The Beatles As History

This editorial cartoon titled “The (Dutch Elm) Beetles” by Dan Moore is part of the SHSMO Mayo Collection.

This editorial cartoon titled “The (Dutch Elm) Beetles” by Dan Moore is part of the SHSMO Mayo Collection.

I’ve been listening to Beatles records all day. The State Historical Society of Missouri noted on facebook that August 19, 1964 was the beginning of the Beatles first tour of North America by sharing this period editorial cartoon. Despite their immense popularity, The Beatles have always been controversial. It is a truism that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” When it comes to music, it can equally be said “beauty is in the ear of the listener.” Today, in spite of the phenomenal sales of their records, cd’s, etc.; in spite of the fact that their music is still heard nearly everywhere; in spite of the fact that Paul is still out there playing to stadium crowds who are paying hundreds of dollars for tickets; in spite of the fact that numerous musicians have pointed to The Beatles as their seminal inspiration, there are still those who are critical of Beatles music. To those naysayers I say, whatever. But, The Beatles are also “history,” and as I’ve said many times, history is contested terrain. It doesn’t take much searching to find articles, blogposts, and even academic papers written about the pernicious cultural influence of The Beatles, particularly on the youth of my generation. Here’s just one example.

In August 1964, I was barely nine years old, but the Beatles’ impact on America was pervasive. When Capitol records released the album, Meet The Beatles in January 1964, they noted on the back of the cover, “Said one American visitor to England: ‘Only a hermit could be unaware of The Beatles, and he’d have to be beyond the range of television, newspapers, radio, records, and rioting fans.'” I don’t remember watching their Ed Sullivan performances in February, 1964; I’m sure the television in our house was tuned to another channel that night. I do remember a little girl who lived next door. She had Beatles bubble gum trading cards and could point at their faces on the wrapper and tell me their names. I also remember a silly riddle that made the rounds; “What did one octopus say to the other octopus?” Answer: “I want to hold your hand, hand, hand, hand, hand, hand, hand, hand.” Yeah, yeah, yeah, it all seemed so innocent. I didn’t know then that The Beatles, and their subsequent solo efforts would become the soundtrack of my life.

My mother has a younger sister. She and her husband were college age when I reached my teen years. They gave me a hi-fi record player and my first two records, Meet The Beatles and A Hard Days’ Night. I’ve been an unapologetic Beatles fan ever since. Unfortunately, I never got to go to a real Beatles concert. I was only 15 when they broke up in 1970. Like many others, I hoped they would eventually re-group. But, there were always the records to collect and listen to. I would make lists and circle the ones I had and pine for the ones I didn’t have. I drew pictures of the Yellow Submarine and Blue Meanies. I also read everything about The Beatles I could find, including what I think was the first biography of the fab four. And, of course, like everyone else, my hair got longer. My parents tolerated my love of all things Beatles, even if they didn’t much care for the music.

Somehow, I grew into an adult. I’ve made my share of mistakes in life, but I can’t blame The Beatles for any of them. The Beatles have just been there. Been there through the good times and the bad. There when my kid sister and I sang I Saw Her Standing There together in my bedroom all those years ago. There when my childhood didn’t reflect Leave It To Beaver. There when I had my first romances. There when my heart was broken. There when I married and when I divorced. There through financial ups and downs. There when my friends and I got together, there when my kids were growing up. Yes, my kids, now grown, know the lyrics to most every Beatles song. Somehow, despite a lot of other traumas that could have corrupted them, they grew up to be well adjusted, productive adults also. The Beatles have always brought me joy.  Hey Jude, don’t make it bad, take a sad song and make it better…

There was a popular Christian rock band that used to go around telling people that before they became Christians they had really been into The Beatles. They thought The Beatles knew some deep spiritual truth and they were slowly revealing it to the world through their music. When the “White Album” came out these guys all thought this had to be the album where the Beatles would finally reveal what they knew; after all the cover was all white! How spiritual was that! They put the album on and listened. All of them wanted to be cool, none of them wanted to admit they weren’t getting much of a spiritual message from Rocky Raccoon. They felt The Beatles had let them down. The audiences would always laugh at this story. Well, of course they would, because it was silly for anyone to think The Beatles were anything but a musical group. They never claimed to be anything else. The Beatles were also four very young men growing up in a very turbulent era. Were they really leading their generation, or were they merely reflecting it? Looking for spiritual messages in Beatles music was as silly for  those guys who became Christians as it was for Charles Manson to think Helter Skelter was telling him to commit murder.

