Recent Ron Howard documentary ‘The Beatles: Eight Days A Week – The Touring Years’ is being aired on Channel 4 tonight (January 5) at 9pm. It shows the beginning of a cultural shift we’re still experiencing today, says Dan Stubbs
Received wisdom has it that The Beatles got cool right about the time they started smoking pot, ditched the suits and got busy with the facial hair. The mop top years, with their wobbly heads and songs about holding hands, are presumed naff by comparison. A new film, Eight Days A Week, directed by Ron Howard (Apollo 13, The Da Vinci Code, Jay Z documentary Made In America), might change a few minds.
It charts the lives of John, Paul, George and Ringo from their early days touring cinemas and concert halls in the UK to their final show at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park on August 29, 1966 – a period in which you could reasonably argue they changed the world for ever.
Inventing the stadium gig
Next time you squint at ant-sized Rihanna from your cheap seats at the back, blame The Beatles – they were the first pop band to play in sports stadiums. It was a case of necessity being the mother of invention – there weren’t venues big enough to accommodate the volume of fans – and they weren’t an edifying experience. The band could barely hear themselves over the screaming; the fans heard the band through tinny tannoys. Many of the stadium scenes in the film are frightening, with fans crammed onto benches, minimal security and The Beatles arriving on the pitch by car, like a disaster waiting to happen. Howard, who interviewed Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr for the film, agrees the shows weren’t The Beatles at their best.
“A couple of years after The Beatles quit touring, The Stones and The Who got good at playing stadiums. But The Beatles didn’t hang around long enough to conquer it. And they don’t really like to talk about it.”
Championing civil rights
The Beatles’ arrival in the USA coincided with major shifts in American society; the Civil Rights Act of 1964 finally outlawed discrimination on grounds of race, colour, religion, sex or national origin, but segregation was still rife. In a heartening scene in the film, the band refuse to play a show in Jacksonville, Florida, unless blacks and whites are allowed to mix. Explaining their position to the press, McCartney sums up racial segregation in two words: “It’s silly.” The show was desegregated and The Beatles had it written into their contracts they’d only play mixed crowds in future. “Elvis couldn’t have done it,” says Howard. “But as outsiders, it was a little bit easier for The Beatles to say, ‘This is bullsh*t! Why would we do that?’ They had this kind of personal and artistic integrity they adhered to so comfortably.”
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In a 1966 interview for the London Evening Standard, John Lennon said The Beatles were “more popular than Jesus”. At home, nobody batted an eyelid. But in America’s Bible Belt, people burned Beatles records and the Ku Klux Klan picketed shows. Lennon reluctantly issued a terse apology, but an important conversation about religion and extremism – one that’s still pertinent today – had been opened up by a pop band. “I remember thinking it was a ridiculous overreaction,” says Howard, who was 12 at the time. “It was, and still is, a dangerous time to be controversial and out in the open in America, unfortunately.”
Making Britain cool
For everyone who’s ever travelled around the USA and been grateful for how far your accent gets you, be thankful for The Beatles, who sold swinging Britain to the world. The first UK group to score massive success in America, they paved the way not just for the British invasion of the ’60s, but for every British act who followed, from The Stones to Coldplay to Adele. Winning over the Americans wasn’t just a case of the music, which in the early days was mostly peddling rock’n’roll back to the people who invented it. Equally important was their look, youth, personality and humour. Howard says his admiration of their wit grew while making the film. “I appreciated their unwillingness to intellectualise,” he says. “There’s a bit where Paul’s on a train, they’re interviewing him and he says, ‘It’s not art!’ They say, ‘Well, what is it?’ He says, ‘It’s a laugh!’ That unpretentious approach became a mantra – one they still hold pretty dear.”
Making music serious
There are numerous strands to the film, but mostly it’s a coming-of-age story of four guys growing up in the mouth of madness. By the final act, they make an unprecedented decision to quit performing live altogether and become a studio-only band. That’s how they remained for their final four years, yielding a mind-expanding double album (1968’s ‘The Beatles’, AKA The White Album), the original concept album (1967’s ‘Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’), a rootsy bringing-it-all-back-home album (1970’s ‘Let It Be’) and a film you absolutely have to be on drugs to enjoy (1967’s Magical Mystery Tour).
A truly pivotal moment was the recording of 1966’s ‘Revolver’ and the trippy, droning ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ – the appearance of which, contextualised in the film, is like if Kanye West suddenly released a country & western song. The shift from throwaway pop to arty, often downright strange music paved the way for everyone from Radiohead to Alt-J. “You never could get them to estimate how much money they were walking away from when they left the road,” says Howard. “But that is the one big thing that I really admire, as a creative person myself: how through that period, through this gauntlet of Beatlemania and everything that went with it, their work just kept evolving.”
Creating the modern model for fame
Rock bands were nothing new by the time The Beatles arrived, but their experience – constant press scrutiny, screaming fans everywhere, truly global fame – was unprecedented. “It’s interesting to understand the level of social upheaval they were part of – they’re being influenced by it, they’re influencing it,” says Howard. “And as you start to understand the intensity of Beatlemania, it stops being cute and starts being real drama.” Towards the end of the film, fun is thin on the ground – there’s a diplomatic incident in the Philippines when they unintentionally snub First Lady Imelda Marcos, and the press start to turn on them too: “Why are you so rude?” asks one European reporter, apropos of nothing. Placed in context, the song ‘Help’ has never sounded quite so desperate. Bet they would’ve been all over Instagram if they existed now, though.
The Beatles: Eight Days A Week – The Touring Years is on Channel 4 tonight (January 5) at 9pm