I don’t usually write about the Beatles, even though I’ve been a huge fan of theirs from day one. There’s really no point in my writing about them, since there are a ton of websites and books, detailing every aspect of their lives. I don’t have much to add, being just a regular fan. But, with this blog piece, I just want to point out a few quirky observations about why I think the Beatles made such an impact on our American lives that day back in February 1964—in this case, visual impact.
Of course it was primarily their enormous talent that accounted for the impact that day on the Ed Sullivan Show. I don’t mean to detract from that. I’d never before seen a rock’n’roll group playing instruments and simultaneously singing live on television. Elvis and others before 1964 sang live, but with a backup group or orchestra. Also, the musicianship of the Beatles was so excellent that they sounded very close to the records that we’d been listening to night and day on AM radio for the prior two months.
But there was something about their visual impact on the television screen.
The “Big White Set” (BWS)
Thirty years earlier, Hollywood film-makers coined the term “Big White Set” or “BWS,” in reference to the intentional black-and-white contrast created when Fred Astaire danced in his dark tuxedo against a blindingly white background set of ramps and staircases in his RKO movies with Ginger Rogers1. It made for a stark contrast where his every move stood out on the screen. I believe that the producers of the Sullivan show and possibly Brian Epstein, the Beatles’ manager, intentionally recreated this effect for the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show and other 1964 appearances.
We know that Brian Epstein required the Beatles to start wearing well-tailored suits. The band at around this same time started converting its equipment to all black. Their fawn-colored Vox amplifiers were re-covered in black Tolex material. John’s natural wood-colored guitar was repainted black2. George bought a black Rickenbacker guitar. Ringo bought a Ludwig “Black Oyster Pearl” drum kit. We also know that Brian Epstein required that the band be telecast in black-and-white for their 1965 Sullivan appearance, even though the show was already using color cameras at the time.
As both a Beatles and Fred-and-Ginger fan, I have to vote this no coincidence. There were plenty of camera men and directors in 1964 who honed their chops during the 1930’s and they certainly knew what a BWS was and how to effectively use it.
Big Men with Tiny Instruments
This is something that I’ve never seen discussed, but seems fairly obvious to me. I own copies of the Beatle instruments and I can attest that many of them are extra small-sized instruments. Lennon’s Rickenbacker 325 is a ¾ size guitar3 and McCartney’s Hofner 500/1 bass is also ¾ size in scale4. Even Ringo’s Ludwig drum kit was an odd, small size at the time (he later upgraded to a normal-sized one)5. (Just look at how the bass drum barely reaches roadie Mal Evan’s knee in the photo in hyperlink #5 below!) Only George had a regular-sized guitar, the Gretsch Country Gentleman, which looked bizarrely large to me at the time–most likely relative to all of the other small instruments on the stage.
Doesn’t anyone think that this image of large men playing small instruments added visual support to the impression that these men dominated and totally mastered their instruments? They were larger than life.
But I vote this one pure coincidence. All of these short-scale instruments were purchased in different years. In each case, the instrument was likely the only one remaining in the store where it was purchased. The Beatles probably just liked the look and sound of the instruments so much that they coped with the small sizes.
They Reminded Americans of the Late President Kennedy
The Beatles weren’t the first ones to have mop-tops back in the 1960’s. President Kennedy had one, probably owing to the influence of Mrs. Kennedy being a Francophile. The Beatles probably nicked the style from the French, too, on a visit there. Kennedy’s hair was unusual for the times that he lived in. I recall the Vaughn Meader comedy record, The First Family, repeatedly referring to the President as the man “with all the hair.”
It seems reasonable to me, looking back in hindsight, that a nation who had lost its most beloved leader just a couple of months earlier saw something familiar and comforting in the young men from Liverpool in the suits with the mop-tops. The youth and energy that was cut down so senselessly in November was resurgent in February. We were moving on.
So, I just wanted to make these few observations, as a long-time fan. Let me know your opinion of about these visual quirks were real and, if so, intentional.