HALIFAX, NOVA SCOTIA — As you may just possibly have heard, February marks the 40th anniversary of the Beatles' first trip to America. For some of us, the anniversary brings back first hand memories of the British "invasion." For others, the invasion exists only in history, as remote as the Wright Brother's first flight. (This, of course, makes members of the first group feel both privileged, and old.) 2004 is also the 40th anniversary of the Fab Four's film debut, "A Hard Day's Night," and unlike the 10th, 20th and 30th anniversaries of these events, this year fans can experience (or re-experience) both these musical milestones on the web.
The Beatles: The First US Visit is a part of Beatles.com (the band's official website), and was created to promote a DVD release commemorating the tour - but the site still has a good deal to offer visitors whether or not they intending to buy any music. Powered by Flash, the presentation uses animation and multi-media to full effect in a basic but effective website.
"Visit" opens with glimpses of photographs from the tour, punctuated with first impression quotes from each of the Beatles. (We can only imagine the feeling that Paul McCartney describes as he turned on a radio in a limousine, and heard a running commentary of the band's arrival as it was happening.) After the intro, there's a commercial for the DVD (in the form of a scrolling text box), and a link to Take the Tour, which maps out the three cities visited by the band in '64 (New York, Washington, Miami). Choosing a city generates another introductory animation (more photos, this time accompanied by such audio snippets as the Beatles telling each other to lock the car doors as they're surrounded by fans), and an index of featured events in that city. And here, we get to the main content.
Each event in each city exists as its own mini multi-media exhibition. Visitors are first presented with a brief text summary of the occasion, and are invited to contribute to - or simply explore - a "Where were you?" collection of user-supplied reminiscences. If you choose to browse, a clickable calendar will take you to entries for any specific day - accompanied in some cases by personal photographs submitted by the online contributors.
In terms of professional content, each event offers all or a combination of audio and video clips, and still photographs. Some episodes, like the press conference on arrival at JFK Airport, will be familiar to anyone who has seen documentaries about the band, but even here there may be some new material for most fans - such as a shot of the press corps during the conference, clearly enjoying themselves. (All the more impressive as they had apparently arrived at the airport with the intention of putting the British upstarts in their place.) Audio and video clips include both material gathered on the spot and later interviews.
Due to the way the Flash presentation is constructed, visitors never leave the main window of the presentation while viewing still images. While the images open into their own 'spaces,' they're embedded into the main window rather than independent pop-ups. This makes for a tidier presentation, but unfortunately it also robs the visitor of the option of continuing to explore the site while waiting for a stubborn photograph to load. (Probably a great idea for a presentation on CD or DVD - not so great for people having to deal with servers and bandwidth.)
Audio and video clips open into pop-up windows, but sadly, they're only available in MediaPlayer and RealVideo formats, so those looking for the higher quality of QuickTime will be disappointed. And why the audio levels for the video clips are set at several times the volume of the straight audio clips escapes me.
If the first tour has you hungry for more circa '64 Beatles, welcome to A Hard Day's Night. Again, created to promote a DVD release (following a theatrical re-release), the Hard Day's Night site adds a bit of time twisting to the mix. One of the two main sections, Yesterday, is presented as a promotional site for the - soon to be released - 1964 movie. This doesn't mean that there are attempts to technologically dumb down the site. Rather, we're simply invited to pretend that the internet revolution was already taking place 40 years ago.
Launching the Yesterday window leads to an animated countdown (from 2000 to 1964), which concludes with what must be the most recognizable guitar chord in music history. Contents are divided into Beatle profiles, and inside information about the "really gear" movie. Scenes supplies a handful of mini-slide shows from the film, accompanied by captions that illustrate the very height (or depths, depending on your point of view) of PR writing: "The Fabbest Four in the whole wide world are as cute as can be as they pose for yet another shot." (Click on an image as it rolls by and a slightly larger version will open in its own window.)
Music has similar copy about the movie's featured songs, as does People about its secondary players, while Press transcribes a few newspaper clippings. Band member profiles accentuate each Beatles' mini-gallery with sound bites and floating caption boxes.
The second section, Here Today returns to the present with it's collection of movie-related memorabilia. Included are the first draft of the shooting script (with color-coded additions to indicate cut scenes, extra scenes added later, and handwritten notes), publicity and behind-the-scenes stills (both in color and black-and-white), a contemporary movie review, and souvenirs from the film's two premiers. Last is the requisite trailer - though in this case, it's more accurately a commercial for the DVD. If you'd like to see the actual theatrical trailer for the re-release, you can find a QuickTime version here.