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I saw Yesterday a month ago, one day after it premiered, and liked it. But since I haven’t commented on it until Nancy’s post, clearly the movie didn’t spark much of a reaction in me. I think that’s because Boyle et al. made the simplest version they could possibly make…which, to me at least, deftly avoided all the most interesting parts of the premise.
Because of the people they were, when they happened, and what they accomplished in such a short time, a Beatles-less world would be orders of magnitude different from our own. Something on the order of a world without Christianity, or television. Our conception of fame would be utterly different, and of music; of politics and activism; and of what is High Art and what is Low Art, and who can practice each. We would still look to, of all people, that cornpone Jesus Elvis Presley as the ne plus ultra of popular stardom and cultural upheaval. Only an idiot or a Hollywood executive would seriously suggest, as Nancy sums up with piquancy, “the world would look just like it does today, except that Oasis would never have existed and John Lennon wouldn’t have been murdered.”
This is only the tip of the iceberg. For one thing, Bohemian Rhapsody would’ve been about Englebert Humperdinck. Angry teenagers would form mime troupes. Doughy myope Ed Sheeran would be in some TV writers’ room somewhere. And Grandpa Gerber wouldn’t’ve lost the family fortune buying stock in Brylcreem.
There are two main theories of history, the first and oldest being the so-called “great man” school, which is self-explanatory. The other is called “history from below,” and holds that economics, demographics, and other broad societal and environmental factors—not individuals—are the decisive shapers of human affairs. Yesterday, from belief or perhaps necessity, holds to this second theory. So do modern historians who, for understandable reasons, prefer hard data. A politician’s deadly charm cannot be quantified; the number of pot shards at the bottom of the Mediterranean can. (I also get the sneaking suspicion that historians, not usually super-charismatic themselves, don’t trust charisma, and seek to devalue its role in human affairs But this is a guess, and probably an uncharitable one, so forget I typed it.)
I, being a devotee of the Middle Way, prefer a blend of the two. In this particular case, I would say that it’s impossible to understand J/P/G/R as individuals and The Beatles as a phenomenon without examining the environments which shaped them and gave them their opportunity. The Beatles were truly, madly, deeply English, but emerged in a ruined Europe utterly dominated by American money and popular culture. Their emergence was an assertion of Europe’s reemergence—a cultural equivalent to the economic miracle that happened in Italy and West Germany. And The Beatles’ worldwide popularity was due to their blending of European culture with American characteristics, in a time when Western politics put the highest priority on welding-together against the Communist East.
But I would also say that the specifics— and the scale—of The Beatles’ accomplishments are a function of four specific people, making decisions that others in their place wouldn’t have made, or if they had made them, wouldn’t have been able to pull off. The Beatles’ talents—and thus their power to shape the culture—were simply greater than their contemporaries’… and that made all the difference.
The Beatles were connectors between what came before and what is today. As individuals and as a group, they were formed in the period between 1940 and 1960; they have to be “decoded” in that context—you can’t truly understand The Beatles without knowing about The Goon Show and Austerity Britain, and before that, the mass trauma suffered by Europe from 1914-45, and America’s unique and essential role in ameliorating that suffering. If you don’t know about those things, so much of the story (and the statements of J/P/G/R) seems random, which it wasn’t, or foreordained, which it wasn’t.
But The Beatles were also a decisive break from what had come before. They embraced, and embodied, a whole bunch of new ideas and behaviors, and left a fundamentally different world in their wake. Through talent and luck, they were able to catalyze a bunch of disparate ideas, turning them into stable, durable aspects of our contemporary culture. (Like, for example, the idea of forming a band and becoming stars; or long hair on men; or recreational drug use; or Eastern religions; or or or….) Before them, these ideas were not widely practiced; after them, they are so common as to be clichés.
This ability to catalyze is what is too often lost when discussing the Beatles today. They had an uncanny ability to identify new and interesting ideas, and put them across in a way that their mass audience understood and liked. Every aspect of the Beatles phenomenon, from their gender-bending haircuts to their disrespectful attitude towards the press, then their dismissal of conventional religion and their use of drugs—and oh yeah, the music—were choices made by four specific people: John, Paul, George and Ringo. They could’ve been great musicians, but homely; they could’ve been great musicians and handsome, but shy; they could’ve been great musicians and handsome, and outgoing, but rather stupid; they could’ve been great musicians and handsome, and outgoing and smart, but easily satisfied; they could’ve been great musicians, and handsome, and outgoing and smart, and inquisitive, but not had the knack of transformation. To do what the Beatles did, they had to be talented and handsome and outgoing and smart and inquisitive and relentless and lucky and…you get the picture.
