It’s widely believed that the Beatles didn’t get truly serious until 1966. That was the year of Revolver, their first “on purpose” LP masterpiece, and the equally bold artistic misstep of the infamous “butcher” cover. Their conversation turned more potent – touching on hot button topics like religion, war, and race – and their minds expanded with the use of psychedelic drugs. Most crucially, they abandoned live performance, transitioning from mere flesh-and-blood figures on show at local baseball stadiums to mystical artistes who dispensed vibrant works from their studio laboratory in Swinging London. This was the time of transition – pop to rock, moptops to men, black and white to color – that led to their seminal Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album the following year.
Rather than examining this career apex, Eight Days a Week, Ron Howard’s long-awaited new Beatles documentary – in theaters today and streaming on Hulu starting Saturday – fills in some crucial backstory. Released just after the 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ final concert, the documentary is a whirlwind celebration of their touring life. What’s more, it challenges the traditional notion that the group’s live career was little more than fondly remembered hysteria that ultimately led to More Important Work. “We just wanted to play,” Ringo Starr says early in the film. “Playing was the most important thing.”
Eight Days a Week is a respectful retelling of the Beatles’ early tale, but in glorious Technicolor. Howard, whose affection for mid-20th-century history has been well documented with box-office hits like Apollo 13, Frost/Nixon and A Beautiful Mind, underwent an exhaustive search to recover long-lost footage, which was then lovingly restored to cinema quality. All assembled, the band’s story takes on the drama and scale of a Biblical epic that’s scarcely believable even half a century later.
“By the end, it became quite complicated, but at the beginning things were really simple,” says Paul McCartney in voiceover. Simple isn’t always bad. Before they became technical recording masters, the Beatles were, as McCartney often says with charming understatement, “a great little rock & roll band.” Eight Days a Week lets you experience them like never before, and feel the frenzy of those thrilling years that came and went much too fast. (The film premieres Saturday, November 25th at 8pm EST on PBS.)
1. Real-deal Beatles live footage is as awesome as you’d hope.
Technically, the earliest surviving color film of the Beatles in concert was shot in February 1962, but the silent, jerky, home-movie-quality reel does little to conjure the raw excitement of a Scouse rave-up. Instead, Eight Days a Week opens with footage taken on November 20th, 1963, at Manchester’s ABC Cinema. Filmed as part of a Pathe News short entitled “The Beatles Come to Town”, the six-and-a-half minute clip captured the group performing “She Loves You” and “Twist and Shout” – and a crowd of young women hilariously overcome with ardor. It represents the first known color film to include sound of the band performing. Professionally shot, it provides a stunning opening to the documentary, as well as an electrifying glimpse of what was like to sit front row at an early Fab Four concert.
In addition, Howard also makes use of the familiar footage taken at Liverpool’s Cavern Club on August 22nd, 1962. Filmed in black and white by the Manchester-based Grenada Television network, it shows the band mere days after Ringo Starr became a full-time member. In fact, he’s so green that he’s hasn’t yet managed to train his hair into the band’s signature moptop. The historic clip is most likely the first-ever film of the four together, and certainly the earliest to include audio of the band.
2. McCartney still gets misty discussing the first time Starr played with the Beatles.
The Beatles famously included Pete Best on the drum kit during the early years of their career, but when he was too sick to make one of their Cavern gigs in February 1962, they called in another local stickman: Ringo Starr. They first became friends months earlier while playing the red-light district in Hamburg, Germany, alongside Starr’s band, Rory Storm and the Hurricanes. Though their union had been primarily offstage until that point, Starr was more than happy to sit in with his new mates.
The usually reserved McCartney became noticeably teary as he remembered the first time the Fab Four joined forces. “Bang! He kicks in, and it was an ‘Oh, my god’ moment. We’re all looking at each other going, ‘Yeah. This is it.’ I’m getting very emotional.” Starr himself offered an equally tender observation. “I’m an only child, and I felt like I suddenly had three brothers.” He would join his rock brethren for good in August 1962.
3. When the going got tough, the Beatles had a rallying cry.
Though they would ultimately look back at the time fondly, it wasn’t always easy being in the pre-fame Beatles. Before the screams and the money, they had to make do with playing eight hours a night in Hamburg for what amounted to beer money, all while sleeping in a glorified broom closet. Dates in Liverpool were often derailed by onstage power outages, overflowing toilets, van crashes and the occasional punches from local gangs or jealous boyfriends in the crowd.
When spirits sagged, John Lennon took it upon himself to lighten the mood with equal parts humor and encouragement. “We used to have this saying that I would chant and they would answer when they were depressed and thinking that the group was going nowhere and this is a shitty deal and we’re in a shitty dressing room,” he says in an archival interview. “I’d say, ‘Where are we goin’, fellas?’ And they’d go, ‘To the top, Johnny!’ And I’d say, ‘Where’s that, fellas?!’ And they’d say, ‘To the toppermost of the poppermost, Johnny!’ And I’d say, ‘Riiiiight!’ And we’d all sort of cheer up.”
