Run For Your Life
With 1, the recent chart-topping compilation of previous chart-topping singles, and a companion book called The Beatles Anthology, the Beatles — or perhaps more accurately, Paul, George, Ringo, and Yoko — have effected a mighty latter-day British Invasion, recapturing the hearts and minds of American consumers with an intensity which hasn't been seen since supergroupie and I'm With the Band authoress Pamela Des Barres averred that, as a teenager in the '60s, she reverently invoked Paul McCartney's name whenever she broke wind.
Since 1's release late last year, the Beatles are once again here, there, and everywhere for what feels like eight days a week in an octopus' garden in the sea: on or near the top of the Billboard album charts for months (and already having sold over 7 million copies of 1); on the cover of Rolling Stone for the bazillionth time ("It's like they never left," gushed the magazine edited by the journalistic equivalent of Pamela Des Barres); and in heavy rotation on VH-1 Classic (which has seen fit to play uninspired, patently lip-synched footage of the boys singing "Help!").
To paraphrase The Thing, the tragic, orange-skinned, rock-like member of a different (and altogether more interesting) '60s group, the Fantastic Four: Wotta revolting development this is! Two decades ago, it seemed we had finally broken free of the sitar-inflected madness that was Beatlemania. On their great 1979 London Calling LP, Marxoid rockers the Clash crowed that "phoney Beatlemania has bitten the dust" — a political and aesthetic judgment that at the time seemed every bit as self-evident as an imminent, lightning-fast Soviet victory in Afghanistan and the emergence of The Clash themselves as the most important and enduring act in the history of popular music.
Why did Beatlemania back then seem as worn out as Lady Madonna's teats or Father McKenzie's socks? One major reason: Almost a decade into what we now know to be their thankfully permanent breakup, the Fab Four had done all they could to alienate their fan base simply by continuing to release albums as solo artistes. 1979 alone occasioned, we painfully recall, such grim efforts as George Harrison's self-titled stinker (featuring "Faster," a long ode to Formula One racers and the envy they inspire in lesser mortals) and the Paul McCartney/Wings groaner Back to the Egg (featuring "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reggae" — 106 seconds of excruciating noise which argued persuasively that if Paul were not in fact already dead he should be killed immediately). Listening to such records (and let's not even disgorge our blessedly repressed memories of such offerings as Ringo's Sentimental Journey and Beaucoups of Blues, or John's Mind Games and Rock 'N' Roll) made even diehard fans hate the Beatles for indirectly giving rise to four miserable acts whose music only rarely rose above the quality of Kiss' solo discs.
Twenty-two years ago, it seemed obvious not only that The Clash were right in definitively declaring that it was all over for the lads from Liverpool, but that music fans should joyously dance on the Beatles' sonic grave. Sure, the world economy was in the crapper, Hal Lindsey had been predicting the imminent end of the late, great planet Earth for a decade, and killer bees were everywhere on the march. But to be free of the shadow of the Fab Four — and all they stood for, especially their willingness to wear out their welcome on the public stage — was something like the very definition of liberation.
Well, here we are, two decades later, and nobody listens to The Clash's music anymore, much less takes their oracular pronouncements seriously. (The one possible exception may be deposed Nicaraguan strongman and alleged child-molester Daniel Ortega, whose stylish eyeglasses and self-enriching form of revolution inspired the band's last listenable record, the1980 triple offering, Sandinista! ) Things have changed since London called and the battle come down: Along with all known copies of George Harrison and Back to the Egg, the Soviet Union is buried somewhere deep in the dung heap of history and the post-Communist rulers of Afghanistan have dedicated themselves not to socializing the means of production but to the truly progressive task of stamping out Leonardo DiCaprio-inspired hair-dos in Kabul.
