Gordon Thompson is Professor of Music at Skidmore College. His book, Please Please Me: Sixties British Pop, Inside Out, offers an insider’s view of the British pop-music recording industry, and will be published in August. In the article below he looks a Beatles’ revolution.
On 21 August 1940, Winston Churchill famously declared, “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.” The RAF had been dominating the Luftwaffe in the air and Churchill saw an opportunity to bolster British morale amid the fire, smoke, and death on the ground. In Liverpool less than two months later and during the Blitz, a mother would celebrate the Prime Minister’s resolve by naming her son John Winston Lennon, someone else to whom many would owe much and no less so than for what he contributed in another turbulent August.
On 11 August 1968, the Beatles announced “National Apple Week” and launched their own label, Apple Records, as a declaration of independence from corporate media. In many respects, they were babes in the woods with the wolves of the industry at their heels, but during a summer of increasingly violent riots and protests, Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr defied expectations of their demise. In August 1967, their manager and friend Brian Epstein had died after naïvely mixing drugs and alcohol, leaving the band and their finances in shock and disarray. Almost immediately, the Beatles went into a brilliantly destructive tailspin, launching one ill-fated venture after another: a divisive retreat to India with the Maharishi, a clothing store on Baker Street renowned for shoplifting, and the Boxing Day disaster of their film, Magical Mystery Tour. A year after Epstein’s death, they returned to what they knew best: making records.
Apple released three charting records on 30 August 1968: Mary Hopkin’s “Those Were the Days” (produced by Paul McCartney), Jackie Lomax’s “Sour Milk Sea” (produced by George Harrison), and the Beatles’ “Hey Jude” and “Revolution.” Both the Hopkin and Beatles disks would climb to the top of British charts, but where the former simply updated a nostalgic Russian ditty, the latter broke new ground in more ways that we can discuss here. In particular, Lennon’s “Revolution” challenged the violence that the Rolling Stones seemed to be embracing in “Street Fighting Man.” Although a master of obfuscation (consider “I Am the Walrus”), Lennon openly and plainly questions politicos of every stripe while striking down a path he would follow for most of his short life, his most poignant articulation coming with “Imagine” (1971).
Released a little over a week after soviet tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia quashing the Prague Spring democracy and only days after Chicago police rioted against war protesters, “Revolution” scathingly chastised the chattering of authority, right and left. Rather than the catalyst for revolution that Richard Nixon had imagined Lennon to be, the Liverpudlian born in a milieu of bombs and death called upon a generation to stop and to consider the consequences of violence and demagoguery. Evoking his stature as a Beatle, he essentially asked everyone to step back and take a deep breath. He succeeded in taunting both conservatives and radicals, but he also gave voice to reason. In that summer of human conflict, his cynicism rang true.