Exactly 50 years to the day after The Beatles’ first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show on Feb. 9, 1964, the entire episode was shown at Carpinteria’s Plaza Playhouse Theater, part of a fundraising campaign for the purchase and installation of a large, retractable movie screen. The original broadcast cemented The Beatles’ popularity in the American market, with an estimated 40 percent of the entire U.S. population tuning in.
The American audience continued to tune in (and for some, they also turned on and dropped out) as The Beatles led the musical revolution of the 1960s, leaving a body of work that continues to resonate decades later.
But first, the audience had the good fortune to hear local resident Alan Parsons (yep, that Alan Parsons) tell about his experiences working with The Beatles as a young recording engineer at Abbey Road Studios.
The interview with Parsons was conducted onstage by Dennis Mitchell, host of a syndicated Breakfast With The Beatles radio show.
We learned that Parsons grew up in a musical family, and began piano lessons when he was just 6 years old. He was a fan of The Beatles from the start, and listened to their music in the evening at boarding school. He had no formal training as a recording engineer, but got a job working for the record label EMI through his “love of music and love of gadgets.”
Parsons’ first day at Abbey Road Studios was the day The Beatles were wrapping up The White Album. However, his tasks at that time were rather mundane: fetching, logging and filing tapes. When The Beatles recorded the material that became the Let It Be album, he was tasked with making sure that the tape didn’t run out while they were recording, all the while keeping his mouth shut.
Parsons also helped to engineer the Abbey Road album. Unfortunately, it was clear to him that the band was splintering apart: “they were never there together” to record, and only Ringo Starr showed up every day to see if there was anything for him to do. The band finally did come together to hear the final mixed album, and on the same day the iconic photo of them walking across the crosswalk at Abbey Road was taken.
After The Beatles broke up, Parsons continued to work at Abbey Road Studios, including mixing the Pink Floyd album Atom Heart Mother and serving as engineer for Dark Side of the Moon. The latter started out with a “bit of a fight” because Nick Mason was not happy with his drum sound. However, this got resolved, and the album went on to spend a record 15 years on the charts.
Along the way, Parsons learned that he could write songs after getting encouragement from fellow recording engineer Peter Bown, who had his own primitive home studio. Parsons teamed up with Eric Woolfson to form The Alan Parsons Project, which went on to release classic albums including Tales of Mystery and Imagination, I Robot, The Turn of a Friendly Card and Eye in the Sky.
Other interesting tidbits that the audience learned: Parsons prefers the Glyn Johns version of Let It Be (which eventually came out as Let It Be ... Naked) over the Phil Spector version. In the late 1970s Parsons was neighbors with Ringo in Monaco, both there to avoid England’s high income tax rate. Parsons didn’t get rich from the use of the song “Sirius” during the starting lineup introductions for the Chicago Bulls and elsewhere. Finally, when an audience member asked Parsons who he would have liked or would like to work with, without hesitation he said The Who.
Regarding The Ed Sullivan Show, Parsons said that this was not a big deal at the time in England because the show was not broadcast there. But it was a watershed moment in the United States, with the Beatles peforming “All My Loving,” “Till There Was You,” “She Loves You,” “I Saw Here Standing There” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” split into two segments.
After 50 years of continued popularity for The Beatles, it was amusing to see that back then they had to briefly put their names on the screen during individual close-ups so the TV audience would know who was who. Even more amusing, when John Lennon’s name was shown it said, “Sorry Girls, He’s Married.” Of course, there were lots of screaming girls during The Beatles’ performances. And it was interesting to see the other acts on the show, including an appearance by future Monkee Davy Jones as part of the cast of Oliver! We even saw the actual commercials from the original broadcast.
A splendid time was had by all at the Plaza Playhouse Theater, thanks to the reflections of Alan Parsons and the chance to relive the beginnings of the British Invasion, with The Beatles at the vanguard.
Click here for more information on the Plaza Playhouse Theater’s fundraising campaign.
— Jeff Moehlis is a Noozhawk contributing writer and a professor of mechanical engineering at UC Santa Barbara. Upcoming show recommendations, advice from musicians, interviews and more are available on his web site, music-illuminati.com. The opinions expressed are his own.