If you ask anyone what the Beatles sang about, they will say “love” if they’re thinking of “Love Me Do” and “She Loves Me,” or they’ll say “loneliness” if they’re thinking of “Eleanor Rigby” or “She’s Leaving Home.” Some people will mention drugs if they’re remembering “Strawberry Fields” or “Tomorrow Never Knows.” Those who care about, as it were, crotchets and quavers are known to compare Paul McCartney to Schumann, as Ned Rorem did when he wrote in these pages in 1968,5 or liken John Lennon to Chopin. But the true, workaday beauty of the Beatles’ words and the music is related to the matter of mutation—the foursome’s great theme. They were a wonderful group because they truly inhabited their own ambivalence, making music that grew as it changed, songs that were loaded with an experience of contradiction and exploration. As with many of their contemporaries, they could have remained a charmingly harmonic pop band forever; they could have scattered their perky songs like coins before the crowd and never been resented for it; they could have been Gerry and the Pacemakers. But the individual members of the Beatles—McCartney, Lennon, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr—spent a decade growing in and out of themselves, moving toward and apart from each other and their fame, until they finally spun into legend.
We take their innovations for granted now, as if those young men had not been real people living in a world of small, actual discoveries, but supersonic characters in a comic strip. Yet when people first bought the album Revolver and heard the guitars going backward, it seemed that some sublime disjunction was taking place and that the Beatles knew something that other people did not. They knew something about their current moment and something about the fantasies of their audience and that is perhaps the largest single thing to know in show business. While the Revolver LP created the impression, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band made people feel that the group could offer not just hidden truths but a whole new way of life, and The White Album of 1968 seemed to millions like a rather grand echo chamber of moral concerns, from My Lai and civil rights to sexual liberation.
I was born the year that album was released, so it was nothing to do with me at the time, but the album has since come to seem to me the most that can be done with rock music. If Bob Dylan and Lou Reed were more genuinely literary, the Beatles produced more puzzling and penetrating art. “The people gave their money and they gave their screams,” said George Harrison, “but the Beatles gave their nervous systems, which is a much more difficult thing to give.” In their talk and in their jibes to the press, the Beatles always seemed sweetly at home in themselves, just lads from Liverpool underneath all the mania. But in fact they carried some heady enigmas into the public sphere, not least of them the bringing of English dirt and chaos into the homes of clean-living America. Their career shows a trail-blazing democratization of cultural authority: Seventy years before them, what did it take to tinker with the old consciousness? The single-mindedness of Nietzsche? The martyrdom of Oscar Wilde? The almost private experiments of Gustav Mahler? A group of Impressionists? The Beatles had no training, no permission, and no great tradition either, but they had their own hungers and the instinct of a popular mandate. The real surprise was how they turned a mirror on that populism, song by song, album by album, in some measure showing their fans the new society that they had begun to constitute.
Four quite ordinary boys from Liverpool. In 1966, in the Philippines, the year after the Marcoses came to power, who do you think was on the flamboyant leader’s wish-list of artists who could come and appear to confirm his “democratic” revolution? Only one name: the Beatles. The band played a concert, but, failing to turn up at a palace function, they were more or less deported and Brian Epstein, the Beatles’ manager, had to pay back their earnings before the plane was allowed to take off. It was perhaps the dangers of excessive populism that Lennon was commenting on when he observed that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus; he was pilloried in America for the statement, but, actually, he was saying something very straightforward and real. He wasn’t calling for the overthrow of religion by rock and roll, but, more simply, expressing surprise at the way religion’s ancient fantasia had given way to cries for the newer, more prosaic messiahs, a bunch of Merseyside vandals. Nowadays, it is no big deal to notice that more young people watch The Simpsons than attend church, but, in 1966, the insult burrowed into the heart of an American paranoia—American specifically: the comment was actually made in a London newspaper, where nobody cared—and the result was that Beatlemania found its dark opposite in people who couldn’t burn their images fast enough.
