Saturday, November 21, 2015

1+ – The Beatles on Video: What They Are, What They Are Not

 The Beatles filming “Hello, Goodbye” in 1967. (Credit: Apple Corps Ltd.)

Under the collective title of 1+, the promotional music videos made by or for the Beatles, both during their career and since, are now reclaimed, refurbished, and gathered in one place. It’s a marvelous place, and its provenance is only moderately confusing. Though a definitive collection of these videos would seem to have some historical, cultural, and archival importance of its own, it’s appearing as a kind of mega-bonus to the reissue of 1, the compilation of Beatles chart-toppers first released in 2000, which itself topped the charts of 35 nations. And the bonus DVD, with a video for each of the 27 original songs, comes with its own bonus – 23 additional videos including alternate versions, outtakes, and post-Beatle creations.

The CD, newly remixed, is spanking. The hits have never sounded finer, sharper, more various or contemporary – though I can’t really tell you, without a month’s monastic study, what subtle differences might exist between these mixes and the stereo and mono remasters that were issued as boxed sets six years ago. All it seems necessary to say about the music is that every year it grows more commanding and more suggestive; its bottoms and boundaries grow wider. It feels ever more timeless – to settle once again on the cliché that serves where descriptions fail.

It’s the video component that is new, and has been long in coming: fans have wanted this collection since home video began. 20 years ago, The Beatles Anthology included many of these films, excerpted or whole, and that was our first inkling of how good they could look, given the right attention. The Beatles were a visual phenomenon from the beginning, making their first television appearance months before recording their first album; they were transmitting themselves worldwide by screen long before they decided to quit touring and create videos specifically for promotional purposes. The number of self-contained clips they created, or had created around them, is remarkable for a pop era that did not think foremost in pictorial terms; they leave us an evolving visual record of a time and a growth, a set of promotional practices and a lineage of style in everything from clothing and accoutrement to pop-show camerawork and psychedelic cartooning.

So there is, not unusually for a Beatle thing, a visionary dimension to everything here, even if the content in a given instance is drab and uncreative. The early videos, face it, are cheeky antiques, black and white Beatles in scratchy film or low-contrast telecast, matching suits and pudding-bowl hair, standing on their X’s while miming to recordings or playing live. Visually these pieces (“Love Me Do,” “From Me to You,” “I Want to Hold Your Hand”) are lovely but larval. Their excitement is in the promise of what is to come, what so clearly waits to become: a blooming, a spreading, a flying.

The Beatles filming “I Feel Fine” at Twickenham Film Studios.

The Beatles go off to shoot two features, the Richard Lester-directed A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and Help! (1965). Then comes a set of eight videos – all filmed on November 23, 1965 – that are, in expenditure of dollars and imagination, almost too meagre to earn the designation “minimal.” “I Feel Fine,” “Ticket to Ride,” “Help!” “We Can Work It Out,” and “Day Tripper” are rendered in televisual black and white, against sets and props that seem to have taken ten minutes of labor and two of creative thought (a giant train ticket, a sawhorse, some exercise equipment, a curtain of tinsel). Yet these little films, drearily unimaginative, are also deliciously visual, simply because a) the Beatles have evolved into such heavenly creatures, youthful yet with a mature style and presence; and b) because they are showing both the good and bad effects of drugs and dissolution. For “Ticket to Ride” and “I Feel Fine,” John Lennon looks as seedy and depressed as he later said he felt during his “fat Elvis period”; the other Beatles are hardly more animated, except for George, who in apparent ridicule of the dumb show sometimes moves lips and fingers wildly out of sync with the music; and Ringo, who mid-song starts sawing the set apart. But evidently the boys took a smoke break at some point: by day’s end and the second version of “We Can Work It Out,” Lennon has regained his perverse energy, and his keyboard pantomime and eye-roll make Paul McCartney sick with laughter. (Among the bonus videos is an “I Feel Fine” alternate filmed as the Beatles eat take-out fish and chips off the studio floor, Paul and John gamely lip-synching while in full greasy chew. It’s titled “I Feel Fried” on the film canister, and it’s sublime.)

