I’m closer to being dead than being born. That’s been the case for a long time, and it doesn’t bother me. But it was on my mind as I watched a film about the early days of the Beatles on a flight from London to Minneapolis. I was watching history, but my links with the Beatles were more important to me than the history.
Beatlemania began in 1962, and I can’t say I remember it. I was in my last year at primary school in Bermondsey: I was 10. We had a television by then, but I don’t remember pictures of Beatlemania. But I do remember seeing their film Hard Day’s Night in Southampton in what must have been July 1964. I know that because I was on my first scout camp, in the New Forest; cooking over a fire and erecting crosses to mark filled latrines before digging new ones. The urbanity of the film and the rurality of the New Forest were an attractive and confusing contrast.
It was that year, I think, that the Beatles refused to play before a segregated audience in Jacksonville, Florida. A black woman in the film described how until then the only white person she’d ever met was a salesman. Suddenly she was surrounded by white and black people, all enjoying the music. I find that moving, and so did she.
It was the next year that the Beatles played their penultimate live concert. It was at Candlestick Park in San Francisco. I remember being in that stadium in what, 1999 perhaps, with James to watch the San Francisco Giants. By 1965 the Beatles were sick of touring. They couldn’t hear what they were playing; they were driven away from the Candlestick concert in a “meat wagon,”
It was time for them to reinvent themselves. It was Paul who suggested that they give themselves a new name, and so was born St Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. I never understood why they gave themselves that name until I watched this film.
Were Lennon and McCartney some of the greatest song writers of all time? A classical composer in the film thought yes. Schubert, he said, wrote 800 songs, of which 100 were great. Mozart managed a similar number of great songs, but then, the composer argued, nobody managed 100 until Lennon and McCartney.
They recorded four more albums–the Magical Mystery Tour, the White Album, Abbey Road, and Let it Be–before they played their last gig together and broke up. I bought those albums. By now I was conscious of rock music. I went to the Stones in the Park concert in 1968 (or was it 1969?) and from that year would put on my orange Levi’s (so adventurous) and my grandfather’s purple bath jacket and go to the Albert Hall to listen to Jethro Tull, Ten Years After, Led Zeppelin, the Moody Blues, Canned Heat, the Mothers of Invention, and the like. It was in 1969 that I first kissed a girl–or rather was kissed by a girl–very unsuccessfully: I couldn’t speak for 20 minutes. The girl, Katie, had to ask me if I was alright.
The Beatles played their last live gig on the roof of their recording studios in Saville Row. I was in Saville Row two days ago. They played not to tens of thousands but in some ways to nobody. There were technicians squatted in front of them, and it was filmed. But the only “audience” were office workers in the street below, and some on rooves, not sure what was happening.
I think then of 1981, the year that John Lennon was murdered. That’s when I grew old, at the age of 29, even though some bit of me, close as I am to death, still feels young.