A look back at 2016’s Beatles blitz

By John M. Borack

“It’s like a politician – you’re ‘on’ 24 hours a day” – John Lennon

large_large_uv7syi4vRyjvWoB8qExbqnbuCu5That, in a nutshell, is what the Ron Howard-directed “Eight Days a Week: The Touring Years” (2-Disc Special Edition DVD, Universal Music) primarily focuses on: the pressure and nonstop madness that was part and parcel of being the most all-pervasive musical sensation of the 1960s. The pleasant, 106-minute documentary is a look back at Beatlemania via archival footage, photos, news clips, home movies, photos and live performances — some of it rare, some not so much — and new interviews with Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr and others.

Howard weaves together a nicely-paced narrative (with a full complement of screaming girls, naturally) that effectively communicates the whirlwind that was life as a Beatle between 1962 and 1966, as well as the camaraderie the four band members shared. In addition, the film documents the experimentation and growth of the Fab Four (and the individual members) as they traversed the road from “She Loves You” to “Tomorrow Never Knows” in three short years. It also shows that The Beatles didn’t take themselves terribly seriously; when asked by an interviewer about their place in popular culture, Paul snorts, “It’s not culture, it’s a good laugh.”

The story presented here isn’t necessarily a new one — “The Beatles Anthology” told it quite well 20 years ago, and many of George Harrison’s comments are lifted directly from that definitive work — but it’s nice to see new interviews with Paul and Ringo and hear bits such as Paul exclaiming that when Ringo joined The Beatles, “It was an ‘Oh, my God’ moment,” or Ringo fondly looking back on his joining the band in 1962: “I’m an only child and I suddenly had three brothers.” On the other hand, some footage of McCartney and Starr being interviewed together would have been welcomed, as they did when doing press for the movie’s release; they still play off each other very well.

The in-concert clips are a highlight of the film — live, color footage of “She Loves You” from Manchester in 1963 is quite thrilling, the clip of “I Saw Here Standing There” from the February 1964 Washington, DC show is white-hot rock ‘n’ roll, and the band’s take of “Boys” from the 1964 Hollywood Bowl show is incendiary — but sadly, the performances are not shown in their entirety. And while it seems as if the film is more geared towards the casual or newer fan, Beatles buffs will enjoy the bits of studio chatter, hijinks, false starts and bits and pieces of alternate versions of tunes that are scattered throughout the movie.

One misstep that Howard makes is utilizing a seemingly random collection of stars to throw in their two cents about what The Beatles meant to them and the world at large. That means that instead of full-length live performances or more pearls from McCartney or Starr, the viewer is “treated” to soundbites from the likes of comedian Eddie Izzard and actresses Sigourney Weaver and Whoopi Goldberg that at times stick out like a sore thumb. (Goldberg does offer one of the film’s best lines in her description of the band: “They were colorless — and they were f**king amazing.”) Faring better and making more sense in the context of the subject matter are interview snippets with Elvis Costello, who recalls that upon initially hearing the “new direction” of “Rubber Soul” as a young lad in 1965, his verdict was, “I don’t like this. I think they’ve lost their minds.”

“Eight Days a Week: The Touring Years” also serves as something of a frenzied worldwide travelogue chronicling tours that occurred between 1964 and 1966; there’s everything from Australian crowds going completely berserk over the band’s 1964 visit to stressful 1966 stops in Japan, the U.S. and the Philippines, a period of which McCartney admits, “A lot of times we were going through the motions.”

As the hysteria builds and The Beatles’ schedule becomes more hectic and intense as the film progresses from 1964 through 1966, the viewer watches the pressure growing for the foursome and can understand their desire to quit touring — The Beatles were tired of trying to drown out the ever-present screams, weary of being unable to hear themselves onstage, fed up with less-than-ideal venue conditions, and longed to spend more time in the studio.

The film concludes with The Beatles working on the “Sgt. Pepper” record after their 1966 U.S. tour, and a barrage of clips of the band from the previous several years flash on and off the screen as the cacophonous ending of “A Day in the Life” serves as the soundtrack — a nice way of summing up the madness and the magic of Beatlemania. (A segment of the band performing “Don’t Let Me Down” from the 1969 rooftop concert winds things up, but seems oddly out of place.)

