Rewatching Let it Be

Someone uploaded Let it Be to YouTube and so I watched it again for the first time in at least 25 years. It’s a kind of 50th anniversary: it was this last 10 days or so in 1969 that The Beatles convened, miserable, at Twickenham film studios and desultorily banged at a few instruments, took heroin*, argued, and fell apart. Next year will be the 50th anniversary of the film and album release, and maybe we’ll get a blu-ray? I mean, I expect we’ll get a 50th anniversary boxed set of Abbey Road this year, won’t we? Let it Be is problematic, and there has already been the …Naked version (which wasn’t very good, turns out), but however miserable it makes us, the film needs to be preserved, and a digital remaster and blu-ray/digital release would help that. 

But maybe it’s already too late. I’m still haunted by learning that The Who’s The Kids Are All Right documentary was in a very sad state of decay before the 2003 re-release, at which stage it was under 25 years old. The Kids… was restored from the master positive, as none of the release prints had survived. What state is Let it Be in, after 50 years? It was filmed on 16mm, too, which limits the options for a high definition version.

Then again, rumour has it that Scorsese is making a documentary of The Rolling Thunder Revue, and I bet will be using a lot of the footage Dylan filmed for Renaldo and Clara. So maybe Let it Be can be rescued by being repurposed.

I have to say, watching it this time around, it wasn’t as long and depressing as I remembered. The really awful bit at the beginning is over quite quickly, and then there’s a better atmosphere at Apple, bar one or two moments, and then the rooftop concert, which is a real joy to watch. A lot of people can’t watch this film because it’s so sad, but if you think of it as a Spinal Tap type mockumentary, it’s more bearable.

George was playing the part of Put Upon Guitarist, and eventually walked out, went to Liverpool, and refused to return until they agreed to knock Twickenham (and the Big Comeback Concert) on the head and do everything in the Apple offices. The awkward argument between him and Paul as Paul tries to get him to play something a particular way and George instead turns up his Passive Aggressive Hippy knob to 11 is still the worst moment in the film.

Ringo plays Bored Drummer to great effect, smoking and sitting at his kit, joining Paul on the piano, desperate for something, anything, to happen. Ringo must have spent so much of the late 60s sitting around waiting for the others to get their shit together. A candidate for the second worst moment in the film is the bit where John and George (and George Martin) are helping Ringo with “Octopus’ Garden”, and it all seems to be going lovely, and then Paul walks in and it all grinds to a halt. Awks. Maybe it was the editing made it look like it happened that way.

Paul Plays Musical Director, which was a role he’d been used to playing for a couple of years, since John Destroyed his Ego with LSD and generally took a back seat in terms of Hit Making. Without Paul’s contributions in 1968 and ’69, the last of the Beatles would have been a sorry thing indeed. Here is a list:

  • Lady Madonna
  • Hey Jude
  • Back in the USSR
  • Blackbird
  • Helter Skelter
  • The Long and Winding Road
  • Let it Be
  • Get Back
  • Two of Us
  • Side Two of Abbey Road

For sure, Lennon wrote some good ones too, often after realising that Paul was getting ahead of him, but he also phoned a lot in, riding the avant-garde repetitive lyrics train (Don’t Let Me Down, I Want You), glomming things together from fragments (Happiness is a Warm Gun) or ripping off Chuck Berry (Come Together).

*John plays Heroin Addict Rock Star with Heroin Addict Girlfriend and Extra Heroin, and a year ago yesterday gave an interview for Canadian TV which is notorious for the bit in the middle where he gets the Heroin Addict Rock Star Sweats and goes off to be sick. And he’s so, so boring. Up his own arse with self importance and Portentous Statements. A year later his “etchings” would be seized by police in a trumped up obscenity panic. There’s a bit in the film where Musical Director Paul is trying to be Persuasive about the Big Comeback Concert, and Lennon just sits and listens (or does he?) and says not a word.

