- Something Happened - March 6, 2023
- The Beatles As They Were Heard: KHJ 93 Los Angeles - March 4, 2023
- All is well! - February 28, 2023
Folks, I’m increasingly churlish on this site, and it bugs me. It bugs me because I love The Beatles, individually and as a unit, love what they made, love their time and place, and like all of you. My churlishness comes from the exact opposite place that it seems to come from; it must seem critical, but it is…fundamentally positive and supportive? There’s something important I haven’t expressed well enough, despite all my words, and I’m going to try to address it here.
After a certain number of hours logged listening, reading, and thinking about The Beatles — or any other cultural topic — one should move past mere fandom. Fandom is very, very small, and its escape from the realm of childhood has not been entirely good for us. One’s love for an artist or a band or an LP may start out as pure pleasure-seeking, move into a form of identity, mature into a kind of secret personal language, mellow into comfort…but it can’t stay there. There’s a deeper, and more universal relationship that should emerge. If it does, one’s love is an engine for personal growth; if it doesn’t, it’s a way to hide, to stay small, to ward off others and hold yourself back.
Wanna see a million people caught in this trap? Go to Comic Con. If you go to Beatlefest, as Nancy and I did several years ago, you’ll encounter a neverending subdivision of fandom as narcissism.
I say all this as a man who just accompanied his adult wife to Disneyland, where every single person picks an avatar from Disney’s ever-expanding roster, and assumes that identity with the help of lots and lots and LOTS of expensive costumes, t-shirts, and other merch. Fandom may well occupy the space once reserved for religion, as Lennon saw back in 1966.
But just like with religion, at a certain point one must look at The Beatles, or a Beatle, or a song or record or poster or movie and feel an “I-Thou” connection. An intense sense of connection without boundaries; of mutuality; of wonder; of growth. You’ll know it when you feel it. For me, it often comes out as statements about “Can you believe this all happened? That those particular guys met, worked together, made this music? And in those perfectly right times?” and so forth. The I-Thou state accepts all of them, all the music, all the squabbles, all the events, as they were/are. It feels like a blessing. It is the opposite of all the wrangles we have in the comments, and any opinion I express in the comments is a wave, while the gratitude and pleasure and wonder — the I-Thou — is the ocean beneath.
At some point, one’s interest in the Beatles should widen out, because it becomes clear that The Beatles are everything and in everything and everything is in them. The good and the bad, the pleasing and displeasing — you can look at it all and, yes, have opinions, but the opinions grow weaker and weaker because you’re feeling more and more “I-Thou” and less and less “I-I” or “I-It.”
The internet doesn’t seem to encourage “I-Thou.” It definitely encourages “I-I” and “I-It,”, and that’s why fandom since the arrival of the internet has become more and more divided, divisive, hostile and toxic. “They took my childhood away when they made the Jedi a girl.” The glorious fact of a Star Wars franchise, or a Marvel Universe, or The Beatles, dependent as they all were/are on a million chancey things happening just right—on the internet, that’s all taken for granted. In favor of a bunch of people strengthening their own self-conceptions via fandom. So people insist that John and Paul never, ever, couldn’t possibly have had sex; or are positive they did and hunt for clues to “prove” it — not in a spirit of knowing these two human beings more fully, but one of claiming them for their team, whatever that is and might mean. But John, or Paul, or all four of them separately or together, are already like you and not-like-you; they are already yours; and not-yours; they are other, but not different, if you live in the “I-Thou” space with them. You must be in relationship with them, which softens and enlarges you, and allows you to escape the comfy prison of self.
This Substack post from Justin E. H. Smith is about the humanities in general, and while I don’t agree with all of it, some of it resonated mightily. While it’s about humanities and the university, I think you’ll see why I’m quoting it.
“Here is why,” Professor Smith writes, “I actually think humanistic inquiry should be defended: because it elevates the human spirit. Nothing is interesting or uninteresting in itself in a pre-given way. What is of interest in studying a humanistic object is not only the object, but the character of the relation that emerges between that object and oneself. What emerges from humanistic inquiry is thus best understood as an I-Thou relation, rather than an I-It relation.”
MG here: I actually think that music stimulates this I-Thou relation more easily than images or words; and the historical distance retards narcissism; so the study of The Beatles is actually quite likely to fall into an I-Thou relation. If you want it.
“Admittedly, in principle such a dyad could be achieved with Marvel comics as much as with Nahuatl inscriptions. But in reality the institutional and cultural context in which pop-culture-focused pseudo-humanities are studied ensures that the student usually remains at the level of I-I identity, which is not a relation at all but pure narcissism, or at best attains a sort of I-Us community, where he or she can bask in the like-mindedness of other comics fans: in other words, academic studies as an institutional buttress for what youth subcultures have always been perfectly able to achieve in a much more anarchic way. (Thank God there was no option for goth studies when I began college in 1990 — in any case I was already an expert.) Humanistic inquiry is not fandom; it is a basic category mistake to suppose that it is. Conversely, the indulgence of a young person’s prior identification as a fan can seldom result in humanistic inquiry, even if the object of her or his fandom is not in principle excluded from the list of humanistic inquiry’s possible objects.”
MG again: a lot of what I try to do on the site is not indulge people’s Beatle fandom — especially my own — to encourage a kind of humanistic inquiry, albeit a much looser and easier one than in a college seminar. I assume we’re all fans here, so let’s dig in. And my frustration with some of you stems from your resistance to anything larger than fandom. This is not your fault; it is the water we all swim in today. On the internet, everything is fandom, from politics to what type of car you drive (why on Earth do people defend Elon Musk? Don’t answer). The internet insists that fandom, corporate-owned, marketable, identity-reinforcing fandom, has to the primary relationship. “John’s my guy, so John couldn’t have kicked Stu in the head.” Or, “Paul’s my guy, so anybody who finds Paul’s lyrics substandard is no better than Rolling Stone in 1972.” It’s goofy; there’s so much more here. But you have to move past mere fandom to see it.
Prof. Smith again:
It is this emphasis on the cultivation of an I-Thou relationship to one’s object of study that also saves the present defense of “traditional” humanities from accusations of gratuitous high-browdom or thoughtless cultural conservatism of the sort for which E. D. Hirsch Jr. was rightly ridiculed a generation ago. It is not that there are some artefacts of human cultural creation that are timelessly superior to others, and still less that such artefacts have been more intensively produced in Europe. It is rather that you must latch onto something outside of and alien to the demotic culture that you have inherited and taken for granted in your early life, in order to have the sort of experience of radical difference that catalyses a full and deep second-person relationship to the object of your study.
This is why I’m endlessly hectoring commenters to step outside their demotic culture and learn more about the ever-more-distant time and place wherein The Beatles happened. Because it is that strangeness-to-oneself that allows for the I-Thou relationship. If you went to high school in a time and place where girls, or even guys, could make out without social stigma, you need to unlearn and loosen that portion of your identity before engaging with a topic like John and Paul’s sexualities. For those of us born in America, our Americanness is somewhat of a barrier — though the Beatles’ massive Yankophilia and most of them living in the States for large chunks of their lives makes the gap a little less wide. But time, and mores, and experience — just the fact that there was no online world — these are vast gulfs, and the only way to span them is to break free from the “I-I,” grow past the “I-It,” and into the “I-Thou.” The Beatles are other. But that’s what makes them worth studying, and so so thrilling, especially when you break through and begin to feel them as not-other.
The idea of study of an external object as an occasion for moral self-cultivation is one that was familiar in both the human and natural sciences across much of the early Enlightenment. Lorraine Daston vividly describes, for example, the transformations experienced by eighteenth-century naturalists such as Charles Bonnet in the course of their observations on the life-cycles of aphids. If you stare at an aphid for days on end, your entomology becomes not just a science of insects, but also a practice of meditation, a spiritual exercise, if you will, in which the aphid plays a role that, in another century and another tradition, might also be played by a crucifix.
So here it is: the study of the Beatles as an occasion for moral self-cultivation. A practice of meditation. A spiritual exercise. This is why I keep this site up, as expensive as it is, and why I endlessly wade into the comments trying to force them to be better, deeper, more accurate, more personal thus more universal, less narcissistic, less “internetty.” Because we all have been given an opportunity here; our interest gives us the possibility to learn and improve, not simply reflect our tastes, or attack/defend.
The humanities, when they are doing what they are supposed to be doing, are concerned with the awakening of such moral consideration for objects of human creation, past or present, where previously we would not have noticed that this consideration was merited. Traces of human intention transferred into artefacts or texts — these cry out for attention too, and it is the moral calling of the humanist to pay it.
So let us all be Beatle fans, sure, but more than that, humanists. Those who pay attention and see the “traces of human intention.”
Thanks Michael for bringing us back to center. In meditation one can always begin again.
From inside hook.com this quote says it all.
“The Beatles, I think, do represent a kind of joy,” Lindsay-Hogg says. “They represent a connection with each other, but they also represent wanting to connect with us. They know what an extraordinary thing has happened to them, but also, they know they deserved it, insofar as anyone ever deserved anything. But, most of all, I think they came along at a certain time when the world was waiting for them.”
I remember eagerly waiting to see what they would do next…and admittedly not understanding some of it. You just knew they would release something at Christmas! I am grateful for the music, the photographs, the movies. The joy….and love.
That’s a wonderful quote, thank you @DD. Hope your practice is going well.
“I remember eagerly waiting to see what they would do next…and admittedly not understanding some of it.”
That’s how you know it’s Great Art, right? They’re doing things that take time to understand, and over time, the rightness of these things, too, is revealed.
Excellent piece Michael. I would be interested if, one day when time allows, to hear you expand on your comment “If you go to Beatlefest, as Nancy and I did several years ago, you’ll encounter a neverending subdivision of fandom as narcissism.”
Is it that some people plunge so far into the tunnel of the arcane and recondite as to be unrecognizable? Those who can drill down to knowing what the Beatles had for breakfast on 14 July 1965 or the tidbit that John sat on the left side of his limo when being chauffeured to work on 18 February 1966 but a mere two days latter he sat on the right side so what did that portend for the groups next album, eventual breakup, his half-decade of solo work, and his efforts to obtain a Green Card? In other words, that some people seem to use the Beatles for a self-actualization of how many facts and figures they can regurgitate?
A number of years ago I heard a radio interview with a former Boston Red Sox pitcher (that is American baseball for the the readers outside of the U.S.) named Bill “Spaceman” Lee. His appellation aside, Bill was a rather cerebral chap and he was mulling over this idea of fandom–looking at it through many facets albeit from a sporting rather than artistic starting point.
Instead of knowing reams of statistics he opined, why not use fandom as a platform to explore some of the more meaningful aspects of the game? If you are an athlete does it motivate you to master the craft? If not one who participates in sports, does it nevertheless inspire you to look at the beauty of surroundings and extend the contest as a metaphor for the achievements and failures in life. Bill Lee was advocating that we eschew the quotidian aspects of fandom for a richer experience–an experience that is there if only we work toward it.
