UVA Today • by Jane Kelly • November 22nd, 2021
On Thanksgiving Day, a mammoth new documentary of never-before-seen footage of the Beatles, debuts on Disney+. The footage is culled from nearly 60 hours of film shot in the months before the beloved band called it quits.
“The Beatles: Get Back,” a three-part documentary, will premier over three days beginning Nov. 25 in two-hour installments. It was directed by Peter Jackson, best known for his film trilogies “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit.”
The Beatles’ discography is massive. The “Fab Four” recorded more than 200 songs between 1962 and 1970 and released 12 studio albums. The band had 20 songs reach No. 1 on music charts, including “She Loves You,” “Help!,” “Hey Jude” and “Yesterday.”
It is hard to overstate the impact the band had on rock ’n’ roll, as evidenced by UVA Today’s recent conversation with Jack Hamilton, an associate professor of American studies and media studies at the University of Virginia. Hamilton, Slate Magazine’s pop critic, shared his expertise about the history of the band, its context in popular culture and why the Beatles’ music made “an absolutely seismic impact” on the American music scene.
Q. When did the Beatles begin to impact music in the United States?
A. They really hit the United States in 1964. They’d been huge in the UK, really throughout 1963. And it’s sort of hard to overstate how much the Beatles changed everything.
They were really the first British band to make an impact on the American popular music scene – I mean, like an absolutely seismic impact. Prior to the Beatles, Britain was seen really as kind of an afterthought to the United States music industry. The Beatles opened the floodgates of what comes to be known as the “British Invasion” in the 1960s.
The level of commercial success that the Beatles had and the level of global cultural dominance, particularly in the United States and Europe – no one had really seen anything like it before. The Beatles really weren’t together all that long. They’d broken up by early 1970. But, it’s just an extraordinary run of sustained success.
Q. How did the Beatles change rock ’n’ roll?
A. Rock ’n’ roll in the 1950s was largely understood by a lot of people to be something that was going to be a passing fad; that something was going to come along and replace it. Obviously, that didn’t happen, and the Beatles have a lot to do with that.
They came in with the model of being a self-contained band who wrote their own songs, and there was something very different about them. There were certainly rock ’n’ roll bands in the United States prior to the Beatles, like Buddy Holly and the Crickets. The Beatles were the first rock ’n’ roll band [however] where everyone knew who all the people who were in in the band. They all had these personalities that were attached to them. Their [individual] contributions were really made clear and prominent.
In a lot of ways, they sort of set the template of what people would come to imagine as a rock ’n’ roll band. The musical development and the musical adventurism and experimentation, particularly by the mid-to-late 1960s. … I think a lot of people don’t know about that, but it’s certainly very important.
Q. The Beatles were only together for eight years, but they released tons of music. How does that compare with artists today?
A. The Beatles were unbelievably prolific. They just made just an enormous amount of music in those in those eight years that they were recording and the eight years that they were really huge. That’s something that you just don’t see from pop or rock artists today.
A lot of bands take years in between their albums. That’s just the more common model. These days, it would actually be seen probably as really stupid to put out an album every six months.
If you are a huge artist these days and you wanted to release an album every six months, I think your record label would probably try to stop you from doing that because it saturates the market. They want you to tour behind and promote the album and let it sort of saturate, with spin-off singles and things like that. And then you make a new album maybe two years later.
This was still in this period when people were still really figuring out how this sort of business of rock ’n’ roll music was going to work. So that’s a huge difference, in terms of just the sheer productivity.
Q. Can you break down the very various eras of the Beatles?
A. This is sort of imprecise. So, they stop touring in 1966, and that’s certainly a big deal because that’s sort of when they transition from being a band that is playing live and touring pretty relentlessly to being strictly a studio act. So that’s certainly a big dividing line. But I think that there’s also smaller dividing lines in there, too.
1963 is when Beatlemania is going crazy in England. By 1964, it had spread to the United States with “The Ed Sullivan Show” performance in February of 1964. And that’s when [the movie] “A Hard Day’s Night” comes out. That’s sort of like the early phase of Beatlemania.
And then in 1965 and 1966, those are the years when they make “Rubber Soul” and “Revolver,” which I think a lot of people point to as a real artistic shift. There’s a [an artistic] leap that’s being made from “Help” to “Rubber Soul” … and then also from “Rubber Soul” to “Revolver,” there’s sort of another leap that is made.
1967 and “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”
And then in 1967, by that point, they are no longer touring. 1967 is the year they released “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” which is just a hugely important kind of cultural moment. All Beatles albums attract a lot of attention, but I think that “Sgt. Pepper” really turns the music world on its ear in a lot of ways. It was the first rock ’n’ roll album that was hailed by serious intellectual types as an artistic masterpiece. I think Kenneth Tynan, who was the theater critic for the London Times, referred to it as something like a high watermark of Western civilization.
By that point, it’s like the Beatles definitively moved from being seen as this thing that was a craze among teenagers and the four guys with the haircuts who sang the three-minute pop songs to something very different.
By 1967, 1968, the band is in the slow process of breaking up. Things are getting complicated and relationships are getting frayed. They’re still making music that’s massively successful and still immensely famous. The “White Album” was pretty fractious in terms of Ringo quitting the band for a little bit. There’s just not the same sort of sense of cohesion, I think, among the band members. And that kind of continues.
The Peter Jackson movie that’s coming out is about the making of what would become “Let it Be,” which was at the time them trying to get back to their roots. The album was originally going to be called “Get Back.”
The project was [them] trying to return to their earlier periods and rekindle that sense of group connection. It just didn’t really work.