A strange thing is happening to me. I’m suddenly feeling compelled to cultivate a long-dormant interest in 1960s pop culture (specifically, music and movies, and the graphic design associated therewith).
It’s not like I’ve never been “into” the ’60s. There’s plenty of ’60s music I like, especially the hard bop and early electric jazz from the likes of John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock and Miles Davis. And the early prog rock albums of Yes, King Crimson, et al, even though most of that didn’t happen until the very end of the decade (1969). And then, of course, there’s The Beatles. Need I say more? And I’ve always enjoyed the visual aesthetic of the ’60s, from the tail end of Mid-Century Modern into the psychedelia of the Woodstock era. But I’m a child of the ’70s at heart (and biologically). I’ve always been more into ’70s music and ’70s aesthetics than ’60s music and ’60s aesthetics. But over the past few days I’ve found myself thinking more about the decade preceding my birth.
It all started when I showed the kids Help! That’s the surreal, hypercolor second Beatles film: part Marx Brothers, part James Bond, part (as Martin Scorsese suggests in the liner notes to the DVD) proto-Monty Python, with the first hints of the psychedelic fantasy of much of the band’s late work. It’s no Yellow Submarine, not even Magical Mystery Tour. But it’s definitely more “out there” than A Hard Day’s Night, the band’s “mockumentary” (before the term existed) debut film from the previous year.
The kids loved it, and I did too, more than I remembered from the one and only time I had seen it before, back in college. They watched it again today (twice). And that got me thinking more about The Beatles. I already own the boxed set (stereo version… though I’d happily accept the mono box as a gift if you’re feeling generous), but I’ve never owned (nor even heard) Let It Be… Naked, the 2003 re-release of the band’s final album stripped of the orchestral excesses slapped on the original release by Phil Spector without the band’s input. So I headed over to Amazon and bought it. While I was at it (gotta get that Super Saver shipping, you know), I also threw in a couple of kitschy ’60s classics my CD collection has been woefully missing: Herb Alpert’s Whipped Cream & Other Delights and the self-titled release by Sergio Mendes & Brasil ’66.
What led me to those, besides my general spirit of ’60sphilia? That’s easy… after watching Help! I put The Beatles on shuffle in iTunes, and their recording of “A Taste of Honey” (from their debut, Please Please Me) came on. I’ve never really been into the band’s earliest albums (having never even heard the albums before Help! in their entirety until I got the boxed set in September), and I had more or less been completely unaware they’d even covered this song, which, of course, was also given the Tijuana Brass treatment on… Whipped Cream & Other Delights. From there it was a small hop to Sergio Mendes, who, incidentally, was fond of covering Beatles songs, including “Day Tripper” on the album I ordered.
Small world, the ’60s.
A few other things I noticed, watching Help! last night:
- I’ve spent years listening to Paul sing “Flew in from Miami Beach BOAC” in the opening line of “Back in the USSR,” never really knowing what BOAC was… but assuming it was an airline. Well I noticed in the beginning of Help! that the sinister swami Clang (played, rather absurdly, by Australian actor Leo McKern) is given a BOAC airline ticket by Ahme (also absurdly played by English actress Eleanor Bron). (Of course, I could have just consulted Wikipedia.)
- Late in the film, when all of England joins in singing Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony to soothe the escaped tiger threatening Ringo’s life, I noticed that the soccer match is between Burnley and Tottenham Hotspur, the latter being a favorite team of some Premier League loving friends of mine who frequent The Local on Saturday and Sunday mornings to catch the Spurs’ matches.
- The one thing from the film that made a lasting impression on me 15 years ago, when I first saw it, was the Beatles’ delightful set of rowhouses, which all open into one large space (divided into four separate living areas, by color). George’s green space, with its indoor lawn; Paul’s white space, with its illuminated organ that rises from the floor; John’s brown space with a bed and reading nook embedded in the floor; and Ringo’s blue space with assorted food and beverage vending machines built into the wall. The moment when they all approach their own individual doors from the street, and then walk into this single open space is priceless.
I think, though, more than anything else, the thing that makes the biggest impression on me, seeing The Beatles in “living color,” engaging in their mid-’60s silliness, is the splash from the trailer (below): “Seven new songs!” The songs in this movie are woven so deeply into the fabric of my life, and of our culture, that it’s almost incomprehensible that they were brand new when this movie was made, written expressly for the movie. As much as I can relish the experience of watching this movie and listening to the music, there’s no way I can ever experience the ’60s as something fresh and new, with all that has happened in the 40+ years since then (including the entirety of my life) still waiting in the mysterious and unknowable future.
I actually remember the ’70s. Sure, it’s the late ’70s, and they’re the faded and fuzzy memories of a small child. But I still have firsthand memories of that period in history. I remember when disco was popular and Jimmy Carter was president. But I will never know a time when The Beatles were actively recording new music. I’ll never know the feeling of anticipating new Beatles music. The closest I’ll ever come is playing Beatles Rock Band. And that’s the strangest thing about introducing my kids to the music and the wonder of The Beatles. They love it… they’re just eating it all up. And that’s great. But I remember when my mom introduced me to them as a kid, and they were already an artifact of history.
Ultimately the most exciting thing about all of this is that it’s even possible for me to explore the ’60s at all. The technologies that came into widespread use in the 20th century allow me to hear this wonderful music that was played before I was alive, and to see people on an illuminated screen, moving before my eyes, doing things that they did a decade before I was born, and four decades before my kids were born. In all the previous hundreds of millennia of human history, there was no way to capture the sound of a human voice, the exact look of a human face, the idiosyncrasies of an individual’s movements, and record them for the benefit of future generations. And now we live in an era where technology is so incomprehensibly advanced, and moving ahead so rapidly, that the iPods Apple produced just 5 years ago seem quaint, and thereby the scratched film and vinyl of the analog era, of the 1960s and beyond, appear positively ancient. Yet someone living even a century ago would be amazed at what was waiting just a few decades hence, and someone from a hundred years before that would not even believe a horseless carriage could be possible, to say nothing of an airplane… or an iPhone.
Wow… well, needless to say, I didn’t set out to get this heavy when I started writing this post. But it certainly sheds some light on why I have such a passion for technology. Now I’ll end on a lighter note: as promised, the original trailer for Help!
Update (August 30, 2023): Well, I stumbled upon this old post today, and realized the video above wasn’t working… because it was using an old Flash-based embed code. But as it turns out, that didn’t matter, because the video itself had subsequently been taken down from YouTube. So, for the moment, I’ve restored it by finding another copy of the trailer on YouTube, unfortunately squished horizontally, but still… you get the gist. And now in another ~15 years (when I’m… wait for it… 64) I’ll revisit this and see what other aspects of the technology have become obsolete.