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The Beatles and the Art of Subversion
Beyond the genius of their music, The Beatles’ greatest achievement may well have been their ability to be simultaneously revolutionary and accessible.
When The Beatles touched down in the United States in February of 1964, they were greeted as the international sensation they had already proven themselves to be in Europe. American media was enraptured with the influence the group held on American teenagers. Treated more as a pop cultural phenomenon than a legitimate musical act, the press in the United States was slow to write about The Beatles’ music. For at least the first full year after the band first came to the U.S., focus tended to be on their long hair, tight suits, “Beatle Boots,” and personal charm. In only a handful of years, however, the band led the way toward revolutionizing not only the definition of what a rock group could be, but what defined art and celebrity. In the process, they subverted traditional mores of Christian conservatism and anticommunism. They similarly refused to be defined by monolithic left-wing descriptions. The result was a rock group that carried itself in the press and popular conscious in a way which was as unique and impossible to pigeonhole as their music came to be.
The Beatles remained little more than a pop culture phenomenon, albeit an enormous one, throughout 1964. The singles which first introduced them to an American audience like “She Loves You” and “I Want To Hold Your Hand” featured teen-oriented puppy love lyrics which belied the musical grit and genius in the instrumentation. That year, the American press largely didn’t bother to mention the band’s music. A New York Times article from 1964 about the group’s arrival in the United States was emblematic of this when it stated, “I mean, all that hair. American singers are soooo clean-cut.” In most cases, the American press would not bother to comment on the Beatles’ music for a few more years. It was the celebrity of the group alone that caught the interest, initially, of American newspapers.
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It did not take long for the group to assert their principles. The band made their opinion concerning American racial segregation known as early as 1964, when they refused to perform at the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, Florida to a segregated audience. For the first time in the venue’s history, it allowed a racially integrated crowd to attend the concert. The Beatles are not often credited for their support of racial equality in the United States, but their influence, and the desire of southern venues to not lose guaranteed profits from the events, caused historically segregated spaces to integrate, if only for the duration of their concerts. The Beatles were questioned about their demands to play before integrated audiences when they returned to the U.S. on tour the following year, in 1965. The band “openly criticized the prejudice that they witnessed throughout their travels in the country, particularly in the South.”
A chance meeting with Bob Dylan in 1964, known conversely more for his lyrics than his musical content, informed the evolution both acts would take in 1965. Dylan and the Beatles were fans of each other’s work and, following their first social session—which included massive amounts of marijuana smoking and record listening—each moved forward wearing the influence of the other on their sleeve. In 1965, Dylan “went electric,” much to the chagrin of many fans of his folk roots, and The Beatles began to grow lyrically by addressing issues of introspection, loss, and ambivalence. As a result, they released what is widely believed to be the first cohesive rock album in 1965, Rubber Soul. Rather than a collection of singles, Rubber Soul acts as an entire, unified work. Among the most powerful songs on the album is the delicate “In My Life.” As writer Ian MacDonald suggests, the song is a “meditation on [Lennon’s] past and the mixed pleasures of recollecting it… ’In My Life’ strikes a deeper note than previous Beatles lyrics, embracing thoughts of death without stylizing them.” The era of the rock album had begun and The Beatles would continue to revolutionize the medium through their next several releases. Not only were they, especially John Lennon, letting their Dylan influence be known, they were also quickly outgrowing the lovable mop top identity they had been labelled with by the American press in February of 1964.
