The Beatles, revisited

Late last night I was listening to some Beatles songs on YouTube, including “Love Me Do” (their first single, released, by coincidence, fifty years ago this week, which a reader told me about after this entry was posted), “Revolution” (which is wittily anti-revolution), and “Hey Jude,” and delighting in the Beatles and thinking how great they were, and then wondering if Ayn Rand saw them, with their long hair and emotional popular appeal and association with sexual liberation and drugs, as irrational mooching anti-life mystics, or as the incredibly talented and creative givers of joy they were. So I googled “Ayn Rand” and “Beatles” to see if Rand had ever said anything about the Beatles, and guess what? The first Google result at the top of the page, meaning the most-read of all pages on the World Wide Web that reference “Ayn Rand” and “Beatles,” was a VFR entry from 2006, “Is it wrong to praise the Beatles?” I recommend it.

- end of initial entry -

Jason R. writes:

Half a century on but Britain’s most successful musical export is still to penetrate the darkest reaches of South West London.

LA replies:

How’s that for coincidence (no, synchronicity)? Of all the songs I might have linked, I linked “Love Me Do,” which (I did not know) was the first Beatles single, and released fifty years ago this week.

To me the video is not that significant, as the majority of the interviewees are lower class blacks; why should they know the Beatles? If they had interviewed middle class whites, the response would have been different I expect.

I doubt that blacks much liked the Beatles even at the time.

October 7

Matthew H. writes:

Imagine that you are an immigrant to a great and mighty nation about which you have heard wonderful stories. In your mind, you have grown to love this country. Its very name makes evokes awe and joy. You decide you must live there and become a citizen.

But upon your arrival you learn that while you were traveling a massive cataclysm has devastated the land. It is still recognizable but it has been severely damaged. Dazed survivors tell tales of good times before … before it happened. And yet there are many others who proclaim that the new landscape is much better than the old one. To them the crumbled walls and broken sewers are to be preferred to the old days which, while apparently nicer on the surface, were in fact cruel and oppressive. They say there is liberation among the squalor.

Yet the image they conjure of these old times is precisely how you had hoped this nation would look once you were fortunate enough to arrive. To you the broken-down present reality is a crushing disappointment. All around you are reminders of the magnificence that once existed in this place. You know that those who claim to prefer the present situation cannot possibly be right.

You ask yourself: What happened? How did it go from that to this in such a short time? What was the nature of this disaster?

This, more or less, is how I have come to regard our nation and Western civilization in general. I am probably among the oldest of those who grew up at a time when long hair on men, teenage drug use, sexual anarchy, STDs, free access to pornography, sodomite “pride,” graffiti and so on were considered “normal.” My only knowledge of the “old times,” avant le deluge, comes from stories of older relatives, photographs, videos, etc.

Looking back, however, I can’t help noticing that the catastrophic cultural blitzkreig that so badly deformed my beloved country blew in to the strains of the Beatles, the Stones, Bob Dylan, the Dead, et al. Sort of like the helicopter scene in Apocalypse Now except with Helter Skelter in place of Ride of the Valkeries. For all their manifest brilliance, in my mind they are all inextricably associated with the great cataclysm.

Love Me Do, Yellow Submarine (which I remember being spontaneously sung by whole busloads of happy schoolchildren), A Day In The Life. When I was young our house echoed to those LPs and I knew them all practically by heart. But when I consider them now, however, in the perspective of their places in the larger societal collapse, they seem tainted. The Beatles (and Dylan and the Stones), unlike, say, Wordsworth or Ayn Rand, appear in retrospect to have been the stormtroopers of the accompanying invasion of smut and social pathology.

LA replies:

Matthew made more or less the same arguments in the 2006 thread, “Is it wrong to praise the Beatles?”, and I replied to him fully there.

October 8

Alex A. writes:

I second your correspondent Matthew H.: The Beatles were harbingers of a social calamity the extent of which is still uncertain.

