What initially sounds like a dull idea turns out to be a great one with this collection of The Beatles' four appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964 and 1965. Presented without explanation or editorializing are the complete broacasts of the four evenings, with the other peformers, intros and commercials intact. The Beatles come on for two sets in each show. As a time capsule, the shows are a revelation.
It's hard to believe how tacky the Sullivan show is, what a lousy emcee he made, and how condescending he was to the Fab Four. The Sullivan variety show is a parade of comedians that Ed must have personally liked, including Allen & Rossi, a simply horrible act lost to time and the ravages of The Last of the Secret Agents?, the absolute worst spy spoof ever made.
But we do get to see some good singers like Cilla Black & Gordon MacRae (looking rather paunchy ten years after Oklahoma!), and a nice piece of the musical Oliver! performed by the Broadway cast, including Davy Jones, soon to become famous as one of the Monkees. Cab Calloway makes a welcome appearance too, with the act that didn't seem to change between 1932 and 1980.
Sullivan's intros are awkward and forced, and he clearly is rattled in the first show by the unruly teen audience up in the galleries, the one made famous by Zemeckis & Gale's great comedy I Wanna Hold Your Hand. He introduces The Beatles as if they were a trained monkey group, acting as if they're important because they're on his show. That they return 3 times in 3 weeks had to be a contractual coup on Sullivan's part.
But he treats them so shoddily... On one show he orders them front and center and then tells them that composer Richard Rodgers loves their music, as if the endorsement of an established great is supposed to make the poor Moptops from Liverpool feel better about their low position in life. Perhaps he thought he was doing the boys a favor by helping them into the 'mainstream' - as if they needed his divine guidance. The Beatles, on the other hand, are exceedingly cordial. There's no smart-aleck attitudes, just all smiles and hearty goodwill. Even John Lennon looks as if someone just gave him the key to the city. I'll bet this early experience with big-time American exploitation was a determining influence on the group's later career choices. Why work to make Manhattan bigshots like Sullivan richer?
There's a huge difference between show one, the famous one in New York, and the Florida show broadcast a week later from the Miami CBS affiliate. Apparently not happy with the near-pandemonium of the Pop Fans who wouldn't stay quiet and heckled him the first night, the Florida show seems to be a controlled affair. The audience is mostly middle-aged people, with all the teens in attendance accompanied by their parents. The cameramen are ready to catch all those anticipated audience screamers and criers in the Florida show - and there almost aren't any. You're a teenaged girl and you get to see The Beatles, but sitting next to your parents? Mom is probably telling daughter that their hair's too long and their music's not very good. The Beatles perform well, but the house is dead. The audience cameras keep cutting back to a bunch of people 40 years and up, all staring in polite amusement at the biggest sensation of the century. It's like setting a choice banquet before swine, the kind of display that let us teens know that straight adult society didn't have a ----ing clue. Chances are, most of the attendees were CBS insiders. And I'll bet that the first girl teen the cameras cut away to for a closeup is some executive's daughter. With just one network show under their belt, The Beatles are being absorbed by the monster.
Sixteen months later in the 1965 show, the boys aren't being treated any differently, although they're no longer afraid to speak and make some jokes while plugging their movie Help! Ringo sings his song Act Naturally, which doesn't go over very well, for some reason. The Beatles are only a few months away from quitting touring altogether, and Sullivan is just using them for ratings bait.
Musically, the Beatles sets are a delight, especially the first night, when we can see them gushing back with smiles and affection in response to the adoration and approval in the audience. It's the one that really needs to be seen.
The context of having the rest of Ed's mostly forgettable guest performers before and between the boy's appearances shows how special The Beatles were. Their music still sounds fresh, as if they stepped out of a time machine onto Sullivan's tacky curtained stage. There's something sad about the Lipton Tea ads, with George Fenneman playing a happy idiot hawking the sponsor's products, and something wrong about The Beatles rubbing shoulders with Pillsbury commercials. Then again, I wonder if John & Paul had anything to say backstage to the likes of Soupy Sales or Frank Gorshin. Maybe they got along swimmingly.
The Four Complete Historic Ed Sullivan Shows Featuring The Beatles is a two-disc set with only four hours of content; the original tapes of the broadcasts are of really variable quality, but the encoding is fine. I listened to the shows in mono and can't say if the 5.1 remixes are an improvement. The valuable hook here is the 'this is how it was, folks' reality of the the uncut, unvarnished broadcasts. It's a big improvement over the packaged snippets of performances seen on compilation Rock'n Roll shows, the kind often produced by Andrew Solt. Andrew Solt did this one as well (does the whole field belong to him?) and the format concept does him credit.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Four Complete Historic Ed Sullivan Shows Featuring The Beatles rates: