Brits turn against the Beatles: ‘Universe’ unveils long history of critical cynicism

It must be really hard to have been in The Beatles.  I know I have said that before, but really it must be difficult.  It was rare in their career’s that they had been heavily criticized for their work.  I think it rare that an artist is so universally praised, nearly, throughout their entire working career.  I mean, really if you look at it, almost every album, and film project has their own charms despite some missteps.

I cannot think of any other artist who has garnered as much universal acclaim.  It’s part of that legacy that we as consuming public and fans have rarely witnessed before.  The Beatles output is nearly perfect.  Yes, there are a few shaky songs, and MMT, but even that has some accalaim for it’s haphazard approach.  They rose meteorically, they peaked, and then the left us.  A true whirwind.  I cannot imagine being in the public eye as intensely as they are/were for nearly my adult life.  It must be hard to be that in demand at all times.  It has to wear on you.  But, the feeling is still kept alive.  Maybe the British press has finally had enough of reporting after and about their favorite sons?  I’m not sure.   The Beatles’ recorded legacy has very little for the press and critics to go after.  It’s near spotless as you can get.

Here’s what we’ve read.

You never forget the first time you are directly chastised by Paul McCartney.
I was recently reminded of my uncomfortable moment when I read the blisteringly negative reviews in the British press of Julie Taymor’s musical film “Across the Universe.”

Here in the U.S.A., the film has had mixed-positive response, including many raves — from such diverse sources as the New York Times, Roger Ebert and Oprah Winfrey.

But in the Beatles’ homeland (my own country of origin), the verdict was almost universally derogatory, with a lot of venom reserved for the Beatles’ utopian ideals. The film tanked at the U.K. box office, too.

How could that be? How could the nation that produced the Beatles be so negative about a film that is 133 minutes of unadulterated homage to the Fab Four’s music and philosophy?

The answer is one of those dirty little secrets that the British don’t like to reveal to the outside world. But McCartney knew it — which was why he gently rapped my knuckles a few years ago.

Back in 2002, I had produced the DVD edition of the Beatles’ “A Hard Day’s Night.” In 2004, I realized that we were coming up to the 40th anniversary of the film’s world premiere and I thought it might be nice to stage a private reunion of all the surviving cast and crew on the exact day. So I put together a little shindig in London on July 6, 2004, and invited everyone. Paul agreed to come, which made the event even more special.

At the last moment I thought that this historic cast and crew reunion ought to be witnessed by a few journalists who could document the joyous occasion. So I agreed to admit a couple of writers — but only from the upmarket “serious” papers, not the notorious British tabloids.

McCartney was in great form, meeting and greeting old pals, some of whom he hadn’t seen for many years, and the mood was jolly. Then McCartney spotted a few strangers among the crowd. His radar alerted, he discreetly took me to one side and enquired as to who they were. I explained who and why they were there.

“Not a good idea” was his verdict and, without making a scene, he made it clear that I had committed a serious faux pas. Now, McCartney is somebody I admire greatly and he’d never told me off before. But I remember thinking that this was an overreaction by him: After all, what possible harm could come of a few reporters witnessing such a wonderful event?

Paul, of course, was right, a point made brutally clear to me when a column item appeared in the Observer — a respected newspaper. Instead of the story reflecting on the warm and touching anniversary of one of the world’s most acclaimed movies, it bashed McCartney, the Beatles and this “old black-and-white film.”

No respect. No joy. Just Blue Meanie sneering. This was snide flippancy — the uninformed trailer-trash second cousin of cynicism.

When did the British media stop loving the Beatles? And why would they be so mean toward an homage such as “Across the Universe?” After all, through most of the ’60s, the Fab Four could do no wrong and enjoyed an almost universal approval in their homeland press.

And yet now, as my research revealed, there is a pervasive disdain in Britain when the topic of the Beatles is raised by those who still revere them. It is as though the Beatles are tolerated as a useful hook to fleece Americans — a cultural tourist attraction on a par with Stonehenge and Buckingham Palace. But the homeland respect for who they are and their monumental, enduring achievements is negligible.

I spoke to several pals to help me find the answer. One of the Beatles’ first publicists was the legendary Andrew Loog Oldham, who promoted them in the crucial early months of 1963 before he discovered the Rolling Stones. Oldham recalled that the Beatles burst upon the hard-bitten cynical press like a breath of fresh air.

“They were gobsmacked — they had never seen anything like it before and the press just went for it.”

So when did the British press first turn? Oldham thinks that it was when the Beatles grew more sophisticated and became leaders of the emerging counterculture. “By 1967 their use of drugs and their visual appearance showed that they were no longer playing the ‘showbiz game.’ When they were no longer making smiley faces for the nation that — as the press saw it — had paid for their Rolls-Royces and their swanky manor houses, that was a big turning point.”

Beatles biographer Mark Lewisohn concurs: “They had a very good and complimentary press until the drug-taking emerged. And then a whole series of things changed. While Paul and Ringo remained friendly and outgoing to the press, John and George crossed a divide. John had his political antics with Yoko, and George entered his ‘I don’t care about the image’ phase. … By the spring of 1969, the press was angry and out to get them.”

