Sunday, 13 November 2011

The coming battle for the Beatles

Acutely related to the profound change and upheaval in mass culture in the 1960s and 1970s, instigated above all others by the Beatles, was a profound reassessment and re-evaluation of the culture historically considered by academics to be beyond debate, above all other cultures. Tensions opened up - often dividing new universities from old, and (at least initially) those taking advantage of the post-war expansion of mass education from those who'd have had the privileges anyway - between those who stuck to the old hierarchical view of culture, with the innovations of the post-war world considered a mere impermanence, a passing fashion, and those who felt that the development of mass culture far away from the simplicities of the Brill Building and the pre-1960s Hollywood studio system, and into the world of Bob Dylan and the American New Wave cinema, required a reassessment not only of mass culture itself, but of the stuff historically considered to operate on a wholly different plain.

The new wave of academics gave particular attention to the initial poor reception given to works of canonical high-cultural figures, such as the hostility to Don Giovanni when it was first performed - something historically played down by pre-1960s Mozartians - so as to point out the essential subjectivity - contrary to its official position of objectivity - of the old guard's rejection of rock music. They assessed Shakespeare much less in terms of his having written about the privileged classes (an approach to his work which can only appear now as the starting point for those who assume that someone of more privileged background somehow must have been the true author), and much more in terms of his non-privileged background and his work being a form of mass entertainment in his own time (and thus having instigated a lineage manifested in the 1960s & 70s by the original incarnation of Coronation Street, by Armchair Theatre and Play for Today, and by the works of Potter, Plater and Rosenthal above all others). A person's stance on this matter became symbolic of wider divisions in society, and in many people's eyes (on all sides) a sign of what sort of country a person believed in and wanted to live in.

As the Beatles' era fades into history and their generation begins to die off in significant numbers, I can sense a similar debate over the control and ownership of their legacy becoming a divisive issue in the years to come. As things stand, the Beatles are perhaps the most misunderstood mass-cultural phenomenon within living memory, venerated as they are by many petty-minded, fearful Little Englanders who deny the very cultural process - the British working class rejecting the idea of some mystical, spiritual connection with "their" ruling class, and uniting with the oppressed classes of other societies to create a new, unique hybrid which was at once both acutely of its own place and joyfully internationalist - without which they wouldn't have existed.

Many of those who claim to love the Beatles most are, in fact, their greatest enemies, denying as somehow inherently "un-British" any current manifestation of the very same process without which there would never have been such a thing as the Beatles, a process which has recently reinvented and redefined what can be "pop music" in the UK, as necessary as a rejection of the current New Etonians as the Beatles were as a rejection of the 1951-64 governments. Just as it was necessary after the upsurge of pop culture to strip aside much of the distancing language and gilded-cage veneration that had come to surround the Shakespeares and Beethovens, the titans of the old culture, and to reassess their radical, questioning origins, then it has become equally necessary to strip away the official, heritagised version of the Beatles - as crucial to the new establishment in Britain as Shakespeare or Beethoven ever were to the old one - and reassess their absolute rejection of fixed, frozen cultures and of elite disconnection from the mass, their absolute faith in the same form of oppressed people's expression which today, filtered through hip-hop as they were filtered through what was then R&B, is manifested above all else in grime and dubstep.

Now as then, the official version - almost entirely untrue and delusionary - of how certain Great Figures came to be (by no means just the Beatles where 1960s & 70s music is concerned), is putting many of the people who need it most off investigating it; now as then, those who claim to love it, but in fact are the descendants of the Little Englander conservatives who would have hated it when it was new, spread the malicious canard that those who understand where it came from, and set it in a context with the inventions and challenges of today, somehow do not "really" love it. The hostile, abusive stance many of the old guard of Beatles fans take towards those who dare to mention grime and dubstep as part of a lineage instigated by their heroes is overwhelmingly reminiscent of the fearful, defensive stance of Shakespeareans when the techniques and processes of television drama were first mentioned in the context of Shakespeare's work.

Among much else, this also reminds us of a profound truth of British life, which is that conservative academics and conservative lumpenproletarians need each other for each other's security and to remain safe in their own unchallenging worlds, and that neither challenges the other to even the slightest extent. It is wonderfully appropriate that a 1995 Sunday Times article (about Elvis Presley) should speak approvingly of an alliance between the "he's-not-worthy-of-study approach" and the "let's-not-get-too-pretentious approach", because without such an alliance, and its specific manifestation within the Murdoch empire, the right-wing press, and the outmoded assumptions on all sides which it thrives on, would simply not exist. Before the Beatles can be seen in their true light, both forms of conservatism need to be dismantled, or at least seriously challenged (though in some ways, an extreme nativist such as Peter Hitchens - Jurassic Tory as the equally Little Englander Dennis Skinner is Jurassic Labour - understands the Beatles, in his hatred of all they stood for, far more than any Tory hack who superficially likes them ever could).

