American Culture

What we talk about when we talk about The Beatles…

On the 50th anniversary of The Beatles’ appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, perhaps it’s time to clarify what we mean when we say “The Beatles…”

beatles_2Tonight will be the 50th anniversary of the advent of what most people think of as “The Sixties.” The avalanche of commentary  that has accompanied this anniversary ranges from the hagiographic to the asinine, much of it driven by the political ethos that infuses every aspect of our lives these days. “If only these white guys hadn’t spoiled everything, other artists (implied: more worthwhile) would be more appreciated and influential”; “Without The Beatles no other artists (implied: no matter how clearly brilliant and innovative they were/are) could have accomplished the task of changing the culture.”

None of them spend much time on trying to discover and understand the simple truths of The Beatles as part of the American experience….

No other band has generated the amount of writing – good, bad, indifferent – as The Fabs, especially in the form of biographical examination. From Hunter Davies’ fascinating, if highly flawed The Beatles to the in-progress exhaustively detailed three volume biography by Mark Lewisohn, journalists and scholars have dedicated themselves to trying to expose John, Paul, George, and Ringo as a synergistic entity, as individuals, as reflections of where our culture was at the time they exploded onto the cultural scene. Probably the best, at least in terms of trying to explain the meaning of The Beatles is Philip Norman’s excellent Shout: The Beatles in Their Generation. What Norman does better than other, more exhaustive biographers, is attempt to give a cultural studies interpretation of the phenomenon they were and its meaning in the context of the historical era they belonged to. Norman makes two points that, while seemingly obvious and explored by others, probably offer us as good a route to discovering and understanding the why of The Beatles as we may ever have.

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The Great Synthesizers…

Other writers have discussed this aspect of The Beatles’ achievement, but Norman, I think, does the best job of conveying the uncanny ability Lennon, McCartney, and Harrison had for recognizing and incorporating other musical trends into their work. Their acquaintance with Dylan (who was, in turn, influenced by their success to go electric) led first to one of their most enduring early songs, Lennon’s “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away,” and eventually to what most critics consider their first “serious” album, Rubber Soul, which is sonically, if not entirely in subject matter, a folk rock album. That album validated the folk rock movement pioneered by The Byrds, The Lovin’ Spoonful, and just after them, by Buffalo Springfield. At around the same time Harrison discovered Indian music, began learning the sitar, and incorporated the instrument for the first time into “Norwegian Wood” from that same album, fomenting interest in merging rock with what were (at the time) exotic musical genres. McCartney’s (at the suggestion of Sir George Martin) integration of a string quartet into “Yesterday” helped popularize the genre of chamber pop (best represented by groups like The Left Banke). Revolver gave the general public its introduction to psychedelia (followed by singles such as “Strawberry Fields” and “I Am the Walrus”). And of course the triumph of the album mentioned below brought wide acceptance to the musical construct we know as the concept album: SgtPeppercomic

The album The Beatles, better known as “The White Album,” covers all these genres and more while the final “real” Beatle album, Abbey Road, gave wide exposure to a rock version of the song cycle.

Arguments abound, of course, disputing whether The Beatles innovated or merely trend hopped, using their formidable songwriting skills to ape more authentic artists. That’s not really the point, Norman would say: what The Beatles were able to do through their incredible popularity was expose vast numbers of young listeners to the subgenres of rock and pop mentioned above (and, in a way, legitimize those genres) – thus interesting listeners who then found other, often more serious, practitioners of the genres. Their own wide ranging interest in musical styles was thus transferred to their fans – a cohort large enough to sustain careers for those whom the snark set love to call “truer artists.”

