When the Beatles appeared on "The Ed Sullivan Show" 25 years ago today -- their first live appearance on American television -- it was a communal moment that made the country absolutely giddy. No one could have guessed that this showcase would be so historic, or that the show's impact on pop culture would be so deep, particularly since the group was essentially still unknown to American audiences as 1963 turned into 1964. "The event was a pop explosion," cultural analyst Greil Marcus has noted, defining it as "an irresistible cultural upheaval that cuts across lines of class and race and, most crucially, divides society itself by age. The surface of daily life -- walk, talk, dress, symbolism, heroes, family affairs -- is affected with such force that deep and substantive changes in the way large numbers of people think and act take place." And large numbers of people were watching: 728 were in the audience at CBS' Studio 52, the lucky ones among the 50,000 who had requested tickets (an all-time Sullivan record; by contrast, only 7,000 had requested tickets for Elvis Presley's Sullivan debut in 1957). The biggest numbers, of course, came in the next day with Nielsen reports that 74 million people had watched "The Ed Sullivan Show," setting a record for the largest-ever audience for any entertainment show, and a total that has been surpassed only twice since for regularly scheduled programs (the last episode of "The Fugitive" in 1967 and the "Who Shot J.R.?" episode of "Dallas" in 1980). Among the 60 percent of televisions in America tuned to CBS that night was the one belonging to the Rev. Billy Graham, who was breaking his own rigid rule by watching television on the Sabbath. ("They're a passing phase," he said the next day, calling them "symptoms of the uncertainty of the times and the confusion about us.") If the good guys were watching, so were the bad guys. Legend has it that the national crime rate for Feb. 9, 1964, was the lowest in half a century, and the Daily News reported that in all five New York boroughs, not a single hubcap was stolen. In Washington there were no arrests of teen-agers during the show. It was an event that produced a fixed memory, one of the few in the last 30 years where, if you ask people where they were at the time, the great majority are likely to remember, just as with the assassination of John F. Kennedy. That event, 10 weeks before, had plunged America into a spiritual gloom. The Beatles, unknown here in November 1963, provided an emotional revival for much of America in February 1964. CBS' press release was somewhat mild, identifying "The Beatles of London" as a "wildly popular quartet of English recording stars." Also on the show were comedians Mitzi McCall and Charlie Brill, impressionist Frank Gorshin, a tumbling act called the Four Fays and 37 members of the cast from the Broadway musical "Oliver!" (including Artful Dodger Davy Jones, who a few years later would surface in a prefab four, the Monkees). The Beatles' appearance had been set up three months earlier when manager Brian Epstein ventured to New York, at least partly to encourage Capitol Records to show a little interest in the group. Sullivan's scouts had already taken notice of the reaction in Europe, and Sullivan himself had witnessed the phenomenon at a London airport when the Beatles came back from a Swedish tour and he sensed the same degree of hysteria that had attended Presley. Sullivan, the great dour presence, seemed more animated than usual the night of the show, treating those in the audience like what they were, hyperactive children, and asking the girls in particular to stay in their seats. He told the audience Elvis Presley had sent a congratulatory telegram wishing the Beatles "a tremendous success"; actually Col. Tom Parker had sent the wire, since Elvis hated the Beatles, possibly sensing that their beginning marked some kind of ending for him. Although Sullivan's was the most popular variety show on television, he and his staff had been unprepared for the crush of hundreds of reporters and photographers invading the studio in the days before the show -- something he mentioned on the air. "These veterans agree with me that the city has never witnessed the excitement stirred by these youngsters from Liverpool who call themselves the Beatles," he told the audience. After a commercial for Aero Shave, Sullivan said, "Let's bring 'em out!" and the curtain parted. A dozen white arrows pointed in on the Beatles -- set designer Bill Bohnert later said he was trying to symbolize that the group was "HERE" -- and they stood