You might think there’s nothing much left to say about the Beatles – but a new documentary by Ron Howard about the group proves otherwise. Despite its cumbersome title, The Beatles: Eight Days A Week – The Touring Years, will appeal to both Beatles obsessives and those who are merely well-disposed towards the Fab Four.
The film is directed by Ron Howard (Apollo 13, Cocoon, Splash), who introduced it to an invited audience in London this week. I spoke with him afterwards. He admits one key to its power is the on-screen presence of Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, who reminisce freely about those extraordinary years: the two surviving Beatles had given their blessing to the project, as had the widows of George Harrison and John Lennon, Olivia Harrison and Yoko Ono. “They were all very co-operative,” Howard said.
“I thought to concentrate on the years the Beatles had been a touring band (from 1962 to 1966) would make for a fascinating structure.”
Indeed. There’s a remarkable amount of documentary footage here, showing the Beatles playing live – from early club dates in Hamburg and Liverpool’s Cavern Club, making their debut on America’s Ed Sullivan Show in 1964, watched by 73 million TV viewers, right through to their final concert in San Francisco’s Candlestick Park in 1966.
By then the touring had begun to pall, and the fan hysteria wearying (not to mention personally dangerous). The group were working endlessly (the film’s title Eight Days A Week is appropriate here). And above all, they were no longer adolescents but men, who no longer wanted to be treated as objects. So they retreated from the madness and the exhausting grind of touring, concentrate on being what they primarily were – songwriters and musicians, working in the privacy of a studio.
The sheer hysteria they generated among their fans has never since been surpassed. So many of us in that particular generation were swept up in Beatlemania.
I first latched on to them late in 1962; it was love at first hearing. I recall going to a friend’s party about a year later, between Christmas and New Year 1963. There would allegedly be girls at this party, and I wanted to look as cool as any boy of 15 could look. I already had a Beatle-ish mop-top, hair combed forward. Their second album, With the Beatles, had been released a month earlier, featuring the Fab Four in black and white, all wearing black polo-neck sweaters. My parents, alert to my heavy hints, had bought me one for Christmas. Just right for this party, I thought: until I arrived to find that five of my friends were wearing one too.
In the following years I bought every Beatles single and album (one released every three months and six months respectively, as Howard’s film makes clear.) I played them all endlessly until they lodged in my brain. Even today when I hear any Beatles album track, I can hum the opening bars of the following one even before it starts. And their music evolved, coinciding with my own growing up. Rubber Soul and Revolver were perfect albums for a faintly disaffected sixth-former like me; when I made it to university in 1967, Sergeant Pepper tracks were the anthems of choice.
Long before becoming a journalist, I was riveted by the Beatles’ handling of press conferences, swiftly and wittily deflecting inane or embarrassing questions. The cheeky but amiable manner in which they did this sent a message to my peers: you didn’t have to kow-tow to your elders and betters, you could answer them back. It was something of a generational shift.
Journalism turned out to be the means of meeting two of the Beatles: Paul in 1984 and Ringo five years later, both times in Los Angeles, where I was then working. I’d interviewed some of the biggest names in film and music by the time I talked with McCartney – for a whole hour, in a suite at the Beverly Hills Hotel. But I’d never felt more nervous, or terrified I might something he might find stupid. During our hour together, I kept thinking: “I’m on a sofa, actually talking to Paul McCartney!” It seemed unreal. Happily, he was all charm and grace.
As time passed, other artists became my firm favourites: Dylan, Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, Steely Dan. After the Beatles split up, I played their music less. Yet it stays with me, still fresh and familiar even today. And looking back, I can’t think of four better people to have grown up with.
Read David Gritten’s review of The Beatles: Eight Days A Week – The Touring Years)
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