As thoughtful as he was, I am not sure his interlocutor grasped that Lee was trying to help the fans look beyond mere fandom and that there were great rewards if one did so. I know one’s first impression would be of the SNL skit in which William Shattner was telling Trekkies to get out of their parent’s basement, but even there the humor was understandable because it has an all-to-real basis in life.
When one sees Picasso’s sketches, one realizes that his paintings were often a culmination, even accretion, of his work sketches and that they are layered in beneath the final product. Those sketches had a context of their own and even the most introductory art course would stress that we simply cannot view Picasso’s oeuvre without understanding exactly that context. Why then, do we collectively seem to want to do the opposite with the Beatles–to willfully ignore the greater context and zero in on aspects that cannot, and should not, survive, outside of their deeper, and wider, context?
I am a latecomer in the following of the Beatles, but it is apparent that they painted on a canvas of the 1960s that, in itself, is a fascinating artistic, cultural, and even intellectual loam. Yes, I know it is trite to say that they were of their time, but it seems this is exactly the point and if we ignore it then we are missing half, if not more, of the I-I experience you describe.
If I read your piece correctly, it seems as if you are asking why would we want to continue to limit, even severely crimp, our experience in this way? Why are we so target fixated on a point that we lose the totality of the picture–or at least larger chunks. Maybe we need to move the microscope the other way–out instead of ever further in.
Neal, this reminded me of a friend of mine who went on a first date with a guy she met online and never went on another with him because ALL he talked about was Wilco, the whole night.
My friend said “I mean, I like Wilco . . . .”
Excellent piece Michael.
For me, this piece is a good reminder that fandom can be dangerous, especially if it veers into worship. I look at the current divisiveness of our country, and the cult like devotion Donald Trumps followers have. They believe his lies, and propaganda, and some were willing to commit violent acts, such as the Insurrection on Jan. 6th of last year, for him. It’s very frightening.
When John Lennon said the Beatles were bigger than Jesus, he realized the power of the Beatles, and how their fans worshipped them. Worship that could cause those same fans to harm themselves or the Beatles themselves, if they got close enough.
Worship that George Harrison rightly saw could be dangerous, and easily get out of control.
I really liked this:
“So here it is: the study of the Beatles as an occasion for moral self-cultivation. A practice of meditation. A spiritual exercise. This is why I keep this site up, as expensive as it is, and why I endlessly wade into the comments trying to force them to be better, deeper, more accurate, more personal thus more universal, less narcissistic, less “internetty.” Because we all have been given an opportunity here; our interest gives us the possibility to learn and improve, not simply reflect our tastes, or attack/defend.”
I think this is so important, and it applies to any fandom: Beatles, Presidents, sport teams, movie stars, etc…
I hope we all take advantage of the opportunity.
I absolutely agree with the comment that a person’s ‘Americanness’ and age are barriers to understanding who the Beatles were. There are so many misunderstandings and misinterpretations on this forum alone, a case in point being the confusion between vehicle tax and income tax, but also, John and Paul were NOT ‘typical Northern men’ (not by any stretch of the imagination) and Cynthia was not a typical Northern woman (that would be Heather Mills, by the way). Yoko might have convinced John he was a misogynist, and maybe his treatment of the groupies who threw themselves at him turned him into one, but I guarantee he wasn’t brought up to be. The north of England is (and certainly was then) extremely matriarchal, and the women are the ones in charge. Not for nothing did Paul call his Auntie Gin ‘The Control’.
I also think it’s impossible to grasp some of the group dynamics without really understanding that Paul’s working class upbringing had conditioned him to be ‘nice’ so that people would like him, but that ‘niceness’ is despised as shallow by the middle class, who have completely different values. That’s hard to explain, and I don’t think anyone who isn’t British could ever really understand it.
A lot of the biographies that have been written about the Beatles are full of these misunderstandings and misinterpretations, and it’s easy to see why. Francie Schwartz is a liar, and not because of her ‘hot shit’ comment, which might have been an expression Paul used (I remember people saying that in the 70’s), but because of her claim that Paul’s alleged use of the word ‘Jap’ was so racist that John never forgave him. The word ‘Jap’ would not have been seen as racist in Britain in 1968, anymore than the word ‘Brit’ was seen as racist. ‘Jap’ was used as an abbreviation of Japanese, just as ‘Brit’ was used as an abbreviation of British. Also, I have never, outside of Beatles fandom, heard anyone make the argument that people in 1960’s Britain did not like or trust the Japanese ‘because of the war’. What absolute nonsense. It’s not even logical. There might have still been some anti-German sentiment in the UK at that time, but it obviously wasn’t very pervasive, or why would Astrid have been made so welcome in Liverpool?
Whether or not Britain is free of racism (who are we kidding), the term Jap is and always was a racist slur. And Paul didn’t ‘allegedly’ use the term (he allegedly left a note for John and Yoko containing that word). He released a song in 1980 called Frozen Jap. By then, everyone was pretty much aware that the Japanese ojected to being called that. For the record, I don’t believe Paul is racist. Just blissfully unaware, as always.
There is and was plenty of racism in the UK, but not against the Japanese and not against Yoko Ono that I’ve ever seen. In the late 1970’s, John and Yoko were hardly ever mentioned in the UK press, and after John was killed, Yoko was treated with a sort of reverence. I’m not saying the press didn’t go after her in the late 60’s/early 70’s, but I’ve seen a lot of articles about the Beatles from around that time, and none about Yoko, which I find a bit odd. I assume there are plenty but where are they?
@Elizabeth. You made some good points but I’d have to disagree with you about the lack of anti Japanese sentiment in Britain during the fifties and sixties and beyond. While the postwar generations, including the Beatles themselves, showed no antipathy towards either the Germans or the Japanese, particularly towards young people the same age, there was considerable bitterness towards the Japanese by the generations conscripted to fight in World War Two. This was mainly because of the treatment of British and allied prisoners of war in Japanese war camps. The treatment of prisoners of war by all countries have all been held to account but the Japanese camps were particularly barbaric. Thousands of deaths, starvation, broken bones, castration, and other atrocities inflicted. Thus, the generation affected and traumatized by their war experiences, directly or indirectly, were the generation who controlled the British media in 1968, and may help explain the attitudes towards Yoko Ono and her association with John Lennon and the Beatles. It does NOT excuse their racism towards her in any way. She was a child, an innocent, during World War Two.
@Lara – I grew up in the 70’s and 80’s and I don’t recall any anti-Japanese sentiment either from the media or from the older generations around me. I have a very vivid recollection of having a debate at school about whether the atomic bombings of Japan were justified as a means of ending the war, and this debate carried on over lunch. One of the dinner ladies intervened and said that the British had been treated very badly in the Japanese camps but that nothing could justify dropping an atomic bomb on innocent people. That’s the only thing I ever recall hearing about Japan, and my grandfather had been in the army for 6 years and had been stationed in the Far East, mainly in India, but he’d moved around a bit, and I never heard any anti-Japanese sentiment whatsoever. Maybe things were different in the 50’s/60’s, but in 70’s and beyond, not that I recall.
I do remember some anti-Yoko sentiment, but not that much, and I grew up in Liverpool. No one cared that she was Japanese as far as I can recall, and Paul came in for a lot more stick for breaking up the Beatles. He was really disliked, hated even, especially after John was killed.
It’s true that much anti-Japanese sentiment had fallen away by the 1970s even from older generations who had fought in the East. Japan had transformed itself as a nation by then. I’m speaking specifically of the late sixties within the context ofYoko Ono arriving in Britain and her association with the Beatles, where racism and old grievances surfaced to target an individual even if such racism was not necessarily apparent on the surface.
Of course dropping an atomic bomb on Japan doesn’t equate with the treatment of POWs, but suffering through torture is still shocking and terrible (and still exists to this very day).
Bear in mind both Japan and Germany were also planning atomic bombs, except neither had the capability for uranium enrichment. WW2 was total war, a war like no other preceding it, in its aim of annihilation. Nothing was right about any of it. But I’m not getting into this debate here except to say the Beatles themselves, born during the war, and of the immediate post-war generation, were affected by the consequences of it far more than any other generation succeeding them.
@Elizabeth. Further to my earlier comment, I meant to say it was mainly the media’s treatment of Yoko Ono. At the time, I can’t remember fans themselves displaying any hatred of Yoko either. If anything it was bewilderment, amusement even, and the unspoken sense that the Beatles were coming to an end, even in May 1968. What turned the fandom from a vague dislike of her in the 70s into unnecessary hatred and resentment was John’s murder and the subsequent knowledge of events during the twelve years she and John spent together. Yoko’s attitudes towards the Beatles, and Paul in particular, and her promotion of John, did not help her. Post-split, Paul also did things that seriously diminished him. The internet has done a great deal to exaggerate and drive dissension within the fandom, something that already existed as a result of the publication of biographies and hundreds of articles pushing various biases, as already discussed on this site. I find the personalized ownership of any one of the Beatles very strange. I don’t think this should be confused with a sense of justice over how any one of them is treated unfairly.
@Lara, in Adam Thomas’ book ‘Lennon vs McCartney’ he wrote a timeline that included this: “As part of his first art exhibition, John releases 365 balloons with postcards attached. He asks the people who find them to return them to Apple. Many of the cards that are returned contain racist messages about Yoko.” Several weeks later in Thomas’ timeline he has the Jap Tart “joke” that supposedly took place while they were staying at Cavendish. I don’t know how much credence to put in this book (I’ve only seen excerpts), but the first part about the art exhibition seems plausible. Was this reported at the time by the press or by John or Yoko?
In my experience of the time, prior to John’s murder, Yoko was first seen as an irritant that helped break up the Beatles; then as a weird artist whom John was determined to make relevant in the rock scene — a sort of generic punchline; then John’s wife; then during Double Fantasy, his collaborator in a new kind of work-parenting partnership (and much-lauded for it). Then after his murder, she was deeply pitied, and revered, and by the late 80s, considered an important artist in her own right.
I just haven’t met many people who dislike Yoko on principle, though surely some fans clearly did. But after John’s murder, she took on a kind of religious significance…certainly at places like Beatlefest.
@Lara – I can’t remember any hatred or resentment of Yoko after John’s murder. I’m not saying there wasn’t any among Beatle fans, but my perception was that most people felt very sorry for her and sided with her against Paul, who really was disliked for a long time. Her people did a very good job of discrediting the tell-all books that came out a few years after John’s death, so everyone dismissed them as lies. I remember she visited Liverpool with Sean in the mid-80’s, and it was just like when the pope visited a couple of years earlier – both the public and the media made the same sort of fuss and it was all very sycophantic.
I do agree that Paul didn’t help himself when it came to his public image. I don’t know whether he put Linda in his band to make John jealous or to try and avoid a repeat of Beatlemania, or whether he actually thought he could turn her into Debbie Harry or what. But whatever he was thinking, it didn’t work. It was embarrassing, like watching your mum on stage, and it damaged his public image, in the UK at least. I don’t think many people liked him before John’s murder for that reason, but they really turned on him after John’s murder. Yoko was a lot more popular than Paul in the 1980’s. These days, I’d say it was about even.
