Without Precedent

I often wonder about my love for The Beatles–why it is so inexplicable and embedded in my DNA and how millions of people, different from me in innumerable ways, feel precisely the same. Maybe this ingrained, intense feeling is why fans are so incredibly protective of the band’s legacy and equally critical of anything pertaining to The Fab Four, even if it is a feature-length documentary directed by an Academy Award winner named Ron Howard.

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John Lennon, with son Julian, visits Ron Howard and company on the set of Happy Days in 1974.

The producer of the film, Nigel Sinclair, who also produced Martin Scorsese’s documentary about George Harrison Living in the Material World, explained fans’ dual reaction to the announcement of the film: “Ron had people come up to him in the street and [they would] say ‘Mr. Howard, I’m so glad you’re doing the Beatles film.’ Ron said, ‘Of course the subtext is “And don’t screw it up.”’

From me to you (hey, I’m trying my zest here), he does not mess it up.

(My criticisms are few and minute, so let’s get them out of the way. I find the commentary from individuals not part of the Beatles’ circle superfluous, unnecessary, and rarely insightful. Do I care what Sigourney Weaver wore to see The Beatles at Shea Stadium? Not really. Do I care that Jon Savage’s parents wouldn’t let him go to a Beatles concert? Not really. What makes them different from the thousands of other ordinary people who loved The Beatles just as fervently? Oh, right, they are of some renown. Whatever. Get out. Secondly, the film’s tagline boasts that this film is about the band you know but the story you don’t…well, not really. I didn’t really learn anything new, but I did see lots of new photos and footage, and I got to see The Beatles on the big screen, replete with the entire Shea Stadium concert. Horrid snobby portion of this post over.)

Eight Days A Week: The Touring Years tells the story of The Beatles, using their live performances as its focus, which, on the surface, may seem odd, since The Beatles were never exactly synonymous with extraordinary live performances. They didn’t have pigs or light their instruments on fire or create auto-destructive art. Their audiences were not rapt in hearing the words of a lyrical poet, as Dylan’s fans were (a fact he was proud of in his early career, especially when The Beatles’ phenomenon surfaced). For much of their performing career, the music was secondary to the spectacle of seeing The Beatles. By choosing this least-regarded facet of the band, however, Howard is able to more fully reveal how the Beatles progressed and evolved by contrasting it with the circus-like atmosphere of their increasingly stagnant live performances.

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Foreshadowing in Hamburg, 1960: “Their name liveth for evermore.”

The Beatles’ stage performances weren’t always so stagnant, though, and their success was not an accident that happened overnight. Ringo states in the film that playing was the most important thing for the band, and their stints in Hamburg, Germany, allowed them the opportunity to perfect their craft while playing for eight or more hours every night—to unruly, difficult-to-please crowds or to an empty club (empty except for a bearded drummer from another Liverpool group, Ringo Starr). This was their apprenticeship, this is where they learned how to play in front of people–how to mach schau, and when they returned to England, they broke the jazz-only rule at Liverpool’s The Cavern Club, performing a total of nearly 300 times. Having dominated The Cavern Club and garnered a local following, the group was still looking to improve and to move the next step up the ladder.

That next step up the ladder was not what any of The Beatles expected: Beatlemania. Opening with color footage of the band playing in Manchester in November 1963, the film shows the excitement and the burgeoning mania: girls screaming, fainting, and the sheer joy John, Paul, George, and Ringo exude. The film illustrates this joy and excitement perfectly with its abundance of unseen (or, at least, under-seen) concert and interview footage. Fans debate the sexiness of the members (“Ringo’s got a sexy nose.” “George’s eyelashes are sexy.”) and declare their undying love for them: “Paul McCartney, if you’re out there listening, Adrian from Brooklyn loves you.” Fans’ adoration for the Beatles ignites laughter but is genuine—and contagious. Just as contagious and laughter-inducing is The Beatles’ humor—then and now. Just a few favorites: John introduces himself to a reporter as Eric, George uses John’s mop top as an ashtray, George thanks Ringo for his contribution to a fan club record and remarks “We’ll phone you,” and Ringo recalls his inability to hear the band’s music at their concerts, “I couldn’t hear anything. All I could see was Paul’s arse, John’s arse…” Ringo had the best seat, am I right?     

