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The Beatles, Ed Sullivan, and five songs that changed American music forever

The Beatles and Ed Sullivan
(Image credit: CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images )

On February 9, 1964, The Beatles stepped onto the stage at CBS Studio 50 in New York City to open an episode of The Ed Sullivan Show

To an accompaniment of ear-splitting screams, the band made their US TV debut watched by a record-breaking 73 million households – an estimated 40% of the US population. The band opened and closed the hour-long show with five songs: All My Loving, Till There Was You and She Loves You during their first set, and I Saw Her Standing There and I Want to Hold Your Hand during the second.

Newsweek reviewed the performance in less-than-glowing terms. "Visually, they are a nightmare: tight, dandified, Edwardian/Beatnik suits and great pudding bowls of hair," they wrote. "Musically, they are a near-disaster: guitars and drums slamming out a merciless beat that does away with secondary rhythms, harmony, and melody. 

"Their lyrics (punctuated by nutty shouts of “yeah, yeah, yeah!”) are a catastrophe, a preposterous farrago of Valentine-card romantic sentiments. The odds are they will fade away, as most adults confidently predict.”

They didn't fade away. Viewers across American could see what Newsweek couldn't, and were transfixed. A generation of wannabe rock stars was instantly born. 

Alt

Tom Petty: "Most magic is a trick, an illusion. But this was real. Man oh man, was it real. I think the whole world was watching that night. It certainly felt that way - you just knew it, sitting in your living room, that everything around you was changing. It was like going from black-and-white to colour. Really." 

Dee Snider: "I was eight years old when this [I Want To Hold Your Hand] was released, and after hearing it on the radio, and then seeing that legendary Ed Sullivan show performance, that was it, I wanted to be a Beatle. I quickly realised that I couldn’t actually be a Beatle, but I could be a rock star, and that plan never changed."  

Kevin Cronin (REO Speedwagon): "I was a little too young to get what Elvis was all about. He appealed to my babysitters, and not to me. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate just why he’s regarded as iconic, but it never got me going. But one Sunday night at home, watching the family’s black and white TV set, when The Ed Sullivan Show was on, and I saw The Beatles. That changed my attitude. I knew then what I wanted to do with my life. Seeing them made something click in my soul.”

Steve Morse (Deep Purple): “The Beatles’ appearance on Ed Sullivan happened to coincide with my getting a little battery-operated tape recorder for Christmas. I was 10 years old and I was experimenting with the recorder, and so when the Beatles came on the show, I thought, ‘Here’s some music. I’ll record it.’ I listened back to it and realised how much I liked it.

“My friend got the album, which was pretty amazing when you consider that you had to scrape up a few bucks to buy it. Albums were expensive back then, especially for little kids. So my friend was like the kingpin of the neighbourhood because he had Meet the Beatles.

“We would go over his house after school and listen to the record. It was great – the music just floored us.

Gene Simmons (Kiss): "There is no way I’d be doing what I do now if it wasn’t for the Beatles. I was watching The Ed Sullivan Show and I saw them. Those skinny little boys, kind of androgynous, with long hair like girls. It blew me away that these four boys [from] the middle of nowhere could make that music."

Joe Perry (Aerosmith): “Seeing them on TV was akin to a national holiday. Talk about an event. I never saw guys looking so cool. I had already heard some of their songs on the radio, but I wasn’t prepared by how powerful and totally mesmerising they were to watch. It changed me completely.

Steve Lukather: "When the Beatles were on Ed Sullivan, life went from black and white to colour like in 'The Wizard of Oz' - and the irony I'm in the band Toto is not lost on me."

Nancy Wilson (Heart): "The Beatles are the reason I ever picked up a guitar. I was nine years old when I saw them on The Ed Sullivan Show [on February 9, 1964] and it was like being struck by a lightning bolt. Instead of wanting to marry a Beatle, I wanted to be a Beatle." 

Earl Slick: “I was too young to get bit by the Elvis bug, but when The Beatles came on TV it really hit a nerve. Screaming girls, cool clothes, weird haircuts, the whole thing. Within a few months I got my first guitar." 

Walter Trout: "I was 13 and I saw The Beatles on television. I saw them on the Ed Sullivan show. I went into school the next day and nothing was the same. The world changed. I decided that I had to get an electric guitar and try to start playing music with other people." 

Rick Nielsen: "They completely changed music, especially in America. They changed me, too. Until that point I was a drummer. But I became a massive fan; I had the single of Please Please Me a year before anyone else in the States had even heard of the Beatles."

Mike Portnoy: "Most people talk about drumming and how they saw the Beatles on Ed Sullivan and that changed their life and they knew what they wanted to be. I saw the Beatles and I was like ‘ok, that guy John is standing, that guy Paul is standing, that guy George is standing… Aha! That guy Ringo is sitting! That’s what I wanna do! I wanna sit for a living!"

Richie Sambora: "One of my earliest memories was sitting cross-legged on the floor in the living room of the house I grew up in and looking up at the black-and-white TV set and watching the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show. I was 5 years old and I remember thinking, ‘Wow! That’s what I want to do.’" 

Chrissie Hynde (The Petenders): "I remember exactly where I was sitting. It was amazing. It was like the axis shifted."

Bruce Springsteen: "This was different, shifted the lay of the land. Four guys, playing and singing, writing their own material. Rock'n’roll came to my house where there seemed to be no way out, and opened up a whole world of possibilities."

Doug Clifford (Creedence Clearwater Revival): "They were a quartet and we said, wow, we can do that. If these guys from England can come out and play rock‘n’roll, we can do it."

Greg Kihn: "If you were a shy 14-year-old kid who already had a guitar, it was a life-altering event. In a single weekend everything had changed. I'd come home from school the previous Friday looking like Dion. I went back to class on Monday morning with my hair dry and brushed forward. That's how quickly it happened."

Elliott Easton (The Cars): I was 10 years old when The Beatles played the Ed Sullivan Show and I was already playing a little guitar. To have that guy there, standing to the side, looking down at his guitar while he played his licks like that, to my impressionable mind it set in stone the definition of a lead guitar. I knew, right then, that that was what I wanted to do with my life."

Scott Gorham: "The Beatles were the first experience that made me want to get into music. I was maybe twelve years old when Ed Sullivan introduced them during that fabled show, and I couldn’t get my face close enough to the TV. Those guys changed everything."

Kentucky Headhunters: "When The Beatles came over and played Ed Sullivan’s TV show in 1964, that set it in stone… you only work two hours a day and the girls scream and chase you… come on!"

Marky Ramone: "I was only twelve years old when I first saw them on the Ed Sullivan Show. I was playing with my toys, and when I came into the living room they were there on the TV. They were very animated, particularly Ringo, and he was the guy that inspired me to play the drums. He wasn’t technically great, but he was extremely tight, and he got me on the path to becoming a drummer. They were the first band to write their own music, really. I was very impressed by The Beatles."

Stanley Clarke: "I remember The Beatles came on The Ed Sullivan Show and I didn’t like anything my sister liked so I pretended not to like it, even though instinctively I did!"

Steven Van Zandt: “The day before that, there were literally no bands in America. Day after, everybody had a band.”

Online Editor at Louder/Classic Rock magazine since 2014. 36 years in music industry, online for 23. Also bylines for: Metal Hammer, Prog Magazine, The Word Magazine, The Guardian, The New Statesman, Saga, Music365. Former Head of Music at Xfm Radio, A&R at Fiction Records, early blogger, ex-roadie, published author. Once appeared in a Cure video dressed as a cowboy, and thinks any situation can be improved by the introduction of cats. Favourite Serbian trumpeter: Dejan Petrović.