Conceptually-speaking, the idea of commemorating the 50th Anniversary of The Beatles' television appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show with a tribute to their music, performed in the very same theater where the incomparable Mr. Sullivan broadcast his iconic variety show is simultaneously inspired and predictable. Predictable, because half a century later, the contribution of The Beatles to the musical landscape has been dissected, overanalyzed, hyped, and even overstated. Yes, the lads from Liverpool struck a chord not only with young people, but with music listeners who were ready for a group that would sell both an image and a personality, alongside their songwriting talents.
But to be fair, the academic discourse surrounding The Beatles is varnished with so much mythology and outright canonization, it's difficult for music critics to objectively observe that the band's origins were steeped in plagiarism: from the spirited R'n'B of Little Richard and The Isley Brothers, to the rockabilly vibes of Buddy Holly and Jerry Lee Lewis. Even 1966's benchmark Rubber Soul album borrowed from early folk and classical music idioms, should anyone bother to examine it closely. The Beatles were the right band at the right time, and when they decided to stop touring and work their sonic magic in the studio (which would not have been possible without innovative engineers like George Martin and Geoff Emerick at the helm) only then did their grand ambition match the ballyhoo surrounding them.
Saying that generations of musicians were inspired by the songs of The Beatles is like saying generations of housewives were inspired by June Cleaver - nevertheless, being able to hear those songs that have been etched in our subconscious by other, more contemporary artists does offer hope for affirmation, as well as reinterpretation. Of course, few musicians would take creative license with The Beatles' catalogue, lest it receive a lukewarm reception. Last Sunday night (and re-airing yesterday evening) at 8PM, CBS took a stab at being nostalgic and forward-thinking with The Beatles: The Night That Changed America. Billed on their website as a "symposium", the live event featured archival footage and anecdotes about the lives of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr, to a packed-house of musicians and celebrities, surviving progeny and anyone else privileged enough to afford the price of admission to the Ed Sullivan Theater, currently home to late-night tv host David Letterman, who provided interviews with McCartney and Starr prior to their first live performance together in decades.
Actually, the complete title of this event included the caveat, "A Grammy Salute", and those three words alone tell the real story of this Beatles tribute. Hosted by rapper/actor LL Cool J (I cannot think of a more inscrutable choice.....was Ice-T on location?) the show was a who's who of Grammy-winning artists performing Beatles songs they've long admired, and were honored to cover: Katy Perry, Keith Urban, Maroon 5, John Legend, John Mayer, Eurythmics, Jeff Lynne, Alicia Keyes, Brad Paisley, Stevie Wonder, and others, as well as a "house band" featuring legends Peter Frampton, Steve Lukather (Toto), Lenny Castro and Don Was, who also served as the evening's musical director. I'm here to report that there were no embarrassing missteps during this two-hour extravaganza, however, there was little about it that was truly inspirational, either.
John Legend and Alicia Keyes (at dual pianos) performed a serviceable (but unremarkable) "Let It Be"; Stevie Wonder gave us a note-perfect replication of his studio version of "We Can Work It Out" (which appeared on his 1970 release, Signed, Sealed and Delivered); Adam Levine and Maroon 5 delivered a take on "Ticket To Ride" that surprisingly, wasn't too shabby; John Mayer and Keith Urban joined forces to tackle "Don't Let Me Down" (Urban mentioned that he recently revisited the Let It Be, Naked album, and was inspired to cover it); Katy Perry (amidst a signature pop-psychedic background) gave a sparse and emotive reading of "Yesterday." Not to be outdone apparently, Brad "I'm so hip it hurts" Paisley teamed with Pharrell Williams (the Grammy star of the moment) for a duet on George Harrison's "Here Comes The Sun" that frankly, didn't work for me - nor did Harrison's other tune "Something" being performed by ELO/Traveling Willbury statesman Jeff Lynne, Joe "Life's Been Good" Walsh, and Dhani Harrison (who didn't seem to want attention called to himself by Lynne, and who was probably there only out of respect for his dad.)
Could someone please tell me why Dhani Harrison wasn't performing one of The Beatles' songs as thenewno2, with bandmate Oliver Hecks? Oh wait, I know why - his band hasn't ever been nominated for a Grammy.......nevermind. For that matter, did I really need to hear Dave Grohl (of the multiple Grammy-winning Foo Fighters) doing a cover of "Hey Bulldog" that sounded like it came from karaoke night at the Hard Rock Cafe? What does it say when a duo from the golden age of Romantic new-wave is the one true highlight of the evening? It speaks volumes when that duo is Dave Stewart and Annie Lennox of Eurythmics: their version of "The Fool On The Hill" took some risks, arrangement-wise, but Lennox's still-soulful voice and Stewart's under-recognized acumen on guitar took what I think is one of the lesser, more mawkish tunes from Magical Mystery Tour and transformed it into a cogent argument for why the music of Lennon/McCartney remains unequivocally timeless, and continues to influence, captivate and entertain us to this day.
As musical director, I will lay a large percentage of the blame on the shoulders of Don Was: given your variegated career and eclectic roster of artists you have worked with in the past, did you try to solicit folks like Willie Nelson, Bonnie Raitt, Randy Newman, Jackson Browne, Carly Simon, Brian Wilson, Ziggy Marley or Stevie Nicks to take part in this commemorative spectacle? Hell, I would've given anything to hear say, the B52's rip into "Day Tripper" than the majority of boilerplate performances that made up the evening. Maybe in 2017, someone with real foresight and vision will bring us a 50th Anniversary salute to Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band that might redeem the true meaning of a tribute, offering versions that respect the songwriting enough to be at least as experimental as The Beatles were at their creative peak.