In 2011, most of the audience for grime and dubstep does not think of those musics in context of the Beatles, any more than most of the audience of Coronation Street in 1961 thought of it in context of classical drama. But as time goes on, and the Beatles become much less a sentimental memory of a generation that cannot face its own privilege and the consequence of its denial of those privileges to the generations behind it, and much more an objective field of study - a subject for further research - the true context of both then and now should become much more open, always assuming (and it may, alas, be an over-optimistic assumption) that the ever-increasing inequality of academic life and the age-old British bigotry of dehumanising intellectuals do not hold it back.

Much of the romantic, overstated nonsense that has come to surround the Beatles is already being deprecated and exposed as largely a fiction as the dust settles on the 60s; for example, it is more and more recognised that while small towns and villages did become less themselves, less self-sufficient during and after the Beatles' era, this had far more to do with essentially coincidental forces such as the growth of supermarkets, driven by capitalist power rather than working-class invention, which would have happened even if the world of Bobby Vee and Gidget had lasted substantially longer, and was already starting to happen even before "Love Me Do" (in some ways, the purely passive and wholly Tory Brook Brothers anticipated modern British consumerism far more than the more proactive, engaged Beatles did).

What made Ian MacDonald's Revolution in the Head stand out in 1994 seems shockingly ahead of its time today; his view that Thatcherism was largely the natural descendant of the mainstream of 60s pop culture (which actually had much less to do with the Beatles than is commonly supposed) rather than a reaction against it, which at the (just) pre-Blair time was seen as a form of apostasy, even blasphemy on both Left and Right, but is now recognised and accepted by many prominent thinkers on all sides (though it shouldn't be used, as it sometimes has been, to justify the idea that "Blue Labour" is Labour's best way out/back). Even with the many faults in his analysis - if he believed, as he claimed when briefly analysing the mediocrity of much of the individual Beatles' solo work, that "pop/rock is essentially young people's music", surely he should have recognised that he was not in a position to denounce all 1980s & 90s innovations within it, many of them born out of the exact same cultural engagement and relationship that defined the Beatles' very existence, so harshly and simplistically - the refusal of his analysis of the 60s to play by the stereotypical dogma of either Left or Right alone justifies his book.

Recently, Jonathan Gould has written eloquently about the Beatles' cultural legacy from the post-Blair standpoint MacDonald did not choose to live to see, and Peter Doggett has written authoritatively about the bitterness of the divisions within the band and their associates over their broader legacy, which has for so long seemed to embody the absolute opposite of the virtues the Beatles in their own time, for all their faults, very largely stood for (at least before 1968). It will not be long now before those who remain from the band and their social circles, and those millions who had their lives fundamentally changed by their existence, really are going, and going, and then finally gone. I have a decent chance of living to see their centenary; I will most likely outlive even the equivalents of Henry Allingham and Harry Patch among those who saw them in person. When that happens, they will undoubtedly be a less widely-acknowledged, less mainstream phenomenon (they already are, I think, compared with pre-millennial times), but they will seem - are already seeming - stranger, in many ways far more ancient and yet in other ways newer and fresher, when seen from a viewpoint unencumbered by the distortions of half-remembered, mythical personal (or even parental, and eventually even grandparental) pasts.

The division will not be over whether or not they are seen - as is stated at the very end of Revolution in the Head, we could not know in the 1990s precisely how they would be seen when their own generation had gone, but we already knew that they would be seen - but over how they are seen; as the gilded-cage justifiers of petty-minded conservatism and fear, or as the developers (even if not the actual originators) of all that is open and challenging and outward-looking in mass culture, as the voice of the working class speaking out against elite abuses of power and in favour of the global unity of the proletariat. Let us hope that the passing of time eventually allows the latter view of the Beatles to decisively win. If the former view wins, Cameron and Welch and Adkins and the BRIT School will also have won, and we will all be infinitely poorer for it. If the latter view wins, grime and dubstep and the unacknowledged, still unkillable radical lineage in British society will also have won, if only by proxy, and we will all be - in all the senses that matter - immeasurably richer.

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