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Smyrna/Clayton Sun-Times
  • Tony Sauro: Remembering how the Beatles stormed U.S. sound barriers in 1964

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  • The seemingly endless piles of new books and magazines can help tell more of the tale.
    Improbable as it still seems, four cheeky lads from Liverpool, England, blew away their nation’s post-World War II fog in 1961.
    Their earliest recordings were available - through obscure music labels (Swan, Veejay, MGM) - in the U.S. in 1963.
    Their buoyant charm helped young people sneak in a few small smiles following the Nov. 22, 1963, assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
    However, on Feb. 9, 1964 - a Sunday night, as it is in 2014 - John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr transformed American culture by performing on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”
    Only Elvis Presley, eight years earlier - with his shake-it-up image chopped off above the hips - had made such an indelible, galvanizing impression on a national audience.
    Ultimately, the Beatles changed the world. For the better. The number of recordings they’ve sold can’t be quantified.
    After the gauche and garish 2014 Grammy Awards and the Super Bowl halftime, the Beatles’ 50-year-old U.S. introduction seems like “Sesame Street” (though the devil definitely was a suspect among lots of “adults”).
    Musically, it sounded mostly like shrieking teenage girls - as would the group’s hopelessly under-amplified U.S. concerts. Their songs were transmitted through tinny TV speakers, as they would be from car and transistor radios.
    That wasn’t really the point, though. “She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah” was joyfully absorbed into the teenage lexicon.
    The Beatles - McCartney, now 71; Starr (Richard Starkey), 73; Lennon (1940-80); and George Harrison (1943-2001) - became and remain the world’s most revered and influential collective of writers, singers, musicians and aural artists during the post-WWII age.
    It wasn’t (still isn’t) the style, wit, scandalously long mop-top haircuts, Beatle boots, Ed Sullivan (in 2013, Jay-Z told Bill Maher he’d never heard of him) or the relatively sane sensationalism.
    It’s the music - vast expanses of unparalleled energy, imagination (also hallucination) and invention achieved in merely one decade (1960-70).
    On Jan. 16, Rolling Stones magazine headlined it: “How the Beatles Took America - The Biggest Explosion in Rock & Roll History.” That led to the British invasion, which helped teach young Americans their own musical history.
    Inappropriate military metaphors aside, the Beatles deployed charm, wit, self-taught musicianship, vivid imaginations and northern English moxie to sing back to us - in a Scouse accent emulating black American voices - many of the essential soul, rhythm-and-blues, country and girl-group sounds that radio and sales demographers once had ignored as “race” music.
    The Beatles crafted melodies and tunes with instant appeal. Their three- and four-part Liverpudlian harmonies were transfixing. You couldn’t stop listening. Teenagers had to wait, though.
    Page 2 of 2 - There was no Internet. They had to listen to the radio, just hoping to hear “She Loves You” or “Please Please Me” or “All My Lovin’ “ again. They couldn’t be downloaded in a few nanoseconds. A 45-rpm single cost 98 cents, a teenage fortune in 1964.
    Such limited availability heightened a sense of intimacy and personal attachment to the music. It never has waned.
    It’s the music that matters most. Amid the deluge of pre-”Sullivan Show” anniversary hype, a four-CD boxed set - “The Beatles Live at the BBC: The Collection” (2013) - is the most revealing. It also sounds sharper than the Sullivan tapes (on “The Four Complete Historic Ed Sullivan Show Featuring the Beatles,” a 2003 double-DVD).
    The Beatles’ full artistic, witty and charming personalities are revealed in these 134 songs, sound snippets, bits of “nutters” dialogue, interviews, general joy and playfulness.
    Their roots in American music are revealed on dozens of cover tunes, from which they learned how to play, sing and write. They honed them - and their skills - by playing day and night at Liverpool’s Cavern Club and Hamburg, Germany’s, Star Club, among others.
    Many songs they wrote and recorded - with the guidance and support of George Martin, now 88, the erudite Abbey Road studio producer - were performed live on BBC radio from 1962 to 1965.
    By 1964, they knew what they were doing, though Capitol Records twice refused them a U.S. recording contract.
    That’s why they sounded so polished and seemed so poised and slightly cocky during their debut on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” That’s the hour when Americans religiously gathered in front of their mostly black-and-white TVs on Sunday nights.
    The Beatles shared Ed with Fred Kaps, doing a “card-and-salt-shaker trick”; Georgia Brown and the cast of “Oliver”; Frank Gorshin, a comedian-impressionist; U.S. Olympic speed skater Terry McDermott; Tessie O’Shea, singing show tunes; comedians McCall & Bill doing an “office sketch”; and Wells & the Four Fays, providing a little “acrobatic physical comedy.”
    The Beatles opened with “All My Loving,” “ ‘Til There Was You” (from “The Music Man”); and “She Loves You,” then preceded the comedic acrobats with “I Saw Her Standing There” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand.”
    By that summer, the Beatles had re-taken America - well, at least Billboard magazine’s top 10 - for the British after playing nine more songs on Sullivan’s Feb. 16 and 23 shows.
    Nothing like it had happened before. Or will again.
    It’s speculated that the BBC has more vintage Beatles tracks stored in its vaults. So, they still could be making the world a slightly happier place when they’re 84.
    Contact Tony Sauro at (209) 546-8267 or tsauro@recordnet.com. Follow him on Twitter at @tsaurorecord.
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