After 10 days at Twickenham, they canned it and went back to Savile Row to finish up, abandoned the idea of a Big Comeback Concert, and went up onto the roof to finish up. The film finishes almost miraculously, with actual music which is Quite Good (almost all composed by Paul with Paul on lead vocal). There are a few songs performed in the studio (including “Let it Be” and “Two of Us”), and then they’re on the roof, in the cold, with people gathering down below to see what all the fuss. George huddles in his fur coat and green trousers and John plays the fucking lead guitar on “Get Back”. Which clearly confused the hell out of camera people and editor.

This is worth 21 minutes of anyone’s time, because it is brilliant, not just because of the music, but because of the vision of Britain you get on the streets below, as people stop and wonder. There are some nice cameos as people stop and give opinions (top tip: say something positive if you want to be in the film), and you see men in bowler hats mixing with the youngs. Dirty hippies are noticeably absent, but there are lots of young women who worked in offices, all out for an exciting lunchtime. They’re all in their late 60s and 70s now: think about that.

Of course, the narrative goes that the police were called, business was being disrupted and traffic was being stopped, but it’s not as if The Beatles had much more material. I half-suspect the phone call came from inside the Apple offices. Please stop us.

Anyway, it’s not that bad. And further proof that The Beatles falling apart were still better than most bands at their peak. There’s no album quite like Let it Be for giving me a certain feeling. “Two of Us” is such an evocative song, and my flashbulb memory of the first time I played the album will be with me forever.

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George

smokingNobody cares what I think, but the Beatles have been such a huge part of my life that I want to leave this comment here.

I don’t particularly like talk of 5th Beatles, whether it’s Stu Sutcliffe, Pete Best, Billy Preston or George Martin being referred to. There were four Beatles and they worked with a number of collaborators over the years, who all contributed something to the band, even if the contribution was negative. Because Stu couldn’t play and left, McCartney was forced to pick up the bass. And because he was a musical prodigy, he played the bass for the Beatles better than anybody else could have. Because George Martin wasn’t really a pop producer, he gave the Beatles room to be creative in ways that pop producers usually don’t.

George Martin was indeed remarkable. You know this because the Beatles’ records sounded better than anybody else’s at the time. While the first album sounded a bit rough and ready, from With the Beatles through to Abbey Road, they sounded exceptional.

You also know he was special because you’ve heard of him. Sinatra’s Songs For Swingin’ Lovers sounds excellent, but who produced it?

The other thing about Martin was that he somehow nurtured the four geniuses who had been handed to him, giving them the space to invent, in a very few years, the extraordinary legacy they left to popular music. They were geniuses, but in anybody else’s hands, perhaps, The Beatles would have been blocked, frustrated, steered, manipulated, creatively killed. Record producers did not traditionally allow artists to bring songs to their sessions. And certainly didn’t encourage the kind of wild and self-indulgent experimentation that led to the Rubber Souls and beyond.

And we know, to an absolute, that The Beatles were unparalleled with or without Martin because the likes of Matt Monro, Cilla Black, Gerry & The Pacemakers, Billy J. Kramer & the Dakotas, and The Fourmost (all produced by Martin) never managed to come up with a Rubber Soul, a Revolver, a Sgt. Pepper (etc.) with Martin in the control room. It is known, as they say on Game of Thrones (threw that line in to confuse Google). And in these times of uncertainty, to be as absolutely sure of something as we are of George Martin and the Beatles is a rare and precious thing.

Well done, George. You left a dent in the universe.

The Magic Christian

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Ringo and Raquel share a joke between takes

I was a teenager, it was late at night, and I was alone watching The Magic Christian on television.

There was no internet.

I was at the height of my teen Beatles obsession at the time, and the first thing that struck me was the theme song: “Come and Get It,” by Badfinger. I didn’t know Badfinger from a hole in the ground, but what I heard sounded like The Beatles. Not long after, I obtained the Apple 45 single, by Badfinger, written by Macca, and I was still convinced it was more Beatles than not. Given McCartney’s abilities, he could easily knock off the whole thing on his own.

