Last night I was thinking about the 1987 television programme, It Was Twenty Years Ago Today, shown on ITV 20 years and a few days after the release of Sgt Pepper. I video-taped it and must have watched it many times in the autumn of that year, after I’d been to West Berlin for three months with my university friend Caroline and her sister Sharon.
It was a feature-length documentary, in which Allen Ginsberg – by then distinguished, with his beard neatly-trimmed and wearing a jacket and tie – appraised, with his trademark enthusiasm, every track on the album. His verdicts were intercut with interviews with: McCartney, doing his revisionist utmost to play down the impact of LSD on the Fab Four’s output; a typically much more honest Harrison; and many leading counter-cultural figures, like Timothy Leary, Abbie Hoffman, Paul Kantner and Michelle Phillips. Perhaps the most vivid testimony was provided by the Beatles’ publicist Derek Taylor, who could still scarcely believe his luck that he had ended up at the epicentre of a cultural revolution, and the actor–activist–writer Peter Coyote, who remained unapologetically committed to the radical politics he’d espoused two decades before. The most memorable moments come when composer and musicologist Wilfred Mellers heaps high praise on ‘She’s Leaving Home’.
The film can’t be bettered as a celebration and overview of why the Beatles’ music mattered; how it rivalled, influenced and was influenced by theoutput of the Byrds and then the Beach Boys; and how it fitted in with and influenced the broader Western, especially American, culture, happenings and be-ins of its era. What it largely didn’t do, though, is examine the more peculiarly British Psychedelic aspects of the music. You could argue that the Beatles hit their peak of those aspects, and possibly per se, on 1966’s Revolver, the album immediately preceding Sgt Pepper; and that the latter, for all the indisputable virtues which the programme articulated, was an overblown self-parody to a degree.
Anyhow, Ginsberg talking about the Beatles reminds me that he wrote a poem – ‘Portland Coliseum’ – about one of their gigs, which took place on 27 August 1965, and which he included in his 1968 collection, Planet News (the title of which Dylan’s 1974 album Planet Waves must deliberately echo).
It’s in Ginsberg’s customary Whitmanesque/Blakean rhapsodic tones:
A single whistling sound of
ten thousand children’s
pierce the ears
and flowing up the belly
bliss the moment arrived
Apparition, four brown English
jacket christhair boys
Goofed Ringo battling bright
Silent George hair patient
Short black-skulled Paul
wit thin guitar
Lennon the captain, his mouth
a triangular smile,
all jump together to End
some tearful memory song
ancient two years
And so on. Those last two lines quoted are Ginsberg at his perceptive best: so often the Beatles’ songs concerned nostalgia and they moved on so quickly in their progression as musicians that their songs took on a timeless, ‘ancient’ spirit as soon as they became known. The description of Harrison, the band’s deep thinker, as a ‘soul horse’. seems right too Lennon had long since given way to McCartney as ‘the captain’ by the time Planet News was published, as Ian MacDonald approvingly noted in his indispensable Revolution in the Head. In this recording of ‘Portland Coliseum’, Ginsberg adds words here and there (though not everywhere), and a whole new line towards the end. As a witness to the Beatles’ power, the poem captures their pre-acid pomp with a kaleidoscopic clarity.
Ginsberg had less convincingly referred to the Beatles in a previous poem, ‘Who Be Kind To’, from earlier that same summer: ‘the boom bom that bounces in the joyful/ bowels as the Liverpool Minstrels of/ CavernSink’.
Strangely, though, Ginsberg for all his avant-garde and leftish leanings seems to have written no poems which addressed the oppression of Afro-Americans. The gig in Portland was just 11 days after the Watts riots in LA, a thousand miles south along the Pacific coast. (As I write, LA, like many cities in America has just woken up after its fourth consecutive night of protest as a result of yet more Black people being murdered by the forces of law and order.) Similarly, the film barely contains any context about the battle for Civil Rights. For all that, though, it’s still a charming and entertaining piece of television, oddly eccentric in places. Amazingly, I still have the tape, though no machine to play it on.