The 4 Complete Ed Sullivan Shows Starring The Beatles has been reissued as basically the same two DVD set distributed by the now-defunct GoodTimes Entertainment in 2003. This time the SOFA Entertainment production is being distributed by Universal Music Enterprises. The packaging and DVD menus have been changed. A few minutes of marginal bonus material have been added. Otherwise, the new release isn’t an “upgrade,” but it’s nice to see this material readily available again.
While there is some value in seeing the variety show as originally presented, the obvious draw are the performances by The Beatles. For many viewers this will be a nostalgia trip. The Beatles’ performances from these shows have been excerpted in various lengths and presented over and over again in various documentaries. Here they are seen in the exact context in which audiences first experienced them.
The Ed Sullivan Show was quite unlike contemporary programs that feature musical acts promoting their latest releases. It was a variety show where the level of hipness veered wildly, from the inclusion of cutting edge musical acts to puppet shows. Even for those who weren’t born when these originally aired, it’s worth watching all the way through to appreciate (and probably laugh at) what was presented.
There are a few gems amongst these four programs that have nothing to do with The Beatles. The third episode features a knockout appearance by Cab Calloway, who performs a medley of “St. James Infirmary” with a madly uptempo “Ol’ Man River.” Future Riddler Frank Gorshin delivers a funny routine in the first episode. Beatles’ associate Cilla Black turns up in the fourth episode to sing a pair of songs, “September In the Rain” and “Goin’ Out Of My Head.” Also standing out amongst the acrobats and magicians is the English comedy duo Morecambe & Wise, whose sketch from the third episode holds up well.
As for The Beatles, their performances were marred by the technical limitations of the era in which they were taped. The original mixes were horrible, with background vocals often overpowering the lead. Ringo Starr’s drumming is often nearly inaudible, becoming more prominent during the few shots where the camera moves in for a close-up. Microphones were often too low to be effectively sung into, or wobble over to one side mid-song. Apparently there were no stagehands able to make adjustments. Peak limiters clip much of the more boisterous singing. None of this should be attributed to the DVDs themselves, which are accurately presenting the irreparable audio/visual experience as transmitted in 1964 and ’65.
The Beatles first appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show on February 9th, 1964. This was the first of three weeks in a row that the group would be featured. That first appearance is justifiably the most famous. Paul McCartney is featured most prominently, singing lead on three of the five songs. On the remaining two songs, though performed as duets with John Lennon, McCartney’s voice is so much higher in the mix it gives the impression of a lead vocal.
Taped in Miami the following week, their February 16th appearance is the most satisfying. For whatever reasons, the group’s sound packs a great deal more punch during their six songs. Though plagued by badly placed microphones, The Beatles sound much more alive. Maybe they were less nervous and able to rock harder.
Originally airing February 23rd, 1964, their third appearance was actually a pre-taped set from February 9th. Quite savvy on Sullivan’s part to have an additional set in the can, milking the hysteria for all it was worth. While there were only three songs performed, two of them were not featured on either of the earlier broadcasts.
The fourth and final performance comes from a September 12th, 1965 broadcast. The six song set was pre-taped on August 14th, 1965. It’s an interesting contrast, since the group was now performing more mature pieces from the Help! era. As a live band they had not improved. By their own admission they had grown sloppier as live performers in the year and a half since the initial Sullivan appearances. Songs like “I’m Down” and “Ticket To Ride” are sorely lacking when compared to their studio counterparts, though still interesting to hear performed live. Ringo Starr gets a moment in the spotlight with a charming run-through of “Act Naturally.” And George Harrison, though never given a lead vocal on Sullivan, at least gets to speak when he introduces McCartney before “Yesterday.”
The 4 Complete Ed Sullivan Shows Starring The Beatles attempts to present the audio in Dolby Digital 5.1, but the obvious source limitations render the mix less than desirable. The regular stereo is the better option, closer the original mono broadcast. This material was badly recorded to begin with. No amount of remixing is going to make it sound good by modern standards. That said, the producers of this DVD have done what they can and the results are most definitely listenable.
The menu options allow the viewer to select The Beatles performances only, a nice touch for anyone wishing to avoid skipping chapters to find them. The thirteen minutes of bonus material consists mainly of Ed Sullivan mentioning The Beatles during episodes of his show in which the group did not appear. The best of these short segments is a brief interview Sullivan conducted with the group during filming of A Hard Day’s Night.
For fans of The Beatles, The 4 Complete Ed Sullivan Shows Starring The Beatles is a must-have. No amount of complaining about technical problems inherent in the source material can wipe away the historical significance of seeing these performances. If you didn’t grab it when GoodTimes distributed it several years ago, this reissue is reasonably priced and well worth owning.