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?