I was watching “The Grammys Salute to the Beatles” and was on the way to thinking it one of the greatest shows about and for music in the entire history of network television. But I kept on having flashbacks.
Like this one: It’s 1984. I was late. That’s a rarity. My usual practice for anything I’m covering is to get there at least a half-hour early. For some reason, I got to that large New York conference room with only five minutes to spare before the interview start time.
The table was a large rectangular conference table. Fifteen or so of us were going to be sitting at it for about 45 minutes interviewing Paul McCartney. We were selectively convened from across the country because his less-than-stellar film “Give My Regards to Broad Street” was going to premiere shortly thereafter.
Because I was so late, I was relegated to the seat right next to McCartney – one that few in this bunch wanted. Under these circumstances, you could not only observe more privately from farther away, but you didn’t like look some sort of breathless fanboy or fangirl who had rushed to get the seat next to Paul.
What I have told everyone ever since is that he was the single most charming human being I have encountered on the job. (His major competition: Tom Hanks and Joe Namath in his prime.)
Which is to say that he was Paul McCartney for 45 minutes – a man by that time (1984) who had been one of the most famous men in the world for two decades and was, therefore, more at ease with himself than 99.9 percent of celebrities meeting the press.
You could ask Paul McCartney anything. In this case, that included the addition of wife and life partner Linda to the band Wings. He understood why we were there. Few people have ever had more experience with the working media.
And that’s, by far, one of the most important factors in the gigantic early success of the Beatles 50 years ago. In the history of popular music, no one has ever been better at dealing with the press. Surely some those hilarious, flippant, off-the-wall answers to questions were prepared in advance (Q: “What do you call that haircut?” A: “Arthur.”)
But if you watch those first news conferences on the debut trip that brought them to Ed Sullivan’s show 50 years ago, the boys were all as loose and funny and witty and charming with journalists as any musicians have ever been. It wasn’t only shrieking young girls who fell head over heels in love with the Beatles. Journalists and radio DJs lucky enough to interview the lads back then were going to get some of the smartest, freshest, most candid and most likable answers to questions they would ever get.
Nothing was going to faze those guys. A hostile or insultingly intrusive question would be turned into part of the act. And the act was one of the most original that journalists had ever seen. Sure, the Beach Boys were doing ambitious and bejeweled rock before the Beatles ever got here, but when they opened their mouths to talk, they didn’t exactly delight the world.
The Beatles did.
That was, inevitably, the thing that was largely missing from CBS’ “Grammy Salute to the Beatles” – the glorious, initial irreverent perfection of Beatles attitude toward their fans and the “star-making machinery of the popular song” (as Joni Mitchell put it with exquisite sarcasm).
Elvis certainly had his moments. It was hard not to like a guy who would admit, “I don’t know anything about music. In my line of work, you don’t have to.”
But Elvis was always a sweet and slightly overwhelmed country boy. The Beatles were scruffy, smart-alecky city kids, able to manufacture a cheerful absurdist wisecrack for almost any question that deserved one. At interviews, they were the show, but only because journalists knew that when the lads got back to their limos or hotel rooms, the journalists – for the Beatles – had actually been the show. It didn’t take much to imagine the boys laughing at the dumber questions and their own better wisecracks.
Sunday’s celebration of the Beatles’ music seemed to include just about everyone except Mr. Kite and Lovely Rita. It was, to my way of thinking, about as good a show about actual music as a TV network will ever mount.
The surviving Beatles, Paul and Ringo, their wives and Yoko Ono all seemed to have a great time. Paul played air drums while listening and Ringo played air guitar. Neo-Dadaist Yoko, at the age of 80, let her freak flag fly with her dancing to Ringo’s singing.
It was close to unique: music that most of the world loves performed by people who truly love it in a way designed to convey all the reasons they love it.
Almost all the snarky superiority attempted by Facebook and Twitter and the radio the next day seemed as if the critics didn’t quite get it. All that superiority had, I think, been defeated already by the show itself. (With the exception of Maroon 5 to open the show, my pop music critic colleague Jeff Miers largely agrees.)
What could seem more of a gift to snarksters everywhere than Katy Perry singing “Yesterday”? What could be less of a gift to them than the experience of actually watching her do it – this young star who came out in a dress buttoned up to her neck (Message: “No decolletage tonight, boys. For this song, I’m a virgin again.”) and sang it like a woman who loved it to an audience who loved it, too. It was weirdly touching, I thought, and emblematic of the whole irony-free show.
Dave Grohl didn’t have to tell us how cool he thought “Hey, Bulldog” was. Imagine Dragons’ acoustic, four-guitar version of “Revolution” was one of many moments on the show to display how love and reverence got musicians to unplug.
But then in George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” – one of the most gorgeous of all Beatles songs – the guitar jam of Gary Clark Jr. and Ringo’s brother-in-law Joe Walsh was a sensational tribute to the electric guitar as one of key building blocks of the whole rockabilly-worshipping “British Invasion.”
I remember hearing, long before that original Sullivan show, two Beatles songs fresh from the pressing plant – the American two-sided hit “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “I Saw Her Standing There.” “I Want to Hold Your Hand” sounded like an on-switch for the young girl scream machine to me, but I loved “I Saw Her Standing There,” with its jangling guitar brashness and upward Little Richard falsetto swoops in a Liverpudlian accent. Right from the first, even before the Sullivan show, that side of the 45 rpm record seemed like awfully cool radio rock.
Sunday’s CBS salute was, almost miraculously, about music more than anything else. It was, in that, almost an apology for the previous Grammy show, which was about money and spectacle and the infinite variety of vulgarity at its worst.