Penelope Rowlands was front and center, quite literally, when the Beatles first arrived in New York. She’s the screaming fan in the middle of this famous New York Times photo on the cover of The Beatles Are Here! Now, fifty years later, she made it inside the Ed Sullivan Theater, giving us an inside look at this past weekend’s Beatles tribute.
All of New York seemed to be celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the Beatles’s arrival in the city last weekend, so it wasn’t too surprising to see them listed on the bright white marquee of Broadway’s Ed Sullivan Theater — an exact replica of how it looked on February 9, 1964, when the band made its first American TV appearance, electrifying the country.
Half a century later, we fans gathered again, this time for CBS News, 50 Years Later: The Beatles at the Ed Sullivan Theater. As the studio doors opened, I couldn’t help thinking how much I would have loved being in this very spot on that day, so long ago, back when I was a screaming fan.
I suspect that many of us were thinking the same.
My date for the occasion was my 25-year-old son, Julian — raised on the Beatles and now living in Manhattan. When a group of middle-aged panelists entered the stage and began a discussion of the band, I — and no doubt he — feared the worst.
But any worries of the what-are-we-in-for type faded away when the assembled gang began to talk. The chat was ebullient, and it never stopped. Peter Asher, the producer and musician, dressed in a brightly checked suit, with polka-dot scarf and shoes (no kidding), recalled the Beatles asking him what he thought of the song they’d just written.
“Play it again!” was his response to hearing “I Want to Hold Your Hand” — the first person, ever, to do so. They did. Asher couldn’t get enough of the Beatles’ music back when it was first created. Soon enough, the world couldn’t either. “They were perfect,” as the guitarist and songwriter Mick Jones explained.
No one on stage, including George Harrison’s ex-wife, Pattie Boyd, and his witty pal Neil Innes, a former Monty Python-ite, would have disagreed. Triple Grammy winner Nile Rodgers, very young when the Beatles appeared, absorbed their sounds by osmosis. Julie Taymor waxed philosophical, and veteran musicians recalled the intense frustration of performing on a show where all the rehearsals and pre-show build-up led to a scant, two-minute appearance on live television.
Afterward, rock and rollers would be so wound up that “We’d come home and wreck our apartment,” said Felix Cavaliere of the Rascals, who performed on the show several times.
Lots of fine and funny things were said that evening, but in a way they all made the same point — the one we’ve all been making, really, over the past few weeks: what an enormous impact the Beatles had on us all (and still do). “They moved us on through a kind of a revolution in music,” said Mick Jones, summing it up.
When the main feature of the evening rolled around — a screening of “The Night That Changed America: A Grammy Salute to the Beatles” — it underscored the point. For there were Paul and Ringo, half a century on, still showing us exactly how it should be done.
Still perfect, still revolutionary.
No one in the audience actually shrieked this time. They radiated a warm appreciation instead — a more sedate form of screaming, perhaps. And it was beautiful.
The crowd seemed to glow as it headed out of the theater, into the falling snow. Fifty years later, the Beatles had done it again.
Penelope Rowlands is a journalist and critic. Her books include the brand new The Beatles Are Here!, the anthology Paris Was Ours and A Dash of Daring: Carmel Snow and Her Life in Fashion, Art, and Letters, a biography of the legendary editor-in-chief of Harper’s Bazaar.