The Beatles on US Television in 1964 © National Museums Liverpool collections. Image reference S2007-00648
For most of the popular music audience in the 1950s music was predominantly an aural (heard) experience. They had few, if any, opportunities to see live performances and their response to music was largely formed by their response to records. Television music shows did much to change that.
For the music industry, television offered huge potential for the promotion of new music. TV's ability to transmit directly into millions of viewers' homes simultaneously meant that its impact for popular musicians was far reaching and immediate. Elvis Presley's appearances on various networked television shows in the US in the 1950s (such as 'The Dorsey Brothers' Stage Show', 'The Milton Berle Show' and 'The Steve Allen Show') were instrumental in exposing him to a national audience.
In these appearances moving visual images were a crucial part of the impact. They served to cement Elvis, physically, as the embodiment of the new idiom of rock 'n' roll in the public imagination, and in the process became part of his lasting mythology. Presley's performance of 'Hound Dog' on 'The Milton Berle Show' on 5 June 1956 is particularly notable as it went on to cause a media furor because of his supposedly lewd leg shaking and hip gyrations. This image of Presley subsequently became symbolic of the rock 'n' roll rebellion, and as such a defining moment in the story of the 'generation gap'.
TV music shows relied heavily on a programme style derived from variety shows, based around a succession of different acts. Within this overall format, differing styles of visual presentations developed, and the success of these was a major factor in awakening audience interest in new music. As a result in the UK a series of television pop shows in the late 1950s was crucial to the emergence of a distinct British pop industry. By 1957 the BBC television pop show 'Six Five Special' was attracting regular audiences of over six million viewers. The series was instrumental in launching the careers of British pop performers such as Adam Faith, Terry Deane and Marty Wilde, all of whom had chart hits on the back of appearances on the show. In addition the show did much to popularise new dance and fashion styles amongst its youthful audience, a trend that would continue in other influential British shows from 'Ready, Steady, Go' in the 1960s through to 'The Tube' in the 1980s.
'Six Five Special's producer Jack Good went on to produce several shows for ITV. One of these, 'Oh Boy!', ran from 1958 to 1959 and featured Liverpool singing group the Vernons Girls as resident artists alongside Cliff Richard. Good's close working relationship with pop impresario Larry Parnes led to a whole procession of new British pop stars. 'Oh Boy!' went on to give significant airtime to artists from the Parnes stable of young singers, among whom was Liverpool-born Billy Fury.
Perhaps the most celebrated TV performance of all time was the Beatles' 1964 appearance on the 'Ed Sullivan Show', broadcast to an estimated audience of 73 million people in the US. The show not only served to cement the band's popularity amongst a mass audience but has subsequently been regarded as a significant cultural moment that lifted the mood of the nation. Many accounts relate the appearance and the surrounding emergence of Beatlemania as being a reaction to the recent death of President John F Kennedy. Typical is the account by Billboard chart historian Fred Bronson, who recalls "Living through it, I didn't think we thought we needed something to lift the nation up. It's only looking back on it now, you realize the nation was depressed. I think now it's obvious: we needed something."
The phenomenal success of the Merseybeat scene of the mid-1960s drew a great deal of media attention back to the city of Liverpool, and here visual images played another role, that of providing visual context for musical developments. Documentaries such as 'Beat City' and 'The Mersey Sound' captured the music and excitement of the city during the era. These films also served to reinforce particular images of Liverpool to a wider audience. 'Beat City' for instance attempted to place the city's musical life within the context of its history as a port and its earthy working class cultures.
Television has done much to establish the idea of shared popular culture, to an extent probably not matched by any other medium. Music shows on television have been an important part of that. British shows such as 'Top of the Pops', 'The Tube' and 'The Old Grey Whistle Test' for instance are fondly remembered by audiences and are regarded as highly significant within the British pop landscape. Other TV appearances have become ingrained within the popular memory as symbolic of particular cultural movements or have been regarded as important collective moments in the national psyche. As Mclusky (2003:374) notes "it is impossible to imagine popular music culture on the scale witnessed at the end of the 20th century without the intervention of television."