We all remember the first time we heard The Beatles. That feeling of being utterly captivated is hard to shake and has stayed with countless people throughout their lives. For anyone below the age of 30, their first experience of The Beatles was likely to have taken place during a hot car journey. I might be speaking for myself here, but pretty much every single one of my childhood holidays – at a time when my brain was little more than soft mush – was soundtracked by Abbey Road, Revolver, and The White Album.
But for the people who were there in the 1960s, that first experience of The Beatles was likely far more life-changing. Today we are spoilt for choice, but in those early days of pop music, the sound of Lennon, McCartney, Harrison and Starr was something transcendent and utterly life-changing. It represented a life beyond, a life of glamour, friendship and new ideas.
Those first experiences can shape who we are; they inform how we perceive the world and what we value. That was certainly the case for Tom Petty, who, in 1964, watched The Beatles perform on The Ed Sullivan Show. That evening changed everything for him. Petty would go on to pursue a life in music for himself, eventually forming Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers in 1976. The group would release some of the biggest selling rock hits of the late ’70s, including ‘American Girl’ and ‘I Won’t Back Down’. Today, he is regarded as one of the greatest guitarists of all time and a classic rock songwriter.
In an interview before his death in 2017, The American guitarist described his first experience of The Beatles with obvious fondness, saying: “I think the whole world was watching that night. It certainly felt that way – you just knew it, sitting in your living room, that everything around you was changing. It was like going from black-and-white to colour. Really.”
Petty went on to recall the excitement which preceded The Beatles’ performance: “I remember earlier that day, in fact, a kid on a bike passed me and said, ‘Hey, The Beatles are on TV tonight.’ I didn’t know him, he didn’t know me – and I thought to myself, ‘This means something.'”
“[The Beatles] came out and just flattened me,” continued Petty. “To hear them on the radio was amazing enough, but to finally see them play, it was electrifying. They did those three songs at the top of the show, and then you had to wait till the end for them to come back on. It felt like an eternity, watching these comedy skits and, like, guys spinning plates – and remember, this is the biggest show on TV, but to us kids, we wanted The Beatles, so to have to watch a guy spinning plates, it was total torture.”
The Beatles’ performance on The Ed Sullivan Show has gone down in history as one of the group’s most iconic live appearances. A record 75 million people tuned in to watch it, and almost everyone, including Tom Petty, was able to recall exactly where they were when it happened.
The performance had such an impact on the culture of the ’60s that, in terms of influence, it comes second only to Kennedy’s assassination in 1963 or man walking on the moon six years later.
You can watch a clip of The Beatles’ performance on The Ed Sullivan Show below: