When I was a kid, my sister, who is 13 years older than me, made it a mission to expose me to the musical phenomenon known as the Beatles. She was being paid by my mom to “babysit” me over the summer. I was about 12 years old, and I was like a dry sponge ready to soak in anything that I came in contact with. She started by showing me what she was most interested in at the time (she was in her mid 20’s), the psychedelic side of the Beatles. My first favorite Beatles songs were “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “I Am the Walrus.” I know that I was lucky in my early musical exposure, but I can’t stress enough how important the Beatles were to my personal musical and creative development. My favorite movies were “Yellow Submarine” and “Help!” All thanks to my sister, whose tastes cannot be questioned.
In this article I will explore how the Beatles themselves had a powerful coming of age, and how their gradual maturity mirrored the cultural and societal changes of the time, and how that development effected me nearly 30 years later. After much research and self introspection, I have come to realize that the process of “growing up” and maturing that the Beatles went through throughout the 1960s mirrors the maturation of an entire seminal generation in popular culture, and how this slow but steady loss of innocence in the Beatles can inform the growing-up process of people decades later — like me.
The Beatles first hit the global scene as nothing more than a particularly British version of the massive changing of the guard that was happening everywhere in the world, as the first generation after WWII came to grips with the world they had inherited. The Beatles, at this time, were charmingly naive. They began as a bar band called the Quarrymen, playing American rock & roll for a young and rebellious British population. Their initial charm came from their acceptance of the rebel rock scene that was emerging from the U.S. Covering rock songs by controversial American artists, they were immediately embraced by a youth counter-culture that was emanating from America. Along with a major award from the Queen of England, the mop-topped lads from Liverpool were on the fast track to international celebrity status. Amid all this chaos, the group was embroiled in a major revolutionary act that was championed by their peers: the drug revolution of the 60s. As the band began to drink and use uppers less (the stimulants of the time), they started experimenting with the drugs of the new counter-culture — marijuana, and even LSD.
During this transition, the group began writing and singing about subjects that simply weren’t discussed in public. Their “love songs” began addressing the reality of relationships of the time: they didn’t always end up in loving marital relations, but more often ended in messy situations that started showing up in their songwriting. With songs like “Yesterday” and “You Like Me Too Much” on their seminal album “Help!”, the group was obviously dealing with the inevitable complexities of romantic love in the freewheeling 60s. Their earlier songs mostly explored a rather naive view of love, where a man and a woman who found each other attractive would live in happiness and bliss for all time. As the boys in the band matured, so did their songwriting subjects, especially with regard to “romantic love.” As soon as the album “Help!,” the group was drifting away from flowery images of love and beginning to tackle the realities of relationships in a world where the woman had more and more say in the way a romance played out. By giving equal weight to the female perspective in these disagreements, the Beatles were truly reflecting and projecting the evolving values of feminism and female equality that would eventually become the Women’s Liberation Movement. Their heartfelt crooning of “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” lent the way for critical songs like “Girl,” which challenged the gender dynamics that had worked till then, but began falling apart as women began to challenge their place as nothing but a homekeeper.
This shift helped to galvanize the Women’s Liberation movement, which spoke to deep inequalities between the genders in love relationships. The Beatles directly dealt with this shift by expanding the subject of their songs to topics that had nothing to do with sophomoric love themes. With “Rubber Soul,” the group committed to themes that were beyond the small world of simple boy-girl relationships. Due to influences like Bob Dylan and other folk singers of the time, the group decided to “grow up” a little and tackle complex relational and societal issues that were more difficult to write about. Relationship songs that flipped gender dynamics came first, followed by tracks that literally had nothing to do with love or relationships.
As the Beatles grew up and began tackling more mature subject matter, so did their audience. Whether the band was reacting to powerful trends in their world or helping to create those trends is still a matter of debate. But I argue that whether they were riding the wave or creating it, they had a powerful effect on the culture of their time. They began as well-dressed (although dangerously long-haired) musicians, which I believe lent them credibility and a non-dangerous status for most suburban and sheltered kids.
This “surface-acceptability” allowed them to be messengers and harbingers of the coming cultural revolution, which was happening independent of the Beatles, but was “legitimized” by them throughout the late 1960s. By delivering a slightly less hostile and dangerous version of the 60s counterculture, the Beatles were the perfect vehicle for introducing some seriously “counter” ideas into the popular culture of the time. With songs like “Revolution” and “All You Need is Love,” the group was gently prodding the youth of that day to completely throw off the shackles of the old generation and create a new and beautiful world ruled by pure love. Their naivete and idealism only increased the feelings that the new generation could finally fix the world permanently. The revelations of Watergate and the Pentagon Papers quickly squashed those dreams, but the sentiment of “power to the people” (which John would later sing about) remained.
While the Beatles were becoming more and more socially radicalized, the Western world was hot on their heels. The summer of 69 was considered by many to be the “summer of love.” But while John and George were engaging with the psychedelic generation that they helped unleash, they began to have second thoughts. George in particular was so disgusted with the excesses and debauchery of the “love generation” that he gave up psychedelics. The Beatles were beginning to realize that the revolution they had helped create was resulting in simple drug abuse and debauchery. Once again, they were somewhat ahead of the curve. With their last two albums, they sought to once again create timeless music that was based on classic tastes that could withstand the test of time.
By the end, the Beatles had finally realized that their music and style was a major force in the worldwide culture. They attempted to return to their roots and create timeless music that would withstand the test of time. Little did they know that all their music would eventually transcend time and space, and become the bedrock of rock & roll for generations to come. I grew up on the Beatles, and throughout my life, different eras in their creativity would reverberate more or less depending on my age and maturity level. Different Beatles albums mean more or less to me as I get older, as my tastes change and my vision of the world continues to evolve. But I would argue that the Beatles’ music has much to teach all of us, regardless of age, gender or creed. Find the Beatles album that speaks to you most at the current moment and listen to it over and over — you won’t be disappointed.
Jonathan Baca is the managing editor at the Daily Lobo. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @JonGabrielB.