Monday, February 10, 2014

The Beatles: The Night that Changed America, a Grammy Special (NARAS/CBS, 2014)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The big TV event last night was the long-awaited CBS special The Beatles: The Night That Changed America, produced by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (the official name of the organization that does the Grammy Awards — it was sold as “a Grammy special” and the connection was all too obvious) in association with the network and sold on the obvious “hook” that February 9, 2014 was the exact 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. I didn’t keep the running cue sheet I usually do watching a music show of who is singing what — mainly because I had expected less music and more history. The show gave thumbnail sketches of the Beatles’ pre-Beatle lives (and it didn’t mention how late an addition Ringo was to the group or that the Beatles had three drummers before him: Tommy Moore, Norman Chapman and Pete Best) and interviewed a few of the surviving staff members of the Ed Sullivan Show, including the guy who designed the famous set. Apparently his original idea was to have a black backdrop cut-out to spell the name “The Beatles,” but Ed Sullivan vetoed it on the ground that everybody already knew the name of the act he’d be presenting, and instead the designer came up with the now-famous set showing a series of giant arrows pointing at the band, silently saying, “Here they are!” They also showed the guy who put on a Beatle wig and served as a stand-in for George Harrison during the dress rehearsal (George had the flu and stayed in his room at the Plaza Hotel until it was time actually to go on).

One of the oddest aspects of the program was at no point was Brian Epstein’s name mentioned; yes, it’s become fashionable to write him off as a borderline incompetent whose only interest in the Beatles’ success was the drugs and rent boys his 25 percent share of them could pay for, but he remains the most fascinating figure in the Beatles’ entourage, probably more responsible for their amazing success than anyone else other than the Beatles themselves. When we’d watched the last Ed Sullivan Show featuring the Beatles (September 12, 1965) on the DVD issue of all the Beatles’ Sullivan programs the night before this one, Charles had noted that the Beatles really came off as a boy band in the modern sense: their hair may have been long but at least it was well-kempt, they wore suits (with the famous collar-less jackets that became a trademark), they were clean-shaven and they were deliberately presented as cute and unthreatening. Later bands, notably the Rolling Stones (whose managers, Andrew Loog Oldham and Eric Easton, had begun as assistants in Epstein’s organization and had learned from him how to “push” an edgy act), followed the trail the Beatles had blazed and deliberately cultivated bad-boy images (which ironically made John Lennon furiously jealous; when he did the Rolling Stone interview in 1970 he said how much he resented being pushed into that pretty-boy mold when anyone who’d seen the Beatles in their apprenticeship in Hamburg, Germany, performing in leather jackets, skin-tight jeans and biker hairdos, would have known they were at least as bad-ass as the Stones). The fact that the Beatles remain as legendary as they are 50 years after their U.S. debut is a testament, first and foremost, to their incredible talent; and second, to Epstein’s shrewd management of them. Epstein has been criticized for not squeezing every last dollar (or pound) he could have, but his managerial failures have to be viewed in context; at the time no one imagined a mere rock ’n’ roll band could have that kind of enduring success, and Epstein can’t be faulted for missing out on revenue streams he had no way of knowing would ever exist. (He did ensure that the Beatles would have a share in the music publishing company that published their songs — which, as an in-your-face gesture to let the London-based establishment that ran British show business that they were from the north of England, which was then looked down on much the way the South was in the U.S., they called “Northern Songs” — and it was Allen Klein, during the five years in which he thoroughly screwed up the Beatles’ business affairs, who sold that interest and set up the bizarre series of events that ended up with Michael Jackson, of all people, owning the Beatles’ copyrights.)