He put Linda in his band because he wanted her with him, he had insecurities himself and having here there helped him feel more confident, and he wanted to make sure his marriage worked, to keep his family together. He did it because he wanted to, I don’t think it was as shallow as making John jealous and he didn’t try to turn her into Debbie Harry(esp as Debbie Harry wasn’t very well known until the late 70s so why would he be trying to turn her into some barely knownsinger who had an album as back up singer in a folk group in 1968? So as far as well known band members go, Linda came before Debbie)
Most of the bandmembers of Wings really liked her and didn’t seem to have any issues with her involvement. Paul’s time with Wings was a major success, he was the second most successful chart act of the 70s because of it(with nearly 3 times the number of charting songs as John and George individually and more than double Ringo(who actually was the second most successful charting Beatle of the 70s) and it wouldn’t have been the same without her. The combination of Paul, her and Denny’s vocals for the background and harmonies are a major signature of the Wings sound.
MG – That’s all fair enough, but this was pre-internet and pre-McCartney nostalgia. Obviously, people see Linda very differently now to the way they did then. I don’t think anyone then cared what the other band members thought about her, or what her harmonies with Paul and Denny Laine sounded like. They just didn’t understand what she was doing in Paul’s band.
I know Linda preceded Debbie Harry, but I meant more of a Debbie Harry type, as opposed to, you know, someone’s mum. Having her in his band definitely damaged Paul’s image at the time.
Not sure why you had to bring the other ex-Beatles into this. John did all right considering he had a half decade of released material compared to the full decade of Paul and the songwriting giant that is Ringo.
I agree 100% that putting Linda in the band was a problem for his credibility, but I also see why he did it.
I think it’s easy to forget now how sheltered all four of them were even after the break-up. They’d pretty much gone right from being kids living at home under their parents’ protection to being in the Beatles bubble. And especially so Paul, who lived at home even after they started to take off, and even when he moved to London, eschewed a flat of his own for the domestic solace of the Ashers (I read somewhere that he admitted he stayed with Jane for so long because he didn’t want to lose that connection to the Asher household and especially Jane’s mother).
Even Hamburg was a bit of a bubble, I think. Posturing and bravado aside, it’s hard to imagine that all four of them weren’t collectively terrified by what they found there, and they no doubt sheltered together even more to cope with it. And after that there was Brian taking care of them, and Beatlemania, and any semblance of touch with the “real world” dissipated forever. How could it not?
By all accounts, it seems clear that Paul was the most devastated by the breakup. Consider his apparently being so distraught by John’s divorce announcement that Mal Evans had to drive him home. And then of course his breakdown in Scotland, apparently rendered so nonfunctional by depression and booze that Linda was worried for his sanity if not his life. And then there’s his plea in Oh! Darling that he doesn’t believe he can make it on his own — I don’t think there’s any other credible interpretation there other than that he was terrified to carve out a career as a solo artist.
So of course he’s going to draft Linda to support him onstage and in the studio and in that most intimate of intimate places, the writing process, in the absence of the others but of course primarily in the absence of John. And here’s where the bubble comes in — it’s possible that the very idea of making music with strangers was unfathomable to Paul. After all, he’d never done it. music had always been something that happened only with those he was closest to, and certainly never only with strangers.
Add to that, drafting friends with no musical ability or experience was par for the course in their world — starting with John forming the QuarryMen in which no one knew how to play a note, and then Paul teaching John guitar, and then Stu being a beginner as well. I suspect that Paul thought that was just how you did it. First you picked the people you wanted in the band — friends, people you loved and could trust and wanted to be with first and foremost — and then you taught them how to play. After all, look how all that had worked so jaw-droppingly well the first time around. And to his credit, that’s what he did, but at the high, very high, cost of his initial credibility at a time when, given John’s breakdown and vitriolic smear campaign, he could ill afford to take that hit.
But I think with the Beatles, one of the things that makes them so endlessly fascinating both in the music and in their relationships is that there seems to always be paradox. And the paradox to the Linda situation for me is that Paul was also the one who bitched about Stu’s lack of musical chops bringing the band down (probably also some jealousy, but who could doubt that Paul, the most musically gifted of all of them and perhaps the most ambitious, would hone in on anything that was bringing down the musical quality of the group), and complained about Pete (though it seems they all complained about Pete, to be fair).
And meticulous Paul, a more gifted arranger than the others (and in this sense, George Martin’s producing partner in the studio in a way that the others weren’t), driving the others bonkers by micromanaging their playing to get it up to his standards, putting the quality of the music ahead of personal feelings, at cost.
Make of that paradox what you will, of course. To me, it suggests that first and foremost, for Paul, music was…. I want to say it was primal, it was like sex, maybe it even WAS sex in a very real sense in that creative and sexual energy are intertwined and there’s often no separating them. But more than that, I think music is, for Paul, the way he expresses his love in the world, the place where he makes himself vulnerable and lets his guard down. And I think especially during that most fragile post break-up period, he was too shattered, too raw to even consider what would essentially have been making love with strangers, and doing so after losing the other three and of course, especially John.
In short, I suppose I’m saying that without Linda as a creative collaborator, I’m not sure Paul would have been able to pick himself up enough to have a successful solo career at all. So while there was damage done, in the end, it was probably worth the cost.
This is very good — would you consider adding a bit and making this a post, @Faith?
There’s another aspect to Paul partnering with Linda which is likely to be lost in the mists of time. One of the big cultural issues facing members of the counterculture as they aged from teenagers into adulthood was how to incorporate countercultural values into the life-stages of work and family. The Beatles, as pre-Boomers, hit this first. JohnandYoko wasn’t just an example of John’s retreat from autonomy into something like a 24/7 D/s relationship with Yoko, it was also an attempt to restructure what work was, what it meant, who you did it with, and why.
In addition to what @Faith says above, Paul’s collaborating with Linda was their attempt to solve the exact same issues. If work isn’t “man goes to work to make money, woman stays at home and raises kids” what else could it be? How might it work?
If John staying at home with Sean is a radical act (and people in 1980 certainly thought it was), Paul and Linda taking the kids on tour with them is just as radical, if not more so. That it was/is not seen as such, is a matter of PR.
As to Linda being musically untalented, she is no less suited to rock music than Yoko was; what Linda didn’t have was the incredible ego-strength needed to assume that you should share an LP with a Beatle. And frankly, I think that speaks well of both women. Ego-strength is a virtue; also supporting your genius partner is a virtue too.
Linda gets short shift because she isn’t Yoko, and that’s not fair. Linda was well on her way to becoming something like Annie Leibowitz, and the very same people who praise Yoko praise Leibowitz, as they should. Linda’s opting for a more conventional gender role doesn’t make her a lesser person or even a lesser artist, IHMO; just a woman who picked one path rather than another, and seemed mostly happy with that decision.
Faith, this is such a reasonable and insightful take. Paul has said Linda saved him, and I think she did.
I really like your observation about all the Fabs being terrified when the Beatles ended. How could they not be? That’s all they’d ever known, and they were all losing their best friends, as well as band mates.
I think this is spot on:
“But more than that, I think music is, for Paul, the way he expresses his love in the world, the place where he makes himself vulnerable and lets his guard down.”
Paul gives of himself through music, so when he’s criticized for not being more open in interviews, I think it’s because he’s not comfortable sharing in that setting. He is most comfortable sharing through music.
@Faith…you make an interesting point, regarding Paul being most comfortable playing and performing music with those he loves and is most comfortable with. I think of Richard Carpenter (I am not fond of him, for various reasons), however, he was/is a tremendous musician, a talented composer, arranger, producer and engineer. Once Karen died, however, he has not had success in working with anyone else. He spends his time making new compilations of their past hits. Wouldn’t one think that, with his talent and experience, he could work with just about anyone? Apparently not.
Just to keep this Beatles-related: “the best female voice in the world: melodic, tuneful and distinctive.” – Paul McCartney, on Karen Carpenter.
John, too, once ran into Karen and raved about her singing voice; something her own mother, apparently, had never done.
You’re overthinking it.
I believe you’ve gotten churlish because you spend too much time thinking about the backstage drama and not enough about the music. If you want to move beyond fandom, forget that I-Thou nonsense; just focus on the music and ignore the palace intrigue. Unfortunately, you’re far from alone in this. As a lifelong fan, I am desperate for any blog or podcast that can manage it. Yeah, the mythology and the personal interest stuff is cool, I guess, but there is more than enough in the music, the arrangements, the production, the lyrics — the songs! — to keep us interested.
How realistic can any fandom be where four distinct personalities are involved? For my ten cents worth, I think the fandom worked relatively smoothly for years after the Beatles broke up because there was only one target involved – Paul McCartney. I believe this is not an opinion but an objective fact. Immediately after the breakup of the band, the blame was laid squarely at McCartney’s feet, his early solo albums deliberately savaged, and his stature ridiculed with the lionization of John Lennon after his murder. This is NOT to say that some of the criticism of Paul – and Linda – wasn’t valid, it was, but rather the way in which it was done, and, more importantly, how little Lennon (leaving Yoko aside) and Harrison’s musical and personal failings were not treated equitably until much later on.
Part of the problem was that first generation fans had no outlet to express an alternative point of view back in the seventies when Beatle toxicity started. The internet simply did not exist in 1971, and when it did, existing divisions imploded. With time, greater knowledge of all four men has been gleaned (and often interpreted singularly) through books, articles, biographies, films and documentaries. The great pushback began. First, with John over the last 10-20 years, now George, with many of his fans demanding that he be treated equitably as a songwriter yet at the same time affronted when he is scrutinized for the part he played in the Beatles demise.
Some of it also from John and Paul fans who cling to the absurd notion of George as the baby Beatle or the little brother, thus rendering him an innocent.
Where does the fandom go from here? I can’t answer that. Everyone had their favorite Beatle back in the day and everyone respected it. The ironically named Get Back has seemingly allowed newer fans in particular to cement in concrete the personalities and motives of each Beatle through observing them during a mere three weeks in January 1969 totally out of context of what preceded during the eight years or more they spent together as a band. Tumblr posts are the worst culprits but there are others. What’s worse is their belief in that they KNOW how George felt when Paul did such and such a thing, and they KNOW how Paul really felt about Yoko, and they KNOW how John felt about everything under the sun. And poor Ringo. Yikes, if it’s got to this point, then I can’t see any help for the fandom at all to be honest.
I don’t really think that critics secretly liked his first solo album. It may be seen as being ahead of its time now, or “inventing” lo-fi in retrospect, but upon release it was rightfully regarded as having a few good songs (one classic song) and the rest noodling in his home studio. I first listened to it years ago with an open mind, wanting to like it, and remember being very disappointed. It’s still not an album I consider when wanting to listen to some of his solo music. I can also see their issue with RAM, continuing the homespun, stoned atmosphere but this time with even sillier lyrics. Only a few critics trashed RAM, quite a few gave it positive reviews. There seems to be a kind of revisionism going on with that album and how it was received at the time. John’s STINYC was hailed as the worst album of all time by a major artist, which helped me go in with very low expectations when I first listened to it, allowing me to conclude that it wasn’t THAT bad because John’s voice was in fine form and the album kind of rocked.
