Pre-YouTube, pre-internet, pre-DVD, and pre-VHS, there were some enterprising souls that would put together two-to-three hour package shows of Beatles films that would get one-off screenings at independent movie houses or college campuses. They didn’t show feature films like A Hard Day’s Night or Help!, but shorter fare, like newsreels, TV appearances and what were then called promotional films—forerunners of today’s videos. The films might be scratchy and dirty, with ill-placed edits, but they were still magical to see, in part because you never knew when you’d get the chance to see them again.
Which alone makes the release of the Beatles new 1 and 1+ CD/DVD (or Blu-ray) sets welcome; you get 27 promo clips in the 1 set, and a total of 50 in 1+, all in newly restored, pristine condition (and with new stereo, 5.1 Dolby Digital, and DTS HD surround audio mixes). For Beatles fans, it’s bliss.
The lineup is somewhat hampered by the first DVD in the set adhering to the songs on the original 1 album, released in 2000, and featuring every No. 1 hit the Beatles had in the US and UK. The label had originally wanted the promo clip set to follow up the CD’s release in 2001, but the Beatles said no. Now the idea’s been revived, and it’s something of an uncomfortable fit sticking to the 1 lineup, largely because there aren’t specifically filmed promo clips for each No. 1 song. So if a promo clip doesn’t exist, a live clip is used. In the case of “Eight Days a Week,” where there’s neither a promo clip or live performance available, a new clip has been created from footage of the 1965 Shea Stadium concert, cleverly edited to hide the fact that the Beatles aren’t actually performing the song.
It waters the set down to a degree, because a promo clip (or video—call it what you will), isn’t the same as a live performance, and it’s the promo clips that are the most interesting here. From “Love Me Do” (1963) to “Something” (1969), you can see the development of the promo clip, progressing from a short film that simply served up a straight performance to a piece of work that was striving to be something more artistic.
By 1965, filmmakers were trying to figure out ways to make a straight performance clip more interesting, which in the Beatles’ case involved rejigging the setting. Thus, “I Feel Fine” places exercise equipment around the group, with Ringo leaping on an exer-cycle mid-song (getting fit to “feel fine,” presumably). The set for “Ticket to Ride” has the band surrounded by enlarged train tickets (their tickets to ride—get it?). In “Help!,” the group is inexplicably seated on a carpenter’s sawhorse, with snow falling down on them during the final verse. In these days where CGI and auto-tuning have robbed the entertainment experience of much of its spontaneity, it’s charming to see how poorly the Beatles lip-sync in these clips. John Lennon in particular could clearly care less about hitting his marks, and his knowing looks to the camera clue you in to the fact that he’s not taking proceedings too seriously. In one version of “We Can Work It Out,” he mugs so relentlessly, Paul McCartney completely loses his composure at the end, bursting out in laughter.
Two outstanding clips are the outdoor versions of “Paperback Writer” and “Rain” by Michael Lindsay-Hogg, who went on to direct the Beatles documentary Let It Be (the Beatles occasionally shot more than one clip for a song). He’s smart enough to realize that as the Beatles are the biggest band in the world, there’s no need for contrivances; just put them in an interesting setting, and their own charisma will take care of the rest. Lindsay-Hogg places them in the verdant grounds of Chiswick House, a mansion in West London. They’re dressed in the height of Swinging London fashion, looking so cool you don’t even realize at first that they’re not lip-syncing the songs all the way through.
The 1966 clips for “Penny Lane” and “Strawberry Fields Forever” are arguably their most famous, and as befits the music, they’re a touch surreal. In “Penny Lane,” they seem to be saying goodbye to their time as live performers, riding horses past a stage set up with their instruments, but passing it by, preferring instead to sit down to a champagne tea. “Strawberry Fields Forever” is mysterious and moody, involving, at one point, the destruction of a piano. The editing and lighting are the focus in here, especially as the group doesn’t lip-sync at all (nor do they do so in “Penny Lane”)—something rare in a promo clip, even today.
It was the last time the group would make such an artistic statement; the majority of their other promo clips were straight performances. They’re still good fun. There’s a frisson of excitement at watching the band perform “Hello Goodbye” in their Sgt. Pepper suits, and the clips for “Hey Jude” and “Revolution,” which feature live vocals, make you wish they’d returned to live performance again. Capping it all is “Free As a Bird,” one of the reunion singles created for the Beatles Anthology project of the mid-1990s. Though in retrospect, creating a “new” Beatles single now seems like an unnecessary promotional gimmick (the original Lennon demo for “Free As a Bird” and the other reunion single, “Real Love,” have more delicacy), the “Bird” video is a trivia buff’s delight, filled with references to dozens of other Beatles songs.
As well as being a nice slice of Beatles history, it’s also a concise distillation of the progression of the promo film clip in the 1960s, which makes this collection of interest to those with an interest in pop culture as well as Beatles fans. And for the full story, you’ll need to get the 1+ set.