The second disc features 104 minutes of extras, including five full-length performances from various U.K. locales between 1963 and 1965, two of which are from the 1963 Manchester show mentioned earlier. While this is easily the high-water mark of the bonus disc, a segment featuring an interview with original Beatles manager Allan Williams is a close second. The colorful, 86-year-old Williams vividly recalls the band’s formative years in Liverpool and Hamburg, saying, “It was Hamburg that created The Beatles. No one wanted to know them in Liverpool.” He also praises The Beatles as being highly intelligent, unlike most groups he worked with, whom he says “were thick as pig sh*t.” (For some reason, Williams’ interview features subtitles; come on, his Liverpool accent isn’t that thick.)

There are a few other nuggets to be found on disc two — McCartney talks about being influenced by the melodic bass playing of Motown’s James Jamerson, Peter Asher explains how McCartney provided Peter and Gordon with their smash hit “A World Without Love” — but there is no sense of cohesion to be found in much of the material. Much of it is simply filler: Tony Bennett’s son describing about his experience at the 1965 Shea Stadium concert, Ronnie Spector gushing over Ringo’s “cute nose,” an additional scene from in the Japanese version of the film featuring The Beatles official 1966 Japanese tour photographer, and a whole lot of pointless pontificating from Beatles scholars.

Beatles LiveThe Beatles: Live at the Hollywood Bowl (Capitol/Apple). The companion piece to the feature film “The Beatles, Eight Days a Week: The Touring Years” expands the original 13-track “The Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl” album from 1977 by adding four bonus cuts, is ably remixed by Giles Martin (original Beatles producer George’s son), and showcases the lads from Liverpool at the top of their game, live performance-wise.

While the disc — never officially released on CD until now — is definitely a “warts and all” effort with no overdubs, it also features an electrifyingly raw sound (akin to an ace garage band armed with top-notch tunes) that sounds even better now that some of the crowd noise has been taken down a notch or three. The bass and drums seem more “present” than the original release, and the vocals seem to have gained a measure of separation from the instrumentation as well. Overall, there’s energy to spare and more than a few truly inspired performances, culled from Hollywood Bowl gigs in both 1964 and 1965.

John Lennon’s droll stage patter is often hilarious (“Thank you very much… uh…people…”), but his primo, throat shredding lead vocals on “Dizzy Miss Lizzy” and an abbreviated version of “Twist and Shout” shouldn’t be discounted. Meanwhile, Paul McCartney shines on a rousing take of “She’s a Woman” and an appropriately frantic “Long Tall Sally,” while George Harrison’s lead guitar and vocals are the co-stars on the powerful “Roll Over Beethoven,” which absolutely blows away the studio version.  A somewhat too-speedy “Things We Said Today” begins rather tentatively — McCartney doesn’t seem altogether certain as to where to come in vocally — but the song fairly explodes into the bridge as the crowd is whipped into a frenzy.

The secret weapon of the proceedings, however, is one Richard Starkey, MBE, who not only provides the steady, pounding backbeat throughout, but also belts out a storming take of “Boys” in a perfectly throaty scream, all the while drumming like a man possessed. Starr’s creatively forceful stick work on the incendiary “Long Tall Sally” and “Roll Over Beethoven” is the stuff of which legends are made and should put to rest for good any silly notions about the quality of his drumming. 

As far as the bonus tracks, it’s evident why some of them were left off the original release. “You Can’t Do That” — played at a speedier tempo than the recorded version — sounds loose and a bit ragged, with the level of backing vocals going up and down throughout, while the Harrison-sung “Everybody’s Trying to Be My Baby” is marred by some oddly out of time drum fills from Starr. The disc-closing “Baby’s in Black” originally was issued as the B-side of the 1996 “Real Love” single, and is one of only a handful of songs here that seem to have gotten the balance between Lennon and McCartney’s vocals just right.

While the cardboard cover seems a bit flimsy, there is a nice 24-page booklet included with an essay by journalist David Fricke as well as a handful of period photos and reprints of two vintage articles from the Los Angeles Times, one of which includes this priceless quote from the then-14-year-old Natalie Cole, who attended the 1964 show: ”I like my dad’s (Nat King Cole) singing better than The Beatles, but The Beatles are cuter than my dad.”

While there are a few less-than-stellar moments on “The Beatles: Live at the Hollywood Bowl,” it’s still The Beatles at their rocking ‘n’ rolling, Beatlemania-era best — and since they were one of the few top tier rock acts of the 1960s without a live album released during their lifetime, this disc is important, necessary and overdue. 

A Beatles rebirth

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