There was an audible intake of breath in the audience, even a nervous titter or two. They were totally unexpected, those opening images – but they shouldn’t have been. They were so very, very young when they started out. But then we – and the audience was all around my age – we were also so very, very young once. It was almost as if in unison there was a collective posing of the question as to where all the decades had gone?
It’s now been fifty years since John, Paul, George and Ringo hung up their guitars/drum sticks – at least as far as touring was concerned. Technology just couldn’t keep up with these guys. They had not the means to raise their music above the level of their teen dominated audience’s constant screaming. By the end they couldn’t even hear themselves playing on stage. Ringo kept the beat to the wiggling of John’s bum. Shea Stadium, the final straw, was just ludicrous. 50,000 plus crammed into it with only minute amps facing them from around the perimeter. The music had to be piped through the tannoy system – their music therefore became a barely recognisable tinny squeak. The Beatles may have been the first to use stadiums as venues – but for bands to be seen and heard effectively in them was still a few years down the track. Then there was the issue that their music was starting to push the envelope as to what could be reproduced on stage. George Martin was able to replicate what was happening in the minds of Lennon and McCartney on vinyl, but playing it live was another matter. Besides, the financials had changed from when they started out. Touring now wasn’t their sole cash cow. But in the end, they were simply over it. Drugs were also taking their toll and gun-happy America was no place to be once Lennon had made his off the cuff remarks about Jesus and fame. After their final US concerts they retreated for a few more gigs in the UK before hunkering down with Martin to change the world with Sgt Peppers.
And just when we thought that all that could possibly be said about the Fab Four has been uttered, along comes Ron Howard to give us the happy days of a gem that is ‘The Beatles: Eight Days a Week–the Touring Years’.
I was seemingly aeons ago, but I can still remember my first encounter with the phenomena that was this foursome. There were the quartet of lads, not all that much older than myself, dressed in Edwardian swimsuits cavorting on a pallid English beach. It was on the cover of a magazine in a Burnie newsagent – I have a vague recollection it may have been ‘TV Week’, although I had yet to encounter them on the small screen. It wasn’t long before that happened. But back then, being the youthful stickler for correctness, I was perplexed how they could get the spelling wrong – beAtles? The first song I can recall hearing was ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’ as I walked beside the sea on North Terrace, clutching my little transistor radio, tuned in to 7BU. The sound of it halted me in my tracks. It was so fresh and alive to my ears. And soon they were gobsmacking people world wide. By my discovery of them the Beatles had an unstoppable momentum up as they dominated the charts, bringing in their wake the Liverpool Sound and the British Invasion. I was soon arguing with my friends as to the merits of the Kinks and the Animals, my favourites, compared to the Stones, or indeed, the Beatles. I started buying their singles on Parlophone, later Apple. The first LP I ever purchased was the aforementioned game-changer. But that came after the years Howard covered in what obviously was a labour of love for him. It shows. The documentary sparkles with the wit that came naturally to the foursome; their talent live and of course, the magic that was their song-smithery. We all know classics such as ‘Yesterday’ and ‘Imagine’ are virtually immortal, with Lennon/McCartney up there with Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Brian Wilson as the lyricists for our generation. But the offering from the acclaimed director tells some stuff that has also been largely forgotten.
Mr Howard put in a world wide call-out for fresh Beatles material. Ordinary punters did have means to record back then in the dark ages, so some hitherto unseen footage was available to the film-maker. Some of the quality from a few of their very early performances is remarkable – and we are able to appreciate just how tremendous they were live before they were drowned out by the screeching of over-excited young ladies. But there is little joy present for them, or us, towards the termination of their touring. Their constantly being in the public spotlight was taking its toll. You can see it in their faces; sometimes in the quality of their live playing, albeit in difficult circumstances to say the least. Those last American gigs were not only a physical challenge – they played with their minds as well, along with what they were imbibing. They were spent.
What has been largely overlooked was the role they played in de-segregating the South in the US by refusing to play for an all-white audience in Jacksonville. In these parts it was unheard of for negros to sit alongside white bread Dixielanders, but the Liverpudlian quartet made it happen. The two remaining take us through their decision making process for how their flaunting of what was accepted and their insistence on overturning the rules came about. Another eye-opener, for our era when smokers are almost treated as lepers, is just how prevalent it was back then – and Howard has a unique way in making his point on that so we don’t miss it.
RH’s use of talking heads is fairly limited but always appropriate. Some contributions are thoroughly thought provoking, none the more so than Whoopi Goldberg’s. She’s never been a favourite of mine, but here she shines as she reminiscences about growing up as Beatlemania conquered her country – its pull being universal.
I love it that my beautiful daughter has always fully embraced the Beatles ever since she was a small girl. No doubt she will recount their contribution to a new generation as our beloved Tessa Tiger grows older. She can already sing ‘Yellow Submarine’.
So thank you Ron Howard for giving another Beatles inspired gift to the world in a period when many yearn for simpler times, even though, back then, life wasn’t always so simple for these four lads from Old Blighty. And for taking us back to when we all felt we’d be ‘forever young’.
Movie Trailer – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mj0KLrrl2rs