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Exploring the Confounding Implications of ‘Yesterday’

Danny Boyle’s newest movie asks, “What if only one person in the world knew about the Beatles?” And well, that question is extremely loaded.

Universal Pictures/Ringer illustration

On Tuesday, the first trailer for Danny Boyle’s next movie, Yesterday, was released. The gist of the film is this: What if a cataclysmic event resulted in all but one person forgetting that the Beatles existed? It’s a pretty simple premise—if you only think about it for approximately five seconds. And the Ringer staff has been thinking about it for approximately 168,120 seconds—basically since the trailer came out.


What would the actual reaction be to the Beatles’ music if it first came out in 2019?

Katie Baker: I’m going to answer your question with a question: What would the actual reaction be to the Beatles’ music if it first came out in 2019 through the conduit of Lana Del Rey? Think about it.

Claire McNear: I think it would still be a sensation. Maybe not nouveau Beatlemania, which seems to be the implication of the Yesterday trailer—classic rock or regular rock or however that music would be defined in a Beatles-less world just isn’t the most popular genre of music in the world in 2019, so I don’t think you’d get One Direction–style mobs. Probably not anything close! But I think there is still a place for rock-as-pop-music these days; see: Fleet, Greta Van. (Van Fleet, Greta?) Also, a jam is still a jam, and the Beatles catalog, you might not be shocked to read, contains plenty.

Andrew Gruttadaro: “Jack Malik has loads of talent as a songwriter, but none of the edge of Imagine Dragons.” —Rolling Stone

Michael Baumann: “Wow, the guys from Fountains of Wayne sure are doing a lot more drugs than when Welcome Interstate Managers came out!”

Ben Lindbergh: I don’t care what year it is—the Beatles had bars. If Greta Van Fleet can get famous for sounding like Led Zeppelin, someone with the keys to the Beatles catalog could make their mark by sounding like a superior synthesis of Badfinger, Big Star, ELO, XTC, and Oasis. Without the confluence of factors that made the Beatles iconic—including the rock-centric ’60s counterculture, a reputation for pioneering recordings, and a probably unreproducible array of appealing personalities—whoever released the secret covers in 2019 wouldn’t be Beatlemania big. But a charismatic and competent performer with a smart marketing strategy could easily leverage exclusive access to a massive musical treasure trove into a more modest phenomenon. Even as anachronisms, the songs are still that good.

Rob Harvilla: “Charming but derivative whimsy that evokes Ed Sheeran at his brightest, but also the Monkees at their stuffiest. The drummer sounds like a narc. 6.2.”

What is the farthest-reaching consequence of the erasure of the Beatles?

Harvilla: The giant hole in the infant-clothes economy created by the absence of the classic Beatles onesie purchased by every single baby ever born’s coolest uncle.

Baker: Kate Hudson would play a groupie named Peggy Sue; the Baby-Sitters Club canon would not include Dawn singing “the girl with colitis goes by.”

Kate Knibbs: Not to be dark, but a lot of people would not have died the way they did, and a lot of other people would not have ever been born. I’m sure Charles Manson would’ve still led a murderous cult, but would they have murdered in quite the same way? Who knows; maybe Sharon Tate would still be alive. And no Beatles probably doesn’t mean John Lennon would probably be some old bloke—but I doubt he would’ve married Yoko Ono, so no Sean Lennon.

McNear: I’m partial to the Manson murders question. But there are a lot of sillier ones, too—for instance, what would sixth grade social studies have been like if Lucy had merely been specimen no. 9871291?

Baumann: No Beatles means no Britpop, which means no Blur, which means no “Song 2,” which causes air guitar to disappear as an art form.

Gruttadaro: OK, so: If Paul McCartney doesn’t exist, that means he never makes “The Girl Is Mine” with Michael Jackson in 1982, which means a couple more things. One, that the world never gets to hear him play-fight over a girl (“She told me I was her forever lover, don’t you remember?” says Sir Paul McCartney). But more importantly, if that song never gets made, then Brandy and Monica never remake it with “The Boy Is Mine” in 1998. And maybe Brandy still would’ve reached a high level of fame without that no. 1 hit, but probably not, which means she wouldn’t have been famous enough for her younger brother, Ray J, to ride her coattails. And if Ray J never gets famous, we never get “Sexy Can I.” We never get “Danger smashed the homie.” We never get the Ray J moving hat meme. And ladies and gentlemen, if Ray J never gets famous, he never dates—and makes a sex tape with—Kim Kardashian. And you know what happens if Kim Kardashian never makes a sex tape. It seems obvious to say that the erasure of the Beatles would deeply change the landscape of pop culture, but seriously: The Kardashians maybe don’t exist without the Beatles.

