9 - The Beatles and Political Freedom
9 - The Beatles and Political Freedom
Were The Beatles in favor of permissiveness? Were they ambivalent to the permissive society? How much did they influence and impact the general trend towards the distrust of the “mainstream” society?
What The Beatles certainly did was “push the envelope” such as George Harrison’s song Taxman on their Revolver album. This was the first time in a song that a real person’s name was mentioned – in the form of a direct command for them to do something.
This was revolutionary in 1966. Twenty four months after they appeared to us as “loving moptops” they were now laying demands down, directly – to the desk of national leaders: “lower these taxes.” Nobody before in the public eye had directly challenged national political leadership in this way.
Professor Marcus Collins, of the Department of Politics and International Relations at Loughborough University in the UK, has researched how The Beatles influence political trends in his research study: The Beatles and Freedom
He argues that The Beatles should be understood not only as the advocates of permissiveness (broadly defined as a libertarian stance towards social and cultural norms), but also as its critics and even its casualties. Drugs, luxury, libertinism, publicity and revolutionary politics all took their turn being embraced and renounced as The Beatles encountered the difficulties of living lives untrammeled by convention.
Collins contends their life experiments constituted one of the period’s most compelling spectacles of the promise and perils of permissiveness. Despite their celebrated status, they experienced in exaggerated fashion the same dilemmas about freedom and responsibility that faced the postwar generation in the developed world. What’s more, they were seen to be doing so. Their iconic status rested not simply on their music, but on their capacity to encapsulate the erosion of hierarchies, the blurring of boundaries and the refashioning of identities in the 1960s.
He says they were able to free themselves from existing class, generational, gender, ethnic and religious identities, but at the cost of an identity crisis resolved only by subsuming individualism in couple-dom.
“While they made telling criticisms of authority, their attempts to pioneer a new form of society were contradictory and inherently flawed. They discovered that celebrity paradoxically stole away the very freedoms that it appeared to grant, due to the constant surveillance it imposed on their lives. It is ironic that while the public basked in the freedom that they represented as individuals they wanted to be escape being ‘The Beatles’.”
Their profound ambivalence stemmed from their role as pioneers. They were among the first in Britain to encounter such new phenomena as New Age religion and LSD and were among the best- placed to live lives untrammeled by convention. The subsequent process of trial and error was exhilarating and painful.
Says the British researcher:
“The Beatles’ exceptional ability to symbolize and advocate social and cultural change is in large part why they commanded attention from fans and critics alike and why they are worth revisiting today.”
The Beatles’ role in the permissiveness of the 1960s
It is virtually impossible to understand permissiveness without considering The Beatles’ experiences, and vice-versa. The notion that The Beatles represented the spirit of the sixties was preserved in perpetuity by the dissolution of the band at the end of the decade.
Commentators at first provided psychological, sociological and aesthetic explanations for the unprecedented scale and intensity of their popularity. Then they scoured lyrics, fashions and interviews both for insights into their personalities and for portents of the new age.
Collins writes that The Beatles generally shied away from thinking about their historical significance during the 1960s. They were too perplexed by their phenomenal impact and understandably reluctant to be categorized.
From the outset, The Beatles were anti-authoritarian. They were hostile to traditions and institutions that marginalized people like themselves who were young, common and provincial. For the first few years of their career, however, they were rebels, not revolutionaries; they did not seek to create rival forms of authority.
Collins says their attitudes changed from 1966 onwards in several ways:
“They largely transformed themselves from entertainers to modernist (or even postmodernist) artists at odds with bourgeois society. They also dropped their previous reluctance to be considered role models and spokesmen for their generation and instead used their fame to promote favored causes. Their mix of libertarianism,mysticism, anti-materialism and lifestyle politics represented a classic form of utopianism.”
They would eventually fall victim to internal contradictions:
“Assuming the mantle of authority imposed unwelcome responsibilities including moral probity and intellectual consistency that ran counter to their individualism and egalitarianism. Such dilemmas inclined them to be leaders who attacked leadership, simultaneously using and disavowing their influence over their fans.”
He believes their critique of straight society was often simplistic and incomprehending, prompting Harrison and Lennon to portray the establishment as insane. Their alternatives to it, meanwhile, proved no more durable than other utopian communities and equally prone to exploitation.
Collins says that they were too rich for their anti-materialism to be altogether credible, and too ensnared in the ruthless entertainment industry for such ideals to be economically viable. As their communitarian ambitions disintegrated in tandem with the band itself, the differences between the members’ political philosophies became ever more apparent. Lennon came to espouse revolutionary socialism; Harrison an otherworldly Hinduism; and McCartney a liberalism which extended individual rights to animals:
“What they continued to share were a fundamental individualism, pluralism and humanitarianism, a commitment to free speech and a suspicion of existing hierarchies and orthodoxies. These ideas, which they held in common with many other members of their generation, can be regarded as their enduring political legacy of the 1960s.”
The Beatles’ commitment to individualism
The Beatles were very, very intelligent men. They represented a much different type of identity that the UK – and even the world –had ever seen before.
Collins points to the fact that four Northerners had so much success in England that was done with an “unapologetically demotic appeal”, it was a notable victory for meritocracy in Britain of the 1960s.
They raised the status of the young in much the same fashion by proving themselves to be every bit as articulate and talented as their supposed elders and betters. They challenged longstanding ethnic hierarchies by suggesting that the Southerners were equal to the citizens in the North; Britain was no better than Ireland or India.
At their most idealistic, they held that anyone was capable of anything if freed from the constraints of conventional society –something they set out to demonstrate. Lennon reinvented himself as a man of peace; the archetypal Northern Harrison became a sitar-playing mystic; and the otherwise unpretentious McCartney tried hishand at painting, poetry, choral works and experimental films.
However their individualistic ethos had more adverse consequences than mediocre solo projects. Collins claims egotism was largely responsible for destroying Lennon’s first marriage and the band itself at the end of the 1960s, a situation not helped by heavy drug use in the name of self-discovery.
“Bereft of old certainties, each of the Beatles suffered from depression and identity crises and, in the case of Lennon and McCartney, found greatest solace in subsuming their individuality in arriage. Freedom was willingly surrendered to couple-dom.”