Why We Still Love The Beatles?

Michael Gerber
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“You love us because you are anxious.”

The New Yorker‘s Adam Gopnik has a theory, and apparently it’s something like, “modern life makes people anxious, and in their anxiety they cling to certain things, and discard other things.” Which is not really an answer — why the Beatles and not, say, Queen? — but the real reason makes for bad copy.

The real reason is a stew of the following: some art is simply better than other art; some artforms age better than others; some art is destroyed by changes in consumption patterns or technology; some eras are more iconic and resonant; and art which can be milked for money by controlling corporations is going to have a longer lifespan.

While thoughtful and well-written, Gopnik’s essay suffers from what I like to call “The Wikipedia Effect,” whereby incorrect common knowledge has been turned into seeming fact via authoritative repetition. This kind of false certainty is, in fact, what The New Yorker sells; maybe it’s what every magazine always sells. But as our sources have been winnowed, it’s gotten more obvious, and more damaging. Read deeply on any subject, and then go read its Wikipedia page. You’ll plotz. The moment Gopnik characterized “Come Together” as an all-John composition, and made a mistake in the title of “Hey Jude,” the Wikipedia Effect became so strong I had to force myself to keep reading.

But I’m glad I did, because it touches on some of the same ground I mused on in a hoary old post called The Beatles and History. I got another dose of the Wikipedia Effect when Gopnik asserted that “[in 1914] socialists throughout Europe were sure that transnational class-consciousness would trump nationalist war fever. It didn’t. It never has.”

First of all, it took me roughly .007 seconds to think of a time when transnational class-consciousness trumped nationalist war fever: the Christmas Truce of 1914. And throughout the entire war, there were many mutinies, most notably the French one of 1917 — nationalism was powerful, but it wasn’t everything. And second of all, as an American living in Paris, Gopnik must know that the international socialist movement had been mortally wounded by the assassination of Jean Jaurés. This omission on his part is particularly odd given the rest of the piece, which explicitly talks about the rash of assassinations in the pre-1914 period — but it doesn’t fit with the Big Idea of the piece, so it’s gotta go.

The world we get sprouts from our sense of what is possible; and the possible comes from the history we choose to emphasize. If you believe that nationalism will always trump class-consciousness, that will be so. But historians like Barbara Tuchman and especially Niall Ferguson disagree.

Gopnik’s discussion of what he calls “right-wing populist nationalism” — to avoid calling it “Fascism,” I guess? — suggests that he’s simply a shaky guide. He traces Trump-style foolishness back to Wallace in 1968, and to the John Birchers before that, but doesn’t ask the obvious question: why has it become a part of our national politics since 1968? Who or what lifted this approach, these attitudes famously outlined by Hofstadter, from the fringes to the mainstream? The answer is, of course, the GOP, which hitched its wagon to “right-wing populist nationalism” (a/k/a the Southern Strategy) after Goldwater was soundly defeated in ’64. People were talking about a Roosevelt-like drought for the Republicans thanks to the Kennedy brothers, so the GOP was desperate. And we’ve been paying the price ever since.

Of this “right-wing etc etc” Gopnik writes:

These elements—the exaggerated outside threat, the insistence on élite collusion—and a third, the hysterical certainty that an assertion, any assertion, of national strength will be the antidote, manifest themselves over and over, and probably always will.

It is impossible to read this and not think of the Nazis, right? Why are we talking about the Birchers? That group of dead-enders was the punchline to a Strangelovian joke until the Republicans hoisted their nonsense into the national conversation. What changed? Who changed it? Why did they change it? If you’re not going to ask these questions, it’s silly to bring it up. Gopnik’s ideas are interesting, but it’s all half-baked, the same kind of fudgy thinking that makes “Come Together” into an “all-John” song. Cripes, man.

It is difficult to know things about things, especially when confronted with essays like this one. Put your own two cents in the comments.

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  1. Avatar Rob Geurtsen wrote:

    wooops, mr. Gopnik, that’s is journalistic bullshit he’s doing a Malcolm Gladwell, popularizing unvalidated nonsense, and The New Yorker accepts these utterances? thx Michael…

  2. Avatar Dan wrote:

    “The answer is, of course, the GOP, which hitched its wagon to “right-wing populist nationalism” (a/k/a the Southern Strategy) after Goldwater was soundly defeated in ’64. People were talking about a Roosevelt-like drought for the Republicans thanks to the Kennedy brothers, so the GOP was desperate. And we’ve been paying the price ever since.”