It’s accurate to note that “Ram” was critically panned upon its release. No “revisionism” required.
Robert Christgau and Jon Landau — two of the most powerful critics at the time — trashed “Ram” when it came out. Here’s Christgau’s review, and here’s Landau’s. Landau’s review begins with the memorable line “Ram represents the nadir in the decomposition of Sixties rock thus far.” Christgau also gave “Red Rose Speedway” a D+ and wrote that it was “Quite possibly the worst album ever made by a rock and roller of the first rank–unless David Crosby counts.”
It’s also true that “Some Time in New York City” got critically panned. For example, Christgau gave “Ram” a C+ and Lennon’s “Some Time in New York City” a C. It’s interesting to look at how much Yoko Ono got blamed for STINYC and other albums on which she and Lennon worked together.
@Michelle I agree re: RAM “revisionism”. I totally bought into it when I first got into the fandom because it’s a truism in certain circles, but found the situation was much more nuanced when I read the broad scope of primary sources for myself (instead of filtered through carefully cultivated blogs or podcasts), esp. since RAM’s reception was in the context of all The Beatles becoming part-time pop culture punching bags in the 70s. Landau’s review was pretty immature and over the top, though, and it having been published in RS… like, I get why people are still steamed about it, but it’s not like it stopped Paul from being one of the most successful artists of the 70s (and indeed, the most successful pop artist of all time by the end of the decade). This is sort of the problem with talking about the trashing Paul got from the press due to JohnandYoko’s PR assault: they successful turned a very thin but exclusive slice of the Rockerati against him (a slice who probably were already looking for an excuse to turn on Paul McCartney tbh), but it didn’t dent his public reception as a popular artist. Pursuant to Gerber’s complaints about the over-personalized/narcissistic aspect of fandom, I’ve really observed that fans still super absorbed in the Lennon v McCartney battle (ie: John fans who believe in The Ballad and so kind of just seem to hate The Beatles, vs Paul fans who think there needs to be an active and public moral reckoning for the things Christgau wrote 40 years ago beyond the late-life career re-assessment Paul’s already getting) take John and Paul’s personal hang ups unto themselves and go HARD crusading for them. Like, PAUL obviously was very upset that the cool kids didn’t like Wings and to this day appears to carry a sense of ambivalence towards talking about that era with the depth & detail he does Beatles music & his post-90s work, but as a fan who loves his 70s discography (maybe more than I like his work with The Beatles), I am SOOOO tired of re-litigating Landau’s review once a week in literally every Beatles forum on the internet. I’m contributing to the problem I suppose by re-litigating it again here, ha ha, but there really are far more interesting things to discuss about post-Beatles Paul than how mean the elitist american rock critics were about him, which is a subject I could honestly do with never reading about again in my life (more interesting things: the themes of running/travelling/escapism woven into every album b/t McCartney I & II; Paul’s development as an arranger out from under George Martin’s guiding hand; Linda’s influence on the “world” of his music, and the stark maturation of his love songs; did you guys know that Paul had a bronchial spasm while recording Band on the Run and he still immediately went back to being a chain-smoking wake n’ baker? that’s wild man. Ppl never shut up about LSD/heroin’s affect on John’s music, but Paul’s marijuana dependence is at least as deeply entwined with his work’s ups & downs during the 30 odd years he had it, imo. GOD there is SO MUCH to talk about beside fucking ROBERT CHRISTGAU).
Orange, there’s room for debate about to what extent we should continue to care about early reviews of “Ram” (or other reviews of McCartney’s work) and how much that reception affected him. What I object to is claiming that the early influential reviews of “Ram” were anything but very negative. There’s a reason that Landau’s and Christgau’s reviews are the two that are still readily accessible today — they were among the most important critical voices of the time, and had a power that, in a relative monoculture, is almost unimaginable today.
Also, we have talked about a LOT of other McCartney issues on this blog, very much including his pot use.
@Nancy- How did the reception of RAM, however negative, affect Paul? I agree that he was unfairly treated after John’s death, no question about that. That is, until he and his camp overcorrected the perception of who was Chief Beatle starting in the ’90s.
We had this thread about McCartney’s critics in 2016. And Jayson Greene’s 2012 review of the “Ram” reissue suggests — plausibly, I think — that if the critical reaction to that album had been more positive McCartney might have made more albums similar to it.
If there is one thing I am weary of in Beatles conversations it’s the endless wrangling over who gets to be called “Chief Beatle.” Clearly the band needed all four members, and clearly we’re each going to find that the solo music of a particular member resonates more with us. I truly wish we could leave it at that.
I don’t like the term Chief Beatle either. For a time John was thought of as the Chief Beatle, but Paul was just as important. It’s unfair to call either of them that. But that’s why I said he overcorrected that perception. Ringo once said that Paul wants to be known as the one who did it all. Mick Jagger laughed when he heard that Paul wrote in his book that he introduced Mick to pot, saying, “He wants to be known as the cool Beatle”. He doesn’t need to make up stuff to be thought of as important or cool.
What, for a non-musician, or for a semi-musician like myself, is there in the music, the arrangements, the production, the lyrics — the songs! — once you’ve listened to them all 100, 1000, 10000 times? “This kicks ass”? Well, it does, but if you’re going to actually write about it, you can either get into the musical nitty-gritty of why it kicks ass (like I might sit here and explain why a certain joke delivers a big laugh), or simply express wonder and appreciation — but that seems to be even more of a dead end.
The music is, as a source for writing, a very finite source. That’s why so much music writing (like Lester Bangs) reads like B-grade New Journalism at best. The rest of it — the personalities, the times, the influences — that’s much bigger.
I’m churlish, for sure, but I don’t think writing about how much I enjoy Sgt. Pepper’s is going to solve that. I wish it could, because I really, really enjoy Sgt. Pepper’s.
Well said @Michael Gerber.
Unfortunately, or fortunately depending on one’s view, I have an extremely low tolerance in life for hearing the same songs over and over and as one gets older it is not an exaggeration to say that one has heard some of these songs well over 1000 times. Link that in America to a near pathological fear of being exposed to anything resembling silence (they don’t need music blaring in a French supermarket for example) which in turns means every public space must be saturated 24/7 with a sonic effluvium. It really does get to be a bit much. If this sounds like an old fogey then I admit I am a card-carrying member. While I thoroughly enjoy every product in the Beatles as a group catalog, I have a one-song-is-enough tolerance for their post 1970 work–including the “beloved” All Things Must Pass album. My issue to be sure…
What I do find extremely compelling however, is your call to recognize that the Beatles did not happen in a vacuum and that the greatest rewards are looking at the broader context of the times. If anything, I am finding from activities such as reading this blog that looking at the deeper currents actually leads me to appreciate the music even more. If there are those who are completely satisfied hearing My Sweet Lord for the 1,450th time while at the shopping mall than I can only say that in some ways I envy them. Otherwise the vacuum and repetition is all too sterile and can only made richer by the broader view.
Beatles are still being admired these days even their songs and societal influences. I can’t say more about them.
Read my blog about them too!
I recently read this article at the Washington Post:
“Why Artists like Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, and John Legend are selling their catalogs.”
It made me think about Paul’s fight to get back the rights to his Beatle songs. The article states that many of the artists selling are older, like Springsteen, Neil Young, and Dylan. They may not want to place the burden of overseeing their catalogs on their children. Plus there could be squabbles amongst them.
I do wonder in the future, what will happen with the Beatles catalog. Will the Beatle kids keep Apple going, or will, like Michael G. predicts, it all get sold to Disney, or some other Corporation?
It does make me sad that these artists are giving up the rights to their music. I realize we’re talking huge amounts of money, but after what happened with the Beatles, and Paul’s fight to get his songs back, it seems like they are selling out.
Actually, they are giving a lease on their exploitation rights. And there are variations. Exploiting the songs is a complex worldwide business. collecting royalties is rather undeveloped, e.g. MPL is investing in technology for registering and collecting royalties for uses of songs in the public sphere, and venues… currently a black market. One wonders how many performers really pay royalties for the songs they play? Etc. It is a new ballgame, which requires new systems and the classic rock artists have catalogs, which many expect will make a lot of money over the next two decades.
It’s just sad. Now we’re going to see Springsteen songs used to sell god knows what! I wouldn’t think any artist would want their songs used to sell cars or toilet paper. The Beatles certainly didn’t.
However, I’m sure they were all made an offer they couldn’t refuse.
Get used to it! Last night I saw a Campbell’s Soup commercial that featured a cover version of Buddy Holly’s “It’s So Easy”
(The person who controls Buddy’s estate wants to squeeze every last dollar from his talent.)
I have a theory that eventually every creative endeavor will be co-opted by commercial marketers. Maybe 50 years from now there’ll even be an ad for “American Bystander Enjoys Extreme Comfort in These New Balance Sneakers” or something like that.
Doesn’t McCartney own the publishing rights to Buddy Holly’s song catalogue?
Here’s the link for the Washington Post article:
I was skimming and when I saw this title I thought it said “Moving Past Femdom” and my first reaction was “Never!”
I’ve never been convinced of the insecurity/confidence reasons for Paul putting Linda in his band. At the beginning, perhaps, but nearly thirty years later? After the Beatles split Paul was known to have a ‘me and Linda against the world’ mindset. It’s easy to say many bands had mates in them who couldn’t sing or play, but that’s why they weren’t the Beatles…or the Stones, or Led Zepp, or Pink Floyd. And didn’t the Beatles give Pete Best and Stuart Sutcliffe the shove because their musical abilites were found wanting? Paul made Linda his number two in Wings but I guess it’s easy to have a sense of entitlement once you’re big and successful and adored the world over. Linda was a very good photographer, so why? She wasn’t cool and she did negatively affect Paul’s credibility up until her death – and still would most likely had she lived. I believe Paul has regained a good deal of respect over the last 20 years for being a solo artist in the truest sense, and maintaining an excellent backing band. I, for one, wished he’d done it from the start. Unfortunately, the halo effect of early death makes people out to be more than what they actually were. Sorry, but just like many people would have preferred a solo John without Yoko, many would also have preferred a solo Paul without Linda, but have been lumbered with an unfair sense of guilt for not buying into the soulmate, always together fantasy. Double standards. As far as the family goes, I think it was incredibly hard on the McCartney kids, not just having one very famous parent, but two, and not something they had any control over. Whatever people think of George and Ringo’s solo careers, I at least respected them for their professionalism in engaging with gifted musicians and artists. And with all the criticism of Yoko at the moment, deserved or not, it’s easy to shy away from Linda’s role in the Beatles towards the end and beyond.
