Act Naturally & Celluloid Beatles

The Beatles in Twelve Songs (3)

Act Naturally? In the main they didn’t. The black leather boys from Hamburg were stuck in suits by Epstein, discovered in Transylvania for their cartoon identity, and peppered up in military Edwardiana for their day-glo re-invention as submarine alter-ego’s. And don’t even mention the milk-float Bondage of HELP! even though it did give us Act Naturally, the legendary B-side of the all our Yesterday single. They’re going to put The Beatles in the Movies

In the beginning, however, there was Hard Days Night. The kind of quick exploitation movie that sneaks out under the creative radar then transcends the sordid commercial origins in which it was brewed up, in this case by United Artists. As Stephen Denny put it “a low-budget exploitation movie to milk the latest brief musical craze for all it was worth.” UA wanted a quick exploitation picture starring The Beatles in order to get their hands on a Beatles soundtrack which they estimated would make them £1m. They offered a budget of £100k, later upgraded to £200k,and duly gave UA their soundtrack album and, fatally, the rights to 2 more Beatles movies. Although UA originally thought “our record division wants to get the soundtrack album to distribute in the States, and what we lose on the film we’ll get back on this disc” the film ending up taking $11m worldwide becoming tagged “the Citizen Kane of Jukebox movies” In 2013 Mojo rated it 8th out the top 100 music films of all time, with a song written specifically as an overture for the film – Hard Day’s Night

Ringo joined The Beatles  on August 14th 1962 on August 22nd they were filmed for the first time performing Some Other Guy in the Cavern in Liverpool by Leslie Whitehead, later to write the incredible How The Beatles Rocked The Kremlin. It’s an oft-bootlegged bit of film as it iconic, filmed the moment before the first Parlophone single but in the heart of their fanland; one of whom shouts “bring back Pete” at the end. Significantly it was aired on Granda TV, in 1963, the upstart, provincial commercial station that was based in Manchester. With Coronation Street (still running in the UK) Granada invented the modern British soap opera, the everyday life of everyday people. En route to conquering the UK The Beatles first conquered the NorthWest, through performances on Independent TV in regional studios. The national broadcaster the BBC was still too highbrow for street scruffs like The Beatles (why Epstein gave them suits) it took a 21 year old tyro to film Some Other Guy; 

Beatlemania was christened in October 1963 and in November their fame went nationwide on the UK’s number 1 TV show the Royal Variety performance. The Beatles only closed the first half (a mistake Roy Orbison’s tour made) but Lennon dissed the royal family (“rattle your jewelry“) and they performed five live classics, in an electrifying performance  coming over as (nervous) naturals, as they always were live. They could work an audience, even a stiff upper-class London one, and also switch between the cameraderie of playing and the solid-gold, open, bonds of friendship. They had begun the beguiling and every kid wanted to be in their gang, and all on Black & White 14” TV screens. The biggest band, the biggest pop phenomenon and they were on Independent TV. The BBC retaliated in January 1964 creating Top of The Pops (in Manchester). Designed to run for 6 weeks it ran for 42 years, opening on January 2nd with 5 Beatles record in the Top 20, one album (With The Beatles) 2 EPs and 2 singles. In the end with the BBC it was finally All My Loving;

Of course Hard Days Night wasn’t the Beatles breakthrough moment into the public consciousness, in the UK that was the Royal Variety Performance and in the USA the Ed Sullivan TV Show, it was a way of capitalising on that popularity. However in the UK television wasn’t universal and, critically, going to the cinema cost much less than the price of a single record, and you could stay and watch the film a few times. And because cinemas had sound systems it was also the best way of hearing the Beatles other than live in concert. As usual the Beatles were fussy about who they worked with and Richard Lester got the gig because he has made The Running, Jumping Standing Still film with Goons Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan. Although the film was a day in the life of The Beatles, just as their first album was a re-creation of their live show, they employed playwright Alun Owen from Liverpool who hung out with John, Paul George and Ringo to get a sense of their life. John and Paul wrote their only album which was entirely Lennon-McCartney songs, so good that Q magazine voted it 5th best British album of all time, and  Richard Lester developed a style which MTV said originated music videos. I Should Have Known Better it is;  

The Beatles brought all their styles together on If I Fell, beautifully shot as an impromptu warm-up performance before the big live TV show they have been travelling to all day during the film. If I Fell works better this way as it is not a barn-storming belter. It relies on the same harmonies that propelled the JaPaGe3 (Lewinsohn) off the AM radio and into your hearts. As cinemas had significantly better sound systems than we had in the average home this was a stunningly sharp addition to to most people’s experience of the Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! boys. Hard Days Night was a massive success in the UK, box office second only to the best Bond film until Skyfall, Goldfinger. Ata a time when cinema was THE number 1 mass medium the boys had cracked another barrier, whilst remaining true to their emerging mythic selves as outsider outlaws. John Paul George and Ringo If I Fell? well we did; 

HELP! UA needed a follow-up and although James Bond had dismissed The Beatles as unlistenable and requiring ‘ear-muffs’ in Goldfinger, it and Hard Days Night were the two most successful films in the UK in 1964 and their follow-up film HELP! was a combination of the two. However the Beatles were at their best when breaking new ground. They called songs they were asked to write “work songs” and HELP! is “work movie.” Given that Lennon said that they were “extras in their own movie” HELP! could be seen as less than that. The recent digital remastering of this film has lead to a re-appraisal of this fusion of Hard Days Night and Goldfinger This is the trailer. It’s in colour, Lester fashions some good videos of the songs, the Beatles play electric piano.  BUT! HELP! replaces the come and be in our (cool) gang vibe of their early career to a look how privileged we are; partly the perils with the budget driving the ideas, partly it was true. The weird plot has the Beatles under death threats in 1965, which they would be for real in 1966. Come on out Fat Elvis!  HELP! 