    So the Republicans come up with a message that will appeal to a previously-Democrat section of the electorate, and it works because it’s a popular message? Oh those evil undemocratic bigots!

    • Yeah, Dan, but that “popular message” was “racism.” Jim Crow wasn’t/isn’t acceptable when the Democrats benefitted from it, and it wasn’t acceptable when the GOP took it over, post the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

      And it’s doubly unacceptable when such an odious policy is kept in place by electoral trickery — voter suppression, gerrymandering, etc. To suggest that the GOP’s Southern Strategy is democracy working as it should, is just not true. It’s the inheritance of a shameful, deeply un- and anti-democratic system for purely political gain, which requires suppression and gerrymandering precisely because it’s unpopular and would not persist were normal democratic processes allowed to work.

      The Democrats are no angels, up to and including LBJ, but you can’t criticize them for jettisoning Jim Crow, knowing full well that it would cost them dearly politically, simply because it was wrong. And you can and should criticize the Republican Party for picking up that constituency, and working assiduously to grow it, even though they know (or should know) it’s wrong. I grew up in St. Louis in the ’70s, and there were aspects of it that were little better than apartheid. Which confused the hell out of me — weren’t they citizens, too? Wasn’t it unpatriotic, as well as racist and unchristian and cruel, to single out one group of people like this? Who cares if it was “the way things were always done.”

      The Sixties were an opportunity to make a decisive break from all that, and while the Democrat leadership did — against their own interests, but in the country’s — the Republicans did not. One can and should draw a straight, bright line from the Southern Strategy to Ferguson and Tamir Rice. Black people being killed is (and has always been) the natural consequence of this type of rhetoric, and it’s time for that to stop.

      Here’s what John and Paul said in an interview in May 1968 — in other words, after MLK but before RFK:

      Q: “One of the big controversies in your country had been recently the whole question of racial integration and of cutting off immigration, and of asking some of your non-whites to go back home again. You’ve been asked about this, undoubtedly.”

      JOHN: “No.”

      Q: ‘Do you think this is the kind of government policy that you want in your country?”

      JOHN: “We sow what we reap, or whatever it is. And Britain is paying for what it did to all those countries. And to say, ‘Keep out,’ is just barking in the garden, you know. Because whatever is going to happen will happen like that.”

      PAUL: “It was just some fella who said in a speech one day…”

      JOHN: “He said what a lot of them thought.”

      Q: “And a lot of people in Liverpool, and other places you know well, favor what he said, apparantly.”

      JOHN: “Sure.”

      PAUL: “Yeah.”

      JOHN: “Because those people are all over the place. That’s why the governments are in power.”

      PAUL: “You know those people, they don’t know a thing. They just hate.”

      JOHN: “Because they’re not told anything, as well.”

      PAUL: “It’s people like this – They say “I’m white and he’s black.’ Hate, hate, hate. They just hate him.”

      JOHN: “And he’s not brought up any other way.”

      PAUL: “You know, they don’t know anything else than that, so they’ve got to agree with this fella who says “We’ve got a dangerous situation here.'”

      JOHN: “And they vote him in, and he just makes them feel alright. And he tells them that ‘You’re right! You know what’s happening. You put me in power’ But what they don’t know is that he knows a bit more what’s going on. That’s why he’s in power. But he’s not going to tell them what’s happening because he wants to stay in power. Because if they knew, they wouldn’t have put him in power, somebody else would be.”

      • Avatar Rob Geurtsen wrote:

        @Micahel what’s your source?

        • You’re misusing the term “source,” @Rob. The animating statement of my comment, “…that ‘popular message’ was ‘racism'” is not source-able, because it’s not a discrete fact, it’s interpretation.

