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The Beatles on 'Ed Sullivan': New DVD set lands

September 8, 2010 | 11:37 am

Beatles-Ed Sullivan 1964 
The Beatles' nation-rocking U.S. television performances in 1964 and 1965 have resurfaced this week in a new DVD package,“The 4 Complete Ed Sullivan Shows Starring the Beatles,” providing a look not just at the group’s American breakthrough, but also the cultural context in which they made it.

The set includes 20 numbers from the Fab Four, a few of the songs repeated from show to show, as presented by Sullivan on Feb. 9, Feb. 16 and Feb. 23, 1964, and their final live appearance on his program on Sept. 12, 1965.

The group's performances take place amid the latter-day vaudeville variety show that Sullivan hosted on Sunday nights, which bolsters the revolutionary feeling of their arrival on U.S. shores. Their segments -- and songs -- still come across as timeless, their energy and fresh sound accentuated by the stylized geometric design of the sets surrounding them.

They’re all the more distinctive seen alongside such old-school entertainers as Welsh singer-actress Tessie O’Shea performing a medley of show tunes, comedians such as Allen & Rossi and impressionist Frank Gorshin, and the acrobat and puppet acts that Sullivan, and his audience, seemed to love so much. The shows are presented with the original commercials intact as well, from sponsors such as Lipton Tea and Aero Shave shaving cream.

Only the most devoted pop music anthropologists will relish the appearance on the Feb. 23 show by goateed English clarinetist Acker Bilk, but roots-minded music lovers have a treat in store with a pair of numbers on the same show from bandleader Cab Calloway, stylish as ever in his white tie and tails, gliding through “St. James Infirmary” and “Old Man River.”

For some, there will be a sense of a lost era in which all this mashed-up cross-generational culture coexisted happily, a prospect that seems all the more distant in the iPod/earbud/YouTube age in which everyone programs his or her own entertainment, often with little or no common ground with other family members, friends or neighbors.

This $19.98 list set essentially reintroduces the shows, purchased in 1990 by producer-director Andrew Solt, that previously surfaced on DVD in 2003 in a set distributed by an independent company; this version stands to reach a broader audience because it’s now being handled by Universal Music Enterprises.

There's an audio option for playing it back with a 5.1 multichannel remix, but the big difference between the older set and the new one is the bonus material: 13 minutes' worth, mostly snippets from other Sullivan shows in which he mentions the Beatles in passing, plugs the group's upcoming appearances or otherwise invokes their name, consistently to the screams of any teens in the house.

The most significant previously unreleased tidbit is an interview in London that Sullivan conducted with the group -- but once again, it’s Sullivan who does most of the talking. Only the most ardent Beatles completists who already own the 2003 set will feel compelled to buy it again for these 13 new minutes of video. But any longtime or recent-vintage Beatlemaniacs who have never seen these shows are in for some really big fun.

-- Randy Lewis

Photograph of the Beatles on "The Ed Sullivan Show" in 1964. Credit: Associated Press