Quite why Apple is so parsimonious about allowing the use of Beatles content on television or YouTube, or even making it available to buy, is one of life’s great mysteries. The airwaves and Amazon aisles are crammed with cheaply made, unofficial ‘Beatles Story’ documentaries, stringing out unlicensed newsreel footage, home movies and third-hand reminiscences from fringe players and clueless commentators, padded out with tinny ‘60s-style muzak in lieu of actual Fab Four recordings. But authorised film of the band is still bafflingly hard to find. I can only speak for the UK, but when was the last time you saw Help! or Magical Mystery Tour in the TV listings? To my knowledge, the Anthology series has never been repeated since the 1990s, and sundry other Apple-authorised specials (like The First US Visit, for example) rarely show up on the schedules. While I’m not in favour of licensing Beatles music for adverts, surely it’s a good idea to ensure TV and social media channels have access to a good supply of Fabs films and programmes to help keep the band in the public eye and encourage newbies to explore their work? Many an obsession is stirred by stumbling across a late-night documentary.
A case in point is The Beatles on Record, an hour-long tour of their back catalogue shown on the BBC in 2009 to coincide with the re-release of their albums in remastered form. Basically, it stitched together edited versions of the mini documentaries which accompanied each album that year (and which were themselves made up of excerpts and off-cuts from the mammoth Anthology series in the mid-90s). Anthology director Bob Smeaton blends them together into a seamless whole, which tells the story of their recording career, from Please Please Me to Abbey Road, in the words of John, Paul, George, Ringo and George Martin. Their voices overlay archive photographs from recording sessions, plus snippets of promo films, TV appearances and live performances. And, in one of its major plus points, the film is liberally peppered with studio chatter from all phases of their career. Apart from a brief introduction, there is no independent narrative of what’s going on, or context, so it does assume a degree of knowledge of who The Beatles were. But it doesn’t really matter, as the music – and its phenomenal progression over seven short years – speaks for itself.
Having the story crammed into 60 minutes does emphasise the speed at which everything moved. One minute they are tearing into ‘Twist and Shout’ on an austere-looking black and white British TV show, then they are on Salisbury Plain filming Help! in glorious Technicolour, and then revelling in their role as the psychedelic overlords of Swinging London in the avant garde footage for ‘A Day in the Life’. Soon after we see them seeking spiritual enlightenment by the River Ganges in India, then they’re on the Apple roof, and before we can catch our breath it’s all over. The breathless pace at which they did it all never fails to amaze.
The narration will be familiar to anyone who has seen the Anthology or read any of the interview content which has been endlessly mined and rehashed ever since. So we hear how Ringo learned to play chess while the others painstakingly added overdubs to the basic tracks during the Sgt Pepper sessions; how George views Rubber Soul and Revolver as basically volumes I and II of the same album, and how Paul passionately refutes any suggestion that the White Album should have been cut back to a single disc, arguing the diversity of the record is what makes it so cool. Disharmony or more difficult phases of the band’s career are largely skirted over. We hear Paul make a slightly bitter reference to Allen Klein’s interference in the production of Let It Be (alongside a clip which segues the original live rendition of ‘The Long and Winding Road’ into the lush, Phil Spector-produced version which made it onto the finished record), and how – ironically – John told George Martin that they didn’t want any of his “production crap” at the start of the very same sessions. But they are the only notes of discord present.
George Martin is, quite rightly, given a lot of airtime on this. As well as playing an integral role in the band’s development, he also offers a semi-independent overview of it. That said, I’m not entirely sure I agree with his claim that the early albums were just made up of material which was not considered good enough for a single. While he may have initially approached it that way – and there’s no doubt singles were the main currency of pop music in the first half of the 1960s (as opposed to today, where we tend to view it through the prism of album releases) – I think The Beatles were intent from the get-go on making albums which were every bit as good as their flagship 45s. They would’ve been burned too many times themselves, as fans, by the filler which padded out so many LPs rush-released to cash in on one or two hit singles. And it’s hard to view songs like ‘I Saw Her Standing There’ or ‘It Won’t Be Long’, or the vast majority of their early album tracks, as inferior. There’s also a nice contemporary interview with George Martin I don’t recall seeing before, where he explains how he started learning to play the guitar in order to better communicate musical ideas with ‘the boys’ in the studio, only to find they’d picked up piano playing much more quickly and so made his strumming irrelevant.
