Eight Days a Week is the story of The Beatles’ last world tour, through the eyes and lenses of Robert Whitaker, then staff photographer with Brian Epstein’s NEMS Enterprises. Between 23 June and 5 July 1966, the Fab Four played six concerts in Germany, avoided a typhoon by landing in Alaska by accident, played five concerts in Japan, and made a stopover in Hong Kong en route to the Philippines for the final two concerts of the tour. Manila was a frightening experience, in the words of Neil Aspinall, their road manager and personal assistant: “It put one of the last nails in The Beatles’ touring coffin”.
Whitaker’s images, and the occasional explanatory paragraphs of Marcus Hearn’s text, are concerned with John, Paul, George and Ringo as phenomena rather than musicians, and the bulk of the book provides an intimate and fascinating visual record of press conferences, plane flights, onstage performances, and how The Beatles passed their time in hotel rooms and backstage. To anyone who is a Beatles’ buff, the book is indispensable; to anyone who isn’t, it holds plenty of surprises. What comes across most strongly is the extent to which The Beatles – then at the height of their fame – were prisoners of the system in which their genius flourished. Wherever they went – Munich, Essen, Hamburg, Tokyo, and especially Manila – they were virtually under guard 24/7 or, in this case, 24/8.
There were no shopping trips, no outings to top restaurants, no sightseeing tours, no cultural visits. During the tour they endured an almost celibate existence – though John Lennon did pay at least one visit to the Reeperbahn, Hamburg’s notorious red-light district. It was a walk down Memory Lane. As a callow youth, Lennon once sang a song in a Reeperbahn club with a toilet seat round his neck. “I may have been born in Liverpool,” he once said, “but I grew up in Hamburg.” Admittedly, on this last world tour, the tight schedule allowed little time for such jaunts, but Whitaker’s probing images make it clear that, as far as the music industry was concerned, the four young men were not there to have fun but to make money.
And the camera shows just how young they were. At the time of the tour, McCartney was barely 24, Harrison was 23, Lennon and Starr were 25. Whitaker’s camera catches them off duty: playing cards with Mal Evans (The Beatles’ gofer) and Alf Bicknell (their chauffeur), trying on hats and masks, flicking through Newsweek and Modern Screen magazines, and toying with Ringo’s tape recorder to while away the hours on the long haul flights. They all knew Whitaker, who had covered earlier tours with them, and they trusted him. In return, perhaps unlike modern day paparazzi, he treated them with respect. In the book’s introduction, Whitaker writes: “When The Beatles were on tour their time was precious so I never liked asking them to pose… I tried not to get in their way, and they were happy for me to keep taking pictures because I think they realised that every day was different, and each extraordinary event was possibly unique”.
The Beatle’s own Diaghilev, Brian Epstein, is to be seen – being interviewed by journalists, watching over them in hotel rooms, dealing with local concert promoters, standing in the background at press conferences, and discussing plans and schedules. There is one tellingly revealing shot of Epstein on the plane as he and his prodigies literally take flight from Manila. Epstein is fiddling with what look like miniature plastic gates, the tension clearly visible on his face.
The book would be worth having for two series of spreads alone. One is of what may well have been an art therapy session, from which came the design for their Revolver album. Whitaker’s colour shots show them in a hotel room in Tokyo, sitting round a table, the surface of which is covered with a single sheet of paper and lit by a single table lamp. Each Beatle starts at a different corner of the paper and paints inwards towards the centre, independently of the other three. The result is a rich abstract design that owes something to Mexican art, something to Japanese, and a lot to happy childlike lack of inhibition.
The other series tells the tale in photographs of a brief journey from dressing room to the stage of the Nippon Budokan Hall, Tokyo – a venue previously reserved for martial arts. Whitaker starts with medium close-ups of them tuning and rehearsing in their dressing room, then widens out to follow them up staircases and along corridors under police escort, and on to the stage. It is, in many ways, a simple tale of four young men on their way to work, but any actor, singer, or musician who has made similar journeys might well observe that somehow or other, Whitaker has captured the flow of adrenalin that is taking place.
The concerts were brief affairs, with The Beatles getting through eleven numbers in little more than half an hour. A close-up image shows the running order pasted on to the shoulder of George Harrison’s guitar – Rock and Roll Music, She’s a Woman, If I Needed Someone, Day Tripper, Baby’s in Black, I Feel Fine, Yesterday, I Wanna Be Your Man, Nowhere Man, Paperback Writer and I’m Down – an order that they hardly changed throughout the whole tour.
The last chapter of Whitaker’s wonderful book is devoted to The Beatles’ visit to the Philippines. All looks well in the image of them on the plane heading for Manila, resplendent in their flower-power shirts, as Epstein briefs them on the timetable. But, in Whitaker’s words, “I remember feeling uncomfortable as soon as we arrived in Manila”. John, Paul, George and Ringo were whisked off in a white convertible to a luxury yacht. They became virtual prisoners of the Marcos system. A non-appearance at the Presidential Palace gave offence. Press and public turned against them. They met the professional demands made on them, sweating buckets as they did so in the hot and humid Rizal Stadium. Whitaker’s close-ups show the perspiration pouring from them.
On the way out, at the airport, they were jostled, forced to wait while Epstein posted a bond for the taxes that the authorities insisted must be paid before they took off. It was a terrifying shambles, a fearful end to The Beatles’ Final World Tour and, just six weeks later, The Beatles played their final live concert for all time, in front of 25,000 screaming fans at Candlestick Park, San Francisco.
In collaboration with Endeavour London: www.endeavourlondon.com