Just as the band turned musical expectations on their head through their innovative work in the recording studio, they similarly subverted the medium of public relations. In 1966, The Beatles released the album Yesterday and Today, featuring a now-legendary album cover of the band wearing butcher smocks and handling red meat and dismembered baby dolls. The intended statement of the “Butcher Cover” has been claimed to be everything from protest against the Vietnam War to the “butchering” of The Beatles’ British albums into the American versions. It was commonplace at the time for Capitol, the American subsidiary of EMI—The Beatles’ British label—to cut three songs from every British Beatles album so they could assemble an additional American record every couple years to further squeeze the American youth consumer market. The Beatles were appalled by this but would not have the power to stop this practice until later in the 1960s. Whether the “Butcher Cover” was indeed motivated by war protest, protest over corporate greed, or some other reason, is beside the point. The Beatles had decided to make a statement that punctured their cute, teen pop idol image. By 1966, they were already “weary of playing cute, safe, pop stars, and were increasingly vocal on a whole range of topics including the conflict in Vietnam, civil rights, and religion.” It appeared that whatever statement the band was intending to make, if any literal statement was intended at all, it was less important than shattering the Beatles’ image as wholesome and family friendly. “The Beatles, particularly [John] Lennon, delighted in the surreal photograph.” The reaction to the album cover was so immense and widespread that Capitol immediately recalled all the copies, resulting in a handful entering into the bootleg collectors’ market.
1966 was also the year of arguably The Beatles’ most controversial period in the United States, when John Lennon asserted that The Beatles were more popular than Jesus Christ. The backlash that resulted, particularly in the American southern “Bible Belt,” included the banning of Beatles music on many southern radio stations and “Beatle Burnings” where piles of Beatles records, posters, and other paraphernalia were burned. In only two years’ time, The Beatles had gone from four smiling young lads from Liverpool who seemed harmless and goofy to an anti-Christian force in the United States. The “Butcher Cover” and the radical new psychedelic sounds which appeared on their 1966 album, Revolver, further demonstrated a level of dangerousness and subversion in The Beatles’ music and approach that a number of Americans regarded as threatening to the youth and to traditional values. The final track on Revolver, “Tomorrow Never Knows,” was the most experimental piece of music the Beatles had yet recorded.
Inspired by LSD as well as the Tibetan Book of the Dead, “Tomorrow Never Knows” gave social conservatives of the 1960s further reason to see The Beatles as a threat to America’s young. The song, which utilizes the single guitar chord of C, over a constant drone, and employing a myriad of samples and backward guitar solos, sought to simulate the loss of ego experience of LSD. The lyrics similarly inform the disappearance of the individual in favor of joining a collective experience: “Turn off your mind/ relax and float downstream/ It is not dying/ It is not dying…”
Christian conservatives had been warning the American public about The Beatles from the mid-sixties forward. Religious leader, David Noebel, wrote a pamphlet and conducted a series of speaking engagements in the middle of the decade called, Communism, Hypnotism, and The Beatles. It was Noebel’s assertion that the group utilized rhythms to trigger pavlovian responses in the young, hence the supposed connection to communism and hypnotism. Noebel had warned against the dangers of rock ‘n’ roll prior to The Beatles, but had a more difficult time doing so, as a number of early rock’s heroes were themselves religious, including Little Richard and Elvis Presley. Despite Noebel’s concerns about the overt sexuality of the songs by these acts of the 1950s, their connection to gospel made Noebel’s warnings difficult to make any long-standing impact. When the Beatles arrived in the U.S., their Britishness and their lack of connection to anything remotely religious made them a perfect target for Noebel. The Beatles “offered Noebel a perfect focus for his antipathy to rock ‘n’ roll.” It was in this context that the Beatles backlash over Lennon’s “more popular than Jesus” comment was able to be exploited by members of the conservative right. For figures like Noebel, it was proof of a spiritual war with nothing less than America’s youth hanging in the balance. “In the minds of the fundamentalists a popularity contest was being held. Noebel and his co-thinkers [were] conservatives in the full sense of the word, wary of any change.” For Noebel and his ilk, The Beatles were a deadly virus of liberal change, carrying with them communism, sex, anti-Christian sentiment, rock ‘n’ roll, and all sorts of other deviant and destructive elements.
