Friday, November 28, 2008

Why Don't We Do It In The Road?: The Beatles Phenomenon

by John Astley

Resurrection, it is said, makes for strange bedfellows. The text of this monograph, rediscovered after 25 years in the author's displaced archives, seems likely to put that bizarre epigram to the test. The script, when found, was yellow and embrittled with age (the author has fared somewhat better). That archival fact need not deter the reader for two reasons, which may, admittedly, appear contrived, but here they are anyway.

In 1979, when the essay was originated, the author was much closer to his subject. In Britain, this was the same year Mrs Thatcher was elected prime minister. In New York, John Lennon had but a year to live. There is an eerie passage in this narrative, where the author muses on Lennon's survival of the 1960s alongside the fallen heroes of the rock pantheon: Jim, Janice, Jimi, et al. - and that a 'John' on that same list might not have looked so out of place. So it with unclever hindsight that we all now know of Lennon's dramatic exit from this world: at the hands of the deranged Mark Chapman, who drew a kind of motive for murder with a lethal cocktail of The Beatles and Catcher in the Rye. The assailant had decided that Lennon was 'a phoney'. At an even earlier date, the case of Charles Manson presents another example of a response to cultural transmission in the extreme. As an interpreter of what The Beatles were really saying in the songs of the White Album, and notably 'Helter Skelter', Manson left his own grizzly mark on that decade still known as the Swinging Sixties. Society, Manson said, was to blame for the way he had turned out.

The Beatles, then, had critics and fans - or fanatics - at both extremes of the emotional spectrum that at times seemed to become detached from the mere making of popular music.

All of this is, essentially, beside the point, but it leads conveniently on to the second reason why this generation-old text remains worthy of the reader's belated attention.

This book is not really about The Beatles as people or musicians - or indeed as songwriters (at a time when it was unusual for performers to write their own material). In this regard, the author is well aware that the Lennon-McCartney partnership, with George Martin as producer, was innovative in so many ways - but that this is nowhere near enough to explain the nature of the phenomenon. The author was and remains a sociologist of culture, and this is the approach of this narrative. This will not please everyone, but then the aim is not to please but to investigate a social phenomenon that emerged from an existing culture. This "essay", as the author insists on calling his extended offering, is about The Beatles as a cultural phenomenon - not as a biographical dissemination of its subject, but as an account of why the phenomenon occurred (at all) and which societal mechanisms permitted this to happen. Why them? Why there? Why then?

The surviving Beatles are unlikely to complain of a lack of biographical exposure.

A certain amount of background knowledge is required of the reader, who may or may not have been present in the post-War years leading up to the 1950s and 1960s. The 1950s, often portrayed in sophisticated grey tones as a dull decade, was the cradle for that demographic explosion which resulted in a complex outpouring of youth cultures. By 1963, there were an unprecedented number of 16-year-olds around. The demographic shift was a trans-Atlantic phenomenon in its own terms and scale, which represented a ready-made audience for those entrepreneurs, like Brian Epstein, who cared to notice. In this respect, the author focuses his attention on the post-War years in Liverpool - as a backdrop to the emergence of The Mersey Sound, and the laboratory that hatched The Beatles phenomenon. Why, though, does the author insist on referring to this text as an essay? This alludes strongly to the semi-formal approach, for certain. Since a biographical approach would miss the point, then so too might a formal academic study. A semi-formal essay, then, is placed (strategically) somewhere between these poles. The term is from essai, which - as Montaigne explained long ago - is a trial (by words) where the author examines his or her own thoughts on a specific subject. What will this trial uncover? The reader is now invited to explore the findings. The compass is set, and the message, whatever it might be, is about to unfold.

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