The thought in the early 1960’s was that the only way to preserve the career of a teen idol was to steer them towards the middle of the road and build them into a safer attraction for older audiences — the route Col. Tom Parker had taken Elvis Presley on when Elvis got out of the Army in 1960 — and here, as in so many other parts of their career, the Beatles simply ignored the conventional wisdom and thereby stood it on its head. And one of Epstein’s most fascinating and ultimately successful managerial decisions is usually ignored because we’ve simply come to take it for granted that singers who write their own songs are taken more seriously than singers who don’t. In the 1950’s the exact opposite was true; many of Buddy Holly’s songs were credited on the label to “Charles Hardin” as composer (after Holly’s original full name, Charles Hardin Holley) on the ground that you couldn’t build a career entirely on your own songs and you didn’t want to alienate the music publishers who controlled access to the professional songwriters you’d need for a long-term career. When Johnny Cash got a contract offer from RCA Victor in 1958, as his Sun Records contract was about to expire, he was about to sign it — no doubt he figured, “RCA Victor! Elvis went from Sun to RCA Victor, and look how big he got!” — until he found out that if he recorded a song he’d written himself, he’d get a lower royalty rate as a writer than the outside songwriter would if he recorded a song by someone else. So he signed with Columbia instead because they offered him the same royalty as any other composer whose songs he recorded. What made the Beatles different from previous white rock stars was not only that they wrote most of their own material, but that Brian Epstein — whose previous musical interest had been mostly classical, in which the composer is considered the “real” artist and the performer only an interpreter — decided to promote that about them: Epstein’s publicity essentially said, “Because they write their own songs, they’re more complete artists and you should like them better!” It was Epstein who cut the deal to get the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show — this program made it seem like Sullivan got stuck at a London airport by crowds there to greet the Beatles, asked what the commotion was about and decided to book them then and there — and he was such a micro-manager that at one point during the rehearsals he approached Sullivan and said, “I would like to know the exact wording of your introduction.” Sullivan, who after 16 years as a TV host following two decades as a Broadway gossip columnist had seen more than his share of prima donna behavior, fired back, “I would like for you to get lost.”

The CBS-TV special The Beatles: The Night that Changed America: A Grammy Special (to give it its full and rather awkward promotional title) was a fascinating production even though, as I noted above, it was less a documentary on the Beatles’ appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show and more a tribute concert. And even as a tribute concert it left something to be desired; like the Grammy Awards themselves, it was full of too many forced attempts to create the so-called “Grammy moments” by jamming stars together willy-nilly and having them play together whether they had anything to say together musically at all. Fortunately, the Beatles’ songs themselves were strong enough to overcome the limits of the conception. The songs were broken up by clips from the Beatles’ actual Sullivan show appearances (and in at least one case by the Beatles singing “Don’t Let Me Down” from the Apple rooftop concert in 1969 immortalized in the movie Let It Be — which remains frustratingly unavailable on DVD even though the rest of the Beatles’ movie oeuvre, even the previously obscure Magical Mystery Tour, is readily accessible) — the clip of the Beatles doing “Don’t Let Me Down” (including the chorus in which John Lennon improvises gibberish because he’s forgotten the lyrics to his own song — something he’d also done on “Help” on the last Beatles appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show September 12, 1965) segued into a modern cover of the song by two performers the show never bothered to identify, either before or after. (According to the Startpage search engine, they were Keith Urban and John Mayer.) Interspersed with the songs were interviews with the surviving Beatles themselves, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, as well as with some of the staff members on the Sullivan show — including the man who designed those bizarre sets on which the Beatles performed (though Ringo said he liked the sets if only because they allowed him to sit in relative comfort on a riser instead of being stuck on the floor behind John, Paul and George and rendered virtually invisible to the audience). One of the technicians said that the night of the show the camera operators were wearing flimsy little headphones, and when the fans started screaming the camerapeople literally could not hear the director telling them where to go — and the next day CBS issued everyone in the studio muffler-type headphones that would do a better job of isolating the sound. Another one remembered John Lennon walking into the theatre for the first time, pointing to the stage, and asking, “Is this where Buddy Holly stood when he performed on this show?” (Notice that he did not ask that about Elvis! It’s yet more proof that, though the Beatles may have acknowledged Elvis as the person who inspired them to become rock ’n’ roll musicians, they were much more influenced by Holly and Carl Perkins — not coincidentally, the only two white rockers from the 1950’s who, like the Beatles, relied for material mostly on songs they wrote themselves.)

Paul himself said during one of the interstital interviews with David Letterman (who seems to have been picked because not only does he work for CBS but he does his late-night show from the very building in which the Beatles performed, formerly the Ed Sullivan Theatre and now the David Letterman Theatre) that there was a special chemistry between the four that made them greater than the sum of their parts — an interesting comment considering the source. Certainly just about any rock musician would be overjoyed to have an album as good as Imagine, Band on the Run or All Things Must Pass on their résumé — but as good as those records are they’re inevitably overshadowed by what John, Paul and George, respectively, accomplished with the Beatles. Anyway, this show — which arrived in a blizzard of publicity about the Beatles and how radically they changed not only pop music but world culture (including a rather defensive article in the Los Angeles Times by Michael Tomasky blasting the notion that the Beatles were “unthreatening,” the sort of rock band your mother could love — though in my case my mother did love them and, when I first heard them, I couldn’t stand them: they sounded to me like just another rock ’n’ roll band, no better or worse than most of the breed, and while there were some early-1960’s rock songs I liked, notably Ricky Nelson’s “Travelin’ Man” and “Hello, Mary Lou” and Del Shannon’s “Runaway,” for the most part I thought the form was garbage. In 1964 my favorite singers were Frank Sinatra, Ray Charles and Bob Dylan (Dylan was another discovery of my mother’s; he was at the height of his political period and my mom was a heavy-duty civil-rights and anti-war activist; that’s one aspect of life in which I haven’t fallen far from the tree!), and when you’re listening to Ray Charles’ impassioned soul reworkings of country songs like “I Can’t Stop Loving You” and Dylan’s pure Leftist outrage in “The Times They Are a-Changing” you’re not going to be especially impressed by a song about wanting to hold someone else’s hand. I gradually got over my aversion to the Beatles when their TV cartoon show aired — I didn’t really want to watch it but it was sandwiched between two other things I wanted to watch on Saturday mornings — and I can remember the first Beatles song I decided I liked: John Lennon’s bitter, tortured, introverted “There’s a Place,” which made me think there was someone else in the world like me: “There’s a place/Where I can go/When I feel low/When I feel blue/And it’s my mind/And there’s no time/When I’m alone.” (This was on their first album; don’t believe the myth that the Beatles’ music only got sophisticated later in their career!!!)

As far as the songs performed on the Grammy Special Beatles’ Night that Changed America or whatever they called it, the show kicked off with Maroon 5 doing “All My Loving” (also introduced with a clip by the actual Beatles) and “Ticket to Ride,” and given all the fuss that was made back then about the Beatles’ haircuts (Ringo was once asked about their “hairdos,” and he said, “You mean hair-don’ts”) it was odd that the lead singer of Maroon 5 was wearing his hair close-cropped, short and slicked-down in the best 1950’s style the Beatles made suddenly unfashionable. Then Stevie Wonder came on and made a little speech about how he had loved the Beatles’ song he was about to sing but had wanted to funk it up — the song was “We Can Work It Out” and he didn’t really funk it up that much — and he was followed by Jeff Lynne, Joe Walsh and George’s son Dhani Harrison (whose first name was pronounced like the normal British or American “Danny” — I’d always thought, given George’s obsession with India and its culture, it had been “Dah-nee”) doing George’s “Something.” Then there was an odd solo acoustic version of “In My Life” by Ed Shearing (any relation to George?), a young and apparently rising singer-songwriter from England, which was followed by the mystery “Don’t Let Me Down” and then by Katy Perry doing a surprisingly good version of “Yesterday” — I hadn’t realized before how quirky her voice really is! The next song was one of the show’s miscalculation: the band Imagine Dragons (“Of course you have to imagine dragons — they don’t really exist,” Charles joked) doing an all-acoustic version of John Lennon’s “Revolution,” ignoring all the lyric variants Lennon occasionally put in that made him seem more of a revolutionary than the basic song does (particularly the famous one on the White Album in which John sings, “But when you talk about destruction/Don’t you know that you can count me out … uh, in”) and sounding like the Everly Brothers and Simon and Garfunkel got together to do the song. After that Dave Grohl (Foo Fighters, ex-Nirvana) came out and did a blasting rock version of one of the Beatles’ more obscure songs, “Hey, Bulldog” from the Yellow Submarine soundtrack album — a pity they didn’t have him do “Revolution”!

Then there came what was ballyhooed as a reunion of the 1980’s band Eurythmics — who apparently started out as a six-piece but by the time they recorded there were only two of them, Annie Lennox and her then-partner (personally and professionally) Dave Stewart. Actually it was just Annie Lennox singing, Dave Stewart playing acoustic guitar and a discreet band accompaniment on Paul’s “The Fool on the Hill” — but it worked surprisingly better than I’d expected; I hadn’t thought Lennox’s voice would be right for that song, but she triumphed. Frankly, that was one of the two best Beatles covers on the entire program — and the other was the one right after it: “Let It Be” by Alicia Keys and John Legend. Afterwards I joked that they could have introduced the song, “The Beatles stole this from Black gospel music — we’re stealing it back!” It was intense, moving, soulful and very much rooted in the gospel tradition which had obviously influenced Paul when he wrote the song, and the only thing I missed was the alternate lyric Paul sings in the Let It Be movie (in one chorus, instead of “There will be an answer,” he sings the more poetic “There will be no sorrow”), which I’d like to hear someone do when covering this song. Then it was back to the odd fusions, with Pharrell Williams (I think I’m spelling his name correctly) and Brad Paisley doing “Here Comes the Sun” and engaged in a contest as to which would wear the silliest hat (which Williams won easily — after I saw him on the Grammy Awards I said, “Lose the Mountie hat already,” and I reiterate that suggestion here) and “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” by a trio of Black neo-blues musician Gary Clark, Jr. (who impressed me here less than he does on his own stuff), Dave Grohl and Joe Walsh — this seemed strange because as far as I’m concerned there was one and only one living musician who should have been given “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” and that’s the man who actually played lead guitar on the Beatles’ original: Eric Clapton. (George Harrison returned the favor by playing a beautiful guitar part on the Cream record “Badge,” though because of conflicting record contracts he was billed as “L’Angelo Mysterioso.”)

At least after that it was time to hear from the Beatles themselves — or at least the remaining two of them, Paul and Ringo. Ringo was up first and did three songs he had sung with the Beatles, but two of them — Carl Perkins’ “Matchbox” and the Luther Dixon-Wes Farrell “Boys,” originally recorded by the Shirelles as the B-side of “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?” (the Beatles deliberately built up an unusual repertoire in their early days in Liverpool and Hamburg by covering B-sides; come to think of it, “Matchbox” was also a B-side, but since the A-side of Perkins’ record was the forgettable “Your True Love” it hardly matters) — were not actually Beatles’ compositions. Ringo was clearly enjoying himself — which, judging both from his interviews and the surviving film clips, was not always the case when he was playing live with the Beatles — and on “Yellow Submarine” they not only had four French horn players in the orchestra, they re-used the original sound effects from the Beatles’ record. Then Paul took over with what I presume is his current touring band — including a jumbo-sized drummer with rings in his ears and a shaved head that makes him look like a biker (he fumbled early on in one of the songs and I had thoughts of Ringo whispering to Paul, “That fat guy you have drumming for you blew one of my best licks”) — doing “Birthday,” “Get Back” and “I Saw Her Standing There.” After that Paul went into the opening version of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and Ringo joined him for the much-ballyhooed reunion (though they’d also played together on the actual Grammy Awards two weeks before!), coming in on cue to sing the second song from that album, “With a Little Help from My Friends.” The show closed with “Hey Jude,” with Ringo taking his place at the drums and Paul playing the rainbow-colored piano he trots around the world with and uses in all his stage shows. Overall The Beatles: The Night That Changed America wasn’t the show it could have been — the title implied they’d go into the historical context but they really didn’t — and none of the artists covering the Beatles’ songs gave them the radical transformations Siouxsie and the Banshees brought to “Helter Skelter” and “Dear Prudence” (or Jimi Hendrix had given Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower”) — but the whole show was quite fun and, if nothing else, truly a tribute to the enduring strength of the Beatles’ songs