The Beatles are not a divinity, but the product of causes and conditions
Get Back has reminded us of the primacy of The Beatles legend in our lives.
The Beatles remain the most significant myth of our life, the most constant and public superhero story. We are very comfortable with this. We go from blocks on the floor and mobiles dangling above the crib to dinosaurs and nutcrackers; from there, we imagine lives as firemen or astronauts, baseball stars and ballerinas. And then come the Four Beatles and their fantastic story, laying the foundation and the template for every way we see, hear, and think about pop music. No other pop artist even remotely approaches the level of legend, perfection, even divinity we attach to The Beatles.
One of the reasons The Beatles hold a special, magical appeal to us Americans is because we view them not only as sui generis, but also as virtually virgin birthed. We imagine that The Beatles are The Only True Beatles, the only possible saviors and guides for our lifetime loving pop music. This is the essential fairy style of Generation Rock, the myth that underpins our life as lovers, listeners, and students of pop. True, we point to a musical influence here and there, but we like to think of the phenomenon of Beatle-ism as something that was summoned out of a wintry, post-Dallas sky, like ash from a holy man’s fingers.
But as Americans, we are missing an enormous, fundamental part of The Beatles story if we fail to see that they are the result of singularly English causes and conditions. Recognizing that The Beatles are geniuses, yet still products of causes and conditions, prompts one of our greatest fears: That if it wasn’t The Beatles, it could have been somebody else. I honestly think we are afraid of what happens if we stop seeing the Beatles as a divinity.
And you know what? We have to admit that’s true. We must recognize that causes and conditions have only one certain outcome: A result. And The Beatles are a result. Not a miracle. To truly understand them, we must stop seeing them as divinity, and have some understanding of the world they emerged from, without which, no Beatles, at least as we know them, is remotely possible.
By the time The Beatles exploded on the British consciousness in late 1962 and early 1963, a number of significant factors had paved the way for four sassy, young, working-class men with pronounced northern English accents to emerge as the biggest stars in British history. Beatle-ism would not have happened without these factors, full stop. In fact (and this is the heresy we are terrified to utter), due to the power and ubiquity of these factors, if it wasn’t Beatleism, it would have been some other-ism. A cause will always lead to an effect.
This list of factors is far from complete. But I want to give some idea of how Beatle-ism is a result, not a cause. So let’s talk about how England Made the Beatles.
England, 1952: A different world, where The Beatles would not have been possible
Circa 1952, it wasn’t just unthinkable that a group of artists could emerge from the working class in the North of England, accrue respect, and achieve a massive economic and cultural impact; it was more or less impossible. That’s the way the system was built. The simplest way to think about this is to equate class and geographical prejudice in England with racial prejudice in the United States. Now, that’s a grotesque over-simplification, but not inaccurate. In mid century England, classism was as potent an obstacle to advancement and equality as racism was here.
Likewise, there was an extraordinary (and complimentary) bias against the north of England. Londoners, who vastly disproportionately controlled the media and the economic thrust of the country, looked down on the residents of Manchester, Birmingham, Liverpool, etcetera the way New Yorkers of the 1950s might have looked down on Birmingham, Alabama or Wheeling, West Virginia. A northern accent was often seen as a comical indicator of the uneducated working class, much as a contemporary TV show or movie in America would have used a southern accent to the same effect. In the deeply class-entrenched mid-century English society, there was a near universal belief that the British working class and the north of England could produce little culture or art that was worthy of serious critical examination.
But in the late 1950s, multiple factors arose that challenged these limited and limiting perceptions. Filmmakers, playwrights, and authors like John Osbourne, Lindsay Anderson, Tony Richardson, Wolf Mankowitz and Colin MacInnes began to create gritty and well-received films, books, and theatre that showed the working class in a sympathetic and multi-dimensional light. Popular movies like The Entertainer, Room at the Top, A Taste of Honey, and Billy Liar explored working class (and lower middle class) life in all its joy, sadness, and complication.
