[3 February 2011]
In case you’ve missed it, there’s been a bit of a Beatles revival going on these past couple years. The records were all remastered and reissued (again) in 2009 and 2010; songs have now been made available on iTunes; there is a Beatles edition of Rock Band. The year 2010 also saw the DVD release of the original Ed Sullivan Show episodes that featured the Fab Four. Individual band members have seen their back catalogues dusted off and reassessed, as well. Heck, the songs were even used on American Idol a couple years ago. As the Baby Boomers head past middle age and into retirement, the band that provided the soundtrack to much of their formative years seems poised to undergo a rebirth.
Much of this rebirth focuses on the already-existing oeuvre of the band—the albums and movies—but some of it is entirely new, or at least, newly revealed. Don McCullin’s book A Day in the Life of the Beatles falls into this latter category. A war photographer who established his reputation in the cities and jungles of Vietnam, McCullin was contacted in London one day in 1968 by a representative for Apple Records. The deal McCullin was offered was a dream gig: photograph the Beatles for an entire day. He’d be paid £200 and could keep the negatives and copyright. McCullin leaped at the opportunity; as he states in his brief introduction, “I would have given them two hundred pounds.”
The meeting took place as arranged, and a variety of locales around London were tried in the hope of sparking some chemistry between photographer and subjects. With some success: in a photo studio in the Sunday Times building, several group portraits were taken, one of which wound up on the cover of Life magazine. From there the band moseyed to a park north of King’s Cross, then on to the East End with its riverfront and docks, stopping along the way at a roundabout and a community hall with a battered upright piano. Finally, they all decamped at Paul McCartney’s house in St. John’s Wood, where a clear geodesic dome had been erected in the yard as a “meditation platform”.
This is an odd book to describe because, aside from McCullin’s two-page intro and another half page from McCartney, there are no words in it. The vast majority of its 144 pages are given over to page-sized or two-page photos of the Beatles, singly or (usually) in groups, in color or (usually) black and white. There are arresting images here to be sure, but the question comes to mind: who would want this book? It is being released, alas, 30 or 40 years too late.
Or maybe that’s unfair. It’s a handsome volume, and the lads are at their, perhaps, cutest: in the midst of their White Album recording sessions, when their hair was long and clothes were colorful but the lines and hollows of bitterness hadn’t crept in beneath their eyes. Their smiles seem unforced. Several shots of them clowning around atop a squat roundabout marker show that they could still get charmingly loose when required. McCullin writes of that moment, “the taxi drivers couldn’t believe it as they came round and caught this free show.” I bet they couldn’t.
Other images are striking, too. One in particular, showing the foursome standing amid the towering scarlet flowers of a garden fronting a red-brick Georgian mansion, is so iconic that I’m amazed it was never used as an album cover. Other pictures show the kind of choreographed spontaneity that the band were adept at: Paul at an upright piano with an enormous parrot on his shoulder, John and George sitting on top, Ringo off to one side, possibly clapping.
Much is made in both the jacket copy and McCullin’s introduction of a photo in a park which features Lennon lying “dead” as the others look on. Apparently Lennon choreographed this image as a protest of the Vietnam War, but the picture fails to evoke much outrage: Lennon’s crossed ankles cause him to look as though he is napping, and everyone is too far away to make out much detail, though George does seem to have his mouth open.
More compelling by far, at least to me, is a two-page black-and-white photo showing a crowd of children and adults peering through the uprights of a wrought-iron fence, perhaps the fence surrounding the park. Mixed in amid the gawkers are the Beatles themselves, George and Ringo hunched low at child-level, John and Paul standing a few paces behind. Some members of the crowd seem to realize who is standing among them—one or two faces seem to be caught half-turned, in that moment of realization. Most of the others appear ignorant, their gaze focused forward, staring at the camera or past it. If the shot was posed, it was marvelously done.
The book is beautifully crafted, printed on heavy stock, slender but satisfyingly hefty. For fans of the band who just can’t get enough of all things Beatles, it’s well worth a look. Casual listeners, though, might prefer to spend their cash on one or two of the latest reissues, instead.