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.
Part 2: ‘Sgt. Pepper’ and the Sociology of Imperial Nostalgia
Part 2: ‘Sgt. Pepper’ and the Sociology of Imperial Nostalgia
How does this work, then? For one, it set the cultural antennas of the attuned members of their fanbase vibrating wildly at the slightest provocation. The Beatles’ 1967 output is almost always overtly identified with the psychedelic rock movement and with the fuzzy, amorphous “Summer of Love”. Both of these “movements”, however, were much more geographically limited, bursting loud and free out of San Francisco and striking far-flung outposts with ever-diminishing subcultural ripples. For the Beatles, ensconced in their suburban mansions, swinging nightspots, and Abbey Road studio enclave, “flower power” was a distant mirage. They might well don its fashions and gaze through its kaleidoscopic drug haze, but their music would be another beast altogether.
This is why I argue that the defining album of the hippie movement was only tangentially related to it: Sgt. Pepper is about Britain, and the Summer of Love was always about America. The only song on the album that approaches the ideology and rhetoric of the hippie counterculture was George Harrison’s sole contribution, the lush sitar-washed “Within You Without You”, and it follows that Harrison was the only Beatle to have visited Haight-Ashbury at the peak of the scene. Even then, Eastern philosophy informed the lyric more deeply than did acid culture, and it’s still a dense and stunning composition no matter its ideology.
The ambling single “All You Need is Love” is its companion piece, sounding for all the world like something written for all the world. It has become the theme song for the Fab Four’s “hippie phase”, for better or worse (mostly for worse). Though it’s perhaps unfair to totally dismiss either the song or Magical Mystery Tour, the half-baked TV movie soundtrack that included it, they are both afflicted with terminal levels of hippie radiation, giving them an unhealthy tie-dyed glow. One mustn’t look completely beyond this part of the Beatles oeuvre, but the bulk of Sgt. Pepper had something much closer to home in mind.
Deprived of the inexorable creative momentum of touring by the end of 1966, the group was settled and recumbent for the first time in years. For John Lennon and Paul McCartney, this inaction pointed inevitably to introspection. Both the “Strawberry Fields Forever”/”Penny Lane” single of early 1967 and the LP that followed it in the summer were concerned primarily with twilight visions of an imperial Britain that was receding further every day.
There was a dreamy nostalgia to Lennon’s escapist memories of Strawberry Fields, the old Salvation Army orphanage grounds near his childhood home in Liverpool, but strong hints of mental unease were also audible in the circling mellotron and swooning strings. Likewise, McCartney’s characteristically cheerier “Penny Lane” gave another Liverpool landmark a theatrical bustle with an undercurrent of eccentricity (“very strange”). Though its brassy vividness contrasted with the formless enchantment of the other side of the single, the songs are two sides of the same coin: unique attempts to capture a very different sort of fond memory of the British past.
Sgt. Pepper contextualized this neo-nostalgia more fully; it’s a long-form tone poem on the curious stew of post-war, post-imperial Britain, lamenting its gauzy innocence while probing its peculiar fringes. It is not a conservative vision, but a progressive one; to envision a more hopeful future, the Beatles seemed to feel that their generation would have to extricate the good from Britain’s past and leave the rotten bits to decompose. The widening demographic gap that defined the ’60s, with its outward clash of generational values, was not being disregarded. But the Beatles saw that tension as being productive, constituting a foundation for a shared road forward. To those who cared for nothing but tearing down the stalwart walls of their fathers, this would certainly seem like a dangerous compromise. But Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band would just love to take you home.
The society of the older generation does take its lumps on the record, to be sure. In the midst of the wellsprings of emotion of “She’s Leaving Home” is the lament of the shocked mother: “‘Daddy, our baby’s gone! / How could she treat us so thoughtlessly? / How could she do this to me?” Though the final refrain gives us a superficial reason for the nameless heroine’s actions (“she is having fun”), her mother’s self-centered reaction is all the explanation required, and reflects the sense of entitlement of the wartime generation that their boomer children were struggling to shrug off.
