Mysticism and the Beatles
October 10, 2012
'There's a Place' is one of my favourite Beatles songs. The B-side to 'Twist and Shout' never makes any top-100 lists. But the sounds are unearthly to me. John Lennon's strident harmonica and the transcendent duo lines work in contrast to the moodiness of the words. The emotion still hits me 50 years later.
The song draws on the early '60s idea of a secret place where we can go for solace, but while the Drifters are found 'Up on the Roof' and Brian Wilson goes 'In my Room', John affirms that he is never alone in his own mind. This is not only a breach of the concept, and a revelation about John's centredness as an individual, it is a surprise because the words aren't being crooned softly but literally screamed out. The Beatles were different.
There is a theory that our musical directions begin to be formed by what we listened to at age 16. The dream was 'over' when I turned 16, but to this day I still ponder why so many people are Beatles tragics.
Not only are most of the tunes instantly recognisable and the lyrics easy to pick up but I can rehearse all the most arcane history about this band. Is Brian Epstein 'Mister Moonlight'? Did Paul McCartney die in a car accident to be replaced by someone who played the bass guitar in exactly the same way? Can Ringo Starr sing? Is George Harrison the je ne sais quoi that kept it all together? Why am I still interested in this crazy stuff?
The Beatles reinvented rock and roll music. They took the American '50s form and completely transformed it. Other musicians in the '60s did similar things, but not with the same versatility, variety, playfulness and sheer creative musicianship. That they did all of this while living through unprecedented popular adoration, unimaginable fame, is proof of the their individual level-headedness and of the good taste of the listening public at that time.
And they were English, bringing an entire tradition of pub singing, music hall, vaudeville, and sentimentality unknown to pluralistic America. When they crossed the Atlantic in 1964, the Beatles unwittingly turned rock music into the main international popular form, an inheritance we still live with today, especially in the Anglosphere.
We live in world of 24-hour global entertainment. 1962 was different. There was the book and cinema, radio and television, but popular culture was still largely a local concern. Mass production of records and paraphernalia coupled with the sudden expansion of media across national borders were new realities that the Beatles were able to exploit with resounding success.
Millions of people could relate to 'There's a Place' all at the same time. 'All You Need is Love' was the first live global television link (1967). It's no wonder that attention on the four members of the band was intense. The Fab Four became the gurus of 'Instant Karma', whether in your own mind or shared in the now across the known world. Today satellite is something we take for granted, a fact of life.
And what of these four people in my head? As well as their music, I pay attention to their religion.
From first to last their main message is Love, something they had been taught from an early age not only by family but by the close Liverpool society in which they grew up. It has never seemed just an accident of circumstance that Lennon and McCartney first met at a church fete. The broad message of Christianity is at the very front of the lyric concerns of the Beatles, even if Christianity itself is almost never acknowledged.
Love in its different expressions, of course. Eros is there continuously, both positive and negative, but Agape informs many of the songs. Familial love, and need for love of family, plays a part in the composition of several songs. McCartney's 'Let It Be', for example, could be a Marian hymn until we learn it is written for his mother. While actual love of God is the motivating cause, if not directly named, in 'Because' and 'Across the Universe'.
The Beatles are not bigger than Jesus and trying to make an apologetic for what Lennon meant has taxed many fans. We know he regretted his notorious statement soon after making it, and it stands today more as a sign of how out of proportion the phenomenon of the Beatles had become. More instructive, I think, is Lennon's reply later in his short life when asked what he felt about Christianity: 'I'm into whatever is happening'.
The other Beatle we associate closely with religion is Harrison; he is even called 'the mystical Beatle'. Visits to India inspired Harrison with a lifelong love of Indian music and devotion to Krishna.
As with their music, so with their religion, the Beatles did not so much reject their influences as test them, seeking alternatives and building on what they knew. Whether in art or belief, they were never interested in experimentation for its own sake but in how to make something new out of something old.
In all of this they played out in their popular art the divergent and changing expectations of Western society at a time when old ways were being openly questioned and hedonism was becoming a good in itself.
Philip Harvey is the poetry editor of Eureka Street. He maintains a word study site, a poetry readings site and a workplace blogspot. This month is the 50th anniversary of the first Beatles single in England.
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11 Oct 2012
John Lennon's IMAGINE denies the existence of heaven and hell and wishes for a world with no religions. Any link they have with Christianity is tenuous.
11 Oct 2012
JefBaker11 Oct 2012
The Beatles' popularity had much to with the psychedelic drug culture which is an entheogenic experience, having profound effects on the sense of self, world view and ones socio/cultural ideological conditioning. The prevalence of LSD (& others), I believe, was the intrinsic catalyst to the social change that the 60's bought about and the Beatles, like their contemporary's, expressed this through their music disseminating this alternate ontology to an already established mass audience yearning for change. http://jeffgoins.myadventures.org/?filename=god-and-john-lennon-carrying-on
12 Oct 2012
To Grebo. Yes, the immediate post-Beatles John Lennon (1969-72) wrote lyrics of dogmatic boldness, that nevertheless placed himself (and Yoko, most of the time) at the centre of the universe. You can only be thirty once. It’s a lovely place to be, though every age is a lovely place to be, rightly considered. I personally regard ‘John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band’ not just as one of his best recordings ever, but one of the masterpieces of rock and roll music. His ‘list’ songs on that record reject almost everything and everyone, short of his love for Yoko. My view is he is rejecting false gods in these songs, including false Beatles, false Dylans, false Jesuses. Far from being anti-religious, this is in my view seriously religious behaviour, to reject falsity in a desire to find the truth. ‘Imagine’, a more refined later song of the same vintage, is one of my unfavourite Lennon songs. John was not the messiah, he could be just a naughty boy. His desire to deny heaven and hell, though, has everything to do with Christianity: it’s not tenuous. Surely the real question is, what are heaven and hell? When I listen to the Beatles, heaven and hell are not absent.
12 Oct 2012
To Jef Baker. Yes, the drugs. The mythology recounts that the Beatles enjoyed a drink off-stage, before 1964 when Bob Dylan introduced them to marijuana in New York. The psychedelics happen a year or so later, and only John (according to my reading of the mythology) got into heroin. The Beatles went on every week through the sixties producing their amazing music because their main intoxicant was the legally permitted upper known as Music. This differentiated them in meaningful ways from others in the counterculture of drugs and love-ins of which they were a part. Paul seems to have had the longest history of indulging in recreational cannabis, while George is recorded as saying that Indian culture (music, religion, outlook) was his replacement for the drug culture that he could not relate to. Lysergic acid had a big impact on the youth of mid-sixties London, but I would be wary of saying it was the main influence. Drugs was not a subject of my essay. The structure of their music after ‘Help!’ is self-evidently influenced by mind-altering drugs. And a lot of other things.
20 Oct 2012
Sorry for this later reply and hope I haven't miss the boat making a contribution - but just wanted to mention the The Hare Krishna mantra which appears in a song sung by The Beatles (in the lyrics of George Harrison and John Lennon) - and draw attention to Gaudiya Vaishnava theology where one's original consciousness and goal of life is pure love of God (Krishna) - and also the interfaith connection some thinkers make between Krishna and Christ (Jesus).