Regarding the conversation here about Paul putting Linda in Wings, I agree with MG that at the beginning, Paul was feeling very insecure and hurt, and needed her with him for emotional support. I assume that’s why she agreed to it. She knew he need her.
Beyond that, I don’t think Paul or Linda cared what people thought. If the negative press bothered Paul, why didn’t he let Linda go back home with the kids? She said in later interviews, she didn’t love being out on the road. So, I think
Paul did want her and the kids with him, and didn’t give a shit what the critics said. He was filling stadiums and selling a ton of records.
As a collector of Beatles audio and video, I commisserate greatly with your blog post. Having developed my own “cabinet” system for sorting and finding duplicates of my stuff, I now find wearied by a process I once found exhilarating. The thrill of the hunt, and the taxonomy and classification of the items, takes up so much time I find I don’t even watch or listen as much as I used to or want to. Sometimes I have to say, “Stop! And smell the genius.”
Humanistic Inquiry. I love the term. What kept me interested in the Beatles is the joy, fun, energy and innovation I still hear in the music. Its even better with some the remasters. Its hard to resist trying to dissect that 4 piece band to find some of that fairy dust for yourself. What I have come to believe is their combined imperfections made them the perfect unit in creating what they did. It is because of, and not in spite of who they are that humanity with all of our shortcomings can still create something heavenly. I recently saw Get Back and it has vividly shown the humanity in all four guys and the love they have for each other. I have learned to be leery of too much narrative and interpretation of events by others since it can be clouded by personal bias and baggage. Get Back has brought back my love of the band.
I’m currently talking with a friend of mine who posts on this site as well and we’re kind of Tangled Up In baggage versus enjoyment of the music.
It seems to be a little more resolved but I tend to look at the Beatles through the lens of the established canon and they don’t but I think it’s impeding my enjoyment of the music…
It’s hard for me to listen to them and to somebody like Frank Sinatra because of how much they mean to me and connect to my personal life.
But at the same time there’s something drawing me and and I really want to reconnect with something that I enjoy.
Does anyone relate to that experience or have any thoughts on it?
@Mia, I don’t know if this quite speaks to your issue, but when in doubt, I go back to the music. And the standard story. The plain ol’ vanilla story is as surprising, unlikely, inspiring and heartbreaking as any tale in all of history. Four people with little to no musical education, and few advantages in life — people who could expect to become, at best, local teachers or bus drivers — used talent and dedication to bring immeasurable joy to the world. They are smart, funny, charming, and seem to be decent human beings, even now. Time spent really delving into the “Standard Narrative” can refresh one’s fandom.
I have long been both tormented by and fascinated with the experience of having music that I love so much that it’s painful to listen to. I’ve googled occasionally in the past to see if it was a documented phenomenon, and found not much but it’s definitely a thing. I think the closest thing is Stendhal Syndrome, which is close but doesn’t quite describe the physical ache and urgency. It’s a thesis of some kind waiting to happen for an ambitious grad student…
There are times — today is one of them — when my emotional connection to the Beatles is to intense that it is literally painful to listen to them, and equally painful NOT to listen to them. For me, it’s an actual physical ache in my bones, a desperation a bit like “restless legs,” a sensory overload that something can be that good, and this incredible improbable glorious thing actually somehow happened. It sometimes feels like it’s just too much for a single being to take in.
A related experience for me is the occasional frustration that everyone in the entire world isn’t stopping everything they’re doing and listening to them right this second.
It reminds me a bit of an unrelated anecdote — the day after the Supreme Court gave the 2000 election to GW, my then-writing partner and I were walking down Sunset Boulevard talking about it. (Well, okay, he was listening, I was ranting.) We passed Sunset Grill where there was a guy peacefully sitting outside at a table eating a cheeseburger, hurting absolutely no one. I was SO upset about the Supreme Court decision and that there was someone in the world who could be eating a cheeseburger at a time like this, that I literally stopped and yelled at him, “How can you sit there and eat a cheeseburger right now!!!!” (My partner hastily pulled me away with apologies to Cheeseburger Man.)
A weird story, but that’s the closest I can get to that feeling. of urgency I often experience with the Beatles. Like, how can you be sitting there doing something non-Beatles related and NOT understanding how amazing this music, this story is?????”
Yeah, I’m a little obsessed.
PS Hi, Mia. <3
Here’s a link to a fascinating discussion on “Anti-Fandom” at the Lawyers Guns and Money blog:
Hating a celebrity has become as much of an identity for some fans as loving a celebrity.
I’ve seen examples of that in the John vs. Paul attitudes of some folks I’ve met. I’ve encountered people in the wild who adore Lennon and Harrison and simply despise McCartney. And their distaste for McCartney seems to be as much a part of their personality as their love for John/George. I’m not sure if it’s anything new though, because I also saw it years ago in fans who admired McCartney but disliked Linda. And of course the “I love John but Yoko was his ruination” brigade, that I confess I’ve marched with at times.
It’s an interesting phenomenon. The examples the article cites are all female-driven. Quite young women in the case of the weird Cumberbatch thing (which I brushed up against in social media awhile back). While at the same time often being at least arguably misogynistic.
The John vs. Paul thing of course has deep roots — and when it comes to McCartney as the anti-fandom hate object, it was in its origin very much not female-driven; quite the opposite. We’re talking about the putative grown men who were the first generation of “rock critics.” Misogyny came in the form of ridiculing McCartney for writing songs about such unrevolutionary topics as women, and in describing him in feminine-coded language (“bossy”) while Lennon was of course a STREET-FIGHTING MAN. Oops, that was Jagger, formerly of the London School of Economics — but they even took that seriously.
One of the many repugnant features of this narrative is that it requires the assimilation, celebration, and projection of Lennon’s ugliest and most disturbed behavior — behavior that he himself tried at least sporadically to reject. That his behavior did become ugly and disturbed in the 70s is part of the historical record, but it’s something that one wants to approach with empathy — and that becomes harder when, 40 years after his death, it’s in your face courtesy of the I Hate Therefore I Am brigade.
But — maybe one of the ramifications of the female reclamation of the Beatles is that John, Paul, George and Ringo are now grist for the modern mill of fandom/anti-fandom? Are the armies of Paul going to war with the armies of George because George was a bitch? If so, I don’t know that it’s nearly the problem that Lennon-Wennerism was and is. These things are I think ephemeral, and exist on social media as little emotional tornadoes that most of us remain unaware of.
A very nicely written, and exceedingly thoughtful comment, thank you! Mine will not be so good; my tools are not very sharp tonight, I can feel their dullness.
I think I would concur with @Sam that the fan/anti-fan currents have existed in the Beatles phenomenon since it began (“Where’s Pete?”), and I would concur with you that “John vs Paul” has deep roots–it is their juxtaposition and complementary nature that makes the band so special. Young fans have always picked their favorite Beatle, and it is the almost mythic stack of the four, each embodying an archetype, that explains some of their enduring popularity. John people vs Paul people vs George people vs Ringo people is going to go on for as long as people think about the Beatles. But that siloed view is not reality.
There is among young fans a tendency to form one’s identity via totemic attachment to celebrities. What’s different now is that people don’t seem to be aging out of that totemic identification; I doubt there were Gilbert people vs Sullivan people in the same way there are John vs Paul or Team Amber vs Team Depp. This identity-formation seems to be stronger now, and lasts longer, and is more permanent, and I’d say that’s because every fan’s stray thought is captured permanently and put on display for the world to see, rather than being released harmlessly into the atmosphere like a fart. Most of these thoughts are harmless farts (my own very much included)…unless you fashion them into an identity, which people seem to do online quite obsessively.
After running HD for 14 years, I’d say Beatles fandom is better-informed on minutiae than ever before; but somewhat less sophisticated in toto. They use the data narrowly, to fit their identity-building project. The John people quote their facts and interviews and outtakes; the Paul people counter with their own.
But these “little emotional tornadoes” are an even bigger problem. What happens is that all these “little emotional tornadoes” are captured online, then read by others; and the ones that do emotional work for the readers are added to, and amplified, becoming bigger tornadoes–until they, sometimes, set the terms for any debate. Are they helpful, enlightening, enlightened, or even true? Doesn’t matter; they only need to do emotional work. They need to confirm that “women are bitches,” or “men are jerks,” or the best one of all, “they won’t let you know the truth.”
An early example of this would be all the anti-Yoko vitriol. Some people grabbed this idea greedily; it reinforced their sexist worldview, or their racist one, or allowed them to assign a villain to the ending of the Beatles, or even soothed some primal rage at the John of Beatlemania being no more. You can dismiss all these motivations as silly, but for people back in 1970, these were real tornadoes; you don’t get a hit piece in Esquire if it’s not doing a lot of emotional work for a lot of people.
When anti-Yoko vitriol was popular, when it did lots of work for lots of people, things could not go viral. And luckily so, because if it had been able to be shared and amplified, it really could’ve turned into something quite dangerous. And here’s an important point: no matter how big it got or how many people would espouse it, it wouldn’t be based on reality. There is no reason for anyone not related to or working with Yoko Ono to have a strong opinion about her. She is a stranger. What fans in 1970 were reacting to was something they’d created in their own minds, out of bits and pieces of data and a ravenous need to have their preferred worldview confirmed. A much more useful question is, “What worldview am I servicing here, and why does it mean so much to me?”
From my perch, over the last some years there has been come an idea thqt similarly confirms some fans’ worldview. They argue, quite passionately, that there is “a Standard Narrative,” promoted by publishers and Apple and meticulously gatekept by same; and that this Standard Narrative squeezes out all other competing ideas; and that it privileges John and his supposed macho characteristics, over Paul and his supposed softer ones. This idea wends its way through our innumerable posts and comments about the unfair treatment of RAM; through John and Paul; through our discussions of Lennon and Wenner…It clearly obsesses a certain type of fan today in a way that was not evident in, say, 2008, when this site started.
That’s fine, horses for courses — but it’s worth asking: why? “What worldview am I servicing here, and why does it mean so much to me?”
And it’s also worth noting that a person can become over-fascinated with an idea, enthralled with a schema to the point that they are no longer engaging with anything outside their own head. And that’s OK–as long as they’re aware that’s what they are doing.
@Katya, it’s not clear precisely which “ugliest and most disturbed behavior” you’re referring to, but I would say two things:
1) I might be forgetting lots, but I think Lennon’s behavior in the 60s, from streetfights in Hamburg to beating Bob Wooler to possibly beating a pregnant Yoko, is significantly worse than his occasionally drunk and disorderly 70s.
2) It is the Wenner-published interviews themselves where Lennon first reveals this behavior, and vows to do better. Surely he must be given some credit for that? It would be akin to Paul coming clean in 1980–or 1971!–about knocking up Dot Rhone and having other affairs fixed by Epstein, and his shabby treatment of Jane Asher…which Paul did not do, and has never, done.
