Roger Marsh Composer


Richard Curtis’s latest formulaic rom-com Yesterday is totally ridiculous.  Yes, I’ve watched all the others, despite my better judgement, and even by Nativity standards this one is awful. Great cast, as usual, and some great fun moments, but completely stupid. Why am I giving it a second thought?  Because I found it strangely moving and thought provoking.

It’s a very simple premise (no spoilers here; the trailers tell you this much): a failing singer-song writer has a biking accident at exactly the moment the world suffers a brief mysterious global blackout.  When the world resets everything is exactly the same with a few remarkable exceptions, one of which is that no-one has heard of the Beatles.  They never existed.  But Jake, when he has recovered, still remembers all the songs and most of the lyrics too. Obviously that’s a talent to be exploited; and that’s what happens.  That’s really all there is to it, outside the tedious love story centred on two young people who, as usual, can’t tell each other how they feel and stare at each other tongue-tied for minutes on end before walking away frustrated.  You know how it will end.

So why ‘moving’? And why ‘thought provoking’?

The first time Jake realizes he has a unique skill, is when he plays the song Yesterday to a small group of friends.  They sit listening in complete amazement at the beauty and originality of the song.  I’m afraid at that point my eyes welled up, because I can remember exactly that response when I first heard that song. The scene brought back to me the sense of wonder I felt as a teenager every time a new Beatles song was aired.  Every new single and every new LP, was awaited for weeks in the certain knowledge that something  remarkable was about to be launched on the world. I remember being in a roadside café (transport caff) on the Great North Road in the Scottish Borders in 1965, during a hitch-hiking journey back from Scotland to London. It was the day after the release of the single Help and I was desperate to hear it.  My friends and I found it was already on the juke-box, and we used up all our remaining money playing it over and over again, trying to work it out so we could play it when we got home.   We still had the band in 1967 when Strawberry Fields Forever appeared.  Imagine hearing that song for the first time, in the context of 1967.  Imagine it. The whole sound-world simply made you fall off your chair.  So original was it, that a week later the music critic Hans Keller and a music professor called Wilfrid Mellers (who would be my professor a year later, it turned out) were called into the TV studios to explain it.  But of course they couldn’t, not really.  You can’t explain that kind of originality.  My own over-riding response to songs like Strawberry Fields was ‘where did that come from’?  It’s still my response, every time I hear the Beach Boys Wouldn’t it be nice or Good Vibrations, for example.

I’m a (retired) music professor now, and I should be able to explain things like this; and of course I can explain precedent, and use of harmony, and aspects of arrangement and recording and all those things which can be explained.  But there is always something more, something simply inexplicable.  Something which Paul McCartney and John Lennon had, something which Brian Wilson had too, which neither they nor I can explain. It’s not something they learned, they just had it.  And the thing is, Curtis’s stupid film reminded me how privileged I was to live through the excitement of hearing their songs with ears that could not be prepared for their brilliance. I can’t now imagine a world without the Beatles.

Roger Marsh 9/7/21