A few months later, in May 1966, the Beatles are in a suburban London park, posing and miming among green leaves and stone busts for their new single, “Paperback Writer” and “Rain.” They are tired, stoned, both; they wear colored shades and smoke and loll about and clearly couldn’t give a shit. But they are in crisp color, they’re magnetic and gorgeous. You don’t want the song to end, the image to cut, George and Ringo to wave goodbye. But they do. These videos are a capture of far-off history that look as clear and feel as immediate as the passing moment, and they go to the heart of the whole thing. How do the Beatles make mystique simply by existing? Why do we lust after that mystique, hunger simply to watch them exist? I don’t know, except to imagine that, in some rare way, we exist differently when we watch them. Whatever the root of it, this is what the Beatles are, this is something video can do, and this is what we’ve been waiting so long to see, to really see.

Shooting “Paperback Writer” and “Rain” at Chiswick House, London, May 20, 1966.

The next two Beatle years are a blur of outrageous colors, absurdist fashion, glorious music, and a host of then-ascendant film and performance clichés redeemed by antic humor and the inexhaustible spectacle of four irreplaceable men simply smiling at each other. We get a “Strawberry Fields Forever” that is really no more than one pretty picture after another, yet mesmerizing in its straightforward irrationality, like a Monty Python insert without satirical targets. We get a lip-synched “Hello Goodbye” in three versions, each more fun and candy-crunchy than the last. We get a “Hey Bulldog” full of laughter, textured clothing, and muttonchops, a raucous “Revolution” full of scary Lennon close-ups and sexy McCartney-Harrison counterpoint. We get Let It Be outtakes that remind us how badly we need that film restored. We get a lot of twee, touching Yellow Submarine.

One video, like the song it envisions, carries these waves of delighted invention to their peaks while seeming to work against them, or beneath them. From frame one, “A Day in the Life” looks like stereotypical late Sixties acid graphics, a shaky camera and fast cutting, celebrity faces and trippy effects. But the video – shot at Abbey Road on February 10, 1967, during the recording of the famed “orchestral buildup” – never succumbs to the stereotype it apes. The atmosphere is carnival and wealth, rich hippies and in-crowders: you’d give anything to be there, just watching. Well, you are there. But soon you cannot be so certain of where “there” is. The camera, immersed in the dimness of the low-lit studio, feeling an incipient frenzy in the mood, runs from one group to another, whirls about, gets dizzy, does a double take on a man wearing a mask that looks like a face, or a face that looks like a mask. There are disorienting cuts to Big Ben on London’s charcoal horizon. The studio stays dark, grows darker; faces devolve into rapacious mouths, carefree giggles into weird seizures. The final chord falls, leaving these moments to float suspended, half-frozen – and as the sound dies and the image stills, you realize you’ve been watching someone’s version of “The Masque of the Red Death.” Direction is credited simply to “The Beatles.”

*

On 1+, the songs that topped the charts but lacked accompanying videos are represented by more or less familiar live versions (“From Me to You” at the 1963 Royal Variety Show; “Yesterday” on Ed Sullivan), or by post-Beatle creations. The latter are a predictably variable lot. “Words of Love” combines 1963 home-movie footage with witty new animation over a BBC version of the song, and it’s a real treat. “Eight Days a Week” is set to a thrilling montage from the Shea Stadium concert film (another restoration awaiting release). “Come Together,” made to promote the original 1 album, is constructed from vector graphics that may have been state of the art in 2000 but now constitute a kaleidoscopic curio. A so-called “Jukebox” feature allows the programming of videos in sequence (nice if you want it). Commentaries are appended to a handful of the videos – Ringo’s filmed introductions, Paul’s voice-over memoirs – but these are, with one exception, redundant.

“A Day in the Life”: Paul McCartney in the studio, February 10, 1967.

It’s often been claimed that the Beatles, or at least Richard Lester, “invented” the music video, and thus MTV, and thus a good chunk of the modern media age. But the obvious fact is that many earlier films featured standalone rock ‘n’ roll performances, even if they were not always classifiable as rock ‘n’ roll movies. Surely Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Gene Vincent, Fats Domino, or Jerry Lee Lewis, all of whom were filmed performing or miming their songs in the late Fifties, were closer to being music-video inventors. And if we’re talking directors, Frank Tashlin (The Girl Can’t Help It, 1956), Fred F. Sears (Don’t Knock the Rock, 1956), Jack Arnold (High School Confidential, 1958), or one of the hacks who helmed Elvis’ pre-Beatles movies (Robert D. Webb, Hal Kanter, Norman Taurog) deserve the MTV patent far more than Lester – who in any case had already directed a musical film (1962’s It’s Trad, Dad!) which in part qualified him for the Beatles gig.

