-Can you give me a little background on the performance itself?
Sullivan had seen the reception to the Beatles' by local London fans while at Heathrow airport in 1963 and, with the remarkable instincts of a veteran vaudevillian and talent booker, had recognized that such an intense fan reaction might actually translate from the very different English to American audiences. In the event, he was proved right.
-Why was this appearance so important?
The timing was extraordinarily good: John Kennedy had been killed in Dallas in Nov '63, an event which was both massively traumatic and also massively publicized (including the notorious on-camera murder of Lee Harvey Oswald by Jack Ruby). At the same time, after a remarkable apotheosis of American-born rock & roll acts between about 1954 and 1959--Elvis, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly and many "crossover" black artists--American pop music had to an extent entered a fallow period: Elvis was in the Army, Little Richard had (temporarily) gone back to work, Buddy & Richie Valens had been killed, Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry had legal or tax problems (or both). At the same time, while this "media space" was opening up, remarkable things were happening in England with overseas transformations of American blues and R&B.
-How did this performance, or the Beatles in general, change American culture?
That's a huge question, and really impossible to answer. The Beatles represented a response to the "Baby Boom"--the post WWII boom in births and, by the early '60s, an entirely new social and marketing class called "teenagers." At the same time, they were a remarkably talented group of individuals--3 incredibly strong songwriters (John, Paul, George), 3 incredibly talented instrumentalists (Ringo, George, and Paul)--and they were remarkably self-contained. They had both the musical talent and imagination and the social/media skills--much of it innate, or learned on the tough stages of the English provinces and the north German nightclubs--to be able to respond to a worldwide media meltdown, with themselves at the eye of the storm, and still be able to respond quickly, comedically, and very, very cannily. They were a remarkable unit.
-How did the Beatles change music?
Well, they took the lessons of many American roots musics, from country, R&B, and blues; to '50s rock 'n' roll; to various Latin pop styles (cha-cha-cha, tango, beguine); elements of big-band music; the choral singing tradition of English Anglicanism, and English folk's modal scales. They wrote all their own music (and John, Paul, and George were all flat-out genius songwriters). They had worked out a way to be remarkably self-contained, both creatively (as songwriters, singers, and instrumentalists) and also financially (Brian Jones, before his accidental death, had charted the course of their success, and its careful, sequential steps) with masterful precision. They managed an oppositional stance to social norms and political conservatism with the same sardonic, parodic, and cocky sense of humor that comedy groups like the Goons and later Monty Python used to such devastating effect. They were remarkably courageous as artists--they constantly tried new things. All of these tendencies drastically "upped the bar" for what a pop group could seek and could accomplish.
-Have you seen the performance, either the first viewing, or a recording? What are your thoughts about it?
I didn't see the performance on first viewing--I was a toddler, but my family weren't particularly television watchers--but as a scholar of American music, of course I've watched recordings. I have very complex reactions, as I suspect do many who loved the group. First of all, they all seem so *young* (younger every time I watch it, as I age). The screaming teens seem like a time capsule--we would never be that charmingly naive or "over the top" in our adulation of pop stars again. But what I take away every time I watch *any* live performance recording of the Beatles--or for that matter, studio footage as well--from the 1964 Ed Sullivan appearances to the last performances on the rooftop of Apple Records in January of 1969--was what astonishing, unique, mutually compatible musicians they were. From the clubs of Hamburg or Liverpool, playing marathon 4- and 5-hour gigs with dancers tumbling into the bandstand, to live performances on Sullivan, to Shea Stadium with a tiny little Shure Vocalmaster PA in the face of 50,000 fans, to that last, elegiac performance on the rooftop at Apple, they were four of the 20th century's greatest pop musicians. And surely, surely, one of the century's greatest, most brilliant, most courageous, most influential musical ensembles.
That's what I've got.