You can pretty much divide the hipness history of New York into two parts: before and after Feb. 9, 1964. That Sunday night, 60 years ago, was when The Ed Sullivan Show presented The Beatles for the first time.
There had been sightings on news and chat shows. But for the 73 million Americans who watched Ed Sullivan’s popular Sunday evening variety show, the biggest TV audience of all time to that point, the appearance of John, Paul, George and Ringo was huge news.
How did The Beatles change us? Conformity among teenagers was hardly in vogue before The Beatles. Sure, Bob Dylan keyed the folk boom in the coffee houses of Greenwich Village. But that was a unique, almost reverse-elitist Bohemian scene, confined to the neighborhood around Bleecker Street.
Things changed after The Beatles were unleashed on the Sullivan show for an hour–during which time, some media reported that not a single hubcap was swiped in the city. Suddenly, young men started growing their hair longer. They started dressing in ways that differentiated themselves from their fathers. Carnaby Street had come to Manhattan!
Rock and roll bands started sprouting all over the city. Dylan “went electric” after he encountered The Beatles in a famous 1964 meeting. The Lovin’ Spoonful and The (Young) Rascals–New York’s own rock bands–started having strings of big radio hits. The pungent smell of marijuana soon became a staple in Washington Square Park and the city’s hippest neighborhoods.
OF COURSE, The Beatles wanted to come to New York on their first visit to the USA. New York WAS America to them. The band and its astute manager, Brian Epstein, recognized that New York was the place to be. The Beatles could have debuted at The Hollywood Palace or some such Los Angeles-based television extravaganza.
That might have made sense, too, since the Liverpool lads would soon be starring in their first motion picture (A Hard Day’s Night, that July). They could’ve gotten their feet wet with the adoring Hollywood press instead of parachuting into the uber-cynical Manhattan media, the belly of the beast.
So, The Beatles were making a sizable wager that the formula that had worked in London – irreverence, quips, long hair and hard-rocking music evoking screams by teenage girls – would also go over big in New York.
You could conclude that this inclination, to bet on themselves, was an early sign of The Beatles’ mastery of both image and substance.
Similarly, Ed Sullivan was no slouch at image manipulation. He had helped introduce Elvis Presley to prime-time viewers a decade before. By snaring The Beatles, he made his reputation forever. To this day, cable channels show Sullivan clips, invariably giving top billing to The Beatles in their appearances through the 1960s.
Long after Feb. 9, 1964, New York had a hold on The Beatles in profound ways.
John Lennon and Yoko Ono loved here in September 1971. They established a residence at the Dakota, on West 72nd Street–and almost single-handedly punched the Upper West Side’s cool card.
When George Harrison decided to host The Concert(s) for Bangladesh on Aug. 1, 1971, he was so famous that he could have picked any city in the world.
Seeking maximum media exposure, George picked Madison Square Garden. To this day, MSG is synonymous with the Bangladesh extravaganza. It’s fair to say that the all-star concert would have achieved much less fame had it occurred in another town.
Say what you will, but when the Rolling Stones held a benefit concert to aid Nicaragua in January 1973, they opted for the Los Angeles Forum, not The World’s Most Famous Arena. (The Stones made a noble gesture but they picked the wrong city!)
John Lennon once dismissed Los Angeles by quipping that LA is where you stop off to get a hamburger. By contrast, New York was a steak!
On their first visit, John, Paul George (who had the flu) and Ringo didn’t get in too much sightseeing. They checked out the then-trendy Peppermint Lounge but pointedly avoided the folk clubs of Greenwich Village. (By comparison, The Rolling Stones headed straight up to The Apollo on their first visit here).
The Beatles made subsequent appearances on Ed Sullivan but never quite equaled the excitement that accompanied that show on Feb. 9, 1964.
But that makes sense. After all, we can only fall in love once for the first time, right?
Jon Friedman is the author of the ebook, Goo Goo Ga Joob: Why I Am the Walrus Is The Beatles’ Greatest Song (Miniver Press), and he teaches a course about The Beatles at Stony Brook University