Blog: Lessons in Alternative History

Two Of Us
“Two Of Us” imagined what might have happened if Paul McCartney (Aiden Quinn) and John Lennon (Jared Harris) had reunited to perform on Saturday Night Live in 1976.

Even though I am in no way a history buff, I have always enjoyed the concept of “alternate history” in books, movies and TV. The Amazon series “The Man In The High Castle” is a Prime example of the genre. The series takes place in alternative version of America in the 1960s, where our country is ruled by Japan and Germany… the Axis powers who won World War 2. It’s based on the book of the same name by the legendary science fiction author Philip K Dick, who made a career of writing mind-bending fiction.

While major world events may be attractive subjects for those who wish to rewrite history, I’ve rarely seen the alternate history concept applied to musical subjects. Of course, in popular music history, there is no act with a more colorful story to reinvent than The Beatles. For decades, fans have pondered the question: What if The Beatles never broke up?

The 2000 film “Two Of Us” was one attempt to examine the possibility of The Beatles reuniting. It was based on the idea of John Lennon and Paul McCartney deciding to accept Lorne Michaels’ famous $3000 offer for a reunion on Saturday Night Live.

But the best alternate history is always partially influenced by the reality timeline it parallels. In a 2013 Paste magazine feature, writer Geoffrey Hines tells the story “What if The Beatles Hadn’t Broken Up?” It’s a fascinating read that wisely incorporates post-Beatles solo material into the narrative, rethought as if released instead by the Fab Four. The approach makes complete sense, considering how so much of the material on later Beatles records—the “White Album” in particular—was developed more as solo music before being brought to a band setting.

And then there’s “Everyday Chemistry,” which brings bizarre science fiction elements to an alternate history of The Beatles. The website “The Beatles Never Broke Up” tells the “actual account” of a man who traveled to a parallel world where he discovers an unreleased Beatles album dubbed on a tape cassette. He claims to have brought the tape back to our own world, and has posted all 11 songs from the album for free download on his website.

Everyday Chemistry - The Beatles

Yes, you can actually listen to the unreleased Beatles music from another dimension. And yes, it really is John, Paul, George and Ringo. But before you get too excited, know this: the music is actually a clever mash-up of songs from their various solo releases. It is slickly done, to be sure, and a curious thing to hear. But it’s not The Beatles. I love the idea, though, however outlandish “Everyday Chemistry” may be.

But rock and roll has always been an outlandish endeavor. I have no doubt that we will someday see alternate history interpretations of The Rolling Stones or Michael Jackson, whose long and storied careers are ripe for reinvention.

An even bolder idea that I’d love to see embraced by a musical act of significant stature would be for the act itself to manufacture their own alternative history. Imagine, for example, if U2 created “The Alternative History of U2,” complete with fictionalized stories about their rise to fame. Even better, what if they recorded “new” music to highlight every era of their faux career? The creative output from such an exercise could be extraordinary.

That’s a history lesson I’d be excited to take.