          It’s like someone saying, “The psychedelic era of the Sixties was inaugurated by widespread use of LSD after 1965.” I think we’d all agree that’s true, and logical, and borne out by literally innumerable source-able statements and facts, and has been reflected in the perception of that era since. But you can’t source it; it’s a statement of interpretation. Either you buy it, or you don’t… but if you DON’T buy it, you’re obligated to come up with an alternative interpretation that explains this stuff as effectively, and in the case of the Southern Strategy, there just ain’t one.

  3. Avatar Hologram Sam wrote:

    Adam asks the eternal question “Why do we remember the Beatles?” and like a butterfly landing briefly and ever so lightly on a flower petal he answers with “the spread of talent in the band and its distinctive interminglings.” (A very understated way of acknowledging their mighty songwriting and performing abilities.)
    Why aren’t we downloading and blogging about Freddie and the Dreamers or The Swinging Bluejeans instead? Because Beatle records were so consistently brilliant that they get taken for granted by writers like Adam. Their body of work is seen as a natural force like thunder and lightning or a windstorm, rather than as an achievement. And so the thought leaders scratch their heads and wonder “What was it about the Beatles? The haircuts? The cheeky Liverpudlian whimsy?”
    When Adam turns his focus to “the political front” he again brushes gently, so gently against the truth that if it were ticklish it might giggle. The truth is the national sickness behind the motivations of George Wallace’s supporters, or Nixon and his southern strategy, or Reagan preaching “states’ rights” at the Neshoba County Fair. It was inevitable the Birchers would go mainstream (with new faces and a new name) after the 2008 presidential election.
    Speaking of the southern strategy, I can still tune in to my PBS station and see Pat Buchanan chuckle in roundtable discussions. But I’m glad I can switch him off and listen to “Come Together” instead. Thanks, Lads!

  4. Avatar Hologram Sam wrote:

    The animating statement of my comment, “…that ‘popular message’ was ‘racism’” is not source-able, because it’s not a discrete fact, it’s interpretation.
    I wish to respectfully disagree; it’s fact, not interpretation. They were quite open about what they were up to (in internal memos, in the Nixon tapes, and the Lee Atwater interview):

  5. Avatar Rob Geurtsen wrote:

    I think I found it (to the tune of ‘I Think I love You’ – David Cassidy and the Partridge Family)



    On May 11th 1968, John Lennon and Paul McCartney traveled to New York City. During this trip they would officially announce the Beatles’ newly-formed and very non-traditional company, Apple Corps.

    They appeared in the following interview which was videotaped by New York educational television station WNDT on May 14th. It was then aired twice on the program ‘Newsfront.’ The interview was conducted by host Mitchell Krause. While no video copies of this program have surfaced over the years, an audio recording of the interview has luckily survived.

  6. Avatar Hologram Sam wrote:

    Yet one need only think of the pop-music circumstances of 1966, when the Beatles were touring America for the third time, to see how oddly and irregularly stored the past can be. Back then, the popular music of fifty years earlier was as remote as the Arctic Circle. It belonged to the archival past. The music of 1916 was, in 1966, thought to be either good for a gentle laugh—as with the straw-hatted “Dixieland” bands—or else in need of much scholarly understanding to be made sense of.
    I suspect technology has much to do with it. In 1966, a fifty-year-old recording was a primitive thing. The best music can sound “quaint” when it squeaks out of a scratchy old 78. Today, we can hear a fifty-year-old recording in high fidelity and wide stereo. So today’s millennials hear Things We Said Today or Another Girl, and their window to the past is crystal clear. The past is not so remote. A fifty-year-old film is still widescreen technicolor.
    Adam’s quoted paragraph actually makes me feel old. I remember when I could turn on my TV and see people who were the age Paul McCartney and Keith Richards are now, and they’d been in silent films. I remember seeing Hal Roach on the Dave Letterman show and he talked about getting his first job in 1912! I’d watch the Mike Douglas Show in 1975 and see Gloria Swanson or Lillian Gish (who were only in their early seventies) talk about working in the first days of Hollywood. I was eight years old in 1966, and even then I had the definite sense that anything show business-related older than a decade or so was brutally primitive… whether it was film or recordings. My “window” to the past was clouded by the limitations of older technology.

    • The more interesting point, that Gopnik doesn’t make, is that there’s a pressing commercial need for the past to seem “brutally primitive,” even when it’s not.

