Imagine

21st September 2001 at 01:00
John Lennon is a history unit in his own right. He and the Batles have made their way into the schemes of work. John Kellecher examines the life of a rock evolutionary.

In the summer of 1967, television embarked on a revolutionary venture - a show called "Our World" that would, for the first time, link nations around the globe in a live broadcast.

For hours, black and white images were bounced around the Earth by satellite. "Swinging" Britain offered something special - the Beatles bedecked in flower-power finery, singing "All You Need is Love", which was specially composed for the event. It was a defining moment - an anthem to the notion that love could change the world, beamed to millions of people by the BBC. It made palpable the belief that pop music had the force to shape events and ideas.

In today's era of dance music and boy bands, it's hard to imagine that such ideas once held sway. No one seriously expects showbiz outfits like Hear'Say or Atomic Kitten to change anything except their relative positions in the charts.

But performers such as Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, The Who and the Beatles were seen back then as the cutting edge of a revolution. With Dylan singing "The Times They Are A Changin'", the Stones blasting out "Street Fighting Man" and The Who thundering "My Generation", the world listened. They were seen as a threat by many in authority. Files were kept on John Lennon by MI5 and, after he moved to New York, by the FBI.

Hindsight suggests all those songs about changing the world were just so much blowing in the wind. Music couldn't stop the wars - not even pacifist hymns such as "Give Peace A Chance". Rock was about hedonism; its impact illusory. Society and history rolled inexorably on regardless. Or did they?

Looking back at the start of the 1960s, it becomes clear what a huge transformation has taken place - a social revolution, in which youth is pre-eminent, with music threaded into the fabric of change. Our entire popular culture tries to bend the ear of the singularly mighty youth market.

There was little pop radio in the early '60s, just Radio Luxembourg and, later, the pirate stations such as Radio Caroline, and one or two pop shows on the BBC. Just two black and white TV channels, with "Juke Box Jury" as the BBC's offering on popular culture. No computers, no internet, no mobile phones. No boutiques and shopping malls full of music.

In 1962, when the Beatles released their first single "Love Me Do", middle-class Britons were just beginning to take overseas holidays. There were no Indian takeaways, burger joints, wine bars or pizza parlours. No microwaves or video cameras. Few people had cars or central heating. Kids didn't wear trainers and there was no Sun newspaper. No heart transplants or birth control pills. The moon was yet to be visited and trade unions were still a major force in politics. This was a Britain where Colonel Blimp and Andy Capp still reflected reality. Since then, we have seen the inexorable rise of the middle classes, and the class system has become shakier.

There have been other kinds of social change, too. Women's rights have made big strides and gay rights are firmly on the agenda, but in the early Sixties homosexual activity, even in private, was a crime. Many minority rights are now enshrined in law, and traditional British culture has been enriched by immigrants from many parts of the world. Popular culture can now truly besaid tobe multicultural. In the 1960s, all new plays staged in London still had to be submitted to official censors. Now, freedom of artistic expression is taken more or less for granted.

Rebellion wasn't in the air in 1962 - though it was in the hair. Mop-top hairstyles were considered every bit as dangerous as the quiffs of youth's earlier rebels, the Teddy boys of the 1950s. This was the birth of the youth tribes who still stake their territories out today in fashion and bodily adornments.

It also moved the cult of the rebel to the heart of our culture. Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry and other rock and roll stars of the 1950s were prototypes for a youthful anti-hero that has been a constant ever since. Back then, Marlon Brando summed up this cult of rebellion in the movie The Wild One. As the leader of a biker gang, he was asked what he was rebelling against. He replied: "What have you got?" Modern equivalents might include Eminem, Marilyn Manson and the gangsta rappers.

John Lennon irritated many people in his time but, as a rebel, he has been deified. In 1980, at the age of 40, the former Beatle was shot dead in 1980 on the streets of New York, his adopted hometown, by an obsessed fan. His death has endowed him with a mythic status and he remains, despite the passage of years, a very recognisable contemporary figure.

Lennon was always difficult. Before the launch of the Beatles, as a rocker in the tough clubs of Liverpool and Hamburg, brawling was a regular part of his life. He didn't suffer fools - or critics - gladly. That abrasiveness never left him. He was always able to offer vitriolic wit - or worse - to the world around him. Alongside the Beatles' joyousness, Lennon nurtured something darker. He often courted controversy. At the height of the Beatles' fame, he remarked casually: "We are more popular than Jesus". His music offered sharp angles to the melodic roundness of Paul McCartney. In concert, Lennon was a wild card, his jutting jaw a foil to McCartney's doe-eyed charm. While McCartney had romantic inclinations, Lennon's performance show-stoppers were hard songs - "Twist and Shout", "Money" or "Bad Boy".

