Class, commerce and pop: what the Beatles mean today

A band like the Beatles could never make it as big as they did in our era of hyper-commercialisation and Brit School elitism. 

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Fifty years ago, then future New Statesman editor Paul Johnson wrote a critical essay warning against the imminent “apotheosis of inanity” heralded by the success of the Beatles. The piece was the most complained about in the first half of the Statesman’s history.

Now, the Beatles are a profitable fixture of the British “culture industry” – surpassed only by Shakespeare and Harry Potter – but Johnson’s fears of a “generation enslaved by a commercial machine” still offer insight into the relationship between class, music and the direction of society.

“There’s room at the top they are telling you still/But first you must learn how to smile as you kill/If you want to be like the folks on the hill,” John Lennon sang on “Working Class Hero”. The lines are, of course, ironic. Lennon invokes the fury of the Angry Young Men, surveying these “peasants” and proposing himself as their leader – from New York. He was aware that the tendency to depict the band merely as Likely Lads from Liverpool obscured the complicated story of their background.

As the band’s authorised biographer, Hunter Davies, explains, the Beatles were grammar-school-educated and aspirational; shaped by broken homes as much as by class. That we focus only on the last of these reflects a deficit in our own time. In music, we have become more class-conscious than ever: witness the hostility towards the “posh boys” of Mumford & Sons as well as the cynicism about acts emerging from the Brit School in London and other performing arts colleges.

At the same time, the industry machine to which Johnson objected is enfeebled. The big five major labels – Island, EMI, Parlophone, Warner, Universal – have been consolidated into three.

Arctic Monkeys may have launched, Beatles-like, from provincial northern England in 2002 but already they feel like the last gasp of the indie optimism that gave birth to Oasis and Pulp.

The financial downturn, and the rise of sharing and streaming services that have made it harder to earn a living from recorded music, have left the independent scene in Britain much diminished. It is hard enough to make a career playing gigs in London; it is almost impossible outside it. Small venues that give new acts a chance, as the Cavern Club did, are in short supply.

All this makes it harder for music to become a channel to self-definition for those who need it. In an age when televised talent shows appear to be the sole route to commercial success for working-class artists, is it still possible for a band to transcend its origins and capture the historical moment?

Sadly, if you try to look for the Beatles of today on our independent music scene, you will find nothing. 

Read all the articles in the our Beatles Special: 

– Paul Johnson’s archive piece, “The Menace of Beatlism”

– “Come together: the collision of culture, chemistry and magic that created the Beatles”, by Hunter Davies

“Who was the fabbest of the four?” Alan Johnson, Terry Jones, Joan Bakewell and Geoff Lloyd make the cases for Paul, John, George and Ringo respectively

"Forty pairs of abandoned knickers", Maureen Lipman on the Fab Four in Hull

This article appears in the 20 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, What the Beatles did for Britain

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