HELP! is the album where George Martin defined himself as a collaborator with the Beatles rather than a schoolmaster. In the musical evolution of the Beatles HELP! and Rubber Soul are part of their folk-rock phase and this musical style is well captured in HELP! With You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away Lennon gets to serenade the celebrated satirist and TW3 alumni Eleanor Bron (think a sixties Tina Fey). At the time we thought HELP! a vast improvement on Hard Days Night as it was in colour and exotic; we were desperate for luxury in the UK in 1965. The Beatles terrace conversion showed a way forward –HEY!  You!

The Beatles didnt just stop touring in 1966 they stopped being “extras in their own movies” too, or even their own band for a time, as they were so exhausted. First they started making films to support their record releases, such as Rain and then the first perfect video single, Strawberry Fields Forever and Penny Lane in January 1967. Musically the Beatles were in their most creative phase, taking charge of the means of production, the studio, musically. And so they boarded their seaside mystery coach tour, with friends, actors, fan clubbers and some people who knew what they were doing, and deemed it all too magical; musically it was. As well as touring the South West of England, and meeting people again, Paul fooled the Alps and George put on his phantasmagorical cloak and made a multi-coloured video of his friends in Blue Jay Way;  

Not so much a film more a video photo album of what we did on our holidays Magical Mystery Tour was like the Merry Pranksters on a Cider Test Trip. It was a family outing with strolling entertainers acting out scenes at the end of each day trip. It was also The Beatles reclaiming their lives from the spectacle of being famous and having a presence in public in their native land. No longer “boys,” band or product this was much more about The Beatles being an artistic collective performing their “art,” and they continued to operate this way until Let It Be saw their public life finally shatter their creative life. And then Epstein died. Expert, Textpert, don’t you think the joker laughs at you? As Paul said well this makes it all worth it I am he as you are me as  I Am The Walrus;  

And now the great anomaly in the Beatles career as celluloid heroes, despite John Harris saying that this is how we best remember The Beatles (mythic I presume), the eternally iconography of scouse submariners in the away kit. A gorgeous spin-off from the crass Beatles cartoons from Back in the USA, which suggested that the Beatles were found in Transylvania before they sucked the blood out of American Pop. However film maker George Dunning and cartoonist and graphic designer Alan Aldridge (The Beatles Illustrated Lyrics) sprinkled stardust and produced a cartoon film that acts as a summative work of the Edwardiana Beatles. It became a stunning psychedelic triumph one year after the summer of love, reaching the provinces just as they were ready for life in full-colour. This was action-packed, fun-loving Beatles realising the pitch for HELP! (Bond for laughs)  whilst exhibiting whole-scale Art House surrealism. The Beatles, somewhat reluctantly, coughed up 4 new songs and saw that their greatest Goon-Show pretensions were realised; only radio was in colour in Britain in the 1960s. ringo’s best song was realised filmically, and this time he didnt have to act naturally in his Yellow Submarine;

Despite being excised by clippy American editors Hey Bulldog was a wonderful eruption of pure Beatles inspiration, wacked up in the studio in 4 hours from start to finish (Instant Karma) this is my favourite under-rated Beatles song (and my ring tone). It captures the essence of the films pretensions, music overcomes the Blue Meanies, with a piano-based Lennon singing down the anti-music attack dogs (of the music industry?). The promise of 1967  was that we (they) can sing a new world into being (nothing you can sing that cant be sung). In Yellow Submarine we have Beatles alter-egos Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band, along with the Nowhere Man Jeremy Boob and the WW1 Admiral (the bumbling scientific and political establishment), sort of worried helpers, whilst The Beatles  finesse evil with colourful serendipity. Hey! It was All Too Much for that Bulldog

Ringo Starr turned out to be the actor and although they recorded Act Naturally as Ringo’s solitary song on the album it wasn’t in HELP! and was more a tribute to his work in Hard Days Night in the scene where Ringo got lost. Ringo went on to become an actor with a movie star wife outside of The Beatles but it was the fact that The Beatles acted naturally, as provincial scousers with more nous than the metropilitan elite, that meant that we loved them. Their celluloid legacy doesnt always express this, but they became the first multi-media musical artists and put more of todays music industry in place Act Naturally 

To be completed with Get back / Let It Be (not released on DVD)

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2 Responses to “Act Naturally & Celluloid Beatles”

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    Act Naturally & Celluloid Beatles | A Beatles YouTube Album

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    Act Naturally & Celluloid Beatles | A Beatles YouTube Album

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