In any case, were they really such talented songwriters? Let’s compare them with composers of popular music in the thirties and forties: Cole Porter; Jerome Kern; Rodgers and Hart; George Gershwin; Irving Berlin; Johnny Mercer; Harold Arlen; are only the most obvious names that come to mind. Do The Beatles belong in that All-American Premier League of music men? I don’t think so—though I believe very few people agree with me.

Bill S. writes:

As a boomer from a conservative family, the progression through the sixties appalled me. Joined the police department in 1968 and was quickly assigned to Narcotics Bureau, working deep undercover from 1969 through 1973. I virtually lived as a ‘hippie’ and grew to despise the entire movement for what they, in essence were. Irresponsible, hedonistic, immature upper middle class brats not unlike the OWS movement today. The entire ‘lifestyle’ had nothing to do with anti-war/peace—that pretext was a coverup for blatant amorality.

I believe that it was in the late 1950’s or around 1960 that Kruschev warned (paraphrase here): “We’ll bury you without firing a shot—through your universities.” Noone apparently listened.

The Beatles, among many other bands from the era, occupy a very warm spot in my heart—lyrics never entered into the equation. It was the music that I attached to significant people and events in my formative years. Melodies instantly recall fond, warm memories of early loves won and lost, friends, times. In my humble opinion “Rubber Soul” became the high water mark for the Beatles. Beyond that album, they became irrelevent. Brilliant music.

October 8

Patrick H. writes:

I lived in London (Wembley, strictly speaking) as a child from 1966 to 1968. I was too young to understand the changes England was undergoing, but I was aware of them in my childish way. The degree to which the old England was still present during that decade is the dominant sense of my memories of my time there (I loved England deeply, by the way). I dressed in the classic English schoolboy uniform and had a classic English schoolboy haircut. I would not have been out of place in London in almost any decade after World War I. The country was still overwhelmingly the same country it was in 1940. Almost everybody was white. You could still hear the “Cockney” accent (not perhaps the true Cockney, rare even then, but rather a melodious slangy variation of the now ubiquitous Estuary accent: rather thicker and more interesting and English than today’s quite unpleasant dreary glottal drone). In general, accents, both regional and class, were much stronger then, with none of the downwardly mobile lingual slumming that characterizes the upper range Brit-speak of today.

And the streets were safe. There was no public drunkenness, no “no-go” areas, no sense of looming danger at all. I regularly journeyed across a significant chunk of the city by tube to go swimming at an outdoor pool with my Cub Scout troop—at night, alone, nine years old. It never occurred to me or to my parents that there was any danger in my doing this.

But the signs of decay were there. I do not agree, however, that the hippies, the longhairs, the druggies, were the harbingers of what Britain has become. That honour, if such it be, was held by the Mods and Rockers, whose dust-ups and riots were a frequent feature on the telly news. And not long after my family left England for Canada, the skinhead emerged—something of an heir to the Rockers or Teddies, but in some ways a new development that quickly took the form the type still displays today. The skins, for example, were among the first soccer hooligans, and it was just after my time there that soccer violence really began to flare.

I am arguing that the true harbingers of the doom that has overtaken England were not the flower children, but rather the violent, profane thugs who displaced them. The hippies were helpless in the face of the challenge from their physical superiors, and effectively ceded control of the culture to them without so much as a whimper. The hippies were mostly middle and upper class, hopelessly effete, Eloi waiting to be consumed by the boot-wearing short-haired Morlocks of the lower classes. The skins and hooligans weren’t effete at all—violent, crude, proudly stupid, proudly lower class, they took over almost completely, and almost right away. The hippies were swept away as if they’d never existed. Musically, the longhairs wilted like dead flowers in the face of the assault of punk in the mid-seventies. The energy—the power—in British culture was no longer in the hands of the toffs or of the counterculture—the counterculture was a culture after all, and the barbarians had taken over.

