Bootlegged Beatles tapes began floating around the Soviet Union in the mid-1960s, but when a group of students gathered on Red Square to celebrate May Day 1967 by dancing the Twist, Khrushchev called the militsiya out to disperse them. Only in the 1970s did the Soviet establishment grudgingly recognise rock and roll as anything more than a ‘cacophony of sounds’. Under Communism, Russian rock bands were forced into two categories: ‘official’ groups, who registered with the Ministry of Culture and were ‘urged to write and perform songs on topics such as space heroes or economic achievement’, and unrecognised ‘amateurs’ who were scorned, scolded and threatened with jail for social parasitism.
My father, Alan Smyth, was a viola player. When I was young, in the 1980s, he mentioned a couple of times that he’d played with the Beatles. He wasn’t very interested in them; growing up, I wasn’t either. Years later, now that I’ve become very interested in them, I think often about his casual aside. My dad died in 2002. In early 2020 I made contact with his musician friends to ask if they had any memories of his playing with the Beatles. John Underwood, the viola player in the Delmé String Quartet, played on ‘Eleanor Rigby’ in April 1966, on ‘A Day in the Life’ in February 1967, and on ‘She’s Leaving Home’ in March 1967. John said my father didn’t play on these songs, and he couldn’t remember if he played on others.
I'd heard there was 'nothing new' in Ron Howard's Beatles movie, and in the grand scheme of things this turned out to be true, though there's new concert footage and excellent bits with the fans. (Among other things, you'll see a tweenage Sigourney Weaver, up in the nosebleed seats at the Hollywood Bowl.) But forty-five minutes into the film, there's a striking set piece.