4. They went from sleeping in one room to an entire floor of the Plaza Hotel – and then back to one room.
The Beatles’ living conditions during their first Hamburg residencies could nearly be classified as human-rights violations. For months the four lived in a windowless concrete-walled storage room in the back of a small movie theater. Lacking any heat, they were provided with British flags for makeshift blankets on their bunks. After playing onstage all night, they would grab a few hours of frozen slumber before being awoken by the sound of that day’s picture show.
“Hamburg was kind of messy, having to sleep all together in one room – there was no bathroom or anything,” recalled George Harrison. The closest thing they had to facilities was the ladies’ restroom next door, which could be heard – as well as smelled – from their beds. There they washed and shaved with water from the toilets.
When the Beatles received their heroes’ welcome in New York City barely three years later in February 1964, they were put up at the ultra-luxe Plaza Hotel. The band and their entourage occupied nearly the entire 12th floor, including the 10-room presidential suite. But despite the space, the four friends retired to smaller quarters. “We had the whole floor in the Plaza, and the four of us ended up in the bathroom just to get a break from the incredible pressure,” remember Starr.
5. The band made its U.S. radio debut thanks to a one teenager, the first American Beatlemaniac.
Eight Days a Week offers the chance to hear the very first time the Beatles were played over U.S. radio on December 17th, 1963, an event that was just as crucial as the band’s American television debut on The Ed Sullivan Show a few months later. Amazingly, the event can be traced to the actions of one 15-year-old from Silver Springs, Maryland, named Marsha Albert. She is Patient X in the epidemic known as American Beatlemania.
Before their Sullivan appearance, the band was featured in a CBS Evening News segment broadcast December 10th, 1963. Albert was watching at home and liked what she heard. Although their latest single, “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” wasn’t yet released in the United States, she obtained a copy from a British Airways flight attendant. Peeved that no one else had caught on to this great new sound, she wrote a letter to popular DJ Carroll James at Washington D.C.’s WWDC network reading: “Why can’t we have music like that here in America?”
James appreciated Albert’s passion and invited her on his show to play her copy of the record. “Ladies and gentlemen, for the first time in the United States, here are the Beatles singing ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand,'” she intoned before dropping the needle – and opening the floodgates. The station was inundated with requests for the song, forcing Capitol Records, the Beatles’ American label, to rush-release the song weeks earlier than scheduled.
“There’s no doubt whatsoever that the Beatles would have conquered America anyway,” historian Martin Lewis told USA Today in 2004. “But the speed and magnitude of that stratospheric kick-off could not have happened without Marsha Albert. If the record had been released January 13th, as first planned, kids wouldn’t have heard it 20 times a day, as they did during the school break. It would never have sold 1 million copies in three weeks. There wouldn’t have been 10,000 kids at JFK to greet the Beatles. Marsha didn’t start Beatlemania; she jump-started it.”
6. Their first American concert had some major technical problems.
Although their Ed Sullivan performance on February 9th, 1964 was far more iconic, the Beatles’ first true concert on American soil took place two days later at the Coliseum in Washington D.C. The arena was configured for a boxing match, with the band playing a 35-minute, 12-song set in an un-roped ring at the center, while 8,092 fans watched, screamed and threw jelly beans from all sides. Though the arrangement ensured maximum ticket sales, it also meant that they would only face a quarter of the crowd at any given time.
To fix this problem, they were forced to pause every third song and shift their microphones, amps and drums 90 degrees clockwise. The solution was clunky but successful – until midway through one move when Starr’s drum riser got stuck. In the footage he can be seen struggling mightily until collapsing with mock exhaustion. Lennon begins frantically shouting for the band’s trusty roadie, Mal Evans, “Mal! You’ve got to turn these drums around!” When Evans finally succeeds, Lennon claps with approval. Starr returns to his kit, which he proceeds to punish with one of his most energetic performances on film.
7. Their 1964 tour was a triumph for civil rights.
Though Eight Days a Week delves deep into the Beatles’ myriad of musical accomplishments, the documentary also touches on their seldom-discussed victory for civil rights. The band’s first full-scale American tour in the late summer of 1964 brought them through the Deep South and face to face with segregation for the first time. The foursome was shocked by the practice, and vehemently opposed it.
McCartney made his feelings known to DJ Larry Kane, who accompanied the group on their tour. “It’s a bit silly to segregate people,” he said at the time. “I just think it’s stupid. You can’t treat other human beings like animals. That’s the way we all feel, and that’s the way people in England feel, because there’s never any segregation in concerts and England – and if there was we wouldn’t play ’em.”
