By Nick Catucci
Updated February 10, 2014 at 06:04 PM EST
Credit: Jeffrey R. Staab/CBS

“I was wondering if it was seemly to tribute yourself,” said Sir Paul McCartney in the most quotable moment from last night’s prerecorded CBS special, “The Beatles: The Night That Changed America—A Grammy Salute.” Naturally, it was “a couple of American guys” who convinced him that awards-show-style indulgence was called for on the 50th anniversary of The Ed Sullivan Show bringing Beatlemania to these United States. But when Paul—and, let’s not forget, Ringo Starr—finally performed, they did it with such earnestness, good humor, and energy that all the self-congratulation seemed crowded out. The bummer was that the Yanks who covered Beatles songs in the two hours leading up to this casually historic finale missed a big fat opportunity to inject more tacky, over-the-top American spirit into the proceedings. The lusty screams of young women in cat-eye glasses seemed distant indeed.

Although we must recognize Adam Levine and John Mayer for bringing a louche, careless, cruise-ship vibe to “Ticket to Ride” and “Don’t Let Me Down,” respectively. Especially Mayer, who, with his appealing voice and hobo-stylist look, took his bittersweet selection to an irreverent climax, trading guitar faces with Keith Urban, his sleekly metrosexual partner. Honorable mentions go to Katy Perry, who gave “Yesterday” a literal representation in the form of her retro dress, with its yards and yards of flowery fabric (fashion scolds attacked this choice when they first spotted it on the red carpet); and the louchest of them all, Joe Walsh, who popped up in a couple places, wailing on his guitar and reminding everyone that rock excess endures even when it disdains mind expansion—and that this can be groovy, too.

But the closest thing to a travesty had to be Pharrell, Brad Paisley, and members of the Cirque du Soleil crew larding up “Here Comes the Sun.” With Pharrell sporting Chanel necklaces (and yes, that hat), Paisley swaggering in with a firm grip on his guitar, and the Cirque du Soleil folks doing their thing, the sense of spiritual longing didn’t stand a chance against the material-world layering. But no other tribute threw the original song in such stark relief, or provided as much pure entertainment value.

There were enjoyable bits that were not travesties: Eurythmics reuniting to to add some sparkle to “Fool on the Hill,” Dave Grohl shutting his yap about the meaning of rock & roll to give “Hey Bulldog” a raw run-through with Jeff Lynne, Stevie Wonder doing a “funky thing” with “We Can Work It Out,” the remaining Beatles themselves. What the night could not seem to escape was its preoccupation with explaining, mainly through Dave Letterman’s interviews with Paul and Ringo, just how important coming to U.S. was to the Beatles, as young people steeped in its culture. And yet too little of the overindulgent side of American culture seeped into the performances. I personally would’ve loved a Yoko Ono dance remix of a Beatles classic. Would that have been unseemly? Yes—and gloriously so.