5 - The Beatles and Geography
5 - The Beatles and Geography
Music creates an embodied but imaginary space that dictates our feelings, our dreams, and our desires. In this way it gives each of us a sense of place. Often this is in connection with coherent spaces, or sometimes, in their place.
The Beatles were very much “geographically relevant.” Everywhere they went that place was thrust into the public eye and became famous because it was associated with them. Liverpool,
London, Hamburg, Amsterdam, New York. Cities like Havana, Prague and in the former Soviet Union have monuments dedicated to their legacy. They singlehandedly put India on the map as a destination for spiritually-seeking young people. In their songs many real places are mentioned, and when they are, they become very well-known. No other entity had that affect in our world.
While scholars in a variety of disciplines have analyzed The Beatles’ affect on popular culture, a study of them from a distinctly spatial perspective has been missing from the literature.
Robert Kruse, of The Department of Geography at West Liberty University in the US, has written A Cultural Geography of The Beatles: How Landscapes Are Represented As Musical Texts. His work offers a thought-provoking departure from standard historical and cultural treatments of The Beatles by exploring the importance of space and place to their emergence, international fame, and lasting influence of their legacy.
This American researcher employed traditional topics of cultural geography such as place and landscape and related them to The Beatles’ rise to worldwide fame. His research revealed a variety of spatial practices that occur at places associated with the Beatles. Such practices include inscriptions by fans or “pilgrims”, artifacts, and reenactments of famous photographs of the group.
Here, there and everywhere
Another academic interested in the subject of how geography impacts their legacy is veteran Beatle scholar Ian Inglis of Northumbria University. In his essay, The Response To Change, he said that there are strong associations between the locations in which The Beatles’ songs were constructed and the subjects to which they referred.
“Many of their early (Liverpool) songs are characterized by a condensed spatial and lyrical concern which mirrors the immediacy of a specific, localized, personal relationship or condition. By contrast, songs from 1966 onwards (after the group and its management had relocated to London and effectively severed routine connections with Liverpool) use their sense of location as a point of departure from which to elaborate on other, non-localized themes – of nostalgia, consciousness and history.”
Inglis explains that the change of environment – from Liverpool to London and beyond – had a very specific outcome: “Their songwriting became a lens through which to scrutinize quietly and accurately the character of the new life in Swinging London. If music reflected social, economic, political and material aspects of the particular place in which it is created then it stands to reason that the disruption of place (with all its challenges, discoveries, temptations and dangers) was an obvious and inevitable force in influencing The Beatles’ lyrics.”
He says that the preoccupation with daily existence culminates in A Day in the Life – a song built around the internal rhythms of the day. It opens with a morning routine, with the speaker reading about a death over the morning paper, then heading out on the daily commute. The song leads eventually – in the form of a direct narrative or by suggestion and impressions derived from the daily news – through the potholed streets of Blackburn, Lancashire, to a scene from an evening out (the holes in Albert Hall).
“As the title suggests, the song offers a view of a day in the life of our times. It is one of many Beatle songs that does so—from the upbeat bustle of Penny Lane to the grim ennui of Good Morning Good Morning. There is the disjointed cacophony of Revolution 9, built from random snippets of tape from our culture at large. The geography, too, is that of daily life, typically urban, from Liverpool’s Penny Lane and Strawberry Fields (an orphanage) to London’s bustling Abbey Road.”
The Beatles’ preoccupation with daily life is just as much about the time frame and geography of the middle and lower classes. Agricultural seasonal cycles no longer govern the lives of urban and suburban folk; boring, routine daily cycles do. Inglis says that for The Beatles, the preoccupation with daily life is often offered as critique, as in A Day in the Life:
“Our daily routines seem purposeless, and the news is usually bad – and not really new. Our lives are not epic in terms of geographic scale, and we don’t see our lives spread out across time as some grand narrative. We live day-to-day, if not in terms of sustenance, at least in terms of spirit, and Beatle songs capture the chronological and geographical constrictions of our lives.”
The Beatles in a tourist setting
An extension of the role geography played in The Beatle legacy is seen in how they are represented in tourist settings.
Lars Kaijser, of the Department of Ethnology at Stockholm University, explained in the essay Representing The Beatles in a Tourist Setting, that there are several places in the world where The Beatles have been celebrated in one way or another. It’s possible to go on guided tours in their footsteps in London, Hamburg and New York; visit major exhibitions in Tokyo and in Cleveland; as well as view local memorial monuments for John Lennon in New York, the former Soviet Union, Havana and Prague.
The Swedish scholar researched Beatle tourism in Liverpool to determine how best to present the subject of The Beatles during guided tours, in business activities, and in a wide range of public areas. He claims that the great interest in the group has made space for several social actors who work with the legacy of The Beatles in a variety of settings, and that it is important for them to authorize their specific way of dealing with the phenomenon.
The report discussed how The Beatles are understood in a commercial and entrepreneurial setting and the different ways of representing them that can be connected or intertwined with other cultural orders – for example, the commercial logic or the historians’ demand for accuracy.
Kaijser says that in order to understand the phenomenon of The Beatles in the socio-economic context of tourism and cultural industry, it is important to keep the attractions “authentic” and not become tacky or cheap – as is the case with Elvis’s legacy at Graceland.