By the end of 1966, regardless of whatever kudos Revolver had received in the music press, The Beatles had come to be seen as a pariah by some and past their artistic prime by others. The emergence of the San Francisco music scene, which featured such acts as Jefferson Airplane and The Grateful Dead, made the British rock that defined the music of the previous few years seem like it was from an entirely other era. Hence, the shock by music audiences, especially in the United States, when The Beatles released their single, “Strawberry Fields Forever,” in early 1967, along with “Penny Lane,” and the album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in June 1967.
“Strawberry Fields” and the Sgt. Pepper album were revolutionary in both their sound and construction. “Strawberry Fields” is a single still perhaps unparalleled in pop music. It is one of the oddest and unorthodox commercial singles of all time. The delicate guitar, a lyric which shifts in intent and second-guesses itself, and the result of different takes played in different keys and different tempos combined into a single track, places the song in a unique category in the history of popular music. It is a song that combines prominent cellos and heavy drums, backward cymbals and childlike symbolism, with electronic instruments like the mellotron as well as acoustic guitars. It is also the result of a combination of unique songcraft and a celebration of ignorance regarding musical theory. It is sophisticated and simple simultaneously. “While there are countless contemporary composers qualified to write music hugely more sophisticated in form and technique, few if any are capable of displaying feeling and fantasy so direct, spontaneous, and original.”
The Sgt. Pepper album cover featured a number of the bands’ artistic and cultural heroes. Included in the group was Karl Marx. It is difficult to imagine an extraordinarily popular work getting away with an image of Marx on its cover in the United States prior to this time, and it is similarly questionable if any other band could have gotten away with it the way The Beatles did. Because controversy followed The Beatles at nearly every turn the previous year, and because the Sgt. Pepper album was the sonic breakthrough that it was, dovetailing with broader social shifts occurring in Britain and the United States in the late 1960s, the fact that Karl Marx appeared on the cover was barely noticed. This is quite amazing, and evidence of a fading anticommunist sentiment in the United States in 1967, which The Beatles arguably helped facilitate.
The music contained within the album of Sgt. Pepper was a mix of experimental studio trickery first utilized on Revolver, nods to old dancehall genres out of vogue by 1967, and songs with a musical sophistication and lyrical maturity that surpassed arguably anything any pop group had done up to that time. Some of John Lennon’s lyrical nakedness, which would later define his early solo albums, appear in some of the least expected moments of Sgt. Pepper. Case in point: the song “Getting Better,” which was primarily a Paul McCartney composition. Nevertheless, the third and final verse of the song was written by Lennon, and the shame and self-effacing honesty in the lyrics are incomparable to any pop song to this day. The Lennon-written verse has the character in the song admitting to the world, “I used to be cruel to my woman. I beat her and kept her apart from the things that she loved. Man, I was mean but I’m changing my scene and I’m doing the best that I can.” Lennon’s growing advocacy of peace and non-violence in the late 1960s and early 1970s appear to have been informed in no small part by his own tendency toward violence and cruelty. Such an admission on his part, in song, marks a level of artistic humility little seen by musicians of his own time, let alone today.
The artistry of the Sgt. Pepper album propelled The Beatles into an unparalleled position of respect and admiration by the general public, their musical peers, and the American intelligentsia and press establishment which had previously dismissed them. Bernard Gendron, professor of philosophy whose field includes the analysis of aesthetics and music, observes that, in 1964, “the music of The Beatles was treated with utter disdain by the American cultural establishment; treatment of the band focused on their status as a social phenomenon. By 1967, however, the Beatles were recognized for their artistry.”
The Beatles continued to use subversive elements in their art, music, and films for the rest of the 1960s. At times, they would make their leftist fans uncomfortable with their songs and statements. The fact that the critics and the press had become true believers in The Beatles also contributed to counterculture elements railing against them. The band were still heroes of the counterculture youth, to be sure, but the love by the press and the Beatles’ desire to remain largely apolitical in their songs disappointed and even angered fans. “Even when called upon to comment or take a stand on issues of importance to the young, the Beatles did so from a detached position—advocating ideals, as a child might, but lacking a program for practical implementation. This, of course, was the source of falling out with the New Left.”
