It is difficult to impart to young people today what a phenomenon the Beatles were in the 1960s. Imagine, when the Beatles appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show, 73 million people were watching, and in 1964 the US population was only 192 million!
Sullivan’s failure to scoop the TV industry with[Elvis] Presley made him determined to get the next big sensation first. In 1964, he achieved that with the first live American appearance of The Beatles, on February 9, 1964, the most-watched program in TV history to that point and still one of the most-watched programs of all time. (Wikipedia)
At 8 o’clock on February 9th 1964, America tuned in to CBS and The Ed Sullivan Show. But this night was different. 73 million people gathered in front their TV sets to see The Beatles’ first live performance on U.S. soil. The television rating was a record-setting 45.3, meaning that 45.3% of households with televisions were watching. That figure reflected a total of 23,240,000 American homes. The show garnered a 60 share, meaning 60% of the television’s turned on were tuned in to Ed Sullivan and The Beatles. Source
Their appearance on Ed Sullivan took place exactly 80 days after the funeral of John F. Kennedy, which was another event whose impact on the American public is impossible to convey to anyone who didn’t live through it. You will often hear it said that we were in a collective state of mourning, and the Beatles appearance on Ed Sullivan was something that allowed the nation to come together with a sense of relief. Having lived through it, I agree.
In many ways the Beatles were the beginning of a universal youth culture, and they were at the center of the spirit of the 60s.
Up until this point, the world was much less interconnected. Prior to the Beatles, with the exception of a fluke, or one-hit-wonder, it would have been unthinkable to have a British artist at the top of the US pop charts. Our pop stars tended to have slick hair, and suddenly here were these guys from the North of England with (what was then considered) unbelievably long hair. Consider this quote from Elvis Presley while visiting the White House in 1970:
“The Beatles laid the groundwork for many of the problems we are having with young people by their filthy unkempt appearances and suggestive music while entertaining in this country during the early and middle 1960s.”
—Elvis Presley, recorded during a 1970 visit to Richard Nixon at the White House