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Scott Galupo over at The American Conservative has posted an article sure to raise the ire of normally oh-so-placid HD readers: “Understanding Fuddy-Duddy Beatle Haters.” The occasion is, of course, the 50th anniversary silliness…and, perhaps, a sneaky attempt to rehabilitate William F. Buckley. To quote Jeffery Lebowski, “This aggression shall not stand, man.”
“The crowned heads of anti-music”
If you read what Buckley wrote in The Boston Globe in September 1964, you can be forgiven for thinking, “Surely he wasn’t on cocaine?” It’s that over-the-top.
An estimable critic writing for National Review [Buckley’s magazine], after seeing Presley writhe his way through one of Ed Sullivan’s shows … suggested that future entertainers would have to wrestle with live octopuses in order to entertain a mass American audience. The Beatles don’t in fact do this, but how one wishes they did! And how this one wishes the octopus would win….
The Beatles are not merely awful; I would consider it sacrilegious to say anything less than that they are god awful. They are so unbelievably horrible, so appallingly unmusical, so dogmatically insensitive to the magic of the art that they qualify as crowned heads of anti-music, even as the imposter popes went down in history as “anti-popes.”
That first paragraph is standard issue Buckley, what a fundamentally unfunny person thinks a funny person sounds like. But the second? There’s being wrong, and then there’s being crazy. That it was a common, high-functioning kind of crazy, then and now, doesn’t make it any less worrisome.
There’s no need to look very deeply at Buckley’s public slamming of the Fabs—he always knew an enemy when he saw one. Buckley considered John, Paul, George and Ringo as antithetical to what he was fighting for, the thin end of some kind of wedge, and he was so, so right. But 50 years later, when the Beatles are the cultural equivalent of Christmas morning, that raises an uncomfortable question: if Buckley was so hysterically out-of-step about the Beatles, might his whole weltanschauung be fekockte? When Bill Buckley looked at the Beatles and saw “anti-Popes” (an especially pungent phrase for a devout Catholic), we’re entering General Jack D. Ripper territory. But one thing conservatives do really well is protect their household gods. If William F. Buckley, Barry Goldwater, or Ronald Reagan was revealed to have never brushed his teeth, you can bet there would be a think-tank founded to laud the benefits of gingivitis…
…In the most reasonable-sounding way, of course.
“Without appearing willfully contrarian,” Scott Galupo writes, “I get where these critics were coming from, if only in a roundabout sort of way. I’m an enthusiast of early rock and all its British exponents, from both London and Liverpool; I appreciate and admire the Beatles just fine; etc. Yet at the end of the day I’m a Stones guy—and I can’t help but bristle when Beatlemaniacs diminish the Stones for their comparative lack of technical sophistication or proficiency. There is no end to my puzzlement at those who swear by the Beatles because of their proto-progressivity. Because here’s the thing: rock-and-roll really was retrogressive. Yes, even the Beatles.”
And with “proto-progressivity,” a bit of gelid gobbeldygook, we’ve entered a world where “progress” in popular culture is equal to, not wide acclaim or enjoyment, that’s far too sweaty a standard, or influence or durability, but—of all things—technical difficulty! Which has been shown exactly never, in 30,000 years. People react to the words or the sounds or the images, not the craft; that’s why you always, in popular art, hide the craft. Yet I’m sure the poor sap daubing a cave in Lascaux had somebody standing over him, criticizing his brushwork.
Galupo’s argument, which we’ve all heard before, is that The Beatles weren’t very good at their instruments (Paul McCartney might like to have a few words with him), especially compared to the great jazz virtuosi whom rock eclipsed in the popular imagination. I don’t know who Galupo’s hanging out with, but I know lots of Beatles fans and never once have I heard someone mention George Harrison’s “sweet jazz-guitar technique.” (Knowing George, he probably picked it up, painstakingly, from Bert Weedon.)
Technical proficiency has little to do with meaningful artistic work, much less creative genius, and the only people who haven’t gotten the memo are—I say this gently—snobs. Today music snobs can harken back to jazz geniuses as “those guys who could really play”; in Buckley’s day it was Beethoven and the other dead, white males. Which is why, after the Beatles didn’t fade away in six months, and the great LPs stacked atop one another, each slightly different than the last, the snob fallback position became: Thank goodness those ill-educated, non-music-reading Beatles had “classically trained” George Martin to help them out! (This type of thinking used to drive them crazy; it’s the source of John Lennon’s outburst in Lennon Remembers: “I’d like to hear George Martin’s music, please, just play me some.”) And once you head for “man behind the curtain territory,” you’re lost. One day it’s George Martin pulling the strings, the next it’s the Tavistock Institute.
