Sunday, July 17, 2005
The Beatle Generation
By CANDY LEONARD
|Brian Epstein's only mentioned once, but the article is so good that I forgive her.|
Click on the Peter Max Beatles at right to read it on the website.
Click on corresponding LJ-cut below to read it here, minus pictures.
"The Feb. 9, 1964 broadcast of the Ed Sullivan Show was seared into the hearts and minds of a generation — an event remembered in terms of "before" and 'after.'
"...their broader, gentler presentation of maleness helped launch the women's movement and the new understanding of gender that followed in its wake.
"Stark offers what I call a "Beatlecentric" argument in that he directly and indirectly attributes much of the 60s tumult and rise of youth culture to the Beatles.
"As true artists and innovators, the Beatles perceived the world around them but reflected the world back to us in new ways.
"It's unlikely that mainstream historians will credit the Beatles rather than Ronald Reagan for the fall of communism — although several former-Soviet artists, writers, and political insiders share that view. The John Lennon Wall of forbidden lyrics created by student protesters in Soviet-controlled Prague has become a tourist attraction, and there's a Yellow Submarine ride where the Berlin Wall once stood."
Sunday, July 17, 2005
The Beatle GenerationFor a brief moment in time, John, Paul, George and Ringo might have been the center of the universe
By CANDY LEONARD
Thirty-eight years before Live 8, Paul McCartney and his then-bandmates were asked by the BBC to perform in the first global television broadcast, "One World" — the event for which the easily translatable "All You Need Is Love" was written. Young Beatle fans all over the world, including Bono (and many others on the Live 8 roster) watched in awe as the Beatles spread their simple message of love to a generation. Though many of us may have found the recent McCartney-Bono-Sgt. Pepper spectacle cheesy and disturbing, perhaps even bordering on blasphemous, it's origins can be understood by reading Steven D. Stark's new book, Meet the Beatles: A Cultural History of The Band That Shook Youth, Gender, and the World. [HarperEntertainment; 352 pps; $26.95; $37.95 (CAN)]
The most recent in the ongoing, four-decade stream of Beatle books, Meet the Beatles offers new insights into the whole Beatle phenomenon — no simple feat, considering there are thousands of books out there already. Stark puts the Beatles, and us as a generation of fans, into a cultural and historical context and makes a strong case for their enormous impact.
Like most Beatle books, Stark tells their story chronologically, beginning with the childhood and family circumstances of each future Beatle. But unlike many Beatle historians, Stark makes post-war Liverpool an integral part of their creation story, offering a rich account of their early days and influences that seemed fresh, even to this reader who has not only read numerous Beatle books, but has also walked the hallowed streets of Liverpool.
In fact, Stark manages to present their entire story — from John and Paul's fateful meeting in July of 1957 to the band's breakup in 1970 — in a way that would be interesting and accessible to younger readers just discovering the Beatles, but also engaging for fans who know the story and all its footnotes by heart.
Starks sharpest departure from other Beatle books and his major contribution to Beatle analysis is his focus on how the group understood, presented, and transformed gender. Stark explains how early gender bending in British theatre, the latent homosexuality of seaport culture, the sensibilities of art school, their encounter with young European artists and intellectuals, Brian Epstein's obsession with style, their love of American girl groups, and John and Paul's shared experience of a mother's death all contributed to the Beatles' fluid understanding of gender which was reflected in their unique personal style, on and off the stage
Their uniqueness captivated us immediately when they stepped off the plane at JFK Airport. Two days later, 73 million people heard the unique, androgynous sound that went with the androgynous look. The Feb. 9, 1964 broadcast of the Ed Sullivan Show was seared into the hearts and minds of a generation — an event remembered in terms of "before" and "after."
According to Stark, all their gender-bending influences enabled John and Paul to speak from a female perspective, and the resulting egalitarianism in their lyrics (relative to other pop songs), along with their broader, gentler presentation of maleness helped launch the women's movement and the new understanding of gender that followed in it wake.
Without rehashing the old and familiar, Stark looks at John's relationship with Yoko and Paul's' with Linda, showing how these strong, nurturing, unconventional women gave them something they lost as teenagers when their mothers died. Cynics have argued that both of these women, after carefully studying their prey, positioned themselves in the right place and pounced when the time was right. Stark's analysis neither accepts nor refutes that view, but he takes a thoughtful look at why those relationships developed and why they endured with such intensity.