War was always a retiring spectre for the Beatles’ generation, something their parents had lived through and sometimes couldn’t forgive their children for missing out on. There’s a moment in A Hard Day’s Night that speaks to this social reality. Early in the film, a haughty middle-aged man in a suit is forced to share space with our moptopped heroes on a train. So irritated is he by their lack of proper decorum that he finally blurts out, “I fought the war for your sort.” Lennon quips back: “I bet you’re sorry you won.” It was penned by a screenwriter, yes, but the sociology of ’60s Britain is summed up in that one exchange. In America, of course, the younger generation was marching against the war that their elders wanted them to fight, but in the corners of many British hearts, the last war had never ended.
Though Sgt. Pepper is mostly preoccupied with anything other than war, the fictional martial band that provides its conceptual framing is a faint nod at the fading relevance of the British Army in quotidian life. For centuries, Britain had been sending men abroad to fight for the empire; by the ’60s, there was no longer any empire to fight for, only a country of military and civilian veterans still licking their wounds and expecting their offspring to do the same. But the Beatles don’t want to rehash all of that; it wasn’t the work ethic, the discipline, the collective stiff upper lip that they wanted to preserve of the old Britain. They recall the playing fields, the bustling boulevards, the grandstand players, the pretty meter maids, the children’s drawings.
Sgt. Pepper and his band, “the act you remember all these years”, are as much a reminder of these church fetes and fanciful jubilees as are the whimsical circus performers of “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!”. At the heart of the “tangerine trees and marmalade skies” of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” is a childlike sense of wonder. The Britain of the Beatles is not great because it persevered grimly through the blitzkrieg, but because it came through with its joy and laughter intact.
Viewed through this lens, “Getting Better” is an anthem for a forward-thinking country that no longer keeps its people apart from the things that they loved: “man, I was mean / but I’m changing my scene.” But the vision is hardly a narrow one. Certainly, in “A Day in the Life”, Lennon “just had to laugh” at the man who “didn’t notice that the lights had changed” and “blew his mind out in a car”, and it’s not hard to read the reference as a veiled comment on conservative forces oblivious to social change. But there’s also McCartney’s “When I’m Sixty-Four”, a genuine attempt by a young man to both imagine himself in the shoes of his elders and to find the experience to be rewarding. This is the key to Sgt. Pepper‘s potent affect and its lasting, multi-generational appeal: the crescendo and final piano chord at its terminus isn’t just a sonic epiphany for those who have been “turned on”, but hopefully for everyone who cares to listen.
Part 3: “Coming Down Fast”: ‘The White Album’ and the Dark Side of Revolution
Part 3: “Coming Down Fast”: ‘The White Album’ and the Dark Side of Revolution
The Beatles LP that the world now knows colloquially as The White Album was released on the 22nd of November, 1968. It was five years to the day since John F. Kennedy was assassinated, and in America at least, the awful promise of that day was being fulfilled. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy had met a similar fate to that of the Presidential martyr; pop culture icon Andy Warhol nearly had as well. In Vietnam, the Tet Offensive and the My Lai massacre turned an already unpopular war into an ongoing public horror. Antiwar and civil rights demonstrations on campuses across the U.S. were erupting into violence. Propelled by his “silent majority”, a divided Democratic Party, and promises of eventual withdrawal from Vietnam, Richard Nixon won the Presidential election in the fall, inaugurating six years of near-Shakespearean villainy in the White House.
Though the Beatles had been chasing shadows of Orientialist enlightenment in India with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and tentatively dealing with their own business affairs after the passing of long-time manager Brian Epstein, even they had to have noticed the almost daily spasms rending the nation across the Atlantic to which they had long felt a special affinity. They need not have even looked that far, though. The unrest had spread to England, where a March demonstration in Grosvenor Square against American involvement in Vietnam had resulted in 91 injuries and 200 arrests. Across the Channel, the French government had nearly been toppled by student uprisings and general strikes in May, and Czechoslovakia had fallen behind the Iron Curtain by the fall. Some date the harsh takedown of the idealistic hippie dream to Altamont or the Manson murders, but by the time The White Album was on the shelves, the youth revolution’s days seemed numbered.