It’s important to note what the Beatles’ videos are not. None of the ones made during their career is organized around what could even generously be called a concept. With fleeting exceptions, none features choreographed dancing, or sets more elaborate than cheap props and backdrops, or costumes beyond the early matching suits or, in one later case, the Sgt. Pepper gear. In other words, the Beatles’ videos have almost none of the elements that MTV taught us to believe – starting, perhaps, in 1983, with Steve Barron’s groundbreaking direction of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” – were definitive of the format. They offer nothing more profound or pyrotechnical than four unusually attractive and synchronous fellows playing, singing, sitting, standing, walking, jumping, staring, smiling, eating, yawning. Nothing more than the Beatles and all that grows from them.

Lest I vanish up my own irony, I mean to say: That’s enough. The Beatles didn’t have to flaunt their rough origins and dirty apprenticeship; the dirt was part of them. They didn’t have to clamor for revolution in 1968; they were the revolution. And they never needed what came to be thought of as the essential armature of music video in order to come across. Not just across, but through – through the thousands of hot dots that once formed a TV picture, or the millions of pixels that are now the digital image. They only ever needed one thing to come across, to come through, and that was us: the audience. They needed us as we needed them. They often said that, they often sang it, and, in what may be the greatest music video ever made, they dramatized it.

“Hey Jude”: The Beatles and The World At Large.

On September 4, 1968, at London’s Twickenham Studios, the Beatles performed “Hey Jude” on The David Frost Show, singing live over a playback of the existing track. Paul gave a vocal performance which, while never deviating far from the recorded version, was uniquely brilliant, both tender and furious; throughout, he and John conducted a typical Beatle conversation in smiles, head nods, eye dances. For the last verse, Paul was in close-up. You saw something out of focus far behind him, something swinging: you thought it was a pendulum, some scythe-like register of time – before realizing no, it was only an impatient human arm. There was another presence here; something was about to occur. And then, when Paul’s scream burst the song’s watergate and the chant began, the Beatles were engulfed by a human wave, an audience surging forth to fill every space around them. A hundred or so strong, they all began to clap, sing, and sway, each following a slightly different time, a unique beat. The camera caught faces as it could, mesmerized at the variety, the absence of typicality or of conformity in this crowd which, as you learned later, was not demographically calculated but had been brought in from the street outside. The constituents – representing the Beatles’ most immediate and accessible audience, but also, inevitably, The World At Large – were of virtually every shape, color, kind: black, white, Indian, male, female, old, young, thin, chubby, fashionable, square. All were represented, all were equal; and for several overpowering minutes, the world as it ought to be was realized.

I said the surviving Beatles’ commentary was, with one exception, redundant. This is the exception. In one of the two “Hey Jude” performances included here (one was broadcast, the other an alternate), a curious old gentleman appears with flowers stuck in his glasses, clutching some kind of folding board. During the chant, he moves to the center of the crowd and all but attempts a peaceful takeover of the affair: he pats Paul’s head gently like a solicitous headmaster, swings his arms at the chanters like a drunken chorister. In voice-over, Paul identifies the man as Bill, a homeless alcoholic whom he’d met the year before while editing Magical Mystery Tour in a London film studio. He can’t explain the board that Bill holds to his chest, but theorizes it might have been the bed he would sleep on, later that night.

– Devin McKinney is the author of Magic Circles: The Beatles in Dream and History (Harvard, 2003) and The Man Who Saw a Ghost: The Life and Work of Henry Fonda (St. Martin’s, 2012), and a contributor to the anthologies Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (Cambridge, 1999) and Screening Violence (Rutgers, 2001). Formerly a music columnist (The American Prospect Online), blogger (Pop with a Shotgun), and TV writer (The Food Network), he regularly contributes to Hey Dullblog, a Beatles blog he co-founded, and the pop culture site Hi Lobrow, and is currently writing his third and fourth books. He works as an archivist in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where he lives with his wife and their three cats.

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