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Opinion

Debut of the Beatles marked the start of the 1960s, 50 years ago

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Fifty years ago on Feb. 9, I “met” the Beatles, like millions of other Americans, when they debuted on "The Ed Sullivan Show."

It was an extraordinary event. Indeed, there never has been another media event comparable to it. No other regularly scheduled television broadcast before or since has attracted as large a share of the American population as watched the Fab Four from Liverpool on Feb. 9, 1964.

The Beatles hit American society and culture like a mega-earthquake. The shock waves reached all the way into my dormitory at boarding school in Michigan. Miraculously, our gray-haired housemaster took the unprecedented step of letting us leave our rooms during mandatory evening study hall to watch John, Paul, George and Ringo perform.

Something magical and mysterious happened then. On the surface, it was just four young men with unconventionally long hair singing songs with lyrics as simple as “Yeah, yeah, yeah!” At a deeper level, though, they were connecting with kids in powerful ways. Screaming girls swooned into ecstatic hysteria. Guys loved their music, and many let their hair grow longer.

Although I was a quiet, uncool adolescent at the time, something about the Beatles' music resonated deeply with me. Their songs were exuberant, joyful, energetic and infectious. Life suddenly seemed brighter, happier and more hopeful. As the Beatles' career progressed, their music was alternately fun, uplifting, contemplative, clever, comforting or thought-provoking -- and always immensely entertaining. (Even Pop, the uncle who raised me and was proud that he could “comb [his] hair in the dark with a washrag,” although he disdained the Beatles, unintentionally complimented their musicality by listening to a Detroit radio station that played instrumentals, half of which, unknown to him, were Beatles compositions.)

On Feb. 9, 1964, there was a cultural shift from a pre-Beatles world to something new, different and exciting. That was the night when “the '60s” really began. For the previous 18 years — the whole lifespan of the baby boomer generation — America had comfortably snuggled into a staid, predictable, play-it-safe existence. Quite understandably, the generations that had lived through the Depression and World War II cherished the blessings of postwar peace and prosperity. They were content to leave well enough alone, but the boomers — never having known the hardships their elders had endured — were ready to spread their wings and venture where no generation had gone before in the pursuit of happiness.

The Beatles’ arrival in America seemed to inaugurate a brighter, more exciting world. Multitudinous changes soon followed, some of them fun and enriching — black & white TV shows switching to color; muscle cars coming out of Detroit; greater variety in clothing — and others more serious and consequential: riots, drug use and the “sexual revolution.”

Because of the Beatles’ visibility and popularity, they received more credit or blame for the social and cultural upheavals of the '60s than they deserved. The Beatles didn’t invent the '60s. Oh, sure, they revolutionized pop music and caused millions of guys to let their hair grow long, but all that other stuff was independent of the Fab Four.

The Beatles and their music just happened to appear at exactly the right time to make them the figureheads of a generation. Did the Beatles reinvent the world? No. Were they the best, most popular band of their generation? Most emphatically: “Yeah, yeah, yeah!”

Mark W. Hendrickson is an adjunct faculty member, economist and fellow for economic and social policy with the Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College in Pennsylvania. Thinking of submitting an op-ed to the Washington Examiner? Be sure to read our guidelines on submissions for editorials, available at this link.
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