The 70s image of Lennon that online fans infuriated by the so-called “Standard Narrative” abhor was not a celebration of his patriarchal masculinity, his violence and mistreatment of women, but in fact just the opposite. People in the 70s and after Lennon’s death celebrated him because of his disavowal of drunkenness and violence, supposedly egalitarian approach to marriage and childrearing, and his honesty. Take it from someone who was a Lennon fan in the 1970s: he wasn’t lionized for being macho or violent or “the hard man,” but precisely the opposite.
So why was Paul discounted? Not because he was feminized–that was John!–but because he was OLD. Unlike Lennon, McCartney was seen to be as much a relic of Old Showbiz as Sinatra. After punk, Macca was seen as part of an earlier, less exciting generation–and was that not true? Can we blame anyone in 1976 or 1986 for thinking that? Rolling Stone, though it lionized Lennon, was still putting Paul it its pages long after most music fans had moved on.
None of this is my idiosyncratic opinion; it is available to anyone who wants to read the old articles or talk to someone who was buying LPs in 1978; in fact, the people I knew that bought Paul’s records ALSO bought John’s records, because they loved Beatles music, and John and Paul solo records were the closest we were going to get. But it’s not a version of the past you hear from young, online Beatles fans today. They are determined to fight about the Beatles only in the ways that service those “little emotional tornadoes.” And that’s OK–if we also, occasionally, check in with the modulating reality.
There is a kernel of truth in fans’ gripes about “the Standard Narrative.” But it’s only a kernel, and its dominance of the thought of a certain type of online Beatles fan has everything to do with the way fans treat and talk to each other now online, not how it really was back in the 70s or after. And if the plain ol’ vanilla Beatles story doesn’t do sufficient emotional work for a contemporary fan, the proper response is perhaps to grow up and out of fandom, rather than recasting that internal dissatisfaction as a Manichean battle between the Truth and the Gatekeepers. Doing so is a very contemporary kind of madness and is tending to wither everything it touches. It would be a shame if that happened to the Beatles.
Wearing a Kotex on his head? Heckling the Smothers Brothers? Retiring from the music business to become a househusband? Ignoring Paul’s phone calls? The horror! I totally agree with what you wrote here. John’s behavior was worse as a Beatle. He mellowed considerably in the ’70s.
John’s behaviour, both in the 60s and 70s, was always at its worst when he was drinking. That’s when he was most likely to turn into a violent lunatic, i.e. nearly beating Bob Wooler to death with a shovel. The early 70s at least -throwing May Pang into walls, almost murdering her in a hot tub, reducing rooms to rubble- did see some fairly appalling antics on Lennon’s part, again when he was drinking heavily. I take a dim view of people like Harry Nilssson and other hangers on who saw firsthand how he was on booze and still encouraged him to keep drinking.
“I take a dim view of people like Harry Nilssson and other hangers on who saw firsthand how he was on booze and still encouraged him to keep drinking.”
They were alcoholics and drug addicts themselves, @Matt. Alcoholics and drug addicts do things like that, because it normalizes their own behavior.
@Matt – Yes, I completely agree with this. I think he had psychotic rages that were mainly fuelled by alcohol. He couldn’t remember what had happened in the incidents with May Pang, so he either drank to the point of blacking out, or he went crazy to the point of blacking out. The difference when he was in the Beatles or hidden away at the Dakota was that he had handlers around him (Brian, Paul, Yoko) to keep him out of sight when he lost it, or to clean up after him. May Pang could not handle him, and in fact, she’s very lucky that he didn’t kill her. He came close on more than one occasion.
I would go further and say that John knew May Pang would probably end up dead if he stayed with her and that was part of what persuaded him to go back to Yoko. I bet that’s why Paul encouraged to go back too. Not just to protect May Pang, but also the Beatles’ legacy because he knew what John was capable of when he lost control.
It’s not an easy thing for any Beatles fan to acknowledge, I’m sure, but what’s the point of sugar coating it? It’s obvious that John was seriously mentally ill (and probably had been since early childhood when he was expelled from infant school) and alcohol made him dangerous. If he didn’t kill anyone, it was simply down to luck.
@Elizabeth Great points. Although I think Yoko’s motives keeping John in the Dakota were largely self-serving, it’s also hard to argue that keeping him away from the kind of people who would egg on his destructive behaviour was a bad thing. The catch 22 is that John was not mentally well enough to get along without a strong minder, but that acceding agency to someone like Yoko also made him more depressed and despondent. It kept him out of trouble but took a huge toll on his spirit. Paul and Brian were able to encourage John to channel his manic energy into positive endeavours. Yoko’s solution was for him to put away his guitar and fester indoors with his neuroses. It’s like putting somebody in a prison or an institution without any semblance of rehabilitation. Sure, they’re not going to hurt anyone. They’re also not going to get any better sitting in a cell all day with nothing to do.
“He couldn’t remember what had happened in the incidents with May Pang…”
He seemed to go into a complete dissociative fugue under alcohol. The same thing happened with Wooler. Afterwards he was sobbing and saying “What have I done? What have I done?”
“The difference when he was in the Beatles or hidden away at the Dakota was that he had handlers around him (Brian, Paul, Yoko) to keep him out of sight when he lost it, or to clean up after him. ”
You have to wonder how different history would look if John took a few more swings at Bob Wooler, or held on to May Pang’s neck for a few more seconds. But the most troubling idea is imagining that these things could have happened and that history might look much the same IF the incidents were sufficiently buried and erased. Lennon under the influence of alcohol had a particular pattern of behaviour. What if there were indeed times when nobody got there soon enough to pull John off some other Bob Wooler or May Pang we’ll never know about? I sure hope that isn’t the case, but I do wonder.
@Matt – Yeah, I think it’s very sad, actually, because he only really had two choices: Yoko and Paul. My own view is that the ‘lost weekend’ was about Yoko proving to John that (1) he couldn’t manage without a handler, and (2) it had to be her because Paul had a family and could no longer be responsible for him. Playing the long game so she had him where she wanted him when he finally came crawling back – as she knew he would have to do. It must have been hell for him, but when you are that famous, and you have a very big secret that could destroy everything you have ever achieved, who do you turn to? For that reason alone, I have no difficulty in believing that he knew exactly what was planned for him and went along with it, because I imagine his life was a sort of purgatory.
I also agree that it’s more likely than not that there were other victims of his violence. And anyone who says he could not have been responsible for what happened to Stuart is in denial, in my opinion. I’m sure he did want to ‘improve’. But I don’t think he was in control of his actions; his behaviour controlled him. All he could do was remove himself from situations where Mr Hyde might make an appearance.
@Elizabeth I have no trouble believing John blamed himself for Stu’s death and that it ate him up; or that he was so terrified of his own behaviour by the mid-70s that locking himself away (albeit, with plenty of less than healthy reinforcement from Yoko) seemed like the sensible option. The best thing John and Yoko (if they were anyone else but John and Yoko) could have done in 1975 when his contract ran out and Sean came along would have been to put both of themselves into (seperate!) long term therapy.
Sober or not, I thought John and Harry looked great together: https://external-preview.redd.it/QhTmY-Opow46WRqFaBiuUA8FZVMKTpsSvzlzRgZqbj8.jpg?auto=webp&s=8d5ceef3ba158759da34a27e8bd2ba1868c5817d
Nice pic. Why didn’t they collaborate more?
Harry feeding his hangover while John looks at his text messages:
That was a fail: This is supposed to be the second pic in that post:
I agree with Neal that this is a great discussion.
I just wanted to add that I think it’s human nature to pick favorites. I’m not saying it’s right; just that it’s normal to be drawn to certain people (Beatles) over others. The problem occurs when we start to demonize the others, or make John vs Paul a contest.
I agree with Michael that since the Internet, it’s gotten worse, because peoples views are amplified, and the nature of Facebook and other sites, is that the negative views are hit on more than the positive.
I do think that overall, beyond the “emotional tornadoes” (great term),
the Beatles remain an example of peace, love and understanding. That is so needed and refreshing in todays world.
Thanks for your reply, Michael. There’s a lot here for me to reply to in turn — which I’ll probably do piecemeal and digressively, since my views are not fixed on a lot of this stuff.
I should state where I’m coming from Beatles-wise. I’m old, a first-generation Beatles fan, albeit I experienced the “living Beatles” era as a child — which I think makes me very lucky. Sgt. Pepper, given to my older brother as a birthday present, was my first experience in music immersion. Fixing a Hole was every bit as mysterious and suggestive and compelling as Within You Without You or A Day in a Life — and it still is. I knew from reading the liner notes that some songs were by George Harrison and a few were by Ringo, but I took the Lennon/McCartney credit at face value, as I think almost everyone did then. I didn’t see any kind of dichotomy there, and as far as I can remember didn’t even know which voice belonged to whom.
So — when you talk about people who were buying albums in the late 70s, I was one of those people. I agree with your implication that at the time most people didn’t much care about John v. Paul; I didn’t. I did know, though, that Ram and the first McCartney album had been slammed by the critics while John’s early solo work was celebrated. So a certain topography of taste had been established.
Here’s another thing I knew and thus know now. My family was politically engaged, on the left-liberal side of things, and I was precocious about politics. (When 1968 is the year you start to become politically conscious — well, there was a lot to notice.) I saw how, circa 1969-1970, peace-and-love soft-sided hippyism turned palpably into the New Left. The SDS, the Weatherman, “off the pigs,” urban guerrilla fantasies which were occasionally realized as lethal terrorism. The fetishization of the Black Panthers by white radicals. And believe me when I tell you that the Manson Family was celebrated in some corners of the left. This was an important shift — significant enough that I could see it as a kid. There was nothing feminized about that political moment; it was macho to the max, with the kind of ludicrous extremities that come when middle-class young people (not just men) engage in cartoon-commando cosplay.
And this was the moment that Lennon emerged as an “activist.” I don’t think he was ever really serious about politics, and his period of intense engagement was quite brief — but it was in a context of a macho and sometimes actually violent militancy. Hence his comment: “I hope it’s [my music is] for workers and not for tarts and fags.” Yes, I know he turned around on the homophobia and misogyny within a couple of years. He shook off John Sinclair and assorted far-left hangers-on pretty quickly. But my focus here isn’t on John Lennon as a person, really — it’s on the social context that shaped, over the longer term, what IMHO was very definitely a Beatles/post-Beatles “standard narrative” in which Lennon was a CHARACTER. In that context, John could say shit like this without threat to his aura of cool.
Now add something characteristic and stupid about rock criticism from the late 60s through the 70s at least: the conflation of political radicalism and musical radicalism. Lennon’s association with the former actually coincided with his embrace of musical conservatism. Recall that at some point he accused Paul and George Martin of sabotaging his best music by going “experimental” with it in the studio. (This, BTW, is an example of what I mean by his ugly, disordered behavior.) Left to his own creative devices, “experimentation” became bad; honest music was bare-bones rock — or even 50’s rock-and-roll as performed at the Cavern. Beatles tunes that you used to love, that sported influences “to the left and right of rock?” That’s granny music and has Paul cooties. The joy you took in it was WRONG. In a cultural/political context in which a particular narrow slice of musical style, a teaspoon scooped from the surface of the ocean of music, was being “ideologized” as the only music worth taking seriously, Lennon became associated with that slice of music. The fact that a lot of his later solo work didn’t really conform to the template kinda didn’t matter.
