“If you want to know what the 60s was about, listen to Beatles records” (O’Dell, 2017)
What is the story of the Beatles?
A very brief summary:
The group who went on to become the Fab Four started as The Quarrymen, performing in their hometown Liverpool, UK, before moving to Hamburg, Germany, where they rehearsed intensely each day (O’Dell, 2017).
Upon their return the group were well-known in Liverpool (Franks, 2017), but the rest of the UK were not “paying attention to them” (O’Dell, 2017). This changed upon meeting businessman Brian Epstein, who became the group’s manager in 1962. O’Dell believes this allowed the group to “get into the mainstream, where they could be ‘set [loose]’ (2017)”.
Things moved rapidly after this: In 1963, the group met the royal family and a year later were watched by 40% of the US population. In 1965, Rubber Soul was released and in 1966, John Lennon stated the group were “more famous than Jesus” (Moore, 2014). In ’67 they released Strawberry Fields Forever where “the Beatles [went] weird”, followed by “work of art (O’Dell, 2017)” Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
But sadly, difficulties within the group led to their break up. Regardless, their musical achievements are unmatched: occupying the top 5 spots on the Billboard Hot 100 and 600 million worldwide album sales to name a few.
Clearly, social media and internet use weren’t present in the 60’s, so answering Tweeter or Talent might seem obvious. But I think the Beatles are best for today’s topic.
Music and culture
Music has “always been part of the fabric of everyday life” and for something that “doesn’t exist” can transcend language by filling in its gaps (Shah, 2017).
As I mentioned here, music is the product of the cultural conditions under which it was made. Ethnomusicology (Page, 2009) explores this, comparing the use of music in slavery (by slaves to acquire strength), ancient rituals and spiritual transformations. Despite having different people, languages and cultures, music is a “living force” that forms a “communal self-identity (Page, 2009)” in all. Subsequently, music is very powerful and symbolic; It can empower, transform and document time.
Today, with social media providing hyper-visibility of artists, heavy emphasis on chart rankings and numbers, the chance to share and extensively debate opinions, content being ever-present and in high abundance, it seems as though we can’t feel music’s true power as other things take the spotlight, just one of the ways that the music industry has greatly changed. For example, when Childish Gambino dropped ‘This Is America’ and tried to make a statement, some decided to make parody videos which diverted from his message.
Yet this wasn’t the case for The Beatles and their music…
The Beatles? They did THAT.
During my A Levels I studied 1960s British history and remember touching on The Beatles, but not discussing how involved and responsible they were for so many of the decades’ changes. Shah’s article outlined that “the challenge is to understand the extent to which music informs culture, and the extent to which culture informs music” (2017), which seems applicable.
Referring to the statements from earlier, let’s use the Beatles to explore what music can do:
Pre-1960s Britain children were expected to be like their parents, following their fashion and career choices to conform to a society which emphasised order and tradition (O’Dell, 2017). The Beatles reversed this top-down power dynamic, making popular fashion, movies and music determined by the youth.
They became leaders of the ‘counterculture’ who had radical values like women rejecting traditional roles (O’Dell, 2017). This created a generational gap between rebellious and disordered (O’Dell, 2017) youths and their parents. The term “capitalist pollution” blamed Beatlemania for washing away the foundations of Soviet society (Moore, 2014).
Others labelled the new culture “colourful”, making the “world look different” (O’Dell, 2017). This breath of fresh air created devoted Beatles fans whose dedication meant the group had to rent out the entire 7th floor of their hotel for privacy (Moore, 2014). Fans claimed the music took them away from unhappy home lives, but O’Dell believes another reason for the dedication owed to young boys finding identities with groups like the Teddy Boys (2017), which made young girls want to do the same through The Beatles.
The Beatles didn’t just change disciplines around them but their own too; the group are credited with “transforming popular music overnight” and being a “commercial phenomenon like no other” who allowed a “new generation of musicians to [to find themselves]” (O’Dell, 2017).
Music became “the central and revolutionary communication force for politics and culture”, which the internet is said to be today (O’Dell, 2017). The group received MBEs, routinely broke sales records and proved that albums could sell as much as singles (O’Dell, 2017). Combined with their impacts outside the charts, they showed music was a force to be reckoned with and the pop world had “come of age” (O’Dell, 2017).
The Beatles were innovative, taking ’50s rock and roll, adding harmonies, the “vocal qualities of girl groups” and writing their own songs (O’Dell, 2017). This was “needed” for Britain’s pop scene given how many imitators there were (O’Dell, 2017). The group regularly experimented and reinvented, such as Tomorrow Never Ends’ “leary lyrics” and the “work of art (O’Dell, 2017)” Sgt Peppers Lonely Heart Clubs Band.
In interviews the boys maintained their Liverpudlian accents and British humour while perfectly exemplifying how male teens acted. I hadn’t expected a musician to answer an interviewer’s question of “how did you find America?” with “turn left at Greenland” (O’Dell, 2017). The group weren’t “plastic”, and nobody had seen musicians unapologetically be themselves as the Beatles were.
Music can act as a snapshot of our current time and not only did The Beatles influence culture, but they drew from it, meaning that contemporary topics appeared in their music and helps to explain the opening quote. In 1964 the group were introduced to psychedelics which was reflected in their work towards the end of the decade, including the “most psychedelic song of that time” in 1966 (Moore, 2014; O’Dell, 2017).
The Beatles: Tweeter or Talent?
Undoubtedly the Beatles were a talent, but I think the most important thing to take away is that music is incredibly powerful. It can evoke emotions, unite (and divide at times, because listeners feel so attached), revolutionise and aid in celebrations.
Nowadays, it’s easy to focus on everything but the music – an artist’s new Instagram post, the latest dating scandals, what someone’s wearing, the latest gossip surrounding them ect. But The Beatles showed that when the focus is primarily on the music, much can be achieved and music’s true power can be exploited. Because of this, they aided in making long-lasting changes felt today, and perhaps this is what the music industry needs: to focus back on the music itself as opposed to other aspects like business, technology, streaming and charting.
These changes are exactly what I am looking to do through my acts when I establish my music marketing company, where we can make statements through music and revolutionise the industry to unleash it’s full potential. If we ever see someone like them again, just know that I will be working with them (I hope).
https://www.uua.org/re/tapestry/resources/music/chapter8/129383.shtml, https://thoughteconomics.com/the-role-of-music-in-human-culture/, https://theculturetrip.com/europe/united-kingdom/articles/a-brief-history-of-the-beatles/, https://listverse.com/2014/09/29/10-wild-untold-stories-about-the-beatles/, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dbKohSn031U, How the Beatles Changed the World (Netflix documentary)