At 8 p.m. on February 9, 1964, The Beatles took the stage of the Ed Sullivan Show, making their American debut in the most public way possible. Those who had been lucky enough to land a ticket started screaming and flailing about in the audience before the show even began. The 74 million Americans—that is, 60 percent of the country—tuning in at home shuffled about in their living rooms and adjusted the antennae on their television sets.
Once the live audience had settled in their seats and home viewers had planted themselves on their sofas, Ed Sullivan gave his cue and the Fab Four launched into “All My Loving.” The boys were quick to mesmerize, syncing cartoonish head bobs and foot taps with the beat of Ringo’s drumsticks. In my mind’s eye, I imagine all of America bobbing along with them—rosy-cheeked, wide-eyed, falling in love.
A half-century later, I pressed a few buttons, first on my iPod and then on the treadmill, and started running to “I’ve Just Seen a Face.” The gym was sparse, quiet and so drafty that I kept my sweatshirt on until I’d gained some speed. By the time Paul started singing “Falling, yes I am falling,” I was sprinting. I’ve found Paul’s vocal lilts are best experienced in short periodic bursts, while John’s drones are more suitable for long jogs outside. A mile and a few tracks later, I slowed to a walk and finally stopped. I pressed pause right in the middle of a loud and rowdy “I’m Down,” and for a second the silence stunned me. There was no applause and certainly no fainting fans. Just a few earbudded girls doing crunches quietly on the mats.
If you ask around at parties, “What’s your favorite Beatles album?” you’ll get a disproportionate number of votes for Abbey Road. Objectively speaking, this is probably the right answer. It’s the band’s penultimate studio album and culminates six brief, bursting years of innovation. It boasts one of the most memorable bass lines (“Come Together”), features George’s best track ever (“Something”), and ends in a graceful pageant of transitions as “Golden Slumbers” turns into “Carry That Weight” turns into “The End.” And of course the image of the four of them mid-step made a cultural imprint like no album art before.
Best is not the same as favorite, though, and I often feel like an outlier when I cast my vote for “Revolver.” But it was those specific tracks that made their way to my ears when I was most impressionable. Like anything from childhood, my own private experience of Beatles fandom is steeped in imagination rather than fact.
I lacked the logic of a collegiate amateur music critic, and so I couldn’t have known all the merits of Abbey Road. All I knew was that “Sun King” was boring and “Got To Get You Into My Life” made me want to dance.
We millennials never knew the hits when they first graced the billboards, when the country seemed to scream in unison. But we have experienced the ghost of that fandom. For me, this meant listening at the whim of my baby boomer parents.
In the basement we had this disorganized record closet, and there the Beatles’ chronology became disordered. Before dinner, my dad would put one on at random, and I could only guess at the context of it’s recording. One night 1967’s “I Am The Walrus” would have me in a fit of giggles and the next night we’d have time traveled back three years to “A Hard Day’s Night,” which wasn’t quite as funny, though working like a dog was still pretty hilarious. In that space before dinnertime, I forged my own opinions and understanding of the Beatles without verification from a visible fan base.
Which is to say I got some things wrong. I misheard the word kaleidoscope in “Lucy In The Sky” and for years thought John was singing “A girl with ‘colitis’ goes by.” I was eventually corrected, as I was corrected about many things. I learned that the Beatles did in fact do drugs, which was confusing to me because only criminals did that. I learned that John didn’t think much of George’s solo career and said some nasty things about him after the breakup. And then in college I learned that Abbey Road is probably the best album after all.
But there was a time, before I got all the facts straight, when I was able to live in my own peculiar, anachronistic Beatlemania.
When my dad told us about the “Paul is Dead” hoax of 1966, my sister and I spent a full day searching the cover of Sergeant Pepper’s for clues. On the living room floor there in 2002, it was illogical to really believe that Paul had died and been replaced by a look-alike, but the clues were convincing and I started to doubt the identity of the modern day man claiming to be an aged McCartney. At recess, while the rest of my class played capture the flag, my three friends and I would play “Beatles” and push our already fantastical conception of who they were to ridiculous ends; in my mind, Lovely Rita, Polythene Pam and Lady Madonna evolved into characters complete with costumes and quirks that the lyrics left out. The Beatlemania of my childhood was more than just music. It was an interactive mystery, it was a game, it was an infinite repository of stories left open-ended.
So looking back on it, it seems a funny thing happens when we hijack someone else’s nostalgia and make it our own. We may have tuned in to "The Ed Sullivan Show" 50 years late, but we’ve inherited a version of that fandom that we’ve colored and spun into something private and subjective. My own strange Beatlemania lives quietly within me, and when I catch a glimpse of album art on an iPod or hear a familiar whistling on the path, I suspect a version of it lives in others as well.