The Beatles were subjected to a level of fame that had seldom, if ever, been seen in the world of mass culture before them. Not only did they sell out stadiums and arenas and perform for thousands upon thousands of screaming fans (some conscious, some blacked out with excitement and fervor), but their private life in public spaces was essentially non-existent. This hyper-popularity, as well as the social, political, and artistic pressures that came along with it, put a strain on the band. The Beatles started out as an avant-garde group and behaved like an avant-garde group until the end of their existence, but functionally ceased to be avant-garde shortly after becoming popular. Their sound was a synthesis of Black America, working class Britain, post-war Germany, and a global youth culture which was rejecting the past and trying to change the future. From the outset, The Beatles pushed the boundaries of pop music and pushed against dominant culture. They maintained the same intentions once they became part of dominant culture, but once they were a part of the system resistance to it became a stupid and futile gesture.
John Lennon started the band that would become The Beatles in 1957, but the familiar line-up wouldn’t be established until 1962 with the somewhat impromptu inclusion of session drummer Ringo Starr. There would be no major label contract or recording deal in those first five years. There was, however, difficulty getting gigs in England which led to residencies in Germany, condom-fueled fires leading to deportations, another round of residencies, Preludin to stay awake, arguments with audience members to stay engaged, and the honing of a very specific sound. The years The Beatles spent in Hamburg created a unique sound and a unique attitude in their music and in their intentions. The Reeperbahn, where they played, was the site of German youth subculture and had been for some time. The local government was constantly cracking down on clubs for excessive violence and the presence of underaged patrons. This district was an important place for rock music in Germany. Young Germans wanted to hear it, and some older Germans, many of whom had been persecuted by the Nazi regime, wanted to provide it. The system borne of those two desires created a club scene packed with anger at the past and hope for the future.
The attitudes of the audience were palpable in these clubs, not least of all because the audience would scream at with whoever was performing. Funnily enough, The Beatles, the objects of radical fixation and infinite adoration for a baseball stadium’s worth of teen girls, had to cut their teeth in sex clubs while being berated by, well, teen girls (some things don’t change). That environment pushed their music away from the folk influences of many British rock bands and towards uncharted territory. The tempo of their music picked up as they reflected the energy of their audience back into the crowds, as did the tone in which Lennon and McCartney sang. The lyric content and musical style of their music was pushed by the audience they played for. This wasn’t a forced change, as much as the future can inform our view of the past it seems like The Beatles were always interested in pushing the envelope and experimenting with new and exciting things.
Movies like A Hard Day’s Night (1964), the clause in their contract which said they refused to play for segregated audiences in the United States (1966), and songs like Revolution 9 (1968) show a clear anti-establishment and avant-garde identity that always existed in the group. John Lennon’s 1966 public proclamation that The Beatles were, “More popular than Jesus,” is another example of the deeply rooted, early onset, public irreverence The Beatles had. Geroge Harrison personally bankrolled the production of Monty Python’s Life of Brian by mortgaging his home and the offices of his American business manager. Life of Brian was bought by a studio with the intention of being made, but when the head of the studio read the script he sacked it immediately. The Beatles 1968 trip to India and the music they made brought a new sound-scape into western pop culture. Many of the songs The Beatles wrote when they returned included microtones, the sounds of unfamiliar instruments, and references many westerners were unaccustomed to. While definitively appropriative and in some ways disrespectful and ignorant, the musical impact of the music inspired by The Beatles trip to India was revolutionary in western pop, and it was not out of character for the group.
With every album they released The Beatles’ music pushed the limit of what mass appeal meant. They changed the vocabulary of what people found acceptable and incorporated niche or alternative musical languages into the mainstream. Artists working on the edge of acceptability don’t usually enjoy as much success as The Beatles did. The Beatles sold out venues of every size imaginable, and while there were adults attending those concerts they were mostly there as chaperones. The growing global youth culture and the increased economic power of the youth market are one of the most important factors in The Beatles’ success. As it had been in Hamburg it was in the world, young people wanted something new, something exciting, something that condemned the past and gave a glimpse of a new and exciting future. The Beatles of Please Please Me are virtually unrecognizable as the same musicians who put out The Magical Mystery Tour.
The Beatles were marketable. From the very beginning there was a massive market for their music, which in the early days wasn’t so overtly subversive that most Americans would even really notice. As the minor risks they took in the early part of the band’s career proved financially successful, and as rock evolved with and around those risks, The Beatles gained greater and greater freedom of experimentation. They set the tone for the rest of the genre, for the rest of western music, in terms of what was acceptable. The question is: to what end? As much cultural impact as The Beatles had and as much money as they made it all ultimately served to reinforce the cultural hegemony that they existed and created in opposition to.