Paul has said that he is proud of The Beatles because they were primarily about love. If there was a message, that’s what I always heard. All you need is love, love is all you need… How pernicious is that?





7 thoughts on “The Beatles As History

  1. Hi Bob,
    I know I am a bit late in commenting, but I wanted to thank you for sharing this SHS cartoon on your site! It is one of over 14,000 original cartoon drawings in the collection at The State Historical Society of Missouri.

    Your discussion and the cartoon document the perceived “threat” the Beatles constituted to some in the 1960s. This is baffling to many people today, who see the “fab four” as quite tame by 21st century standards.

    As you point out, the Beatles were primarily a musical group. However don’t you feel they were also quite perceptive artists whose music had/has cultural significance? Its clear that in the 1960s the group’s songs and image reflected aspects of the revolutionary sexual and cultural changes that were taking place in the western world, and some found those changes frightening. The Beatles mass popularity made them more threatening, as the style and content of their songs challenged taboos related to race and sexuality (even in 1963-witness the rather suggestive lyrics of “Please Please Me” and the heavy influence of black music in “Twist and Shout”). Their “long” hair seemed particularly subversive and threatening to some. My uncle was convinced the Beatles were gay (a “threat” in his book), and their hair and humor challenged traditional gender stereotypes. Of course by 1967 “All You Need is Love” had anti-war implications (especially as the first live global satellite link, watched by 400 million in 26 countries, on 25 June 1967), and other songs were full of counter-culture references (“The Word,” “Tomorrow Never Knows,” “Strawberry Fields,” “Revolution,” and “The Ballad of John and Yoko,” leap to mind). Don’t get me wrong, I think the socio-political implications of the Beatles music and image were POSITIVE, but I see why conservatives may have been threatened by them!

    By the way, have you read the book “Growing Up with the Beatles?” It’s a very interesting account of how the Beatles music intersected with the life of a particular individual. I found it fascinating, and it might align with some of your own experiences!


    • It’s never too late for a comment, Joan, and I especially appreciate your insights.

      I think The Beatles were exceptionally talented musicians and songwriters who worked very hard to perfect their craft. Beyond that I think a number of factors contributed to their success. How much of their initial success must be attributed to Brian Epstein? He cleaned them up enough to be acceptable, but still a bit edgy; suits and ties with “long hair.”

      As for their songs challenging race and sexuality, hadn’t that row already been hoed to a large extent by Elvis? And very quickly after The Beatles broke in America, other groups, notably the Stones (“Satisfaction,” 1965), were pushing boundaries much more than The Beatles.

      So I still question how much The Beatles were leading their generation vs. how much they were merely a reflection of their era. Their songs reflected what they were seeing in the world and personally experiencing. I can’t even imagine what it must have been like for four twenty-something-year-old young men to be showered with adulation and offered just about anything they might want (although I used to try to imagine it). They certainly had a platform, owing to their mass popularity, and that no doubt caused consternation.

      It’s interesting that all the songs you mention are John’s songs. He was the one who I think had the most troubled childhood and perhaps the most complicated psyche. His solo works certainly bear that out. It should be no surprise that he’s the one conservatives became most afraid of.

      I think perhaps even more than their references to sex and drugs though, it was their challenge to Christianity that angered conservatives, particularly here in America. First over the misreported interview when John innocently said The Beatles were more popular than Jesus, then with their flirting with eastern religions (George leading the way).

      Thanks for the book recommendation. I’ll check it out!

