I must admit that I’ve lost my thrill for all things Beatles. With Lennon and Harrison gone, the soul of the Beatles seems a bit tarnished, diffused by Paul McCartney’s attempt to be relevant, singing (horribly) at the Grammys, collaborating with Kanye West, and insisting that Kanye is a genius - WTF. Ringo appears more level headed now that he is sober and continues to tour across the country with other great musicians from the sixties and seventies who need a job, or just something to do, now that they are not stars anymore.
As an aging boomer, I’m well aware that it’s someone else’s turn. My musical heroes, those old wild men, are in deepest water struggling against the current. And I’m right there with them. But the most compelling thing about Turner’s book is his ability to dig deeper in his quest to understand the Beatles phenomenon.
It wasn’t the first time that pop stars were elevated to superstardom by a marking strategy that led to a rabid fan base. Sinatra was first, then Elvis. The British Invasion came in that aftermath of JFK’s assassination when our country was reeling from our unspeakable loss. The timing was perfect; the Beatles oozed charm, sex appeal and an irreverent roster of quips and deadpan humor. Their music was well rehearsed and their lyrics were pedestrian, but they could sing rock and roll pretty well. The Beatles were more than pop stars. They were leaders in a revolution of the mind, body and soul. And for a brief moment in time, they were bigger than Jesus.
Turner gets down to business in the first chapter. He links the popularity of the Beatles with the decline and loss of Christian influence. There were new attitudes toward money and leisure and an emphasis on consumerism, self-expression and having fun. In this context the Beatles found themselves to be objects of a duly devoted following like medicine men or witch doctors of lore. They transformed the ordinary to something that was totally extraordinary.
In 1966 John Lennon made a seemingly innocuous statement to his friend, journalist Maureen Cleave (Datebook Magazine), about the Beatles popularity exceeding that of Jesus Christ. Well, with that comment the crap hit the fan. Lennon attempted to repair the damage. “I’m not saying we’re better, or greater, or comparing us with Jesus. Christ is a person, or God as a thing, or whatever it is. I just said what I said and it was wrong, or was taken wrong. And now it’s all this.”
George Harrison responded, “Our music is our religion.” Paul McCartney intoned, “Of course, John never meant to say the Beatles were literally bigger than Christ.” Ringo chimed in. “There weren’t more people coming to see us than going to church.”
The backlash was almost immediate, especially below the Bible Belt. Station managers led a Ban the Beatles crusade. Tommy Charles of Birmingham WAQY organized a book burning, broadcasting spot announcements every hour to bring their Beatles records and memorabilia to create a huge bonfire. Within a week, the four month old quote from a London Newspaper threatened ticket sales, record promotion and the very safety of the Beatles. Anti-Beatles sentiment spread to Hong, Kong, South Africa, Spain and Mexico. Lennon was terrified by all the threats and the experience led to a group understanding that touring would have to stop.
The individual Beatles were agnostic for most of their formative years. For John it started around 1951 or 1952. But by 1956 John discovered Elvis and it would forever change his life. McCartney and Harrison joined John in the Quarrymen in 1958. They played songs like Twenty Flight Rock and Be Bop a Lula.
John’s reputation as being tough and cynical started after the death of his mother in July of 1957. He was skeptical about religion and the idea of a loving God. He became more involved with atheistic ideas that students in the 50’s were embracing. In Nietzsche’s The Antichrist he wrote, “When one places life’s center of gravity not in life but in the beyond – in nothingness-one deprives life of its center gravity altogether. Lennon’s best friend Stuart Sutcliffe embraced these ideas. Who Am I? Why was I born? Who Put me here? Is there a God?
John and his peers embraced Existentialism for a while. Dostoevsky wrote, “if God did not exist, everything would be permitted; and that for existentialism, is the starting point.” For Sartre the conclusion was unsettling. “The relief from judgment was diminished by the prospect of being alone in the universe, there was no divine anger; no divine love. No justice and no mercy.
