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How the Beatles Changed the World: An Interview with Steven D. Stark

By John W. Whitehead
November 30, 2005

This is how Steven D. Stark opens his new book, Meet The Beatles:

“Why on earth would anyone need another book about the Beatles? Hundreds of volumes have been written about the group in a multitude of languages, describing everything from their musical scores (which they never wrote down because they could neither read nor write music) to a virtual hour-by-hour chronology of each Beatle’s day. Their story has become our contemporary version of the Gospels, each disciple faithfully setting down what Saint John or Saint Paul said to him when it came time to write “She Loves You” or to visit the maharishi in India. As the British rock writer Charles Shaar Murray once put it, theirs is the greatest story “ever told and told and told and told.” And, unlike other pop phenomena, they seem, amazingly, to grow bigger by the year.
            To a certain extent, almost all the books about the Beatles—even the so-called objective histories—are a form of fan literature: “Don’t tell me what it means, just tell me again what happened,” is the way a critic once put it. As such, these books always seem to me to miss the key elements of our modern version of the greatest story ever told. They tell the what, without ever really explaining the why. I decided to try to write a serious cultural history that focused on that why.
            The Beatles were, of course, brilliant songwriters and innovative musicians. During their heyday, they sold more records than any entertainers ever, releasing around two hundred songs as a group in the eight years they remained together once they received a recording contract. Yet looking mostly at their music—as most analysts do—provides an inadequate means to assess their impact. Their music was wonderful, but so was Beethoven’s and even Irving Berlin’s, and no one is going to annual Irving Berlin conventions or publishing biographies of him by the bucketfuls year after year. The Beatles became historical forces for reasons that transcended their songs.
            Derek Taylor, their clever confidant and press officer, understood this well. “The Beatles are not a pop group,” he once said. “They are an abstraction—a repository for many things.” To understand this group, one has to grasp the larger cultural forces they triggered and came to represent that enabled them to make their mark.
            That’s what this book aims to do. If one had set out to predict the history of the second half of the twentieth century, one would never have surmised that four musicians—from Liverpool, England, of all places—would end up becoming the cynosure of the world’s eyes and one of the century’s major symbols of cultural transformation. What’s more, it’s never been clearly explained why their popularity and renown show few signs of diminishing in the first decade of a new century. More than forty years after they first hit the U.S. charts with “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “She Loves You,” anything connected to the Beatles continues to attract huge and adoring audiences—from compilations of their old hits, to auctions of their relics, to reminiscences by their friends and acquaintances. They are, said Taylor, “The longest-running saga since World War II.”
            To undertake this project, I ended up moving temporarily to England, near Merseyside, and I hope some of the many unexpected differences I found between the United States and the northwest of England have informed the book. A Beatles’ cultural historian needs to understand two very different worlds: the one that produced them, and the American one that adopted them and, as the engine of international popular culture, remains the principal legatee of the group’s existence despite their English origins. After all, it’s one thing as an American to talk to old English friends and fans of the Fab Four; it’s quite another to live every day steeped in the unique region and culture that shaped them.”

From there, Stark goes on to detail an erudite but complete cultural history of the Beatles. In fact, Meet The Beatles (HarperCollins, 2005) is one of the best cultural analyses of the Beatles yet written.

Steven D. Stark is a writer and cultural commentator. He has been the popular culture analyst for National Public Radio’s Weekend Edition Sunday; a contributor to The World; a daily public radio show co-produced by WGBH and the BBC; and a commentator for CNN’s Showbiz Today. The author of Glued to the Set and Writing to Win, he has written extensively for the Boston Globe, New York Times, Los Angeles Times and the Atlantic Monthly.

JW: You discuss different ways the Beatles changed western culture. First, you note that the Beatles helped feminize culture.

SS: The Beatles were gender-benders. People forget that when they first came to America, much attention was paid to the way they looked with their long hair, which today doesn’t look that long.

JW: Even the staid Ed Sullivan put on a Beatle wig on one of his shows.