My mentor and dear pal, the late Derek Taylor, who repped the Beatles in 1964 and 1968-1970, had spoken to me and others shortly before his passing in 1997 of the malaise within the British body politic.

His theory was that the British media and establishment embrace of the Beatles in the 1963-1967 era was actually an aberration by a society and media that is intrinsically nihilistic and selfish, and that the exuberance of the early Beatles had led to a temporary suspension of the usual rules. It was a brief shining moment when the British forgot their Teutonic roots and embraced the positive.

“There was this zeitgeist, which they represented, which was extremely warmly disposed to the human race and to the mode of goodness. The central song is ‘All You Need Is Love.’ The constant battle is the ugly against the beautiful. And the ugly part is that which seeks to line our pockets and adorn ourselves and our lives with our own possessions, to the exclusion of our fellow man. And this is not unusual; most people have been like this for most of history, I believe. We did have a window when we believed that the world would be a much, much nicer place. It shows how starry-eyed and foolish we were. It’s tough because selfishness is such a raging instinct.”

Derek Taylor, as always, got it right.

The Beatles succeeded in Britain despite, not because of, the British media. The U.K. media toasted the Beatles while they ruled the roost internationally as cutesy-pie pop icons of Swingin’ London — but when they had the temerity to use their popularity to tackle social and political issues, the Establishment turned.

“And that’s why it’s easy for the British to ban blood sports,” explains Oldham. “They don’t need them. The British press fulfills that blood lust quite nicely.”

Source: Variety


8 Responses

  1. this is an interesting article. and part of me tells me it’s right, but then he says that
    ” We did have a window when we believed that the world would be a much, much nicer place. It shows how starry-eyed and foolish we were” , i kind of lose interest. It’s too negative, and I will always have hope for the world. I’m a big Lennon, so I believe we just have to try – and obviously, this guy isn’t.

  2. When the critics reviewed “Across the Universe” I don’t think they were dowsing on the Beatles’ ideaology as much as they were panning the film and the way it presented the music. I only needed to see a few clips to know that I didn’t want to see it – and I’m a Beatles fan! It just looked like an extremely contrite and embarassing way of setting the songs to film. When Oprah interviewed Julie Taymor on her show she exclaimed, “How DID you come up with all of these ideas?” C’mon! Any of us who love the Beatles could’ve dreamed up psychedelic images and hippies on a bus. The movie just looked plain bad – and hurt the songs’ legacy in the meantime.

  3. the movie was actually quite good. it might have been a little long, but it did the beatles legacy an honor and every person i know that has seen it has loved it, including non-beatle fans.

  4. Maybe it’s the thought that a lot of us from the Beatles generation “grew up” and realize that we can’t think peaceful thoughts and expect terror to end or hunger or hatred… Those same people who fall for the theory of peaceful thoughts solving all the world’s problems are unfortunately the same crowd spewing hatred and venom at the US president and Christians while at the same time virtually ignoring those who publically state their purpose is to kill people based on their ethnicity! Amazing…imagine all the people living life in peace folks!

  5. doesn’t matter what england thinks, we own the beatles. the fab 4 belongs to america, not england.

  6. The article is just wrong, written by someone on the other side of the world (I assume it was an American, no?) who doesn’t really know what they’re talking about.

    The British press never fell out of love with the Beatles. Yes, there was justifiable disbelief at the end of the sixties when the Beatle egos just expanded a bit too much and it all started to get a bit ugly, but the British press is still very much in love with the Fab Four because they symbolise something which is so good about their home country.

    The Beatles represent everything that is good about Britain – the artistry, the invention, the originality, the intelligence, the humour, the stylishness, the dignity and the ability to not take yourself too seriously (though obviously all four, especially John and Paul, had – and have – massive egos, and Paul’s ego seems to be still expanding…

    The reason the press don’t like the film is that it is trite and vulgar and is seen as cheapening the music. Its as bad as using the songs to promote fast food or fizzy drinks or something. The Beatles are a British institution and we don’t like them being fucked about with.

    Also the British press are like retarded adolescents with badly-split personalities, and can’t bear to see any type of authority or powerful institution with taking a pop at it.

    And veronica f. – what the fuck are you talking about girl…?

    Don’t be greedy and possessive. Remember that the Beatles released what, three? singles in the US before they had a hit, each time being told that America had no interest in them as it had plenty of its own, better, American music. The US was late to the party, and after the Boys had done America they came back home.

    Just enjoy the music.


  8. I definitely enjoyed the movie more than I thought I would, but all this talk of what England thinks of the Beatles reminds me of what I saw in Liverpool a few years back ( I’m American but was with locals and not during Beatle Week) – kids throwing rocks at the tour buses with Beatles fans, people yelling at Beatles fans to “go home” as they strolled down Matthew Street etc. Charming. But the Beatles long ago ceased to “belong” to England or America – they belong to the world.

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