The Beatles and the Dark Side of the Road

by Kenneth Francis (May 2019)


View of Ajaccio (with the Beatles), Léon-Charles Canniccioni

 
 
In the first verse of his poem, Annus Mirabilis, Philip Larkin writes: Sexual intercourse began/In nineteen sixty-three (which was rather late for me)—Between the end of the Chatterley ban/And the Beatles’ first LP.’
 
 
For Larkin, 1963 might have been his annus mirabilis; but for the West, 1965 was certainly an amazing year in more ways than one. Cue The Beatles: They were, according to most music critics and lovers of rock ’n’ roll, the greatest pop group of all time. However, there was also a dark side to their influence on popular culture worth pondering.
 
It was always assumed The Beatles were the “good guys”, while The Rolling Stones were the “bad guys”, the latter being the type of rocker-rogues that parents wouldn’t want their daughter dating. Unlike the Stones, the loveable, boyish Beatles seemed to have started out wholesome but they gradually began to write vulgar, bleak songs without many fans noticing it.
 
In an interview with John Lennon, conducted around the time of the band's breakup (1970), Lennon said: “Things are left out, about what bastards we were . . . You have to be a bastard to make it. That's a fact. And The Beatles were the biggest bastards on Earth.” (The quote resurfaced in Philip Norman's biography, John Lennon: The Life)
 
 
But when John, Paul, George and Ringo started to become popular worldwide in the early Sixties, they certainly didn’t come across as bastards. And their songs were all about ‘clean’ courtship between men and women. Songs like ‘She Loves You’, ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’ and ‘Love Me Do’, paid homage to romantic innocence in the relatively simple lives of teenagers and young adults in love. But the lyrics and mood in their music changed incrementally from album to album. Paradoxically, this moral decline in the lyrics of some of their songs resulted in, for many, better and more creative music.
 
As mentioned above, their first few albums were all about love and happiness. However, their 1965 albums Help and Rubber Soul, were a turning point for the band in terms of lyrics. The new wave of songs by the Fab Four alluded to existential confusion and troubled relationships, and contained cynically pessimistic lyrics not heard of in their earlier stuff. Songs like ‘Help!’, ‘You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away’, and ‘I’m Looking Through You’ were nothing like the starry-eyed, optimistic ditties of earlier years.
 
It’s also interesting to note that 1965 was a year that saw a major societal shift in the West that led to the Sexual Revolution. Despite this socially negative cultural upheaval, the top 100 hits of ’65 were arguably the greatest songs ever written and composed in pop history.
 
In America, heralding in the year at Number One, was, portentously, ‘The Eve of Destruction’, sung by Barry McGuire; The Bible says: ‘For they have sown the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind’ (Hosea 8:7): The Palm Sunday Tornado Outbreak on April 13 resulted in an estimated 47 tornadoes in six Midwestern states with fatalities in the hundreds and millions of dollars’ worth of damage; Bob Dylan was called ‘Judas’, after he went electric in ’65; cannabis and LSDused irresponsibly and recklesslybecame popular recreational drugs; the beginning of the US health-costs crisis and ‘Great Society’ for black people, the latter (launched by Democrat, Lyndon Johnson) replacing the pay cheque with the welfare cheque; the breaking of the movie code with the first cinematic screening of female breasts in mainstream films (The Pawnbroker); while in another movie, Repulsion, by Roman Polanski, a “sexually repressed” female virgin's dreams lead to two murders.
 
More: the culmination of Vatican 2 and the [New] Catholic Church’s distorted teachings, thus loss of power over decadent Hollywood; unbridled promiscuity and the Pill; British theatre critic, Kenneth Tynan, was the first person to say “fuck” during a talk on a BBC programme; and if the “best music is played in Hell”, then The Beatles’ hits of the mid- to late-’60s were unfortunately testament to that metaphorical adage. After all, according to John Lennon, “we’re more popular than Jesus now”. What Lennon probably meant was only those with plastic or rubber souls viewed the Fab Four more popular than Jesus.
 
Lennon said: “Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. I needn't argue about that; I'm right and I'll be proved right. We're more popular than Jesus now; I don't know which will go first—rock ’n’ roll or Christianity. Jesus was all right but his disciples were thick and ordinary. It's them twisting it that ruins it for me.” (The only ‘twisted’ disciple was Judas)
 
But back to Rubber Soul and the albums that succeeded it: mature, but cold, transient sexual encounters are the curious lyrics of the classic ‘Norwegian Wood’, with a possible reference/interpretation to arson, in revenge for being made to ‘sleep in the bath’; while ‘Think For Yourself’ was snarky and pointed to the ‘good riddance’ of the break-up of a relationship.
 
