There is a scene near the beginning of the Beatles 1965 film, Help! (recently re-released on digitally-restored DVD), where the four moptops pull up to a quiet suburban street, exit from a black Rolls Royce, wave to two friendly looking older ladies and enter what looks to be four rather-modest rowhouse apartments. One lady beams, and remarks, “Lovely lads, adoration hasn’t gone to their heads one bit, know what I mean?” The other responds, “So natural, still the same as they was, before they was.” The camera then cuts to the interior of the apartments, showing that the four doors all open into one huge bachelor pad, replete with sunken beds, vending machines, a pipe organ and a real grass carpet.
It is an elaborate sight gag and one of the nicer moments in a largely uneven film, but it also serves as a curious metaphor for the Beatles’ most famous surviving member, Paul McCartney. Always the most human and seemingly approachable of the Fab Four, McCartney, who embraces a somewhat-everyman persona, would still have us believe that about him: ‘same as he was, before he was.’ But when you’re an artist who has been knighted by the Queen, has sold more records than anyone on the planet, and is the composer of the most successful song in the history of recorded music (“Yesterday”), fame of that magnitude becomes a hard act to hide.
Making it even harder is the release of a solo-career-spanning retrospective three-DVD set called The McCartney Years. As bookends, Help! and The McCartney Years, spanning 40 years between them, offer a fascinating look at the artist as a young man, and as an older man.
While The McCartney Years, with two discs of song videos and one of live performances, would have you believe that McCartney’s solo career began when he left the Beatles in 1970, one could argue that it really began five years earlier on the Ed Sullivan Show. Towards the end of their fourth appearance (12 September 1965) on the highly rated CBS variety show, McCartney took the stage by himself and, accompanied by own his acoustic guitar, and the CBS studio orchestra, debuted his new song, “Yesterday”. It was a mature piece of music and nothing the Beatles had done previously prepared you for it. The soaring melody, bittersweet lyric, and classical string arrangement, combined with McCartney’s plaintive vocal, created a moment that would define him, especially in relation to his bandmates.
The Beatles, as a collective, were all beat and rhythm at that time, with head shakes and carefully placed ‘oohs’ that whipped their young audience into a frenzy. But “Yesterday” was so separate from that, and so jarringly unique, that it would distinguish McCartney as his own man and a musical force to be reckoned with.
The Beatles’ recording of “Yesterday” (actually McCartney’s, none of the other band members appeared on the recording) appeared on the Help! album (in England) that accompanied the release of the film (their second in just over a year). The song wasn’t featured in the movie and was, in fact, buried towards the end of side two on the album. It was a less than auspicious launch for a song that would go on to historic highs. According to the Guinness Book of Records, “Yesterday” has the most cover versions – 3,000 — of any song ever written. BMI (Broadcast Music Inc.) estimates that the song has been performed over seven million times and is the most performed composition of all time.
The fact that “Yesterday” was not included in the film is not surprising when one understands that Help! was largely a farce and the song would have been grossly out of place. Coming after the brilliant A Hard Day’s Night, the Beatles second film had a hard act to follow, and it did not live up to the challenge. Watching it today, some 40 years after its initial release, is like opening a time capsule. Despite coming only one year later, Help! seems like much more of a “’60s film” than its predecessor, and is decidedly more dated. Whereas A Hard Day’s Night‘s black-and-white look casts it into an earlier, and more classic, era, Help!, with its goofy scene placards and splashy color, has more in common with Yellow Submarine, than with the Beatles’ first film.
There are, of course, special features with this new version of Help!. One of the best is the ‘making of’ short that gathers together the film’s original creative team for interviews that track the project’s development at the time. Director Richard Lester, the man responsible for both of the Beatles’ first two films, acknowledged the challenge of mounting a follow-up.
“We didn’t want the Beatles to just make a color version of A Hard Day’s Night, another fictionalized documentary,” he said, “and we couldn’t show them in their private life, which would be the next logical extension to it, because that was, by then, x-rated,” he added, laughing. “So if we couldn’t show them at work and we couldn’t show them in their private life, then they have to become passive recipients of an outside plot.”
That plot, supplied courtesy of screenwriters Marc Behn and Charles Wood, was a preposterous tale of Eastern religious zealots chasing Ringo throughout the film to get the ‘sacred ring’ from his finger for a human sacrifice. While the madcap nature of the storyline supplies many opportunities for humor, it also demands a level of performance from the principal actors, The Beatles, that just isn’t there. In their first film, John, Paul, George and Ringo played themselves and did it well. In this film, they seem stiff and slightly uncomfortable. Just because they’re great musicians doesn’t mean they’re great actors, too.
The best parts of Help! are the visual representations of the songs. Lester casts each song in a different setting — a beach, a battle field, a ski slope, a recording studio — and creates real magic using novel camera angles, interesting props (McCartney is shown playing a woman like a bass guitar), and by letting the band just be a band: what they do best. Lester’s work in this area is so strong that years later he was credited by MTV as being ‘the Father of Music Video,’ to which he famously quipped, “I demand a blood test!”
In 1970, when Paul McCartney left the Beatles and had a new album to sell, but no band to tour with, he turned to film as his preferred form of promotion. Watching The McCartney Years in chronological order reveals an artist learning on the job and, more importantly, an art form (music video) still in its infancy.
