Of course I have to write about The Beatles this week. February 9th marks the 50th anniversary of their appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, which kicked off their total takeover (acquisition? expropriation?) of the US record charts—and the American pop music scene.
Given the teen hysteria they unleashed, The Beatles became the headlines in US newspapers that weekend—and frequently thereafter. The public reaction to the young Liverpool band eclipsed the frenzy once generated by Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley—and hasn't been matched since.
When I first began writing my book (which, I'm embarrassed to admit, was over 10 years ago) I was tempted to make The Beatles my only rock reference point, because they did SO many things right as a business team. By themselves they could sell my case that for a team to be extraordinary it has to be innovative, passionate, comfortable with conflict, uniquely distinct, mission-driven, and self-determined.
Even more fundamentally, The Beatles demonstrated that an exceptional business team knows how to play, in every sense of the word. It operates with a sense of joy and adventure, with a youthful energy (never exclusive to youth) and a willingness to experiment. Otherwise, a team—whether a musical group, a campaign committee, a daycare staff, or a tech startup—is unlikely to flourish, especially in an insanely competitive creative economy. Look no further than the Silicon Valley success stories to see these qualities in abundant display.
But because we've seen several top-tier rock units besides The Beatles exhibit these qualities—and because many young readers might not relate to a singular focus on a classic rock group that broke up over forty years ago—I decided to include other bands in my book, including contemporary ones like Walk Off The Earth (which is finally getting the attention it deserves).
Back to February 9, 1964... For those who aren’t old enough to remember, The Ed Sullivan Show was the most successful American TV variety show of the era, beginning in the 1950s. A Sullivan appearance launched many a show biz career (as it did for Elvis in 1956).
That Sunday evening, everyone I knew—no exceptions—watched The Beatles, who were seen by approximately 40 million households and 73 million viewers in the US. (The only real alternative on a Sunday night was Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color—actually a cool show for its time, but no competition for Ed Sullivan debuting a pop music phenomenon.) It’s hard to wrap one’s brain around the fact that approximately 40% of the entire American population tuned in to watch the Fab Four that night. I don’t think that’s happened for Miley Cyrus.
Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein has gotten his share of flack over the years for his show biz inexperience. He literally short-changed the band by not obtaining higher royalty rates on their records (which may have cost them a billion dollars over the years) and a higher share of merchandising income. But Epstein, having a background in theatre, had a good gut sense of how to package and promote an act. (Check here for my interview with the Beatles’ first drummer, Pete Best, who acknowledged the difference that "Eppy" made.)
Epstein could have demanded a hefty fee for the Beatles’ performance on Ed Sullivan, but instead he bargained for top billing and accepted $10,000 total for three Beatles’ appearances. Eight years earlier Sullivan had paid Elvis $50,000 for three appearances—obscene money in 1956. But the difference in dollars was chump change if top billing could get The Beatles powerfully launched as the next big thing. In my estimation it did. A good example of long-term thinking. And another business lesson from rock.
As a footnote to the above, not everyone was as impressed with The Beatles’ American inauguration as the teens were. A week later, Newsweek magazine ran a cover with the title “Bugs About Beatles.” Their review of the Sullivan show appearance was a stunner to me:
Visually, they are a nightmare: tight, dandified, Edwardian/Beatnik suits and great pudding bowls of hair. Musically, they are a near-disaster: guitars and drums slamming out a merciless beat that does away with secondary rhythms, harmony, and melody. Their lyrics (punctuated by nutty shouts of “yeah, yeah, yeah!”) are a catastrophe, a preposterous farrago of Valentine-card romantic sentiments.
The magazine even predicted: “The odds are they will fade away, as most adults confidently predict.”
Yeah, so much for adult wisdom.