Temporarily with the paywall removed, this is my latest newsletter for members of Reaction. If you’re not a member of Reaction you can sign up here. Until 5 December, an annual membership comes with a welcome gift, a hardback copy of the new George III biography by Andrew Roberts.
Having headlined last weekend’s newsletter “Calm down on Covid” there was a cosmic inevitability to me testing positive this week. And so it turned out.
I’ll skip the banal insights into what it’s like, other than to say the hype and what millions of people say about the experience is justified. It’s as weird as anything I’ve ever had. In the words of a friend and Reaction member, who had it much worse than me, the virus counter attacks. It is as though you can feel it searching for new areas of weakness. The storm seems to have passed for a few hours, then “wham” and it’s back with a new assault. Thank you Chinese Communist Party, for nothing.
This will, then, be a somewhat curtailed newsletter for members of Reaction. There will be no politics and I’m going to sleep for most of the next 48 hours.
The Reaction team has produced another terrific Weekend section for you, don’t miss it, including Adam Boulton on US-UK political dynamics.
As anyone who has had a Covid positive person on the premises will no doubt know, it presents logistical challenges. My family has put me into isolation in two rooms, although this may be unrelated to Covid.
Internal exile means I have no access to our television with Disney + on it. These are “First World” problems, as they say. Nonetheless, as a Beatles obsessive I’m keen to see the new 38 hour (actually it’s eight hours) documentary by Peter Jackson about the making of the Let it Be album. Get Back premieres this weekend in three parts.
Even if I haven’t seen it, I’ve read so much about the new film and lived for so long, four decades, with the possibility that it or an earlier version was about to be released that this launch feels like a personal release and closure on the Beatles. It’s here.
We used to live two minutes walk from Twickenham Studios where the band gathered in January 1969 to start work on a new project, being filmed creating their next album. It became Let it Be. The area around the studio is rich in Beatles heritage, because they used the nearby streets for location shots when making their earlier films. The pub Ringo wandered into in A Hard Day’s Night was the Turk’s Head, and in the adjoining hall they held the “wrap” party for cast and crew at the end of filming, I think.
This and much more is in one of the best Beatles books, Beatles London, a guide to all the connections and sites by Piet Schreuders, Adam Smith and the leading Beatles historian Mark Lewisohn. The book confirms that the Beatles are as much London’s band as they are Liverpool’s band. They moved to the British capital in 1963 and inhabited it with such ease and style that they made it their own.
More than twenty years ago I bought a grainy VHS bootleg of the Let it Be sessions from 1969 at a sad fans gathering in Liverpool. This was at the annual Beatles convention held in the Adelphi Hotel in Liverpool, easily the worst hotel I have ever stayed in, and that’s taking into account several at party conferences when Labour and the Tories used to go to Blackpool.
Long before that Liverpool convention, in 1984, I was given a taped copy of the album Let it Be by a friend and even though I enjoyed many elements of it I couldn’t shake the thought that for all it had its moments this was by far their weakest album, perhaps only matched in low points by Help. Compared to Revolver or Pepper, Let it Be was a scrappy, in-between affair saved by the songs Get Back and The Two of Us, the homoerotic Lennon-McCartney ode to friendship. And Don’t Let Me Down, not on the album but performed on the rooftop final concert.
The main point, the whole point, about Let it Be is the poignancy of the story. It’s the testament of a band, the most magical gang, the best love story ever told as their PR man Derek Taylor put it, looking to find the end. The mercy is that they had such pride in their work that they realised Let it Be was an unsatisfactory culmination. That’s why they gathered a few months later to make the album Abbey Road back at EMI Studios with producer George Martin.
I may be a sceptic when it comes to the album Let it Be, but if you had said to me forty years ago there would be eight hours of pristine footage to watch on something called HD streamed on a TV that is a sort of computer, of the band talking and playing, I would have thrilled at the wondrous thought but said this was pure science fiction, a no more realistic concept than ET, an implausible, futuristic fantasy.
