We’ve all heard of the Beatles. That goes without saying. Today’s bands have to be some kind of something to be compared to them, and even if they’re not, it’s not uncommon to bask in Beatle glow (Bay City Rollers, anyone?). But what if someone woke up in a world where no one had heard of the Beatles but them? It would be like getting the keys to the kingdom. The golden goose. The genie in the bottle. There would be nowhere to go but everywhere.
That’s the premise of Yesterday, a film that debuts tomorrow. Jack (Himesh Patel) is a nondescript guy whose music career is nonexistent until he gets hit by a bus during a power outage, and after that everything changes.
Before I go any further, here’s the trailer:
Be still, my heart. I’m intrigued. I really am. Not only because it looks like a good movie, but because Jack somehow knows the entire Beatles catalogue perfectly and can pull a song out at the drop of a hat.
On the flip side, though, I have to wonder how the movie will address the Beatles’ absence in terms of music’s sound and impact on an audience. Every pop, rock, or alternative band or singer since 1970, and even before, has drawn on the Beatles in some way, and if that influence is suddenly gone, what’s left? Would bands still sound safe and non-threatening like they did after Elvis got drafted? Or would rock music have just faded into the background like swing did until the ska craze of the 90s?
And what exactly keeps us coming back to the Fab Four, even though it’s almost fifty years since they broke up? I’m no Beatles expert, but I think it boils down to five major factors:
Charisma out the wazoo.
These guys knew how to draw crowds. It’s hard to explain how that works, but the Beatles had whatever it is in spades. We’ll never know what kind of live show they could have put on once they started touring, since no one could hear them over the screaming anyway.
They allowed themselves to be different.
Thinking outside the box seemed to come naturally to the Fab Four. and most of the time it wasn’t planned. The skewed photo on Rubber Soul? Pure accident. The feedback that opens “I Feel Fine”? Also an accident. Their brains were always attuned to pick up sounds and techniques in music that were new and different, and a lot of it is impossible to duplicate. Plenty of guitarists have tried and failed to recreate the opening lick of “Revolution,” but it can’t be done anymore. There’s something about playing full-bore into a failing recording cable that’s not exactly repeatable. That, and the sound console it was recorded on probably no longer exists or is sitting in a museum somewhere.
They were very quick studies.
When a band spends most days playing for an audience at seven-hour stretches, they tend to be very, very proficient at their craft, and the Beatles had their baptism of fire in Hamburg. It gave them a lot of wiggle room in terms of being able to improvise and innovate while still holding an audience’s attention. In the studio, this translated into less time getting tracks laid down. In the early days, the Beatles were easily able to record an entire album in a day, and this naturally led them to have more time for experimentation.
George Martin was their producer.
This was yet another major factor in the Beatles’ success. As a classicist, George Martin brought a ton of depth to the Beatles and he certainly expanded their musical toolbox. Who knows if “Penny Lane” would have had a piccolo trumpet if not for George Martin. He added classical elements to songs such as “In My Life,” which has a baroque style, and strings to “Eleanor Rigby.” He also created the distinctive discordant crescendo that winds up “Day In The Life.” John Lennon later said, “George Martin made us what we were in the studio. He helped us develop a language to talk to other musicians.”
There’s always the lingering question of what might have been.
The Beatles got together, got big, toured, retreated into the studio, and broke up all before they were thirty. It’s anybody’s guess where they would have gone as a band if they had stayed together longer, or maybe have gone full bore like the Rolling Stones and kept going to the bitter end, which in the case of the Stones, hasn’t happened yet. I sometimes wonder if people still show up to Stones concerts to see if those fellas can still move.
Anyway, I honestly don’t think it would have been possible for the Beatles to endure as an actuality, because when life gets as intense as it got for these guys, burnout tends to happen quickly. Other bands may be able to say they’ve outlasted the Beatles, but none of them can say their experiences compare to the Beatles.
Dear Reader, I can see the next lingering question on the tip of your mental tongue, so I’m going to hop right in and address it: Do I think Yoko Ono broke the Beatles up?
Well…not specifically. Yoko gets blamed a lot for the band’s demise, but I don’t believe she was the sole cause. The band was probably headed in that direction with or without Yoko; however, I think she was definitely a contributing factor. Oh, she probably didn’t go into Apple Corps or Abbey Road with the idea of blowing the band apart, but her constant presence definitely affected the dynamic of the group. It’s like when women tag along on Guys’ Night Out or vice versa. Or when Mom wants to follow her teenager around. Suddenly no one can relax, and everyone has to guard what they say.
Film footage from the band’s final days certainly shows Paul, George, and Ringo in recording sessions with “Are you freaking kidding me?” looks on their faces, like they’re just about to erupt. Meanwhile, John looks smugly happy and Yoko is sitting there like a queen. It was obviously not a good situation, and it was clear something was about to break. Which is exactly what happened.
I mean, I can’t confirm this theory, but it’s well-known that Paul’s resentment of Yoko continued for years after the breakup, so chances are that the remaining members of the Fab Four did blame her on some level, at least initially. It’s cool that Paul and Yoko are friends now, though.
What would the world have been like if the Beatles never existed? The question reminds me of what Clarence told George Bailey at the end of It’s A Wonderful Life: “Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around, he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?”
I think the key for Yesterday will be to show how much poorer the world would be without the Beatles, and how big an impact they really made. My concern, though, knowing Hollywood for what it is today, is that the movie will simply try to mooch off of what the Beatles had sans context or depth. That would really be a shame, because every generation deserves to discover what these men achieved and how they achieved it. We’ll certainly never see the like of them again.
Hope you’ll check back here Saturday for my contribution to Pale Writer‘s Daphene du Maurier Blogathon. Thanks for reading, all…