The Dream is Over: The Beatles as Product and Getting Over the Sixties
September 6th 2009
Let’s hear it for the first Beatle
Let’s hear it for the worst Beatle
Let’s hear it for the best Beatle
The had to get it off his chest Beatle
Let’s hear it for the lost Beatle
The art at any cost Beatle
The Beatle with the sense of taste Beatle
Who never learned to play his bass Beatle
Edwyn Collins, ‘The Beatles’, 2002 (1)
In the next few days and weeks lots of press coverage and commentary is going to be expended on the re-release and remastering of the Beatles back catalogue. As befits the strange role the BBC now sees for itself in British culture it has felt this important enough to herald a ‘Beatle Week’ (2), where it endorses product, having recently declared U2 Day and Pet Shop Boys Day!
What is revealing – considering it was forty years ago to within a few weeks that the band last played together – is how they still continue to have a power, fascination and hold over the rest of us.
As the ‘real’ Beatles have receded into the midst of history, and maybe the last full sighting of the ‘real’ Beatles was sometime around 63-64, their hold, or rather that of the ‘mythical’ Beatles has actually increased. The ‘mythical’ Beatles are very different from the real, complicated people who were the individuals who made up the band; the ‘mythical’ ones changed the world with the power of their music, changing the music business from one dominated by ‘squares’ like Cliff and Adam Faith, invented the modern album, and oh, yes, led the way to prog rock!
I adored the Beatles when I was a young lad at school in Dundee in the late 70s. At this time I remember and was very aware then of how deeply unfashionable it was to admit amongst other young people that you actually liked the Beatles. In a fast moving, deeply diverse music scene, they were seen as ‘square’ and well, yesterday.
People who I went to school with who were serious musos fell into different camps. There was the Pink Floyd bores who insisted that ‘The Wall’ was the greatest album of all time; then there were the punks – into the Sex Pistols and Sid – and a little unaware of the commodified, controlled rebellion of the Malcolm MacLaren industry; and there were the new wavers and those searching for eccentric, challenging, ‘difficult’ music and citing Joy Division, Magazine and the Fall (and bizarrely as it turns out considering what they later did) Simple Minds.
These three sub-groups did not cover everyone or exist completely separate from each other. Chart music at the end of the 1970s in the UK included a huge range of music: disco, soul and lots of leftfield stuff.
I liked a lot of the supposedly ‘difficult’ stuff, the Pistols, and yes, lots of disco and soul, and had a real thing for Earth, Wind and Fire, Chic and a young charming entertainer called Michael Jackson who had just produced his first ‘adult’ album, ‘Off the Wall’. My main love though by a mile was the Beatles, the band, and even the solo work of all four, and at the time it felt a bit like a secret love.
I even bought Wings, Lennon, Harrison and Ringo albums, and while I will confess that lots of them are terrible or more accurately mediocre, they have sort of grown on me again after dismissing them for years. The ‘Ringo’ ‘73 album, the nearest we ever got to a reunion Beatles album and nearer than the ghastly ELOesque ‘Free as a Bird’, has a real charm, homespun and not trying to be more than good fun.
When friends came round my house I had all these albums, a complete Macca and Lennon solo collection and lots of Beatle stuff on cassette, and I would hide them under the bed so that they couldn’t find them!
I feel there have been three distinct periods of the Beatles as product or their reclaiming and repackaging as product. Not the Beatlemania, middle period and late period of their career, but post-1970.
First, there was the 1970-1980 decade where the Beatles slowly retreated from our view. After the ‘Red’ and ‘Blue’ albums of 1973, Beatles releases sold less and less as people didn’t want to buy the same things again and again. There was a sense by young people – around the time of punk/new wave – that the Beatles were part of ‘the dinosaur brigade’ and oldies going on about them was akin to older wrinklies who wouldn’t stop harking back to the war!
Second, this was all changed by the death of John Lennon which allowed the Beatles to be reclaimed as unchallenged, uncontested ‘national saviours’ and general good guys who invented the modern world, modern music and the sixties. 1982 saw the first big anniversary of the band marked by a reissue campaign with the 20th anniversary release of ‘Love Me Do’ followed in 1987 on the 20th anniversary of Pepper with the release of the Beatles albums on CD. Demographics aided all this as did the insufferable conceit of the baby boomer generation (the Bill Clinton cohort), which spawned Live Aid, Q magazine and stadium rock.