  2. Good point about Elvis. I don’t think the right wing entirely reconciled with Elvis’ sexual/black influences. My somewhat puritanical grandfather always said he was GLAD Elvis was dead. But by the 1960s, hadn’t Elvis backed off from controversy and turned rightward, toning down the suggestive moves and counter culture aspects of his music in part because of criticism on the right?

    As for the Stones, Doors, etc., they were certainly seen as threatening, and their messages were more explicit. But their fame paled beside that of the Beatles. The unprecedented worldwide popularity/noteriety of the Beatles indicated a major cultural shift that could not be marginalized or ignored. When the Beatles questioned middle class values, including veiled critiques of Christian practice (for example in “Eleanore Rigby” “I am the Walrus,” the “more popular than Jesus” quote, and “Ballad of John and Yoko”), people “listened.”

    Though the Beatles never attacked what I would consider “true” Christian values, you are certainly right that they were perceived by some to do so. (A brief aside, you may not know this, but my Dad did an underground comic in the late 1960s called “The New Adventures of Jesus.” It was published in San Fransisco by “Rip Off Press” and centered around a character who basically behaved like the real Jesus confronting modern America ca. 1968/69. It was critique of right wing America (Jesus was dismissed and disdained as a “hippie”), and was WAY too much for some . There was NO WAY he could sign it (it was published under a pseudonym and he didn’t feel he could let the faculty of MU know he was publishing it).

    As far as Paul vs. John, I think Paul is more subtle, and tends to be underrated for his cultural commentary. Both “Eleanore” Rigby and “Penny Lane” are rather subversive, and I think would seem more so to perceptive English listeners as opposed to Americans. The description of the unhappy woman keeping up appearances in society who “keeps her face in a jar by the door” (English women sometimes say they are “putting their face on” when they put on make-up). The fireman with a “portrait of the queen” in his pocket and the nurse selling poppies “feeling as though she is in a play” suggests a gentle indictment of middle class values and pretenses (You may know this, but I didn’t until I married an Englishman–The mention of poppies indicates that the action takes place in November, when poppies were worn by the British (and are still worn by politicians and a few others) in remembrance of the WWI). I’ve also heard that “fish and finger pies” and “he likes to keep his fire engine clean” would have been recognized as sexual innuendo by young English people in the 1960s.

    • You’re probably correct that there was a “lull” so to speak in rock’n’roll rebelliousness between Elvis in the mid-to-late 1950’s and early 1964 when The Beatles arrived. Despite his early reputation for being sexually suggestive and appropriating black music, Elvis also embraced American (Southern?) Christianity and recorded Christian music. I believe some historians of rock would say rock’n’roll appeared to be dead when Buddy Holly’s plane crashed (the day the music died).

      As big a fan as I am of The Beatles, I’m not so sure the fame of the Stones and the Doors paled in comparison to The Beatles. “Satisfaction” was #3 on the year end chart in 1965 and The Stones had quite a string of hits. I’ve read that in the summer of ’65, Satisfaction could be heard anywhere you went. I don’t remember the first time I heard it, but the first 45 single I bought in ’69 was “Honky Tonk Women.” In ’67 “Light My Fire” came in at #6, while the highest Beatles song was “All You Need Is Love” at #30. Personally, when I was a teenager in the late ’60s/early’70s, I was more apt to buy a Beatles album with my very limited funds because I usually liked everything on the album, whereas if I took a chance on a different band’s album I might only like the “hit” song. Nevertheless, I did buy other artists’ records before completing my Beatles collection. Overall, there was an explosion of music from Britain, the U.S., and elsewhere. I grew up in Southern California, so my perceptions might be different than someone who grew up in the Midwest or elsewhere, but I loved The Monkees and Creedence Clearwater Revival also, and bought their albums. (My fascination with The Doors didn’t come until much later in life.) I think it might be fairly said that The Beatles were the genesis of the 60s/70s artistic outpouring, and it’s a testament to the quality of The Beatles music that they were able to stay relevant, but I’m not convinced they had more impact than many other artists, including television and film stars. Remember, The Monkees outsold the Beatles and Stones in ’67.

