The Beatles: Subversion that's lasted for decades

Fifty years ago, the Beatles first appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show. You've surely seen clips of them japing with the media, smiling those cheerful smiles, singing All My Loving - and you probably thought, ''Oh, they were so cute.''

That's the conventional wisdom and it's ridiculous. To the America that existed then, the Beatles were plenty threatening. To understand why, you have to understand the music scene of the time, and how utterly new the Beatles were in every way, how totally uncategorisable.

Here's the quick background: Rock'n'roll was born in 1955 and it was seen as a danger by the day's reactionaries. ''Jungle music'' and all that; white children screaming for black performers. But in a few years the industry tamed it. Elvis went to the army. Chuck Berry went to prison. Bobby Vinton went to No. 1. Chew on this little fact: On the American Billboard charts of 1963, not a single No. 1 song featured an electric guitar solo.

Then, February 1964 - boom! No one had made or heard sounds like these. Here's a crucial truth that goes totally unappreciated today: The Beatles were loud. They were cacophonous. The Nation's critic, Alan Rinzler, wrote that the music was ''electrically amplified to a plaster-crumbling, glass-shattering pitch'' and was ''loud, fast and furious, totally uninfluenced by some of the more sophisticated elements'' of the pop scene.

For sure, there was great, edgy music coming out of Chicago, Detroit and Memphis. But most popular music was mediocre, bleached of anything that might produce in its pubescent listener an impertinent or certainly a sexual thought.

Lyrically, the songs may have been about holding your hand and dancing with you. But musically, a lot of the songs were frankly sexual. They're mild compared to what we can hear today, but in 1964, these were unambiguous musical emulations of sexual climax, aimed smack at a teenage audience.


In early 1964, most adults mocked the group. Highbrow derision came not just from The Nation but The New Yorker, The New Republic and The New York Times. This music was dismissed as a little disease that would pass.

And it's true that all this wasn't seen as subversive yet. That would take another year or two, when the disease hadn't abated but, rather, metastasised and started taking over the culture, becoming dangerous.

But just because it wasn't seen as subversive doesn't mean it wasn't subversive. The 1964 Beatles may not have been overtly anti-authority, but covertly, they certainly were. They were even, in their way, political. Their platform? Joy, excitement, pleasure. Within their aura, the future - that distant and sober thing for which the young people of 1964 were supposed to plan, evanesced. That fact alone made many in the establishment nervous, and rightly so.

So celebrate this anniversary, but celebrate it the right way. Don't call them cute.

Los Angeles Times

Michael Tomasky is a columnist for The Daily Beast and editor of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas.