Good luck, hearing the tectonic plates move before the earthquake hits. That’s as true for culture as seismology. Just ask the other acts who appeared on “The Ed Sullivan Show” on Feb. 9, 1964. Here they were thinking they were up to the minute and state of the art, showbiz-wise, and then this . . . eruption happens at the start and the end of the show.
Now what, exactly, is a “Ringo”?
Looking back at 1964, you can see that the Beatles were not alone in representing a revolution in art and entertainment and that the tectonic plates had been moving, all right. You can also see how solid and settled the landscape appeared. “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Funny Girl,” and “Hello, Dolly!” all opened on Broadway. On television, “The Beverly Hillbillies” and “Bonanza” were the top-rated programs. Dinosaurs trod the boards and clogged the channels.
The Sullivan show, rated No. 8 for the 1963-64 television season, was a dinosaur indeed. The popularity of its format was proof that vaudeville hadn’t really died — and in 1964 vaudeville did a lot more to define the world of entertainment than rock ’n’ roll did.
Yes, Elvis had famously appeared on the Sullivan show, and Sullivan introduced the Beatles that night by reading a congratulatory telegram from Elvis and his manager. But Elvis was enmired in Hollywood by then — “Viva Las Vegas” would come out in May — and he had as much in common with the other acts as he did with the Beatles.
The rest of the show was a classic vaudeville bill, minus a dog act — just the sort of lineup audiences expected from the Sullivan show. Featured that night were impressionist Frank Gorshin (later to be the Riddler on the TV “Batman”), an acrobatic team (Wells & the Four Fays), a comedy act (McCall & Brill), and a number from the Broadway musical “Oliver!” This was the ghost of showbiz past happily haunting showbiz present — not just haunting, dominating — until all that screaming started and those “yeah, yeah, yeahs.”
The Beatles weren’t alone in causing an earthquake in 1964. Believe it or not, “Oliver!” — or its Englishness, at least — was part of that, too. A year that began with the Beatles arriving in America also saw Andy Warhol open The Factory and exhibit his “Brillo Boxes.” Clint Eastwood made his debut as the Man With No Name in “A Fistful of Dollars.” How come nobody’s celebrating that 50th anniversary? “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb” did something even stranger than its title: It made nuclear Armageddon into comic material.
The excitement in pop music generated by other British Invasion bands and Motown had its counterpart in jazz and classical music. Miles Davis formed his second classic quintet, with tenor saxophonist Wayne Shorter, pianist Herbie Hancock, bassist Ron Carter, and drummer Tony Williams. John Coltrane released “A Love Supreme.” Terry Riley composed “In C.”
The Beatles were Englishmen reimagining American music. Their name was a double homage, to Buddy Holly’s Crickets and the beat-driven music they loved from Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and Elvis. And while the Beatles did more than any other band or singer, even Bob Dylan, to usher in the idea of the singer-songwriter, they happily performed cover versions of American songs. “The Beatles’ Second Album,” released in April, included Berry’s “Roll Over Beethoven,” Smokey Robinson and the Miracles’ “You Really Got a Hold on Me,” Little Richard’s “Long Tall Sally,” and even the Marvelettes’ “Please Mr. Postman.”
But the cultural relationship worked both ways. The Beatles and the other British Invasion bands from that year, like the Kinks and the Animals and the Dave Clark Five, weren’t the first British artists drawing American audiences. The hit BBC weekly satirical series “That Was the Week That Was” immigrated to the States, starting an 18-month run on NBC in January. For better or worse, it was “TW3” that introduced David Frost to American television viewers. Another 1964 cultural arrival from England, unheralded but far more enduring, was the painter David Hockney. He moved from London to Los Angeles, and California art would never be quite the same.
Before there was Beatlemania, there was Bondmania. The first James Bond film, “Dr. No,” had been released in 1962. The next two Bonds, “From Russia With Love” and “Goldfinger,” were among the five top-grossing films in the United States in 1964. Cool, sexy, amused, and amusing: Bond, not Murray the K, should have been the fifth Beatle.
If Bond helped prepare the way for the Beatles, so did “Tom Jones.” Released in 1963, Tony Richardson’s adaptation of the classic 18th-century novel was no less cool, sexy, amused, and amusing. Albert Finney, in the title role, had rock-star looks to go with his character’s rock-star combination of libido and innocence. In April, it won the best picture Oscar, as well as Oscars for adapted screenplay, direction, and score. A bigger star than Finney was another Englishman, admittedly less handsome, Peter Sellers. He played three parts in “Strangelove” and starred in two other of the most popular films of 1964, “The Pink Panther” and “A Shot in the Dark,” as the bumbling Inspector Clouseau (the French influence on 1964 was otherwise nil).
The following year’s best picture winner also had an English connection. “My Fair Lady” was the second-biggest grosser of 1964 — topped by another London-set musical, “Mary Poppins.” Julie Andrews, who also starred that year in the dark comedy “The Americanization of Emily” and next year would be Maria in “The Sound of Music,” was the biggest female star in Hollywood. She won a best actress Oscar as the high-flying governess. What Bond’s Q wouldn’t have given for her bag of tricks. And just to remove any doubts about the desirability of London as a musical setting, there was “Oliver!” When the cast appeared on the Sullivan show, it was midway through a 22-month Broadway run.
That performance wasn’t the only Broadway presence on Sullivan that night. After singing “All My Loving,” the Beatles shifted gears. They performed “Till There Was You,” a number from “The Music Man.” It’s hard to get more trad than a love song from a Broadway musical set in small-town 19th-century Iowa — a song sung by a librarian, no less. So even as the Beatles were overthrowing the old showbiz order, they were paying tribute to it. Some earthquakes have aftershocks. This was an anti-shock.