The author is a freelance writer and editor of UpstateLive.com. This is the first of a two-part series written in conjunction with Paul McCartney’s show July 5 at the Times Union Center. Part two will appear next week.
There is little question as to how quickly news travels today. With the advent of smart phones, computers and 24-hour news services – the impact of the event is as immediate as its occurrence. But the collective experience is no longer as vivid, only because of the diversity by which we all receive the news; where one person my watch a transmission over television, another is viewing it from his iPhone. The shared memory isn’t quite shared at all.
In 1964, television was the leading means of entertainment, and NBC’s Ed Sullivan was the man to provide you that entertainment. Radio could no longer compete. And the home computer would not be conceptualized for another 20 years. Sullivan practically invented “prime time” television with his 8 p.m. telecasts.
But on Feb. 9, 1964, he not only entertained viewers — he created news. And in doing so, he had a hand in creating a memory.
Dr. Gordon Thompson is the department chair for Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs. He remembers that broadcast of The Beatles, as it seems everyone from his generation. It’s a shared memory as vivid as that February night 50 years ago.
“In 1963-64, a generation of baby boomers sought to distinguish themselves, not only from their parents, but also from their older siblings,” said Thompson. “As usual, they did this en masse, just as they always do, whether hippies, punks, gangstas, etc. They buy the same clothes and adopt the same jargon, all as a way to separate themselves from the others.”
Thompson is a ethnomusicologist, or one who studies the relationship between music and culture. He is also respected as this area’s leading expert on all things Beatles. Ironically, he almost didn’t attend the Paul McCartney concert on July 5 on account of ticket prices (which, were going for as high as $766.50 a week before the show).
When arena officials announced the event in April, news crackled across all mediums. The excitement seemed to overshadow the news of Ringo Starr performing at the smaller, more intimate Palace Theatre. Nonetheless, “Macca,” the man behind many of the band’s lyrics, has never been here. And though popular music has transformed since the four-man group took to the stage, their music is still as relevant as Bach.
“I’m not sure exactly that we could call Bach ‘popular,’ but his music was important,” said Thompson. “McCartney has said that they compared themselves to Bach because, just like him, they were chugging out music on a regular basis for a particular audience. His was the Lutheran church. Theirs was the baby-boom generation.”
NBC newscaster Edwin Newman was asked to report the details on “Beatle Mania” the following November. Newman, a respected journalist known for his candid interviews of foreign heads of state, was also a music aficionado. From 1965 to 1971, Newman was a Broadway drama critic. He had hosted summer Boston Symphony concerts from Tanglewood in Massachusetts. And he contributed to the work of the Religious Affairs Unit at NBC.
But, in 1964, it was evident that he was not a Beatle fan.
“It’s anybody’s guess why The Beatles emerged from its cellar night clubs to national prominence, but emerged they did,” said Newman. In a career that would span over four decades, Newman was also known for his sense of humor. “The sound they make is called the Murrsey Sound, because Liverpool is on the Murrsey River. [Pause.] The quality of Murrsey is somewhat strained. One reason for The Beatles’ popularity may be because it’s almost impossible to hear them [over the screaming of fans].”
Newman’s career as a journalist would span over four decades. But no one accused him of being a prognosticator.
“Trying to second-guess history is a tricky business,” said Thompson. “Everything looks so inevitable to us, but was much less definite to contemporary players. If not for Felix Mendelssohn, we might not be paying attention to Bach. I’m not saying that Bach’s music doesn’t have much to commend it; but aesthetics are a social construct and social constructs by definition are constantly changing.