And Ringo was in it. And, towards the end, it looked as if John and Yoko walked past the camera.

Anyway, I enjoyed it. Thirty-five years later, and I happen to be teaching Swinging Britain as a Film Studies topic. The Magic Christian was my immediate choice. What film could better sum up the madcap hazy days of the late 60s? Plotless, meandering, bonkers, peppered with familiar faces, poppy soundtrack, with Ringo, Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan, John Cleese… Graham Chapman… Christopher Lee… Raquel Welch… Roman Polanski… Yul Bryner… fuck.

So we watched it. This is not a film to watch for cinematography, that’s for sure. In terms of editing, it has its moments. Its production design, given the budget, is also interesting. There are scenes taking place in train carriages, on a modernist “luxury liner”, and on what appear to be the flooded streets of London-before-the-Thames-Barrier.

In many ways, the film is nasty. Peter Sellers plays Sir Guy Grand, a multi-millionaire who decides to put his money to use in subverting the class system, humiliating the elite classes and demonstrating how materialistic values bring us all low. Ringo plays a homeless man adopted by Grand, who participates, knowingly and unknowingly, in a series of pranks.

A shooting party discussing their various shotguns is subverted when Grand pulls out a machine gun and uses it to destroy wildlife. (We were watching this film in the week that Chris Packham attempted to get the British media interested in the massacre of songbirds in Malta.)

A boxing match, with a crowd of monkey-suited men and their dates baying for blood and violence, is subverted when the two boxers kiss instead of fighting. The crowd is outraged. It struck me that this controversial 1969 gay kiss would still upset a lot of people, who would indeed prefer to see blood and violence than two men loving each other.

In perhaps the most hilarious sequence, the Crufts dog show descends into chaos when a (literal) black panther (disguised as a dog) attacks and kills the other contestants. Its owner, an African man, gives the Black Power salute from the back of a police van. The scene is intercut with shots of police brutality at anti-war and other protests. (In 1968, two American athletes gave the Black Power salute on the podium at the Mexico Olympics.)

At a gourmet restaurant, Sir Guy orders an astonishingly expensive bottle of wine, then rubs caviar all over his face while his companions dine on Rice Crispies.

At Sotheby’s Sir Guy buys a “Rembrandt” portrait for three times its value and then uses a pair of scissors to cut out the nose. As a parting shot, Ringo calls out, “Keep an eye out for ears.” At the auction, he drives up the price of a painting of two dogs with a series of bizarre (and loud) signals to the auctioneer.

The boat race descends into chaos when the Oxford crew are bribed to ram the Cambridge crew. They then circle back to attack the floundering oarsmen in the water.

A traffic warden (Milligan) is bribed to eat the ticket he’s just issued. He voluntarily eats its plastic wrapper.

The maiden voyage of a luxury liner, with a passenger list of the wealthy elite, descends into, yes, chaos, as homoerotic, black and white male dancers perform provocatively in front of a man already established as a racist. Then the ship appears to be hijacked. Then a vampire starts attacking passengers. A transvestite singer serenades Roman Polanski and turns out to be Yul Bryner. When the ship appears to be sinking, passengers are encouraged to escape through the “engine room”, which turns out to be full of naked, female galley slaves being whipped by Raquel Welch. And it turns out, all along, that the ship wasn’t even at sea at all. It was just a warehouse mocked up to look like a ship. (The QE2, the last great Cunard luxury liner, was launched in 1969.)

In the climactic scene, pinstripe suited businessmen and others dive into a vat of urine, faeces and blood in order to retrieve the money Grand has put in it. They literally immerse themselves in piss and shit in order to retrieve sinking ten pound notes. (The scene is shot on the area of waste ground on the South Bank of the Thames which is now the National Theatre.)

