Once upon a time, long, long ago in the late 60s, I made a foolish schoolyard declaration that Creedence Clearwater Revival “shat on” The Beatles. That was essentially an adolescent rebel yell in the face of peer authority, clumsy and misdirected, but rooted in a perception that I consider legitimate to this day - that the masses are prone to stampeding.
Such was the case with The Beatles. They could do no wrong. Every single was a smash hit, every album hailed a work of genius. The adulation, the mass approbation, was overwhelming and, it seemed, indiscriminate. Lennon’s wry observation at the peak of The Beatles’ fame that they were “more popular than Jesus” sparked outrage, but it wasn’t far off the mark.
Christian cranks, in the US in particular, heaped scorn on him in a show of hatred that would have had Jesus turning in his - no, that doesn’t work. Roiling mobs threw Beatles albums on bonfires; one priest threatened to ex-communicate any of his congregation who listened to Beatles music; and even those righteous hooded soldiers of the cross, the KKK, joined the witch hunt. Ever the ones with an eye for theatre, they torched effigies of the foul four and crucified their albums on burning crosses.
It is illuminating to look beyond that sensationalist quote. Here is Lennon’s full comment, as reported in The Evening Standard in 1966:
Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink … We’re more popular than Jesus now; I don’t know which will go first - rock ‘n’ roll or Christianity. Jesus was alright, but his disciples were thick and ordinary. It’s them twisting it that ruins it for me.
Of most interest in the context of this piece are the last two sentences: Lennon was decrying the stupidity of blind faith and its corruptive dangers (components intrinsic to terrorism and the “war” against it, today). He might also have directed those charges at the vast herd of Beatles’ disciples, whose mob rapture in effect demeaned, rather than honoured, the artistry of their Chosen Ones.
This was never so evident than at Beatles concerts, where the shrill screaming of hysterical audiences drowned out the music, powered as it was then by amplification that was ludicrously puny next to the monolithic Marshall stacks and batteries of monstrously cranked up stadium-shaking speaker bins that were to become de rigueur only a few short years hence. The mob was there to revel in the mania of the stampede, to feed off each other in an ecstasy of communal adoration; the toons and their performance were not only incidental - they were irrelevant.
Lennon’s disquiet at fan worship and his unwilling deification is recalled by post-Beatles footage of him being brought to the door of a country cottage in England in which he was holed up recording with George Harrison, Yoko and others. A chemically dazed lightly-bearded American hippie in a poncho, seemingly straight out of Woodstock, had come to pay homage. He stands there gaunt and shivering in the cold, delivering a barely coherent interpretation of a couple of lines of Lennon’s lyrics, evidently seeking the Great Man’s blessing.
Lennon protests that there is nothing profound in the lyrics, that they merely meant what they meant and that he is just an ordinary person, not a god. The guy glazes over like a boxer stunned by a connecting headshot and refusing the count, seemingly unable to comprehend these awful tidings. Lennon steers him into the house for something to eat in a show of compassion not typical of his public persona.
If he survived that reality check, our hippie pilgrim no doubt traded his poncho for a suit a short time later. The 60's dream was sold out virtually overnight by the baby boomers, who shamelessly abandoned their world-changing mission in the far more pressing cause of milking for all they were worth the capitalist system they once professed with much righteous clamour to despise.
Yet while the days of Beatlemania are far behind us, and the greying baby boomers who drove the phenomenon now get their kicks from counting their bucks and playing with their expensive toys, the youthful hordes are stampeding still - so how much have things really changed?
A lot and not much.
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