The lyrics in the albums that followed Rubber Soul continued the journey into the dark side, combined with morally good lyrics to keep their image ‘clean’. The Godless Eleanor Rigby’s lyrics say, “no one can save, all the lonely people” Really? Not even Christ?
 
However, by 1968 on The Beatles ‘white’ album, McCartney’s lyrics moved to the darkest side of the road. The song?: ‘Why don’t we do it in the road’. Think about this for a moment: Within five years, The Beatles went from ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’, to ‘Why Don’t We F**k On Some Roadway’, as “nobody will be watching us”. Even the philosopher Jean Rousseau would wince in his grave on hearing the situation ethic of such noble savage sentiments.
 
In his book, Many Years From Now, Barry Miles quotes McCartney saying he wrote the above song while on retreat in Rishikesh, India. He saw two monkeys copulating in the street and was impressed at the simplicity of the scene, when compared to the emotional turmoil of human relationships. McCartney said a male monkey just hopped on the back of this female and “gave her one”. He added: “Within two or three seconds he hopped off again and looked around as if to say ‘It wasn't me!’ and she looked around as if there'd been some mild disturbance . . . And I thought . . . that's how simple the act of procreation is . . . We have horrendous problems with it, and yet animals don't.”
 
Nietzsche would call this moral inversion the transvaluation of values, the instinct of the animal by following one’s passion. For the male monkey ‘on the road’, the mating act is forcibly copulating with the female (animals are not moral agents); for the human being to similarly accost a female, the act would be rape, a moral abomination. Sorry, Paul, give me the ‘horrendous problems’ of human relationships any day instead of ‘doing it in the road’.
 
Other songs on the 'white' album were about borderline suicide (‘Yer Blues’); a pervert looking upskirt with mirrors on his booths (‘Happiness is a Warm Gun’), and the ‘whacking’ of rich people (‘Piggies’). During the year when the ‘white’ album came out, the cult leader Charles Manson, whose followers committed nine murders, said he was inspired by some of these songs. Those songs might be sinister but only a mad man like the late Manson would view them in such twisted way.
 
Another twisted song on The Beatles’ last album, Abbey Road, was ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’. This catchy tune was about a serial killer who hits his victims over the head with a hammer. Once again: from being held lovingly by the hand and ‘she loves you’ (yea, yea, yea!) to having your brains bashed out with a silver hammer, The Beatles came a long way from the innocent bubble-gum hits of the early days. There are many more songs with questionable meaning in the lyrics, but I’ve just mentioned a selected few.
 
However, love them or hate them, from the bright side of their music to the dark side, there will never be a group quite like the Fab Four. Testament to this is what I regard as the greatest song of all time, ‘A Day in the Life’. The song comes from the 1967 album, Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and was banned by the then-BBC because of the ‘obscene’ lyrics, ‘I’d love to turn you on’ or drug-dreaming reference, ‘had a smoke (cannabis?), and somebody spoke and I went into a dream’. However, the virtuosity of the melody, and intermittent, tremendous build-up of the 41-piece orchestra into chaos, culminating in the most dramatic crescendo in popular music history, is astonishing. There is no song equal or better than ‘A Day in the Life’.
 
 
The beginning of the song was based on stories, Lennon read in a newspaper, about Tara Browne, the Guinness heir, dying when he crashed his car into a van; another article in a newspaper referred to surveyors counting 4,000 holes on roads in Blackburn, Lancashire. Lennon altered the Tara Browne story: ‘he blew his mind out in the car’ and made the pothole story about filling seats in the Albert Hall. Could such a classic song like this be written today, or is modern technology destroying musicians’ ability to compose and write such music?
 
 
There is also something of Nietzsche’s Last Man about the song. Think about it: We live in a world of hi-tech corporate clones who are proxy justice warriors for the State. Many of these people are unwilling to take risks, and they’re docile, glued to their tech devices, keep warm; the days in their lives spent living in the co-work, safe spaces of Silicon Valley.
 
When the then lead singer of The Byrds, David Crosby, attended the recording of ‘Day in the Life’, he recalled his reaction to hearing the completed song: “Man, I was a dish-rag. I was floored. It took me several minutes to be able to talk after that.”
 
From hearing it myself on the wireless for the first time in the late 1960s to today, I still simply think, ‘Wow!’ as the goose bumps rise on my skin.
 
 

__________________________________
Kenneth Francis is a Contributing Editor at New English Review. For the past 20 years, he has worked as an editor in various publications, as well as a university lecturer in journalism. He also holds an MA in Theology and is the author of The Little Book of God, Mind, Cosmos and Truth (St Pauls Publishing) and, most recently, The Terror of Existence: From Ecclesiastes to Theatre of the Absurd (with Theodore Dalrymple).

