The Beatles, Abbey Road and My Introduction to Subculture

Talking about Fellini and Dylan, Martin Scorsese wrote that ‘they had touched legions of people, everyone felt like they knew them, like they understood them, and, often, like they owned them’. It is the nature of our deepest loves that we feel like they create and complete our greatest self. Through association with lyrics, sounds, styles or faces we use heroes to make a sense of who we are amidst the complex equation of consciousness. Mike Skinner writes that ‘everything is borrowed’. This may well be true. Generally, culture, in particular subculture, is inherited temporarily from our parents, siblings, journalists, radio, television, city and the people we follow on Twitter. However, this transmission of knowledge has creative and intense diversions that make for excellent memories. In many situations the conception of these relationships, the moment we first penetrate an idea, sets the tone and infatuation for relationships which, sometimes, last a long time.  

Love at first listen exists. At 13 I had my first encounter with Bon Iver through watching the 2009 BBC coverage of Glastonbury. Bon Iver were led by a bearded Justin Vernon who has the Other Stage entranced by a falsetto that builds and builds and builds as with drums, rhythm guitar, vocals then finally the entirety of the Other Stage singing in harmony. This six minute crescendo is the perfect accompaniment towards the ancient Glastonbury dusk. While not quite the same, two of my most meaningul friendships were formed after searching looking through their I-Pod library. Say what you will, my ability to make lifelong loves within minutes of dialogue with musical data is an extraordinary thing.

The first time I had this experience was when I was 6 years old and searching through my parent’s CD’s and found the album of Beatles Number Ones. While I’m certain I had never listened to the Beatles there was an acknowledgement of who they were, likely as a result of watching the Simpsons or singing Yellow Submarine at Primary School. Like something from 1960’s girls bedroom I took the album upstairs and started experimenting with the songs until I had a surge of energy through my body and started jumping up and down on my bed driven by Lennon and McCartney’s piercing voice and the images of dogs and logs and work. The trigger was the 6th track on the album, A Hard Day’s Night. 

My family we’re excellent inhibitors of my new found love and played the Beatles Number One’s on repeat through Swansea, the Welsh borderlands, Totnes and St Mawes. It was and will always be the soundtrack to spring and the soundtrack to summer. I learnt the lyrics. I learnt the harmonies. Then sometime later, I learnt the chords. It was on one of these trips that I met my greatest love, delivered in tape form from a Woolworths in the Welsh Borderlands and played in my Godmother’s Peugeot. Abbey Road is simply the greatest album I have ever heard. 

Abbey Road sequences and performs attitudes and emotions that I had never heard or felt anywhere else. It is a kaleidoscopic symphony of Hogarthian sketches, bluesy rock and roll, romantic poetry and psychedelic harmonies. We are introduced to Mr Mustard, the girl that came through the bathroom window, the Octopus’s Garden, the guy with no money after college, Polythene Pam, the girl in Golden Slumbers and the Queen. Frank Sinatra, for many the voice of America and certainly the voice of Christmas, said that George Harrisons’ Something was the greatest love song of the 20th century. One can feel the albums historical significance without even knowing anything about the Beatles. It is communicated through the strength of song writing, the confidence of subject and the experimentation with arrangement. Listening to You Never Give Me Your Money even a child can understand that something beautiful is dying, even a child can recognise that when Paul McCartney sings ‘once there was a way to get back home’ he is singing as much for himself as for the little darling. When we are told at the end of the album that the ‘love you take is equal to the love you make’ there is an intuitive sense that we are being given wisdom from a collective that has just years to live. 

I learnt these lessons, these riddles, before I understood the power and influence of the Beatles. How is it, that there had been a planet over 40 years ago where people had experienced the exact same emotions – the same devotion – as I had. Five years after my first encounter with the Beatles Number Ones, the Arctic Monkeys released Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not and created the foundation for the subcultural infrastructure for most of my teens in Putney, Richmond, Chelsea, Wandsworth, Teddington and Kingston. And yet the centre of this lived experience remained in the past, with the stories and songs from the sixties. I listened to Revolver, Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club and the White Album alongside Favourite Worst Nightmare and Humbug. The energy evoked is no less raw and the memories just as contemporary.

Loving the Beatles is a training in aesthetics, in contrarianism, in philosophy, in sound, in style, in comedy, in confidence, in ambition, in power, in world domination. Through the Beatles I was given a fast-tracked education on Britain’s cultural power in the 20th century. In a post-war order dominated by two superpowers I expected my heroes to conquer America. I learnt through the Beatles, Queen, Pink Floyd, The Rolling Stones, David Bowie, Elton John, The Sex Pistols, The Clash, The Cure and Radiohead that America was Britain’s for the taking. The transmission of song is very similar to the transmission of an idea. If you recognise from a very early age that a song, written in London or Liverpool, can impact the centre of an Empire you are gifted with a supreme sense of confidence about where you come from, what you think and where you are going. 

In the century of the self, the Beatles provided characters that were perfect for the technology. On arrival to America for the Beatles primary visit the confidence was astounding. They are met with the full weight of communicative capitalism and simply smile, wave, sing and make jokes. These are four working class lads from Liverpool that would have been unthinkable just 20 years earlier. The attitude is phenomenal, and by no means anomalous. Of course, they had written some great songs, but writing great songs doesn’t correlate towards being great teachers and cultural leaders, let alone beautiful, stylish and funny. Imagine if we had had four Phil Spector’s. The Beatles were active participants in the most important aspects of 1960’s Counter Culture. The Beatles gave the world psychedelic experimentation, meditation and the 20th centuries greatest music. They were one of the Wests greatest weapons in fighting the Cold War, sold on the black market, and representing everything the USSR could never be. If you don’t believe me then next time you are in Prague, a country under Soviet rule that neither the Beatles or John Lennon visited, visit John Lennon wall. If you ever find yourself at the Jim Morrison memorial at Pere Lachaise you may find people mistakenly singing imagine in commemoration. If you ever find yourself in Rishikesh make sure you visit the Beatles Ashram. Once the residence of the Beatles and the Beach Boys, this gutted is covered in graffiti of Beatles lyrics demonstrating the Beatles contribution towards one of our most important Asian allies and the modern practice of Mindfulness. 

China has just built a hypersonic missile that goes 16 times the speed of sound. We may not know how the Chinese built it, but I will confidently state that one day we will, and then also that China will never create anything more spontaneous, sexy and culturally challenging as the Beatles. They were our cultural nuclear weapon. They were James Bond, Don Draper, Charlie Chaplin and Picasso. They created meaning to a world that had been destroyed by another famous orator who preached genocide and war instead of peace and love. 

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