Lennon and The Beatles were indeed derided by many radicals in 1968, who felt their song, “Revolution,” was weak for discounting violence as a legitimate political force and for criticizing supporters of Communist Chinese leader Chairman Mao. The battle lines over the ownership of the Beatles that had been made by 1968 predicted how different factions would respond to the song’s response to the rampant riots and unrest that defined 1968 America. “Critical reaction to the song [was] favorable, from the establishment press, like TIME, [and was] scathing from the New Left.” The Beatles, while wanting to express their views through their art, largely sought to remain outside of the growing social tensions and politicization of the late 1960s. Despite this desire, “public response to ‘Revolution’ was highly politicized, which is not surprising considering its message and the timing of its release.” Both Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, two of the most influential public figures of the decade, were assassinated in 1968. Some members of the New Left were ready for a culture war at home. Lennon and the Beatles’ refusal to become agents of radicalism distanced them from many fans at the time. Lennon’s pacifism, in retrospect, seems more measured and mature than the figurative and literal bomb-throwing of those who derided him and the band in the late 1960s. Nevertheless, despite leftists’ bloviating disappointment of their cultural and artistic idols, it was most often traditional conservatives and the Christian right, rather than the radical left, who were most irked by The Beatles in the second half of the decade.
The music of the single, “Revolution,” was one of the heaviest and most distorted pieces of music the Beatles ever released. It’s place as a guitar-driven track with loud drums and screaming vocals by Lennon at song’s end both reflected and predicted the heavy rock that dominated 1968, such as Blue Cheer, The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Cream, and The Who. The song not only represented the sonic landscape of 1968, and the political unrest of the era, but also marked a new direction for the band musically. Gone was the dreaminess and psychedelia of 1966 and 1967. In its place was a straight-forward rock group recording live in the studio and focusing less on studio trickery or novel new sounds. “Raw directness, forecasting the minimalism of [Lennon’s] first solo album, here displaces the elaborate artifice of ‘I Am The Walrus.’”
After the group disbanded, John Lennon released his second solo record in 1971, which included the song that would become most associated with his post-Beatles work: “Imagine.” The Imagine album was a follow-up to Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band album, which had exhibited a deliberately raw quality and included painful songs such as “Mother” and “God.” Imagine was a much more calm and melodic album, and the title track offered Lennon’s current view of the possibility of earthly coexistence. Lennon’s request that the listener imagine that there is no heaven, and that the world will live as one, is overtly humanist and Marxist in its ideology. “You may say I’m a dreamer,” Lennon sings, “but I’m not the only one. I hope one day you’ll join us, and the world will live as one.” While it lacks any of the intellectual communism concerning the means of production and other Marxist tropes, it nevertheless embodies and imagines a stateless socialist utopia. The success of the single and the album—the most successful of Lennon’s solo career—reveals a shift in popular culture. The fact that such notions of communal living and humanist utopianism embodied within the song would be so celebrated by an American audience in 1971 is incredible, and it is very difficult to imagine a song with similar sentiment being so highly regarded only a decade earlier.
Lennon and The Beatles did not create the 1960s counter-culture that questioned prevailing norms, including anticommunism, but they certainly represented and reflected it. They were simultaneous leaders and followers of a larger cultural shift that inserted doubt into traditional views of art, war, and the state. They did not do this alone, but their influence was massive and their impact deep. Considering this, it is difficult—perhaps impossible—to envision any other act doing as much to define the cultural shift of the 1960s more than The Beatles. The Beatles were not just of their time, however, but also somehow beyond it. As much as their artistry was informed by the events of the 1960s, there is a timelessness to the Beatles’ music, proven by their continued popularity decades after disbanding. It is no wonder, then, that “in 1998, the U.S. Postal Service asked Americans to vote for ‘the subjects that best commemorate the 1960s,’ the winners were a trio of cultural products whose enduring popularity (in legend and the marketplace) seems to transcend conflict entirely: The Beatles, Woodstock, and Star Trek.”
