Last night, as he stood onstage in Los Angeles to mark the 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ American debut on The Ed Sullivan Show, Paul McCartney confessed to wondering “if it was seemly to tribute yourself?”
By then, none of the thousands gathered in a large ballroom of the L.A. Convention Center was about to object, not with a rare onstage reunion between McCartney and his fellow Beatle Ringo Starr only minutes away. Leading up to that moment Stevie Wonder, Dave Grohl, Pharrell, Alicia Keys, Gary Clark Jr. and Joe Walsh had performed inspired takes on Beatles classics as part of The Night That Changed America: A Grammy Salute to the Beatles, set to air on CBS on February 9th.
The 1964 Sullivan appearance and its lasting cultural impact provided the show’s anniversary, but the night celebrated of the full decade that McCartney, Starr, John Lennon and George Harrison spent as the Beatles, a collaboration that still resonates like no other in pop music.
For those lucky enough to watch from inside the convention hall, it was less a traditional concert experience than a continuation of the weekend’s Grammy Awards. Paul and Ringo had their same seats in the front row. Pharrell was back in his big Buffalo Girls hat. And there was LL Cool J as your opening MC, flashing a smile and the OK sign at the former Beatles.
“We all know what’s coming, don’t we?” producer Ken Ehrlich told the audience between songs, referring to coming performances by McCartney and Starr, both solo and together. But first was a full schedule of musicians, actors and vintage movie clips, plus acrobats from the Cirque du Soleil musical Beatles production Love.
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It opened with Maroon 5 in matching suits on a re-creation of the old Sullivan set where the Beatles made their debut, as Adam Levine sang smooth, carefree takes on early Beatles hits “All My Loving” and “Ticket to Ride.”
Monty Python’s Eric Idle appeared as fumbling commentator “Nigel Spasm” in a trench coat, noting the 50-year anniversary of when “the Rutles appeared in America. I think it’s remarkable that the Beatles were also there.”
Alicia Keys and John Legend each took to a grand piano to dig deep on an emotionally soaring “Let It Be,” both voices rising, overjoyed. Katy Perry sang a breathy “Yesterday,” still one of the most covered songs in history. Dressed in black leather and jeans, Imagine Dragons delivered a pleasant but toothless “Revolution,” more folky campfire sing-along than the song’s original call to consciousness.
The hit-making duo Annie Lennox and David A. Stewart reunited as Eurythmics for the first time since 2005 to perform “Fool on the Hill.” She wore a silver gown for the occasion, and with a string quartet sawing gently behind her, Lennox’s voice was unfailingly explosive and otherworldly. Pharrell dug in with Brad Paisley on a shimmery “Here Comes the Sun,” as acrobats spun in the air.
The show’s first seriously rocking moment came from Dave Grohl and ELO’s Jeff Lynne tearing through “Hey Bulldog,” a song from the Yellow Submarine soundtrack that Grohl called “a quintessential Beatles rocker.” Grohl dedicated it to “my mom’s favorite band, my favorite band, and now my daughter’s favorite band.”
Johnny Depp emerged to deliver a dry, cryptic introduction to Harrison’s “Something,” as performed by Lynne, Joe Walsh and Harrison’s son, Dhani, of the band thenewno2. It was faithful to the original, with an elegant solo from Walsh, no reinterpretations needed. Walsh and Gary Clark Jr. then traded epic guitar fireworks on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” as Grohl bashed the drum kit. Stevie Wonder performed a funky, joyous “We Can Work It Out,” which he first covered in 1970, with a searing harmonica solo.
Ringo finally took centerstage for Carl Perkins’ “Matchbox,” then stepped behind the drums for the Shirelles’ “Boys,” a song he first covered as a member of Rory Storm and the Hurricanes, then with the Beatles and as a solo artist. Scenes of nighttime Piccadilly Circus flashed on the big screens behind him, as Peter Frampton came alive on a rippling guitar solo. During “Yellow Submarine,” Starr looked over at Grohl and his young daughter in their seats, and shouted, “Is that your girl? Beautiful!”
Closing the night was McCartney’s set, beginning with “Magical Mystery Tour,” as rainbow colors swept across the big screens. Playing his old Hofner bass, McCartney ripped into “Birthday,” a stretched out “Get Back” and “I Saw Her Standing There,” all in the same rich, fully realized renditions his band has consistently delivered in recent years.
The night’s “surprise” was no surprise as “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” segued into “With a Little Help From My Friends” and Starr returned to sing as the song’s “Billy Shears.” Starr was back behind the drums for “Hey Jude,” as McCartney led his band, and most of the night’s performers returned as a huge informal chorus. Women dressed in white, twirling red umbrellas, were lifted into the air.
As the concert concluded, there were many hugs and thanks onstage. It was a another sign of the ongoing impact of that first Sullivan show and what came after. As McCartney had said a little earlier about his decision to finally accept the honors, “It was time we showed up.”