By Susan Lilley
IT was 50 years ago today. One chilly Florida evening in February, the Lilley family was gearing up for the usual Sunday night ritual: burgers on the grill, then good old mid-century American TV! Lassie, followed by The Wonderful World of Disney, then Bonanza, my dad’s favorite western. My two younger brothers and I were in the grip of fascination with a three-part drama on the Disney show, “The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh.” So imagine our horror when my parents announced over dinner that we were going to have to miss the harrowing adventures of Scarecrow that night. Dad filled his wine glass with Chianti and calmly stole a tater tot from my plate as he broke the news.
“Listen, you all. We must watch the Ed Sullivan show. Something big is going to happen tonight.”
Ed Sullivan! To us, that show meant a parade of jugglers, acrobats, opera stars, hideous talking puppets, and Borscht-belt comedians whose jokes we did not get. A roar of outrage came at him from three open mouths in various stages of chewing, but there was no eroding their unified front.
“We’ve had phone calls about this from people who KNOW,” Mom said placidly. “Whatever it is—some group from England, I think—I am not going to miss it. And neither are you.”
DVR technology was decades away, and a one-TV home was the norm in average middle-class suburban America. An altar-sized hunk of serious furniture, the television set was the focal point of our recently remodeled “Florida room”; it sat next to the rarely-used fireplace. My youngest brother, John, fled to his bunk-bed in tears. Bubba, the middle child, checked out my reaction, which was to go get a Nancy Drew mystery for escape from whatever was about to be forced on us. By the time Ed Sullivan was standing in front of his curtains at 8 p.m., all three of us were ensconced on the beige cushions of the carved bamboo couch, devouring peace-offering bowls of vanilla ice cream covered with Hershey’s chocolate syrup.
The first song, “All My Loving,” brought the entire family to silence. Then Paul sang the ballad “Til There was You,” from my parents’ favorite musical, The Music Man. Dad was impressed, and Mom was starting to swoon. By the time they got to “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” I had unconsciously but thoroughly made the leap from bookish little girl to pre-teen romantic, all in one hour.
I wasn’t sure what had hit me. Sure, I was aware of popular music and even had a little 45 collection started, with such treasures as “Sukiyaki,” “My Guy” (by the great Mary Wells), “Another Saturday Night,” and a novelty song from Australia I adored called “Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport.” I owned a pink plastic record player decorated with pictures of teenagers twisting the night away, all suddenly rather irrelevant on Monday morning, February 10, 1964.
Over the next weeks and months, my entire generation coalesced into a full-on group obsession that crossed state and national boundaries and already had a name in the mainstream media: Beatlemania. The most acute symptoms included feeling faint and tearful when gazing at collected pictures of John, Paul, George, and Ringo from fan magazines that flew off the racks at local drug stores. My first love was Paul (statistically predictable) but in truth, it wasn’t just the star crush factor. This music hit kids my age with a perfect-storm wallop as adolescence began to rev up and the somnolent Eisenhower era began to dissolve before our eyes.
Dad dutifully bought Meet the Beatles at our local record store, and I bought new 45s as fast as they were released. I saw A Hard Day’s Night five times in one day at a local theatre. We played these discs until the grooves practically melted, until the stylus needle required coins on top to ride the beloved tracks into our ears again and again. We could not get enough of them. We began to look outward, beyond our families and schools, and inward, to ideas and yearnings that were to define our paths all the way to adulthood.
Music is powerful. Every generation has their liberating sound, and I feel lucky to have been swept into this particular moment. Boys in my grade started, awkwardly at first, to try to express their ineffable emotions in music. As rock critic Dave Marsh explains in his book devoted to The Beatles’ Second Album, singing might have previously been a suspect activity for boys of that age, but “when John Lennon howls the lyrics to ‘Please Mr. Postman,’ it’s as if he is playing football, tackle, no pads.” Just like that, it was now cool for even the manliest of young men to wail their own yearning, guitar in hand.
While male garage bands sprouted up like dandelions, girls gave legitimacy to the sex appeal of the Beatles and their wannabes in their own back yards. We also began to strongly identify with the crop of new women artists, who like the R&B and folk gods now co-opting the groundswell of change, entranced us with their female take on the new reality. When Marianne Faithfull delivered “As Tears Go By” on the music show Shindig, I felt a tidal wave crash over my girl-brain. Same with Joan Baez, and Cass Elliot and Michelle Phillips of The Mamas and the Papas.
My friends and I loved Detroit soul, blues, folk, California surf, and all the Brit invasion bands. But the release of a new Beatles album was a holy event. Rubber Soul was lip-synced at every sleep-over in junior high. Sgt. Pepper ran day and night the entire summer of 1967, with a bit of time out for Jimi Hendrix. Magical Mystery Tour formed the sun-dazed dreams lived on the deck of my friend Sue Ann’s pool, and Help was the first official in-car music blasted on the tapedeck as we got our street freedom as licensed drivers.
All-weekend listening parties fueled with stolen parental booze and occasional pot were devoted to Abbey Road and then the White Album—each work seeming more life-changing and masterful than the last. It was as if the Beatles were morphing with us through experience, taste, politics, growth, and change.
In bittersweet timing, the group disbanded just as my cohort of youthful fans graduated and entered new ritualistic passageways. I pulled college all-nighters to Paul McCartney’s album Ram. When I was going through my first divorce, John Lennon was shot while I was inhaling solace from his and Yoko’s Double Fantasy album. I hear The Beatles’ influences in decade after decade of new music.
Music is still great, by the way. To hell with curmudgeons that only love the past. I am constantly thrilled with new wonders as they pop up on the scene, and if I had Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories on vinyl instead of in my iPod, believe me, the grooves would have been worn away in the last year. But even my kids admit that for their generation, there has been nothing quite like the Beatles and all they brought with them. Nothing.
Sometimes the emotional weight of this particular life soundtrack is almost too much to carry. But we’re happy to do it. This music is ours.