The Importance of Probing (The Beatles: Eight Days A Week)
I saw the movie: the first I have seen in about two years. And it was worth it. In fact, it was quite a moving experience. It reminded me of what I had almost forgotten: the goodness that the Beatles radiated. The most perceptive comment of all came, I felt, from Whoopi Goldberg, who said words to the effect of: “The Beatles weren’t white. Neither were they black. They were everyone’s. They were the Beatles.” That is very true. It’s still true.
I was also touched by that interview where the four Beatles were firm and uncompromising in their opposition to segregated seating at their concerts. I had never known that their refusal to play segregated concerts was written into their American contracts. What courage. But also, again, there is goodness in their feeling. It would have been so easy to have said that it was nothing to do with them, and just go with the accustomed arrangement for the sake of not arousing any controversy. But they didn’t. But they made a stand: and they didn’t suffer for it at all, at least not dirsctly. I wonder now whether lingering resentment at that principled position may not have fuelled – at least in part – the confected outrage at Lennon’s “bigger than Christ” comments. Of course he was speaking about something he knew very little about. Having received only a mediocre education he was self-taught, and “autodidacts” notoriously have blind spots, and are suggestible to the first thing they read. That explains how Lennon could get so carried away by reading one book.
But I always felt, even when I was young, that the outrage was an overreaction. I recall that although I was only about nine years old, I wondered if he was wrong, and how you could know. I distinctly recall being unsure why everyone could be so certain that he was wrong, when no reason was given, although a lot of outrage was voiced. I wondered: if he is wrong, does every mistaken opinion have to be punished that hard? Young as I was, I still think that these are decent questions.
Now, to speak of the music, because that is, after all, why we came to the party, the music is magnificent. The half-hour concert at the end of the film was great. It passed on the screen as if it were but ten minutes. You saw the way their faces changed over the concert. You could sense the honest effort the Beatles were putting into the performance.
They really were great musicians, and the way that adults who should have known better disdained to even discuss their musicianship except to superciliously rubbish it puts those people to shame. We were children: we knew the songs were beyond good, they were thrilling. But we didn’t know enough to understand the quality of their musicianship. In all the words which were written or spoken about them in the 1960s, more should have been said about that.
The extraordinary thing about the Beatles’ music is their extraordinary consistency. Excluding the Yellow Submarine soundtrack, an “artificial” album, they recorded twelve albums over eight years, 1963-1970 (if you count the US record Magical Mystery Tour, the tally is thirteen, and of course The Beatles is a double album). The singles and E.P.s made another three or four albums, depending upon how you count.
So let us say that the Beatles recorded the equivalent of seventeen albums. There was not one dud among them. In my view, the only one which can be merely “okay” was Beatles For Sale. Even the lowest points amongst the remained, I would nominate Help! and Magical Mystery Tour, are yet great records which contain works of genius. This is extraordinary. After the Beatles, my favourite acts are Nina Simone, Elton John, Kate Bush and Led Zeppelin. But none of these come close for consistency (at least in my view, but it is a view which I think is pretty widely shared).
Even other legends such as Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin and the Rolling Stones could with difficulty maintain the intensity of the music over an album. I think of Dylan primarily as a writer of some great songs, but I find a full Dylan record hard to take for too long (Desire only excepted). Although it is a minority opinion, I only found Sticky Fingers to be consistently good: even Exile has too many lame moments for me to say that it is uniformly great.
The other surprising aspect of the Beatles’ music, and this is even more subjective than what has gone before, is the way that I continue to discover new depths and heights in songs I thought I knew backwards. After the release of the remastered CDs, I was able to hear what the drums, bass and rhythm guitars were playing, and I was struck. For example, “Drive My Car”, a song I had never much liked, suddenly came alive. It revealed more starkly than I had ever realised, how McCartney’s brilliant bass lines and Ringo’s simple but tasteful drumming contributed most significantly to the songs.
But more than all this, there is one lesson from this movie, The Beatles: Eight Days A Week. And that is, it is wonderful to use the perspective of time to revisit the past. As our understanding of human nature changes, so too our understanding of the past changes. Yet, there is more than that. This movie demonstrates quite clearly, that one needs to learn to probe because what is reported and said at the time is too often partial. The media only dealt with what interested people at the time, and these were not always the most discerning people.
Ron Howard and his staff did probe, and as a result, they found some fresh material which allows a fuller and deeper understanding of the past. Their scholarship, and that’s what it amounts to, allowed me to better intellectually understand why my feelings had been so positively engaged by the unique phenomenon which was the Beatles.
Joseph Azize, 15 October 2016