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Back in the US of A’

There is something very English in the marriage of boredom and catastrophe, and the England that existed immediately after the Second World War appears to have carried that manner rather well, as if looking over its shoulder to notice that lightning had just struck a teacup. Reading the work of V.S. Pritchett or the absconded Auden, you pick up the notion that Europe had just come through a spell of bad weather, as though the only important question emerging from the war was about how it might have affected the course of English normality. The great horror was that things would remain the same, second only to a fear that things would never be the same again. The mood is captured nicely in “1948” by Roy Fuller, a poet who happened to spend his life working for the Woolwich Equitable Building Society:

Reading among the crumbs of leaves upon
The lawn, beneath the thin October sun,
I hear behind the words
And noise of birds
The drumming aircraft; and am blind till they have gone.
The feeling that they give is now no more
That of the time when we had not reached war:
It is as though the lease
Of crumbling peace
Had run already and that life was as before.
For this is not the cancer or the scream,
A grotesque interlude, but what will seem
On waking to us all
Most natural—
The gnawed incredible existence of a dream.

England appeared then to be a country of old men, a place in which dreams were routinely gnawed down by broken teeth, while America in 1948 appeared to the English like a stately pleasure dome, housing this great new phenomenon, the teenager, and busy with every kind of plan for the future, from abbreviated hemlines to the hydrogen bomb. The compulsions of teenagers have come to so dominate the world that we might sometimes forget they used not to exist. In 1900, for instance, 20 percent of American kids between ten and fifteen were in full-time employment and, even as late as D-Day itself, Andy Hardy represented a world where young people did useful things and had fun before going to bed alone at ten o’clock. What was the teenage market in 1945 but comic books, bobby pins, and the Toni home perm? But in 1948 the transistor radio was invented (kids could suddenly listen to music in their own rooms), and the 1948 Cadillac came with tail-fins and a radio console, a vehicle customized for teenagers and featured in a blazing new magazine called Hot Rod.1 It was also the year of the Kinsey Report. Ed Sullivan’s Toast of the Town was first aired in that summer of 1948 and it would eventually promise a world in which the likes and dislikes of young people in blue jeans could appear to run the culture.

In a bombed-out Liverpool, a dozen years later, new shining buildings were being erected and English normality was erupting into something of a classless, American-accented meritocracy: four cheeky lads with scuffed shoes, the Beatles, came bursting with new harmonies and even newer energies, and they appeared to be telling young people they had choices. “America used to be a big youth place in everybody’s imagination,” said John Lennon:

We all knew America, all of us. All those movies: every movie we ever saw as children, whether it was Disneyland or Doris Day, Rock Hudson, James Dean or Marilyn. Everything was American: Coca-Cola, Heinz ketchup…. The big artists were American. It was the Americans coming to the London Palladium. They wouldn’t even make an English movie without an American in it, even a B movie…. They’d have a Canadian if they couldn’t get an American…. Liverpool is cosmopolitan. It’s where the sailors would come home on the ships with the blues records from America.2

Devin McKinney’s intelligent study of the Beatles finds the four in a Liverpool coated in the grime of Empire; among the cellars, bunkers, and backstreets of postwar Britain, they “listened to America and lived on fantasies of everything their culture lacked.” McKinney listens to a tape of the sixteen-year-old John Lennon singing with the Quarry Men, the ramshackle group that preceded the Beatles, at a church garden fete. It is the day Lennon met Paul McCartney. “The music,” writes McKinney, “though it resembles rock and roll, sounds as if it owes nothing to any form, because it is so completely itself. It feels like ugly British kids make it, and sounds as if it comes from under the ground.”

The Beatles were somehow very British yet they sang with American accents, which shows you what Britain was becoming in those years. The group echoed the sound of America back on itself, only louder, newer, with more screams, and their story, rightly divined in this book, is about how they came to represent the thrill of rock music as a high form of dreaming in the present tense of history. It is exactly forty years since the Beatles landed at JFK. What did they bring with them apart from an instant legend of old Europe transmogrified by America? Greeted by “a squall of unmediated adolescent emotion,” the Beatles never questioned the meaning of the sobbing girls who crowded around them, or of the outraged adults who would later oversee the burning of their records. America was ready for something new in 1964, and the Beatles surprised even themselves at their agility when it came to meeting that readiness. “There were millions of kids at the airport,” said Paul McCartney:

We heard about it in mid-air…. The pilot had rang ahead and said, “Tell the boys there’s a big crowd waiting for them.” We thought, “Wow! God, we have really made it.” I remember, for instance, the great moment of getting into the limo and putting on the radio and hearing a running commentary on us: “They have just left the airport and are coming towards New York City….” It was like a dream. The greatest fantasy ever.

