Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The Beatles Were More Exciting Than This

The smiles that changed America: George Harrison and Ringo Starr in the moment, February 9, 1964.
This past Sunday evening marked the 50th Anniversary of the Beatles' first appearance on The Ed Esullivan Show. The Fabs, virtually unknown in the United States just 6 weeks prior, but that evening 73 million people turned to CBS to watch them perform live. By early April, the Beatles owned each of the top 5 positions in the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart.

To commemorate the anniversary, CBS aired The Night That Changed America: The Beatles - A Grammy Salute, and it was everything the Beatles weren't: Tame. Boring. Inert. Dreary. (an encore will air tomorrow evening). And most of my Beatles-fans friends loved it.

The anniversary program was really three shows:

  1. A historical presentation focusing entirely on the events leafing up to and including February 9th, 1964.
  2. A musical tribute focusing almost entirely on pieces written after February 9th, 1964. 
  3. Performances by the two surviving Beatles, Ringo Starr and Paul McCartney.

The first two shows were interweaved, but seeing as the music had just about nothing to do with 1964-era Beatles, I viewed them as two completely separate items. The third show was its own block, taking up the final half hour of the broadcast.

The history pieces were thoughtful and occasionally even illuminating. David Letterman -- the current occupant of the Ed Sullivan Theater (it was called Studio 50 at the time) -- interviewed Ringo and Paul while in the building and on stage, and in those moments one could almost imagine them being in their early 20's again, becoming excited to play on the very spot where Buddy Holly had once appeared. Short, partially colorized biographical films were presented on each of the Beatles. These segments were refreshingly concise and accurate. Crew members from the Ed Sullivan show, including the designer of the iconic set, added their remembrances. These included a working sketch of the set, Vince Callendra telling the story of standing in for an ill George Harrison during rehearsals, and a bit on how the deafening crowd noise forced CBS to get better headphones for its camera operators. Also interviewed, though far less interesting to me, were several audience members; their comments were sometimes punctuated with shots of themselves in the audience that night, though in some cases CBS ran the same footage from The Beatles - The First U.S. Visit  while they spoke.

Curiously missing from the pieces were presentations of any full songs from that historic first night on Sullivan; presenting all of the songs played that evening would have feat neatly in to a single 15 minute segment. Millions of people have never seen the footage, or haven't seen it since that night in 1964. It would have been worth showing, in all its black&white glory. In particular, check out the moment about 9 minutes into this video, featuring the triple head bob followed by George Harrison's famous wow expression that lit up living rooms from coast to coast.
The Beatles in America - Ed Sullivan Show - First Presentation (February 9, 1964) from Lucy Zanetti on Vimeo

The historical pieces were fun, but I had tuned in for the musical tribute. Here, the show missed.

The first tribute started with the original Sullivan tape of The Beatles' first song from that 1964 show, All My Loving. Paul's count-off over the screaming audience members is still thrilling. But after a few moments this past Sunday, the Beatles faded as Maroon 5 took over the song. Big mistake. Maroon 5 played the right notes. And showed none of the energy, the joy, the vocal range, or anything else that might give a clue as to why the original performance was so exciting and important. If the point was to show that a pop band can make it through a Beatles song in 2014, ok, point made. But to me it was funereal. I'd have much rather watched the remainder of the original Sullivan footage.

"Earnest yet dull" characterized many of the tribute performances. Name artists, some A list and some B list, performed competently unimaginative readings of several well-known songs. Though the night was billed as "The Night That Changed America," the opening song was the only tribute song that was actually part of the Beatles' canon as of that night in early 1964. Thirteen songs were performed for the tribute -- 5 each from John and Paul, and 3 from George (the same as on Revolver, for anyone else keeping score). But of those 13 songs, 7 came from the Beatles' final two years together. And since the biographies all ended by early 1964, there wasn't the slightest sense of context for most of the song performances. Would it have been too much to ask for at least one or two of the songs that actually helped launch Beatlemania in US?

The tribute really hit for me just twice: Stevie Wonder reprised his interpretation of We Can Work It Out, a song that had been a top-20 hit for him in 1971. And, John Legend and Alicia Keys performed a soulful Let It Be on back-to-back grand pianos, a rendition that brought the crowd to its feet in appreciation.

To watch the presentation, George Harrison might as well not have written any songs before 1968. And poor John Lennon. Sure, Yoko and Sean Ono Lennon were right there in the front row. But if you were expecting any early classics (e.g., Please Please Me, From Me To You, I Feel Fine, or any of John's great Motown covers), or any of John's 1966-67 masterpieces (e.g., Tomorrow Never Knows, Strawberry Fields Forever, A Day in the Life, All You Need Is Love), forget it. Worse, Imagine Dragons did play Revolution. thoroughly emasculating their shortened version of it in the process.

Fortunately, Ringo and Paul were in attendance, and in good form. Ringo got behind the drum kit and introduced Boys as a song he'd sung back in his pre-Beatles days, and then brought the energy from his performances of the Shirelles song, and I could remember some of what made the Beatles so exciting to me in the first place.

Paul McCartney followed Ringo, and a few things were immediately clear: First of all, he can still play. Second, he loves playing. Third, he can still sing, including the high notes. Fourth, he can still rock. When he stepped aside for Ringo to take over as Billy Shears for A Little Help from My Friends -- a first ever performance for them together -- there was magic and joy for all to see.