      Cherry-picking the best of every era and every format, we already have more than enough culture to consume, most of it in the PD or will be soon. So the trick for any culture producer is to come up with a way that the new item they control is necessary —
      –it’s from an unheard group with a unique viewpoint.
      –it’s more “modern” or in tune with our age.
      –it combines with contemporary technology to offer a new and different experience.

      It’s only in this corporate media world of forced obsolesence that the question “Why We Still Love the Beatles?” is worth a single pixel. We still love them because they are still good, duh. But the idea that a fifty-year-old band, writing music of and for a world fifty years dead, could somehow connect with contemporary audiences on a Force Awakens-type scale…that’s deeply threatening to the entire infrastructure of corporate media. It suggests that brilliance, and not marketing, is the driver of success. And that all the new! different! is so much palaver.

      • Avatar Ruthie Rader wrote:

        I love the Beatles music (not them, so much…but their music…since I never actually knew any of them) to this day. Their music is so unique and it takes me back to memories. Beyond that…(shrug).

  7. Avatar Hologram Sam wrote:

    …there’s a pressing commercial need for the past to seem “brutally primitive,” even when it’s not.
    That’s what happens when the marketing department takes the wheel. The artists themselves are happy to point to past influences and share their enthusiasm about older artists. The Beatles were always quick to mention Carl Perkins and Elvis and Buddy Holly; it was the marketing department who came up with “Before the Beatles… there was nothing!” I remember in 1970 when WNEW played the BBC “Beatles Story” radio documentary, hosted by the plummy Brian Matthew, and they began the show by featuring a musical snippet, drenched in reverb and all moldy-sounding: “Iffa your sweeetheart, sends a letter of goodbyeeee, it’s no secret you’ll feel better if yew cryyyyy” and then informed me that this is what everyone was listening to before the Beatles. No mention of the Everly brothers or Eddie Cochran. The pre-Beatles past offered up as something to point and laugh at.
    The marketing people wanted to make me feel like I was doing something deeply transgressive when I’d visit MOMA to see Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator” or when I’d get excited listening to Billy Murray and his Melody Men on old ’78s: “Whattsamatter, nostalgia boy, ain’t the present good enough for you?” I like the present just fine, thanks, but the past is worth exploring.
    A few weeks ago I had a vivid dream (I’ve had it many times before); I call it the hidden room dream. I was back in the little house I grew up in. Parents dead; my siblings and I were preparing it for sale (this part actually happened twenty years ago). But here’s the weird part:
    I started exploring, and found old rooms I’d either never seen before, or somehow half-remembered. They were dusty and old, accessible by winding staircases. Filled with antiques that I examined with amazement. Old books, tools, electronics… looked like from the 1920s. I found an old attic, and peered out the window. Followed a maze to a basement that looked like it could have been a nightclub at one time; a small stage with a separate stone staircase that led to it; another small hallway that led to the audience section. More antiques; some musical instruments and novelties.
    Explored some more, and found a small bistro! People were having lunch, a lady asked me if I wanted a seat. I told her this was my house, and I needed directions back to the “normal” part of the house.
    My overall feeling was one of awe and joy, like finding hidden treasure. When I woke up, I remember feeling disappointed that it wasn’t real.
    The next day after having this dream, I visited a blog that specializes in stuff like that and described it. What astonished me was reading all the comments of other people who’d had almost the exact dream.
    No matter how hard the marketing people try to keep us focussed on the profitable (to them) Here And Now, they can’t keep us from straying.

  8. Avatar J.R. Clark wrote:

    Sometimes the past is not so remote. For example, the quality of the film clip of The Beatles performing “Some Other Guy” in the Cavern looks to me like it could be from 1918!

    • Always LOVED this clip. One of my holy moments, seeing this at Beatlefest in Chicago in 1985. Just electric.

    • Avatar ChelseaQW wrote:

      I love this clip too. So amazing on so many levels! Swoon.
      Tangentially, I’ve always really liked this song. Some other guy “has taken the padlock off my pad?” Damn, that’s some poetry.