SS: Right. At that time, long hair was considered absolutely outrageous. Very quickly the Beatles changed the way men looked, the way men thought about the way they looked and, ultimately, our ideals of masculinity. Before they arrived, the model for maleness in the culture, for lack of a better term, consisted of people like John Wayne and Gary Cooper. After the Beatles came to America, those things were washed out forever. The Beatles also galvanized women. It’s no coincidence that they arrived at the time in which the women’s movement was just beginning in the culture. If you interview women today who were young girls at the time screaming for the Beatles, they say their first taste of feminism came listening to the Beatles while surrounded by hundreds, if not thousands, of other girls screaming for them. Thus, they had a galvanizing effect on gender not only in the American culture but around the world.

JW: Do you think the Beatles attacked the masculinity of men?

SS: I don’t know if they attacked it because I don’t think they did it on purpose.

JW: The Beatles were macho.

SS: They were macho for England. However, England as a culture has always played with gender-bending a lot more than American culture. If you go back to the romantic poets with whom they were very familiar—the Beatles were very well-educated—Shelly, Keats, on to Oscar Wilde, there is a tradition of long hair in Great Britain. You don’t see things like that in American literary culture, certainly not in American rock culture.

JW: Brian Epstein, the Beatles’ manager, was gay. Did Epstein have any effect on their projected image?

SS: Brian Epstein made them more androgynous and cuddlier. In a way, Epstein tried to make them more appealing to female audiences, and he succeeded very well. If you look at the history of rock and roll in America before the Beatles arrived—Elvis, Buddy Holly, Little Richard—they were a lot of things, but androgynous they were not. And the Beatles were.

JW: I was 17 years old when I saw them on the Ed Sullivan Show in February ’64. My parents’ reaction was very negative. I believe they were, at least subconsciously, picking up on the changes the Beatles were foretelling.

SS: The Beatles were called girls by a lot of critics when they first arrived, but that changed very quickly. In fact, one of the things that made the Beatles different from other rock groups was that adults tended to like them. Their music, while threatening in some ways, tended to be uplifting and even spiritual. It is difficult to find a negative message in most Beatles songs. While there was a lot of negative reaction to them in the beginning, they tended to find more acceptance among adults than almost any other rock group in the history of rock music.

JW: It wasn’t a mistake when the Beatles sang “Till There Was You,” an American Broadway tune, on their first Ed Sullivan television appearance.

SS: That song was from The Music Man. Because of their British background, the Beatles had their roots in a lot of old British music hall tunes and musicals. Paul once said that he would have liked to have been a 1920s musical writer. When the Beatles first got started, the idea that they would become a rock and roll band that would last for years wasn’t even in their thoughts. They went into music to become songwriters, very much in the Rodgers and Hammerstein or Cole Porter or even Leiber and Stoller mode.

JW: You note that the Beatles converged on their era in an almost unprecedented way. And, as such, the group came to embody the values of the counterculture in their challenge to “the Establishment.”

SS: They did. This gave them much of their appeal at the time.

JW: The counterculture was getting off the ground in the early ‘60s with Tom Hayden and such things as the Port Huron Statement. There was a small group of radicals beginning a movement shortly before the Beatles arrived. So, did the Beatles arrive at the right time and the right place? After all, Kennedy’s assassination had just occurred and there was a vacuum. People were looking for something.

SS: Yes. The assassination of President Kennedy had just occurred. So the Beatles arrived in America at a time when America was looking to be uplifted. However, the Beatles much more incorporated the cultural, rather than the political, aspects of the ‘60s. If you go back and look at their music, it’s relatively apolitical, particularly given the era in which they sang. When John Lennon sings his song “Revolution,” he says “you can count me in and out.” This is typical for John Lennon. He couldn’t decide which side of the fence he wanted to be on. That, again, is typical of coming from England. They didn’t have the Civil Rights Movement that helped to form American youth.  Although there was a lot of anti-war activism in England, it didn’t reach the levels there that it reached in America because England wasn’t involved in the Vietnam War in the same way that America was.

JW: But you have to admit that when you look at the way the Beatles dressed and listen to their songs, you read rebellion against “the Establishment” into what they were doing at the time.

