On April 27th, 1976, Saturday Night Live producer Lorne Michaels appeared before the television camera, in the hopes of tempting Britain’s greatest musical export back to the live stage. “Here it is right here,” he bellowed, possessing the check that would entice the four band members back onto one stage again; “..for three thousand dollars.” The joke was strangely fitting: he was addressing four of the funniest men in the music business. The new book, Fab Fools, chronicles the comedic side of the Beatles.
Although it was their gift for melody that proved The Beatles’ most enduring popularity, their wit and clever use of wordplay endeared them to many outside of the London blues clubs and theaters. Amidst the symphonies, sitar pieces, and psychedelic soundscapes, The Beatles still found time to write a pub singalong (“Yellow Submarine”) for their 1966 watershed, Revolver. The ballad even inspired an animated film of the same name. Back To The Future director Robert Zemeckis was once slated to direct a Yellow Submarine remake; mercifully, the Blue Meanies stepped in to stop that one.
With Fab Fools, author Jem Roberts sets out to give the band their due as comedians. From their early days in Liverpool, the outfit devoured whole serials of wacky radio escapades, earmarking a stage patter that was even alien to original drummer Pete Best. Who can forget Lennon’s call for the posh set to “rattle their jewelry” at the Royal Variety Performance in ’63?
As for the albums they recorded between 1963 to 1969, the group posits themselves as the missing anarchic link between Spike Milligan’s writings on The Goon Show, and the satire of The Frost Report.
It was Ringo Starr, after leading the band across the snowy terrains in Help!, who came closest to a career in comedy, at least in the solo years. Then again, The Beatles held no shortage of jokers, what with John Lennon’s penchant for a quip, George Harrison’s collaborations with Monty Python, and Paul McCartney’s knack for a jocular rocker ( “Drive My Car,” “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” “Teddy Boy,” etc). Each and every one of the band lit the world up with their wicked sense of humor, much as they did with their incredible catalog of music.
Really, it was their countercultural wit that stood out during A Hard Day’s Night. Drenched in black and white, the picture proved a smash, and The Beatles returned to the cinema in 1965, this time in crisp, kaleidoscopic strokes.
Richard Lester oversaw the first two features, but by 1967, McCartney (very much a pin-up in the eyes of the British press) felt brave enough to direct the band’s most iconoclastic vehicle. Magical Mystery Tour was a sonic masterwork and one that won the hearts of Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese for expressing creative risk and propelled both men to create some of the most daring films of the seventies. Situated among the rudimentary television facilities that serviced most of the houses in Britain, the palette that McCartney had painstakingly applied with tremendous rigor was lost in the process. Undeterred, the bassist continued to champion it as one of the season’s more engaging spectacles: “You could hardly call the Queen’s speech a gasser.”
The band’s legacy was ripe for parody, and indeed they were by The Rutles. In Fab Fools, comedian Kevin Eldon pens a wonderfully silly foreword, before paying tribute to the recently deceased Neil Innes. Innes spoke to Roberts’ candidly about the band’s influence on his whimsical output, and in 1968, the pianist worked closely with McCartney on the jaunty “I’m The Urban Spaceman.” His longest-standing friendship was with Harrison, but he was also well-liked by Lennon, who hailed Innes’ near-perfect impression of him. Cautioning Innes to the similarities between “Get Back” and “Get Up and Go,” Lennon nonetheless enjoyed All You Need Is Cash, as did Yoko Ono. Escaping the British presses’ portrait of Ono as an emblem of evil, the film’s depiction of Ono as Hitler’s love child was one they responded well to.
The drummer, who had worked with John Cleese and Peter Sellers on The Magic Christian, was now more than happy to set himself up in front of the cameras, and his turn in Sextette -a spectacle that boasts Mae West, Dom DeLuise, Timothy Dalton, and fellow percussionist, Keith Moon-demonstrated his impeccable flair for timbre, texture, and timing (that joke’s on me!)
Best of all, Blackadder/Notting Hill writer Richard Curtis emboldened the band’s work with a comedy of his own. Directed by Danny Boyle, the 2019 film Yesterday posited a world where The Beatles never existed, illustrating a fantasy even more inexplicable than the Liverpool quartet’s tremendous rise to the “topular of the populars.” But thankfully we do live in a time where The Beatles egged the world on, just as we’re lucky to have Fab Fools, the most original rock book in years.
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