Another seismic factor emerged in 1956: Granada Television, the very first English television station based outside of London, went on the air. Granada Television was not only a pioneer in British independent television (prior to the Television Act of 1954, all television in the U.K. was produced and aired by the state run B.B.C.), but it also deliberately sought to have a distinctly Northern perspective on culture and the news. For the first time, millions of television viewers in the United Kingdom were exposed to a cultural perspective that was not limited to the Capital in London. Granada took its mission very seriously, and determined, in virtually every program it aired, to reflect a distinctly Northern attitude that positively reflected on the diversity of culture in the North.
This culminated in 1960 with the debut of Coronation Street, a nighttime soap opera set in working class Manchester, which became one of the most popular shows in British television history. Granada and shows like Coronation Street profoundly changed the attitude of the nation regarding the intellectual, artistic and commercial potential of the north of England.
With the establishment of Granada, the north of England was now actually a visible entity in people’s homes, and the entire region could no longer be dismissed as an uneducated hinterland full of smokestacks, indecipherable accents, and coalmines. Granada played a significant role in this, complimenting the new respectability and visibility of the working class via the “Kitchen Sink” movement in film, literature, and theatre.
Into this environment stepped The Beatles, the greatest and most northern of the new model working class heroes. Key note: The Beatles didn’t make the north and the working class hip, desirable, and worthy of imitation; rather, the fairly rapid “mainstreaming” of working class and northern culture in the late 1950s and early 1960s was an extant wave that the Beatles rode to its absolute crest.
The Goons give young England it’s own hip voice.
A further profound influence on the Beatles and their generation was the effect a specific comedy troupe, the Goons, had on the language and the artistic sensibilities of young people in England in the 1950’s.
In America, Ginsberg, Kerouac, and the Beats (not to mention Norman Mailer or Salinger) set the tone for the 1960s by expanding the way language could be used and, more significantly, creating a private and anti-establishment lexicon for young America. In much the same way, in England the Goons (absurdist, Joycean sketch comedians who had a wildly popular weekly radio show on the BBC from 1951 to 1960) and their surrealistic use of language and wordplay profoundly influenced the Beatles and an entire generation of young British men and women.
The Goons created an environment where rabid, unfettered creativity – not to mention a near-constant sense of Dada-ist absurdity and punning – infiltrated mainstream entertainment while at the same time creating a “private” language for the youth of post war Britain. John Lennon was very open about the influence the Goons had on him (Lennon’s lyrics and public persona are profoundly indebted to the Goons) and he spoke about it frequently. Yet this debt still remains largely unknown to most American fans of the Beatles. It may be accurate to say that Spike Milligan, the Goon’s primary writer and creative engine, effected Lennon (and other young artists in the U.K.) as significantly as Bob Dylan impacted American artists in the 1960s.
If the Goons had a profound effect on the language and legendary insouciance of the Beatles (and all their cocky, punning peers), another comedy act can be seen as a direct antecedent to the look of the Beatles.
Four young men prepare for a photo shoot.
In 1963 and 1964, the Beatles stood in front of the cameras for the black and white shots that were to become famous throughout the world, and help define their profile forever. They were cocky, slouching, confident, louche, and vaguely uncomfortable in their new duds, utterly adorable yet somehow rebellious.
Two years before these era-defining shots, we find a remarkable, game-changing comedy team photographed in virtually the exact same poses, with the same half-grins on their face, also simultaneously mocking the establishment and welcoming it with open arms. These were the four young writer/actors of Beyond the Fringe, and their rebellious but accessible satire took the West End (and later Broadway) by storm in the years immediately before the Beatles.
