“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” These wise words were written by L.P. Hartley in his novel, The Go-Between, in 1953. That idea has been on my mind quite a bit recently, as I watched the Beatles documentary that Peter Jackson produced. There were so many great moments in the six hours or so, documenting the three weeks the Beatles spent writing and performing the songs from Let It be and a lot of Abbey Road, not to mention some of George Harrison’s songs that appeared later on his solo masterpiece, All Things Must Pass.
Yes, I am a Beatles fan, and that added so much to the enjoyment of watching those four men, still in their 20’s, coming into a studio with nothing, and writing entire albums of classics in a few weeks. And then, the finale, the rooftop concert on Saville Row, had me up and dancing all alone in the living room. I couldn’t help it: there was such exuberance and joy, and such brilliant delaying tactics as Mal Evans prevented the two young police constables from putting a premature end to the gig.
But it was the sense of watching a different time, a very different culture, seeing the people in the street as they responded in various ways to the sounds coming from above them. It was the sight of everyone in the studio smoking and drinking as they worked. Even the police, especially the Sergeant who arrived on the scene to support his constables, seemed like a different kind of man, not shouting or pushy, but actually polite and respectful.
I grew up in the 60’s, and I can vividly recall the impact of the Beatles: on music, on hair length for men, on the climate of the society in which we lived. North America saw them first in early 1964 on the Ed Sullivan Show, but we in Europe knew them before that. For the first time, really, young people with regional accents, not the posh educated tones we were used to seeing on TV and radio, were being praised and appreciated by almost all levels of society. And by “levels”, I mean classes. Class was still a huge thing in those far-off days. Yes, they did things differently then.
As a working class boy, there were places I knew I couldn’t go, things I would not be, let’s say, encouraged to be involved in. As soon as we opened our mouths, or gave our home address, we’d be labelled, tagged as not quite the right sort. And if it was like that in Ireland, imagine how much more in Britain. These were the days when boarding houses in London and elsewhere in England would have signs in the windows: “NO Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish”. We even came after the dogs!
In the documentary, they interviewed people on the street listening to the concert on the roof. Almost everyone could recognise it was the Beatles playing, even though none of the songs had been heard before. People of all ages spoke well of “the boys”, expressing their liking for the music. But then, there were those upper class, bowler-hatted, umbrella-carrying toffs, who were dismissive of the whole thing. The noise was interfering with the business day, blocking traffic and the like.
And it looked like it was one of those types who was seen complaining to the two constables and getting them to put a stop to the fun. But they couldn’t really put a stop to it: it was out of their control, for the first time ever. Young people grew their hair, wore colourful clothes, played their transistors in public. I well remember being told to turn off the music one lovely sunny day in St. Stephens Green in Dublin, while all around me people were sunning themselves on the grass, right beside the “Keep Off the Grass” signs. It was a revolution all right, a breaking down of the system that told us we had to keep in our place. We did not keep off the grass, any kind of grass, as it happens.
This may seem like an endorsement of anarchy or something; but it was the start of a change in the way people thought, dressed, acted, spoke. It opened things up to everyone in a way that wasn’t available before. People have often said that, before the Beatles, the world seemed grey, black and white at best. Then, like Dorothy opening the door to Oz, everything suddenly turned technicolour. After more than fifty years (50 years!), we may forget about how they did things differently there in the past; but we need to be reminded every now and then. There is much to be depressed about these days, as there always has been, and always will be. But we are not the people we were back then. People don’t have to dress differently when they reach a certain age. They don’t have to cut their hair, or even colour it blue (unless they want to). Women, minorities, and so many others who could not raise their heads, much less their voices, before, now have a strong voice, a recognised place in the community. Perhaps that was always the case in Canada: I wasn’t here then. But I do know that, these days, no-one speaking French in a store is going to be rebuked and told, “Speak White!”. Or, if they are, their harasser is the one who will be judged.
No, the world is not the same as it was when the Beatles were creating masters in Saville Row. But they helped to change an entire world in ways no-one really understood at the time. Watching them end their concert on the roof, it is hard now to realise that this would be the last time they played together, live, with an audience, ever. John Lennon would be murdered a decade later. Mal Evans, the right-hand man who kept the police at bay in Saville Row, would be shot dead by other police officers in Los Angeles in 1976, aged 40. The same age as John Lennon when he was shot. So many great moments in the documentary, and so many strange moments too. As they turned away from the rooftop concert, John returned to the mic for the last time and made this fantastic and typically Lennon remark: “I’d like to say thank you on behalf of the group and ourselves and I hope we’ve passed the audition.”
To put it in the words of another Sixties revolutionary: “But I was so much older then; I’m younger than that now.”