For the Beatles there was another solution, as music was the food of love. For John yearnings of his childhood would be expressed in songs such as Strawberry Fields Forever and In My Life. But it was the Beatles appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1964 that led many to believe that the Beatles were a” band of evangelists whose gospel was fun.”
At Beatles concerts the girls would scream, cry, faint in free abandon. The Beatles had no clue what it meant. It wasn’t the music as they played these songs just twelve months before to polite applause. Some drew parallels to the Pentecostal Church “overcome by the spirit.” The Beatle’s first film “A Hard Days Night” captured the mania. The individual Beatles knew something was amiss. They started out emulating those great songwriting heroes like Goffin & King, Mike Stoller and Doc Pomus. But when they met Dylan and got the message, the baptism was complete, good vibes through marijuana and expanded consciousness.
Dylan opened the Beatles up to more authentic lyrical content using allegory, allusion and metaphor. Al Aronowitz believed pot would change the Beatles and their music. “I knew I was stage managing a major event, certainly in the history of pop and maybe in the overall history of culture. In some vague sense I was helping Hercules divert the mainstream, which would soon eddy in pop’s psychedelic era.”
Lennon’s first major composition was “The Word.” Here he links love with freedom and enlightenment. It is a transformative love, a selfless agape, universal love. The Word was a prototype for All You Need is Love, Within Wiithout You, In My Life, and The End. Timothy Leary, LSD and the Tibetan Book of the Dead (scriptures) also had a role in furthering the Beatles growth. The Beatles asked us to listen to the colors of our dreams; a synesthesia where colors can be heard and sounds can be seen. Sgt Peppers and Magical Mystery Tour were psychedelic candles of life, imbued in the epic adventures created by Lewis Carroll with a little help from Aldous Huxley, Sri Yukteswar and Jesus Christ.
George Harrison was the most underrated Beatle. His glowing masterpiece All Things Must Pass was a triple album set that overshadowed the other Beatles efforts. It was a glowing bouquet of love and spiritual awakening. He spoke of the dangers of Maya (illusion) and dealt with reincarnation in his song the Art of Dying. In 1971 Harrison helped his old friend Ravi Shanker in a huge event at Madison Square Garden to raise money to help refugees fleeing civil war in Bangladesh. It raised 15 million dollars.
John and Yoko moved to New York and found it to be a perfect home. After years of destroying his ego with LSD, he explored Christianity and Primal Scream therapy (Janov). It was though his experiences with Janov that Lennon wrote his first solo album, a masterpiece entitled The Plastic Ono Band. He continued to seek other forms of enlightenment through magic, séances, astrology, numerology and directionalism. On December 8th, 1980, John was shot by a deranged fan. He died in Yoko’s arms, the woman he loved.
Paul remained an agnostic, a loving mate and parent. He was a truth seeker and a visionary who loves well. His soul mate died and he lost his direction. Instead of packing it in, he doubled up his momentous work ethic to pull him through. Only then could he Let it Be. He will always remain the most creative Beatle.
Ringo struggled with God and spirituality for most of his life. He gained sobriety and his vision cleared. He states he is “comfortable with his spirituality” and that God saved my life.”
John stated, “God is Love”, Turner states that the Beatles turned this around to Love is God and that All You Need is Love is associated with knowledge, vision, guidance, being saved and learning how to be you.”
Turner is a great writer with an incredible gift of storytelling. He scaffolds the spiritual foundation of the Beatles works like a master sculptor. He lists how important love was to their gospel, as shown by the last song on Abbey Road, “The End”, which was intended to be a wrap up for the recording - but it became a coda for their career. After six repeated shouts of “Love You” the song ends with the lines: And in the end… the love you take…Is equal to the love you make.
This summarized what the Beatles had always been saying. Paul focused on Love. It was his proudest legacy. Ringo said, “The music was positive. It was positive in love. We all wrote about other things but the basic Beatles message was Love”