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After conquering Europe, the Beatles arrived in the United States, where the madness escalated to a whole new level. While the Beatles complied with the larger venues (and greater profits) and increasingly manic American crowds, they refused to accommodate the demands of segregated venues. In this regard, they were pioneers, standing for what they believed to be right. As journalist Larry Kane, who accompanied The Beatles on their 1964 North American tour, remarked, he was touched by The Beatles’ kindness, their genuineness, and their intelligence.

After 1964, though, The Beatles’ pioneering in the live arena stalled, except by breaking attendance records by playing in larger venues. The opposite was true of their recording career, where they continued to flourish. With each record, they progressed, wrote better songs, and experimented with new sounds and ideas, culminating with the release of Revolver in May 1966. Tellingly, the Beatles never performed any songs from Revolver live, demonstrating how the sophistication of their recording career had overtaken the circus that was their live show.

By 1966, the group’s rosy relationship with the public was fraying. Not only were their performances inaudible but touring had become a life-threatening situation, which escalated with John Lennon’s remark that The Beatles were, in fact, more popular than Jesus Christ. (Real talk hurts.) Even their relationship with the press, who had adored their wit and cheekiness, was verging on hostile. In a clip, one journalists asks The Beatles why they are so “horrid snobby.” Paul, irrefutably the most diplomatic Beatle, answers that they are not snobby but the journalists and their questions are not particularly nice and get what they deserve. (Again, real talk hurts.) Death threats, Beatle burnings, and exploding firecrackers at concerts became the new norm for The Fab Four. They arrived to their final concert, at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park on August 29, 1966, in an armored truck. They decided they’d had enough–of touring, at least. Still, in these tense moments, you can still see their camaraderie and the joy their music brings.

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Paul McCartney and George Harrison at The Beatles’ final concert in 1966.

Despite all the obstacles this band faced — touring was a money-making venture not an artistic one, their concerts lasted no more than thirty minutes and offered little variation in terms of set lists, and oh yeah, the screaming which made it impossible for them to hear one another — the film shows what a good live band The Beatles were. They could have easily not put any effort into their live shows at all, but they were often in tune and played as a cohesive unit. That unity is a testament to their closeness as individuals and their faith in one another, my favorite aspect of the film.

“I was an only child, and I suddenly felt as if I had three brothers,” Ringo states in the film. Paul gets emotional recalling the first moment Ringo played with the group, and George expresses how he was always glad that they had one another to lean on and share the experience, unlike an isolated Elvis or Sinatra, declaring, “We were very, very close to one another.” This is the band that went from staying in a single cramped room in the back of a theater in Hamburg to occupying the entire floor of the New York Plaza Hotel, where they found themselves gathering together in one room to get away from the pressure of being Beatles and just be with each other.

They loved one another and had faith in each other, just as many individuals around them had faith in them — notably George Martin having faith in their artistic vision to not touch the unorthodox structure and sound of “Tomorrow Never Knows” and Brian Epstein sacrificing so much for them and maintaining his faith in them despite no measurable success for so long (John Lennon once said there was a period where the only people who had faith in the band were Brian Epstein and George Harrison). And by having faith in each other, they inspired others to have faith in one another — so that it didn’t matter if you were black or white, weird or popular, young or old; The Beatles were a uniting force, beautifully encapsulated by the chorus of grown men singing “She Loves You” to celebrate their football club’s victory season. And there it is — that inexplicable feeling of love swelling inside me. I love The Beatles like no other. They are, quite simply, without precedent.