In college, I knew a woman who had seen The Beatles in 1965. She and her sister traveled to San Francisco to see them perform at the Cow Palace. As much as they loved the Beatles, their takeaway was surprising. The show had been a miserable experience. Though they had been fortunate to get as close to the stage as possible, it didn’t matter; the sound of a stadium full of screaming teenage girls was deafening, and they were constantly being hit in the back of the head with jellybeans. What made it more disappointing for her was seeing that they weren’t even trying to put on a good show. They were lackluster, and at points, she wasn’t even sure they were actually singing, which, considering no one could hear them, may well have been the case. So bad was her experience that when the band returned to San Francisco in 1966, she and her sister quickly declined the offer of free tickets—a decision she would rue, considering that the show in question, at Candlestick Park, was to be their last public performance. It’s this reality of the touring game that prompted Ron Howard to create Eight Days Week, a documentary about the touring cycle The Beatles undertook in the wake of overwhelming international success.
Ostensibly, Eight Days a Week is about “the touring years” of The Beatles, from the start of their fame in late 1962 to their final live touring appearance at Candlestick Park in 1966. As focused of a subject that might be, it’s a bit disingenuous; between 1962 and 1966, almost their entire career was dedicated to touring and live performance. At this point, this is a well-known history: successful British pop band becomes a regional success, then a European one; their arrival in America in February 1964 propels them to superstardom, the likes of which had never been seen before and has rarely been seen since.
As a result, it’s not surprising that the band’s life revolved around touring. Songs were written in hotel rooms and backstage and then recorded in spurts; two days here, a week there. Even their first feature film, A Hard Day’s Night, was little more than an extension of their life on the road—running from fans, recording television appearance, in between trying to find a moment’s of peace and relaxation—resulting in a picture that felt more like a documentary than a movie. Their second film, Help, was an absurd comedy that’s quite hokey, and its creation in exotic locations—the Bahamas, Switzerland—was done in part to give the band a rare break from their relentless touring.
While watching Eight Days A Week, as time passes you’ll notice a distinctive change in the Fab Four. You’ll notice that they go from bewildered and amazed young who are enjoying themselves in 1963 and 1964 to cynical, bemused fellows who have grown annoyed and bored by the mind-numbing monotony of life on the road. No wonder, then, that by 1965 they were regularly ensconced in marijuana smoke. Their performances become rote, dull, and it’s obvious they’re not enjoying themselves. The smiles are forced, and at times—such as in their appearance at Shea Stadium—you can clearly Lennon snapping. Superficially he seems enthusiastic, but it doesn’t take much insight to realize that he’d hit the breaking point, and his maniacal performance is difficult to watch.
It’s not surprising, then, that an extended break from touring and recording in the beginning of 1966 resulted in the band coming out of it with absolutely no desire to go back on tour. Their music was growing more complex and delicate, almost impossible to satisfactorily replicate on stage. Not that it mattered; nobody could hear them as they played, and they couldn’t hear each other—Ringo even admitting that he had to watch the others’ physical movements to keep up with them. Several of the songs in the setlist were barely two years old, yet to the band, they seemed a lifetime away. The Beatles came to realize that touring no longer represented who they were as artists, the dichotomy no longer sensible.
Fortuitously, the cosmos agreed and made life difficult for the band. Their tours were met with controversy; their Asian tour started off with a performance in Tokyo at the Budokan, a sumo wrestling hall that was seen as sacred to the older generation, and the band’s appearance there was met with large-scale protests from traditionalists. It got worse when they arrived in the Philippines; manager Brian Epstein declined an invitation to meet with Imelda Marcos, which resulted in the band’s lives being put in very real danger.
Escaping to America might have once meant refuge, but thanks to an interview Lennon had done earlier in the year wherein he proclaimed that the Beatles were bigger than Jesus, they were met with protests, demonstrations, declining ticket sale, threats of violence and, for the first time, a hostile media. (Heck, one could say even God was angry, as their tour dates were plagued with unusually heavy rainstorms.) At the Chicago apology press conference where he apologizes for his remarks, Lennon’s disgust is palpable; he’s torn between holding his tongue and lashing out with the full force of three years’ worth of pressure. He’s mindful, but the point is made: he is not happy. (Worth noting is that for that fateful final tour, very little quality, professionally made footage exists; it’s as if they knew they were entering into a fateful, unpleasant voyage and did not want to create any lasting memories of it.)
But what really happened in that fateful year of 1966 was the scenario they had been constantly asked about since 1964: what’s going to happen when the bubble bursts. They now had their answer—they’d simply continue on and become one of the most innovative studio bands of the era, all while growing apart musically and personally. No one really imagined The Beatles lasting forever; they accomplished much in the relatively brief span of seven years. Eight Days A Week tells the first part of that story, and while it’s not particularly revelatory—the insistence that this is an unknown/untold story is a selling point not based in reality, as this story is amazingly well-documented—it is excellently crafted, telling a well-told story in a fresh way that makes for an enjoyable viewing experience.
I have read about that gruelling tour schedule many times, it is not a sustainable life style and I often use them as an example of what it takes to be a tight band. Even in the early days they played that circuit with up to 3 shows at varying locations in one day/night every night of the week! (8 Days a Week)…long sets… and then driving all night for the next round etc. Practicing in the hotel or flat or wherever…that’s how a band get’s that good! Most modern bands trying to make it barely pull that much weight or put that much time and effort as a unit into it. All of those bands from that early scene were put to that test and it shows in the music.
While I don’t agree with a lot of what he says, I do find that Malcolm Gladwell’s theory that in order to become “good” you have to do something over and over and over again, and his using the Beatles’ Hamburg and Cavern Club era as the proof of his theory is a correct one. You can’t do something that grueling and demanding and not become masterful.