In four years the Beatles had become as complicated as their decade, and by the 1966 American tour things had turned nasty. The America that had both nourished them as English kids and received them as heroes in 1964 was now beginning to buckle under the shock of the new, under the demands and freedoms that forces such as the Beatles had brought into play. Beatlemania ended at that point and something else took its place—the Beatles as soft revolutionaries and agitators, the Beatles as harbingers of strangeness and great changes to come. The songs were showing the Indian influence—also the influence of hallucinogenic drugs—and musical transformation had been the hallmark of that Revolver LP of 1966, with its squealing amplifier feedback and lyrical accounts of fear and death and tension.6
America behaved that year as if its innocence was being corrupted. “One night on a show in the South somewhere [Memphis] somebody let off a firecracker while we were on stage,” said Lennon later. “There had been threats to shoot us, the Klan were burning Beatle records outside and a lot of the crew-cut kids were joining in with them. Someone let off a firecracker and every one of us—I think it’s on film—look at each other, because each thought it was the other that had been shot. It was that bad.”
The demonstrations were, by one set of symbols, an assertion of white Christian supremacy. By another, they were the most extreme Beatle fantasy yet devised. They showed how far the Beatles had gone in engaging with the world, how deeply they had penetrated even its sickest and most ancient passions, and how complex were the burdens their ambitions had forced them to assume. The burnings were deplorable and stupid, but as a social and mass-psychological reaction to a certain provocation they were not without their logic. Fear of the Beatles and fear of social tolerance were not only compatible; each was implied by the other. At certain points in the ‘60s, the feelings people had for the Beatles and for the world around them came together and formed a circle—a magic circle, a sphere of fantasy within which mutations of thought were formed, the unimaginable was imagined, and action was taken.
This was clearly not the Sixties that everyone experienced—not the Sixties of J. Edgar Hoover, for instance, or George W. Bush—but the modern personality the Beatles promulgated is the one that broke the old culture’s back. As much as John F. Kennedy, the Beatles brought a new attitude front and center, creating at once a ferocity of love and hatred, the kind of appeal, we now understand, that sometimes finds its resolution at the tip of an assassin’s bullet. The Beatles’ songs got so complicated they couldn’t be played by the band live, and the lyrics, from one album to another, grew very keen to recognize the delirium that lives somewhere inside democracy.
Paul McCartney was the more optimistic and melodic of the pair—and the more shallow, according to conventional wisdom. Lennon could be shallow enough when he wasn’t trying—but generally Lennon was the more visionary, seeing terror, and some kind of resignation to terror, as one of the potential outgrowths of freedom in our time. Lennon’s powerful ambivalence was four fifths of his genius: “Half of what I say is meaningless,” he wrote in a song to his dead mother, “but I say it just to reach you.” Lennon and McCartney found beauty in chaos, and that is rock and roll’s oldest and most natural secret. But in uglier minds, such as Charles Manson’s, songs such as “Happiness Is a Warm Gun” and “Helter Skelter” became manifestoes for some of the purest and least ambiguous badness known.
America’s counterculture was a dark fairy tale and it was Joan Didion’s The White Album, a beautiful portrait of the decade’s voids and erasures, which brought out, in Flemish detail one might say, the very proximity of that fairy tale to nightmare; it is a book in which the Beatles’ long dance of innocence and experience is fixed and pinned like a butterfly in a glass case. Those boys who met at the church garden fete in Liverpool could hardly have imagined their lyrics would one day end up painted in blood on the walls of Sharon Tate’s house on Cielo Drive. “Many people I know in Los Angeles,” wrote Didion, “believe that the Sixties ended abruptly on August 9, 1969, ended at the exact moment when word of the murders on Cielo Drive travelled like brushfire through the community, and in a sense this is true. The tension broke that day. The paranoia was fulfilled.”