The Personae…

The other area in which The Beatles succeeded as cultural models was in offering fans choice. Coming as they did some 70 years into what we know as The Age of Advertising, they were a marketer’s dream: a single entity composed of four separate and identifiable elements so that fans could have a favorite and love the band as a unit. It started early: Paul was the “cute Beatle”; John was the “smart/clever/witty Beatle”; George was the “quiet Beatle”; and Ringo, sweet Ringo, who was actually the most popular Beatle overall because he was many fans’ second favorite in addition to having his own considerable cohort of admirers, was the “loveable Beatle.” Previous popular idols, whether movie stars like Clark Gable or musical stars such as Frank Sinatra were individuals – fans either found the single commodity attractive or not. Even the early pop stars such as Elvis Presley or Buddy Holly (for white America of the period, it was fine to like the music of Chuck Berry or Little Richard but mortal sin to find the person attractive) the individual model remained the norm.

The Beatles changed that. There were four of them – distinctly different and differing persons who somehow, as a group, achieved (for fans, at least) a synergy that both transcended and validated their individual personae. One could both love “The Beatles” – and love John/Paul/George/Ringo. The message was perfect for individualism obsessed America: you could be in the group – but you could also be an individual.

The Individual, the Group, the Idea Implanted…

Ultimately, this anniversary is about the conquest of a generation by a group of musicians. Extraordinarily talented songwriters, Beatlesflagwell above average musicians, engaging individuals, a cohesive group – what kids across this country saw on Sunday, February 9, 1964, was an alternative to previous role models, good or bad. The lone gunman (John Dillinger), the lonely leader (John Kennedy), the solo hero (John Glenn) – these models became passé between 8:03 and 8:10 PM on that night. Being in the group was what mattered.

If one stops and considers the subsequent individual and group behaviors of both Boomers and their Millenial offspring, especially if one takes the long view, that model of behavior can easily be said to have influenced whole generations’ self-concepts.

In other words, one might say of these  generations we have met The Beatles. They are us.

22 replies »

  1. Elvis Presley changed the culture of the World more than any other artist or group. Without Elvis breaking down social and cultural barriers in 1950’s U.S.A. there would have been no Rolling Stones, Beatles or Madonna etc. He is still the template by which success is measured in the music industry.

    • This isn’t “either/or,” Brian – it’s “both/and.” The Beatles were great admirers of Presley – who, in his drug addled right wing way – did not return the compliment. But they were more – songwriters where he was not; a group where he was an individual. I noted these matters in my essay.

      What he is best appreciated for is getting black music in front of white audiences – for breaking down racial barriers in pop music. That’s a huge, huge deal, and EP gets all due credit for his role in that. Unlike, say, Pat Boone, who “sanitized” Fats Domino or Little Richard (and took all the soul – and authenticity – out of the music), Elvis did the songs as those great artists did, with passion and soul of his own – and helped lead fans to those primary sources. That was and is a major cultural accomplishment among many he achieved.

      But this piece is about The Beatles’ contribution. Just sayin’…

  2. that was a great write up, but a little desspressing. having watched the original show on a black and white tv, i was amazed and a lose to understand all the screaming girls. the disappointment comes from the idea that even though there were gangs at that time, the idea that gangs became more appealing. my dad taught me to be an individual and to stay away from gangs. to this day i enjoy sports that are individual not team endeavors. i think it was a very important lesson in my life. i do not believe there will ever be another 60 to 70’s and i am glad to have lived through the period and the rebellion as a young man. learning the establishment was not always right or even in your best interests. to watch all those people cop out in there old age was disappointing.

  3. Art,

    I think the idea of being in a band (which I call both band and group) and playing music appealed to guys because of – well, girls. And thanks to The Beatles and their contemporaries, girls developed a real liking for guys in bands. But being in the band allowed individualism, too – you played YOUR instrument, etc. Like you, I much prefer individual sports to team stuff (though I admit to a love of baseball) – more a fishing/tennis/golf sort of guy – and the hiking/camping thing, too, which is really individual if one chooses.

    As for the cop out, some did – some didn’t. I suspect those who did were motivated more by $$$. Those who didn’t weren’t. That’s how it’s played out in this old Boomer’s experience, anyway….

