Has it really been 50 years? Seemingly incredibly, it has. And you could make a compelling case that the 1960s actually started on the evening of Feb. 9, 1964. That’s when the Beatles made their historic U.S. television debut on The Ed Sullivan Show, drawing the largest viewing audience in the history of the medium at the time (73 million people—nearly half the nation—tuned in to the telecast). President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated only 10 weeks earlier, and the still-stunned country was in a grim and uncertain mood. Who would’ve expected that a much-needed lift in spirits was imminent, winging its way across the pond on Pan Am flight 101 from London? Two days before that first Ed Sullivan Show appearance, on the afternoon of Friday, Feb. 7, 3,000 screaming teenagers who were supposed to be at school that day mobbed Kennedy International Airport in New York. They were there to greet the Beatles on their first U.S. visit, a whirlwind two weeks that saw the group make two live appearances on Sullivan’s show; one in New York and one in Miami (the Beatles also taped a third appearance to be aired later that month). The group was topping the U.S. charts, general pandemonium surrounded them wherever they went, and the Beatlemania that had already swept across the U.K. now morphed into a potent new U.S. strain. For their debut appearance on his show, Sullivan cannily had the Beatles perform twice—three songs at the beginning (“All My Loving,” “Till There Was You,” “She Loves You”) and two at the end (“I Saw Her Standing There,” “I Want to Hold Your Hand”), presumably to ensure that his audience watched the entire hour-long show. The cameras seemed to spend as much time on the surging throng of screaming teenagers in the audience of CBS TV Studio 50, where the show took place, as they did on the group. Nobody had ever seen (or heard) anything like it. By the time the broadcast ended an hour later, something fundamental had changed not just there in New York, but across the nation. The rest is well-documented history, but you very well might be able to say that with that one raucous event, the 1960s started in earnest between 8 and 9 p.m. on Feb. 9, 1964.
On both sides of the Atlantic during the 1960s, the British Invasion created a golden age of rock and pop music on prime time TV that really hasn’t been equaled since. In addition to the big, long-running U.S. and U.K. variety shows of the era—The Ed Sullivan Show and Sunday Night at the London Palladium,