Life Goes On, And On: The Business of Making the Beatles Immortal
Forty-six years ago this week, the Beatles touched down at JFK to perform on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and take a giant step toward world domination. Today, when the teenage girls who screamed and swooned in that TV studio are puzzling over Medicare Part D forms, the surviving lads (along with devoted widows Yoko Ono Lennon and Olivia Harrison) have loosened their iron grip on preserving their work in its original form and are exploring new ways to extend their market reach to future generations. To keep the cash flowing, sure – hey, they’ve earned it; but also to cement their artistic legacy. For while their immortality is already in the bag, as their heyday recedes and new music fans need educating, a little insurance never hurts.
Full disclosure: I’m a Beatles purist. I think the raw recordings of their sweaty, speed-fueled apprenticeship in Hamburg and their sweet, earnest (and unsuccessful) 1962 audition for Decca Records are every bit as boss as their gorgeous triple-tracked harmonies on Abbey Road’s “Because.” I also think they got things right the first time, and that that ought to be enough. In short: tinkering makes me nervous. This isn’t to say I can’t be brought around to recasts and re-imaginings, as long as we can all agree that it’s just for fun, and no one actually thinks they’re going to improve upon the original works.
Sir Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr understand the reality that die-hard fans like me fight against: that I can talk up Paul’s resurgence in the studio and Ringo’s terrific live shows till the cows come home, but it ain’t the way to a young kid’s musical heart. In my day, we started out listening to our parents’ battered copies of “Sgt. Pepper,” mined the red and blue hits collections in high school and took it from there. But longevity requires innovation, and the boys will do what it takes to adapt their brand for survival.
And frankly, as long as there’s money to be made off the Beatles’ body of work, better the lads themselves should benefit than a rash of remoras and unaffiliated opportunists – like the schmucks on Liverpool’s Penny Lane who turned the shelter in the middle of the roundabout into Sgt. Pepper’s Bistro.
Diversity is key to the Beatles’ strategy. For the hard-core and old-school fans, remasters are a bottomless well; with the pace of technological advances, each new incarnation delivers ever truer fidelity – inching toward the point where we’ll be able to hear spit hitting the pop guard and the paper of George’s cigarette burning as he takes a drag. If price is no object and you can override the guilt of heaving all your previous, still perfectly serviceable versions into the landfill, the lads will have your Christmas shopping covered for many years to come.
Game consoles burned up the juice last fall with “The Beatles: Rock Band,” the ticket for a new generation which has come to expect everything – even art – to be interactive (and for folks of my vintage who know that the world won’t end if you experience the Beatles on anything but a wonky old turntable). Meanwhile, since June 2006, The Mirage in Las Vegas has been collecting a hundred bucks a head for admission to Cirque du Soleil’s “Love.” The show uses the band’s tunes as a jumping-off point to create a new artistic experience, and one can’t argue with the imprimatur of musical co-directors Sir George Martin and son Giles. I’ve been on the fence about “Love,” but upon reflection, it’s probably no worse than the novelty CD of bluegrass Beatles covers that sits on my shelf.
The same pass cannot be granted the forthcoming Disney remake of “Yellow Submarine” in 3-D motion-capture. “Submarine” (in which the Beatles’ involvement was peripheral) was a sensory art piece, a one-off trip of a particular moment in time that couldn’t be re-created by a thousand monkeys sitting at a thousand computers. Dead-eyed zombies and cold CGI surroundings will replace the expressive individual personalities of the lads and their fantastical world born of art director Heinz Edelmann’s inspired vision and nurtured by a throng of animators. Perhaps worst of all, we will forevermore be forced to refer to the 1968 delight as “the original Yellow Submarine.” Just thinking about director Robert Zemeckis putting his grubby mitts on the magical “Nowhere Man” sequence makes me want to break out my “Help!” shot glass and a bottle of anything to make it all go away.
There remains plenty of “new” old material in the vaults that I’d prefer to see ahead of these other projects; hope springs eternal around rumors of a DVD release of “Let It Be,” the inadvertent documentary of the band’s implosion. When I get disheartened by lesser artists grasping for greatness by association, I think how John would have been leading the charge for all this stuff: new generations with the technological means and creative fuel to smash the idols and turn the Beatles construct on its ear. (He’d also be a wonderful “American Idol” judge, telling it like it is to the endless parade of hopeless karaoke wood beez.) I’ll always like my Beatles the way I like my scotch: unadulterated and undiluted. But, like the man said, whatever gets you through the night.
PHOTO BY GEOFF CARTER