  4. not too long ago, two doctor friends invited us to a doobie brothers concert at a high ticket outdoor venue in winnetka. it was hard not to laugh at the sight of all these earnest people who missed them the first time around because they were too busy studying and too timid trying to catch up. of course they were timid then and are still timid now–rock and roll at ravinia? really?

    that of course is a tangent, brought on by looking at the beatles and their women and friends sitting in the front row last night at the cbs tribute, and noting all the plastic surgery and dye jobs, and remembering another friend who recently flew to new jersey to see an ancient paul mccartney creak across the stage. the beatles belonged to that time, even though their music and impact belongs to this time.

    rock and roll is something you cant really understand unless you were there. for the beatles, my wife was (comiskey park,) and i wasn’t. and i still dont get them the way i get the folks i did see, like hendrix and allman.

    have no idea where i was going with this incoherent drool of a comment. did i drop acid this morning instead of my cholestorol pill?

    • I’m a huge music freak, as I think everyone knows. I have always wrestled with how best to understand the bands that I wasn’t there for. The Beatles, for me, are history, not lived experience. On the other hand, I saw Queen and The Police and U2 live. I respect the hell out of the Fabs, but I can’t connect to them the way that Jim can. He was THERE, and I wasn’t.

      I own a lot of CDs by bands that I wasn’t there for. And I listen to them and love them and sometimes they do things that jump the generation and despite it all make a connection. I think of Van Morrison’s Hymns to the Silence, and in particular “Carrying a Torch,” as an example. But these artists are never going to be as important to me as the ones that defined the sound of MY generation.

    • Been thinking more about your comment, Otherwise. Reflecting back on all the stuff from my grad school days, I remember contributing a chapter to a volume on music subcultures./ (I still get royalty checks from time to time, which means that, inexplicably, I’m being read in universities somewhere.) Anyway, the thrust of this work, applied to what you’re saying, is that it isn’t about the music per se. It’s more about the music as an organizing principle for cultures and subcultures. When you think about kids, it’s rare to look at groups of friends and see them not liking the same bands. They might have a diverse set of music in the group, but there’s a shared canon. The Skinny Puppy crowd and the Justin Bieber crowd DO NOT hang out.

      Hendrix and Allman were a different kind of animal from the Fabs, at least early Fabs. I’m guessing that those artists were popular with your friends, too. How did you feel about the Beatlemaniacs? Did you see them as just something a little different or did your crowd look down on them?

      See, this is part of what I was hinting at in my earlier comment. I wasn’t THERE, so I don’t know. But I’m curious as hell. Our grand pop culture history has worked to homogenize “the 60s,” and as such I’m asked to believe that all ‘y’all loved all the bands we hear on Classic Rock radio. But that can’t be right.

  5. I didn’t see the Beatles that night on Ed Sullivan, I was at our Southern church as usual for Sunday evenings. But I heard them later that week on the radio and this 13-yr old was hooked. Many years ago I read about a doctor, I think in Austria, who found that playing music from the days of their respective puberties gave an extra bump of invigoration and healing to spine injury patients. That squares with my experience. I love all music, but there is something unique that I feel when I hear “She Loves You” and the other early songs. I knew it was foreshadowing wonderful mysteries in store. The great thing about the Beatles is that they did not stand still and kept moving forward. They validated and modeled that continued innovation and exploration are good.

  6. Both Sam and Otherwise do something I notice that those who didn’t experience Beatlemania do – suggest that “you had to be there.” For the early stuff, yes. For the later work – from RUBBER SOUL on, I’d say, no “had to be there” claim applies.

    This desire to seal off The Beatles as only “of their time” is as insidious an argument as any I have come across – it tries its best to reduce their work to the level of pop idols like David Cassidy or Justin Bieber. That’s a load of crap.

    As innovative talents and explorers of genres, they are unparalleled in rock history. And their later work stands up to any oof the stuff from other late ’60’s talents,

    Classic rock radio focuses on the belching and farting of the arena rock crowd. That’s another thing entirely.

    I don’t think you guys meant it this way, but the commentary comes off as condescension. It merely smacks of a certain “I don;t get it so it can’t be that good” mentality that sometimes pervades discussion of rock music.