SS: But it was a cultural rebellion, much more than a straight political rebellion. You tend to get the political rebellion more from Bob Dylan, the Jefferson Airplane and even the Rolling Stones, who sang “Street Fighting Man.” The Beatles rarely got into that. From the Beatles, it was more of “Say the word and you’ll be free,” “All you need is love” and “In the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.” Those were considered revolutionary statements as well. On the other hand, when you look at a lot of those statements, they are universally spiritual in a way that isn’t that threatening. It was more their persona and their sound that was rebellious, as opposed to the lyrics of their songs. 

JW: You argue that the Beatles had a semi-religious allure and that it helped the group last over time.

SS: People at the time noticed the way crowds reacted to the Beatles. Many brought their sick children to concerts in the hope that the Beatles could almost heal the children by touching them. This had definite religious aspects to it.

JW: This really unnerved John Lennon. He remarked that bringing crippled, injured people to their concerts and putting them on the front row made him cringe.

SS: It unnerved all the Beatles, but particularly Lennon. John got into a lot of trouble in the mid-‘60s for saying that the Beatles were more popular than Christ. Lennon didn’t actually mean it as a terribly negative statement, but just a fact.

JW: Lennon later apologized. He said he believed it to be factual and didn’t understand why it caused such a firestorm. But Lennon was onto something in making such a religious statement about the Beatles.

SS: If you look at the Beatles’ lyrics, there is a religious component. If not that, there is a strong spiritual component to their methods, which is one reason why they have lasted over time. When you sing “All You Need is Love,” it is similar to singing “Love Thy Neighbor as Thyself.” Whether it’s Judaism, Christianity or Buddhism, the Beatles’ message is consistent with the message of many world religions. That is very different than what you tend to see in the lyrics of popular music generally.

JW: Do you think George Harrison and his conversion to Eastern religion had anything to do with their spiritual component?

SS: George had a lot to do with it. But I think it was all of them. From the beginning, the Beatles were very intellectual, much more intellectual than most popular artists. They were very well-educated in England, even though they went to what we in America would call public schools. They were competitive public schools. John went to art college. All the Beatles thought of themselves as artists. And from the beginning, they were different because they were always asking the deeper questions about the meaning of life. Elvis sang about a lot of things, but he didn’t really sing about the meaning of life.  The Beatles did. They were always searching for answers.

JW: Searching for meaning.

SS: Yes. And I believe that was part of their allure.

JW: And they helped lead a generation in that search.

SS: Yes, they did. And it’s still a generation that tends to be searching for meaning in a wide variety of ways. But the Beatles personified that earlier than anybody else. They were the leaders in the search.

JW: You write that the Beatles had a power over millions of people that was singular in history among artists. But then you go on to say that it was a power that in former times was wielded by popes, kings and the like. When the Beatles sang “All You Need is Love” on a BBC television special in the summer of 1967, some 400 million people across five continents tuned in to hear them. This was amazing power at the time. But they never once said “get in the streets and riot.” Thus, they didn’t use the power in an illicit way.

SS: No, they didn’t. They were not political in the way that a lot of American artists and leaders were. That came from their English background. But they did tend to preach a message of hope and optimism. That is one of the amazing things about the Beatles. This is a bit surprising when you look at their backgrounds, particularly John Lennon’s. He tended to be a really bitter guy—for valid reasons, given his background, especially his childhood. Yet when it came time for Lennon to write, he composed the most melodious, uplifting music. It really is remarkable. It was a transformation for him and a message that affected the times. It still has a strong appeal for people.

JW: The Beatles gave people hope in their music. A lot of music today is sour and filled with dread. Do you think there will ever be another time when a group like the Beatles can preach hope and people will actually listen?

SS: Even at the time the Beatles were singing, there was a kind of teenage dread rock—songs such as “Dead Man’s Curve” where people would drive their cars off cliffs. It was a different form of dread, but you always tend to get that in teen culture. But I don’t think you will have another Beatles simply because they came at a unique time. And they were like any geniuses—they were uniquely talented. The talent met the times in a way that I don’t believe could happen again. Moreover, music doesn’t have the same power in the culture that it used to have. In the ‘60s, rock and roll and popular music didn’t have the competition it does today from the internet, DVDs, VCRs and 300 channels, rather than four. I don’t think that would be possible anymore.   