It was the skins and thugs of the very late sixties and early seventies who were the real ancestors of the barbarians that Theodore Dalrymple writes of so chillingly today. They, and not the flower children, were the cultural primogenitors of today’s chavs, yobs, lads, louts. It was they, and not the hippies, who conquered old England, and rule it to this day. And they didn’t like the Beatles at all. Even pretend punks like Joe Strummer knew enough to claim to disdain all that “phony Beatlemania.” He knew which way the wind was blowing by the mid seventies. And it is that wind that continues to howl to this day.

Stephen T. writes:

Alex A. doubts the Beatles were really such great songwriters, compared to some famous songwriters he lists from the thirties and forties. He admits many people don’t agree with him. Among those who don’t agree with him are at least two of the songwriters on his list.

Richard Rodgers (who sent the Beatles a congratulatory telegram upon their second appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show) described himself as “a rabid fan.”

Johnny Mercer, when informed Paul McCartney once said he would like to collaborate with him, told singer Margaret Whiting: “I would do anything to write with him. I adore him. I think he’s great.”

I think most of the other writers Alex listed were dead by the 1960s, except Harold Arlen, who rarely gave interviews. So we can only guess what their take might have been. But Arlen’s old “Wizard of Oz” collaborator Yip Harburg was known to be a Beatle fan, too (although it was limited to specific songs.)

Gintas writes:

If the hippies were represented by the Beatles and the Stones, the Mods (and Rockers) were by The Who. The Who were the first punk rockers, routinely wrecking the stage and their instruments after every performance, epitomizing the angry young man (“I hope I die before I get old”). Pete Townshend even wrote a “rock opera” in memory of 1965 Brighton, Quadrophenia (from 1973). I don’t think he was being nostalgic, it is a dismal album. My opinion is that having grown up in the Depression and WWII, the parents of Boomers (and their equivalent in Great Britain) were just too worn out to rear children, and contented themselves with newfound material comforts and TV. I am quite sure there is something deeply wrong with the Boomers, and it wasn’t caused by the music. The ’60s were simply when the Boomers came of age, and whatever was wrong with them and their upbringing blew out, Townshend is one of them.

Ed H. writes:

In reply to Patrick H.:

I would point out that is was the hippies that went on to political power in both your country and mine. Bill and Hillary Clinton, Al Gore, Bill Ayers, Jane Fonda, Obama, almost every university professor, the entire leftist media, all of Hollywood, most of corporate America embraced liberalism through the the peace and love/one world/ cultural relativism mindlessness of the hippie movement. These people went on to make policy, sit on the Supreme Court, become president, run the major foundations, write textbooks, become newspaper editors, run movie studios and amass multi million dollar personal fortunes. The skinheads went nowhere. After their brief violent street brawling youth they went to early graves being dead by age 40 due to alcoholism, drugs, or car crashes. If they survived they exist today buried alive in some dead end job. But the hippies and the skinheads were not separate phenomena. Theirs was a symbiotic relationship which was antagonistic only on the surface. The hippies’ relativism and passivity and egotism was precisely what destoyed every cultural norm, every standard of behavior, created a void and allowed the gutter level proletarian values of punk rock, rap, grunge, heavy metal to rush in and fill it.

Kidist Paulos Asrat writes:

I thought you might like this post with links to other posts I did on the Beatles (even their name is clever, catching, and playful):
- Are you a Paul or John Guy?
- Paul McCartney was the Leader of the Beatles
- Enduring Music

LA replies:

I don’t agree that Paul was the leader. The Lennon-McCartney songwriting partnership was a true partnership, a true collaboration and melding of talents. In which, furthermore, the result was vastly greater than the sum of the parts, as is proved by the mediocrity of both men’s creations after the partnership ended.

Matthew H. writes:

I second Ed H’s response to Patrick H.:

The hippies’ relativism and passivity and egotism was precisely what destoyed every cultural norm, every standard of behavior, created a void and allowed the gutter level proletarian values of punk rock, rap, grunge, heavy metal to rush in and fill it.