Back in my day, popular art wasn’t so…popular
Let’s be honest: even if The Beatles could’ve dashed off a great two guitar, bass, and drums version of “Blue Rondo ala Turk” in perfect 9/8, this isn’t about that and never was. And that’s why my issue is with Buckley, and not Galupo. I have known a lot of people from Buckley’s precise time and place—prep-educated, moneyed Yalies from the late 40s-early 50s—and where they stood on things like the Beatles was as good a litmus test as I ever came up with. My friend Dick Lemon (Class of ’52; Buckley was ’50) told a story about being a reporter at Newsweek, and having to go interview the Beatles at the Plaza Hotel in February, 1964.
At first Dick was puzzled. “Why? They’re just a teenybopper thing.”
“Because they’re everywhere,” his editor replied.
But Dick was a good soldier, so he trooped off to the Plaza—and was instantly charmed. Dick liked Beatle music fine, and what’s more, wasn’t threatened by what they stood for, and he was precisely the type of guy Galupo’s talking about—he loved Dixieland, and Fats Waller. But unlike all those other guys, Dick was smart enough, and culturally flexible enough, to see the Beatles for what they were. Buckley saw them only in the context of his obsessions.
The real talent of people like Buckley isn’t thinking, or political solutions—it’s replicating their views. Buckley was a master of the homemade bullhorn, in the National Review, for example, or “Firing Line.” At Yale, following the success of Buckley’s undergraduate jeremiad God and Man at Yale, there came to be a student political party called the POR. Back in my day, the Party of the Right was a clutch of affable bowtie-clad prepsters—precisely my type of freak, or one type, anyway. They liked old stuff, and England, and Greeks and Romans, as I do; you wouldn’t know it to look at me today, but throw me into a pile of tweed jackets, and I am thoroughly at home. But the occasion of all the POR’s Latinate bonhomie was (I recall this from my undergrad days) spending a drunken evening deciding whether it’s just to tattoo AIDS patients on the forehead—or perhaps the buttocks, if you’re a gay man—so nobody will have sex with them.
That’s the thing about Buckley: There was always something incredibly undergraduate about him. Impatient with the complexity that flummoxes mere mortals, he never allowed his thoughts to mature past those of a precocious 20-year-old. That’s what makes him attractive to a certain sort of person, then and now, but in reality it’s a sad fate, being an eternal Chairman of the Yalie Daily. You want to make things better—but have a mind so inflexible it can’t come up with useful solutions. Like a kid, in a world ruled by capital Buckley honestly thought that his conservatism was somehow radical or defiant; like a kid, he usually seemed unable to imagine being someone else; like a kid, he claimed as owed a massive number of unearned opportunities; and like a kid, he frequently disappeared into what he felt was “logic” or “intellectual rigor,” which inevitably reduced reality to brutal dicta. It’s all incredibly self-aggrandizing and sloppy. Buckley’s positions begin flawed, because they don’t proceed from the worthiness and preciousness of all life, especially life you don’t approve of, or understand (which is the same thing). William F. Buckley’s talent was in being certain, not wise.
You see this certainty and simplicity in every hard-right critique of the Beatles. Buckley never fulminated, that was infra-dig, but Devin pointed me to this quote by one Dr. Joseph Crow, “America’s number one authority on musical subversion:
Some of the newer Beatles songs [this is 1968-69] … show an acute awareness of the principles of rhythm and brainwashing. Neither Lennon nor McCartney were world-beaters in school, nor have they had technical training in music. For them to have written some of their songs is like someone who had not had physics or math inventing the A-bomb … Because of its technical excellence it is possible that this music is put together by behavioral scientists in some “think tank” … I have no idea whether the Beatles know what they are doing or whether they are being used by some enormously sophisticated people, but it really doesn’t make any difference. It’s results that count, and the Beatles are the leading pied pipers creating promiscuity, an epidemic of drugs, youth class-consciousness, and an atmosphere for social revolution.