JW: The Beatles arose in a time of great turmoil and tension. The civil rights movement was in full swing, and John F. Kennedy was assassinated three months prior to the Beatles coming to America and appearing on The Ed Sullivan Show. Then Beatlemania began. You quote Variety as saying that Beatlemania might be “a phenomenon closely linked to the current wave of racial rioting.” All of a sudden, as some commentators noted, the Beatles seemed to make it cool for anyone to be white. As you note in your book, with the rise of the Beatles, 1964 saw the lowest percentage of records on the hit charts by black artists since rock and roll had hit the scene in the mid-‘50s. The Beatles were unintentionally whitening rock and roll.

SS: They did whiten rock and roll. For its first ten years, rock and roll was black music. Even Elvis was about race.

JW: Elvis was a white boy singing African-American songs.

SS: Exactly. Elvis enabled many black artists to become popular in America in a way that hadn’t been true before. This is true whether you are talking about Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry or Little Anthony and the Imperials—even Motown. Once the Beatles came on the scene, whites took over rock and roll. It’s nothing that the Beatles did intentionally. They actually had great admiration for black artists and covered a lot of their records.

JW: They admitted that they mimicked black artists such as Little Richard in their early vocal style.

SS: The early Beatles sang a lot of Little Richard’s and Chuck Berry’s songs. But it was an unintentional consequence of Beatlemania that the charts in the 1960s became much whiter than they had been in the 1950s.

JW: Do you think there was any anger in the black community about that?

SS: I quote a couple of black intellectuals who at the time said, “We wonder why the Beatles would cover the Isley Brothers’ “Twist and Shout.” What was the matter with the original “Twist and Shout”? But I don’t believe they were angry about it. And I am not sure that people were conscious of this at the time. It’s undeniable that if you look at the history of who was dominating the charts in the ‘50s and ‘60s, there were more black artists at the top of the music charts. When the Beatles brought the whole British invasion, that all changed. The British invasion was a white invasion. At that time, there weren’t any black rock and roll artists in England who could’ve been part of the British invasion. The British invasion included groups like Herman’s Hermits, the Zombies, the Kinks and the Stones, who are all white.
JW: When the Beatles covered a song, it almost became theirs. When you listen to a song such as “Please Mr. Postman,” it’s difficult after you hear the Beatles’ version to go back and listen to the original and enjoy it in the same way.

SS: The Beatles were uniquely creative. Once they covered a song, they almost made it their own. That is why I think they never covered an Elvis song. They found it impossible to do Elvis in a way that would render Elvis inoperative. They sang a few Elvis songs early on. But when it came time to record, the Beatles stayed away from Elvis. It is interesting that very few people have ever covered a Beatles song successfully. This is simply because the Beatles did their own stuff so well. Joe Cocker, for example, did a good version of “I Get By with a Little Help from My Friends.” But Beatles songs got covered a lot less than you would think, given how good the songs are.

JW: You note that Paul McCartney and John Lennon shared a generalized anger against the world. Both lost their mothers at an early age. Because their anger was generalized, their music rarely contained as much of the adolescent rebellion against parental authority heard in so much of American rock at the time. Did this make their music more palatable to grownups?

SS: It actually made the Beatles more palatable to a lot of teenagers, even in America. In the ‘50s, in order to like rock and roll, you had to be a sort of James Dean type—a part of the Beatnik revolt against American culture. While the Beatles were gender-benders and had a tremendous effect on the culture, they didn’t come across nearly as threatening as rock and roll artists in the past. In a way, that made them much more acceptable in the culture. This is particularly true after they made the film A Hard Day’s Night. After that, they were praised by intellectuals for creating an artistic movie. Their songs were being covered by the Boston Pops and by country music artists. It was difficult to dislike the Beatles. Even Harold Wilson, the Prime Minister of England, and the Queen honored them. 

JW: There is a statement in your book where Ringo said, “We didn’t hate our parents.” And Lennon said, “America has teenagers and everywhere else just has people.” Maybe the Beatles didn’t understand that they were entering in the middle of a teenage rebellion in America.