Stark offers what I call a "Beatlecentric" argument in that he directly and indirectly attributes much of the 60s tumult and rise of youth culture to the Beatles. He claims that they modeled a "brotherly collegiality" along with an emphasis on egalitarianism and communalism, lack of pretension, optimism, belief in the power of love, and a childlike sense of playfulness and wonder, all of which were key parts of the youth culture and hippie ethos. They did this, he explains, by creating a kind of "social epidemic" — with their fans and the press as "carriers."
Stark does a good job of supporting the Beatlecentric position — especially with regard to gender. He offers compelling examples of how everything they presented us with became the next big thing — not merely in the "fad" sense, but as lasting cultural change. As true artists and innovators, the Beatles perceived the world around them but reflected the world back to us in new ways. Continuing Stark's "epidemic" metaphor — they picked up viruses that were out there, and in the petrie dishes of their fertile minds, the viruses mutated, then spread.
There is a long history of drug use among artists and musicians, but the Beatles celebrated use of marijuana and hallucinogenic drugs helped bring these drugs into the mainstream, along with the psychedelic aesthetic and interest in alternative consciousness. But as Stark sees it, "Drugs were out there, I don't see them as the drug salesmen of the sixties; just as alcohol was part of the Jazz Age, drugs were part of the sixties." He maintains that their drug use was far more extensive than anyone knew at the time, and questions producer George Martin's assertion that they "were more brilliant than they realized and it would have happened without drugs." In fact, Stark goes so far as to say that the Beatles "would not have happened" without drugs. "Without pot and acid, there would have been no "Rubber Soul," no "Revolver, "no "Sgt. Pepper;" we don't know what they would have created, but these would not exist as we know them."
Though he doesn't dwell on this point, his entire argument hinges on it to some extent in that all the social change he attributes to them — the feminization of culture, the popularization of Eastern philosophy, the revolution in the recording industry, rock'n'roll morphing into "rock" and becoming an art form, and even the collapse of the Berlin Wall — he is indirectly attributing to their use of creativity-enhancing drugs. It begs the question as to which was the real agent of change: the Beatles or the drugs.
It's unlikely that mainstream historians will credit the Beatles rather than Ronald Regan for the fall of communism— although several former-Soviet artists, writers, and political insiders share that view. The John Lennon Wall of forbidden lyrics created by student protesters in Soviet-controlled Prague has become a tourist attraction, and there's a Yellow Submarine ride where the Berlin Wall once stood.
According to Stark, the Beatles' role as agents of change can be easily dismissed because people tend not see the connection between popular culture and politics. "In the sixties, music, drugs, and the counterculture were inseparable, and the Beatles were the centerpiece. " What few realized at the time, according to Stark, is that as they became more outspoken, they were "vehemently attacked by the establishment," thus "solidifying their position as leaders of the counterculture."
In retrospect, it can be said that John's famously misconstrued comment about the Beatles being more popular than Jesus set off one of the earliest battles in the "culture wars" we hear so much about today— with most of the record and poster burning occurring in the Red States.
Definitely more "serious" than many other Beatle books, Meet the Beatles contributes to our understanding of the entire phenomenon — yet it's also fun to read. It's not bogged down with gossip (although there are a few new tidbits) or inflated with fan gush (although Stark is obviously a fan). The one area where it did drag a bit was his detailed discussion of the legal wrangling around the band's breakup. It's an important piece of the story, but it doesn't add anything to Stark's main thesis.
I recently read Jane Fonda's autobiography, and even though I'm not particularly interested in Jane Fonda, I enjoyed the book as a well-written cultural history, and would recommend it. Similarly, the appeal of Meet The Beatles extends far beyond their fan base. Of course it's a nostalgic trip for those of us infected with that virus back in 1964, but it's also an interesting, reader-friendly history of a brief moment in time when we thought we could change the world with music.
Gee, what a silly idea.
Candy Leonard is a sociologist, writer, and life-long Beatle fan. She can be contacted at Beatlecentricaol.com.