The Beatles as Virtual Performers
by Philip Auslander
Screen shot from The Beatles: Rock Band video game simulating their first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964. Courtesy of Harmonix and MTV Games.
In 2009, the video game The Beatles: Rock Band appeared. The game not only simulates the Beatles’ performing their classic songs and such famous events as their first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964, it also allows the player to select his or her favorite Beatle as a game avatar. Arguably, however, the Beatles had already become virtual performers over forty years before this game made its debut.
I am referring to the well-known fact that the Beatles stopped performing concerts in 1966, after completing a late summer tour of North America by playing San Francisco’s Candlestick Park. According to Hunter Davies, the Beatles’ authorized biographer, the official reason given for the group’s retirement from touring and playing live concerts was that their music had gained in complexity and that it was becoming too difficult to reproduce the sounds of their recordings in live settings. Davies goes on to say, however, that the Beatles were also tired of the rigors, dangers, and tedium of touring, especially when it entailed playing for throngs of fans who screamed so loud that they couldn’t hear the music and the Beatles couldn’t hear themselves. In the film of the Beatles’ concert at New York’s Shea Stadium in 1965, John Lennon speaks in gibberish at one point because he knows no one is actually listening.
This was not the relationship the Beatles wanted to have with their audiences. As Ian Inglis points out in a recent paper, one of the main things the Beatles had learned during their apprenticeship playing disreputable clubs on Hamburg’s Reeperbahn between 1960 and 1962 was how to engage directly with an audience and establish a relationship with it. George Harrison, quoted by Davies, indicates that the Beatles’ performances at the Cavern Club back in Liverpool in the early 1960s represented the group’s ideal relationship to their audience: “We were part of the audience. We lived our lives with them. . . . It was so intimate.” It is precisely this sense of community and intimacy, of interacting directly with the audience and being part of it, that became impossible for the touring Beatles when they had to rush into and out of venues as quickly as they could, surrounded by police escorts, to play for crowds too absorbed in Beatlemanic ecstasies to pay their idols’ music any real attention.
The Beatles’ response was to withdraw from performing publically, but they never actually stopped performing for the public. Rather, they became virtual performers accessible only in mediatized forms, particularly on television. In what follows, I will discuss several of the Beatles’ performances after they stopped touring, beginning with a television performance from 1966 and culminating in their 1969 performance atop the roof of Apple Studios in London, captured in the film Let It Be.
The fourth time the Beatles appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show, on June 5, 1966, they performed two songs, “Paperback Writer” and “Rain,” on videotape. The clips had been shot the previous month and were intended to publicize the Beatles’ new single in the American market. The Beatles also appeared in an introductory sequence, filmed separately, in which they apologized for not being there in person and introduced the clips to Ed Sullivan’s audience. The studio audience applauds the Beatles as if they were there in person, thus creating the illusion of their corporeal presence for viewers watching at home and reinforcing the idea that the virtual Beatles were subbing for the real ones.
It is significant that these filmed performances were shown on US television about three weeks before the Beatles would embark on their final concert tours, first of Germany and Japan, then North America. These television performances and their setting could not have been more different from the circumstances that would greet them on those tours. The clip for “Paperback Writer” was shot at Abbey Road studios, and it shows the Beatles neither as crowd-pleasing showmen nor as the objects of crazed idolatry, but as working musicians. They perform sitting down, in a darkened and otherwise quiet studio. Although they would continue their established practice of dressing identically when playing live (different outfits were designed for each tour—those for the 1966 tours featured elegant, wide-lapelled black jackets and high-collared white shirts) here they are more individual in their dress. Paul McCartney and John Lennon are in shirtsleeves; George Harrison and Ringo Starr wear jackets, but not the same jacket. The Beatles seem to be relaxed and enjoying each other’s company, jokily all wearing sunglasses in a dark room, a situation that contrasts starkly with the conditions they would soon have to negotiate while on tour. In short, the virtual Beatles represented in this film were able to construct and control the circumstances of their performances and the terms under which they were presented to an audience in ways that their corporeal counterparts could not, and the contrast is striking.
The live broadcast of “All You Need Is Love” that took place on June 25, 1967, again presents the Beatles as being in command of the context in which they performed to a much greater extent than was possible on public stages. This performance may be unique in the annals of rock music—not only was it part of a live, global television broadcast achieved through satellite hook-ups, it was also the recording session at which the song was recorded, shot once again at Abbey Road. (Although certain tracks were recorded ahead of time, and a bit of sweetening was added later, the bulk of the song as issued on records was actually recorded during the broadcast). This film thus maintains the studio setting used for “Paperback Writer” and “Rain.” It again shows the Beatles at work, playing while sitting down and engaging in minimal theatrics, and depicts a scenario in which their making music is the most important thing going on.