His writing mixed whimsical wordplay with mordant wit. His self-penned biography on the back of his first book of stories and drawings, In His Own Write, begins, "I was bored on the 9th of Octover 1940 when, I believe, the Nasties were still booming us led by Madalf Heatlump".

Later, he revelled in mind-altered states and offered a shadowy, disturbing surrealism in songs such as "Tomorrow Never Knows", "I Am The Walrus" and "Strawberry Fields Forever", with lines like "Living is easy with eyes closedMisunderstanding all you seeIt's getting hard to be someone, but it all works out.It doesn't matter much to me". Even his tender songs had gristle.

Where did his anger come from? Lennon had a tough childhood. His father abandoned the family when John was four and he was raised by his Aunt Mimi. At 18, he was only just getting to know his estranged mother Julia when she was killed in a road accident. He forged early bonds with McCartney, who was 16 when his mother died of breast cancer.

Lennon's psychic wounds surfaced overtly in his songwriting after the split with the Beatles. Where his early solo work was emotionally raw and primal, here were blistering songs that railed against the world, against the "religion" of the Beatles and, in the cathartic song "Mother", against his mother. He screeched of betrayal: "Mother, you had me, but I never had you. I wanted you, you didn't want me." These emotions were later gently echoed by his own son Julian, whom John left as a small boy, in the understated song "Too Late For Goodbye".

Lennon was a bright but difficult child. Art school gave him an expressive outlet but rock and roll caught his imagination and offered a more beguiling direction. John, Paul, George and Ringo came together at just the right time in the twilight of rock's first great age. It was the end of post-war austerity in Britain and of the McCarthy era in America. A new transatlantic mood was afoot. The electrifying blast of the Beatles' sound helped crystallise this mood and celebrate the start of something new. Guided by their manager Brian Epstein, the Beatles ruled music for a decade.

The backdrop of the '60s offered a rapidly evolving succession of overlapping youth rebellions. The street-fighting era of the Mods and Rockers gave way to the drug-soaked psychedelic hippy age of love and peace. Teenage protesters marched against the Bomb and the Vietnam war, and for civil rights, women's rights and student rights. The Woodstock generation dreamt of radical change and popular music provided its soundtrack.

But while musicians such as Jimi Hendrix and The Doors offered dark manifestoes, the Beatles sustained a bridge between disaffected youth and the older generation.

That bridge remains uniquely and remarkably sturdy today, with successive generations listening to Beatles music. It is a phenomenon that has not been replicated. No artist or group since has compacted the social force of the Beatles and their trans-generational popularity. In a globalised landscape of DJs and dance music, dancing boy bands and downloadable music, the sort of music pioneered by the Beatles is no longer even near the cutting edge. But this is a landscape that the Beatles and their generation played a seminal role in creating.

Could a Beatles-type phenomenon occur today? Probably not. New stars might soar to fame and wealth, but the landscape has changed. Their impact is contained. It's all profit margins now.

The idea that music might promote social change no longer has currency. Dissent has been commodified - shock and challenge are just sales ploys. But Lennon and his contemporaries still have a modern resonance, because they embodied values that seemed to offer a serious challenge to the status quo. He now stands shoulder to shoulder with generations of rebels.

Lennon's artistic achievements will continue to be debated. While the Beatles' music is almost universally admired, Lennon's solo work provokes a mixed reaction. "Imagine", for instance, is regularly chosen as one of the greatest songs of the 20th century. Many see it is as a profound expression of popular idealism, but others find it banal and a measure of pop's capacity for pretentiousness.

But Lennon's importance is unassailable. Society now, in many ways, is the way it is because of the Beatles and the music of the 1960s. What might he be doing today if he had survived? In a 1969 interview, Lennon said: "We're all Christ and we're all Hitler. We are trying to make Christ's message contemporary. We want Christ to win. What would he have done if he had advertisements, TV, records, films and newspapers? The miracle today is communication. So let's use it." Probably he'd be somewhere on the cutting edge - surprising people and still refusing the soft option.

RESOURCES

* The Beatles Reference Library at the Institute of Popular Music at Liverpool University has a website with a comprehensive archive, including album covers and links to other sites. Visit www.liv.ac.ukipmbeatles

* The Beatles Shop, 31 Mathews Street, Liverpool L2 6RE, 0151 236 8066. Visit www.thebeatleshop.co.uk

* Cavern City Tours runs tours and festivals. 0151 236 9091 or www.cavern-liverpool.co.uk

* The Beatles Story is at Britannia Vaults, Albert Dock, Liverpool, 0151 709 1963. For brief information visit www.merseyworld.com albertbeatexp

* London-based Freshwater theatre company offers schools presentations of living history in character, including a John Lennon event. Contact Helen Woods at the company on 020 7241 5476.

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