Fast-forward to Lennon’s murder. (I heard about it on the radio during a typical evening of weed-smoking with my music-mad housemates.) John changed overnight from an eccentric possible has-been who’d just put out a disappointingly MOR comeback album to … you know. I was among multitudes who became obsessed with him. I read the Playboy interview — but I also absorbed Lennon Remembers and other interviews he did in the early 70s. That narrative was there, waiting to be reactivated. Then came “Shout!” and the narrative was set for decades.
This was just something that happened. No one planned it. It was not a conspiracy. Noting that it occurred is not a conspiracy theory.
And you know — I bought it. That’s how I know it was real; I bought it. Not in a crazy way. I didn’t become a McCartney anti-fan, and I didn’t stop loving Martha My Dear because it was “granny music.” Even back in the day, I questioned some things and was appalled by, for example, the way that John described Julian as an errant splash of jizz in interviews that would be read by millions. (Ugly disordered behavior.)
But I bought a story about how the Beatles music was created that was just false. I bought the notion that McCartney, who is in fact a musical prodigy, was a lesser talent with a solo career that was largely shit. So although I didn’t hate the guy, I sure didn’t investigate McCartney II — or, over the ensuring decades, a ton of other weird and inventive music which I wish I’d known about a lot sooner. And I didn’t investigate Ram. I’d never listened to the full album when it was released, and until pretty damn recently I just accepted the notion, put down all those years ago, that it wasn’t good.
And that’s the problem with the “standard narrative” — which is also the problem with fandom/anti-fandom in all its forms. They’re blockades on the doors to joy.
@Katya, this is a fascinating, deep, personal take and I’d like you to revise it slightly and make it a post, would you? The first part, especially, gets to points that I think are really worth mentioning and not often mentioned. Let me address some points to further this great discussion. To give you my context, I was born in 1969, but spent my childhood in the company of Boomers, so I absorbed their cultural obsessions, from The Beatles to JFK (and SNL and Woody Allen and Monty Python) rather than my own generation’s. I was aware of the Beatles at three, and was surrounded by pop music throughout the 70s; as you remember, there was no way to avoid it.
I have written at length on the site about Lennon’s political activism from 1969-72, and how I think it was at best naive and at worst a kind of cynical positioning, attempting to curry favor with the counterculture in the way you suggest, by going somewhere he knew Paul could not. (And I also think one cannot underestimate the influence of Yoko in this period.) If you’re interested in my take, I would encourage you to search around the site. From what you say here, I think we’d probably be in substantial agreement.
“I did know, though, that Ram and the first McCartney album had been slammed by the critics while John’s early solo work was celebrated. So a certain topography of taste had been established.”
But did this topography matter to you, as a record buyer? It never did to me; nor my mother, nor my Beatlefan aunt. People read Rolling Stone, but they also heard the music, and it was the music that decided them. My stepfather (b. 1954) still listens to McCartney and I don’t think he even owns POB. The whole “Standard Narrative must go!” analysis reifies people like Wenner and Christgau in a way that is more reflective of today’s online world than the world of the 70s. “Takes” were not obsessively shared on social media, seen by millions in minutes, looping the world. There was not one “main character” per day, as there is on Twitter. As I remember, people bought records because they heard and liked the music, especially in the era of FM radio playing whole album sides.
But even if we grant that in 1971, critics at Rolling Stone and Crawdaddy and CREEM were perhaps praising John too much and Paul too little for political reasons, that was a very temporary state of affairs. By 1973, Paul had a smash LP and the theme to the latest James Bond, whereas Mind Games was largely dismissed as an Imagine retread. And in 1976, Paul did a HUGE tour of America and connected with the disco generation with “Silly Love Songs” while John was so depressed and disheartened that he goes into seclusion. To seize upon one moment and say that people’s opinions of both men were set in stone then–nobody who knows the Standard Narrative well would claim that. Things changed almost by the month in the 70s.
Fandom in 1971–or 1973–or 1976–was not what it is today. In addition to the identification being lesser, most people were not nearly as focused on the meta-narrative of critical reaction or obsessed with “the story behind the story” as fans are today. People watched The Godfather, not an eight-episode dramatization of the making of The Godfather focusing on the little-known producer. What Wenner promoted or Christgau said mattered in 1971, but not as much as the music you heard for yourself.
“‘I hope it’s [my music is] for workers and not for tarts and fags.’… In that context, John could say shit like this without threat to his aura of cool.”
This is what I mean by digital fans being better-informed thanks to access to raw data, but ultimately less sophisticated in their analysis. He says this in 1970 for “Working Class Hero,” and by 1972, he was contributing doggerel to The Gay Liberation Handbook. Which Lennon is the real one? Both. That’s the only answer. To fix any one version of Lennon, especially post 1968, is to fundamentally miss the man — not only who he was and how he lived, but also why he was so fascinating. But more to the point, really any rock star in 1970 could’ve said that about gay people and sex workers, Paul McCartney included. Sadly and wrongly, nobody would’ve stood up for gay people and sex workers; 1971 is not 2022. This is what made The Beatles so refreshing in 1966 when they answered the question about “songs about lesbians and prostitutes.”
But honestly? I’ve read very widely about Lennon, and I didn’t remember this quote. The guy was interviewed incessantly from 1962 on; he said a lot of things, many of them cringeworthy during his own time, much less ours. It’s a data point–one statement in one interview; and while it can be marshaled in an online argument, it’s gainsaid by enough other data that, for me, it can be discarded as uncharacteristic. I don’t think one can build a durable vision of John Lennon as a homophobe, but YMMV.
“Now add something characteristic and stupid about rock criticism from the late 60s through the 70s at least: the conflation of political radicalism and musical radicalism”
I would argue that after the draft ended in 1973–and certainly by ’75 or ’76–political radicalism had been replaced by either disengagement or hedonism, even in the counterculture. There was a time when this conflation was happening–say, 1968-72–but people who were still beating the countercultural drums after Nixon’s second victory were few and far between.
What I’m getting at is CHANGE. The musical mainstream by 1973, were artists like Led Zeppelin, Elton John, and the LA singer-songwriters (Jackson Browne; The Eagles), all a million miles away from “Working Class Hero,” none of whom were political in the way you’re talking. After that, apolitical prog rock dominates. Then punk, which isn’t political as much as nihilistic. Then New Wave…John tried to claim that Yoko had something to do with The B-52s’ sound, but nobody really believed him. John’s political posturing only really fits from 1968-72 at the latest; after that it’s a liability. I agree that his constant denigration of his own back catalog is uncomfortable to hear as a Beatles fan, but I think that’s Yoko as much as it is radical left politics.
“That narrative was there, waiting to be reactivated. Then came “Shout!” and the narrative was set for decades…This was just something that happened. No one planned it. It was not a conspiracy. Noting that it occurred is not a conspiracy theory.”
I would argue quite strongly that Lennon was intentionally turned into a secular saint, with certain periods of his life emphasized in this myth. And I would argue that it WAS a conspiracy, insofar in it was a coordinated plan carried out by several entities — Yoko and Wenner — for their benefit. Then others, like Philip Norman, followed their lead–“Shout!” is hagiographic towards Lennon and antagonistic towards Paul; as were the various Rolling Stone books. And that was lousy and unfair and inaccurate. But to say that it lasted unchallenged for decades? That simply isn’t true. Goldman’s book came out in 1987 and caused a firestorm of controversy — articles in major magazines, a whole issue of Rolling Stone devoted to refutation — and after that, Lennon was never viewed so simply again; how could he be? Certainly by the time of Anthology, Lennon’s feet of clay were well-known and widely accepted, and Paul was considered by most to be one of Rock’s reigning geniuses, in the rank of Stevie Wonder and Brian Wilson.
Honestly, whenever someone argues these points, I think, “You’ve been hanging out online, fighting with Lennon fanboys.” The Standard Narrative has changed over time; it continues to change; it will continue to change. The Standard Narrative of Davies was supplanted by Nicholas Shaffner; which was supplanted by The Compleat Beatles and Shout!; then Goldman added some parts; then it was really codified by Anthology. But alternative opinions are not being squelched, books are still being published–it’s just that most of what there is to discover, likely has been discovered. For some years in the 1980s, a certain kind of know-nothing male rock fan bought the Estate’s line, and dismissed Paul McCartney as a lightweight; but that passed. It certainly isn’t the dominant narrative today; not in the books being published, nor at the conventions, nor in the music press, nor even on sites like this one. It exists only in comments sections, I think. It certainly is not “the Standard Narrative.”
Just read Anthology. That’s as Standard as a Narrative gets; does that devalue McCartney? Does it ignore John’s faults because he’s political, macho, or cool? Does it prevent one from taking joy in The Beatles’ music or story? For me, the answer to all these is “no.” The “Standard Narrative” doesn’t need changing; online fan culture definitely does.
It’s a matter of taste, really. Not a personality trait. At least not a fan’s personality trait. Maybe McCartney’s personality traits.
Excellent thoughts! As a relative newbie (the past three years) of looking at matters Beatles, I have often wondered about certain levels of fandom and the motivations behind them.
On the one end there is a true appreciation for the art and music with factual
based discussions and well articulated thoughts. On the other end I am reminded of the SNL skit with William Shatner telling the Trekkies to decamp from their parents basement and get cracking in life.
When I say that I wonder about this I mean that I am surprised, and at times unsettled, by the emotional investiture fans have in artists that they have never met. They raise their fandom to a hagiography so intense that they feel they must defend against all comers. Frankly it can be a bit creepy. It is why, Michael, I enjoyed reading your thought of “And if the plain ol’ vanilla Beatles story doesn’t do sufficient emotional work for a contemporary fan, the proper response is perhaps to grow up and out of fandom, rather than recasting that internal dissatisfaction as a Manichean battle between the Truth and the Gatekeepers. ” Indeed!
As Sam mentioned, one sees this in the opinions regarding Yoko. Frankly I don’t find her to be a compelling artist at all. She certainly, by any standard, was not in the league of Berthold Brecht, Pollack, or Mark Rothko. But I have never met her, never will, and have never seen an exhibition of hers, so mine is obviously nothing more than an opinion. I could never imagine the emotional investiture (particularly at my age) of fighting the hill that says she was a grifer and the worst thing in John Lennon’s life or that she was, conversely, the greatest thing in his life. I frankly don’t have the intellectual ken to understand the serious emotional investiture in these figures that, at the end of the day, seems to yield little in comparison to the joy one can experience from the art itself.
I guess what I am saying is that I very much appreciate the thoughts and ideas I read here as they are factual based…the facts that were the context in which the great art was created and flourished. This site is a wonderful counterpoint to that emotional fandom struggle of the ages.
