Whenever a Beatles milestone rolls around – the release of previously unavailable music on iTunes or the anniversary of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band – it invites an explanation of why the group’s music was revolutionary and what remains so enduring about it. This particular anniversary – 50 years since the Fab Four appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show on 9 February 1964 – demands more than defensive nostalgia: it requires an analysis of the importance of this particular TV moment. Today, a greater choice of television shows, along with laptops, smartphones, and tablet computers have diminished the chance of people experiencing one programme simultaneously, as a unified audience. As the small screen, and its viewership, becomes more fragmented, how can we understand its importance in creating this landmark pop culture moment? What was the big deal about a band playing on TV?

In February 1964, The Beatles, while not nearly as popular in the United States as they were in Britain, were causing enough of a stir that their arrival at New York’s John F Kennedy Airport was met with a full squadron of media reporters and photographers. A press conference was held in the airport – at which The Beatles were met with amusement, uncertainty and jaded rudeness. “Sing something!” demanded one notebook-waving questioner. “Oh no, we’d need money for that,” John replied.

Soon enough, America would understand the meaning of the phrase promoted by manager Brian Epstein: Beatlemania. You can see it in clips from The Ed Sullivan Show, as the four mop-tops in tight-fitting black suits sang in a 728-seat theatre, most of those seats occupied with screaming adolescent girls. In millions of houses across the country – between 73 and 74 million viewers – people of every age group were confronted with a disorientating vision. Were those wigs those kids were wearing? Why was the audience screaming over the words being sung? What kind of lyrics are “yeah yeah yeah”? Why did this pale English quartet regularly lapse into black soul-music phrasing?

The Beatles projected an energetic sunniness, but on The Sullivan Show they also carried with them an air of anarchy made all the more inspiring (if you liked them) or frightening (if they disturbed your sense of propriety). America had been met with an undeniable force; a sudden line being drawn that demanded you take a side: was this performance one of the most exhilarating things you’d ever seen in your life, or was the world going to hell in a hand cart?

The contrast between the charismatic band and their awkward host was crucial. Sullivan was a former Manhattan newspaperman, a popular gossip columnist who had parlayed his influence as a maker and breaker of show-business reputations into being the host of a variety show called, at first, The Toast of the Town and later The Ed Sullivan Show. He was powerful within his circle, but on camera he came across as so wooden and mannered – specifically the hunched-shoulders, stiff-armed gesture he made when introducing an act – that he was frequently imitated by the comedians he booked on his own show. The radio wit Fred Allen once wondered aloud as to what Sullivan’s talent was, and provided an answer: “He points at people.”

Unlike most of America, Sullivan had actually experienced Beatlemania in its native setting: he and his wife had been in Heathrow Airport when The Beatles came through, leaving a trail of squalling fans in their wake. Sullivan had encountered only one other phenomenon close to this – Elvis Presley – and immediately knew he had to book The Beatles. He struck a deal with Epstein: three appearances on-air at $2,400 per show, less than half of the manager’s rate for the band elsewhere in the world.

The Ed Sullivan Show, which aired from 1948 to 1971, was a highly popular variety programme designed, in a TV world in which most US households had access to just three or four channels, to keep every viewer watching. If you didn’t like this singer or that comedian, you’d stick around for the juggler or the magician or the trained-dog act or the ventriloquist. Sullivan’s middle-brow taste also compelled him to mix in dollops of what he perceived as high culture – La Bohème trimmed down to a four-minute duet between Renata Tebaldi and Richard Tucker or performances by the Broadway casts of West Side Story or The King and I. Many acts made multiple appearances on the show: comedian Alan King appeared 37 times, for example, and the anodyne pop singer Connie Francis 26; the mouse puppet Topo Gigio was Ed’s guest 50 times. A canny mixture of novelty and familiarity, The Ed Sullivan Show was comforting to its audience.

For their introduction into American culture, The Beatles could scarcely have hoped for a better delivery system – stiff old Ed had ushered them into homes that might have slammed the door had a hairy Beatle actually rung the bell. The element of surprise extended to Sullivan himself, who expected lusty enthusiasm but got mass hysteria, and compelled him to institute a rule that, henceforth, anyone under age 18 had to be accompanied by an adult. In a sense, The Beatles’ initial Ed Sullivan performance was mainstream America’s first exposure to a counterculture that in 1964 had yet to emerge fully formed or even acquire that label.

On the night of The Beatles’ first appearance, they performed All My Loving, ’Til There Was You and – wisely saving until last their most rocking number, containing the yeah-yeah-yeahs that shook the country – She Loves You. Until this, few Americans realised there was such a thing as British rock ‘n’ roll (acts like Billy Fury and Cliff Richard had bombed stateside). The Beatles’ line-up of two guitars, bass and drums was a different visual than the ones provided by the biggest rock acts, from Elvis to Chuck Berry to Little Richard. And the novelty of writing one’s own material combined with The Beatles’ method of mingling pop-song melody and harmony with rhythm and blues shouts and instrumental intensity was intrinsic to this shock of the new. John, Paul, George and Ringo came on like smiley, wide-eyed boys but were actually road-hardened pros who knew how to sell a song, whether it was over the noise of a drunk crowd in a cramped club in Hamburg or screeching girls in a New York auditorium.

After The Ed Sullivan Show, the British Invasion would commence in earnest, as Sullivan booked the Dave Clark Five, Gerry and the Pacemakers, The Rolling Stones, and many more. But on this night, The Beatles invaded American living rooms and took prisoners, many of whom, fifty years later, wish to remain captive.

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