It Was 50 Years Ago Today
Before I begin this review, let me get this off my chest: I’m a Beatles fan. I have always been a Beatles fan. And I have every intention of remaining a Beatles fan — not only when I get older, but many years from now (I’ve already lost my hair, all right?).
With this caveat out of the way, I have a few words to say about last Sunday’s The Beatles: The Night that Changed America – A Grammy Salute program, taped on January 27 and broadcast on the CBS network on February 9, 2014 — exactly 50 years to the day (and to the minute) the Beatles made their historic American television debut on The Ed Sullivan Show.
I was eight at the time, when my family and I settled down in front of our little 13” black-and-white set to watch an audience of mostly teenage girls (and a handful of well-behaved adults) scream their fool heads off non-stop for damn near an hour. Heck, you should’ve heard the yelling when the Beatles themselves came out! Beneath the deafening noise and carrying-on, one could make out some pretty decent music-making — even under those far from ideal conditions.
Well, here we are again, several generations later, with this up-to-the-minute salute to the Liverpool lads’ classic song output, done by a bevy of pop stars and purportedly top-drawer entertainers. The kitchen-sink approach taken by the show’s producers, however, had its pluses and minuses. Overall, I’d say it too was decent, and the music won out as expected. Now, was I completely satisfied with the results? Yes and no. I’ll get to the details in a moment.
First, here’s a brief rundown of the assembled talent: Adam Levine and Maroon 5, Stevie Wonder, Joe Walsh, Jeff Lynne, Ed Sheeran, Keith Urban, John Mayer, Katy Perry, Imagine Dragons, Dave Grohl (a true dyed-in-the-wool Beatles fan), the reunited Eurythmics, Alicia Keys in a piano-and-voice duet with John Legend (now you’re talking!), Pharrell Williams, Brad Paisley, Gary Clark Jr., and — for good measure — the two surviving members of the onetime Fab Four, Ringo Starr and Paul McCartney. Whew! I’m already exhausted from just typing out the names.
It’s obvious to us fans, both in and out of the auditorium, that great things were expected from the above lineup. Did viewers get their money’s worth? That depends on whether the standard arrangements of Beatles songs were what people tuned in for. In some cases, that’s exactly what we got. But in others… hmm…
Let’s cut to the chase, then, shall we? Adam Levine and his band, Maroon 5, came out with guns blazing in a rip-roaring “All My Loving.” This was followed by his solo take on “Ticket to Ride.” Both were respectful and hard-driving but hardly jubilant affairs. Levine could have used some backup on “Ticket to Ride” to move the harmony along. Worse, the clip of the real Beatles singing “All My Loving” unfairly contrasted the original with this less than stellar run.
Moving on, next up was the irrepressible Stevie Wonder in a funky retread of “We Can Work It Out.” I’m told that Stevie has performed this version on previous occasions. However, the song’s melodic line, as he envisioned it, became all but unrecognizable. We’ve had excellent cover versions of other artists’ material before — I’m thinking of Ike and Tina Turner’s adrenaline-inducing take on Creedence Clearwater’s “Proud Mary” (“Rollin’, rollin’, rollin’ on the river”). Talk about jumpin’ jack flash, it’s a real foot stomper and totally faithful to the spirit of the original.
If we’re going to mention the Beatles in this context, my own preferred cover of their work is blue-eyed-soul singer Joe Cocker’s call-and-response rendition of “With a Little Help from My Friends.” With its “Ray Charles meets the Staple Singers” revivalist touches, Cocker got to the heart of this song’s content by drawing out its gospel-flavored roots.
Now, Stevie Wonder is a great artist. But if he wanted to reach the heights of Cocker’s classic, he overshot the mark. Part of the problem is that the middle section of “We Can Work It Out” is in a minor key. Unless I’m very much mistaken, most jazz-funk outgrowths are decidedly up-tempo and in a major mode. On this occasion, Wonder’s choice of keys and rhythm were, how should I put this… less than wondrous.
After veering off course for a bit, the show got back on track with superb guitar and vocal licks by the Eagles’ Joe Walsh and former Electric Light Orchestra magus, Jeff Lynne. Lending an air of legitimacy to the gathering was George Harrison’s son, Dhani. The rising tide of their account of his father’s classic “Something” (the title and first line of which were lifted from a James Taylor song) seemed to lift all boats as well — proof that if you stick to the originals, you can’t go wrong.
For a change of pace, the Suffolk-born singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran was featured in a pared down “In My Life,” sans Beatles’ producer George Martin’s Baroque-era piano accompaniment. Sheeran’s minimalist reworking (acoustic guitar and hushed vocals) was reverent if a shade below the original’s solipsism.
This was followed by Keith Urban and John Mayer’s “dueling banjos” delineation of John Lennon’s “Don’t Let Me Down,” made famous in that notorious Apple Record Studios rooftop concert in London. While not even close to topping Lennon’s commanding delivery, Urban and Mayer had the time of their lives trying to outdo one another in the show’s most successful vibe.
Time Out for a Commercial Break…
When we returned, there stood pop singer Katy Perry front and center, with a candy-colored, psychedelic backdrop flowing behind her. She surrounded herself with strings and cellos (actually, a bit more than required), in preparation for a weepy, heart-on-sleeve, quivery-toned “Yesterday.”
