If you have already streamed any of The Beatles: Get Back, Peter Jackson’s mammoth documentary on the Fab Four’s Let It Be sessions, you will have probably marvelled at how alive it all looks: helped by Jackson and his team’s restorative whizzery, John, Paul, George and Ringo seem right there, noodling, improvising, gently ribbing each other (George seems to bear the brunt of it). Discount the odd contemporaneous reference to Enoch Powell or Zsa Zsa Gabor, not to mention some extremely late-60s fashions, and it often feels like you’re watching it live.
Of course, the fact that Jackson had to use those restorative techniques – the same he used on his first world war doc They Shall Not Grow Old – to bring the Beatles rushing to the present is a pretty striking illustration of how long ago those sessions were. Today, nearly as much time has passed since the release of Let It Be, as had passed between the end of the first world war and the album’s arrival. Microprocessors, space stations, video recorders (let alone DVDs, USB sticks or the concept of streaming an entire eight-hour miniseries on the Beatles), Mark Wahlberg: none of these things were around when the Beatles were.
And yet, after all this time the Beatles still seem to have a vice-like grip over popular culture, a cultural footprint comparable to something like Marvel. (Fittingly, when I logged on to Disney+ to watch Get Back last night, it had dislodged Marvel’s new series Hawkeye from the big banner position at the top of the page.) Just in terms of pure sales they still dominate. In the first half of the year in the US – half a century on from Ed Sullivan, screaming fans, the olds just not getting it – they sold more albums than anyone else; the only group that came close over that period were BTS, a group who are regularly compared to the Beatles in terms of their planet-straddling massiveness. In fact, the Fabs are still the go-to comparison for any aspiring giga-stars. When the trap duo Rae Sremmurd were looking for a hyperbolic moniker for themselves a few years back they opted for Black Beatles – and had an absolutely monster viral hit in the process.
McCartney, meanwhile, still gets invited to collaborate with the biggest musicians on the planet that aren’t him, whether that’s duetting with Rihanna or whistling for Kanye (whistling might seem a little beneath Macca, but it’s arguably better than chewing celery). Bands and artists still pay homage through cover versions, woozy interpolations, or just wholesale rip-offs. And it’s not just those inside the industry paying homage. Head to just about any football ground across the country and you’re likely to hear the chorus of Hey Jude belted out. Head to London’s Covent Garden, or maybe Liverpool Lime Street station, and you’ll probably hear a busker butchering Blackbird.
Is this continued relevance something to be celebrated? Or, as film-maker Adam Curtis argues, might it be evidence of a “frozen culture … It is extraordinary that we now still listen to music from bands in the 1950s and 1960s, like the Beatles. It is the equivalent of people in the 1960s still dancing to music from the 1890s.” Certainly, I have some sympathy for that view, particularly when hearing Yesterday – a song whose meaning and poignancy has been stripped bare by relentless overplaying – for the 54,378th time.
But at the same time, there always seems to be some new avenue to explore with the Beatles, some new way of updating or reexamining their work: see Frank Ocean’s reinterpretation of Here There and Everywhere on his Blonde track … White Ferrari, which knits the song into drowsy, daring future R&B. The world of the Beatles is essentially limitless. No wonder they outlived the VHS.
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