Tuesday, February 11, 2014

50 Years Later, Beatles Still Going Strong

Half a century has passed since the Beatles' first American performance on the Ed Sullivan Show. Since then, they have sold more albums than any other band and left an unparalleled musical legacy.
If there’s one thing pop has learned in the last 50 years, it’s that Beatles songs never wear out their welcome. The Beatles’ original recordings have retained not only their musical brilliance but also the nearly universal good will that the band generated in its time, as well as the accumulated nostalgia that makes baby boomers conflate its music with all the pleasures of their youth. On purely musical grounds — the foundation of melodies, harmonies and lyrics — Beatles songs have thrived through half a century of remakes.

The Recording Academy was counting on both nostalgia and tunefulness with Sunday night’s special on CBS, “The Beatles: The Night That Changed America — A Grammy Salute.” It was a Beatles tribute concert recorded in Los Angeles on Jan. 27, the day after this year’s Grammy Awards, with an extensive lineup including Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Stevie Wonder, Alicia Keys, Katy Perry, Imagine Dragons and a reunited Eurythmics. Yoko Ono, Sean Lennon and George Harrison’s widow, Olivia Harrison, and son, Dhani Harrison, were in the front row; Dhani helped perform his father’s song “Something” onstage.

The show belonged to the remaining Beatles themselves, Paul McCartney, left, and Ringo Starr. Zach Cordner/Invision, via Associated Press
The “night that changed America” was the Beatles’ appearance on Feb. 9, 1964, on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” which was a confluence of musical event, television milestone and cultural watershed. It was the United States debut of the Beatles, who had the No. 1 single “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and an audience primed to scream. The next morning, as baby boomers have been reminding people ever since, countless young Americans were announcing their favorite Beatle, clamoring for electric guitars or drums and, if they were boys, daring to let their hair grow past their ears.

The broadcast was seen by 74 million people, more than 60 percent of the American television audience. There might well be nostalgia for those days at CBS and the other networks, which in 1964 had only a handful of broadcast competitors rather than hundreds of cable channels and the infinitude of the Internet. The kind of unified television experience shared when the Beatles arrived occurs now only during championship games and awards shows, which are all, as the Ed Sullivan show was, live broadcasts.

Launch media viewerPharrell Williams and Stevie Wonder, center, performed at the concert. Zach Cordner/Invision, via Associated Press
Limited broadcast outlets were one constraint the Beatles would turn into an advantage. Others were the brevity of pop singles, which they crammed with ideas, and the limits of recording technology, which they would magnificently outwit. By 1964, the Beatles already had the benefit of long, hard work: years of playing clubs and recent experience with the Beatlemania whirlwind in England. Between songs, Sunday’s show included reminiscences of technicians and audience members who couldn’t hear the music for the screams. But the Beatles charged into their songs with every part in place — able, by then, to play them as much by feel and sight as by sound. There were no earpiece monitors then.

Jon Pareles | NYTimes

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