Lindbergh: Without the Beatles, we wouldn’t have the cinematic classic Yesterday, a consequence almost too terrible to contemplate.

What unanswerable question about Yesterday is currently keeping you up at night?

Gruttadaro: Is Brexit happening in this universe?

McNear: Uh, what are Paul and Ringo up to in this world? Or, for that matter, John Lennon, who presumably would not have been assassinated by a deranged fan had he remained an anonymous Liverpudlian? (I am looking for a way to place money on the movie’s “we have to go back” moment coming when Yesterday’s hero seeks out modern-day Ringo—there’s a Ringo Starr on the IMDb page, ahem—and is overcome by guilt for taking credit for the Beatles’ work. Please let me know if you would like to take this bet; thank you.)

Lindbergh: More than alternate timelines or what a world without the Beatles would look like, here’s what I wonder about: In this scenario, how long would it take me to convince myself that I actually was a musical genius who wrote every Beatles song? After all, when you think about it, which is more likely: That all evidence and collective recollection of the biggest band ever disappeared in an instant, leaving me as the world’s only witness, or that I’m laboring under a delusion and merely imagining that the Beatles existed?

It’s clearly the latter, in which case the only logical explanation is that my subconscious mind actually composed hundreds of songs and, as part of that miracle of creation, also implanted false memories of a fictitious Fab Four. Once I reached that conclusion, I’d embrace my identity as a genius with the world’s most fecund musical mind, after which I wouldn’t feel any qualms about passing off someone else’s songs as my own.

Baumann: How do Coldplay and Ed Sheeran exist in a world in which the Beatles didn’t exist? Did some other band fill that hole in this timeline? Like, did Julie Taymor write and direct a jukebox musical about the Zombies after Jack gets hit by a car?

Harvilla: Will Mr. Dude have to develop and reconcile separate John/Paul/George/Ringo personas to channel the entire band single-handedly, and will this result in a Split-style multiple-personality supervillain situation?

Knibbs: I don’t know about unanswerable, since I think the screenwriters really should be able to answer all of these if they so desire, but I have a million answerable questions I want to ask. I will narrow it down to eight:

  1. Is John alive?
  2. Did Eric Clapton write “Layla” in this universe, and if so, what was his inspiration?
  3. Did Rihanna and Kanye record “FourFiveSeconds” with some other aging rocker?
  4. Are the Rolling Stones more or less popular in the Yesterday universe?
  5. Is meditation more or less popular in the Yesterday universe?
  6. Who was the conductor on Shining Time Station in this universe?
  7. Oasis isn’t famous, right?
  8. If the main character of Yesterday has entered into another dimension, does that mean that there are other dimensions in which everything’s the same but one enormously popular cultural entity has disappeared? For example, in the universe of Yesterday, does a dimension exist where everything is the same but there’s no Sopranos?

Baker: What song would Dr. Susan Lewis sing to her sister to soothe her during childbirth in the penultimate episode of Season 1 of ER?!

Assemble a 10-track album of Beatles songs to garner the most commercial success, then briefly defend your decisions.

Harvilla:

  1. “Revolution 9”
  2. “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road?”
  3. “Blue Jay Way”
  4. “You Know My Name (Look Up the Number)”
  5. “Yellow Submarine”
  6. “Mr. Moonlight”
  7. “Wild Honey Pie”
  8. “Komm, Gib Mir Deine Hand”
  9. “Carnival of Light”
  10. “Piggies”

A seminal noise-rock underground sensation that tops the charts thanks to its boffo SoundCloud numbers alone, as it is only available for physical purchase on cassette at basement shows even the youngest Ringer employee is too old to attend.

Lindbergh:

  1. “Get Back”
  2. “Help!”
  3. “In My Life”
  4. “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”
  5. “Happiness Is a Warm Gun”
  6. “Here Comes the Sun”
  7. “Revolution”
  8. “Let it Be”
  9. “Something”
  10. “Hey Jude”

Part of the fun of being a Beatles fan is tracing the band’s musical maturation over a series of albums, but it’s too hard for a rock band to break through in 2019 to slow-play this rollout. Abandon any semblance of chronological order: The debut album has to be bangers from beginning to end. This is no time for deep tracks, so I’ll hook them with hits that showcase a mixture of moods and styles, transitioning from troubled to uplifting and drawing from 1965 on because the Beatles’ later songs are a little less foreign to contemporary ears than even the catchiest early-’60s singles.

