Besides being the most popular and influential rock band of the 20th century, the Beatles’ contributions to rock humor—through their four-pronged attack of John, Paul, George, and Ringo—were also equally far-reaching and eclectic. When Greil Marcus described the band as “all things to all people”, he could have been referring to the scope of their humor as much as to their musical contributions.
Many have discerned Beatle-wit to be Liverpudlian to the core, capturing the down-to-earth dry style and cheeky pranks for which that city is renowned; but the Beatles’ humor transcended their home city, as well as their national roots, often drawing from US comedians like the Marx Brothers, or from States-side novelty humorists like the Coasters (who they often covered) and the contemporaneous girl groups (some of whom they also covered). The band’s predilection for childlike humor and imagery also made them forerunners of the bubblegum form, though the Beatles’ adaptations were just as popular amongst adults as kids. The Beatles were sponges for all things funny. Their writing could shift from a tall-tale saga like “Rocky Raccoon” to a bawdy one-note joke like “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road” to a music hall-style knees-up like “Your Mother Should Know”. Whatever the musical or humor genre, the Beatles mastered it and projected it into new arenas of possibility. Moreover, their humor was omnipresent, seeping into the most serious or silly of their enterprises, aimed outwards at institutions or inwards at their own personal whims or private frailties. Whether young or old, black or white, working or middle class, male or female, British or not, some aspect of the Beatles’ all-embracing laughter has touched, is touching, or will touch you.
Despite their well-earned reputation for being the trailblazers of ‘60s rock, ever pushing musical envelopes and breaking down barriers of expectation, the Beatles were also collectively deeply rooted and committed to certain traditions. Nowhere was this more apparent than in their love and reverence for histories of humor. Some have suggested that it was because producer George Martin had previously worked with Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan (two English rebel-comics of the day) that the band was drawn to working with him. The Beatles perceived that if Martin could put up with the antics of these comic pranksters, he might be open enough to tolerate their eccentricities and imaginative risk-taking. The Beatles-Martin union proved to be the perfect marriage, each pushing the other in crafting original work rooted in classic traditions.
One principal source for much of the Beatles’ sound and style was the British music hall variety shows that were popular (particularly amongst the Northern working classes) at the turn of the century. The jaunty sing-along songs of that era ring through many popular Beatles tunes. “When I’m Sixty-Four” (1967) was a quintessential music-hall number, featuring a combination of nostalgic and quaint narrative details. In the Beatles’ hands, though, the convention underwent some reconstruction (and deconstruction). More than just the sentimental journey it might have been, the song was turned into a comment upon sentimentality, a self-conscious parody of form. The romantic narrator/writer within the song, pining for his lover, turns out to be a pathetic drunk who signs off his letter “Yours Sincerely, wasting away”. Similarly, “Your Mother Should Know” (1967) sends listeners into the by-gone age of music hall dances, to “a song that was a hit before your mother was born.” Released during the Summer of Love when the generation gap had become a chasm, the Beatles cheekily joined the ages in a good old communal dance. Implicitly refuting the fashionable rock rebellion of the times, the song refuses to reject the past, instead seeking to connect (which, of course, was the supposed philosophy of the counter-culture movement). Few bands could have gotten away with such “conservative” and conciliatory gestures at the time, but the Beatles achieved it through the appeal of their winning charm and wit, espousing their “come together” ethic while gently mocking all.
One of the reasons why the Beatles retained such enduring appeal to all age demographics was because of their embrace of an innocence that all could relate to or crave. Manifested in a child-centered humor, this material offered candy for the kids, tapped into the regressive escapist instincts of the arrested adolescents of the hippy subculture, and offered “seemingly” unthreatening fare for adults. As always, the Beatles both satisfied these audience appeals while subverting them with their patented trickster irony. A song like “Yellow Submarine” (1966) is a case in point. While its bubblegum melody and colorful fantasy imagery spoke to children of all ages, its subtle drug allusions (yellow submarines was a slang term for Nembutals) and “old school” brass band appealed to the counter-culture, as well as to their parents and grandparents. Even on the more militant edges of the youth protest movement, the song was embraced as an anthem, its infantile innocence re-contextualized as whimsy and collective unity. When the college students at Berkeley went on strike in 1966, “we all live in a yellow submarine” was a chant integrated into the marches alongside “we shall overcome” and “the times they are a-changin’”. The song reflected pure communality and projected the eccentric incongruities that would dominate subsequent counter-cultural humor. Recognizing the elasticity of the child-like humor they had unleashed with “Yellow Submarine”, the band went on to release sequels of type in “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” and “Octopus’ Garden” (both 1969).
The roots of the band’s fascination with all things childlike had personal and psychological roots as much as social ones. Many Beatles songs dealt with the act of regression, harkening back to a pre-adult idyll, to a time before the pressures of Beatlemania and corporate interests forced the boys into (premature) adulthood. Songs like “In My Life” (1965) and “Yesterday” (1965) reflected their serious musings on times past, but invariably it was humor that animated their flights into childhood freedom. This was a particularly pronounced element of Beatle movies. A Hard Day’s Night (1964), initially intended as a quick publicity film—an extended proto-video—turned out to be a trailblazing rock movie. It allowed the band members to showcase their natural physical humor, while establishing the film as a classic modern incarnation of Marx Brothers-style high-jinx. Director Richard Lester created scene after scene of the boys running up against the staid restraints and rules of adult authorities (including their own management). Each time they would elude controls, running free into child-like escapist enclaves. Charming, funny, and character-driven, A Hard Day’s Night reflected the subconscious yearnings of four rebel-youths increasingly restrained by systemic forces.