You have to remember that back then, ten years or so after the split, we hardly got to see the Beatles. I trawled books by photographers such as Dezo Hoffman, who had been allowed access in the early years. The songs were there to hear on the radio, quite a bit. And the night John Lennon died the BBC screened Beatles films. This as much as the fact of his death (I was only nine) was stunning to me. Pre-video, you couldn’t record this stuff, you had to wait for a brief glimpse of perfection and file it away in your brain. The Beatles seemed like metaphysical products of some mystical historical process. I wanted people who had seen them in the flesh – my mum and friends – to describe the moment, like a religious event, so that their being witnesses would confirm it. They were real and the Beatles had happened.
Contrast with now, where every bit of footage or any recording outtake is there on your phone. Material featuring the Beatles or other bands I would have killed for in the 1980s is on YouTube non-stop, where there are hundreds of clips of TV appearances and interviews.
To become a Beatles true obsessive in the late 1970s or early 1980s involved persistence, to get beyond the greatest hits and to find the b-sides and EP tracks. They were, even, after Lennon’s assassination, pretty unfashionable. In the 1970s after the break up their catalogue had been ill-used by their record company, with the running order of the original albums messed about with for the cassette versions, and odd compilations such as Love Songs and the two volume Rock and Roll collection appearing, all repackaged in a vain attempt to maintain the illusion the band were still current when they were gone.
The reason I tell this story, other than to quell my Covid fever, is that it illustrates what has been lost in the age of the internet. By making everything available, we somehow have less than we did before.
I’ve discussed this several times with Peter York, the style historian who did so much to define the 1980s. In the end there were only so many new sensations or looks, so many ways to cut a jacket or strike a pose. And in music and the Western structure there are only so many melodies and lyrics to write. In popular music and rock and roll terms, the Beatles, their contemporaries and their immediate predecessors were there first. Once done this cannot be repeated. There are few new frontiers in rock music when you’ve already got Gimme Shelter or A Day in the Life.
You’ll hear it said a lot these days that thanks to technology the world is moving so fast. The opposite is true in aesthetic terms. It is increasingly obvious that digital has flattened out time, blanding contemporary culture and the near past until it all merges. The look hardly seems to change from year to year. Does 2021 looks that different from 2006? No. Then look at how starkly different 1965 and 1981 look. Or 1977 and 1995.
In the 1960s and 1970s each year had its distinctive timestamp and recognisable look, sometimes even several times within a year as the changing of the season brought an update in fashions and sensibility. Look at footage of the Rolling Stones in 1964 and then in 1969. They’re like different beings five years later and so are their fans. Or look at Miles Davis in 1959 and 1969.
The Beatles were the taste-making masters of this process, evolving their appearance sometimes twice within a year and setting fashion. All the time the recording technology, quality of colour film, lighting, graphics was getting sharper. It is less than seven years between the Beatles recording Love Me Do, their hair cut neat, and those long-haired men experimenting on the rooftop at the end of Get Back looking as though they had arrived from a different planet. Or perhaps as Jonathan Freedland said this week, they had arrived from the future. The attire they wore that day isn’t out of place now.
The reason I miss the 1960s – and I wasn’t even there – comes down to a yearning for common culture and the notion that these shared experiences in artistic endeavour could have a beginning, a middle and a natural end. Newspapers at their best had that feel. You turned the page, put it down and were done. You are never finished with an edition of the internet. It’s impossibly endless, and thus unsatisfying.
Next, we’re definitely moving into the sodding metaverse, a never-ending virtual world in which we’re going to be locked into a perpetual online experience, like being inside Twitter wearing a virtual headset with all your thoughts mined, unless people refuse and/or invent wildlife-style reservations where they can’t get us and we can have a calm conversation about books, music, history, art and ideas.
Until then, turn off your phone (unless you need it to access your sound system), put on an album recorded before 1970 and play it loud.
What I’m watching
What do you think? Get Back, by director Peter Jackson (see above), as soon as logistically possible. Until then, I can’t stop watching this clip from daytime TV featuring Barry Humphries, the funniest man in London, if not the world.
Watch it HERE, over and over again.
What I’m reading
David Loyn’s soon to be published book on Afghanistan and America’s long war there. We have a Reaction member exclusive event in the works with David, who’ll be familiar to you from his three decades with the BBC. I’ll be interviewing him and there will be a chance for Reaction members to ask questions. More details when I’m back up and about.
Have a good weekend.