SS: They didn’t understand America until they were here for awhile. There was much less transatlantic communication then. It was difficult for them to understand the different American culture. Great Britain didn’t have teenagers, especially a class of rebellious teenagers, nearly to the extent that existed in America. Americans tended to have much more of an age segregation than in Britain. People here would go to high school and then college with their age cohorts until their early 20s. In England, most people left school when they were 15 and went to work. So that period of being isolated where youth would commune with one another, exchange ideas and that sort of thing didn’t exist in England.  It gave rise to a very different kind of youth culture than the one that existed in America. Also, in England, the young didn’t have as much money as American kids did so they couldn’t buy as many records. Thus, it was very different and not rebellious in the same kind of way initially.

JW: The Beatles were witty and funny. When they landed at the airport in New York and gave a press conference, they won over the New York press corps because they were so witty. They were groomed, as you note in your book, on The Goon Show with Peter Sellers and comedians like that. John Lennon said essentially that the Beatles were children of The Goon Show

SS: And they were middle class. One of the myths about the Beatles is that they were working-class kids. They were not rich by any standards. Some of them lived in what we would call public housing, although more people live in that kind of housing in England than in America. But educationally and culturally, they went to good schools. They knew who Keats and George Bernard Shaw were. They were well read. John had gone to art college. So they had intellectual and artistic aspirations that were very very different from American rock and pop artists.

JW: Elvis was a southern kid without much education.

SS: Yes. If you look at Cole Porter or Gershwin, they didn’t have the kind of cultural aspirations that the Beatles had. That ultimately allowed the Beatles to change the culture to the extent they did. This is because they set out to do that once they had made it.

JW: Why did the fact that the Beatles popularized the sanctity of the group help them succeed?

SS: Before the Beatles, rock and roll had tended to be solo acts. It was Elvis. It was Bill Haley and the Comets. It was Buddy Holly and the Crickets or Little Richard. The Beatles were different. They consciously decided not to put a person out front and to popularize the idea of a group. That completely changed rock and roll. Even today, groups dominate rock. The emphasis on the group changed the sound. But even more, it changed the sensibility. When people initially saw the Beatles in 1964 as this collective whole, they couldn’t even tell the individual Beatles apart because of the long hair. The idea that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts became an enormously popular and powerful cultural idea. In a sense, the Beatles were the first to propagate the idea of communalism or community. In fact, the Beatles embodied this idea.

JW: This helped the Beatles bring the ‘60s generation together as a community.

SS: The idea of community is very important to people—not in a radical way but in a social way.

JW: You write in your book that selecting Ringo was an inspired act of genius. Explain.

SS: The Beatles always had trouble getting drummers because there weren’t that many in Liverpool.

JW: Also, drums were expensive. And in the beginning, the Beatles were a small act with little, if any, money.

SS: Drums were expensive. Paul could play any instrument better than just about anyone else in Liverpool. He was a musical genius. Therefore, when the Beatles would get a drummer, Paul would tell the drummer how to play. This created some problems so they had trouble keeping a drummer. They needed a drummer in order to go to Hamburg when they got their first break in 1960. They took Pete Best, who was the first drummer they could find. But, as we found out later, he didn’t share a lot of the things we talked about in terms of the cultural sensibility and intellectual pretensions that the other Beatles had.

JW: Pete Best didn’t seem to be part of the commune, either.

SS: No, he didn’t. He simply wasn’t like the others. Thus, it was never in the cards for Pete Best to stay with them forever. Once the other three Beatles got an excuse to change things, they did. They had known Ringo before in Germany when Best was still their drummer. Even though Ringo was not highly educated by any means and was much poorer than the other three in terms of his upbringing, he was very funny. Ringo shared their sensibility so they wanted him in the band, rather than the person they had. When they brought Ringo in, he completed the picture and made them much more accessible. Whereas the other three were intelligent and good-looking, Ringo was more of an ordinary guy. Kids could relate to him easier, which is why years later he ended up narrating the Thomas the Tank Engine children’s television series. And their movie A Hard Day’s Night wouldn’t have been nearly the success it was without Ringo to play that lead role.

JW: Ringo also became the central figure in the Beatles films Help and Yellow Submarine

SS: In fact, when the Beatles first came to America and polls were taken, Ringo by far was voted the most popular Beatle. This was because he was accessible and he was very witty and funny.

JW: Ringo was also the first drummer to be elevated and put above the rest of the group on stage. That’s one reason people say he is the luckiest man on the face of the earth.