      • I did not know any of this, though it does explain my utter inability to decipher the lyrics as a guitar-wielding teenager:

        Neither Richie Barrett’s original nor The Big Three’s cover have crystal clear lyrics, and this has led to mishearings. The Beatles sang misheard words that were not Richie’s original lyrics, and regrettably, even though the Fab Four’s words make little or no sense, their amended lyrics have stuck and have been used in subsequent covers. Barrett’s original lyrics chime in with the bitter anger and sadness of a guy who has lost his girlfriend, whereas the incorrect lyrics miss the point altogether. The affected lines are as follows:

        Verse 1, line 3: Some other guy, now, I just don’t want to hold my hand should be Some other guy, now, has just thrown water on my fire; (“fire” rhymes with “desire”).

        Verse 2, line 2: Some other guy, now, has taken my love just like I’m gone should be Some other guy, has taken our love just like a hog; (“hog” rhymes with “dog”).

        Verse 3, line 2: Some other guy, now, is making my past seem oh so bad should be Some other guy now, is breaking the padlock off my pad.

        In a short documentary film with a John Lennon voiceover, (in which Lennon compares the song’s intro to that of his own Instant Karma!), all three co-writers (Leiber, Stoller and Barrett) of “Some Other Guy” discuss the song.[6] Barrett confirms his original lyrics, saying, “I put the part to it that made the story … stealing my girl … stepping away … pouring water on my fire … taking her love … just like a hog … taking her love just like a dog, like a yellow dog. A situation with a guy in Haarlem going through trials and tribulations with his girlfriend”.

        (Yes, “Haarlem.” He’s Dutch. But see — because it’s crowdsourced, it’ll be more accurate .)

        The Searchers should be whipped with a wet noodle for this version.

  9. Avatar Linda S. wrote:

    I love this clip too. Energy level is massively palpable. I’m trying to remember, but can’t: Is this the clip that turned up on Jack Parr’s show? I did happen to be tuned into his show that night, and was completely thunderstruck by my first-ever exposure to the Beatles. Yet, I can’t remember if it was this clip that was featured.

    • Avatar linda a. wrote:

      Is this the clip that turned up on Jack Parr’s show?

      I could have sworn it was a recent, 1963 concert in England with them singing She Loves You that Parr featured. He emphasized the screaming girls, saying something about hoping the disease wasn’t catching or whatever.

  10. Avatar linda a. wrote:

    Oh for God’s sake, once again my tablet decided to “correct” my spelling. It didn’t approve of “Parr” deciding to change it to “part”. It was supposed to say Parr featured the clip, not “part”. I wish there was a way to edit our comments.

  11. Avatar Linda S. wrote:

    linda a — You are entirely correct. I’ve just scared up the clip from youtube https://youtu.be/gJ8RfymgO8Q
    In my defense, I’d never set eyes upon the Beatles before that clip on Parr’s show, and my eyes glazed over instantaneously (euphoria). It washed over me– but I was hooked. (Funny, though, I still seem to “remember” it being a clip from the Cavern (??)

  12. Avatar Hologram Sam wrote:

    Jack Paar was deeply insulted that Ed Sullivan got all the credit for introducing the Beatles to the USA. But he introduced them as if they were some sort of joke. He was not a nice man.

  13. Avatar Hologram Sam wrote:

    I liked when Paar was nice enough to invite Oscar Levant on his show. Have you seen those clips?
    Paar: “What do you do for exercise?”
    Levant: “I stumble and fall into a coma.”
    And he gave the great Jonathan Winters lots of airtime. But didn’t Jack feud with everyone who crossed his path?

  14. Avatar Hologram Sam wrote:

    I found this LGM piece interesting:
    I disagree with the author over the music of the 1930s (I can name quite a few song titles) but he makes some interesting points.
    The cultural demographics of the baby boom are still everywhere. Can you imagine, in 1975, a bunch of people of all ages having a furious debate about the merits of the popular music of the mid-1930s? I mean maybe I’m unusually ignorant in this regard, or maybe it’s in part because my parents immigrated to this country as adults, but I literally can’t name a single popular song from 1935, or for that matter from that entire decade. But the 1970s (and of course the 1960s, and the backlash to them) are still very much in our midst.

