From the Mop-Top to the Walrus: Some Funny Sides of the Beatles

Iain Ellis

Manifested in child-centered humor, the Beatles 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.

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.

* * *

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.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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