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The Beatles and the Counterculture of the Sixties
The counterculture of the Sixties signifies one of the most powerful upheavals in Western history, when new ideas were surfacing and traditional values were being challenged or rejected. The young generation was rebelling against the authorities and seeking freedom and independence from social constraints.
As the Liverpudlian poet Brian Patten once noted, the ambiance of the Sixties was like “a fizzly electrical storm.” Patten’s statement can also be borrowed to describe The Beatles’ roaring debut in Western countries, particularly in the USA and Britain.
A revolution in music
In the early Sixties, bands and artists wishing to sign a recording contract had to be professional and look presentable, while the company’s producers would select the songs for them. The Beatles did not meet these prerequisites for the simple reason that they sported long hair and were also known to be quite loud. Furthermore, The Beatles composed and played their own music, and this fact didn't go down well with the music critics of that period. Lennon and McCartney worked separately on songwriting, which was highly uncommon among other bands and artists that preceded them.
In order to break away from the traditional structure of music, the band made use of exotic sounds, different scales and sound effects. The song Within You Without You, which was inspired by Harrison’s interest in Indian and Oriental culture, is a good example of the band’s versatility. Nonetheless, the songs which first attracted the British public to The Beatles were Love Me Do and Please Please Me.
The band’s two great composers experimented with different tones and moods which did not always compliment the melody and rhythm of the music. When compared to the traditional style of music played by the composers and musicians that came before The Beatles, the latter’s lyrics sound quite confusing and incoherent to the average listener. The critic and writer Ian McDonald believes that this ‘carefree sensationalism’ that was expressed in The Beatles’ songs were partially responsible for the Sixties’ Cultural Revolution.
As The Beatles acknowledged the effect they were having on people who championed liberal values, they continued to produce more songs that encouraged this cultural change. While My Guitar Gently Weeps is one of the songs which reflects the band’s stance in the political world. Lennon was known to be very aware of what was going on in society and how people were dividing themselves into extreme groups according to their different values. His concern about social conflicts is best illustrated in his solo Imagine.
The San Francisco hippie community
The counterculture of San Francisco started as an opposing response to the mainstream culture which was too engrossed in materialism. One of the earliest communal scenes was founded by the Merry Pranksters, followers of Ken Kesey, the American author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. They lived with Kesey and his wife in Perry Lane, known at the time for its bohemian ambiance.
The hippies’ mission was towards free sex and peace, expressed through psychedelic music and LSD; the drug which supposedly causes inspirational hallucinations for its users. The Beatles’ song Rain was written specifically for the effects of LSD and it is also the first song by The Beatles which mentions the difference between the two generations; the conventional and the revolutionary.
The counterculture events of San Francisco attracted a number of pilgrims, including Harrison and McCartney. They both expressed different opinions on that social phenomenon, with McCartney describing it as a show about drugs. Paul was however struck by the San Francisco hippies, especially the Merry Pranksters, finding them more interesting than their British counterparts. The Merry Pranksters’ colourful touring bus inspired McCartney to write Magical Mystery Tour.
In the late Sixties, the counterculture turned into mainstream culture, and The Beatles’ records also became an interest of mass culture. Western societies had become more secular as the economically advanced countries experienced new inventions, most prominently the first heart transplants and chemical contraceptives.These common desires and concerns for social change are conveyed in the majority of The Beatles’ records, including Revolution, A Day in the Life, Come Together and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. As Aaron Copland famously stated, “If you want to know about the Sixties, play the music of The Beatles.”
The revolution of the Sixties didn’t quite leave a good impression on the conservatives of the succeeding decades who blamed the escalating rates of violence, drug-addiction, broken marriages and crime on the Sixties’ liberal attitudes.
The Sixties also witnessed a number of controversial changes in Western societies, including the legalisation of the abortion pill and homosexuality. Furthermore, the divorce laws of the Sixties led to the trend of relationships and cohabitation replacing marriages in the Seventies and the following years.
The Beatles brought about a revolutionary change in Western lifestyles. Their coincidental appearance with the counterculture movements inspired them to write songs that would become popular with supporters of freedom and reformation. However, both The Beatles and supporters of the counterculture were dependent and influential on each other, and both can be seen as a starting point for the radical changes that followed.