SS: Ringo is lucky. But he is also very talented. Keep in mind that the first three members of the band kind of got there by chance. George was a friend of Paul. John met Paul and they got together. But they consciously chose Ringo to be in the band. They knew what they were doing. He is also a great drummer. Beyond that, they weren’t really looking for the best drummer in Liverpool. They were looking for someone to complete the picture, so to speak.

JW: You write that the Beatles were the first artists to capitalize on the notion that they could mold themselves not simply as songwriters, where others were left to interpret their work for them, but as record creators.

SS: In the early days of rock and roll before the Beatles came on the scene, rock and roll artists didn’t tend to write their own music. One of the problems for Elvis in his career was that he was dependent upon the writing of others. First, the Beatles wrote almost all their own work so they had control over the artistic product. Second, they were very interested from the beginning in using the studio to create records, particularly albums that were not just a collection of songs but were like a play, a movie or a novel presented as a coherent artistic statement. There was a plan leading up to Revolver and Sgt. Pepper. Thus, even from the beginning, the Beatles were interested in using the studio in that way. George Martin, as their producer, influenced them a lot. That marked the Beatles as very different from anything that had come before in the history of recorded music.

JW: The album as a concept began with a cohesiveness on their albums Help and Rubber Soul, which eventually led to Revolver and Sgt. Pepper.

SS: The Beatles used sound effects on “Yellow Submarine,” for example, with the band in the park playing in the background and submarine noises they learned from The Goon Show. The British comedy records had used sound effects. But it was all an attempt by the Beatles to use music to make a different cultural and artistic statement than had been made in the past.

JW: George Martin helped in all that.

SS: He was a huge help.

JW: Martin was the fifth Beatle, so to speak.

SS: I don’t know if there was a fifth Beatle. If so, Martin would share that honor with Brian Epstein. The Beatles shared their obsession with record production and using records to make artistic statements that hadn’t been made in the past with Martin. This is how the Beatles started. To record an album, you went into the studio and set up some microphones and did a concert essentially in front of the microphones. And it was recorded in one day. This is the way the Beatles did their first album. By the time of Sgt. Pepper, it took them a month to record some of the songs. They had orchestras playing backwards and all kinds of strange instruments and sounds. It was an attempt to do something new with music.

JW: You write: “Three major attributes helped define the emerging new culture of the mid-‘60s. Two of these—the maturing sensibility of rock and roll and the move to personal freedom symbolized by long hair—wouldn’t have happened without the Beatles. The third—the ubiquitous use of drugs—the Beatles wouldn’t have happened without.”

SS: As was true for a lot of groups and people in the ‘60s, the Beatles used drugs. Just as the writers of the 1920s such as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Hemingway used a lot of alcohol during the jazz age, the Beatles used drugs. That was as much a part of the ‘60s culture as alcohol was a part of the ‘20s culture.

JW: How did the drugs affect their music?

SS: All the music of the Beatles reflects the drugs they were on at various times. They were an alcohol and amphetamine-driven band in the beginning. It was the time of the hard beat. It was “Roll Over Beethoven” played three times as fast as Chuck Berry played it when they covered the song. Once they started smoking marijuana, their music got softer and more lyrical. The lyrics became more important. When they got into psychedelic drugs such as LSD, the whole aura of their music changed. There you got the very odd experimental sounds such as on Sgt. Pepper and Revolver.

JW: Drugs slow time down. Thus, we started getting those longer songs by the Beatles. They broke the two-minute limit on pop songs on the radio at the time.

SS: It may have been because of better songwriting. The drugs definitely had something to do with it. But again, that is true of the whole era. You can’t separate drugs from the ‘60s. Also, you can’t denigrate what the Beatles did. But the drugs had a major impact on them. They would be the first to tell you that.
JW: You have written an important book. What do you want people to take away from your book?

SS: That the Beatles were obviously wonderful musically. That culturally they had an enormous impact that people commonly don’t recognize. And that when historians go back and look at the second half of the 20th century, they will recognize that the Beatles were historical forces in a way that artists and musicians had never been before and probably will never be again. There was something about them and the times in which they made their music that made the whole thing unique. That is important. 

JW: The time that will never happen again.

SS: A group like that will never happen again. No way.