How the Beatles Changed Britain and the World
The Scotsman, October 6th 2012
It was fifty years ago yesterday that a popular revolution began in humble settings which had a seismic global impact that still affect the world today.
This is the UK release on the Parlophone record label of the first ever single by the Beatles, ‘Love Me Do’.
The Beatles changed so much: the image of Britain, music, culture, fashion, attitudes to class. They made Britain feel a better place and more dynamic, ‘swinging’ and ‘cool’ to people across the world.
It is impossible to sense, post-Beatles, what Britain was like pre-Beatles. Such is the difference between before and after. Before the Beatles, Britain was a stuffy, hidebound, class ridden society; the land of the trial of ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ and the pan loaf accents of the Beeb.
The Beatles didn’t change everything themselves. They heralded and presided over a revolution whose seeds were already there in 1950s Britain in the wit and genius of ‘The Goons’ (which the Beatles adored) and ‘Round the Horne’ with Kenneth Williams and in young people loving rock and roll.
The Beatles matter for a number of reasons. First and foremost obviously is the music. The transition from the hesitant, nervous, rudimentary harmonies of ‘Love Me Do’ through ‘A Hard Day’s Night’, to the psychedelic experimentation of ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ and the late period, ‘The White Album’ and ‘Abbey Road’ is even to this day, spell-binding and dazzling in its journey.
Then there were the four distinct personalities, John (the acid one), Paul (the cute one), George (the silent one) and Ringo (the cuddly one). They became ‘the Fab Four’ but as time wore on John was seen as the cool, political, rock and roll one and Paul the lightweight square: a process aided by some of McCartney’s solo choices (‘Wonderful Christmastime’ anyone?) and the assassination of Lennon in 1980.
They showed their mettle. There were John’s famous remarks at the Royal Command Performance, inviting those in ‘the more expensive seats’ to ‘just rattle your jewellery’; there was the dazzling laconic wit of their press conferences; and there was their group identity – of each feeling they were a Beatle.
It is conventional wisdom in rock circles to praise the later Beatles work; to see ‘Sgt. Pepper’ as the apex of their serious music, but their early songs and albums contain a totally infectious joyful spirit and exuberance.
The first album, ‘Please Please Me’ was recorded in less than ten hours. It was done so intensely that Lennon nearly lost his voice reducing his take on the Isley Brothers ‘Twist and Shout’ to an even more raw, blues sound.
The 1963-64 singles, ‘She Loves You’ and ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’ show their musicianship, songwriting and lyrics and collective sound all maturing, but it is the catchy, irresistible ‘yeah, yeah, yeah’ which defines that era.
They changed a Britain desperate to change. In their footsteps came other bands – the Stones, the Kinks and Who. Television and culture became more creative and imaginative; this was the Britain that produced ‘That Was The Week That Was’ and ‘Monty Python’. Society began to become less restrictive and repressive, and people came to feel more free and able to express themselves.
They were the first British act to ‘conquer America’. Cliff Richard had been viewed in the States as a pale, unconvincing imitation of Elvis. The Beatles came to America in the aftermath of the assassination of JFK and found a country grieving and in search of hope and a lift. And the Beatles in that famous ‘Ed Sullivan Show’ provided it.
The Beatles invented serious rock music, which might be seen as a good or bad thing. Leonard Bernstein called Lennon and McCartney the best composers since Schubert. ‘Sgt. Pepper’ was hailed as the first concept album; it wasn’t; but it did define ‘the summer of love’.
They changed how music was seen and enjoyed. Now people thought of musicians as serious artists; the rise of the singer-songwriter emerged, aided by Bob Dylan. People wanted to know what Lennon or McCartney meant in their songs.
People searched for hidden meanings; they played songs backwards; they wondered about the characters who inspired and filled the music: ‘the walrus was Paul’ declared John, while Paul’s songs had a range of people and their stories: ‘Eleanor Rigby’, ‘Lovely Rita’ (after the introduction of traffic wardens, and ‘Lady Madonna’ to name but three).
They even changed how music was written about. Philip Norman’s 1981 biography of the group, ‘Shout’ was one of the first serious and literary takes on modern music. Ian MacDonald’s ‘Revolution in the Head’ a decade later was the first attempt to understand an artist by analysing them song-by-song.
Fifty years later still talking about the Beatles. It is true that rock has become part of the conservatism of popular culture. It is the 50th anniversary of the Rolling Stones shortly and was just recently of the Beach Boys with Mike Love stopping his niggling at Brian Wilson long enough for a reunion tour.
Lennon said ‘the dream is over’ in 1970 and yet in a way it isn’t. The sixties may be over but the Sixties dream, fascination and allure continues, aided by the invention of the CD and the narcissism of the baby boomer generation.
Our fascination with the Beatles is about more than this and the sheer ingenuity, exuberance and range of the music. It is about where and what the sixties and the Beatles place in them represents.
It isn’t an accident that the sixties represented the cultural end of the shadow of World War Two hanging over society: of people beginning to forget about rationing and planning, and a generation of young people express themselves politically, socially and as consumers.
Then there is what came after; the seventies as a decade of divisiveness and declinism, and for all the claims of popular music through punk and new wave, post-punk, hip hop and rap, it never again caught the cultural zeitgeist the way the sixties did.
That decade made Britain and the West; it gave radicals and revolutionaries of the left hope of collective change; and while some of the right from Norman Tebbit to Mary Whitehouse saw it as the beginning of moral decline, in the celebration of the individual, hedonism and throwing off the shackles of authority, it aided the free market right more than the student radicals.
We are ultimately left with the music. Four men from Liverpool who conquered and changed the planet. They made the world feel a more magical, special place. Many of us are still in awe to what they did, while still not completely giving up hope that the transcendental feelings of joy that they tapped into and let us experience, might be articulated again someday in the world of popular music.