Neal, you wrote: ” . . . I am surprised, and at times unsettled, by the emotional investiture fans have in artists that they have never met,” and I am very much in the same place. As Michael G has noted, online fandom has increased this kind of parasocial identification exponentially. And I’d add that it’s colonized politics as well — see Elon Musk’s fandom for a current example.
The GenXtemporaneous podcast did three episodes on the William White fandom that are worth listening to, since they capture so much of what is going on with online celebrity. William White is a young man who built up a big TikTok following by lip-synching 1980s hits. The way the fandom has divided and competed for his attention, and the way it is supporting him financially, was eye-opening to me: I’d never heard of him, but his fandom has similar dynamics to that of other online influencers/celebrities. What’s chilling to me is the number of fans who say things like White’s not doing a live feed one day is enough to make them want to kill themselves. Here’s a link to a story about the fandom.
The intensity of many parasocial relationships now is genuinely scary. Some people build their whole identity around figures they don’t know and spend a huge amount of their time championing their chosen figure (see the Johnny Depp / Amber Heard TikTok phenomenon for a current example). Honestly, it’s made me leery of my own investment in any celebrities, very much including the Beatles. It’s one reason I don’t post much on HD any more (and to be clear, this is about me, not a judgment on anyone else).
Part of healthy engagement with any celebrity/public figure has to include self-examination about the emotional purposes that engagement is serving, and some skepticism about how much we can really “know” someone in the public eye.
GenXtemporaneous also has an episode about the Get Back film that I haven’t listened to yet, but which should be interesting.
I like your point Nancy about the necessity for some self-examination as a fan–no matter if it is Beatles or not. Not that this needs to be a deep navel-gazing plunge, but asking ourselves why we dedicate our interests, and in some cases emotions, in the aura of celebrity is a good step in rebalancing our perspective.
I am reading a biography of Jim Morrrison (as much to learn about the other musicians in The Doors) and looking at some of the reviews I find commentors within sight of the Depp/Heard investiture. It is, as you say, getting rather scary.
I wonder where and when we tipped past the event horizon of enjoyable and interested fandom into what it has, in many quarters, become today?
The GenXtemporaneous podcast about Get Back was interesting, but boy can those young people swear up a streak. I tried a couple of their other episodes but thought they would be better by curbing their language a bit.
“I wonder where and when we tipped past the event horizon of enjoyable and interested fandom into what it has, in many quarters, become today?”
When the cultural production of the West changed from primarily being about the middle classes and what they liked and were interested in (say, for example, The Beatles) to primarily about being worship of the wealthy and aspiration towards their lifestyle. So, around 1980 in the US and UK. And then a whole bunch of laws and policies have basically split off the super-rich from the rest of us, so that it really is better/easier to live as a wealthy person.
Advertising culture was probably always going to push us in this direction, but now the lust to be rich and famous, and to curry favor with the wealthy in the hopes that they will make you rich and famous too, now has a basis in economic reality.
Seems like I can’t reply directly to your post, Michael. Thanks for the invite to turn my post into an article — let me know how to go about doing that.
I’ve already done some reading of older topics here, albeit in a scattershot fashion — for the last couple of weeks I’ve been following the links in your twitter feed to seemingly random threads! , Which in turn sometimes lead me to other topics of course, and I also did few searches. I do think we agree on a lot — certainly in regards to the period under discussion here. I’m aware that if there can be said to be any dominant narrative now it’s very different from the Rolling Stone/Shout! story — a bit more on that below. I think the old narrative lives on mostly amongst casual fans, mostly older, who simply never updated their attitudinal software. I saw a lot of that in the reactions to Get Back — “Wow, I always thought John was the guy, but now I see that Paul had Big Beatle Balls.” Things can get oversimplified in that direction too, of course.
Regarding the construction of “Martin Luther Lennon” as a deliberate act — point taken. I haven’t read the Jann Wenner biography, “Sticky Fingers,” but I heard an interview with the author and he talked about the Wenner/Yoko “arrangement” among other pertinent things.
One thing I want to make clear: I didn’t introduce the “fags and tarts” quote in order to tar John as a homophobe. As I said, I know that he did a 180 on gay rights not long afterwards, and his later implications of bisexuality, coy by 2022 standards, were gutsy for the time. What I was trying to do was show how a particular political/cultural moment coincided with John’s immediate needs (founded in psychic distress, I think) to brand a particular type of music as authentic and politically significant, and to associate John with that music. I went to that quote in particular to counter the notion that that moment was all soft idealism and not implicitly “male coded.”
Here’s something I came across yesterday that was unexpectedly relevant. There’s a new two-part documentary about George Carlin on HBO MAX; I watched the first part last night. It actually includes some footage that’s directly, albeit incidentally, Beatle-related — a snippet from the Mike Douglas Show where Carlin was the guest and John and Yoko were co-hosts. But what caught my ear was a quote from Carlin about the late 70s, when he was facing creative and professional problems because of the waning of the counterculture with which he was associated. “Disco came into play and the people who were the true radicals retreated to the hills, and the other ones went and got MBAs.” (Side note: I bet he was thinking of Abbie Hoffman versus Jerry Rubin.)
So here the arrival of disco is a metaphor for the advent of yuppy-ism and Reagan’s America. Again, a musical genre is imbued with political significance.
What I thought was: The political radicals may have been running for the hills as disco arrived, but the musical radicals were creating disco. And then house music, trance, and all that other club stuff that I don’t even know the names of (like I said, old) — not to mention hip-hop.
Pop music gonna pop! As you say, it’s all change. It’s been a long time now since guitar rock as codified in the early 70s has been more than one genre among many, and very likely a minority interest.
So in this environment, I try to put myself in the shoes of younger people — let’s say millemnials — with a love for music who are exploring the Beatles and solo ex-Beatles. Not only are they not limited to album releases, they’re not limited to what’s available on streaming services. Every damn thing (ok, except Carnival of Light) is available on YouTube — B sides, bootlegged unreleased tracks, demos, studio chatter — and they can watch it with no regard at all to production chronology. But also important, especially with regards to McCartney’s music, is that they’re listening in the context of all the musical history that’s transpired since the Beatles, or since the release of a particular solo track. If they come across “Good Night Tonight,” say, they may recognize it as at least disco-adjacent, but that’s not likely to trigger an ooh-ick reaction, or an “oh god is this uncool?” taste-panic. After all, disco didn’t coincide with THEIR heroes running for the hills, and the music it displaced didn’t bring on The Revolution. Instead they might say, “Wow, this is really great disco! The guy can do everything!” Or if they hear “Secret Friend” — perhaps uncategorizable, but a track from 1980 that sounds like something that could be made right now — they might say, “Sounds kind of like [insert arcane electronica group that I never of]. This guy was way ahead of his time.”
Because his solo output is so huge and has so much diversity and weirdness if you dig — which you can do easily now — McCartney is the ex-Beatle who benefits the most reputationally from the modern way of meeting music.
But it would hardly be optimal if McCartney became the new “80% of the Beatles.” I think his creative biography, with the Beatles as a stage, should be treated as one thing in itself — and the Beatles as four-headed beast as another.
@Katya, just contact me through the site, that goes to my email.
The whole “Standard Narrative” or “Old White Guys” bugbear is, as you say, casual fans of a certain age. They are not worth addressing. They are not interested in the topic, they are interested in a narrative that does psychic/emotional work for them, as I’ve said a million times. John-the-tough-guy is no more worth comment than John-and-Paul-were-lovers. It’s not something happening in reality; it’s inside fans’ heads.
I am running out the door so I want to restrict my response to one aspect of your comment: the relationship of disco to the splintering of the counterculture. Carlin’s sloppy, as he always is. He’s a funny guy, but he doesn’t have a sophisticated take on politics or society. People want him to, they SO want him to be wise. He’s not, because the commonplaces you have to deal in to make a good punchline are not reality.
The counterculture started splintering basically at the ’68 Convention; counterrevolutionary violence (the assassinations of MLK and RFK), and organized government opposition (Operation CHAOS) put the New Left under immense pressure, and it promptly and predictably split into two groups: the old one that was basically nonviolent, intellectual, and more than a little wacky (levitating the Pentagon for example), and a new one that was macho, violent, and idolized the NVA and Vietcong. On the one side you have have Carl Oglesby and ilk, and the other you have The Weathermen. This split was disastrous for the New Left, not least because it amplified the movement’s sexism, lack of racial sophistication, and homophobia, and kept all the liberation movements from working together under one banner. (Which was precisely what the government had intended to do.)
This splitting also meant that if you were unwilling or unable to participate in a Fidel-style guerrilla revolution–say, you had babies, or a job, any familial obligations whatsoever–there was suddenly no place for you. So the move to the communes happened very early; by 1969, people were already heading out to the country attempting to create their own more just micro-societies precisely because if you weren’t someone like John Lennon, or Jerry Rubin, or a college or high school kid, you couldn’t participate in the Revolution. This was very different from the early New Left, which had modeled itself on grassroots movements of normal people like SCLC and SNCC.
This in part explains why the New Left seemed to be making real political strides around 1968, but by 1972, Nixon won massive re-election. Because their violent tactics could not achieve any meaningful political change, radicalism had become fashion — “Radical chic.” This is what John and Yoko were doing in 1970-72, and this is what they were recognized as doing. Bourgeois capitalism is very good at telling friend from foe, it has to be; real revolutionaries are not asked to host Mike Douglas. And I think people knew that then, and should remember it now when talking about who John was, or his relationship with Paul, or the Standard Narrative. Certainly by the time of his murder, this period in particular was considered vaguely embarrassing, to him as much as the rest of us, because it was so transparently cosplay, so inauthentic. Since Lennon’s primary gift was seeming authentic to a mass audience, I suspect that his turn towards radical politics was a great brainstorm of Yoko’s–because that kind of audience manipulation is HER forte.
Dating disco is difficult, as with any musical style, but I personally begin to really hear it around 1974. While it is not anti-New Left, the values of disco are 180 degrees away from either the early, nonviolent, folk-influenced New Left and the posture-of-violence later “street Fighting man” New Left. Disco is hedonistic, female-focused, homosexual, racially diverse, urban…it’s pretty much everything the counterculture wasn’t. Carlin is right to hear disco as a pivot away from the counterculture, but he’s very wrong to tie it to Yuppiedom. Like “radical chic” counterculture, the disco lifestyle was not TRULY compatible with making a shit-ton of money on Wall Street or as an executive; you can’t physically work all day and party all night, even with cocaine.
And that’s the overlap: both disco club culture AND yuppie acquisition culture embraced cocaine, the former as hedonism and sexual enhancement, and the latter as conspicuous consumption. Carlin was also out of his mind on coke, so he can be excused for not paying close attention to the nuance of cultural trends. But the commune thing was happening from 1969, and pretty much over by 1973 (it bled into Christian fundamentalism); disco, which was from around 1972-81, was a TOTALLY different group of people; and the whole Yuppie thing really hit with Reagan in ’80. To mix them all up as Carlin does is to misunderstand all of them.