The Dream is Over: The Sixties, the Beatles and the Baby Boomers
The Scotsman, April 15th 2010
This week is the 40th anniversary of one of the most pivotal cultural moments of the post-war era in Britain and globally: the break-up of the Beatles.
Forty years ago on Saturday, Paul McCartney released his first ever solo album. In it was a pre-prepared interview which announced to a shocked world that ‘the dream is over’ and the Beatles were no more.
Some people have never quite got over that moment, or more accurately, have decided to choose to remain culturally and mentally in the 1960s.
When I was a child growing up in the 1970s young people used to say to older people all the time, ‘stop going on about the war’. This felt risqué and also a bit disrespectful, but the war at the time seemed to be everywhere.
The entire 1960s nostalgia fest puts the fixation on the war to shame. It seems looking at the claims made for the sixties that the modern world began in that decade. Youth rebellion, modern fashion, pop music, civil rights, feminism, gay rights – they are all meant to have begun in the 1960s.
Across the world from Algeria and Vietnam to Che Guevara in the Congo and Bolivia, national liberation struggles were throwing off the shackles of their oppressors. Life it seems for some in the West was one long Austin Powers movie from ‘Swinging London’ to ‘Carnaby Street’, pirate radio and lots of sex.
This is of course just one version of the sixties – the bad TV documentary version – but it has become the dominant one, and central to this is the ‘myth’ of the Beatles. Writing this as someone who was a huge Beatles fan as a young person, something has gone wrong with how they are portrayed and what they have become.
The Beatles have been canonised and made into near-saints, deified to the point of becoming a religion: something John Lennon would have understood in the 1960s with his ‘the Beatles are more popular than Christ’ remark.
The Beatles and the sixties have become a symbol for the hopes and dreams of the people who grew up with them, the baby boomer generation. Their constant referencing of this era is a story of telling themselves and everyone that they are different, haven’t ‘sold out’ and are not like their parents. And it is also about the disappointments, defeats and compromises which have followed from the sixties.
The world of women’s liberation, gay power and black power did not exactly follow, while the ‘Third World’ proved to be a big disappointment to student radicals. This messy reality hasn’t stopped baby boomers going on and on about the sixties, making films, documentaries, plays and books, while disguising that some of them – the Janet Street Porter generation – have turned into something worse than their parents: the modern establishment who pretend they are still ‘edgy’ and ‘outsiders’ to disguise that they are the new elitists.
What the myth of the Beatles has done is establish a faux rebelliousness which in reality became a new conservatism. The Beatles gave us great songs and music in the 1960s, but they appropriated black music and made it safe and white (like Elvis, the Stones, Led Zep), and they pushed black music out of the US charts when they landed in the States in 1964.
The Beatles gave us ‘rock’ as serious, pretentious ‘art’ which led ultimately to the sins of many a public school dorm and the ‘prog’ horrors of Yes and Genesis.
Nik Cohn in ‘Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom’ argues that the Beatles of ‘high culture’, ‘Sgt. Pepper’ and all that, represent, not their zenith, but the death of pop music. ‘Sgt. Pepper’, to Cohn was the triumph of artifice and studio technique over good tunes, and he makes the case that the truly wonderful period of Beatles music was the early pop songs of 1963-4.
It is true from where we stand now that we can have little understanding of the impact of the early Beatles in the stuffy, semi-Victorian Britain of 1963-4. Their music, along with a host of others was a shot in the arm, and a jolt to the elders who ran the country. Instead, we tend to belittle this epoch-making period, and glamorise and identify with the late 1960s era, as it is the one which seems more ‘modern’ to us.
Over the last forty years, the ‘real’ Beatles, the four complicated Liverpudlian lads who took the world by storm have receded into the mists of time to be replaced by the ‘mythical’ god-like Beatles, who changed everything, from music, to inventing the concept album, bringing about social change and campaigning for world peace.
What would the world look like today without the Beatles? Broadly much the same must be the answer. The sixties would still have experienced the same political and social upheavals from Vietnam and Czechoslovakia to civil rights and student protest.
The musical world would not have been that different, and might just have allowed for more experimentation and diversity, from the Beach Boys left-field magnum opus ‘Smile’ to black music not being pushed out of the charts. What we would have been saved from are all the bad Beatles impersonations of ‘power pop’ from Badfinger and Crowded House to Oasis.
The myths of the Beatles and the sixties does matter because it reveals a number of important things about society in Britain, the US and across the world. In the UK and across most of the West, the baby boomer generation have a powerful hold on what is popular culture. Across society, from the media and culture to business and politics, they have a powerful hold on the main levers of power and influence.
The power they have mixes an over-sentimentalised version of their youth and our near-past with a belief that they are still different, radical and innovative. The story of the sixties, and their endless tales of Vietnam anti-war marches or student rebellions, are an attempt to deflect from themselves and ourselves what they have turned into: a new elite whose entire raison d’etre is about maintaining and strengthening their position and privilege.
The baby boomer culture turned out to be insufferable, insular and self-congratulatory, motivated by the ideas of the ‘me’ generation and instant gratification, an argument explored by David Willetts in his recent book on them, ‘The Pinch’. It is no accident that the two most identifiable politicians of the baby boomers are Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, who personify the pitfalls and failings of this generation.
Consigning the Beatles to being just another pop group and the sixties to being just one more post-war decade might seem like a small step in the scheme of things, but it would be a powerful rebuff to the conceit and over-dominance of baby boomers over much of modern life.