Their outspoken attitudes on race relations in America placated people into thinking that by supporting The Beatles they were doing something good, even though they were really supporting Parlophone, Apple, and Capitol records. The expanding array of sounds The Beatles brought to pop music didn’t significantly expand the horizons of artists working in those less popular genres, it just buried the origin points of those under the mountain of other pop music that would then imitate it with less authenticity in every recreation of a recreation. Any risk The Beatles took was leveraged against their elevation to mass media godhood. They had been made into a cultural behemoth, an other-worldly entity, a cultural symbol, an infinitely reproducing element of the spectacle.
The Beatles were too big to fail, and too deeply integrated into the mass cultural dreamworld to realize that was a bad thing. Functionally they ceased to be avant-garde quite early in their career. As such an integral part of dominant culture every iota of cultural data they produced immediately became part of the spectacle as outlined by Guy DeBord. They were given the power to set the tone for pop music, and at times the decisions The Beatles made seemed to push the limits of decency, but that risk-taking and paradigm-shifting was only ever an illusion. Their success was predetermined, as was the cultural landscape change that would follow them. The change in the textures and appearances of mass culture did not change any of the underlying power structures which The Beatles were positioned against.
Ultimately, The Beatles did more harm for the avant-garde than good. They aided the incorporation of subversive symbols into recognizable cultural hegemony, essentially stripping traditions and practices of their counter-cultural power. Every step into the avant-garde they took served only to expand the influence of mass culture. There may have been an unconscious recognition of this fact in their later work pushed by Yoko Ono. The Revolution Series is a truly far cry from accepted music of any kind let alone pop music. Yoko Ono made many musically influenced pieces, all of which were abrasive and unsettling. Even now the revolution songs are largely ignored or discredited as side effects of Yoko’s poisoning. The reputation of Yoko Ono today is one of the greatest pieces of evidence for the fact that The Beatles were functionally neutered and used as an instrument of social control by the mass media system.
Fluxus was a truly avant-garde art movement. In the 60s and 70s a decentralized group of artists, activists, musicians, and other people from all manner of backgrounds engaged in work that pushed the boundaries of the artistic process and the meaning of expression. There was no central figure, style, or essential theme to Fluxus as a movement. Yoko Ono was one of the best known Fluxus artists and one of the most influential as well. Pieces like Cut Piece were shocking and powerful. Her influence on John Lennon is clear in how he tried to direct The Beatles towards the end of their time together and in his solo career afterward. The sentiment that Yoko Ono killed The Beatles is so widely held that her name is now often used as a verb to connote the destruction of a good thing, or a noun used to describe someone perceived as trying to ruin a good thing. Like a body trying to stave off infection, the mass cultural body attacked Yoko for pushing John Lennon, and by extension The Beatles, back towards true avant-garde production. Yoko Ono didn’t kill The Beatles, she helped bring them back to their long forgotten roots.
The Beatles’ desires to subvert the culture industry were quashed by the culture industry by inclusion and the perpetuation of myth. The Beatles existed in two planes: the public, where they functioned as a tool of social control, and the private, where they attempted to push boundaries and subvert systems of power. Their avant-garde attitude changed the cultural landscape of the 60s, 70s, and beyond, but that cultural terraforming had little to no impact on the underlying bedrock of the cultural system. This impotence was in part self-inflicted by their own mass media alter egos, who stripped away the power of every avant-garde symbol they touched. The Beatles started out as an avant-garde group, but the more popular they became the less avant-garde space they were able to occupy.
Barber, Nicholas. “How George Harrison – and a very naughty boy – saved British cinema.” The Guardian. Published April 3rd, 2019. Accessed April 12th, 2021.
Demain, Bill. “All Together Now: Civil Rights and The Beatles First American Tour.” Mentalfloss.com. Published April 18th, 2012. Accessed April 12th, 2021
McKinny, Devin. “Magic Circles In Dream and History.” Harvard University Press. Cambridge, Massachusetts, London, England, 2003.
Sneeringer, Julia. “Sites of Corruption, Sites of Liberation: Hamburg-St. Pauli and the Contested Spaces of Early Rock’n’Roll.” Queens College History Department, Flushing New York, 11367 USA. Cambridge university Press, 2016.