Why one day in 1968 with The Beatles was the pinnacle of everything good.
On Wednesday 4 September 1968 The Beatles filmed performances of their new single Hey Jude (and its B-side Revolution) at Twickenham Film Studios; three days later the Hey Jude performance was shown on Frost On Saturday, with David Frost introducing the band:
“Welcome back to part three, as you can see, with the greatest tea-room orchestra in the world. Right? Beautiful, beautiful. Absolutely, beautiful. As you can see, making their first audience appearance for over a year, ladies and gentlemen, The Beatles!”
This alone still sends a shiver down my spine, but it is what comes next that is, I feel, one of the genuine apexes of modern history. Here’s why.
Well firstly, it’s the song. Before it was (very slightly) devalued in the noughties by Paul McCartney using it to close seemingly every concert he did, it is one of the Fabs’ best. In Revolution In The Head, Ian McDonald says of it: “Their instinct for what worked was barely sharper.” Recorded during the sessions that produced that November’s White Album, Hey Jude is “not only a masterpiece of melodic invention but a recording of unrivalled vocal ingenuity,” according to Tim Riley in Tell Me Why.
It’s The Beatles themselves too, of course. There were many times in the 1960s when The Beatles were seemingly the centre of the world, a life-force shining from them like a sunshine supernova: their first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964; singing All You Need Is Love on the world’s first satellite broadcast in 1967; their rooftop performance in Savile Row in 1969. And this one.
In terms of world events, it could be argued that Hey Jude came after the West peaked. In 1968, Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated on 4 April; major riots took place in Paris from 2 May-23 June; Robert F Kennedy was assassinated on 6 June; and the US continued to fight an unwinnable, bloody war in Vietnam. All this may have been contributory factors in The Beatles largely stopping smiling between the release of their Lady Madonna single on 15 March and the release of the White Album on 22 November: compare and contrast the publicity shots for each of those releases. But for their Hey Jude performance they did rouse themselves to look and act like the world’s favourite band, no doubt powered by the quality of the material they were performing.
And it was one of their last public appearances before the band began to come apart: on 11 November (11 days before the release of the White Album), John released Two Virgins, the first of three albums of avant-garde nonsense with Yoko Ono, the pair naked on the cover. The stark, joyless image itself acted as a kind of negation of Beatlemania, when millions of young girls’ wildest dreams would have involved a naked John Lennon; this may have been the day those dreams died. Two Virgins was followed in May 1969 by the pair’s equally unlistenable Wedding Album. In 1969 The Beatles did manage to record two albums’ worth of material, including the masterful Abbey Road, but two weeks before it was released on 26 September John had performed with his Plastic Ono Band, not the Fabs, at the Toronto music festival. John had pretty much quit The Beatles, but it wasn’t until 9th April 1970 that Paul announced the split to the press. Between July ’69 and April ’70 John put out three solo singles – Give Peace A Chance, Cold Turkey and Instant Karma – which demonstrated that the end really was nigh. On 8 November ’68, George’s Wonderwall soundtrack album was released, the first release by a solo Beatle. Although the group had been faltering as a unit before Hey Jude – the cessation of touring in 1966, the death of Brian Epstein in 1967, the coming of Ono into the studio with them in 1968 – after it they really started to crumble.
The performance is, therefore, something of a pinnacle, and what makes it very special is the big group of mainly young people who congregate around the group for the song’s closing “na na na” refrain, which lasts four minutes and four seconds (but I also love the way that before the finale it’s largely close-ups of the group, Paul and George looking especially beautiful, if men can be described as such). There’s something so democratic about it, a group of kids literally rubbing shoulders with the most famous men in the world, four men who will never be forgotten. It’s not super slickly edited to omit a few instances of kids looking dorky or a bit lost, and it has a moderate racial mix that doesn’t speak of tokenism but of colour-blindness.
There are many nice moments. At 5.54 a girl with red hair, just a foot away from Paul, looks at him deeply for a second, incredulous that she is so close to a man she idolises; at 7.07 there is another adoring glance. Seeing the lad smartly dressed as what looks like a bellboy at 4.42 and 7.20 for some reason always moistens my eyes – perhaps because he just seems to be a humble young chap who is dazzled by where he now finds himself. Dazed gratitude shines from his features. Spoiling it for some but not for me is the eccentric old fella with flowers in his glasses who’s clearly plastered and for some reason is carrying a board or something under his right arm, and who puts his hand on Paul’s shoulder (the movement you need is on it) annoying him briefly at 7.28. But it’s certainly more about the youngsters, who that day were given memories for a lifetime – no matter what bad stuff happened to them later they’d have a section of their brain they could retreat to for comfort.
The day did indeed come after many terrible events in ’68 but this wasn’t a world in a permanent state of hysteria and anger and angst thanks to the internet and social media and ravenous 24-hour news channels. The young people in the crowd certainly don’t look like they are weighed down by the world’s problems, and nor should they be. This was a properly joyous occasion, no cheesy “I’d like to teach the world to sing” guff here, no contrived charity single vibe, no antsy protest song, just one of the best rock anthems ever written being loved and participated in by people who were the future once. It’s melancholic to note that most of them will now be in their seventies, should they still be with us.
One feels like the na na-ing could go on forever on ever greater cascades of joy, and it’s glorious. In his excellent book One Two Three Four: The Beatles In Time, Craig Brown devotes a chapter to it, and the estimable Beatles Bible’s take on it here is worth reading.
The following year there was more horror, with the Manson killings in August, but there was also the human triumph of the Apollo 11 Moon landings in July. Try as we humans like to create them, dividing lines aren’t always that easy; but of course we do that, and the biggest man-made natural break in our narrative would be that the 1960s, “the greatest decade in the history of mankind” according to Danny in Withnail & I, ended a year and four months after the Hey Jude singalong.
There’s certainly something to be said for the 1960s, wherever your political or cultural views reside. Yes, there was the dark cloud of the Cold War, but for most people in Britain everyday life was a good deal cheerier than in the past: the Second World War was a receding memory, living standards climbed, labour-saving devices reduced drudgery, the pill gave extraordinary freedom to women, the air was cleaner, there was more leisure time, the popular arts were in rude health and England even won the World Cup. London became the centre of the universe, or at least it must have felt that way for some. The UK was, by and large, an agreeable, less troubled, optimistic, positive place – catch glimpses of it in the lovely Look At Life films now airing on Talking Pictures TV.
And there were few of the tenets of our current age that are so demoralising, such as extreme political polarisation, curtailments on free speech, serial victimhood, lockdowns, masks, Islamic terrorism and grooming gangs, smartphone addiction (and its attendant depletion of mental health), woke identity politics tearing into everything, the threat of China, excessive shrieking about the environment and big tech orchestrating our existences (feel free to add your own).
I know that my assertion in the headline could be picked apart from all sorts of angles, but I stand by it. The Beatles, the West and youth peaked around about this time. And if you allow yourself to bathe in the joy of this performance, you might find yourself agreeing with me.
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