ESSAY- 'Pepper' plus 40: When the Beatles were gods
"I declare that the Beatles are mutants, prototypes of evolutionary agents sent by God, endowed with a mysterious power to create a new human species."
–Dr. Timothy Leary
The Sixties were much more than a time of hippies, music, drugs, and free love. In fact, there were three distinct cultural streams that flavored the 1960s– the Kennedy years, the Beatles, and the Vietnam era– each of which insisted on the primacy of youth.
The Kennedys moved into the White House in 1961, full of youthful energy. Suddenly, the idea that older people had to listen to younger ones was in the air. "The Kennedys represented youth in a transitional way," writes author Mary Gordon. "They were young, but they didn't threaten their elders."
In those years, the phrase "children should be seen and not heard" was near-universally believed. But the educational system was already in the process of changing that notion. By the early '60s, children's happiness and their comfortable social adjustment had become an educational goal as important as learning the three Rs. It was a world waiting for the Beatles to happen.
The dramatically different responses to the television appearance of Elvis Presley in 1956 and the Beatles in 1964 demonstrate how much things changed in only eight years. Elvis' blatant sexuality provoked a rash of outraged sermons, as most adults found him ridiculous or dangerous– as their children were screaming and swooning at his swiveling hips. There was virtually no crossover.
But in 1964, respectable grownups and intellectuals were also listening to the Beatles. The "boys from Liverpool"– John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr– did indeed seem like boys instead of men. They were exuberant, full of fun, and were not seen as a threat.
The playfulness of those years led to the hippie movement and, ultimately, to an abdication of adulthood. There was a sense that there was no need to grow up anymore. But, as Gordon notes, "The flower child's sense of well being gradually disintegrated as Vietnam became more central to consciousness."
University students and academics began believing that the Vietnam War was a direct result of the greed and lies of old men in suits and uniforms. The government– called the "Establishment"– had withheld the real story in order to do its dirty work. Later, John Lennon would refer to the establishment as "the monster."
All these cultural streams converged in the Beatles' 1967 masterpiece album, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. When the album was released 40 years ago on June 1, it was a major cultural event. "It was the soundtrack to summer, and winter for that matter," notes author Barry Miles. "You could not get away from it." Indeed, young and old alike were entranced.
A religious awe surrounded Sgt. Pepper. The LSD evangelist Timothy Leary, after listening to the album, reportedly said in a mystical voice, "My work is finished. Now, it's out." Leary actually believed he could hear the voice of God in the music of the Beatles.
David Crosby of the Byrds, a popular rock band, brought a tape of the album to their hotel room and "played it all night in the lobby with a hundred young fans listening quietly on the stairs, as if rapt by a spiritual experience." Paul Kantner of the acid rock band Jefferson Airplane said, "Something enveloped the whole world at that time, and it just exploded into a renaissance." And as one musicologist observed: "The closest Western Civilization has come to unity since the Congress of Vienna in 1815 was the week the Sgt. Pepper album was released. For a brief while the irreparable fragmented consciousness of the West was unified, at least in the minds of the young."
Sgt. Pepper had such an amazing impact because it simultaneously mirrored its times and offered a solution to the social and political upheavals of the time. The solution offered by the Beatles was a return to spirituality and love for our fellow human beings.
Although the album begins as a light farce, it moves to a sobering awakening. The songs are somewhat bizarre and sometimes ghoulish, but, at heart, Sgt. Pepper was a spiritual experience for an increasingly secular world. George Harrison's "Within You, Without You" quotes from the Bible and is a warning not to get lost in materialism or we will lose our souls. And if we cannot regain our sense of spirituality and love for one another, then we face a foreboding future. In fact, the album's final song, John Lennon's "A Day in the Life," points to the horrors of existence if humanity does not abstain from its destructive tendencies.
From Sgt. Pepper on, rock music was considered an art form. The summer of love followed. Optimism was in the air. There was hope that peace would eventually prevail and the destructiveness of humanity would end. Armed with "flower power," young people took to the streets and demonstrated en masse against the Vietnam War.
But soon the color of the times faded to stark black and white. By 1968, student rebels around the world had adopted more militant tactics. Flower power was replaced by raised fists, as cultural heroes such as Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were brutally assassinated.
The Beatles too were disbanding. They were not gods, after all, and the love that once united them grew cold. Thus, by the end of 1968, it was obvious that neither the Beatles nor love would save the world.
But the music of the Beatles is still with us– full of hope that we can live in a peaceful world. The lesson is that evil does not have to triumph but that good can prevail. However, we have to work for it.
John W. Whitehead is founder of The Rutherford Institute, a civil liberties organization that provides free legal services to people whose constitutional and human rights have been threatened or violated. Watch him talk about this stuff via this YouTube link.