Beatles onto the British pop charts by buying up 10,000 copies of the “Love Me Do” single to ensure that it debuted on the top 20 of the pop charts. To true believers, this can seem to diminish the magic of the band, but from a marketing perspective it’s nothing short of a brilliant media blitz.
Epstein negotiated the Sullivan appearance forcefully. Realizing that the exposure was of far more long-term value, he insisted that the band play three nights at a cut-rate price rather than the single-night appearance for premium rate offered by the show.
Epstein also hooked the band up with NYC radio personality Murray the K, ensuring a friendly media presence to greet them and promote them. When the band finally made their appearance on the Sullivan show, 74 million viewers tuned in — nearly 40 percent of the total U.S. population at the time, the largest viewing audience that had ever been recorded for a U.S. television program.
Along with engineering the band’s look, tour schedule and media appearances, Epstein also created what would ultimately be the most profitable arms of the emerging “corporation,” the LenMac publishing company for the rights and Seltaeb, the company he created immediately before leaving for U.S. to handle the ever increasing (and still going) demand for Beatles merchandise.Buy you a diamond ring my friend if it makes you feel alright, Get you anything my friend if it makes you feel alrightI don’t care too much for money for money Can’t Buy Me Love (Lennon/McCartney)
Epstein was far from a flawless businessman. His father, who ran a furniture store in Liverpool, was his chief advisor. And while the elder Epstein clearly had a head for business, he was unprepared to advise on the running of a multi-million dollar enterprise. The band members themselves actually received only 10 percent of the Seltaeb profits, while the publishing deal was so bad that until last summer, McCartney was still paying royalties to perform his own songs live.
Nevertheless, in later interviews, Lennon would state that Epstein’s death, at age 32, was the beginning of the end for the band.
The Genius Producer
If Epstein was the biggest influence on the entity that was the Beatles, the biggest external influence on the music was undoubtedly (now Sir) George Martin (no, not the “Game of Thrones” guy). Already in his late 30s and primarily known for his work on comedy albums, Martin was so impressed with Epstein’s energy in an initial meeting that he agreed to work with the band without ever having met them or seen them play live (another plus in Epstein’s column). Martin would produce every Beatles album except the last one (Let It Be).
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Lennon often disparaged Martin, whom he considered a bit of a square (or less generously, he found the praise heaped on Martin to be distracting from his own artistic adulation). Even the ever-diplomatic McCartney complimented him somewhat backhandedly by saying, "George Martin [was] quite experimental for who he was, a grown-up."
All of this distracts from the undeniable impact of Martin’s work with the band. Though often thought of as a traditional (in fact, archetypical) four-piece, two-guitar act, a quick listen to the band’s oeuvre quickly belies that statement. Think of the strings on “Yesterday” or “Eleanor Rigby,” the harpsichord on “In My Life,” or the organized chaos of sound featured in songs like “I Am The Walrus,” “Strawberry Fields” or “A Day in the Life.” That’s not John, Paul, George or Ringo … That’s George Martin.He’s a real Nowhere Man, sitting in his nowhere landMaking all his nowhere plans for nobodyDoesn’t have a point of view, knows not where he’s going toIsn’t he a bit like you and me? (Lennon/McCartney)
For more esoteric examples, consider the man who told a band of Elvis-obsessed kids to play “Please, Please Me” faster rather than crooning. Or take away the famous names and just imagine a straight-laced, 40-something Brit wrangling four young men on a metric truckload of LSD into recording what many consider to be the greatest album of all time.
But neither Epstein nor Martin can really claim to be the most important person in the development of the Beatles as not just a rock band, but a legend. That title belongs, somewhat oddly, to the least respected member of the Fab Four itself (well, ok…not Ringo) — Sir Paul McCartney.
Regarded as “the Pretty One” in his youth, Paul has taken a bit of a beating in the ensuing decades. Between the acerbic John and the brooding George, Paul could seem like a Golden Retriever stuck between two wolves. His sunny optimism often seemed like a lack of critical thinking and his unabashed love of being a pop star could make him appear shallow and crassly commercial, in contrast with the artistic aspirations of Lennon.