      That is a very interesting story about your Dad!

      I don’t think I’ve heard about the poppies, but I’ve known about the sexual innuendo in “Penny Lane” for years. (As an aside related to historic memory, there was some controversy a few years ago when there was talk of changing the name of the street because it was originally named in honor of an early Liverpool slave trader.) I guess one of the things I was trying to say in my original post was that despite my love of The Beatles, I never was tempted to try recreational drugs, and I never got into eastern religion. If there were subtle and not-so-subtle drug, sex, and religion references in The Beatles’ music, any influence it had on me personally had to have been very subliminal, and just because they were doing something didn’t mean I needed to try it. I just liked the music and the fashion. I should probably add that in addition to the music and fashion, I was also highly impressed with the fact that girls threw themselves at The Beatles. I’ve heard more than one musician say they took up music for that reason alone. So, if I never tried drugs or eastern religion, I was certainly interested in sex! But, I strongly suspect I would have been interested in sex with or without The Beatles. I suspect all of this is true of the majority of us who grew up with them, but it is a very interesting subject for discussion!

  3. Gosh, this is a lot to ponder. I never heard about the controversy about the Penny Lane street name. I didn’t mean to suggest that you didn’t know your Beatles info. Far from it! I figured you knew about that innuendo stuff. I think its in the bio you mentioned, but I thought I’d mention it for the sake of your readers 🙂 . You know a lot more about the Beatles than I do, and I obviously became a fan post-break up!

    I will defend the idea that the Beatles were a more powerful cultural force (and therefore more threatening) than other groups like the Stones, Monkees, CCR or the Doors. The Beatles may have fell in and out of fashion in the U.S. music charts, but their popular culture status just kept growing beyond our shores. The Beatles had a world-wide status/fame that has rarely been matched by any other cultural icons (their international fame might be compared to Mohammad Ali, maybe Michael Jackson. I doubt Elvis was/is as well known in the so called “3rd World,” and the Monkees, CCR etc.were/are utterly unknown!).

    This “superstar” status was likely both reflected and enhanced by the international satellite broadcast of “All You Need Is Love” in 1967. I had a roommate in college from China in the 1980s who knew all about the Beatles, but knew nothing about ANY pop music otherwise.

    Like you, I’m a fan of music that may describe experiences with drugs, mysticism, debauchery or even violence. I have never supported, condoned, or experimented with those things in my own life. Those who can’t tell the difference between music and art that explores such issues and propaganda have always bothered me!

  4. Bob (and everyone), make sure to reserve your copy of Mark Lewisohn’s upcoming “Tune In: The Beatles, All These Years.” This is going to be volume one of his eventual three volume history of the band. Some readers may know Lewisohn’s earlier works “The Beatles: Recording Sessions” and “The Complete Beatles Chronicle,” which are both indispensable. Lewisohn has been working on the biography project for a good 8-10 years now and it promises to the THE seminal history of the band. The only thing more mythologized than the Civil War is the Beatles, with stories told and retold over the decades until the eventually became “fact.” As Paul McCartney himself has acknowledged, even he can’t entirely separate fact and fiction anymore, such are the vagaries of memory. No one book, or series of books, can “tell us everything,” but “Tune In” and its subsequent volumes will do much to help us separate myth and reality.

    On the subject of Beatle historiography, Ian MacDonald’s “Revolution in the Head: The Beatles’ Records and the Sixties” and Steven D. Stark’s “Meet the Beatles: A Cultural History of the Band That Shook Youth, Gender, and the World” do a good job of putting the Beatles in the context of their place and time. Also valuable is Peter Doggett’s “You Never Give Me Your Money: The Beatles After the Breakup.” Lewisohn’s only equal, however, is Bruce Spizer, who as a tax attorney is uniquely positioned to untangle the complicated mess that is the Beatles legal and financial situation.

    I hope this helps.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

IMPORTANT! To be able to proceed, you need to solve the following simple math (so we know that you are a human) :-)

What is 2 + 2 ?
Please leave these two fields as-is: