Depending on who you ask, The Beatles are part of “my parent’s generation,” “my kid’s generation,” or “my generation.” Yet despite the fact that the Beatles are inextricably linked to the 1960s, their music continues to speak to those born well after the group split (and well before they got together). In trying to celebrate a band that means so many different things to so many different people, CBS put together an overstuffed event that’s part tribute concert, part retrospective, and part Beatles reunion. Sometimes transcendent, sometimes messy, often moving, and never dull, The Night That Changed America: A Grammy Salute is indeed a fitting tribute to a band that was itself transcendent, messy, and moving—sometimes all in the same song.
Cut down from a four-hour concert, The Night That Changed America marks the 50th anniversary (almost to the minute) of The Beatles’ first performance on The Ed Sullivan Show. Those who didn’t change the channel after the tribute’s slow start were treated to a concert that got steadily better as the night went on, culminating in solo performances by Ringo Starr and Paul McCartney and finally a much-hyped reunion performance from the two living Beatles (more on that in a moment).
For the first two hours, however, the special seemed to feature the most eclectic cover band in the world (one with Peter Frampton on guitar). The covers ranged from fairly bland (Maroon 5 with “Ticket To Ride”) to absolutely stellar (David Grohl, Gary Clark Jr., and Joe Walsh with “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”). Interspersed with the tribute concert, The Night That Changed America featured short biographies on each of the Fab Four, footage from the original Ed Sullivan performance, and interviews with David Letterman that gave Paul and Ringo the chance to wax nostalgic about Beatlemania. During the concert itself, the camera was quick to find Paul and Ringo (and Yoko Ono) clapping and singing along.
In trying to appeal to the broadest audience possible, the producers of The Night That Changed America made the smart choice to diversify its performers in terms of musical style, gender, race, fanbase, and song choice. This allowed for a fantastic dueling-piano collaboration between Alicia Keys and John Legend on “Let It Be,” although it also produced a rather dull take on “Don’t Let Me Down” by Keith Urban and John Mayer and an equally boring version of “Here Comes The Sun” by Pharrell Williams’ and Brad Paisley’s hats. Katy Perry on “Yesterday” and Ed Sheeran on “In My Life” aimed for a more youthful audience (I found the latter more engaging than the former), while Imagine Dragons’ take on “Revolution” replaced the song’s angst with the group’s palpable excitement to be performing at the event. The unequivocal stand-outs of the night were Stevie Wonder revisiting his cover of “We Can Work It Out”; Jeff Lynne, Joe Walsh, and Dhani Harrison (George’s son) on “Something”; and a Eurythmics reunion for “The Fool On The Hill,” which immediately sent Paul and Ringo into a standing ovation.
Where The Night That Changed America dropped the ball just a bit, however, was its failure to consider just how the Ed Sullivan performance changed America. Interviews with fans who attended the show and the production staff who put it together nicely captured the insane energy in the studio that night—the crowd screamed so loudly the cameramen couldn’t hear the show’s directors through their headphones; the next day CBS invested in muffling headsets. The various musical guests also expressed how the Beatles personally influenced their musical careers. But the special failed to give a proper sense of just how much the Beatles impacted American culture in the 1960s—ushering in the British Invasion and changing the sound of pop music virtually overnight with a performance watched by approximately 34 percent of the American population. While that might seem self-evident to those who lived through Beatlemania, younger Beatles fans might be more familiar with the group’s music than with its historical and cultural impact. Perhaps some words on how the group’s sound changed the music industry or even just more footage of the lads from Liverpool performing in their prime for packed concert venues would have given some much needed historical context that the four short biographies (while sweet) failed to do.
However, once Ringo finally took to the stage with “Matchbox,” “Boys,” and a sing-a-long version of “Yellow Submarine,” it was hard not to get swept away by his goofy, infectious energy. The living Beatles continue to be spry, skilled performers despite the fact that both are over 70. Paul performed three McCartney-Lennon collaborations (“Birthday,” “Get Back,” and “I Saw Her Standing There”), which was a nice tribute to a contemptuous but fruitful writing partnership. And Ringo running onstage to join McCartney for “With A Little Help From My Friends” was a beautifully earned moment of sentimentality, topped only by the duo’s tribute to George Harrison and John Lennon and a rousing performance of “Hey Jude.” Helped along by acrobats from Cirque du Soleil’s Love, the crowd was all too eager to join in on the “na-na-na-nas,” and I suspect many viewers at home were singing along as well.
Unexpectedly, it was the image of David Grohl—who had earlier covered “Hey Bulldog”—singing along to “Yellow Submarine” with his elementary-school-aged daughter that best encapsulated the spirit of the evening and the enduring influence of the Beatles. The Night That Changed America was a largely successful tribute to the Beatles. But more importantly, it was a beautiful tribute to Beatles fans of every generation.
- Dhani Harrison and Sean Lennon look uncannily like their fathers. It was very nice to see those familiar faces playing guitar onstage and air guitar in the audience, respectively.
- For the record, my favorite Beatles’ song is “Eleanor Rigby” and my favorite album is Sgt. Pepper’s.
- Since tonight’s broadcast failed to highlight the wackier side of The Beatles, I’d like to introduce you to this hilarious video of the group performing the Pyramus and Thisbe scene from A Midsummer Night’s Dream on a British TV show.
- In addition to the diversity onstage, I appreciated that the special highlighted black artists like Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and Aretha Franklin who served as the Beatles’ inspirations and contemporaries.
- For anyone who needs further proof that the Beatles can still be relevant to a generation born long after the band split, check out this adorable video of “Kids Reacting to The Beatles.”