"I want to see the plan. That is what I used to say to Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin. Count me out if it is for violence. Don't expect me to be on the barricades unless it is with flowers."--John Lennon
Following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy in 1968, the optimism of the Summer of Love quickly evaporated and young people revolted worldwide. In the U.S., the cataclysm came as 10,000 demonstrators descended on the Democratic Party's national convention in August. Police reacted by beating not only rock-throwing demonstrators but passersby, journalists and volunteers. Violence and revolt were now in vogue.
The Beatles, the most influential pop voice of the time, responded to this shift towards violence with "Revolution," the first Beatles song with an explicitly political statement. As John Lennon sings in his masterpiece on the need for nonviolent change, "When you talk about destruction, don't you know that you can count me out?"
The underground press--which at the time included such newspapers as the Village Voice--immediately criticized the song and Lennon for not urging outright rebellion against authority. Lennon was quick to point out that if they really wanted a revolution, it had to begin with changing the way people think: "I'm not only up against the establishment but you too. I'll tell you what's wrong with the world: people--so do you want to destroy them? Until you/we change our heads--there's no choice."
Clearly, the Left had missed the point: violence begets violence. Lennon's missive in "Revolution" thus sums up the Beatles' message--peace, love and understanding--that permeated their brief seven-year career. And it helped create one of the few lasting revolutions in history.
The Beatles "presided over an epochal shift comparable in scale to that bridging Classical Antiquity and the Middle Ages," writes professor Henry Sullivan, "or the transition from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance." Indeed, they played a central role in catalyzing a transition from the Modern to the post-Modern Age and unknowingly set in motion forces that made an entire era what it was and, by extension, is today.
Beatlemania hit the United States with full force on February 9, 1964, by way of television on the Ed Sullivan Show. For a short while, as some 72 million Americans got their first glimpse of the Beatles, with their mop-top haircuts and original music, the streets emptied and crime stopped. A cultural revolution was obviously at hand.
Elvis Presley may have been revolutionary, but there was no gender revolution until the Beatles came along. With the prominence they accorded women in their songs and the way they spoke to millions of teenaged girls about new possibilities, the Beatles eventually helped feminize the culture and led to the empowerment of young women.
The implications of the Beatles' relatively androgynous appearance had a far more profound effect on sexual liberation than anyone could have guessed at the time. As Steven Stark points out in his book Meet The Beatles, they also "challenged the definition that existed during their time of what it meant to be a man." The Beatles, as Dr. Joyce Brothers recognized at the time, "display a few mannerisms which almost seem a shade on the feminine side, such as tossing of their long manes of hair. Very young 'women' are still a little frightened of the idea of sex. Therefore they feel safer worshipping idols who don't seem too masculine, or too much the 'he-man'." To this effeminacy should be added the early Beatles' preference for high falsetto vocals.
The Beatles converged with their era--the sixties generation--in an almost unprecedented way. At no other time in history, or since, has a generation been so connected. The vehicle was rock music. And the Beatles helped create an aural culture.
The burgeoning baby boomers' fascination with music brought the sixties generation into a collective whole. "Perhaps the most important aspect of the Beatles' attraction during that influential era," writes Steven Stark, "was their collective synergy." In other words, the Beatles popularized the sanctity of "the group." With the Beatles, the whole was always greater than the sum of the parts. This gave them a dazzling appeal.
The religious allure of the Beatles was another vital factor in allowing the group to endure. John Lennon was onto something in 1966 when he compared the group's popularity with that of Jesus Christ. Multitudes flocked to them and even brought sick children to see if the Beatles could somehow heal them.
The Beatles, as new spiritual leaders, came to embody the values of the counterculture in its challenge to "the Establishment." They celebrated an alternative worldview, a vision of a new possibility. And they sang and lived this vision for others.
Unlike artists before them, the Beatles had power over millions of people worldwide. In 1967, for example, with the release of their Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band album, as one critic noted, it was the closest Europe had been to unification since the Congress of Vienna in 1815. Most thought North America could have been included as well. And the Beatles became the embodiment of the Summer of Love with their live global BBC television broadcast of "All You Need Is Love" in June 1967. Approximately 400 million people across five continents tuned in. This type of power was something new. Previously, only popes, kings and perhaps a few intellectuals could hope to wield such influence in their lifetime.
Some have even argued that the Beatles' influence helped bring down the Iron Curtain. As Yuri Pelyoshonok, a Soviet Studies professor, says:
The Soviet authorities thought of the Beatles as a secret Cold War weapon. The kids lost their interest in all Soviet unshakable dogmas and ideals, and stopped thinking of an English-speaking person as the enemy. That's when the Communists lost two generations of young people ideologically, totally lost. That was an incredible impact.
Checkpoint Charlie, the former crossing point for foreigners and Allied troops at the Berlin Wall, now serves as a reminder of the Beatles' colossal impact. Near where Checkpoint Charlie once stood, a Yellow Submarine ride now operates--a tribute to the Beatles' 1966 song of the same name.
The Beatles still impact us because they effected a revolution of spirit and mind. As "Revolution" stresses, it was not a movement about physically overthrowing a regime. It was a spiritual revolution, one aimed at overthrowing preconceived notions. Thus, before you can effect a lasting change, as John Lennon sings, you have to "free your mind."