It may seem like a lofty claim that they birthed the entire music-video format, a consequential artistic medium, by accident. But by June 5, 1966, the date these charmingly unpretentious visuals premiered on The Ed Sullivan Show, the Fab Four had already scrambled around the DNA of popular music several times. Why not also remake TV in their own image?
Their light-bulb moment for the video concept arrived through a combo of necessity, frustration and (arguably) laziness.
“The idea of making promotional films for ‘Paperback Writer’ and ‘Rain’ was that we didn’t have to go out,” Ringo Starr said in Anthology. “We felt it was a great idea to send the film out there.”
“The mania made it pretty difficult to get around,” Harrison added, “and out of convenience, we decided we were not going to go into the TV studios to promote our records so much because it was too much of a hassle. We thought we’d go and make our own little films and put them on TV.”
Their goal was to utilize these film counterparts as touring proxies – one more nudge to get them off the road, ending the Beatlemania cycle of screaming fans, controversies and hotel-room isolation. These two songs, recorded during the Revolver sessions but issued as a stand-alone single in late May, gave them the perfect vehicle.
“The idea was that we’d use them in America as well as the U.K. because we thought, ‘We can’t go everywhere. We’re stopping touring, and we’ll send these films out to promote the record,'” Harrison added. “It was too much trouble to go and fight our way through all the screaming hordes of people to mime the latest single on [British TV program] Ready Steady Go! Also, in America, they never saw the footage anyway.”
Watch the Beatles’ ‘Paperback Writer’ Video
So the quartet recruited director Michael Lindsay-Hogg, with whom they’d worked on Ready Steady Go!, to helm their new adventure. According to Beatles Bible, they assembled a two-day shoot (May 19 at Abbey Road’s Studio One, May 20 on the lavish grounds of London’s Chiswick House), resulting in seven total clips.
The first two filmed were reportedly the color versions of both songs, later debuted on Sullivan with a pre-filmed Beatles greeting. (Black and white versions were unveiled in the U.K.) Variations and outtakes still float around on YouTube, but the Beatles account released two — one color version of “Paperback Writer,” one black and white “Rain” — in December 2017, effectively making those the “official” clips for our modern era.
This “Paperback Writer” opens with the bored-looking Beatles staring off in the distance; then the camera reveals their rather ordinary setting: a greenhouse and garden. It’s unclear why they initially look so sad — Starr, in particular, looks supremely bummed out, like a child whose ice cream cone just melted. (Maybe it’s because they didn’t bring along his drum set, so he’s left to sit in silence.) But the vibe lightens up from there: John Lennon and Paul McCartney have the giggles at various points, and Harrison joins the silliness while miming their high-pitched backing vocals. The comedic peak: when they all take turns dramatically removing their sunglasses, CSI: Miami style.
“Rain” is a contrast in every way: no color, less editing, way more smiles. Lennon looks eternally cool in his indoor sunglasses — but not too cool to flash a series of enormous, goofy grins. He’s really into this performance, mouthing the reversed vocal gibberish toward the end. (Not even the intense studio lights – check out that sweat trickling down his cheek at the 1:40 mark — appear to break his stride.) McCartney doesn’t appear embarrassed by his chipped tooth or scarred top lip (the result of a moped accident the prior December), boyishly glancing at the camera as he grooves on his Hofner bass.
Watch the Beatles’ ‘Rain’ Video
(Speaking of his dental situation, McCartney detailed that ordeal to New Musical Express. “It was quite a serious accident at the time,” he said. “It probably sounds daft, having a serious accident on a motorized bicycle, but I came off it hard and I got knocked about a bit. My head and lip were cut and I broke the tooth. … I was only doing about 30 at the time, but it was dark and I hit a stone and went flyin’ through the air. It was my fault … it was a nice night, and I was looking at the moon.”)
Who knows if the videos really helped — as you might know, the Beatles were already kind of a big deal in 1966. Regardless, the “Paperback Writer” / “Rain” single hit No. 1 in the U.S., U.K. and, well, almost everywhere else. For Harrison, the inadvertent innovation wasn’t even the biggest thrill of the project. (They went on to film more visually interesting pieces for songs like “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane.”) The real delight was striking a stressful item off their collective agenda.
“Once we actually went on an Ed Sullivan show with just a clip,” he said in Anthology. “It was great because really we conned the Sullivan show into promoting our new single by sending in the film clip. These days obviously everybody does that — it’s part of the promotion for a single.”
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