The third phase could not have happened without the second and has involved the ultimate exploitation of the Beatles catalogue, of which this week’s releases can be seen as part of. From ‘The Beatles at the Beeb’ through ‘Anthology’, ‘Yellow Submarine’, ‘Let It Be Naked’ and the awful ‘Love’ (the latter surely the Vegasisation of the Beatles), the search has been to find new Beatles material to package up and sell again and again. ‘Anthology’ was a breathtaking exercise in this, getting away with six albums of mostly different takes of songs we have, some revealing, lots not. The point was this was not some scholarly archival exercise, but creating new commercial material; thus new versions of songs were created combining different takes, which seemed – as with the way the original ‘Get Back/Let It Be’ was compromised – to defeat the whole original intent.
Now the Beatles are everywhere, sanctified and striding us like colossuses and gods of the universe, rather than mere mortals. There is something fascinating, revealing and problematic in all of this, of presenting the Beatles as close to an official religion who give meaning to our empty Western post-religious lives. Something John Lennon was on to a long time ago with his ‘Jesus Christ’ remarks.
What would the world look like without the Beatles? In terms of social change and the supposed cultural revolution they heralded? Exactly the same I imagine. The sixties would have unfolded the same. The North Vietnamese NLF would still have beaten the might of the American imperialist machine. And Soviet Communism, supposedly brought down by the ideals of Western pop culture, would have fallen just as it did when it did; Vaclav Havel and his friends would just have found other musical inspirations.
What would the musical world looked like without the Beatles? Here I know I am on the ground of the heretic, as I don’t think it would look in any way that different. The ‘swinging sixties’ as a musical moment would still have existed, and been shaped by experimentation, innovation, drugs and a burgeoning youth culture.
The central space occupied by the Beatles would have been taken by someone else – the Stones, the Who or the Kinks being the most obvious examples, and music with its massive leaps and bounds would have still progressed with Dylan, the Byrds and Beach Boys. Who knows without the Beatles there might have been room for more experimentation, for Brian Wilson finishing his magnum opus ‘Smile’, for the sound of young black America from Motown not being thrown off the US charts by the arrival of Beatlemania.
And there is also something a bit questionable even in the way we view the Beatles career from today. The later albums, those nearest in their style and form to the present day, to (dread word) ‘serious rock’ are the ones we celebrate. And yet, it is the earlier albums which rocked the music world, turned it upside down, and were in a very narrow sense genuinely revolutionary!
What is interesting about the worldview of youth and pop culture in the last forty years is its failure to understand itself historically despite a whole pantheon of cultural studies gurus and writers. The Beatles albums and music of 1963-64, from ‘Please Please Me’, through ‘She Loves You’, ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’ to ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ was like a breath of fresh air in the last days of Macmillan-Home Conservatism. Their music and attitude was filled with irreverence, wit, energy and impatience.
They were part of a zeitgeist – which ranged from Penguin Specials to That Was The Week That Was – and if they hadn’t existed someone else would have filled and given voice to this void. As it was these early songs have long been dismissed by rock critics who have celebrated ‘Sgt Pepper’ (surely one of the most over-rated albums of all time) and of course, ‘Abbey Road’ (which has the nine song segue on the second side, something loved by music snobs!).
Nik Cohn had it right years ago when he wrote in ‘WopBopaLooBopLopBamBoom’ (3) that the early Beatles music is filled with joy and catchy melodies, and I would add, performed by ordinary guys elated at finding themselves in the studio making catchy hits and not ending up in some dead-end job. It is the same sound you can hear on ABC’s ‘The Lexicon of Love’ and countless other first albums.
Cohn makes the case that by the time we get to ‘Sgt. Pepper’, we are not at the height of the Beatles, but their slow death and end. Pepper was he argues the triumph of artifice and studio gimmickry over making tunes, and utterly filled with pretension and the desire to make high art. It was the demise of ‘pop music’.
I think Cohn is absolutely right here, despite the fact that there are many wonderful things on the latter albums. I am not making the case like some killjoy against the latter Beatles, only against the idea of the ‘mythical’ Beatles, and reflecting on the wonder and marvel of their inventive, breakthrough early material which is so under-rated today, compared to the endless debates on ‘Pepper’ versus ‘Revolver’.
At some point people have to stop going on about the sixties, which is a metaphor for the failed and false hopes and disappointments which came after. To do that means killing off the ‘mythical’ Beatles, the idea of these godheads and saints who came from us and rose to change the universe. They were ultimately just four very ordinary lads from Liverpool who did extraordinary things in the world of music. Their hold on our imaginations to this day is a statement of the lack of imagination and inspiration of much of our popular culture today, the media, fans and us.
1. Edwyn Collins, ‘The Beatles’, on ‘Doctor Syntax’, 2002.
2. BBC Beatles Week, http://www.bbc.co.uk/tv/features/beatlesweek/
3. Nik Cohn, WopBopaLooBopLopBamBoom, Paladin 1972.