They made good on their vow when the tour reached Jacksonville, Florida. Seats at the Gator Bowl were to be separated by race, but the band refused to perform until they were assured that the audience would be mixed. Rather than risk a riot of disappointed Beatle fans, the promoters acquiesced, integrating the venue and setting a precedent for all future Beatle performances to come. “We played to people,” says Starr. “We didn’t play to those people or that people – we just played to people.”
8. The Beatles filmed Help! in the Bahamas to ward off the taxman.
In contrast to the stark, deliberately claustrophobic backstage ambiance of the Beatles’ first film, A Hard Day’s Night, 1965’s Help! was a colorful, big-budget splash that saw the band traversing the globe. Several of the foreign set pieces were incorporated into the plot to accommodate the Beatles’ own traveling desires. While understandable that the sunny beaches of the Bahamas would make the Liverpool lads’ wish list, the location choice was actually an attempt to thwart George Harrison’s old nemesis: the tax man.
“We all had meetings about tax structure and they would say, ‘Oh, you’ve got to put your money in the Bahamas or somewhere,'” recalled McCartney. The band’s financial advisor had set up a tax shelter in what was then a British territory, requiring that he set up a residence there for an entire year. As a goodwill gesture, they sought to pay him a visit. “So when we were asked about the film we would say, ‘Can we go to the Bahamas?'” The Beatles’ word was law, and it was director Richard Lester’s duty to make it happen. “We were told, ‘You’re going to film in the Bahamas. Write a scene.'”
9. The Beatles’ record-breaking Shea Stadium concert drew over 55,000 fans – including a young Whoopi Goldberg.
The Beatles gave birth to arena rock on August 15th, 1965, when their U.S. summer tour kicked off at New York City’s Shea Stadium. The Mets’ newly constructed home was overrun with over 55,000 Beatlemaniacs, setting an attendance record for a music event. Among the fans were future Beatle wives Barbara Bach – who married Starr in 1981 – and Linda Eastman (McCartney). Bach was merely there to chaperone her younger sister, while Eastman was royally pissed off by the screams that drowned out the music.
Also in the crowd was nine-year-old Caryn Elaine Johnson, later known as Whoopi Goldberg, who received the surprise of a lifetime thanks to her mother. “There was the announcement of this concert and my mom was like, ‘We don’t have the money for this,'” she remembers in the film. “I don’t know how she did it but she got two tickets. And she didn’t tell me. She said, ‘We need to go somewhere.’ I said, ‘Where are we going?’ And she said, ‘I’ll let you know when we get there.'”
The pair took the long subway ride to Queens, much to the little girl’s confusion. “We get out and I say, ‘Where are we?’ And she says, ‘We’re at Shea Stadium.’ And I said, ‘Why?’ And she held up two tickets. And all I remember is my head going [mimics explosion].”
10. The Beatles were nearly killed at several of their concerts.
Touring was a perilous business even in the early days of Beatlemania. The size of the crowds was unparalleled, as was the degree of the fervor. “When we drove up to the stage door, the Beatles were almost crushed completely by youngsters who backed themselves up against the wall,” Kane described in one of his radio reports. “They broke about 50 windows throwing rocks, jellybeans, undershirts, sandals. The situation was one of sheer havoc even though the police did their best to stop it.”
This was far from an isolated incident. During a 1964 concert in Vancouver, 7,000 kids broke through the barricade and stampeded the stage, resulting in 240 being taken to the hospital for treatment. Derek Taylor, the Beatles’ press officer, bemoaned the laid-back attitude of the local police detail in each new city. “They all say, ‘We know our own people. We know police potential and we’re going to be able to handle this.’ But what they’ve never seen is a Beatle crowd. This is the biggest thing that’s ever happened. There’s no question about it. It’s like nothing before. It’s not like Presley, not like Sinatra, it’s not like the late President Kennedy. It’s the Beatles, and they are without precedent.”
The hazards had increased exponentially by 1966. As the venues swelled to arena size, so too did the chance for violence. A performance at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles was interrupted when fans rushed the stage, leading to a showdown with billy-club-wielding police. Dozens were injured, and it took two hours for authorities to restore some semblance of order. Even more troubling, the band received a torrent of death threats as a result of supposedly anti-religious statements made by Lennon. Ku Klux Klan members picketed many of their shows, promising to assassinate them.
Even nature seemed to be against them. Most of the open-air stadiums lacked proper shelter, and several shows were forced to continue despite torrential downpours. Clutching electric guitars, and flanked by stacks of amps and mics, the threat of electrocution was very real. “We flew off to St. Louis and it was pouring rain,” recalls tour roadie Ed Freeman, who freely admits that his only qualification for the role was his friendship with the Beatles’ support band, the Remains. “My job was to sit backstage with my hand on the plug and the instructions were: If anyone fell down, knocked out by the shock, then I would pull the plug and that would stop the show. It was a joke.” Within days they would swear off touring for the rest of their career.