I remember reading somewhere, maybe in Joan Didion’s essay, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, about the 1967 San Francisco “Summer of Love,” that the sequel to that extended debauch was an influx of thuggish professional drug dealers who changed the character of the whole “scene” considerably. When intelligent and capable people abandon their posts to go traipsing after some fantasy of “sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll,” that is, when sane people, of their own free will, choose to go stark raving mad, as sure as night follows day, the violent punks who lurk at the bottom of every society will seize their opportunity. And it was largely the fortunate, college-educated, middle class youth of the Sixties who, in imitation of their rock star heroes, went tripping off, like Pinocchio, to the Pleasure Island of mind-numbing beat music, abortion and STDs, abandoning the streets to the vicious predators (both cultural and actual) with whom we are now all too familiar.

Patrick H. writes:

In response to Ed and Matthew: I described the skins and thugs as the true harbingers of the new England, the cultural ancestors of the yobs, chavs, louts et al who today control the streets of English cities. I did not say that they were responsible for the rise to cultural dominance of the lower orders from which they sprang, only that they constituted the avant-garde of that rise to dominance. I continue to see no reason to think that the Beatles and the peace/love culture was a harbinger in the sense I use the word, which is “that which foretells or foreshadows a significant change, usually sinister or otherwise negative”.

A minor quibble with Gintas: I believe the Rockers were fans of older rock music than the Who, like Elvis and such. The Mods, their mortal enemies, were the Who fans (and fans of others, to some extent the Kinks, the Small Faces perhaps, ska as well). The division along musical lines was quite sharp.

Quadrophenia was made into an excellent film, completely unsentimental about the Mod scene, and if you watch it, you’ll see the absence of anything like flower-child peace and love blah-blah among the kids in the Mod gang. They’re tough, lower-class kids with no prospects (the humiliation of the protagonist’s hero and leader, played by Sting, revealed to be trapped in a dead-end job, is one of the most powerful moments in the film). The Mod kids are clearly the cultural ancestors of today’s British young—the style division—as were the Rockers—the thug brigades—and neither were part of the hippie culture of the time, which both Mods and Rockers despised, and which did indeed disappear as a cultural influence among British young.

James R. writes:

People are forgetting the violent side, and the ideological will to violence/apologia for violence that was prevalent in the counterculture left, at least in America. For example, I had in my High School class twin girls, the Fassnacht sisters, who were the daughters of Robert Fassnacht, a graduate student who was murdered in the Sterling Hall bombing. Murdered by counterculture leftists. Tom Hayden thrilled to violence (“revolution”/”bring the war home”).

The hippies were only for peace in the sense everyone in all eras means it: peace through victory, of their side. “By Any Means Necessary,” as the Malcolm X phrase they all embraced had it. The counterculture left embraced gangs of thugs, like the Black Panthers, seeing them as a sort of “vanguard.” The counterculture left’s intellectuals were early adoptors of the concept that non-white populations would be a substitute for “proletarians” who had turned out to not support the idea of revolution.

On the other hand, in reference to the specific topic of the post itself, both the Beatles and The Who, in their own way, looked at all this with a jaundiced eye. The Beatles, after all, put out the song “(You Say You Want a) Revolution”—an anti-revolutionary song. The Who put out “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” which is also, in its way, skeptical that “the new (post-revolutionary) boss” will be any better than the “old boss.”

My own view of the Beatles is mixed; I don’t like some of their lyrics. I completely dislike Lennon’s “Imagine,” but that was post-Beatles. But I like many other of their songs, and overall they—and The Who—were very talented musicians with superb output. A case can perhaps be made that Rock & Roll on the whole is turning out to be a musical/artistic cul-de-sac; but none of the members of those bands thought so at the time.

But there’s no reason to accept the Hippie Left’s own self-characterization as peace loving, if a bit irresponsible, happy-go-lucky stoners; the movement glorified thuggish violence, it reveled in it, it looked forward to the day when it would swamp the society it hated, so that society could be overthrown and transformed. Thuggishness and brutality naturally followed in its wake.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at October 04, 2012 11:30 AM | Send

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