McKinney’s book maps that development rather brilliantly, and one begins to see exactly how the harmless, tuneful, teeny-bop band of 1962 came, quite alarmingly, over time, to conduct those discordant investigations into death and chaos and crisis in the second half of its career. Where the Sgt. Pepper album had been a rather fey acid trip, an escape from social reality into some color-saturated hippie nothingness, the Beatles’ White Album is the most perfect rock album ever made, one with a social and psychological resonance that people are still conjuring with today. Can an album of rock music do that? Well, nobody really thought so before then, but nobody would doubt it now, especially not those legions who believe so completely in their own buying power as the truest expression of the will to choose life and alter the world. Charles Manson may have been, as McKinney says, jealous of the Beatles’ screams, and the band may have awakened in him, as in so many, “a latent sense of entitlement,” the certainty “that he had something to say that was worthy of being attended to by those awed millions.” For others, the song “Revolution” was a denunciation of student revolt in 1968, a hymn to appeasement in the face of Mayor Daley’s storm troopers. In any event, the Beatles had come to seem like moral rabble-rousers whether faced with screaming girls, Jesus freaks, leftist warriors, or the FBI. At one time or another everybody has had at least one good reason to love the Beatles and at least one good reason to hate them. “Radical critics were wrong,” writes McKinney,
in failing to acknowledge that the Beatles had done their bit for the revolution. Had begun doing it when they climbed their first coal wagon as the Quarry Men: had gone on doing it battling the crowd in Hamburg, banging a new sound against the Cavern walls, giving themselves to audience after audience, drawing in one here, alienating another there; and had paid for it in the rain of jelly babies and Manila fists and Jesus hysterics and mad love, in the sacrifice of their safety and the burning of their youth.
A great deal of writing about the 1960s seems to helium-huff its way into intelligibility, but McKinney is right: as journeys for artists go, the Beatles’ journey into their time now appears in its own way no less surprising and world-modifying than the developments of Picasso. “I say in speeches that a plausible mission for artists is to make people appreciate being alive at least a little bit,” wrote Kurt Vonnegut in Timequake. “I am then asked if I know of any artists who pulled that off. I reply, ‘The Beatles did.’” The group’s story is an inspired dream-sequence about self-transformation. Lennon and McCartney were two scruffs with poor school results; they each lost their mothers very young, in those first years in England after the war. Your mother is dead, your world is bombed and dirty. What you going to do? That’s the question. And the simple answer—“we’re going to pick up our guitars and change the world”—now acts like an unconscious mantra for generations who take their entitlement for granted, including those people whose busy, Sixties-experienced shadows begin to spread over everything from the carpets in the House of Lords to those lawns just in front of the White House.
"The Music of the Beatles," The New York Review, January 18, 1968. This was the essay in which Mr. Rorem also called the Beatles "cockneys," a designation which thrilled the denizens of East London but caused chaos in the affections of Liverpudlians everywhere. Rorem, by the way, is still unburdening himself on such topics. See the latest volume of his diaries, Lies (Counterpoint, 2000): "All art dates, from the moment it is made," he writes. "Some dates well, some badly. Giotto, Le Sacre, the Beatles date well. Beethoven's Ninth, Lautrec, the Rolling Stones date badly. (Pick your own examples: personal taste is risky, even when the argument's solid.)" ↩
Take one song, "She Said She Said," a menacing and regretful track on that album, heralding a very different group from the one that sang "I Wanna Hold Your Hand." "The antithesis of McCartney's impeccable neatness," writes Ian MacDonald in the best account of the Beatles' music, Revolution in the Head (Holt, 1994). "Lennon's anguished 'She Said She Said' is a song of tormented self-doubt struggling in a lopsided web of harmony and metre.... It draws its inspiration from the day in August 1965 when Lennon took LSD with Roger McGuinn and David Crosby in Los Angeles." ↩
“The Music of the Beatles,” The New York Review, January 18, 1968. This was the essay in which Mr. Rorem also called the Beatles “cockneys,” a designation which thrilled the denizens of East London but caused chaos in the affections of Liverpudlians everywhere. Rorem, by the way, is still unburdening himself on such topics. See the latest volume of his diaries, Lies (Counterpoint, 2000): “All art dates, from the moment it is made,” he writes. “Some dates well, some badly. Giotto, Le Sacre, the Beatles date well. Beethoven’s Ninth, Lautrec, the Rolling Stones date badly. (Pick your own examples: personal taste is risky, even when the argument’s solid.)” ↩
Take one song, “She Said She Said,” a menacing and regretful track on that album, heralding a very different group from the one that sang “I Wanna Hold Your Hand.” “The antithesis of McCartney’s impeccable neatness,” writes Ian MacDonald in the best account of the Beatles’ music, Revolution in the Head (Holt, 1994). “Lennon’s anguished ‘She Said She Said’ is a song of tormented self-doubt struggling in a lopsided web of harmony and metre…. It draws its inspiration from the day in August 1965 when Lennon took LSD with Roger McGuinn and David Crosby in Los Angeles.” ↩