In keeping with the countercultural mood of 1967, the Beatles also indulged in a healthy dose of psychedelic spectacle. The Beatles are not dressed identically, but they are all dressed in colorful, loose-fitting satin and brocaded jackets designed by the Dutch collective The Fool (whose merchandise the Beatles would begin showcasing in their Apple Boutique in the fall of the same year). The studio is suffused with banks of flowers and balloons. McCartney even has a red flower tucked behind his left ear. During the song’s long coda, figures wearing sandwich boards displaying the words for “love” in many languages appear, walking around the crowded space in a parade that is greeted by a fall of artificial snow.
All of this reflects the Beatles’ embrace of the hippie counterculture at the time, but a crucial aspect of this performance is that they are positioned in the middle of a crowd, with spectators seated right next to them and behind them. Children and adults, friends and spouses of the Beatles (Mick Jagger is particularly noticeable), and members of the production crew are all in close proximity to the Beatles as they play and record, and all are invited to clap and sing along. It is as if the Beatles sought to recreate the intimacy and easy-goingness they experienced at the Cavern Club, the sense of being part of the audience they were performing for, of playing for people they knew and with whom they could be comfortable. The image of community thus created was fully in tune with the communitarian ethos of the psychedelic Underground, but it was a virtual simulation, albeit one that implicitly included those watching on television. It would have been impossible at the time for the Beatles to have such an experience in any other than the highly controlled conditions of a recording studio.
The television performance of “Hey Jude,” filmed in 1968, recapitulates the image of the Beatles performing in the midst of a friendly crowd. The clip begins with a very tight shot of Paul McCartney’s face as he sings at the piano, and most of the shots in its first half are close-ups of individual Beatles or medium shots that show them interacting pleasurably with one another as they play and sing. As in all of the television performances I am discussing here, the suggestion is that we are eavesdropping on the Beatles at work. Midway through the clip, however, as the song yields to the long, repeated chorus that makes up its second half, the camera pulls back abruptly to reveal that the Beatles are surrounded by a crowd of 300 mostly young people, positioned even closer to the musicians than in “All You Need Is Love,” and singing and clapping along. Even more than in 1967, the clip creates the impression not only that the Beatles are extremely comfortable in an intimate relationship with the people they’re playing for, but also that the crowd around them is truly collaborating with them in the recording of the song. As the chorus goes on and the crowd swarms around the Beatles, distinctions between musicians and audience become less and less clear. The Beatles seem to be in their element.
The Beatles perform on the roof of their offices in London's Savile Row in 1969. Photo courtesy of www.vintag.es.
These performances show that the Beatles never lost interest in performing for the public but had to find ways of doing so that were tenable in the wake of Beatlemania. The creation of virtual Beatles who performed only for television and could have an intimate and communal relationship with the audience in the safe and controlled space of the studio, a relationship that was no longer available to the “real” Beatles in the “real” world, offered a solution. The Beatles’ final public performance, on the rooftop of the Apple offices in London in January of 1969 captured in the film Let It Be, represented a similar solution even though it took place in public. By that time, the Beatles were contemplating playing live again, and there was a plan that the film should end with their doing a concert of the new material they were seen writing and rehearsing in it. But the logistics of doing a concert could not be resolved, which led to a fairly spontaneous decision to simply perform unannounced on the roof of their building in Savile Row.
This lack of publicity guaranteed that the Beatles’ first live appearance in two and a half years would not generate the level of excitement that would have greeted a normal concert. Indeed, as shown in the film, the people in the street below either paused and listened silently and respectfully, or simply moved on. Interviewed for The Beatles Anthology, McCartney recalls the event this way: “I remember seeing Vicki Wickham of Ready, Steady, Go! (there's a name to conjure with) on the opposite roof, for some reason, with the street between us. She and a couple of friends sat there, and then the secretaries from the lawyers' offices next door came out on their roof. . . . It was a very strange location because there was no audience except for Vicki Wickham and a few others. So we were playing virtually to nothing – to the sky, which was quite nice.” As can be seen in the film the Beatles were joined on the roof by technicians, a camera crew, and Apple functionaries. As McCartney makes clear, they were aware that people in the street below were listening, but they were not conscious of their presence and were not specifically playing to them. Although the rooftop setting allowed the Beatles to play in public once again, it also allowed them to do so under conditions that replicated those of the television films I have discussed here, in that the Beatles’ primary audience consisted of themselves, people they knew, and the camera crew, and the eventual larger audience for this performance would experience it only on the screen, as a performance by the virtual Beatles.
Philip Auslander is the Editor of The Art Section.