In 2008, upon publication of The Idler’s Glossary, one of its authors, Joshua Glenn, engaged in an exchange of open letters with his co-author, Mark Kingwell—the topic of which, befitting the themes of the book, was the proper distinction between idling and slacking. In Glenn’s half of the exchange, our serial contributor illustrates the matter with apt and breezy reference to the Beatles, and even draws a productive contrast with the Rolling Stones (a band whose existence, for whatever reason, has seldom been acknowledged by anyone at Hey Dullblog).

Lest it be felt that this discussion is of limited relevance, consider that the drift of the post-baby boom generations has been toward either outright slacking, or slacking disguised as real work (website design, video-game taxonomizing, media studies, blogging, everything else to do with computers). With that in mind, the question of how the Beatles relate to idling and slacking suddenly becomes remarkably relevant. — D.M.

These reflections first appeared at Open Book Toronto on October 23, 2008.


At the risk of being accused of Boomer-identification, it occurred to me recently that the Beatles are a good illustration of the idler, while the Rolling Stones are a good illustration of the slacker.

Wait! some might say—the Stones are still together and working, all these years later, so how could they be slackers? Ah, but that’s the thing about slackers—they don’t know when to quit, do they?

The Beatles, as represented to us in their first movie, the 1964 comedy A Hard Day’s Night, are slackers … for the moment. That is to say, they’re four young guys who are too smart and creative and fun-loving to be stuck in their job (professional musicians, en route from Liverpool to London to film a TV show—sounds really fun and cool, but a job is a job), so they play pranks on their boss/manager, they sneak away whenever they can, they refuse to help their company get ahead (by subverting every promotional opportunity). In short, they skive—that is, fail to do their duties in an instructive, glorious, larger-than-life manner. We enjoy watching them skive …  but we’re comforted (politically, morally, economically) by the unspoken assumption that these artful dodgers never will quit their jobs.

N.B.:  McCartney, the least slackerish of the Beatles in real life, never does sneak away on his own, does he?

Sometimes, though, a slacker is an idler-in-the-making. In Help!(1965), Magical Mystery Tour (1967) and Yellow Submarine (1968), the Beatles are represented to us as colorful butterflies who’ve burst free of their stifling (black-and-white) cocoons: they’re idlers. They’ve broken free of the temptation to slack forever. Now, they no longer seem to be professional musicians; they’re footloose and fancy-free, playing music spontaneously, having witty conversations, flirting, meditating, throwing themselves into play and adventure—all those things that Aristotle considered true leisure activities, because they’re desirable for their own sake. In real life, the Beatles were also evolving from slackers into idlers—and their last movie, Let It Be (1970), shows that they did, indeed, know when to quit.

Except McCartney, of course, who immediately cranked out some solo records and then formed a new band, who toured non-stop. McCartney is neither an idler nor a slacker, I guess: He’s a workhorse, can’t help himself, poor man.

As for the Stones, well, since they didn’t make fiction movies, it’s harder to make the argument. But Jagger/Richards did write one of the great slacker anthems, “Hang Fire”:

In the sweet old country where I come from
Nobody ever works
Yeah nothing gets done
We hang fire, we hang fire
You know marrying money is a full time job
I don’t need the aggravation
I’m a lazy slob
I hang fire, I hang fire
Hang fire, put it on the wire
We’ve got nothing to eat
We got nowhere to work
Nothing to drink
We just lost our shirts
I’m on the dole
We ain’t for hire
Say what the hell
Say what the hell, hang fire
Hang fire, hang fire, put it on the wire
Doo doo doo
Here’s ten thousand dollars go have some fun
Put it all on at a hundred to one
Hang fire, hang fire, put it on the wire

Yes, I know. The narrator of this song is not Mick or Keith. Supposedly it’s a working-class Englishman dispirited by the 1970s economic malaise. But who listens to it that way? We hear Mick joyfully shouting, “I’m a lazy slob!”

What about John Lennon’s “I’m Only Sleeping,” Stones fans who don’t like the sound of this theory demand to know? “I’m Only Sleeping” is a moving, inspiring idler anthem. It’s not about how lazy the narrator is (“Everybody seems to think I’m lazy”), but how screwed-up the Protestant work ethic is (“I don’t mind, I think they’re crazy/running everywhere at such a speed, till they find there’s no need”); it’s an expression of what a creative space the bed and sofa were for Lennon the idler.

Do you think this is a useful illustration, for distinguishing between idlers and slackers? As you know, doing so is the no. 2 reason I started writing an Idler’s Glossary, way back when. No. 1 reason: To back up Robert Louis Stevenson’s bold claim that “Idleness so called, which does not consist in doing nothing, but in doing a great deal not recognized in the dogmatic formularities of the ruling class, has as good a right to state its position as industry itself.”