How one night in 1964 changed the way we listen to music today.
Published: October 31, 2018
By: Greg Carannante
Remember when the Beatles appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show?
Music was so much simpler then. You either listened to the radio, vinyl 45s and albums or maybe reel-to-reel tapes. Music was all-analog, non-digital and nowhere near as splintered, pervasive or influential as it is today. Back then, music knew its place.
But on Feb. 9, 1964, our first live look at the Fab Four started a chain reaction that changed all that. On that Sunday night, as Paul McCartney shook his mop top and began to sing — “Close your eyes and I’ll kiss you” — it was as if a pop cultural bomb landed on America.
The next morning, boys across the country went to school with their hair combed down. Like Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty and countless other future musicians, they soon learned how to play guitars and formed bands. It became a real-live teenage renaissance.
I was one of those teenagers who, like many of my friends, signed up for guitar lessons. However, guitar stardom was not my destiny, which I soon realized at my first recital. As my duet partner and I began to play, the music emitting from my acoustic instrument sounded distorted, muffled in a way it had never been before. I stopped playing, the eyes of my partner and the audience burning into me. Panicked, unsure of the problem or what to do about it, I took it from the top. The distortion was still there! Bewildered and embarrassed, I could only mime my way through the rest of the song and let my co-star play us home.
Of course, backstage after my “performance,” as I tried to determine the source of the noise, it became clear as a bell. The culprit was the right sleeve of my sports coat, which was rubbing up against the strings as I strummed. I’d never played wearing a sports coat before, and I never played wearing a sports coat — or anything else — afterward either. I hung up the guitar the next day and canceled my lessons. I’m guessing something like that never happened to George Harrison.
Back to my point: After the guitarist and his Beatle buddies landed in America, music was never the same again. We experienced the kind of all-consuming explosion that has never happened since and — the way things are going — probably never will. Why? Because music was never the same again.
It would be hard to appreciate Beatlemania’s blast radius unless you were around when it hit — because it hit just about all of us at once. Almost half of American households and nearly one-third of the population tuned in to watch that Sunday night nearly 55 years ago. Almost as many came back a week later when the lads took the tiny stage at The Deauville on Miami Beach for a Sullivan show encore. The only live TV musical spectacles that have come close to grabbing that big an audience share are Super Bowl halftime shows, but most of those viewers are really only there for the game.
The reverberations of those appearances galvanized pop music into a national preoccupation and a commercial behemoth, elevating it from mere entertainment to spheres of social influence, personal identity and even college curricula. A Beatles reunion, even if it could happen now, might not capture as much of the country’s consciousness as their debut did. How could it? Ironically, the Beatles bomb itself made that virtually impossible. Its own aftershocks ultimately fractured the musical landscape into what seems like a million genres. Today, listeners’ tastes and allegiances are simply fragmented into too many factions to come together over one phenomenon.
Look at it this way: While there were only two-fifths fewer people in the country in 1964 than there are today, there are about 20 times more styles of music — assuming a generous pre-Beatles estimate of 100 different genres, like doo-wop or bebop. That’s according to Every Noise at Once, a website that’s identified 2,041(!) micro-genres of popular music — like bubble trance or cinematic dubstep. You can check it out on everynoise.com and even click on any genre to hear a sample.
Plus, there are countless more ways to listen to all those genres now: thousands of websites, video streaming platforms like YouTube, subscription services like Spotify or Pandora, and hundreds of internet radio, satellite and TV music stations — none of which were available in 1964.
By now you may have guessed that, despite my guitar fiasco, I’m kind of into music. It’s probably my mother’s doing. When I was only 8, she took me out of school early one afternoon and dragged me to a Frank Sinatra matinee concert. I was the only youngster in a Manhattan theater full of swooning, stomping, screeching women, and watching my mom turn into a screaming bobby-soxer at the skinny crooner’s every twitch must have had a life-altering psychological effect. Thanks, Mom.
Today I probably spend twice as much time listening to music — though, much of it in the background — as does the average American, who listens for over four hours a day, according to Edison Research. And still, I’ve never felt so completely out of touch as I do now. Trying to navigate 21st-century popular music is a little like strolling down the supermarket cereal aisle with its dizzying variety of snap, crackle, pop — except that there aren’t dozens of new cereals to choose from every month and a dozen different ways to eat them.
I try to keep up, and I used to be able to. For a time after that Sunday night in 1964, it was actually possible to listen to most of the new music. Now, I scroll through the dozens of weekly releases in my Apple Music app, and I’m lucky if I’ve even heard of a few of them. One of those that does ring familiar, though, is 76-year-old Paul McCartney’s new album, Egypt Station, amazingly his first to top the charts in over 36 years. So … maybe not everything has changed.
But sometimes such proliferation has me wondering if maybe there isn’t too much music these days. We certainly don’t need all of it, do we? And anyway, shouldn’t we be focusing on more pressing matters? Besides, who can listen to even a fraction of it? I know I can’t — for one thing, I spend too much time just trying to decide what to listen to. Do I feel like hearing gothic Americana? Electroacoustic improvisation? Contemporary post-bop? Oh, forget it, I’ll just watch some TV. Hmmm, let’s see what’s on.