Overly dramatic and needlessly weighty given the song’s simple message of lost love, Perry could have benefited from a less is more approach (especially that enormous floral mantle she was wearing). Television’s America’s Got Talent and The Voice, please take note as well!
Making amends for that disastrous wrong turn, we were treated to Imagine Dragons’ re-imagining of “Revolution.” Taking out some of the original’s verbal stridency and instrumental distortion, this alternative band’s acoustic way with the song — reminiscent of the Eagles’ Hell Freezes Over sessions — was not only listenable but consistently pleasurable for such an explicitly political statement.
Time now for Dave Grohl and Jeff Lynne’s growling “Hey Bulldog,” one of Lennon’s least inspired creations (a “filler track,” as he termed it). Good as their playing was, it could not turn a so-so vehicle into a first-rate one.
Annie Lennox’s soulful singing style and gray-eyed visage (little changed despite the years) proved a most welcome presence. She was joined by ex-bandmate and former husband, Dave Stewart, in an exuberantly executed “Fool on the Hill.” Here’s another Beatles masterwork, whose most celebrated cover version, as recorded by Sergio Mendes and his group, Brasil ’66, remains the undisputed jazz-pop standard.
Lennox, to her credit, gave the song her unrivaled vocal abilities. Stewart was more low-key on guitar. Still, they had the audience on their feet at the end, which put to shame some of their younger colleagues’ attempts at roof-raising. Welcome back, Eurythmics!
Next, we were off to the races with Alicia Keys and John Legend’s gorgeously sung tribute to Paul McCartney’s “Let It Be.” If this song sounds suspiciously like Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” chalk it up to one of those once-in-a-lifetime quirks. In reality, Paul’s homage to his mother Mary was written the year before and recorded six months’ prior to S & G’s release.
Ms. Keys positively glowed with fondness for the number, while Mr. Legend revealed a honeyed, tenor timbre to go with his smoother-than-silk harmonizing. Here at last were two recognized pop stylists who could sing in sync and in tune! What a concept in these days of shouters, squealers and other horrors!
Not to be outdone, along came singer-songwriter, producer, rapper and musician Pharrell Williams, sporting what looked like a beat-up Royal Canadian Mounted Police hat. Joined for the second verse by country-music sensation Brad Paisley, together they presented an unexpectedly twangy “Here Comes the Sun,” which was not without its inner-city charm.
Up above their heads, we were treated to aerial acrobatics by members of the Cirque du Soleil troupe, who distracted more than they entertained.
This last session of guest artists concluded with the return of Joe Walsh on guitar and Dave Grohl on drums. Accompanying them was Grammy-winning guitarist and actor Gary Clark Jr., who played with Walsh on the affecting “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” Walsh may have missed some of the lyrics’ original poignancy (abetted, admittedly, by George Harrison’s double-tracked delivery), but his and Clark’s energetic strumming made short work of the solos, played by blues-man Eric Clapton on The Beatles’ White Album.
For the pièce de résistance, the group’s erstwhile drummer Ringo eagerly stepped up to the platform for a recap of his earlier hits, Carl Perkins’ “Matchbox” and “Boys,” first recorded by the Shirelles. Next, the audience (and the viewers at home, no doubt), were treated to a rousing rendition of that old favorite, “Yellow Submarine.”
Seeing Dave Grohl partaking of the festivities, with his primary school daughter singing along to the music, was enough to understand the impact the Beatles have had on America’s youth. Ringo had been itching all night for a chance to lead the crowd. And he got it, by George, John and Paul!
He did it again when it was Paul’s turn to deliver the goods. His throaty, half-barked “Birthday” did not go down well. Nevertheless, Paul found surer footing with “Get Back” and a bit later with a raucous “I Saw Her Standing There.” In the interview portion of the program, when David Letterman showed the boys around the old Ed Sullivan Theater where they first performed, Paul seemed uptight and tense. He just couldn’t loosen up for some reason, whereas Ringo was as lively and bubbly and jovial as he’s always been.
As a wrap-up to the two-and-a-half-hour love fest, Paul started in on “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” following this up with Ringo’s buoyant reappearance for a throwaway version of “With a Little Help from My Friends.” There was more joy and an infectious sense of well-being during the drummer’s brief gigs on stage than at any time in the broadcast.
He even helped perk old Paul up for a simply smashing finale: with Ringo back on drums, Paul wound up the evening on piano, warbling as sweetly as his 70+-year-old vocals could permit, on the heaven-sent “Hey Jude.” Do I hear a “na-na-na na-na-na-na” out there? Everybody joined in at that point!
My final comment on this 50th anniversary gala for one of the world’s most influential music groups is this: it was certainly a thrill to see so many pop stars, young and old — regardless of race, color, religion or political affiliation — join hands together “Across the Universe” in song over the Beatles’ inclusive catalog of hits.
It was particularly heartwarming to see the likes of Alicia Keys, John Legend, Gary Clark Jr., Adam Levine, Stevie Wonder and other performers not normally associated with the Beatles’ music, sing and play their numbers with such obvious affection.
Beyond anything else, this is what Beatles fans should strive to take away from this salute, the “All Together Now” sense that we’re all part of one big, fantastically diverse world. We do all live in a “Yellow Submarine,” believe it or not. And I’m glad to note that, despite some patchy spots, this concert did not let me down.
Copyright © 2014 by Josmar F. Lopes