And because these four guys had all these attributes, everything they did reverberated throughout the society around them—because they, those four guys, made it look interesting and fun. They were the faces that launched a thousand ships.
No other cultural movers—not Warhol, not Leary, not Abbie Hoffman, and certainly not their musical contemporaries—offered such a potent mix. Lennon was from the beginning a fascinating talker with an ability to translate the political into the personal. McCartney was movie star handsome, a pure entertainer with a relentless drive to meld high and low forms into something accessible to mass audiences. Harrison, the ironist, the skeptic, became a tireless proponent of Eastern philosophy and meditation. And Starr was the one anybody could relate to (or thought they could).
As a team, with Brian Epstein and George Martin, they were unstoppable; and once they’d made the market, demonstrating the money at stake, the capitalist mechanism did the rest. Once The Beatles happen, something like The Rolling Stones is a commercial inevitability, as is The Grateful Dead, Bob Marley, The Beastie Boys and Nirvana and Radiohead. The whole plot of Yesterday—from wanting to be a musician in the first place, to sold-out Wembley, with issues of artistic integrity along the way—exists in a world the Beatles made, whether there are Beatles songs in it or not. To be honest, I don’t think the makers of Yesterday can imagine a world truly without the Beatles; I’m sure they don’t want to.
If you look at where the world was in 1962, politically, socially and culturally it’s not so very different from thirty years before. Kennedy-style youth politics is a new thing; the birth-control pill is starting to really make an impact; protest is happening (CND) and there are stirrings of a new freedom in art and popular culture. But all of these things are happening within a fairly stable society. The mainstream is holding. If you grew up after World War I, the world before the Beatles is still comprehensible to you, right down to the sense of impending military apocalypse.
The world of 1972, on the other hand, is vastly different—and that’s in large part due to the presence of Sixties-era catalysts who embodied, combined and accelerated those glimmers, turning them into products to consume and ideas to adopt and identities to inhabit. And while J/P/G/R weren’t the only ones engaged in this catalyzing, they were the most powerful. They were at the very least Bob Dylan to the fourth power, and probably something more like Dylan times Warhol times Kerouac times Kennedy.
As a result, the whole rest of the Sixties and Seventies have to be seen in relation to the Beatles. To what degree would the Boomers have seen themselves as a cohort without The Beatles on Ed Sullivan and Sgt Pepper? If they didn’t see themselves as distinct, would “youth culture” turned into the world-creating force it did? Would corporations have been able to target advertising and products towards them; and without that, would our concepts of adolescence and adulthood have remained the same? Forget whether or not you and I would be meditating or listening to the Dalai Lama—we wouldn’t—would we own t-shirts with words on them? Or question our government? Or smoke pot? Or listen to reggae, much less reggaeton? Or know an out gay person? The Beatles were so foundational to the Sixties, and the Sixties have been so foundational to everything that has come since, that it’s impossible to determine where one ends and the other begins. That’s Yesterday‘s central question, and it’s a question too big and too important for a movie like Yesterday to answer.
But answer it we must. The rightward lurch in the US and Britain can be summed up thusly: “we want the world we imagine existed before the Sixties.” In other words, a world without the Beatles. Isn’t that the simplest way to describe what Putin ‘n’ pals seem to want? A white world, where you’re born is where you’ll stay, no freedom for women or minorities, art and music as mere wallpaper, the pursuit of money as the only goal, no questioning the government, the lower orders knowing their place…
But these rights form the corpus of modern life; they are all, I hope, too ingrained for mere politics, no matter how cruelly and brutally applied, to remove them. Trump wants post-Sixties sexual freedom for he, but not for thee. It was the Beatles who opened Britain to the world, and vice-versa, and Boris’ Brexit is a schoolboy-stupid attempt to retain the benefits of that arrangement without its responsibilities. It’s not just that J/P/G/R are more-or-less contemporaneous with NATO, they are its musical equivalent; not for nothing were Beatles records were synonymous with freedom in the old USSR, and not for nothing did Russia celebrate its economic change via a Red Square concert by Paul McCartney. Our world is a profoundly post-Beatles one, from our inability to define adulthood to the dominance of popular culture over all other forms of expression, to our insistence that our leaders be entertainers and vice-versa.
The world the Beatles bequeathed us isn’t a perfect one, far from it; but it’s decidedly better than the alternative, and on this Yesterday and I completely agree. But I’ll go further, on this day when the anti-Trump majority of the U.S. tuned into Robert Mueller’s testimony, hoping it would be our Ed Sullivan moment: If we are to save ourselves from The Stupids, we’re going to have to use the tools left to us by John, Paul, George and Ringo—without the talents and charm of John, Paul, George, and Ringo.
Good luck to us.