Ringo Starr, the drummer, showed all the excitement of a wallflower suddenly plucked onto the dance floor by the college jock. “On the plane,” he said, “flying into the airport, I felt as though there was a big octopus with tentacles that were grabbing the plane and dragging us down into New York.”3

That madness was a fulfillment of the promise of 1948: Elvis came first, then came the Beatles, but the Liverpudlians failed to lose themselves in Hollywood as Elvis did, and instead they began, after that first innocent bout in America, to travel into the nature of their own psyches and the character of their own time and place, journeys that still offer the most articulate definition of the decade. Looked at properly, the Beatles really were the 1960s: they started out as one thing and ended as another, and that is the core of their story, how they changed from ultra-melodic laughing boys to revolutionary art-heroes, making an entire generation imagine itself differently. Another story emerges too when you look at the Beatles’ music and its reception, a story about the cultural relationship between Britain and the United States, an odd friendship in which loyalties, enmities, and anxieties of influence have been animated in a climate of increasing American power.

The Beatles appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show on February 9, 1964,4 and the direct influence of that event is still being felt in new ways. In 1961, Senator John Kerry played bass guitar in a band called the Electras. The band rehearsed in the halls of St. Paul’s School in Concord, New Hampshire; they cut a record and described their music as “early surf.” Tony Blair’s band was called Ugly Rumours; he played guitar and sang. Only the other day, on a tour of China, a group of students asked the British prime minister to sing a Beatles song. He blushed and looked at his wife, Cherie, who picked up the microphone and gave a rather croaky rendition of “When I’m Sixty-Four.” John Edwards plays the saxophone and “admires” the Beatles. Former Governor Howard Dean plays the harmonica and the guitar and his favorite Beatle is George Harrison. Wesley Clark’s favorite album of all time is Yellow Submarine (Kerry’s is Abbey Road; Dennis Kucinich’s is The White Album). Who can forget Bill Clinton’s saxophone solo on Arsenio Hall? “There was not only a new sound,” said Al Gore, speaking about the Beatles to the editor of Rolling Stone. “There was something else that was new with the Beatles. A new sensibility…that incredible gestalt they had.” The great exception to all this is George W. Bush. He was at Yale from 1964 to 1968, and liked some of the Beatles first records. “Then they got a bit weird,” he has said. “I didn’t like all that later stuff when they got strange.” Bush also told Oprah Winfrey his favorite song is the Everly Brothers’ “Wake Up Little Susie” (1957), but overall he says he prefers country music.

The Beatles are the super-boomers’ house band. Even people who don’t care about popular music—especially those, one might argue—are conscious of how these English songwriters may have harnessed the properties of their own time, or were harnessed by them, down to every teenage sob and every kink of modern marketing. McKinney crunches the facts and pulps the possibilities before tossing everything into a great metaphysical soup, and his book carries sentences not unlike those Norman Mailer used to write forty years ago in the Village Voice:

Despite feeling paralysed at the center of the mania, the Beatles would draw their audience in by pushing it to new places. They would speak contentious, unprecedented words; offer upsetting, incomprehensible images of themselves; make disorienting musical noises. Just as their music would be the best and most challenging they had yet made, their collective persona would be more provocative, richer in dimensions than ambition or circumstance had previously allowed—or required. They would answer and interpret their suddenly hostile world in the language of symbol, the logic of dreaming; and they would, by accident and intent, seduction and aggression, tumult and meditation, sound early shots in the ferocious battle over consciousness which consumed the latter half of their decade.

If this seems a tad overheated, it’s only because the writer is very close to the heat: there has never been another group so perpetually involved as the Beatles were, and to seek the source of their power is to interrogate the culture of then and now to a degree only several degrees below melting point. You’ll forgive the prose for being a bit drugged when you get used to its modes of perception: McKinney is writing about a time, perhaps the first time, that history and society were apt to be understood through the movements of its youth, and McKinney is right for the job so long as one agrees that the occasion calls for something more infiltrating than the objective rigors of Hugh Trevor-Roper.

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.”

Here’s McKinney:

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.

  1. 1

    For some of this information I am indebted to Lucy Rollin, Twentieth-Century Teen Culture by the Decades: A Reference Guide (Greenwood, 1999).

  2. 2

    The Beatles Anthology (Chronicle, 2000), p. 10.

  3. 3

    The Beatles Anthology, p. 116.

  4. 4

    The anniversary is marked by several publications and republications about the Beatles, including Martin Goldsmith, The Beatles Come to America (Wiley, 2004), a rather sweet beat-by-beat account of the band’s appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. “Such was the nationwide fascination with the Beatles that, so the story goes, crime decreased to almost nothing while the music played…. And evangelist Billy Graham broke his own rule of not watching television on the Sabbath, tuning in the Beatles to try to understand his three teenage daughters. After turning off the set, he proclaimed the Beatles symptomatic ‘of the uncertainty of the times and the confusion about us. They are part of the trend towards escapism. I hope when they are older they will get a haircut.’”

  5. 5

    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.)”

  6. 6

    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.”

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