The first few were primitive affairs; no more than collages of stills set to music, or, in a few cases, grainy home movies with a soundtrack. McCartney’s early efforts bore little resemblance to the song segments in A Hard Day’s Night and Help! But it is wise to remember that MTV didn’t debut until 1981, and, in the 1970s, very few artists were regularly producing videos of their songs. Regardless of the quality of McCartney’s first videos (and most were pretty poor), he was a trailblazer, nonetheless.
Music videos usually break down into two categories: performance and conceptual. With a few exceptions, McCartney’s best videos are those that showcase him as a musician. A prime example is “I’ve Had Enough,” a muscular rocker — often overlooked — from side two of the 1978 release London Town. The video shows the band playing the song in a shadowy, slightly sepia-toned setting that really brings the performance to life. Sure they’re lip-synching, but they’re actually sweating doing it and it looks like the real thing.
A bad example of a performance video featured here is “With A Little Luck” from the same album. The band members are visibly wearing make-up, with Paul’s expressionless-wife Linda as the worst offender in porno-red lipstick. Everything is brightly lit, very un-rock ‘n’ roll, and the band is surrounded by dancing, adoring fans of every color and ethnicity in a move that seems to shout, “Look at me, I have international appeal!”
On the conceptual side, there is more bad than good. Two of the worst are “Goodnight Tonight”, a misguided disco track from 1979 that is inexplicably cast as a 1930’s radio show broadcast, and “Baby’s Request”, which is one of those faux-’40s tunes McCartney is so fond of (and that John Lennon hated), and is given a military desert setting for the band while “General” McCartney walks around crooning the song.
Despite these frequent missteps, there are many highlights. The video for “Comin’ Up”, with McCartney mimicking other famous musicians (Ron Mael of Sparks, Hank B. Marvin of the Shadows and, even himself, as Beatle Paul in a collarless jacket) while playing all the instruments, was a groundbreaking video at the time (how did they do that?), and still entertains. “C’mon People,” from 1993’s largely ignored Off The Ground album is directed by video pioneer Kevin Godley (formerly of 10cc), and presents Paul sitting at a piano in real time, while sped up workers gradually dismantle the keyboard, leaving him playing keys that are suspended in mid-air (another one where you’ll wonder, “how did they do that?”).
The best feature of the set is McCartney’s own commentary (that you can turn on or off) of the videos. Paul’s chatter throughout serves to inform (“That guitar is the one I played on ‘Paperback Writer'”) and to reinforce his own approachability (“same as he was”). As he carries on, about whatever or whomever is on the screen, you really feel his presence as a person, not just an artist. That might be my second favorite part of this set; the first is the live disc.
Paul McCartney, first and foremost, is a musician. He is at his best on stage (not wearing make-up and pretending to be a World War I soldier, as he does in the video for “Pipes of Peace”). Disc three offers a sampling of songs from three different concerts in three different decades. Rockshow, shot on film and a little murky in places, is from the Wings Over America tour of 1976. The film was a nice document of McCartney’s first great post-Beatles band and has been out of print for a while. This is the cleanest version I’ve ever seen and one hopes the fully-restored complete version is on its way soon.
The second concert is from McCartney’s 1991 appearance on MTV’s Unplugged series. The band, with Hamish Stuart (Average White Band) and Robbie MacIntosh (The Pretenders) was arguably McCartney’s best, and the acoustic setting works to the band’s strengths.
The final concert is from the Glastonbury Music Festival, filmed in 2004. Glastonbury is the largest festival in the world and McCartney is the closing act: the biggest star on the grandest stage. His performance, with his current band of much-younger musicians, is top notch. The sound is great and the visuals, with a sea of humanity stretching endlessly into the night, are memorable. The band plays all the right songs (there are eight here), and exits after a rousing rendition of the Beatle classic, “Hey Jude”. While the audience continues to chant the “na na na, na-na-na-na” refrain from that song, McCartney returns to the stage alone. With acoustic guitar in hand, he revisits his greatest song, “Yesterday”.
But, 40 years on, the performance takes on new meaning. His voice is deeper now, almost heavy-sounding. He looks tired and drawn. He is, after all, a 62-year-old performer in a young man’s game. He can still command the biggest stage, but not without paying a price.
“Suddenly, I’m not half the man I used to be,” he sings. “There’s a shadow hanging over me….” More than four decades on, Paul McCartney has grown into his most famous song in a way that no one could’ve predicted. The weariness in his voice imbues the lyrics with meaning McCartney’s younger self could never have expressed. “Why she had to go, I don’t know, she wouldn’t say….I said something wrong, now I long, for yesterday.” Does anyone hear that line now, knowing his history, and not think of Linda McCartney, the love of his life who died of cancer in 1998? If there have been 3,000 versions of this song, as the record book says, none are more poignant than this one, sung by the song’s writer, in the autumn of his legendary career, on a dark, Scottish night.
Taken together, Help! and The McCartney Years, show the breadth of an artist’s career, warts and all. Few have lived a life as well-documented as his, nor as successful. With these DVDs, McCartney ages right before our eyes, from a precocious Beatle, romping through a silly movie, to an aging musician, performing as if his life depended on it.
Given the very public nature of his life, it is a long and winding road that we are all traveling with him. In many ways, for a world of fans that have grown up with his music, his past is our past, and we all believe in yesterday.
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Gary Frenay is a founding member of the Syracuse, NY-based power pop band, The Flashcubes. He is a full-time professional musician and a part-time freelance writer.