Bill King reviews CBS’ “The Night That Changed America: A Grammy Salute To The Beatles” …
As I’ve written before, I didn’t listen to Top 40 radio much before The Beatles, so when I tuned in to “The Ed Sullivan Show” 50 years ago on Feb. 9, I’d actually never heard a note of the Fab Four’s music until they launched into “All My Loving,” the first song they performed on that historic telecast.
That was also how, half a century later, CBS launched its anniversary special, “The Night That Changed America,” with black & white video of the impossibly young-looking Fab Four segueing into Adam Levine and Maroon 5 doing a faithful rendition of the song.
I wasn’t sure what to expect out of this two-and-a-half-hour special, taped Jan. 27 at the Los Angeles Convention Center, since the Grammy Awards folks behind it had chosen an all-over-the-musical-map approach in lining up talent (an attempt at something for nearly everyone, basically). So there were contemporary pop stars, indie rockers, r&b stars past and present, a grunge legend, classic rockers, a modern blues-rocker, a couple of Nashville performers and, of course, the two surviving Beatles.
What we got turned out to be a pretty entertaining evening of music that thankfully never lost sight of its purpose: paying tribute to the biggest rock act of the past five decades.
The special included more clips of The Beatles performing on the “Sullivan” show, frustratingly brief snippets of interviews with Paul and Ringo Starr (separately and together) conducted at the Ed Sullivan Theatre in New York City by David Letterman, whose CBS “Late Show” originates there, plus interview clips with “Sullivan” show staffers, members of the audience at that 1964 telecast, and one of the other acts from that original show. There was also a rambling, fitfully funny comedic bit with Monty Python’s Eric Idle, who also narrated the well-done biographical segments on the four Beatles.
Most (not quite all) of the musical matches ended up making sense, even if the lineup of celebs introducing various segments — LL Cool J, Kate Beckinsale, Anna Kendrick, Johnny Depp, Jeff Bridges and Sean Penn — seemed pretty random.
After the telecast opened with the hybrid Beatles/Maroon 5 number, the latter band was given one all to itself and provided a creditable, though unmemorable, rendition of “Ticket to Ride,” sticking pretty much to the original arrangement. Then came Stevie Wonder on “We Can Work It Out”; a sort of Beatles extended family combo consisting of Jeff Lynne (of ELO and Traveling Wilburys fame), Joe Walsh (now Ringo’s brother-in-law) and George Harrison’s son Dhani performing “Something”; folk-popster Ed Sheeran doing a solo “In My Life”; John Mayer and Keith Urban trading vocals and guitar solos on “Don’t Let Me Down”; Katy Perry (wearing what looked like a beach tent) singing “Yesterday”; Imagine Dragons sitting on stools doing “Revolution” on guitars with just a foot-pedal for rhythm; and Foo Fighter Dave Grohl (who referred to The Beatles as “my Mom’s favorite band, my favorite band and now my daughter’s favorite band”) and Lynne teaming up on “Hey Bulldog,” a personal favorite not just because of my University of Georgia leanings.
Next was the frankly overhyped reunion of Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart as the Eurythmics for “The Fool on the Hill,” followed by Alicia Keys and John Legend at facing grand pianos for “Let It Be”; Pharrell Williams (complete with that goofy Vivienne Westwood hat from the Grammys) and Brad Paisley (in his own goofy hat) together on “Here Comes the Sun” (also featuring acrobats from the Cirque du Soleil Beatles musical “LOVE”); and, in the evening’s pre-Beatle high point, Gary Clark Jr. and Walsh on lead guitar and Grohl on drums for “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” (the dual guitar solos toward the end drew cheers from the audience).
Then it was time for a mini set by Ringo, backed by the house band — featuring Kenny Aronoff (drums), Lenny Castro (percussion), Chris Caswell (keyboard), Peter Frampton (guitar), Rami Jaffe (organ), Steve Lukather (guitar), Greg Phillinganes (keyboard), and Don Was (bass), who also served as musical director. Ringo did “Matchbox” (guitar solo by Frampton), a rocking “Boys” (with Ringo on the drum kit and both Lukather and Frampton taking guitar solos) and “Yellow Submarine” (which saw Ringo go out on the stage runway into the crowd).
That was followed by McCartney and his ultra tight touring band doing “Birthday,” “Get Back,” a rousing “I Saw Her Standing There” (Beatle spouses Nancy and Barbara were seen dancing while Yoko did some sort of airplane thing and John Lennon’s son Sean played air guitar). Next was “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” which segued into “With a Little Help From My Friends,” and sure enough Ringo trotted out and took the lead vocal alongside Paul. Starr then took to the drums and Macca to his psychedelic piano for “Hey Jude,” which wound up with all the evening’s performers onstage for the finale.
Both Paul and Ringo paid tribute to the two missing Beatles, Lennon and Harrison, with Starr noting: “We were in a band. It’s called The Beatles. And if we play, John and George are always with us. It’s always John, Paul, George and Ringo.”
Seeing Ringo and Paul together onstage was, of course, a thrill. Neither’s voice was in top-notch shape, but considering their age and the magnitude of the moment, that was sort of beside the point. And even with the frayed vocals, they still were head and shoulders above everyone else on the bill.
Otherwise, I’d say the best performances were Clark, Walsh and Grohl’s sizzling “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” Grohl and Lynne bashing out “Hey Bulldog,” Lynne, Walsh and Dhani doing a fine “Something” (the younger Harrison looking and sounding uncannily like his dad), Keys and Legend’s gospel-tinged “Let It Be,” Sheeran’s simple, acoustic “In My Life” and the guitar workout on Mayer and Urban’s “Don’t Let Me Down.” I was a little disappointed at first the Dragons didn’t do “Revolution” in their normally outsized style, but I enjoyed their acoustic approach and sparkling harmonies nonetheless. Stevie also doesn’t have quite the voice he used to, but his “We Can Work It Out” (which was a hit for him way back when) was funky fun.
However, I’ve never liked Annie Lennox and I didn’t think much of her performance. Katy gave an interesting but only partially successful reading of “Yesterday,” with an unusually low, breathy and emotional delivery. I don’t think the number or arrangement really suited her; she didn’t seem her usual confident, sassy self. And I didn’t think the odd pairing of Paisley and Williams really clicked at all.
I also was a bit disappointed we didn’t get more of Paul, Ringo and Dave at the Sullivan Theatre, but from what my friend Rick Glover was told by a tech at the show, a DVD is probable and likely will have expanded interview segments.
A few notes about what we didn’t see on the CBS telecast: Macca’s first number, “Magical Mystery Tour,” was cut and “Hey Jude” was edited, with Paul’s trademark call and response routine trimmed. Also, after the performance of “With a Little Help,” Ringo said, “Paul McCartney! Or, Sir Paul, as some like to call him … but I never will!” However, those last four words were not heard on the CBS telecast. That wasn’t the only bit of brotherly teasing, though. If you looked carefully during the number, when Ringo sang, “What would you do if I sang out of tune, would you stand up and walk out on me?” Paul mouthed, “I would.”
All in all, it was a largely satisfying TV special that paid suitable tribute to one of the most important nights in pop culture history.
(Special thanks to Rick Glover and Randy Dry! There’s much more on the Beatles tribute show in Beatlefan #206, with on-the-scene reports and photos from the concert. If you’d like to get a copy, a sample issue costs $7 in the U.S. or $10 abroad, U.S. funds only. Credit cards accepted, as is PayPal (payable to email@example.com). Be sure to specify you want Issue #206. Send to P.O. Box 33515, Decatur GA 30033 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.)