Michael Gerber
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Whenever our commenters start griping about the perception of John Lennon as the leader of the Beatles, I always think of this poem, written by Allen Ginsberg in 1965. It’s a good poem…and it also speaks to how people perceived the group in 1965. Reversed to give emphasis, Ginsberg’s perception of the members’ relative power was just as they were endlessly advertised: John, Paul, George and Ringo. 

“”Portland Coliseum”
by Allen Ginsberg

A brown piano in diamond
white spotlight
Leviathan auditorium
iron run wired
hanging organs, vox
black battery
A single whistling sound of ten thousand children’s
larynxes asinging
pierce the ears
and following up the belly
bliss the moment arrived

Apparition, four brown English
jacket christhair boys
Goofed Ringo battling bright
white drums
Silent George hair patient
Soul horse
Short black-skulled Paul
with the guitar
Lennon the Captain, his mouth
a triangular smile,
all jump together to End
some tearful memory song
ancient-two years,
The million children
the thousand words
bounce in their seats, bash
each other’s sides, press
legs together nervous
Scream again & claphand
become one Animal
in the New World Auditorium
—hands waving myriad
snakes of thought
screetch beyond hearing

while a line of police with
folded arms stands
Sentry to contain the red
sweatered ecstasy
that rises upward to the
wired roof.”

Why is it important to acknowledge the perception of John as “The Captain” (echoes of Whitman)? Why is this paradigm useful to us, even today? There are several reasons:
1) It gives the original history, and original perceptions, pride of place. The Beatles story isn’t a mass of facts to be arranged however an individual fan likes best; it is a clearly defined and bounded historical object which acted on its time and was acted upon by it in perceptible ways. It’s not a limited TV series based on true events, or the BCU, or fanfic. Within this defined and bounded historical context, things like name order don’t matter—except when they clearly DO. That’s the way the group members are listed in the vast majority of instances. Whether “J/P/G/R” happened simply for PR reasons (“Brian says”), or whether it reflected the internal politics of the band (“John wants to be first”), that’s how the group was put forward in the 1960s, and today as well. It’s not random; have you ever heard The Beatles referred to as “George, Paul, Ringo, and John”? Why not?
2) Lennon-as-leader, then abdicator or deposed, explains the trajectory of the group. Whether Lennon’s story in 1970/71 reflected the whole truth or just a kernel of it, the trajectory of John being the leader in the period from 1962-66, growing confused/bored/disenchanted, and then Paul leading the studio years, fits perfectly with the changes in the Beatles external presentation and musical development. With all due respect to Faith’s recent posts, there are clear and obvious differences, sonically, tonally and in presentation between Revolver (John-led; Paul even stormed out of the sessions, the first Beatle blowup) and the Paul-led Pepper. Pepper is the band’s obvious turning-point, their fulcrum. John-as-leader is useful; it isn’t merely a concept to devalue Paul, it actually emphasizes his gifts, explains how the group developed, and why. To some degree, it explains why John acted the way he did after India—he was angry at his loss of leadership. And it explains Paul’s behavior too: his mollifying, his putting up with John’s appalling behavior as a marker of respect for the ex-Chief. It even explains why George and Ringo, no dummies, agreed to have Klein represent them; they were recognizing John’s old leadership, and rejecting Paul’s new reign. Lennon/McCartney as even-steven partners from the beginning doesn’t explain the Revolver/Pepper shift, the tensions in 1968-69, and the breakup. Lennon leading at the beginning and Paul leading at the end does. Plus, that’s what John himself said, and Paul allowed him to say without fierce pushback, between 1970-80. What we prefer simply doesn’t enter into it.
3) A single “Captain” reflects how these kinds of group creative endeavors seem to start—especially back then—and the rise of the talented second banana is commonly the rich second act. In Beyond the Fringe, Peter Cook was first among equals; in Monty Python, John Cleese was first among equals. Both were rageful men, big attractive acid-tongued personalities who burned to become famous, and were recognized immediately as the “leaders” of their extremely talented groups. In BTF, Jonathan Miller was probably #2, with Moore and Bennett as the “economy Fringers.” In Python, the writing team of Terry Jones and Michael Palin were #2, with Chapman, Idle, and Gilliam as the “economy Pythons.” In the Beatles…well, you know. Among the Fringers, Cook flamed out after 1967 or so, when the original “Satire Boom” idea had run its course, with no real idea of what to do next—while his collaborator Moore continued to work in conventional showbiz and garnered worldwide acclaim. In Python, Cleese had actually quit the group for a bit in ’74, wanting to be recognized on his own and working furiously on “Fawlty Towers” (his “Plastic Ono Band”) to make that happen. In the Goons, Milligan—the leader of the gang during the radio show—was eventually vastly outshone by his less quirky, more ambitious, more conventionally appealing #2, Peter Sellers. All these creative groups of men began with a general hierarchy, with one big personality at the top providing a certain kind of drive. Then after that arrangement leads them all to great success, the #2s start to stretch out, and make their mark, and the period where the group is led by the #2 creates a same-but-different all-important second act. The Python TV show (Cleese-led) feels very different than Life of Brian (directed by Terry Jones); “Flying Circus” is wonderful but dated, just like “A Hard Day’s Night.” The test of one of these groups is whether the original leader, and original pecking order, can be changed without the group imploding. With Beyond the Fringe or The Goon Show, it was impossible, and that makes them lesser when compared to the Pythons and the Beatles, groups who were able to shift, and add to their legacy. And really valuable parts to their legacy, too—just as The Beatles would be strictly an oldies act if they’d stopped recording in 1966, The Pythons would be fundamentally less influential and beloved and long-lasting if they’d broken up after the show’s fifth season, when Cleese decided he’d had enough. Just as the Paul-led Beatles still contained John, and produced a second act which is richer and more widely consumed today (Pepper/MMT/White/Abbey Road), the Jones-led Pythons still contained Cleese, and produced Holy Grail, Life of Brian, and Meaning of Life, the richer, deeper, more developed work that most people associate with them today.

Hearing how—and understanding why—Beatles music seems to fall into two distinct periods (1962-66, and 1967-70) is fundamental to understanding The Beatles story, which is not ours to fashion, but to learn. And the John-as-leader followed by Paul-as-leader paradigm explains that story; it maps closely onto not only the music and the presentation, but also the group’s interpersonal journey as it has been related by the members themselves. And it reveals what makes The Beatles so special: their democracy within the hierarchy, and an ability to change, to adapt over time, and have that all-important McCartney-led second act.