The Beatles and the Birth of the Music Video
Created | Updated Jan 19, 2012
The invention of the pop promotional film - or 'video' - is normally accredited to 1970s rockers Queen, who, in November 1975, found they were unable to appear on BBC TV's Top Of The Pops due to tour commitments. Their solution to the problem was to spend two days and under £4,000 on recording a video for their latest single, 'Bohemian Rhapsody' to be shown in their place. It was a decision that inspired many other acts to do the same and by the early 1980s there were (just) enough videos available to sustain an entire TV channel - MTV.
But Queen were not the first band to do this. To attain that accolade they would have had to travel back in time over a decade...
The Beatles were always at the forefront of the technology of music. The same group that pioneered backward loops1, the sitar2, and feedback3 can also be said to have invented the music video.
The First Batch
Having achieved worldwide fame by 1965, The Beatles found it physically impossible to appear on every music television show throughout the world to promote their singles. They also no longer wished to, finding live TV appearances4, in fact live performances in general, to be repetitive and mundane, interfering with the creativity and freedom they found with studio recordings.
Therefore, on 23 November, 1965, they made a series of promotional films specifically designed to be broadcast by television companies throughout the world. Videos of 'We Can Work It Out', 'Day Tripper', 'Help!', 'Ticket To Ride' and 'I Feel Fine' were filmed. Less sophisticated than the segments that appeared in the film Help, they nevertheless managed to capture the energy and sense of humour that the Beatles were famous for.
On 19 - 20 May, 1966, the group filmed further promotional films for 'Paperback Writer' and 'Rain'. These sessions are famed for Paul McCartney appearing with a chipped tooth as a result of a moped accident, adding fuel to the 'death clues' hysteria at the time. Each video was assembled in both colour and black-and-white edits, as while America had been enjoying colour TV since the late 1950s, most European channels were still in the very early stages of colour broadcasts (Britain's first colour broadcast came with BBC2's transmission of the 1967 Wimbledon tournament).
The director for this first batch of films was Michael Lindsay-Hogg, who was invited back to help the boys with their films to promote both 'Hey Jude' and 'Revolution'; these promos were filmed on 4 September, 1968. Lindsay-Hogg later kickstarted the project that evolved into the Let It Be feature film. Several different takes of both 'Paperback Writer' and 'Rain' were filmed in order to give different versions to rival broadcasters, who could then boast of having Beatles 'exclusives'.
I'm Looking Through You
1967 marked a real breakthrough in the evolution of the music video with the film promos for 'Strawberry Fields Forever' and 'Penny Lane'. Filmed on 30 - 31 January, 1967, the Beatles recorded a single video for each song and, for the first time, both videos were created without any pretence of performing, allowing the feel of the songs to storyboard the action and give the boys a chance to play the fool in front of the camera. Surprisingly, for songs that are about real locations in Liverpool, these videos were actually filmed in and around Knole Park, an estate owned by the National Trust, near Sevenoaks in Kent (the tree featured prominently in the 'Strawberry Fields Forever' video being behind the park's birdhouse). The feel of the films is much more sophisticated than the earlier efforts, with some impressively artistic cinematography (particularly on 'Penny Lane', where the setting sun creates some rather beautiful images).
The director of these videos was Peter Foldmann, a Swedish friend of Klaus Voormann, who the Beatles had known since their time in Hamburg in 1960. Voormann's then-girlfriend Astrid Kirchherr became very close to the 'fifth Beatle' Stuart Sutcliffe and created the famed 'mop top' Beatles hairstyle. Voormann himself not only designed the Beatles Revolver album cover, but also played bass with the band Manfred Mann. He later played bass with John on a number of recordings, including every track of the Imagine album, and on albums from other Beatles, such as George's outstanding All Things Must Pass and Ringo's self-titled 1973 release Ringo (the closest thing to a 'Beatles' record after the split until 'Free As A Bird'). Klaus Voorman also designed the Beatles Anthology album covers, which used an intricate collage effect to tell the Beatles story across three interlocking designs.
Arguably the most fun Beatles music video was their last - the one for 'Hello, Goodbye', which was filmed on 10 November, 1967, at the Saville Theatre, London, and directed by Paul McCartney himself.
Too Big for the Small Screen?
Like Elvis Presley and Cliff Richard, the Beatles flirted with the idea of being filmstars. In A Hard Day's Night and Help, they ostensibly gave viewers an insight into the life of the band, interrupted by fairly loose plots, where noted comedy performers acted around them. Let it Be was more of a behind-the-scenes documentary while 1968's Yellow Submarine was an animated adventure in which the bandmembers' voices were impersonated by actors (the boys themselves only appeared in a short clip at the end of the film). But the culmination of the Beatles' small-screen work came in 1967 with The Magical Mystery Tour; this was the closest thing to a feature-length music video. Combining the very loose plotting of their first films with the anarchic randomness of their short promos, it was broadcast on Boxing Day, a rare treat for the band's eager fans. Sadly, it bombed. Ripped to shreds by the critics, it was unfairly viewed by many as a self-undulgent mess, bringing an unsatisfactory end to the Beatles' TV work.