John Lennon, more than his band-mates, seemed particularly drawn to themes of childhood and innocence, as he addressed so starkly in his post-Beatles “primal scream” solo work. Back in the band’s early years, too, he displayed a fascination with these themes, and engaged them at the levels of fantasy scenarios and (pre)-lingual expression. Lennon’s quasi-literary infantilism was showcased in his first two books, In His Own Write (1964) and A Spaniard in the Works (1965). Each had the schoolboy pun-twisters seen in song titles like “Eight Days a Week” and “A Hard Day’s Night”, and each inhabited a child’s play-world where adults were absent or ridiculed and a linguistic play of puns and made-up words danced with sonic charm across the pages. Part Lewis Carroll, part e.e. cummings, and part James Joyce, Lennon disrupted sense in order to disrupt adult rules, and created a language zone that rational adulthood could not colonize.
Such writing was manna from heaven to the emerging hippy subculture, whose members were also bent upon a similar journey back to the womb of nature and pre-adult simplicity. They were drawn to the out-of-the-box whimsy of an alternative (and private) language, to the abstractions that defied sense, and to the floating signifiers that suggested meanings without determining them. Lennon’s increasingly imagistic writing also revealed the influence that Bob Dylan was having on the band. At the same time that Dylan was closing the lid on the “finger pointin’” songs of the first part of his own career, the Beatles were substituting their past simple love songs with more complex and creative lyrical expression. “Day Tripper” (1965) was an early example of the Beatles in transition. A veritable pun-festival, the song played cheekily with the touchy taboos of the time—drugs and sex—(em)broiling them in word-play. “She’s a big teaser”, complains the narrator, himself teasing out (in-crowd) audience associations with the familiar expression “she’s a prick teaser”. And if we did not pick up the allusion first time, the follow up line reads, “She took me half the way there.” This was the type of double-speak humor that Lennon and McCartney reveled in. Moreover, they invariably squeezed more than one (or two) layers from their linguistic trickery. “Day Tripper”, besides “teasing” the censors by testing the alertness of their interpretative antennas, also joked within, mocking the part-time hippies who lacked total commitment to their causes; they were referred to in the song as just “Sunday drivers” with “one-way tickets”.
In “I Am the Walrus” (1967) the band took their imagistic humor to new levels of eccentric abstraction. Like a modern-day Edward Lear on acid, Lennon took psychedelia into the heart of the counter-culture with the song’s opening hippy testament: “I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together.” Once aboard its “magical mystery tour”, the song takes its passengers to scenes of “yellow matter custard, dripping from a dead dog’s eye”, or to the narrator “sitting on a cornflake, waiting for the van to come”. This world evoked was quite a remote one from that portrayed in “She Loves You” and “Please Please Me” three years earlier.
As much as Beatles humor drifted into the stratospheres of hippy absurdity in the latter years of the decade, as always, this was only part of the story of the times. For every “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds”, there was a down-to-earth lyrical expression of sense and social sensibility. Like Dylan, the Beatles were social subversives as well as private poets. Often, the Beatles’ more socially concerned lyrics would be direct responses to incidents or trends they were engaged with; and usually, they would be tackled with a humor that was clever and often acid-tongued. As early as “Paperback Writer” (1965) the band had showed its consciousness of the struggles, demands, and pressures to compromise when working within the “publishing” arena. Resisting those forces that wanted the band to freeze in time as the loveable mop-tops, they constructed a cover for their 1966 album, Yesterday…and Today (which included both “Paperback Writer” and “Day Tripper”), that spat (and spattered blood!) in the faces of those who would seek to box and sanitize the band’s image. Re-enacting a butcher’s shop scene, the cover shot depicted a doll ripped into multiple body parts and covered with blood. This grotesque display proved rather too controversial for Capitol Records, though, who swiftly replaced the offending cover for the US market.
The sensitivities of the mainstream American market would be tested again by an off-the-cuff comment made by John Lennon that “Christianity will go….It will vanish and shrink….We’re more popular than Jesus right now”. Such quips would be dismissed (or at least recognized) as “scally” boast humor in Britain, as mere tongue-in-cheek faux provocations. In the US, though, the “joke” failed to translate, and after KKK death-threats and ceremonial burnings of Beatles records, Lennon was pressured to back-peddle into a series of half-hearted (and insincere) apologies. To show his distaste for the intransigent closed-mindedness he had been victim to, Lennon shot back with the last laugh in “The Ballad of John & Yoko” (1969), in which he trumped his detractors with wordplay and mock self-pity in his winning hand: “Christ, you know it ain’t easy, you know how hard it can be / The way things are going, they’re gonna crucify me.”
Latter-day minstrels, the Beatles sang and strummed their way into the hearts, minds, and consciousnesses of the world, not only during the ‘60s, but also ever since. Their originality came from their passion for learning from that which had preceded them, and their creative imagination came from re-configuring that knowledge into fresh forms, styles, and techniques. As with their contemporary, Bob Dylan, to account for the Beatles’ legacy and influence is a book-length proposition in its own right/write. There are few corners of the planet (during their time or since) where the Beatles are not both known and loved. Much of this legacy can be traced to their irrepressible humor, a four-part collective force that reached into many traditions and types of laughter, disseminating them anew for the world’s populace. When the band broke up in ‘70, that world lost the most significant rock band of the age, but it also inherited the subsequent explosion of musical diversity and humorous expression that would come (largely because of them) in their wake. Rarely does one hear or see a rock band today that has not been influenced in some fashion by the “character” that the Beatles playfully bestowed to the collective consciousness.
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The above essay is an excerpt from a forthcoming book from PopMatters/Soft Skull about rock-related artists who use(d) humor as a primary instrument of rebellion.