Imagine there’s no Beatles. It’s easy if you try.

Beatlemania: The band has more number one albums than any other artist in Britain.

How would the world have looked without the Fab Four? That is the question posed by Richard Curtis’s new film, Yesterday. Pop, protest and the sexual revolution might have been very different.

When you hear Beatles, you immediately think insects. Oasis is just “an isolated area of vegetation in a desert”. Meanwhile, Coldplay’s Fix You is considered one of the greatest songs ever written. And cigarettes? Never heard of them.

This is the alternate universe imagined in the new film Yesterday, out in cinemas today. It is about a British songwriter called Jack Malik who wakes up and realises that he is the only person who remembers the 1960s’ Liverpool band, The Beatles.

So, naturally, Jack steals their songs and becomes an international pop sensation — with a little help from his friend Ed Sheeran, who advises Jack: “Song title: Hey Dude.”

The film is written by Richard Curtis (of Notting Hill and Love Actually fame), and directed by Danny Boyle (the man behind Slumdog Millionaire and both Trainspotting films).

But, music aside, the fictional world of Yesterday is not so different from our own. Curtis says he preferred to focus on a love story, rather than on how The Beatles “probably changed our whole culture”.

Would history really have been the same without the world’s biggest boy band?

Certainly, pop music would have sounded different. “Their albums tied together the various strands of 60s’ pop,” writes The Guardian’s music critic Alexis Petridis. Bob Dylan’s lyricism; pop psychedelics; African-American rock ’n’ roll: these styles would have remained disparate and scattered, rather than coalescing into a “world-shaking force”.

Music journalist Peter Doggett suggests that music would not have played such a big role in teenage rebellions in later decades. Instead of punk or rap music, he imagines a world where “the real rebellions are elsewhere – in fashion, art, folk music and poetry – and none of them impinge on pop”.

In 1968, The Beatles travelled to India and took up yoga and meditation. Without the group’s interest in these Eastern practices, they may never have crossed over into mainstream Western culture.

Lady Gaga has even credited The Beatles with “the birth of the sexual revolution”. Would millions of young women have thrown off old ideas about sex had they not been so captivated by four, handsome lads from Liverpool?

Times of trouble?

The real question is: can one person (or four people) change the course of history? It was certainly magical when two of the world’s greatest songwriters collaborated: John Lennon’s out-of-the-box creativity coupled with Paul McCartney’s focus on detail produced music that was unique and unequalled.

But history is long and winding, and all of us play a part in building culture. The anti-war movement, the sexual revolution, the influence of psychedelic drugs: all these events shaped the 1960s — and the decades that followed — with or without The Beatles. They just happened to sound a little different.

You Decide

  1. Were The Beatles the best band in the world?
  2. Can one or two people change the course of history?

Activities

  1. Write your own song inspired The Beatles.
  2. Write a timeline of the 1960s, including the key historical and musical events.

Some People Say...

“Peace is not something you wish for: it’s something you make, something you do, something you are, and something you give away.”

John Lennon, singer-songwriter and co-founder of The Beatles (1940-1980)

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
John Lennon and Paul McCartney met in Liverpool in 1957. They were joined by George Harrison, the next year, and drummer Ringo Starr in 1962. This was the same year that the band’s “fifth member”, producer George Martin, signed the band to the record label EMI. They released their first hit single, “Love Me Do”, in October 1962. They split up in 1970 after achieving worldwide fame.
What do we not know?
What the world actually would have been like without them. They influenced the music and culture of the 1960s, which was itself one of the most influential decades of the 20th century. But while they certainly transformed pop music (making it cooler and more experimental than before), it is hard to say whether the broader cultural changes would have happened without them.

Word Watch

Ed Sheeran
The singer is friends with Richard Curtis (they both live in Sussex). This is his first major acting role, although he is still mostly playing himself.
Hey Dude
A word play on The Beatles’s hit, Hey Jude.
Biggest
They are officially the best-selling band in history, with over 800 million albums sold worldwide.
Bob Dylan
A folk singer who was rising to fame before The Beatles came on the scene. His songs were often routed in protest, and he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016.
Psychedelics
Mind-altering drugs, like LSD, which can induce hallucinations. They had a major influence on the art and music of the 1960s.
Rock ’n’ roll
With its roots in the blues, rock ’n’ roll was pioneered by black Americans like Little Richard and Chuck Berry. The Beatles covered several songs by black artists, including Baby It’s You and Twist and Shout.
Cigarettes
The Beatles were all regular smokers, often photographed and filmed with cigarettes. However, it is a stretch for the film to suggest that they were solely responsible for the popularity of smoking.

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