Part 1: Intro
In the space of a single month in June of 1967, the Beatles released their technicolor magnum opus, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and premiered their signature hippie anthem “All You Need is Love” during Our World, the first ever worldwide live satellite television broadcast. In late 1968, they released the record now generally known as The White Album, their famously eclectic eponymously-named follow-up to Sgt. Pepper (unless you count Magical Mystery Tour, which no one ever really does). With these two albums, the Beatles transformed their entire role as living metaphors for the ‘60s zeitgeist. But maybe not in the way we’ve been lead to think.
The Beatles were consistently constructed as symbolic avatars for the social and cultural shifts of their time and place, even while they were still in the midst of that time and place. Their 1964 descent on America came mere weeks after the young, hopeful King-Arthur-Proxy-in-Chief was gunned down by shadowy forces in a sunny plaza in Dallas. Their giddy pop songs were derived from the ghettoized music of the same Black America that was marching for its civil rights across the South, and their shaggy haircuts and dismissive wit spoke to a impetuous rejection of fossilized mores and codes whose breakdown was the fuel for Swinging London. Their very being seemed to presage a burst of mass enlightenment, a collective epiphany for the messy cannibalistic social and cultural superstructure of the Western democracies that never quite came.
But the funny thing about the cultural signification of Beatlemania was that it was entirely subtextual, or, to be more accurate, entirely non-textual. One had to go beyond the beaty guts of the music and the superficial content of the lyrics to find the revolutionary context of the Beatles. They didn’t wallow in the darkness of the sociopathic fringe like the Rolling Stones, didn’t speak truth to power with preening sincerity like the young Bob Dylan and his contemporary folkie-leftists, didn’t shout nihilistic slogans through a loudspeaker like the Sex Pistols or their punk brethren.
Or, at least they didn’t at first. At first, the Fab Four were figures closer to their hero, Elvis Presley, whose blasphemous hips dealt a mortal blow to the stone fortress that the generation that followed him would see crumble into rubble. The rebellion of the early-‘60s Beatles was based not in what they said, but in how they said it, how they looked when they said it, and how they made us feel when they said it.
Perhaps all art has a similar basis when its appeal stretches to the masses, but the figuration of pop music as a kind of art was not exactly well-established when Sgt. Pepper hit the shelves. It’s myopic to give the Beatles all the credit for establishing this figuration, but more than any other act of their time (or maybe of any time), they made the intellectual avant-garde somehow accessible to the unwashed millions. To some critics (Frank Zappa among them), this was an act of avaricious appropriation that would lead to the widespread dilution of the revolutionary potential of the cutting edge, perhaps irrevocably. But by melding the avant-garde with their highly-refined pop songcraft while simultaneously branching out into different lyrical directions, the Beatles fashioned a new heightened politics of pop.