It was inevitable, time marching on as it does, and yet it also is hard to believe: Half a century has passed since the Beatles touched down in New York for the first time, on Feb. 7, 1964, and seduced the country with three performances on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and a pair of concerts at the Washington Coliseum and Carnegie Hall.
Everything about them — their pudding basic haircuts, their Cardin suits and pointed boots, their sharp, irreverent sense of humor — seemed outlandish compared with U.S. pop groups of the time. And although their music was firmly rooted in U.S. rhythm and blues, soul and rock, they produced a sound that was fresh, energetic and unmistakably their own.
The hits that resonated through America during that first visit and in the early months of 1964 — “She Loves You,” “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” “Please Please Me” — are not what gave the Beatles their longevity. The musical curiosity that led the group quickly and inexorably toward more complex ground on “Rubber Soul,” “Revolver,” “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and onward, has more to do with it.
The Beatles became a template for generations of bands whose musicians wrote their own music, dressed as they liked and said what they thought about a host of issues, musical, social or otherwise. And although you might revere songs like “Yesterday” or “Strawberry Fields Forever” but merely like “Love Me Do” or “From Me to You,” it’s hard not to have a soft spot for those fresh, seemingly innocent Beatles who hijacked popular culture in 1964. It was that first explosion of Beatlemania that changed the way we thought about pop music and how it was made.
Recent months have already brought several commemorative releases, including “On Air,” a second volume of the Beatles’ BBC recordings and an iTunes-only compilation of unreleased studio and radio tracks, “The Beatles Bootleg Recordings 1963.” There are also several new books, including Mark Lewisohn’s “Tune In,” which is the first installment of his three-part biography “The Beatles: All These Years;” and Kevin Howlett’s “The Beatles: The BBC Archives 1962-1970.” Below is a list of other commemorations that will allow those obsessed with (or even merely fascinated by) the Beatles to knock themselves out.
In a way, all this, too, is a measure of how the Beatles changed the way we think about pop music. In 1964, the idea of generations of music lovers getting together to celebrate a band that became popular 50 years earlier — in 1914 — would have been inconceivable.
The Beatles’ “U.S. Albums” (Capitol/Universal), a 13-disc set, compiles the U.S. versions of the Beatles pre-“Sgt. Pepper” discs and a 1970 catchall that brought together a few tracks that hadn’t made it to the LPs. The albums’ song sequences and artwork — and, in some cases, mixes unavailable elsewhere — are retained, and both mono and stereo versions are included for most of the albums.
“The Smithereens Play the Beatles Washington, D.C. Feb. 11, 1964 Concert” has this New Jersey band recreating the Beatles’ first U.S. concert. (The Beatles concert itself is available on video through iTunes as part of “The Beatles Box Set,” with the group’s compete stereo recordings.)
Chuck Gunderson’s “Some Fun Tonight! — The Backstage Story of How The Beatles Rocked America: The Historic Tours of 1964-1966” (Gunderson Media) is a two-volume look at the Beatles’ U.S. tours, lavishly illustrated with reproductions of tickets, contracts and other documents.
CBS — which carried the Beatles’ first live televised performances in the United States, on “The Ed Sullivan Show”— is commemorating the 50th anniversary of the first Sullivan appearance (Feb. 9) with two extravaganzas:
CBS News will offer “50 Years: The Beatles,” an interactive, multimedia presentation at the Ed Sullivan Theater in New York and on the network’s websites. The show, which is presented by “Motown: The Musical” (the Beatles were fans of Motown groups, whose songs they covered on their early albums), includes a symposium, moderated by Anthony Mason, with Pattie Boyd, George Harrison’s first wife; Andrew Loog Oldham, an early manager of the Rolling Stones (and before that, an assistant to the Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein); Mick Jones, the guitarist for Foreigner; and director Julie Taymor, whose films include “Across the Universe.” The panel will be streamed live on cbsnews.com, and another of the network’s Web pages — cbsnewyork.com/50yearslater — will offer archival television coverage from the Beatles’ 1964 visit to New York (6 p.m. Sunday).
After the symposium, CBS will devote the time slot that was once Sullivan’s — 8 p.m. Pacific — to “The Night That Changed America: A Grammy Salute to the Beatles,” a concert taped in Los Angeles Jan. 27 (the day after the Grammys), in which several generations of musicians perform Beatles hits. The two surviving Beatles, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, who performed at the Grammys, join this tribute as well.
The Experience Music Project Museum in Seattle will mark the anniversary of the Beatles’ arrival in America with special programming this weekend.
You can see Ringo’s collarless suit jacket, watch Beatles performances on EMP’s Sky Church screen, and from 2-5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, play The Beatles Rock Band game. All programs are included with museum admission.