While many — most — of the global changes since the '70s have improved quality of life (a trend we can only hope the Taliban will continue by next turning its attention to stamping out Leonardo DiCaprio movies, and not just in Kabul), one recent development is unambiguously for the worse: Beatlemania, phoney or authentic, is back. Big time, as the nation's toe-tapping, angioplastic vice president might put it. (We've no doubt that Dick Cheney, a suspected "Pete Is Best" diehard from way back during his draft-dodging days, was alternately humming "I Feel Fine," "I'm a Loser," and "Fixing a Hole" as doctors roto-rootered his arteries the other day.)
What are the reasons — at last count, there were at least 7 million of them — to lament this turn of events? Among them: The big sales of 1 and Anthology make it more likely that raga rock may return, (along with more jerry-rigged Beatles singles like the execrable "Free as a Bird"), that Sir Paul's paintings will continue to sell well, that Ringo will not need to return to his demeaning job as a Pullman porter on Shining Time Station anytime soon, and that the world will be a sadder place when people stop larfing at the fact that it was George Harrison's wife who beat up her husband's lung-puncturing attacker. Undoubtedly a new round of books about the Beatles will soon be hitting bookstores, including ones like Ron Schaumburg's Growing Up With the Beatles (1976), in which the author relates his adolescence to Beatles's songs (e.g., "The Fool on the Hill" was playing in the background while his father told him the facts of life). Bands such as the Tremeloes and the Buckinghams will once again try to bum a ride on the Beatles' gravy train. The Rolling Stones will be releasing more and more special boxed sets of their old songs and, even worse, will keep putting out new music in a desperate attempt to maintain the fiction that they are in fact the world's greatest rock and roll band. A DVD version of the Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band movie will be released; and on and on.
But in the interest of brevity (and sanity), let's pause over only one reason to be dismayed by this 21st-century Beatlemania. The return of the Beatles serves a darker purpose than simply filling the sable-lined pockets of Paul, George, Ringo, and Yoko with a few more shekels (though it certainly does that). It allows so-called leading-edge baby boomers born between 1946 and 1955 — that most loathsome, self-indulgent, and self-absorbed cohort in recent history, a group so despicable that it has appropriated its own hated parents' experiences in the Great Depression and World War II to its own ends — to once again assert their supposed generational exceptionalism.
As MTV newsmummy Kurt Loder demonstrated in his recent Time magazine encomium to the Beatles, baby boomers cannot even for a minute criticize themselves without immediately launching into an aggrandizing self-defense. Loder writes:
Boomers can be tiresome when they natter on too long about the fun-swollen fabulousness of the 1960s. I mean, I was there: "Flower power"? Patchouli oil? Peter Max posters? Please. But even the mistiest of such geezers is likely to be right about the rock and soul music of that decade: Who could overstate its distinctive exuberance, its heady inventiveness, or the thrill of its sheer abundance? And who could overcelebrate those most emblematic of '60s pop phenomena, the Beatles? For the Beatles were then, and remain to this day, the world's most astonishing rock-'n'-roll band … It is hard — no, it is impossible — to imagine any of the gazillion or so carefully marketed little bands of today replicating a quarter of that feat. (Even a contemporary English group such as Oasis, which baldly appropriates the superficialities of the Beatles' style, entirely misses the still-magical heart of their music.)
Loder's passage suggests what's really at stake in this latest burst of Beatlemania: an attempt by aging boomers to colonize the youth of their children, to make all who come after them replicate the boomers' own sensibilities, tastes, and experiences in a way far more totalized and stifling than anything the '60s generation rebelled against. While history has never been fair and often stacks the deck against youth, the younger generation has at least always been secure in the knowledge that their parents would eventually die off and leave them alone to get on with their lives. But in an age where lifespans are threatening to creep up to 90 over the next decade, boomers may even be robbing the rest of us of even that comforting eventuality. If they have their way, when we're 64 — and they're 94 or 104 or whatever, we'll still be listening to the Beatles. And listening to cadavers of the sixties generation talking about how the Beatles, and by extension, the boomers themselves, were the most astonishing band ever.
Nick Gillespie is editor-in-chief of reason. This story originally appeared in Suck, and can be viewed in that format here.