The film makes good use of available film of the Fabs performing their songs, but – inevitably in a whistle-stop tour such as this – there are some glaring gaps. Early on, it seems like standalone singles will be featured (with a fun clip of them singing ‘From Me To You’) but, if this was the plan, it was quickly ditched to make room for all the albums. So, for example, there’s no ‘We Can Work It Out’, ‘Paperback Writer’ or even ‘Hey Jude’. This seems particularly curious when, presumably in the non-negotiable interests of four-way balance Apple is so obsessed with, George’s ‘Blue Jay Way’ is featured. Which brings me to another gripe. I know Magical Mystery Tour is now regarded as a canon album, even though it though it was a US Frankenstein-style creation which augmented a British EP with a bunch of singles tracks, and I see the logic of rounding up all their 1967 material for release. But it was never intended as an album, and it jars on here to see ‘Strawberry Fields’ and ‘Penny Lane’ discussed after Sgt Pepper, even though they were effectively recorded before it. And while I’m nit-picking, it was a bit lazy to use photographs which are clearly from the Revolver sessions to illustrate the segment on Rubber Soul. There are plenty of pictures from the making of that album they could have used.
Studio banter is used very effectively in this programme. Although lots of it has leaked out over recent years via the Rock Band computer game, the Cirque de Soleil Love show and the recent 50th anniversary editions of their late ‘60s albums, it’s always a real buzz to hear the band talking off the cuff and without any inhibitions as they work their magic in Abbey Road. Whether it’s Paul giving John a supportive pep talk before a take (“Don’t be nervous John.” “I’m not.”) or George ordering a sandwich for their next break, they always sound like they’re having fun and larking about, in total contrast to the wonderfully intense, committed and focused performances they gave whenever the red recording light went on. The ‘fly on the wall’ disc which accompanied 2003’s Let It Be…Naked notwithstanding, I’m surprised Apple and EMI haven’t considered some kind of release which just pulls together the most entertaining and insightful audio of The Beatles just talking to another while at work. Okay, it might have limited widespread commercial appeal, but I’m sure the (substantial) hardcore fan base would lap it up.
But therin lies the rub. I’m not really that surprisd Apple hasn’t released something like that, because they haven’t even made this documentary available since it was broadcast more than a decade ago. Apart from a showing on the History Channel later that year, I don’t think it’s been seen or heard of again. You can’t watch it on BBC iPlayer or find it on You Tube, and it’s never been made available to buy. Okay, if you’ve got the mini-documentaries which came with the 2009 discs, you don’t really need it, but to be honest I’d rather watch this in one sitting rather than mess about with 13 DVDs each offering five or six minutes of footage (and while we’re on the subject, why was Apple so stingy there? Surely there was enough interview and performance material to warrant a good 20-30 minutes for each album, Yellow Submarine excepted?).
It’s not really about committed fans, though. It’s about making this kind of stuff available for floating voters and the uninitiated. How many people discovered The Beatles by watching a TV showing of A Hard Day’s Night or Help!, an episode of the Anthology or even the recent Eight Days A Week film? Alas, opportunities like that seem increasingly scarce. It’s silly though, because something like The Beatles On Record would act as a perfect primer for people who don’t know much about the music and would almost certainly whet their appetite to find out more. Not everything needs to be behind a pay wall, especially in this day and age. Making stuff like this available would help sustain the band’s legacy and attract yet more next generation fans, who would inevitably spend money to feed their new passion. Did you hear that Apple? Apple?? APPLE??? Oh well, never mind.