The world was a much bigger place 50 years ago.
With no internet, pop-culture phenomena could percolate for years in their native lands, before anyone else around the globe caught a whiff of what was happening.
It's inconceivable today that anything could sneak up on us. But that was the case in February 1964, when the Beatles appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show for the first time. A record-setting American TV audience of 73 million viewers collectively said, “We didn't even know they had rock and roll in England. What is up with those haircuts? Why are all those girls screaming? Who are these guys?”
The Beatles had become a big deal in their native England over the course of 1963, but their landscape-altering assault on North America in early 1964 set off what became known as The British Invasion. Thus we have a new one-hour documentary, titled The Sixties: The British Invasion, airing Thursday, Jan. 30 on CNN (keep in mind that CNN always is at the mercy of breaking news, schedules notwithstanding).
The British Invasion documentary comes from award-winning producers Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman. Hanks, of course, is a devotee of the music of this era, which was evidenced by his movie That Thing You Do! And also, if you get a chance, seek out Hanks' passionate speech when he inducted The Dave Clark 5 into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
The British Invasion documentary rightly begins with the Beatles, but also looks at the other British bands in that first wave that battled for the hearts of North American teens, including the afore-mentioned Dave Clark 5, the Animals, the Kinks and the Rolling Stones.
Over the next few years we will be awash in 50th-anniversary programming, since so much monumental stuff occurred between 1963 and 1969. It began last November, with all those specials and documentaries about the assassination of U.S. President John F. Kennedy.
CNN actually has commissioned a full 10-episode documentary series, collectively called The Sixties. Last November it aired the JFK episode to coincide with that anniversary, and now it's the same with the British Invasion episode. The full 10 episodes of The Sixties – including repeats of JFK and the British Invasion – will air on CNN in May.
Surviving Beatles Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr performed together at the Grammys last weekend on CBS and City. PBS already aired a documentary titled 1964 a few weeks ago. On Feb. 9, CBS has the special The Night That Changed America: A Grammy Salute to the Beatles, marking the exact day 50 years ago that the Fab Four appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show. And also watch for a great new doc titled Glad All Over: The Dave Clark 5 and Beyond, coming to PBS on April 8.
If you don't care about 1960s music, this all will seem like a bit much, I get it. But in terms of pop culture and influence, music never was more important than it was 50 years ago.
A half-century from now, there likely will be anniversary documentaries about Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. For now, I want to hold your hand.