NEW YORK — February 1964 was the month of America's foreign occupation. The invasion began as the aggressors’ plane touched down at John F. Kennedy International Airport on Feb. 7.
It wasn't a military occupation. It was the Beatles — and the first skirmish of the British Invasion. As they appeared, screaming girls pressed forward to catch a glimpse.
The Beatles’ hair was unkempt and out of control — just as teenagers’ lifestyles were tending. No. 1 in America even before setting foot here, the Beatles were giving the nation something new to talk about — something lighter than Martin Luther King Jr.'s March on Washington and the heartbreaking assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
Register correspondent Marjorie Dannenfelser spoke to former ’60s activist and Catholic convert Peter Collier, publisher of Encounter Books, about the Fab Four's impact on American culture.
The same kids that were singing the innocent lyrics to “Love Me Do” in 1962 were later singing “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” in 1967, a song suggestive of the drug LSD. What part did music play in changing the teen-age experience during that short period of time?
I think the role of music might be a bit over-dramatized. It is true that the music emphasized the tribal nature of the teen-agers’ role in society and functioned as both a sort of anthem that expressed the allegiances of the young and encouraged them to enter the “generation gap” and stand against “the system.”
However, this is a movement that began in the ’50s. It was then that rock and roll was seen as subversive enough to be burned. In the ’60s, the Beatles and other groups provided the elevator music for a social revolution that had more profound causes and commitments: drugs and the chemical gospel of Timothy Leary and friends; anti-war and anti-authoritarian activism that, virtually unopposed by a parental generation that had ceded control, amounted to a no-fault acting out. And, of course, there was a commitment to sexual liberation that profoundly altered the roles and expectations that had traditionally organized our social lives.
John Lennon once said in jest that the Beatles were “more popular than Jesus.” Yet the Beatles’ position of authority in young people's lives was real. To what extent did the Beatles and the musicians that followed help form the culture, as opposed to the idea that they simply followed where the culture was already heading in a predetermined course?
There was a cultic aspect to the Beatles’ popularity. But perhaps it was the increasing power of the mass media that made this happen as much as the band itself. The idea of squealing teens swooning over pop idols was not exactly unknown. Consider Frank Sinatra and the bobby soxers in a previous generation and, more to the point, the cult of Elvis a decade before the Beatles arrived.
As to whether the Beatles caused change or merely expressed it, this is one of those chicken-andegg conundrums. I think they certainly expressed the yearnings — for love and autonomy, for experience and “authenticity” — that drove the ‘60s generation.
They were explicitly into drugs as drugs became de rigueur. They were into spiritual New Ageism as that movement came to the fore. But because of John Lennon's strong, if sometimes inchoate, intellectual commitments, I think the case could be made that they were a somewhat conservative group — more about love than sex, more about peace than revolution, more about contemplation than violence.
In this regard, it is useful to think of the Rolling Stones as their opposite number. The Rolling Stones were a group that always accepted the position of the Dionysian force in the culture, while the Beatles were walking on the sunny side.
So you'd say the Beatles were just riding the cultural tide?
The radical politics of the ’60s preceded the Beatles in its origins — Port Huron [the manifesto issued by the radical Students for a Democratic Society] took place a year or so before the Beatles appeared on the cultural radar screen. There was a flowering of a lot of oppositional, subversive developments in the late ’50s.
Consider the beat generation, the civil-rights movement, etc. It was these developments — rather than the Beatles’ music — that created, shall we say, a predisposition to be rebellious.
There were all sorts of semi-visible political and cultural movements and semi-movements that would eventually be organized into a massive collection of activists against the war in Vietnam. Rock groups provided the marching music. But it must be said that to the degree that they had a “position,” the Beatles were more about narcissistic selfhood rather than revolutionary solidarity.
What was your own initial response to the political activism that followed?
Virginia Woolf and others pointed out that World War I was the divide we were forced to cross over and, once on the other side, never had the option of coming back. The same is true of the 1960s.
This decade changed things forever. It was a “great party, the time of our lives.” But it also created a generation that stood by and watched a big hangover for 20 years after the fact. The drug-driven Merry Pranksterism of [Ken] Kesey and Leary and the others was all very charming, but what came after was a nightmare of hard drug abuse that is still with us.
It was all well and good for our generation to scorn “lawn order” but the epidemic of crime that followed the ’60s transformed urban life. The sexual liberation of the ’60s was a great thing in terms of undoing some stereotyping, but after the ’60s became a nostalgic memory, we got a look into what was inside Pandora's Box — sexually transmitted diseases, including AIDS. Then we had to live with an epidemic of out-of-wedlock births and family dysfunction because of the perception in the ’60s that marriage and monogamy were anti-liberationist and inauthentic.
What long-term effects has all of this had on our society?
The culture wars of the ’90s, which have done so much to weaken our institutions, particularly the university, actually began in the ’60s. It was then that a generation stood apart from all the generations that had gone before it and decided that since it had failed to implement its ideals through revolution, it would implement them by a “long march through the institutions.”
Marjorie Dannenfelser writes from Arlington, Virginia.