Beyond the genius of their music, The Beatles’ greatest achievement may well have been their ability to be simultaneously revolutionary and accessible. For all the controversy, sparked by an assertion of popularity over that of Christ, infuriating the New Left for not fitting the model of revolutionary artists they expected the group to be, or John Lennon’s promotion of utopian socialist ideology in his early solo work, The Beatles remained affable and incredibly popular. There is some irony in that David Noebel was to some degree correct. John Lennon, perhaps the most legendary Beatle, did in fact help to demystify and destigmatize communism. The lyrics in “Imagine” allowed broad American culture to embrace socialist ideals, if only hypothetically. The popularity of the song, sung to this day at other public proceedings across the United States, underscores Lennon and The Beatles’ unique ability to subvert social norms, inform new ones, and somehow remain icons of broad popular culture.
John Lennon’s common dismissal of earlier statements and positions (and even earlier artistic accomplishments) was a trademark of his character, and the communism he preached in “Imagine” in 1971 may have been another instance of this. In 2011, it was reported that by the end of the 1970s, Lennon had become a fan of Ronald Reagan’s brand of conservativism. This assertion has been contested, but the possibility is not unrealistic considering how often and how drastic Lennon could change from decade to decade and even year to year. The perpetual shifts in thought and inspiration that might appear as a sign of insincerity for some, however, was arguably what informed the ability for Lennon specifically and The Beatles broadly to constantly adapt and evolve. Indeed, it was their enduring ability to transform and innovate that allowed them to break ground in music composition, production, fashion, photography, graphic design, and film. Each of these mediums were fundamentally and forever altered by the work of The Beatles. Their ability to do this was nothing short of revolutionary.
[James M. Masnov is a writer, historian, and lecturer. His book, History Killers and Other Essays by an Intellectual Historian, is available here.]
 Paul Gardner, “The Beatles Invade, Complete with Long Hair and Screaming Fans,” New York Times, February 8, 1964, 1.
 Michael R. Frontini, The Beatles: Image and the Media (Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2007), 99.
 Ian MacDonald, Revolution in the Head: The Beatles Records and the 1960s (Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2007), 170.
 Frontini, The Beatles: Image and the Media (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2007), 71.
 Frontini, Beatles: Image and the Media, 119.
 John Lennon, “Tomorrow Never Knows,” from the sound recording Revolver, EMI Records, 1966.
 Mark Sullivan, ‘“More Popular Than Jesus': The Beatles and the Religious Far Right,” Popular Music 6, no. 3 (October, 1987): 316, http://www.jstor.org/stable/853191.
 Sullivan, ‘“More Popular Than Jesus': The Beatles and the Religious Far Right,” 316.
 MacDonald, Revolution in the Head, 220.
 John Lennon, “Getting Better,” (Lennon & McCartney) from the sound recording Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, EMI Records, 1967.
 Frontini, The Beatles: Image and the Media, 151.
 Frontini, The Beatles: Image and the Media, 231.
 John Platoff, “John Lennon, ‘Revolution,’ and the Politics of Musical Reception,” The Journal of Musicology 22, no. 2 (Spring 2005): 241, http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/jm.2005.22.2.241.
 Platoff, “John Lennon, ‘Revolution,’ and the Politics of Musical Reception,” 248.
 MacDonald, Revolution in the Head, 296.
 John Lennon, “Imagine,” from the sound recording Imagine, Apple Records, 1971.
 Maurice Isserman and Michael Kazin, America Divided: The Civil War of the 1960s, Fifth Edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), 297.
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