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Ed Sullivan Presents the Beatles

Each February 9 marks the anniversary of a televised event that gave millions of TV viewers an understanding that times were absolutely a-changin'. That's when, at 8 p.m. ET, Feb. 9, 1964, CBS's The Ed Sullivan Show — the must-see TV of the Eisenhower-Kennedy-Johnson-Nixon era — introduced to American audiences four polite, neatly dressed, progressively "mop-top" early-twentysomethings from Liverpool named John, Paul, George and Ringo, a.k.a. The Beatles. That extra rumbling sound you hear when The Beatles take the stage? That's the tectonic shift of an entire culture wrenched in a new direction.

The Ed Sullivan Show showcased The Beatles as headliners over three consecutive Sunday nights, beginning with the British chart-busters' world-record-breaking debut, when 73 million Americans tuned in for The Beatles performing live "All My Loving," "Till There Was You," "She Loves You," "I Saw Her Standing There," and, No. 1 on the charts, "I Want to Hold Your Hand." That milestone in American pop culture currently ranks #3 on VH-1's list of the "The 100 Greatest Moments That Rocked TV."

The band returned for their final exuberant appearance 19 months later, a month after the famous 1965 Shea Stadium concert. By now the "British invasion" was a full-on conquest.

We don't need to recount here the phenomenal creative, commercial and cultural impact The Beatles fostered between 1964 and 1970. Clips and snippets of the band's vanguard Ed Sullivan performances are familiar to Beatles fanatics and casual observers alike.

What this two-disc DVD set offers is much more than clips and snippets. Now we can finally watch all 20 Beatles performances in their entirety, triumphs and flubs and all, placed within the time-capsule advantage of context. We don't get just The Beatles. We get all four hour-long Ed Sullivan episodes completely intact. Their vaudeville-like entertainment assortments — comics, singers, acrobats, magicians, dancers, puppeteers, white-bread musical guests that pleased the old folks, and other avatars of Old World conformity and comfort — are emceed by the monotone, neckless, terminally unhip Sullivan. Discombobulated by the Beatlemania erupting around him, he barks at the mobs of screaming teenagers in a shut-the-hell-up tone like a school principal.

This set delivers all that plus the original TV commercials. (Evidently America was gripped by a debilitating headache epidemic that only Anacin, and lots of it, could cure.) Ed Sullivan Presents the Beatles has it all here, preserved like extinct specimens in technological amber. These discs are a boon for Beatles devotees and anyone looking for pop culture snapshots of years that seem geological epochs behind us.

The second broadcast, February 16, moves the show to Miami Beach, where a wedge of policemen held back the crush of people that nearly prevented the band from making it on stage in time. The "youngsters," as Sullivan calls them, repeat four songs from the previous week plus add "This Boy" and "From Me to You."

For the February 23 show, they're shown on tape, having recorded the appearance earlier in the day on February 9 before their first live appearance. They follow Ed's intro with "Twist and Shout" and "Please Please Me," then close the show with "I Want to Hold Your Hand."

After filming A Hard Day's Night and conquering the world, The Beatles appeared for the final time on September 12, 1965, earning Sullivan a 60 percent share of the nighttime audience. Visibly matured and displaying enhanced confidence and presence, they perform "I Feel Fine," "I'm Down," "Act Naturally," "Ticket to Ride," "Yesterday" and "Help!" (Notice during "Help!" how Paul and George, singing backup, give John a little help when he momentarily forgets which verse he's on.)

Beatles aficionados should leap on these raw performances — shot live with no studio post-production gloss, only the boys in their rare natural state — as primary documents from the pre-Revolver, pre-Sgt. Pepper years building toward The Beatles' artistic and innovative peak. Consummate stage and recording studio artists, the group is less at ease here in a TV studio before thousands of hyper-worshipful teens. Ringo introduces himself before launching into "Act Naturally" by saying he's "all nervous and out of tune," then proves that he is indeed both. Sometimes technical travails hurt, such as in Miami when their microphones gang up against them. Given the polish and perfection we associate with their albums, the occasional flubs and stumbles offer a fascinating realism all by themselves.

Even so, the Fab Four's professionalism, boyish charm and searing raw talent cut through loud and clear. Placed within the context of the other performers fated (or doomed) to appear before and after them, the 20 songs here show how this was not just another pop group, but a sound and a presence that wailed from televisions heralding something altogether new. Within the context of Beatles history, they're a stark comparative prelude to the less poppy, more expansive brilliance yet to come, when everything changed.

Punctuated by commercials for sponsors such as Lipton Tea (with Groucho Marx's TV foil, George Fenneman), Chef Boy-Ar-Dee pizza mix and Pillsbury, many of the other acts here are mildewed hokum even for their time. Some are pleasantly nostalgic, more are nothing but corny, and almost all are so painfully square that they'll propel your finger to the Chapter Skip button. Yet when you look at them anthropologically, they're the mainstream fare that those radical punks (everything's relative) The Beatles immediately and irrevocably rendered obsolete.

Among the best of them is the always-watchable Cab Calloway belting out "St. James Infirmary" and a jazzed up "Old Man River." Time warps that have aged less well include Borscht Belt shtick such as impressionist Frank Gorshin joking about what things would be like if Hollywood celebrities held public office; comics Soupy Sales, Myron Cohen, Allen & Rossi, and Morecambe & Wise back when ethnic and mother-in-law jokes were still ace material; the Broadway cast of Oliver with Georgia Brown and future Monkee Davy Jones; clarinetist "Bearded" Acker Bilk; and singers Tessie O'Shea, "Hollywood's delightful Mitzi Gaynor" (she should have stuck with acting) and wholesome Liverpudlian popster and Beatles pal Cilla Black, who sings her hit "Goin' Out of My Head." Standing up for audience bows are heavyweight-boxing champs Sonny Liston and Joe Louis.

As journalist Fred Kaplan said at Slate.com when discussing this DVD set in 2004, "The Beatles changed the charts forever. You can draw a line in the historical sands of popular culture at 1964. A lot of pop music that came after that point still sounds modern today. Almost all the pop music that came before that point sounds ancient."

Besides, if nothing else, these four complete Ed Sullivan Show episodes remind us that today — despite its umpty-hundred channels of niche-market absurdities, endless "reality" shows and half-assed "Idols" — TV is much, much better now.

*          *          *

This 2003 SOFA Entertainment release is usually marketed as Ed Sullivan Presents the Beatles, although the box displays the clunkier title, The Four Historic Ed Sullivan Shows Featuring the Beatles. Either way, it's apparently now out of print, meaning that "new and used" copies are available cheap via Amazon.com's third-party vendors and other outlets.

These vintage black-and-white TV recordings look no worse than they should and better than you might expect. Naturally, resolution and sharpness are below modern standards. Nonetheless, the source material is well preserved, so the image quality is quite good. We can be grateful that no one went overboard digitally "improving" an experience that faithfully records what the original viewers saw.

The audio did get a welcome upgrade. Each episode comes with the options of its restored original mono sound or a Dolby Digital 5.1 remix. Well restored but not overtly "enhanced," both are hearty, clean choices. Its center-dominant remix makes the DD 5.1 option close to superfluous, though the surrounding ambiance of hysterical screaming audiences is a nice touch.

You'll find no "featurettes" here, no talking heads providing crusty memories or unasked-for editorial commentary. The four broadcasts are allowed to speak for themselves, from a time when we were younger, so much younger than today. Dual-DVD trifold digipak.

—Mark Bourne

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