What does it all mean? What strikes me, 45 years on, is how many of the targets of the film are still around. There was a brief historical moment, in the 60s and 70s, when inequalities of wealth were reduced. Britain flowered in the 60s because – for the first time ever – a large number of people educated outside of the elite institutions of private schools and top universities were able to succeed because they had talent. Coupled with this flowering, we had the highest wealth taxes of the modern era. Coincidence? I think not. If you want a brilliant, exciting, culture and an optimistic country, tax the rich until the pips squeak. FACT.

It was the era when the “natural order of things” was questioned, and the powerful holders of wealth were revealed to be no “better” than the rest of us. The decade of change starts with the Profumo Scandal (well, he would, wouldn’t he?) the Chatterly trial (would you wish for your wife or servants to read this?) and ends with Lord Lucan bludgeoning his children’s nanny to death in 1974.

The Magic Christian, falling into the middle of this period, skewers the pretentions of the upper classes, and questions the values of a society which prefers violence and money to love, which has an unfortunate habit of mixing sex with violence (Raquel Welch with a whip), and which conceals racial hatred, class war, and homophobia behind a facade of enforced, supercilious, politeness.

It’s a blunt instrument, The Magic Christian, but it smashes its targets quite effectively.

And worth it for the whole conceit of the black power salute at Crufts!

 

Slate get it wrong on Beatlemania

Meet The Beatles!

Meet The Beatles! (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m as contrarian as the next contrarian (or am I?), but this article in Slate which purports to be debunking the myth that Beatlemania in the USA was related to the Kennedy assassination deserves debunking itself.

Beatle literature contains a long tradition of linking the band’s American breakthrough to the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination. Lester Bangs, in a famous essay on the British Invasion from The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll, wrote that “[i]t was no accident that the Beatles had their overwhelmingly successful Ed Sullivan Show debut shortly after JFK was shot,” a choice of words that might as well put John and Paul in the book depository.

(Read more: Kennedy’s assassination, the Beatles, and Phil Spector: Nov. 22, 1963, was a bad day for history and a great day for music.)

For a start, re that last sentence: eh? What? How does the choice of words do that? It doesn’t. Furthermore, the article doesn’t really do what its sub-headline claims, and it merely counter-argues the point without providing evidence. The other thing it does is set up a straw man argument to refute, but misses the central point.

The straw man argument goes like this: on the day Kennedy was assassinated, the release of With the Beatles, their second LP, was a shot in the arm for a moribund American music scene, and it galvanised American youth, who duly went hysterical. The article points out that this can’t be right, because there was plenty of good American music (especially pop and soul by black artists) and that America therefore didn’t really need the Beatles. It also connects the release of the Phil Spector Christmas album on the same day – for some reason, as if that proves a point, though I don’t know what the point is.

Here’s the thing. It’s a straw man argument because nobody is suggesting that Beatlemania had anything to do with how crap American music was. It’s also a straw man argument because With the Beatles wasn’t even released in the USA on that date. Capitol released Meet the Beatles! in January 1964, to coincide with the Beatles’ arrival a couple of weeks later.

So what is the argument, the one that Slate doesn’t even attempt to address?

It goes like this. Imagine you’re a teenager in November 1963. The President is assassinated, everyone is sad. In some parts of the country, of course, people aren’t sad at all. Some people cheered, but maybe they kept that to themselves and had to put on a show of, you know, being sad.

So this goes on through December. The country is in shock, the funeral, etc. All the adults are laying it on with a trowel, the sadness, and by January of 1964, you’ve had enough. C’mon! And finally, like a deus ex machina, the Beatles arrive from the skies of London, and you have the excuse you need to break free, to express an emotion other than sad, and to let rip.

That’s why Beatlemania is associated with the Kennedy assassination. Not because of some non-coincidence of release dates, but because American teenagers needed an excuse to let rip the screams they’d been holding inside for a couple of months. It’s a nice theory, it’s nothing more than that. George Harrison said it best when he said, “They were looking for an excuse.” The Beatles were in the right place at the right time, and it just so happened that they had the depth of talent and creativity to live up to the hype.