In February 1964, then future New Statesman's editor Paul Johnson wrote an article attacking the Beatles and all they stood for. It became the most complained-about piece in the magazine's history. I would like to share this story with you. It may have some merit.
In his article, Johnson said the Beatles' performance was music that “not only cannot be heard but does not need to be heard.” He believed that teenagers participating in this new cultural movement were just morons who came to participate in a ritual, “a collective grovelling to gods who are blind and empty.”
Yet, of his own younger days, Johnson stated, “At 16, I and my friends heard our first performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony; I can remember the excitement even today.” He continues, “We would not have wasted 30 seconds of our precious time on the Beatles and their ilk.”
Here is a paragraph from his '64 article:
“Are teenagers different today? Of course not. Those who flock round the Beatles, who scream themselves into hysteria, are the least fortunate of their generation, the dull, the idle, the failures: their existence, in such large numbers, far from being a cause for ministerial congratulation, is a fearful indictment of our education system, which in 10 years of schooling can scarcely raise them to literacy.... the core of the teenage group – the boys and girls who will be the real leaders and creators of society tomorrow – never go near a pop concert. They are, to put it simply, too busy. They are educating themselves. They are in the process of inheriting the culture which, despite Beatlism or any other mass-produced mental opiate, will continue to shape our civilization.”
(Paul Johnson. “From the archive: The Menace of Beatlism.” New Statesman.
February 28, 1964.)
I was born in 1951, so I was one of those teenagers whose life was dramatically influenced by Beatlemania and all of its hysteria and controversy. I grew up in rural Southern Ohio, and at night, I listened anxiously to WLS radio (50,000 watts of power) from Chicago to hear the latest Beatles' releases on the station's famed Silver Dollar Survey. Music has always been a best friend.
I remember those days as a magical time during which the Beatles, the leaders of the British Invasion, set trends in music, fashion, and nearly all other segments of popular culture. Musicologist Allan Moore notes; "Sometimes, audiences gravitate towards a centre. The most prominent period when this happened was in the early to mid 1960s when it seems that almost everyone, irrespective of age, class or cultural background, listened to the Beatles."
Imaginative and experimental like no popular artists before them, the Beatles captured the international mass consciousness, and they long maintained their extraordinary influence. The editors of Rolling Stone magazine's Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll defineed the band's influence as follows:
“The impact of the Beatles – not only on rock & roll but on all of Western culture – is simply incalculable … As personalities, they defined and incarnated '60s style: smart, idealistic, playful, irreverent, eclectic. Although many of their sales and attendance records have since been surpassed, no group has so radically transformed the sound and significance of rock & roll. ... (they) proved that rock & roll could embrace a limitless variety of harmonies, structures, and sounds; virtually every rock experiment has some precedent on Beatles record."
To be honest, Paul Johnson was far from alone in his criticism of the Beatles and their baby boomer fans. The controversy raged during the time. In fact, relatively modest Beatles' haircuts alone caused clean-cut conservatives to blow their gaskets from coast to coast. The Beatles were youth personified, and that caused a cultural earthquake of biblical proportions. They were so, so different, and this peculiarity scared the be-Jesus out of the establishment. Extremely intelligent and often sarcastic, they made irreverence hip in mainstream culture.
Now, Johnson's condemnation of all that encompassed Beatlemania seems comically dated. This is a good lesson for all of us. As time passes and our perspectives change, we find many of our old views regrettable. Sometimes I am overcome when I consider particularly negative ideas I once harbored. I like to believe that I have learned to question change and simply to resist it. I like to think now I change when it is apparent I am wrong.
At any rate, I think the vast majority of us now value the positive influence of the greatest rock group of all time – the Beatles. As Paul Johnson approaches age 90, he may possess a better perspective of the 1960s and all of us – young and old – who lived them. I have no idea if he still feels the same about the Beatles. And, I have no idea if he still disses my generation – the loyal fans of a band that actually changed the times. I do know that in 1964, Johnson employed his pen and his mind to misjudge that which he did not fully understand.
I think it is safe to say the public has spoken.
And, the choir says, “Amen!”