there with no visible signs of nervousness, as if they had no idea of the size of their audience. Which no one did, of course. After the surge of screams and a slight "a-one-two-three-four!" the Beatles launched into their first song, with Paul McCartney singing lead (as he did on four of the five songs performed on the show). "Close your eyes and I'll kiss you, tomorrow I'll miss you ..." There was none of the scandal that had occurred just a few years before with Presley, when Sullivan had bowed to demands that he show Elvis from the waist up. The Beatles had no magic hips, were in fact quite sedate in their matching, perfectly pressed, collarless Edwardian jackets, shirts and neckties. Their hair, deemed outrageously long at the time, fell in bangs across their foreheads and stopped at midneck. Boyish Paul McCartney, 21, sang earnestly at one microphone and stroked his bass. Shy George Harrison, 20, was in the middle on lead guitar. John Lennon, 23, on rhythm guitar, harmonized at another microphone. Stolid Ringo Starr, 23, sat high above them on a platform, pounding out beats on the drums. The first set consisted of "All My Loving," "Till There Was You" and "She Loves You"; after a commercial for Griffin Shoe Polish came the second set of "I Saw Her Standing There" and "I Want to Hold Your Hand." Press reaction was not particularly kind. The Washington Post described the Beatles as "asexual and homely." The New York Herald Tribune dismissed them as "75 percent publicity, 20 percent haircut and 5 percent lilting lament." The New York Daily News decided that "visually, they are a nightmare: Tight, dandified Edwardian beatnik suits and great pudding-bowls of hair ... Musically, it's near disaster -- guitar and drums slamming out a merciless beat that does away with secondary rhythms, harmony and melody ... The lyrics, punctuated by nutty shouts of yeah, yeah, yeah, are a catastrophe, a preposterous farrago of Valentine-card romantic sentiments." As usual, the press had no impact on popular taste. What's intriguing is to think about what might have happened. As late as the day before the show, George Harrison had missed the rehearsals because of illness, with road manager Neil Aspinall filling in. At one point, a worried Sullivan threatened to don a Beatle wig and sit in for Harrison if he had to. Mercifully, he didn't have to. Before Sullivan, the Beatles had actually appeared on television -- in a brief Jan. 3 clip on "The Jack Paar Show" that focused on fan hysteria. Still, even with the surge of attention and success, they received only $2,400 for each of the three Sullivan shows (one the next week from Miami and one, three weeks later, that had been taped Feb. 9, though no one seems to remember whether it was before or after the live show). That fee, incidentally, was half the going rate for the show (Elvis had gotten $50,000) and the Beatles also had to join AFTRA before they could even rehearse. Additionally, they had been granted special "H2" work permits, which allowed only for a two-week visit and the right to perform "so long as unemployed American citizens capable of performing the work cannot be found." The Beatles did get $3,500 for each of the three concerts that followed Sullivan, including their American debut at the Washington Coliseum and two shows at Carnegie Hall, shows that Epstein booked partly to offset costs not covered by CBS. Obviously, the crafty manager had weighed these reduced rates against the shows' promotional value, and the promotional values of the Sullivan show could never have been measured, though there were certain tangibles: In the month after Sullivan, the Beatles sold 2.5 million records in the United States alone. They had no chart presence five weeks before, but five weeks afterward they owned the singles chart, with all Top Five spots ("Can't Buy Me Love," "Twist and Shout," "She Loves You," "I Want to Hold Your Hand" and "Please Please Me"), as well as numbers 16, 44, 49, 69, 78, 84 and 88. Who'd a thunk it? Twenty-five years later, the Beatles' appearance on "The Ed Sullivan Show" seems not only important but a crucial restorative. After 10 weeks, America needed to recover from its collective shock after Dallas. In "Shout," his fine study of the Beatles, Phillip Norman writes that "America had been struck dumb by a great and terrible event, and now found her voice again through an event which no psychiatrist could have made more therapeutically trivial ... a moment simultaneously gratifying America's need for a new idol, a new toy, a painkilling drug and a laugh." Yeah, yeah, yeah.