In the long run, consistency matters as much as the initial selection of songs. Remember, if the Beatles don’t exist, then presumably the Beatles’ solo songs don’t either, which means many more Beatles-quality tracks to appropriate. There’s no need to hold anything back. My strategy: Flood the market, pumping out tracks at a pace that would make Robert Pollard look lazy and ensuring year-round radio play and publicity. Pick the best 300 songs by Lennon, McCartney, Harrison, and Starr, release a new 15-track album every six months, and walk away after the most productive decade in songwriting history. Then spend the rest of your days getting rich off the royalties and living large as a legend whose unparalleled output stopped as suddenly and mysteriously as it started.

Knibbs:

  1. “Let It Be”
  2. “Here Comes the Sun”
  3. “Hey Jude”
  4. “Come Together”
  5. “In My Life”
  6. “Yesterday”
  7. “Blackbird”
  8. “All You Need Is Love”
  9. “Help! “
  10. “Love Me Do”

These are the most-streamed Spotify selections, which I think is the most indicative of modern tastes. I had to swap out “Twist and Shout” because it’s not an original; I replaced it with “Love Me Do,” which is in the top 10 globally.

Gruttadaro:

  1. “Here Comes the Sun (feat. Ariana Grande)”
  2. “Something (feat. Ariana Grande)”
  3. “Come Together (feat. Ariana Grande)”
  4. “Revolution (feat. Ariana Grande)”
  5. “I’ve Just Seen a Face (feat. Ariana Grande)”
  6. “While My Guitar Gently Weeps (feat. Ariana Grande)”
  7. “Martha My Dear (feat. Ariana Grande)”
  8. “With a Little Help From My Friends (feat. Ariana Grande)”
  9. “Yesterday (feat. Cardi B)”
  10. “A Day in the Life (feat. Ariana Grande)”

I’m sorry but this is the only way.

Baumann:

  1. “Come Together”
  2. “Revolution”
  3. “Strawberry Fields Forever”
  4. “Get Back”
  5. “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away”
  6. “Twist and Shout”
  7. “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”
  8. “Back in the U.S.S.R.”
  9. “Let It Be”
  10. “Across the Universe”

I don’t think you can go too heavy on the old power pop love songs because they come off as old-timey and chaste, and you can’t go too heavy on the psychedelia because it’s not as good as Tame Impala. This is a mix of ballads, some peppy numbers, a little politics, and “Come Together,” which even in 2019 would be a thermonuclear earworm.

Baker:

  1. “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da”
  2. “I Saw Her Standing There”
  3. “Lady Madonna”
  4. “Penny Lane”
  5. “In My Life”
  6. “Money (That’s What I Want)”
  7. “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”
  8. “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds”
  9. “Let It Be”
  10. “Octopus’s Garden (hidden track)”

“Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” is an escapist, aspirational fantasy in these modern times, what with the building of the home sweet home and all that—the real Desmond and Molly Jones would absolutely have to rent. Thanks to Sublime’s “What I Got,” we already know that Track 3 has legs, although maybe the unanswerable question from above should be whether the Beatles would be scorned for borrowing from Bradley. “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” would crush at Coachella. “Octopus’s Garden” would be seen as a brutal but necessary commentary about how, soon, we will all be underwater and none of this will matter.

McNear:

  1. “Get Back”
  2. “Act Naturally”
  3. “Revolution 1”
  4. “Oh! Darling”
  5. “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” (Gotta give the people a mid-album curveball to blog about!)
  6. “Your Mother Should Know”
  7. “I Saw Her Standing There” (OK, maybe we make the eponymous “her” not 17, but otherwise ...)
  8. “Help!”
  9. “Let It Be”
  10. “Blackbird”

I’m going to make a confession here: I didn’t really know much about the Beatles growing up. I encountered their music almost exclusively by running into songs in the wild, looking up whatever lyrics I could remember later, and then downloading the songs on Kazaa. In college, I finally downloaded the whole Beatles catalog, and had the surreal experience of listening to many very famous, very influential, and very loved songs for the first time as a circa-2010 adult. This was a weird, and probably worse, way of finding the Beatles—I remember feeling very embarrassed about my ignorance of this most sacred cultural hegemony—but it was a scattershot, single-by-single, way-after-the-fact approach that is, maybe, more similar to how people might stumble across new music in 2019. (Versus, say, being sat down by a parent to listen to a hallowed album in its totality.)

What I’m saying is my Beatles-related stupidity makes me definitely right, and your Beatles-related wisdom makes you definitely wrong. When it comes to a 2019 album, you can’t get too weird—the weed might be better these days, but there’s a lot less acid going around. (My regrets to “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer.”) Is this list basically just my favorite Beatles songs that do not involve make-believe townsfolk, animals, or irreparably dated ‘60s references (farewell, Soviet Union, eagerly awaited letter deliveries, and cheeseball courtship)? No comment.