The men behind the curtain
In 1964, there was a type of person who looked at John, Paul, George and Ringo and thought, “People who look like that, from that background, can’t possibly produce what they’ve produced. There must be a Svengali in there somewhere.” Brian with the suits; George Martin with the producing, Capitol manufacturing Beatlemania—they saw everything but what it actually was. This instinct, which a lot of people had in ’64 but Buckley never let go of, is pure snobbery. That he apparently never got over it, shows just how weak his vaunted intellectual curiosity really was in practice. I can tell you without any fear of contradiction that if The Beatles had started out as a singing group at Yale, Buckley wouldn’t have been calling them “anti-Popes.” And I’m all for pointing out the role of the supporting cast in The Beatles’ story—Epstein and Martin were both hugely important—but let’s also point out the nasty undertone of Pecksniffian snobbery—a “people like that oughtn’t be allowed”—which runs through Buckleyite conservatism like a vomit-stained POR tie. That’s what Galupo’s ignoring, and while I see why he’s ignoring it, it’s the crux of his topic.
With fans like this guy…
“Again, don’t misunderstand: I’m a Beatles fan,” says Galupo. “I appreciate the unparalleled pop-cultural phenomenon that they were. [Like Cabbage Patch Kids, not like Mozart.—MG] But if I squint just a little, I find it easy to put myself in the shoes of someone who’d lived through hot jazz and hard bop, and who found the Beatles to be amateurish lightweights.”
Come on now, my guitar-wielding friend: hardline cultural resistance to the Beatles, especially in 1964, and especially by Buckley, wasn’t just about, or even mainly about, comparing them to “hot jazz and hard bop” and finding them technically wanting. If it had been, long hair wouldn’t have come up; nor their “irreverence”; nor the constant questions of “how much money do you have, boys?” The issue was, in Buckley’s case, people not dressing or acting right, about disrespecting authority, about four mouthy knuckleheads from Liverpool not having earned the cultural signifiers that Buckley demanded to respect their success. To paraphrase Lennon again: “You can dislike us, just don’t deny us.”
Which brings us to “amateurish lightweights.” Well. The Beatles in 1964 were, by some measures, the most professional band in the world; the stage time they’d racked up was ungodly, and this showed in every performance. During the CBS show Sunday, Paul and Ringo talked about being able to hear NOTHING on stage, and keeping together perfectly by watching the others’ body language. That strikes me as almost unimaginably tight. By any reasonable standard, the Beatles of 1964 were neither amateurs nor lightweights, and if you can drop in “sweet jazz-guitar technique” with a straight face, you’re enough of a musician to know that, and call bullshit on it.
A floorwax AND a dessert-topping
“In my own shoes, I would defend the Beatles without denying this fact. The amateurishness of rock music was a feature, not a bug. And it still is. If your passion for the Beatles stems from this outsize opinion of their technical competence, I regret to inform you, you’re doing it wrong.”
And I regret to inform you that “Technical competence” is a silly standard for popular art, right? Right. But if one substitutes “musicality and range”—the kind of thing that Leonard Bernstein and others heard in the Beatles immediately—that’s another thing. The Beatles’ flummoxing musicality and range is what makes them more interesting (and to me more enjoyable) than, say, the Stones. A lot of (non-snobby) people’s biggest problem with the Beatles is precisely what made them extraordinary: they transcend category.
The Beatles were—and remain—genuinely subversive…
…in all the best senses of that word. I’ve always felt that some of the appeal of the Stones is how they reinforce the snob’s idea of the world: they’re scruffy-looking English guys playing scruffy music loudly, good for scruffy loud activities like drinking and boinking. (And the fact that Jagger was at LSE gratifies the snob no end—”Ahh, there’s the brains of the operation. I knew it was all a hustle.”) Jazz musicians also fit in the snob narrative: they’re underpaid, underappreciated savants (and servants) translating the Great American Songbook, written by slumming-prep Porter and showbiz Jew Gershwin. In the snob’s world, everybody’s reduced to their class, or religion, or race. The Beatles do not fit this narrative–they can rock, AND they can make music as durable as Porter or Gershwin. And yet none of them were discovered by any authority, nor could they even read music. This is what makes the Beatles profoundly subversive—a “Trojan horse,” as Lennon said—and the Stones not.
In Buckley’s world, true genius doesn’t come out of nowhere—breeding counts—so there must be something funny going on here. But of course there isn’t; the world never fit into the snob narrative, not today, and not in 1964. Buckley’s reaction was typical of a rigid mind confronted with A New Thing: fear and loathing. Today, we all realize that loathing the Beatles says much more about you than them—but of course it always did.