    • Avatar Rob Geurtsen wrote:

      Nice, Sam, that you go back to the title of the discussion. Which started with the top ten and the lowest ten of the Beatles songbook on Spotify. Interesting it is that Love me Do at the time already was #1 and now still is… the argument for being the first on the the ‘1’ album doesn’t mean much to me, I don’t know the other facts.

      Nice, how you got this Hey 49 little snippet of demographics and comment. It reminds my of quite a few professional discussions I had the last few weeks. I am active in the well-being/outdoor retail/marketing. The ‘Hey 49’ makes a lot of sense. The hype was millennials, as if a new species has arrived. Brands like The North Face focus on this generation and many marketeers babble and write about the needs, wants and behaviors of the so-called m millennials. What most marketeers basically are transposing is early 21st century behaviors, mostly but not all, regardless of age. e.g. town and housing planners assumed trends arising after the 2008-crisis, as coming from or being typical for a new generation, but it just isn’t so, the behaviors of the younger families are boringly old fashioned when it comes to basic needs consuming and housing.

      Yet brands who focus on the millennials 15-35/40 years old are not paying attention, the group 55 – 75 is richer, want to spent more on stuff typical for their generation/age, they are basically a little less vital but nationally as mobile as younger generations, their, our, market power is as big and still growing.

      It is not ‘why the Beatles are still popular?’, but why we still love the Beatles, even though I have no idea who you guys and gals mean with we? For us, the Beatles will be popular till the moment we die… give me Beatles music, George and Hare Krishna stuff and Nathalie Merchant on my the days before I die or even my deathbed… and maybe some Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy’ without that talk of Jesus that might fall my in my dying moments. Dylan sells big stuff box sets, though badly designed and too little in depth information in the more expansive and expensive range.

      Please folks, let’s not fool ourselves. Van Gogh colored South of France paintings, with his other work in the slipstream, wasn’t popular in his own days, that work is popular know. The Beatles’ music is popular now and might not necessarily be popular in a fifty or hundred years from now. To achieve such a feat at least smart marketing is required(1) and luck(2) and the ability to adapt to new technologies (3) and (4) make sure elite citizens and (5) fellow-artists of younger generations are still inspired by the art and craft of the Beatles. So much about why are they still so popular, now and in the future.

      ‘Why we still love the Beatles’ is much more about us than about the boys. Or did y’all mean their music, which we better separate because our love for their music prevents us to understand history and the folks who made the music. Because good music must be made by inspiring and good people. That old christian sucker stuff, that which comes from the lord must be good. Today a preaching woman I passed on the street called me ‘satan’, after I vocally challenged her advise, to all of us, to ‘obey your father and mother’. As if the better composer and performer is the smarter, more popular and better person. I highly appreciate the music of Ike Turner, but he’s made to be the devil himself thru his treatment of women in general and his wife, according to Tina – and soon to be exposed in a musical about her life. His music is important in the development of rock ‘n roll and rhythm ‘n blues, including his days with Tina and the years before that, Tina’s voice is great, her contributions to music, do not out shine her succeses and contributions thru emancipation and survival, both private and professionally.

      I think ‘We still love Beatles-music’ because we have heard it so often, it is engrained in our neurology, and with their music out there, in many formats, how often have you bought the Rubber Soul album, how many versions are in my collection and now their music on streaming media, the deep engrained grooves won’t have a chance to get filled with plaque or weakened thru diminished magnetic-electrical charge, and there will be new people who get these melodies and sounds firmly embedded in the infrastructure of their mind-halls.

      Yet there is another reason, and it is the reason why why read or write on this blog. It is the (life)story, message, and image of the Beatles and their music that triggers so many associations, with lots of variations, contradictions and subtleties that while listening to the music and reading the books we are constantly aware of – and even more important new ideas, beliefs and arguments arise.

      I can only hope that adding their music to the streaming media, is a precursor to the marketing of Ron Howard’s movie/documentary ‘The Beatles live’, which I do hope will arrive at the end of the year, Christmas time is here again, and in the mean time I’ll spend sometime (not in New York City) reading these books about Beatles ritualized non-musical concerts and touring, the book I love most about their live stuff is ‘Some fun tonight’ by Chuck Gunderson, check out http://www.somefuntonight.com

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