    That they could be chameleons and write in any style doesn’t lessen their legacy or diminish their brilliance.

    • I certainly didn’t intend it that way at all, Jim. The Beatles are the most important band in the Rock and Roll era. I’m not saying I don’t get it so it can’t be good. I’m saying that it’s obvious to me that my experience of them is dramatically different from yours and from others I know who “were there.” For me, I have the music. But I don’t have the lived experience. I didn’t go to school the next day and it was the only thing people were talking about. I never got to see them live and I never had female friends (or worse, girlfriends) who screamed until they passed out.

      All I’m saying is that I don’t have what I guess you’d call a first-hand experience of them. Your experience of John Lennon more resembles my experience of Freddie Mercury – they both died way too soon, but you felt the anguish of John’s murder and I felt anguish over Freddie’s death from AIDS. I don’t think you had an experience of Queen that would make you feel what I felt.

      I wish to hell I had been there, honestly. You don’t think a guy whose high school years were dominated my goddamned Disco envies you?

  7. hmmmm. not sure that’s what i said, but surely not what i meant. the music is timeless, not of a time. they selling of the beatles as individuals was something that was of it’s time. like many kids my age, i collected beatles cards, and everyone had their favorite and would swap card to get more of their favorites. at any rate, i’m not above condescension but plead not guilty in this instance.

    nonetheless, the mania associated with teh four personalities was a had to be there thing. teenage girls wet their pants at comiskey park. the only people wetting their pants at the recne t paul mccartney tour were old guys like me who couldn’t get through the line to the bathroom.

    • You know, I keep thinking about this and I wonder if there isn’t something else going on, too. I remember Jim telling me about the girls wetting themselves thing. I have seen footage of girls watching the Fabs so I could believe it. But I grew up in a very cynical generation, I guess. I’m not sure what it would have taken to make the Xer chicks in my high school that excited. I doubt the Bee Gees themselves strutting the halls in person would have elicited that kind of response. You Boomers, I think you were capable of a passion that we never were. You were capable of belief.

      I mean, we’d never get that amped up about anything that didn’t involve stock options, would we?

      So maybe there’s more going on with my “had to be there” comments. Although this isn’t true for Otherwise, who is a Boomer.

      Much, much at work here. Interesting conversation, to say the least.

  8. Where I was unclear, Sam and Otherwise, and where you are both plenty clear – so, my bad – is in wanting to make a point about the Fabs’ work I probably erred in lumping you guys in with those who conflate ALL the Beatles’ career with those early years (over by ’66 – blown away by Sgt. Pepper in ’67).

    Forgive me – I’m a bit off kilter right now…

  9. thinking of you jim and wish you the best as you deal with this.

    i’ve been pondering sam’s point. how can we really know if beatlemania (or the whole summr of love thing) was really different from bieber-mania or bonnaroo? it certainly felt more intense to us, but then again, people ask me if i liked my two years in africa or if i liked peace corps. my answer is always i liked something, but whether it was africa or peace corps or being 20 or 25 cent beer or my first real great love, who knows? ad for the sixties, we felt special, but mayve our special was no different in intensity and self-adoration than the special of any generation, and the personality cult aspect of the beatles was just there to recieve it. or maybe sam is right, maybe we were a passionate lot

    uh oh. another drooling comment. note to self: stop dropping mescaline with my high fiber cereal.

  10. Thank you Jim. Another thing about the Beatles is how they and the British music invasion helped to make the world smaller. Mass media has continued to do that and of course WWII got the ball rolling in that direction as well. When fans would read of their activities back in Liverpool or Europe or India, that would convey the importance of those places. I’ve got to think that deep down in the psych of people like me, when we think of them and more recent artists from over there, we include where they are as part of “our” internal geography. It may go both ways. I’ve a colleague who just left London to take a position at the U. of Leeds and I told him how much I enjoyed the Who’s Live at Leeds album and envied his opportunity to live and work at the site of it. (He was probably a toddler at the time.) In return, knowing I’d just moved to the Memphis area, he asked me to give my regards to Elvis.

    Steve Allison