Listeners with any measure of socio-historical savvy will always listen to the Beatles’ eponymous ninth album with these events in mind. But the fruits of this cultural inspiration are disparate, scattered. The White Album is legendary for its disjointed nature (or natures), as well-known for its wild fluctuations in style and quality as it is for its classic passages. Sparked by unease and echoes of violence, it wound up inadvertently sparking further acts of terrible violence that would form a disturbing coda to the Sixties counterculture. In its unwieldy sprawl, it synthesized the roiling unease of its moment. To be pithy, it is the Fab Four’s great Russian novel.
To my mind, the famous starkness of The Beatles‘s cover design not only granted the album its well-worn moniker but also cast an odd pall on its sonic contents. Though its 30 songs were varied in their songcraft and rich in their production, there is a washed-out haze around them, a tense dilution. The fissures within the band were obviously growing while the album was being recorded, to such an extent that even the cheery Ringo Starr had to take a break from the unsheathed knives in the studio.
As a result, moodiness and occasional outright anger dominates the album. The often-bitter John Lennon was thus in his element, and largely rules the roost. The throat-tearing “Yer Blues” presaged the aural primal therapy of his unforgiving solo debut John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band with its opening couplet of maximum self-loathing: “I’m lonely / Wanna die”. “Glass Onion” follows “I Am the Walrus” in thumbing his nose at those who dealt in educated over-interpretation of his songs (I guess I didn’t take the hint). “Happiness is a Warn Gun” and “Sexy Sadie” quiver with bitter disappointment, “Julia” with regretful sadness. Even the gentleness of one of his greatest songs, “Dear Prudence”, seems to have an errant edge.
George Harrison’s building frustration at his marginal songwriting role in the band burst forth in the bridge of the otherwise funereal “Long, Long, Long”, and found further expression in the glib dehumanization of white-collar squares in “Piggies”. Even Paul McCartney couldn’t keep out of the muck. Although he still squeezed out a peppy potboiler or two (“Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da”, “Birthday”), his contributions either lamented (“Mother Nature’s Son”, “Blackbird”) or raged (“Why Don’t We Do It in the Road?”, “Helter Skelter”).
The Beatles weren’t just reflecting a collective mood (or their own moods), however. More direct and literal lyrical commentary on current events would come later, particularly for Lennon, but his various “Revolution” variants were a tentative step in the agit-prop direction. Leftist revolutionary rhetoric had reached its apex in the West in France’s May 1968 unrest, but like the Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again” a few years later, the view Lennon takes of these concepts in “Revolution” predicts their decline. Idealism and cynicism often collided in Lennon’s head, and here that collision is audible. He goes for didactic equivocation in the verses (“you better free your mind instead”) and a reassuring platitude in the chorus (“you know it’s gonna be all right”). Opting out of “destruction” in the rockier single version, he counts himself both “out” and “in” on the foot-dragging album track. If he ever makes up his mind, the moment will likely have passed. Ideologues will be disappointed, but Lennon’s uncertain stance reflects the divisions of the progressive left throughout the twentieth century, divisions that far too often allowed right-wing political forces to enact policies that all left-wing parties could agree were apposite to their views.
The dark irony of probing The White Album for hermeneutic valences and unintentional meanings comes pre-equipped, mind you. We can all thank Charles Manson for that. Teasing out cultural reflections through academic criticism is far different from a paranoid mania that sees hidden meanings everywhere. Manson was a psychopath, but you don’t need to be a psychopath to hear what you want to hear. Still, its association with the Manson Family’s apocalyptic fantasies and disgusting violence gives The White Album an aura of black magic and menace, an aura that is not altogether indistinguishable as one listens to the album in isolation. Especially in its penultimate track, the unnerving sonic collage “Revolution 9”, this baffling but rich record fires our frayed post-modern synapses and leaves us more uncertain about civilization’s forward progression than before. It’s not an altogether pleasant experience, but on occasion, it’s an entirely necessary one.