Follow NER on Twitter @NERIconoclast
Comments
4 May 2019
Send an emailtraeh
Nice piece of writing, though I disagree with much of what the author says.-----------------"Day in the Life" is a great song, but the Beatles had many, many great songs. Also, the author arguably underestimates the searching moral humanity the Beatles shone onto "dark side of the road" they sometimes explored as they matured.------------------ For example, was "Why Don't We Do It in the Road?" merely a celebration of animalistic promiscuity? I think it depends on what context one connects with the song. If one remembers that Lennon, McCartney, and Harrison were all in very close, loving, monogamous marriages for many years, it is natural enough to imagine "Why Don't We Do It in the Road" depicting not promiscuous sex but rather the humorous, half-joking interaction of a loving couple who have been long enough together to be sometimes sexually adventurous in a funny way with each other.-------------------- Right to the end, on whatever "dark" roads they traveled, they brought along and expressed in their songs a certain vulnerability, humanity, and honesty -- Lennon was notable in this respect, but Harrison, too, with his intense spiritual quest, was hardly without a keen innocence about him. McCartney's concerns were not notably decadent either: "Yesterday," "Let it Be," "Hey Jude," "Blackbird", "Got to Get You into My Life" are all songs of innocence, or gentle compassion, or authentic vulnerability. Cynicism barely touches the Beatles, though they were too clever to be entirely unmarked by it. But even with Lennon, cynicism never dominated. Lennon was above all someone who believed in love. One can see this in relatively early works, like "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away" and in later work like "All You Need Is Love". -----------------That was part of their power: an innocence, sometimes foolish, sometimes ignorant, sometimes exploring superficial or false paths, but innocence nonetheless, which made them put an emphasis on love, vulnerability, compassion, humanity -- Lennon was of course a complex person not without problems, but he was also clearly rather uniquely touched by love for human beings. Recall his moving song "In My Life," for a classic example that awakens in the heart of anyone with a pulse the love we feel for the people we have known, the aching nostalgia we feel for those people when they are in the past, and the profound love for a closest friend (or lover) of many years who is still present. That song is the real thing. ---------------- None of this is to say the Beatles were choirboys. But there was a unique honesty there, and the innocence shown in their early songs does not fall into darkness in their later ones. Their innocence simply grows up and matures and consequently sometimes shines some light into human complexity and darkness. The 60s, as we all know, had their very dark side, but the decade also brought with it some opportunities that sometimes permitted people to become at times so conscious of love itself that it appeared as something like a manifestation of the divine, was present to an extent that was profoundly transformative. The Beatles' music was strongly touched by that sense of love. And what incredible music! On the whole, considering the whole body of the Beatles' work, they have been the best band within pop music. But only on the whole. Other pop bands have of course done their own incomparable work; just not as much of it, and rarely as incomparable.

4 May 2019
Send an emailtraeh
addendum/correction to my previous comment: the Beatles were not as monogamous as I claimed, so the picture is darker than I portrayed. Nevertheless, I I think what I wrote was on to something real about the Beatles.

8 May 2019
Send an emailJames Mann
The lyric from Eleanor Rigby is 'no one was saved'. The song is perhaps ambivalent about whether anyone can be saved. Father McKenzie writes sermons that no one will hear, but the song opens with a reference to a wedding in the church. Again Larkin comes to mind, the end of 'Church Going': '....this ground / Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in, / If only that so many dead lie round.'

14 May 2019
Bill Corden
I enjoy reading anything about The Beatles, they brought a sound to music that none of us had heard before. I remember being in the Student Rec. room at Birkenhead Technical College, (right across the River Mersey from the Cavern) where they had a lunchtime dance session for the students. On came the strains of tracks from their album "Please Please Me" and the entire room was stunned. After that release, the whole world waited to see what they would come up with next. With good reason; each album outdid the previous one, culminating in Sgt. Pepper which was, as far as we could think, as far as music could go! They weren't particularly good musicians but they were incredible experimentalists and innovators, blessed with a Liverpool DNA that naturally fights against authority and rules. They were witty and charming,held their own against press and media without the need for scripting. Held their own that is, until John got caught in the media trap and they crucified him. As for their lyrics, well I don't think that they put as much thought into them as the Pop Writers think, theirs was just an approach that went from "what can we get away with?" to their more cynical later phase, which was "Fuck 'em! we're saying it anyways" I had them on my headphones yesterday morning, wonderful harmonies and jangling guitars, as good as any Bluegrass or Country & Western that's out today. I still love their memory and the way they led the wave of change back in those sixties. It was more significant back in England because they represented a breakthrough for the working class. They showed that you could become successful and still act normal.It was that, plus their joint creative genius, which still holds our affection. Birkenhead Tech has been demolished for quite a while now but the Beatles music rebuilds it for me.

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