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McCartney’s solo career, largely full of sugary love songs, reinforces the image, as did ill-advised ‘80s duets with Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder. His lengthy legal battle with Yoko Ono over the band’s legacy, while easy to sympathize with and certainly not a positive reflection on her, displays a lack of understanding of the importance of branding (P&G would never release a product as “Gamble and Proctor,” for instance).Eleanor Rigby picks up the rice in the church where a wedding has beenLives in a dream, waits at a window, wearing the face that she keeps in a jar by the doorWho is it for? All the lonely people, where do they all come from? (Lennon/McCartney)
Perhaps no fact is more damning of McCartney in the public imagination than his role in the band’s breakup. The problem is that while the breakup was to a degree the result of McCartney’s actions (and it had been brewing since Epstein’s death), they aren’t the actions that most think they are.
In the “Print the Legend” version of the story, Lennon, bewitched by his new muse, Ms. Ono, found McCartney’s influence stifling, his cheerleading insufferable, and his desire for fame and fortune to be too crass for such an ethereal being as Lennon the hippie icon had become.
But like any good nasty divorce, the real cause was messier than that. Following Epstein’s death, the band members were in need of legal and financial council. McCartney had recently married Linda Eastman, whose father and brother were already publishing lawyers. Paul suggested them as representation.Dear Sir or Madam will you read my book? It took me years to write will you take a look?Based on a novel by a man named Lear And I need a job so I want to be a Paperback Writer.(Lennon McCartney)
John immediately saw this as a coup attempt and insisted that the rest of the band get separate representation. During the sale of the band’s publishing company and the looming collapse of the band’s self-started record label, Apple Records (largely due to the poor deals resulting from Epstein’s inexperience), the two representation teams developed an increasingly acrimonious relationship.
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The remainder of the band began to see Paul as actively trying to steal ownership of the Beatles by making what were, to external eyes, simply good business decisions. The lawsuit to dissolve the legal entity, the Beatles, lasted until 1975, five years after the band of the same name had ceased to exist. And for the record, no matter how many times John threatened, it was Paul who quit first.
Make no mistake, though: While there might have been a band called the Beatles, they would not be The Beatles without McCartney’s influence. He was the band’s backbone both in and out of the studio. Easily the most technically talented musician in the band, McCartney could play anything, and by the later stages of the band he was playing everything.
After the band ceased touring in 1966, the four individual Beatles took a break from each other (the first time they had been physically separated from one another for any length of time in years). Upon returning to record the album that would become “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” Paul came in challenged by the Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds” to create a sonic masterpiece. John arrived annoyed to return to a band he felt was exhausted. It was Paul, like a desperate housewife trying to keep the fire alive, who suggested they put on costumes and pretend to be another band all together. History was made.It was 20 years ago today that Sergeant Pepper taught the band to playThey’ve been going in and out of style, but they’re guaranteed to raise a smileSo may I introduce to you the act you’ve known for all these yearsSergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Lennon/McCartney)
As Lennon became more and more involved in his extra-curricular activities and addictions, it was Paul who burned the midnight oil at the mixing board. Following an argument during the recording session for “The White Album,” Starr briefly quit the band. Paul filled in for him on drums, an arrangement that is rumored to have occurred more times than is credited. John may have been the band’s sarcastic show pony, but it was Paul who was the draft horse.
Looking back on the ensuing 50 years since that night on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” the two surviving Beatles and the estates of the two that have passed are clearly thriving. But when you consider the full picture - the music, the T-shirts, the posters, the toys, the lunchboxes, the biographies and musicologies, the documentaries, the commercials, the video games (“The Beatles: Rock Band” sold over 3 million copies in 2009) - it is abundantly clear that what started that night was not just a cultural revolution, but also a corporate behemoth.
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