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The Beatles

 

It has been said that the "generation gap" was an invention of the 1950s. Parents and children are always going to have their differences, but the invention of a phrase must be significant. As Ian Macdonald writes in his book on the Beatles: "In effect the 'generation gap' which opened in the fifties turned out not to be a quarrel between a particular set of children and parents, but an historical chasm between one way of life and another... The truth is the sixties inaugurated the post-religious age."(Revolution In The Head P25 - 26)

Of course the scientific discoveries that brought about the new age already had a long history by the time the sixties came along. In the early sixteenth century Copernicus had written On The Revolutions Of The Celestial Spheres and had taken Earth away from the centre of the solar system. In1859 Charles Darwin, after years of nervous prevarication, had finally published The Origin of Species and taken away divine superintendence of life. The late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries saw almost a dry run for the sixties in the work of the Romantic poets; Wordsworth, Coleridge, then Keats, Shelley and Byron. In an intimation of things to come people clamoured outside bookshops for Byron's poem Childe Harold, written by a man who looked and acted very like a wild sixties rock star. Still, in those days books were expensive and education patchy. This inevitably was going to have an impact on the way a culture developed, and how widespread the influence of an artist's work would be. There was another dry run in the 1920s, but social and cultural experimentation was still confined to the privileged set. World wars also got in the way. Some commentators suggest that war shakes up social structures, and in some ways this is obviously true; but on the whole a country in wartime is going to be conservative, cautious, with tight control from central government. Two huge wars in quick succession tended to maintain social inertia. But once the austerity of the 1950s had passed, and the prosperity of the 1960s arrived, the power and potential of slowly gathering change erupted in an unprecedented display of creativity. Interestingly when they finally came, the sixties had fashions influenced by the two dry runs, during the eighteenth century romantic period, and the 1920s. This time the development of communications had reached the stage where almost anyone could be involved. Almost everyone had access to a radio and record player.

 

 

Mathew Street, Liverpool. The Cavern Club entrance was on this street

It was with this supremely inclusive nature of 1960s culture that we reach the great contradiction of the decade. Most people had the potential to be involved. The skiffle music listened to by the young Beatles tended to abandon traditional instruments. Anything that could provide a rhythm was considered suitable, even ordinary household objects. For the first time music opened up to everyone regardless of money or musical training. As George Harrison says in the Beatles Anthology: "Skiffle came out of the blues, but the way it was performed made it accessible to us white Liverpudlians. It was dead cheap - just a washboard, a tea chest, a bit of string, a broom handle and £3 10s guitar."

Some of the instruments used by John Lennon's's first skiffle group the Quarry Men are on display at the Beatles Story in Liverpool. This includes their basic drum kit of which they were very proud. Whilst almost anybody could make music if they wanted to, almost everyone could also then listen to music using radios and record players now owned widely. John was inspired by listening to Chris Barber's skiffle band singing Rock Island Line and John Henry on his record player. But in the face of all this inclusiveness it was also the case that devices allowing people to share in a democratic culture also tended to leave them on their own. Modern technology had been moving in a lonely direction generally, with people moving away from the communal experience of theatre or cinema to the daily habits of listening to radios or record players, or watching television. There were occasions when vast displays of physical togetherness occurred, most famously in the Woodstock Festival of 1969, and the huge festival on the Isle of Wight in 1970. But the half a million people at Woodstock and the one million people at the Isle of Wight, were dwarfed by hundreds of millions going through their days at home or at work, listening to the radio or to records. This was an isolated generation inspite of the unprecedented sharing of culture.

 

 

Garden at Mendips. John used to climb the fence into Strawberry Field

Perhaps John Lennon referred to all this in his song Strawberry FIelds Forever. John was taken away from his mother, Julia, when he was five years old. He lived with his Aunt Mimi at her house Mendips, in Menlove Avenue, Liverpool. Mendips backed onto a children's home, Strawberry Field. John, a mischievous youngster, used to get over the garden fence by climbing a usefully placed tree, and then run off and play with the Strawberry Field orphans. John in effect was an orphan taken away from his mother, and he went off to play with a lot of other orphans at Strawberry Field. Later John was to write about the experiences of escape over his garden fence in Strawberry Fields Forever. Strawberry Field perhaps confirmed John as an orphan, but was also a place where he found friendship and fun with people like himself. Standing in Mendips' garden it occurred to me that in Strawberry Fields Forever John was singing to all his listeners as if they were a lot of orphans. Even though his listeners were scattered all over the place, like lost children, John in his song offered to take them to a dreamy place where they can all be together. "Let me take you down, because I'm going to, Strawberry Fields..."

 

 

 

 

The Zebra Crossing at Abbey Road

In the sixties we find the greatest artists of that decade writing about, and involved in its contradictions. Of the many artists you could mention, the Beatles must be seen as having led the way. In 1967 they encapsulated the times in their wonderful album Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. This album is supposedly set at a concert, in front of a live audience who we hear clapping and cheering together at the beginning of the record. In reality of course the record is being played to an audience scattered in times and places all around the world. The band might say that "it's wonderful to be here," but in reality we have no idea where here actually is. In this new exclusive yet inclusive culture of the sixties the idea of being together and alone changed. It was also going to be harder to define who was in and who was out. Previously in history it was clear who the in crowd were. They populated the gentlemen's clubs of London and ran the country. But in the sixties such categories started to mean less. The Beatles made famous a zebra crossing in St Johns Wood, and Penny Lane, a suburban street in Liverpool. The childhood homes of Paul McCartney and John Lennon, 20 Forthlin Road and Mendips are owned by the National Trust. I understand there were some at the National Trust who objected to properties such as these being taken on, but a looser conception of what is important and unimportant is a crucial characteristic of the world that emerged in the sixties. After listening to the Beatles you could stand in any ordinary place and say "it's wonderful to be here, it's certainly a thrill" as the Beatles do at the beginning of Sergeant Pepper.

 

 

Abbey Road Studios

Some, of course dismiss the blurring of categories of what's in and what's out, what's important and unimportant, as a loss of standards. Charles Curran did this in 1964 when he wrote of Lennon's book In His Own Write: "He seems to have picked up bits of Tennyson, Browning and Robert Louis Stevenson while listening with one ear to the football results on the wireless."

In a sense this was true. As Ian Macdonald has observed, the Beatles enjoyed living amongst scattered newspapers and magazines, with televisions and radios burbling constantly in the background. They enjoyed the coincidences and strange comings together that emerged from such a mix, using unpredictability to keep their music fresh. They expressed the great possibilities that could come out of the new loss of boundaries. Of course in less skilful hands, or in the hands of the Beatles themselves on an off day, this freedom of boundaries could result in a mess. That does not diminish what the Beatles did. Visiting the ordinary places they celebrated is a great way to experience the specialness they found in what might seem everyday.

Beatles memorabilia can be seen at the Beatles Story exhibition in Liverpool. Original handwritten drafts of the Beatles lyrics can be seen in the galleries at the British Library in London.

And as a final note it is fitting that you are reading this on the internet, used by isolated individuals, giving unprecedented opportunities for like minded people across the world to get together. Sergeant Pepper would have liked that.

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