I once flippantly said that I hated the Beatles, and I still get reminded of this from time to time. It was a throwaway remark, funny at the time and perhaps not so much in retrospect, but there’s a kernel of truth in it. I’m both too young and too old really to appreciate the Beatles.
Too young because I was just a toddler when they burst on to the scene. By the time I was a teenager, punk had come along and dismissed them as relics of the rock establishment (“No Elvis, Beatles or the Rolling Stones/In 1977”). It felt rude and fun to reject them, like laughing at bowler-hatted businessmen and sticking two fingers up at suburban Tories.
And I was too old to love the Beatles. Those younger than me have a different attitude towards rock’s past, and after punk died they carefully placed all the icons back on their pedestals, dusting them down and building little glass cases around them. Sometimes I think they’re too reverential, but they’re probably half right. Punk was in many ways silly and shallow and I’m all for admitting the error of my teenage ways.
So here I am, mentioning the Beatles two columns in a row, like they were important or something. This time it’s because I went to see the new documentary Eight Days a Week: the Touring Years, which tells the band’s story between 1962 and 1966 through live footage. Starting at the Cavern Club in Liverpool, the gigs that looked the most fun, they move on to the Manchester ABC in 1963. A bigger stage this time, but still, look at that set-up – no mikes on the drums, no monitors, a few tiny amps on the stage doing all the work of filling the theatre. They can’t have been able to hear a thing, and yet the vocals are always in tune. Put it down to years of gigging and practice, the muscle memory of singing on sheer instinct.
By 1965 they were forced to play huge stadiums in the US, the authorities fearing that there’d be riots at smaller venues because thousands of fans would be left in the streets outside. The famous night at Shea Stadium in 1966, and then, so soon, their final gig, at Candlestick Park in San Francisco.
More than anything, the film shows a band inventing how to be a band. The first to experience such success, they were making it up as they went along. At the beginning, all simplicity and joy, they’re at one with the audience. They shake their heads and toss their hair and knowingly scream “Oooh” into the shared mike, the same sounds echoed back at them by the screaming girls. Their press conferences are spontaneous and unguarded. There were no rules. “Never such innocence again,” I think as I watch the footage.
For the trajectory of the film is tragic. You watch all the fun drain away in four short years, leaching out of them like goodness lost through overcooking. The press conference questions become idiotic and provocative, the boys start to snap a little. The comment about being bigger than Jesus blows up in their faces, their records are burned and they are forced, frightened, on to the defensive. The gigs get bigger and bigger, but no better organised. Still no one has any idea how to do this.
At Shea Stadium there is finally one small mike suspended over the drums, but there seems to be no security and there are none of the trappings of what would become the rock’n’roll experience. They run across the pitch to get to the stage. At the end of the gig they are bundled into the back of a windowless meat wagon to be driven away. It looks miserable. “No fun”, as the Pistols would sing only a few years later.
And the thought comes to me: they were the canaries down the mine. How much could a band stand? What would it take to kill them? Soon after they quit, everyone worked out how to do it. Bands demanded more. The 1970s saw it all turn into the dream lifestyle – the perks, the planes, the limos, the stadium gigs with proper security and backstage luxury – and they missed it all, by being there too early. By being there first. It’s enough to make me love them.
This article appears in the 12 Oct 2016 issue of the New Statesman, England’s revenge