Now, by no means am I saying that the look the Beatles adopted in mid-1962 was directly or definitively influenced by similar images of Beyond the Fringe (though I think this is a distinct possibility). But circa 1962, the idea of young men wearing tailored suits in a distinctly different way from an earlier generation and posing for widely disseminated photos in a way that would have been considered cheeky, arrogant or smug just a few years earlier, was very much coming into vogue. Put it this way: Four cocky, smirking young men in tailored suits are four cocky, smirking young men in tailored suits, and it is very difficult to imagine that the visual precedent created by Beyond the Fringe, not to mention their spirit of user-friendly rebellion, didn’t soften the landing for the Beatles in the popular press.
Skiffle Music puts guitars in the hands of tens of thousands of young people, and makes music-making an accessible reality.
For young people in Great Britain in the 1950s, The first-learned alphabet of pop and rock was not necessarily written by Elvis, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, et al. Skiffle music, a home-brewed and largely handmade primitive form of teen music that very roughly (mis)interpreted American folk, country, and blues, was the universal entry point for virtually all British musicians of a certain generation. It was quite literally the lingua franca, a common gene that ran through just about every British musician who came of age in the 1960s. Skiffle not only lacks a stylistic equivalent in the United States (especially in its’ ability to be performed adequately and immediately by complete novices), but most significantly, the ubiquity of Skiffle has no counterpoint in the U.S. It is likely that in the history of pop music, no one single form of performance was so universally embraced by an entire generation of would-be musicians. Skiffle was not only a musical environment, it was also a social environment that allowed young people, especially young people who may have felt that educational and employment resources were closed to them in 1950s Britain, the ability to feel they had something that was theirs, something that gave them some control over the social and cultural destiny. Like the other factors noted here, it comprised the private and universal language of teen Britain, and is another factor in the inevitability of Beatleism, regardless of what band was going to personify it.
Suez, and the End of Mandatory Military Service.
On December 31, 1960, mandatory military conscription ended in the United Kingdom. This momentous event came hot on the heels the political humiliation in the Suez in 1958 (which underlined the loss of British colonial and overseas political power) and the destabilization of faith in government due to the extended rationing following the Second World War, factors that served to underline a loss of trust in the “establishment” in the United Kingdom.
These developments opened the door both for the productive cynicism that fuels creativity and, more significantly, for young people to live a life free of the fear of mandatory military service that had haunted young Britons since the Second World War. The era of The Teenager, already initiated by the Skiffle movement and other social, cultural, and economic changes underlined above, could now come into full fruition, free of the specter of the draft…just in time for The Beatles.
These elements – the end of conscription, the growth of awareness of northern English culture and art, the expansion of popular culture to include the contributions of the lower classes and lower middle classes, the ubiquitous tool of Skiffle, and the mind-blowing exploration of language and creativity encouraged by comedians like the Goons – all served to lay the groundwork for the New Teenager, and their potential to redefine culture.
And out of the New British Teenager, the Beatles emerged; the New Teenager did not emerge from the Beatles.
Now, all of these factors were indicators that something like the Beatles would emerge to impact culture in the 1960s (likewise, these factors created the framework for similarly radical and quasi-radical developments in film, art, fashion, television, theatre, and pop and non-pop music). Why it was the Beatles who emerged as the most visible, commercial, respected, and remembered result of these factors, and not any one of the hundreds of contemporaries who surfaced around or before them, is an entirely different and fascinating story. Again, our need to see the Beatles as a divinity, as sui generis, prohibits us from really examining the huge role pure luck played in their story, and how very, very close the Beatles came to doing things that would have led them down a very different (and far, far less spot-lit) avenue of history. Remember, success is like a good JFK assassination conspiracy theory: It takes a chain of a thousand links to make it plausible, but just one missed connection to make it all fall apart. Time and time again, the Beatles hit just the right connection, which created an effect and a cause and another effect and cause.
But that’s another story entirely.
The specific The Beatles, as we know and love them, was a singular and inimitable object; but A Beatles, that is, something that took a similar place in the hearts and minds of Western culture, was an inevitability, due to the very particular causes and conditions that made The Beatles.
(A significantly shorter version of this story, with some small textual similarities, appeared in 2015 in The Observer.)