Saturday, September 17, 2016

The Beatles and I

When people ask me whether I like the Beatles, I've always said that I grew up with them, so like other memories from childhood they are a welcome memory, even if you eventually grew out of them in adulthood. Of course, you never can quite grow out of the Beatles, at least partly because of the nostalgic music industry putting out new "versions". So after the "Love" album, "Let it Be Naked", the comprehensive remasters, the mono vinyl box, the American albums, "Magical Mystery Tour" deluxe edition.... we now have a new documentary, Ron Howard's awkwardly titled "Eight Days A Week, The Beatles, The Touring Years".

I'm just about the last generation to be contemporaneous with the Beatles, so my pram would no doubt have rocked to the latter day Beatles tunes. I imagine my parents were too busy with their demanding first born to notice "Sgt. Pepper" coming out that summer. Later, when my dad got his first music centre it coincided with the "red" and "blue" albums, and I must have been eight or nine when I used to borrow these and play them in my bedroom on my mum's old record player. Precociously, "A Day in the Life" was my favourite song -  it was only later that I read the various books about the Beatles and got to fill in what is a now familiar story. The other thing I remember is one Christmas where all the Beatles films were shown: so we got "A Hard Day's Night", "Help!", "The Beatles at Shea Stadium", "Yellow Submarine", "Magical Mystery Tour" and "Let it Be", a celluloid alternate history of the band.

On  Thursday, when the new Beatles film premiered, the marketeers cleverly had live streams from the red carpet (actually blue carpet for some reason) event in Leicester Square, where after Edith Bowman and John Bishop interviewed various celebrities and connections. A surprise appearance from Yoko Ono, who we saw embrace with Olivia Harrison, was a prelude for the main course, as Ringo and Paul arrived, looking as boyish and svelte as ever, given their advancing years. It's a reminder that The Beatles is a tightly controlled commercial affair these days  - the days of exploitation by record companies long gone, as the remaining Beatles and the estates of John and George, ensuring that the product is looked after.

The film itself wasn't exactly a revelation in that so many stories of the Beatles are well known, and that footage of Beatlemania, first in the UK and then worldwide, was always the end of their first act - following that tutelage in Hamburg and Liverpool. Stories unveiled in the film, in particular their refusal to play to segregated audiences in "Jacksonville", have been heavily flagged. Yet sat in a full cinema in HOME in Manchester with an audience that went from people in their twenties to their seventies, the sense of participating in something was a very strong one. The film itself rushes by in a beautifully edited homage to the band, that still manages to convey something of the times in which they lived - but this is not a social documentary, or rather the social documentary element is to show the Beatles as they were, as this unheard of phenomenon for which there was no precedent.

From their first headline gigs at places like Manchester ABC (beautifully restored footage), through to their arrival in the U.S. with "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" already number one in the charts, to the later tours where the audiences just kept growing, but the atmosphere was already darkening even before the "Beatles are bigger than Jesus" headlines that - in a sixties version of a Twitter storm - led to burning of Beatles records in the south, this travelogue manages to show how on the one hand  they were just a rock and roll band, but also something else.

I was struck that we are lucky to have the Beatles - that America in particular was lucky to have the Beatles. This Beatlemania, with the screaming girls, the newly liberated teenager suddenly given a voice, could have happened to anyone - but it happened for a tight knit group of four friends from Liverpool, who were polite, charming and funny in press conferences, who went along with the juggernaut that they were part of through the urbane calm of Brian Epstein's management and George Martin's steady production hand. What would happen next: this generation becoming the hippies, the peaceniks, the Vietnam and civil rights protestors was already beginning when the Beatles landed at Idlewild. The signs protesting their haircuts were a first shot in a culture war, that wasn't even acknowledged. I got the sense that "old America" - the tin pan alley world, was more than happy to make money out of the Beatles, believing that they were a product that could be endlessly marketed to this newly wealthy teenage market, and did think there'd be another one along in the minute. What happened in effect was the Beatles provided a turbo charging of history - whereas there was only one Elvis, able to be mainstreamed through Hollywood B movies - there were four Beatles, and they were the eye of this storm - ably supported by a loyal group of friends/employees from their Liverpool days.

The story comes to the end with the chaos of their 1966 tours. The new songs on the reflective "Rubber Soul" are unplayable live, particularly in these studios, where there music is piped through inadequate P.A. systems and it resembles more a giant P.A. than a concert. For a band who by this stage had played over eight hundred times, this led to them using muscle memory to get by. The performances from 1964 and 1965 are incendiary compared with their last ones. Finishing off at the vast Candlestick Park we see the anonymous white van in which they are bundled back to safety - and its easy to believe in the back, as recounted in the film, George saying he wasn't going to do this anymore.

Along the way we see some great footage - a brilliantly raw "I saw her standing there" for instance - plus some "talking heads" who, for once are used appropriately - Sigourney Weaver and Whoopi Goldberg with personal testimonies of going to see them live - and a commentary from the four Beatles, new interviews with Ringo and Paul alongside judicious archive quotes from John and George. The story ends with the coda of the Beatles on the Apple building during "Let it Be." There hair is now regulation hippy. that late sixties Laurel Canyon look and sound as Lennon, vocals on point as ever, sings "Don't Let Me Down," whilst a tiny Yoko Ono is seen in the corner of the shot.
This is not the story of the Beatles, but it is one story of the Beatles, and the flowering of their artistic muse in the studio, let loose by being one of the first bands to give up touring is another story. Yet the Beatles phenomenon required their presence.

In the audience a couple behind me couldn't resist singing along, but not to "Can't Buy Me Love" or "I Feel Fine" but to naff album tracks "Act Naturally" and "Baby's in Black." Had the Beatles just carried on as that kind of countryfied covers band they'd have no doubt made their money, but it was the songwriting unleashed with "Love Me Do", "Please Please Me" and "From Me to You" which made the difference. Hearing them leap straight into "Help!" or "A Hard Day's Night" still gives a jolt - one that even the later material from Pepper onwards never quite achieves in the same way. Their guitar sound is a lovely amalgam of Buddy Holly and Chuck Berry, their vocals owing as much to the Everly Brothers as Elvis. What alchemy made these four people come together (!) in this way at this time? More than the Kinks, the Stones, the Who, the Beach Boys etc. their components seem uniquely complementary to be much more than just a band - but what they would become.

After the credits rolled, newly restored footage of the Shea stadium gig, where they couldn't quite believe the size of the crowd, as they played for a mere thirty minutes. Already they were over. By 1970 they had split, leaving behind an unprecedented back catalogue. None of their solo careers ever came close to what they had been. Lennon's murder destroying any hopes of the band getting back together again. I was 13 by then, a Beatles obsessive at that age though I'd not get any of the actual albums until a few years later when CDs arrived;  Beatles albums being ruinously expensive compared to mid price releases by Bowie or Joni Mitchell. The Beatles Live at the Hollywood Bowl album has been remastered and reissued as a tie-in with the film. Unlike the Stones or Dylan whose long live career is as important as their recordings, the Beatles remain tied to those pristine studio recordings, yet this film reminds us that their initial success came out of four musicians standing up and entertaining their audience. From small clubs, to British theatres, to American arenas to the football stadiums, and then astonishingly to nothing.

Old enough to be have born whilst the Beatles were still operating, but too young to remember, their live career is an enclosed one, witnessed by more people than any gigs previously, but still a relatively small audience - the mix of cover songs and originals from those first five albums is only half of their story - and this film, though it offers up few surprises, brings back to life what it might have been like: there would be greater live bands, but there wouldn't be a greater phenomenon.

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