By Gordon Thompson
On 9 October, many in the world will remember John Winston Ono Lennon, born on this date in 1940. He, of course, would have been amused, although part of him (the part that self-identified as “genius”) would have anticipated the attention. However, he might also have questioned why the Beatles and their music, and this Beatle in particular, would remain so current in our cultural thinking. When Lennon described the Beatles as just a band that made it very, very big, why did we doubt him?
Today, the music of the Beatles remains popular, perhaps because it helped define a musical genre that continues to flourish, leading some to speculate that these songs and recordings express inherent transcendental qualities. Nevertheless, no graphed demonstration of harmonic relationships and melodic development and no semiotic divination of their lyrics can explain what these individuals and their music have meant to Western civilization. Those born in the aftermath of the Second World War harbor the most obvious explanations. A plurality of the children who came of age during the sixties continues to hold the Beatles as an ideal expression of that decade’s emphasis on self-determination and optimism.
The composer of “A Hard Day’s Night,” “If I Fell,” “Help!,” “Nowhere Man,” “In My Life,” “Strawberry Fields Forever,” “I Am the Walrus,” “Across the Universe,” “Imagine,” and other classics of the modern Western canon left an indelible mark on our notions of music and expression. Where Paul McCartney searched for polite answers to reassure adults, Lennon often seemed to taunt reporters, to the delight of adolescents and the adolescent at heart. When Lennon got into trouble (as he did when American Christians took umbrage at his comparison of fan reaction to the Beatles and to Jesus), we apprehended our own image in the mirror of his discomfort. Moreover, when he shed the conventions of adolescence for the complicated independence of adulthood, we followed his example, albeit usually with less flair and more humility.
In many ways, John Lennon represented a twentieth-century Everyman: someone in whom we could see ourselves re-imagined in extraordinary circumstances with a quicker wit and more charisma. His assassination thirty years ago in December 1980 consequently left an indelible mark on us, standing as one of those moments stained in memory and time. That he had recently emerged from a well-earned domestic sabbatical with renewed possibilities, which both he and his fans recognized, made his death all the more tragic.
Just as the Fab Four had helped to define adolescent identities, perhaps these same baby boomers recognized in Lennon’s death the fragility of our own existence writ large on the wall. And, as the writing hand moved on, we contemplated one last indisputable truth that this most poetic Beatle had bequeathed: the passion play of his life, career, and death had provided us with a sand mandala of our own impermanent individual selves.
Pop culture by definition presents a fleeting expression of our consciousness, which we perpetually construct and reconstruct; but we sometimes forget that the currents of culture have lasting effects on the swimmers. Lennon, Harrison, McCartney, and Starr may have only been musicians that made it very, very big; but, in their roles as ritual players on the altar of the sixties, they played out an extraordinary version of everyday universal lives.
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. Check out Thompson’s other posts here.