There are only four mythic American stories: the American Revolution, when the country freed itself from a monarchy; the Civil War, when the country was made whole; World War II, when the country saved the world from totalitarianism; and the Beatles' invasion of the U.S., which unified 70-million-plus American baby boomers, gave a generation a voice and set in motion a youth-driven culture that remains with us today. (I wish the Civil Rights movement were a fifth, but this story is ongoing and the struggle against racism and intolerance hasn't concluded by any means, especially today.)
As we know, each of these four epic tales of triumph continues to enthrall and stir the American imagination. But of the four, only the last one overhauled the culture and, for the first time, legitimized the value and ideas of young Americans. From the Beatles forward, the country became increasingly youth-focused, with a greater emphasis on fitness, casual fashion, drugs (for better or worse), a less formal approach to virtually everything, a snarky sense of humor and a shared ethos. In the process, a new adolescent market emerged, remaking how young America saw itself and, some might argue, leaving us today with a legacy of selfishness and immaturity in adults today.
But no matter how many times I tell myself that I'm Beatles-ed out, I find myself drawn into their Homeric story. When this happens, I'm always in awe of their rise as artists and as a cultural force. In two short years—from 1964 to 1966—the Beatles managed to turn the tables on adult society with their obsessive love songs, quick Liverpudlian humor and personal beliefs on everything from spiritualism and sex, to war, drugs and marriage.
When I heard about director Ron Howard's The Beatles: Eight Days a Week, The Touring Years last September as it was being shown in theaters, I recall groaning to myself, "Again? Really?" I even passed on seeing a screening last fall. Finally, this past weekend, I had a chance to watch the new two-DVD set featuring the film and extras. And once again, I found myself pulled into the Beatles vortex. Despite my best efforts, I was again dumb-struck by the music, their impossible charisma and the mass adulation. All of a sudden it was 1964, and the tale told was brand new.
The documentary traces the Beatles' touring years, from 1962 to 1966. Interestingly, it turns out that this thick slice of their career is fundamental to understanding who they were, what they went through and why they broke up. Only through their touring years do we discover how they evolved from cherubic naifs to cantankerous and bitter seers.
In short, the Beatles nearly toured themselves into a breakdown. The demands of performing, songwriting and recording along with the crowds and Beatlemania left them all with anxiety as security efforts, speaker systems and, ultimately, the media all failed or turned on them.
- The Beatles helped integrate the South. A clause in their concert contract said they could refuse to perform if crowds were segregated. As a result, venues were integrated during their live dates. All four Beatles were deeply offended by racism and mystified by America's stand on segregation.
- The song Help! was John's autobiographical cry for relief from the isolation and claustrophobia of Beatlemania.
- Paul McCartney admitted that the Beatles were stoned during most of the filming of Help! in early 1965.
- The Beatles earned most of their money on tour, not through the sale of singles or albums. They apparently had a lousy record contract.
- By mid-1965, Beatlemania had whipped up so much interest in the band that they had to play stadiums to accommodate the crowds. But in their infancy, stadium concerts presented terrifying risks. There was always the looming possibility that crowds would rush the stage, either due to fan frenzy or an inability to hear the music through poor speaker systems. Injury or death by stampede or crackpot assassination was an ever-present fear.
- The Beatles' performance schedule was relentless. In addition to their three North American tours, they were nearly always on the road performing elsewhere in the world. That is, when they weren't also making their two films—A Hard Day's Night and Help!
- The Beatles likely would have broken up a lot sooner if they hadn't been so close knit and supportive of each other. According to McCartney, no project moved forward without all four band members approving, a rare bond of unity for any group.
- As fans' expectations grew, the Beatles became more introverted. By 1966, all of the Beatles had wives and families, leaving them less determined to tour. Their initial zeal waned.
- The original "butcher cover" for Yesterday and Today released in the States was an embrace of the avant-garde and an attempt to outrage and tamp down fan hysteria.
- Tomorrow Never Knows from Revolver introduced the avant-garde to mainstream rock.
- By Hamburg, Germany, in June 1966, the Beatles were sour on performing. They became cranky and brittle. In Japan weeks later, by Paul's and Ringo's own admission, their playing had become "crap."
- By August 1966, touring in the States became more dangerous following the surfacing of John's interview comment months earlier about the Beatles being more popular than Jesus. The band had to contend with death threats and album-burning events. To mollify the situation, the Beatles held a press conference. John tersely clarified what he had said earlier in the year, noting that his remarks were meant as disbelief of the band's popularity and not in any way as a ranking. He also apologized.
- Paul said the Beatles grew increasingly scared in the States in '66. In Cleveland, fans rushed the stage and the Beatles had to be evacuated. In Memphis, there was a bomb scare.
- According to Ringo, there was no enjoyment in the third U.S. tour. "It was just a freak show and music had nothing to do with it."
- In San Francisco, as they slid around like marbles inside a bare steel armored truck whisking them away from Candlestick Park, they decided then that they no longer would tour and would focus instead on studio recording.
- George notes ruefully in the documentary that the Beatles were snatched out of their youth and underwent a false, hot-house aging process on the road. Paul adds: "We were fed up with who we were."
- The last time the Beatles played a public concert was on the roof of the Apple Corps offices on January 30, 1969. They played five songs over the course of 52 minutes. On April 10, 1970, Paul announced officially that the band had broken up.
The tours that made the Beatles accessible and transformed American culture came at a steep price. Traveling to and from venues, writing their next hits, making movies and performing at venues so thunderously loud they couldn't hear themselves play left the Beatles raw, emotional drained and fearful. As a result, from late 1966 to 1969, they worked exclusively in the studio on singles and albums. Which was a lucky break for the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, the Doors, the Byrds, the Hollies, Bob Dylan and many other artists who filled the gap by touring relentlessly and appearing at career-boosting festivals such as Woodstock. But after watching this documentary, one wonders whether any of it would have been possible had the Beatles not put their necks on the line to pave the way during those seminal two years. By any measure, Ron Howard's documentary is essential viewing.
JazzWax video: You'll find the Grammy-winning The Beatles: Eight Days a Week, the Touring Years here.
JazzWax clip: Here's the trailer...