Wednesday, June 29, 2011
The Beatles as Killers
The Beatles initiated a revolution in the entertainment industry for one essential reason: their complete and total self-sufficiency. Their early albums contained some cover versions; their singles, which for several years doubled as public calling-cards for them, were uniformly scribed by Lennon-McCartney themselves. Because over the course of the 60s the prestige they gained as two auteur geniuses grew exponentially, the prestige that other entertainment business stalwarts had accrued began to dissipate. This process was augmented by the Beatles phenomenal popularity with the general public. What can be said, for instance, of the Rat Pack after the Beatles? Were Sammy, Deano, and Frank ever the same again? The Rat Pack were put in the sudden, uncomfortable position of needing to justify their existence. From early ’64 to late ’65, the Beatles progressed from “She Loves You” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand” to “Norwegian Wood” and “I’m Looking Through You.” The Rat Pack were never that much about progression; they claimed a certain amount of show ‘biz turf and sought to maintain it. They were dependent on new songs being written for them, and the Beatles made them look like lightweights. Elvis Presley and the first generation rockers were in a not-too-dissimilar position. With the First-Gen crew, the irony is that the Beatles began looking up to them before they shot out past them. Elvis couldn’t produce his own material; Chuck Berry stopped writing songs after a certain point; Little Richard was more of a performer and an entertainer than an auteur. The prestige that marked out the Beatles position in the 60s was as unprecedented as the number of albums they sold. They began as “tycoons of teen” like Phil Spector, and evolved into public artists.
Did the movie business, in competition with the Beatles and the artists that charged into the public milieu after them, ever recover? Where the prestige of the actor or actress was concerned, probably not. Marlon Brando was instantly deemed a revolutionary actor for the rawness of his movements and vocalizations. But, at the end of the day, he was still just mouthing someone else’s words. When the Beatles visited Hollywood, they could be curt with Hollywood folks about these things. And by the mid-60s, whatever prestige Brando might have had was eclipsed by the prestige being awarded to John Lennon and Paul McCartney for the self-sufficient way in which they pushed the Beatles music forward. Rock stars still generally accrue more individual prestige to themselves than actors and actresses; the auteur position of a David Lynch or a Martin Scorsese does generate substantial prestige, but those names fail to resonate with the wide public that Lennon and McCartney did, and still do. Hollywood’s rather ineffective revenge against the burgeoning sophistication of rock music was to ignore it; film music and soundtrack almost never, until “Easy Rider,” had a rock slant; and “Easy Rider” was, in its time, anomalous. Not until the late 70s did rock become fully integrated into the Hollywood machinery; by then, it was admissible to have rock songs in movies. For the last thirty years, soundtrack albums have tended to coalesce around different kinds of popular and rock music, and the integration is complete.
The entertainment business wasn’t the only milieu in which the Beatles were killers. Out in society, on a day to day level, the Beatles began a social revolution specifically around the way men were allowed to wear their hair. “Long-hairs,” following in the Beatles wake, became so common that the idea many small businesses had, of not serving them, had to be thrown out the window. People in society who approved of the Rat Pack sense of masculinity, based on conservative values, had to deal with the Beatles more fluid sense of masculinity. In America, the Beatles (not singlehandedly but substantially) killed off a singular, predominant sense of masculinity. Men could choose to be androgynous; they could also attempt to affix the prestige of the auteur to themselves. In other words, there was a skyrocketing desire among young Americans to be rock stars, “like the Beatles.” The First Gen rockers were entertaining but remained (even Elvis to an extent) marginal; there was no social revolution around Elvis. What the Beatles “meant” as a sign was a new kind of individualism; the media cliché of them as generational spokesmen wouldn’t be there if they didn’t write their own material. Did Frank Sinatra’s generation need a spokesman other than FDR? The Beatles were a novel nuance; a specialized kind of social signifier, for the self-sufficient (or would-be self-sufficient) young like them, who blurred the distinctions between entertainment and art in such a confounding way that even Ned Rorem and Leonard Bernstein, old-style auteur-figures, were impressed.
Bob Dylan did also fulfill this role in a more limited fashion; but, despite having been distinctly influenced by Dylan, the widespread nature of the Beatles success overpowered Dylan’s social position. In many ways, from ’64 to ’70 in America, few others, where youth and individualism were concerned, got a word in edgewise; nor has there been, since then, a youth influence so pervasive and rampant. It’s important to recognize that the Beatles never declared themselves to be generational spokesmen; the media were happy to do it for them. Right-leaning media were also killed off by the Beatles, to the extent that they were forced to cover things that cut against the grain of their ethos. Between media and entertainment business conquests, the Beatles, had they been avaricious for blood, could feel satisfied with what they accomplished. The irony is that the massive social contingent they signified was identified with, among other things, peace and love. But that must have been cold comfort to the Rat Packs and the Elvises, who were forced into a twilight realm instantly, and never really escaped it afterwards. What the Beatles did stuck; and it was a burst of new light that had a good amount of carnage built into it.