Richard Lester’s film collaboration with The Beatles, A Hard Day’s Night (1964), has been attributed many aspects of foreshadowing modern culture. From the almost accidental invention of the surrealism-infused music video to the defining of pre-counter-culture 1960s Britain and London, the film acts as both a periodical bubble and an innovative audio-visual experience that is as prescient today as it was then. One segment in particular surprisingly stands out for its serendipity in showing the joys of a relatively popular modern phenomena; that of psychogeography and, in particular, the technique of the dérive.
The concept of the dérive, the French term to literally drift, has been associated with various forms and movements both before and after A Hard Day’s Night. From the Situationist movement to more contemporary psychgeographers and deep topographers such as Iain Sinclair, Will Self and Nick Papadimitrou, the ideas allowing the landscape to influence physical and emotional behaviour has been debated, discarded and then re-appropriated many times. In spite of this, Lester’s film captures the sense of what the dérive is really about and why it is still a poignant topographical technique to use by allowing Ringo Starr to actively partake in perhaps the most obvious example of psychogeography ever committed to film.
In preparation for the big concert, all four of The Beatles have separated, having their own personal adventures into 1960s pop culture from trend setting agencies and chatting up make-up girls to generally faffing about. Ringo has taken refuge with a book in a cafe with Paul’s grandfather who then convinces him that he is being used and should go out and “live”. Upon taking this advice, Ringo walks out of the show and goes on a dérive around a refreshingly derelict and empty London. At first, he has trouble walking the streets – this is after all in the heights of Beatlemania – but after donning the disguise of a long coat and with a 35mm camera in tow, he wanders the streets looking to “live”.
His dérive is poignant for a number of reasons. The first has already been hinted at in that the London he experiences seems almost alien compared to the crammed and overused set of spaces no doubt in place of the locations used today. He ambles down by the canal and river, throws some rocks into it and generally takes in the space with much carefree joy; a freedom he has never really had in the helter skelter world of life as a Beatle. As he explores the grey streets and edge-spaces, he comes across a young lad and his friends, playing with tires and exploring the landscape in a way that seems positively impossible to conceive in the age of health and safety fetishisation.
It reminds of the last chapter of Robert Macfarlane’s recent book, Landmarks, in which he looks into the landscape language of “Childish”; the paradox-loving language that young people create in order to compress the data of their landscape, rural or urban. In many ways, it partly explains the reasoning behind Ringo’s sudden departure from the celebrity world of The Beatles; he wants to drift and perhaps find what was initially lost when catapulted into a very rabid form of fame and, ultimately, invasion of privacy. The dérive as a technique seems to tap into this “childish” in that it expresses a freedom with which Ringo, at least under the influence of Paul’s grandfather, now seeks. Contrary to the portrayal of the emotional manipulation, hindsight actually lends the argument of the Grandfather some weight.
Ringo, predictably, comes back to the fold after several run-ins with the police but it seems heavily implied that the only time the character of Ringo is ever truly content is when he is traipsing the weed-riddled streets with his camera and long coat; no destination, no commitments, simply adrift in search of new possibilities and senses of place.
Ringo is The Beatles’ psychogeographer, finding the spaces which many of them no doubt came from but probably never truly experienced again. This is, of course, a fiction and clearly isn’t a reflection of Starkey himself who seems to have abandoned edge-spaces entirely in recent years in place of Surrey mansions. The scenes in question now seem even more prescient in that Ringo’s own house in Liverpool not only occupies one of these empty edge-spaces but is specifically under threat. The house where he grew up in, sitting in the area known as the Dingle (Toxteth), is now up for demolition; the area having been blighted by empty houses and growing edge-spaces where once there was a bustling sense of life and community (a deep and visible scar of Thatcherism). It seems to be the ultimate irony that, considering the role Ringo plays as psychogeographer-in-chief in A Hard Day’s Night, his role is now redundant, his own past being an edge-space in itself left only to the drifters desiring an authentic journey outside of the centre and its predestined pathways toward commerce and little else.