Dave Grohl was on his way to rehearsals for a TV special marking the 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ US television debut on The Ed Sullivan Show when the panic set in.
“Suddenly it hit me: Maybe I ought to listen to the record again before we rehearse it,” the founding member of Nirvana and Foo Fighters said of his impending run-through of While My Guitar Gently Weeps with guitarists Joe Walsh and Gary Clark Jr. for “The Night That Changed America: A Grammy Salute to the Beatles.”
The two-hour special will air on February 9, exactly half a century after the Fab Four’s appearance on Sullivan’s show kicked Beatlemania into high gear on American shores.
“Finally I thought, [forget] it!” he said later, during a short break between the Beatles show rehearsal and his session with Nine Inch Nails and Queens of the Stone Age working up their performance for the Grammy Awards telecast. “When I got there and sat down at the drums and started playing, all the fills were there — they just came out [because] I’ve been listening to this stuff my whole life.”
Grohl’s moment of clarity about the DNA-deep resonance of the Beatles’ music in his life was echoed repeatedly by the musicians who perform in the Beatles special, which piggybacks on this year’s Grammy Awards show with performances by Stevie Wonder, Katy Perry, Imagine Dragons, Gary Clark Jr, John Legend, Pharrell Williams, emcee LL Cool J and, of course, the surviving members of the Fab Four: Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr.
“We had no idea Ed Sullivan was the biggest show in America,” Starr, 73, said, flanked by fellow Brit rocker Peter Frampton, American guitarist Steve Lukather of Toto. “We just knew we were coming to do some TV show. All we cared about was that we were coming to America. New York! Nothing else mattered.”
Wonder (who performs We Can Work It Out, the 1965 Beatles hit that he brought back into the Top 20 six years later with his funky arrangement) not only vividly remembers the profound impact the Beatles’ performance on the Sullivan show had on him as a 13-year-old musician but also recalled his early exposure to them while he was on tour in England, a child R&B prodigy at Motown Records who was billed at the time as Little Stevie Wonder.
“I’d heard them in England from being over there and I was telling people about the Beatles, how they had a great sound, with these great chord structures.
“Obviously when I heard John Lennon singing Please Mr. Postman [the 1961 hit by another Motown act, the Marvelettes],’ it was a good experience to hear another take on American R&B,” Wonder said softly.
The efficacy of grabbing several au courant hit makers to serve up their interpretations of Beatles songs isn’t likely to ingratiate this show to aficionados. Nor is it likely to quiet choruses of “It’s all too much!” from those who grouse that the lionisation of the band and its music has gone on long enough.
But to those for whom there can never be an overdose of Beatles music in the world, it’s worth noting that the show inspired the first performance of the biggest hit of the Beatles’ hit-laden career, Hey Jude, by McCartney and Starr together since they recorded the song in 1968,.
Perry was nearly unrecognisable as she took a few passes at the song of her choice, Yesterday, McCartney’s haunting ballad coming as something of a surprise choice for the pop star best known for saucy and upbeat pop confections.
As for any pressure of singing Beatles songs with the two living Beatles looking on, Perry said: “I really think there was more pressure yesterday, no pun intended. Today, it’s just about being part of this great cast of charactes and having fun.”