How The Beatles Changed the World

by John Plowright Rating: Release Date:
How The Beatles Changed the World
How The Beatles Changed the World

John (‘more popular than Jesus”) Lennon was always inclined to make sweeping statements, and in December 1970, when interviewed by ‘Rolling Stone’s’ Jann Wenner, was particularly keen to dismiss and demythologize The Beatles.

Thus when asked, ‘What do you think the effect was of The Beatles on the history of Britain?’ he replied:

“ … the people who are in control and in power, and the class system and the whole bullshit bourgeoisie is exactly the same, except there is a lot of fag middle class kids with long, long hair walking around London in trendy clothes, and Kenneth Tynan is making a fortune out of the word ‘fuck.’ Apart from that, nothing happened. We all dressed up, the same bastards are in control, the same people are runnin’ everything. It is exactly the same.”

Not surprisingly Lennon’s statement is not repeated and its sentiment not articulated in ‘How the Beatles Changed the World’ (released on DVD last October and now available on Netflix), as this would completely undermine its thesis that The Beatles changed not just Britain but the world, and not just musically but socially, culturally and spiritually.

Few, if any, would subscribe fully to Lennon’s iconoclastic assessment but measuring precisely how and to what extent the world was changed by The Beatles is no easy matter. It is therefore a small miracle that in a little over 100 minutes ‘How the Beatles Changed the World’ does such a good job of exploring these questions.

It begins, sensibly enough, by examining the hierarchical and deferential but also de-industrializing and decolonising Britain in which the future Beatles grew up: a world which clung to traditions such as respect for the monarchy and the Sabbath but which was starting, like the United States, to witness the advent of the teenager, possessed of considerable disposable income, and the opening up of a generation gap, which was most passionately expressed through music.

The documentary pays due regard to the benefits which Paul, George and John received from attending grammar school and from the latter’s attending art college but no mention is made of The Beatles’ good fortune in not having to undergo national service – an omission all the more surprising given that everybody knows that Elvis was never the same after the Army.

There are other omissions. Thus whilst the Angry Young Men, the Lady Chatterley Trial, and the Profumo Affair are all rightly wheeled out as representative of changing times, the cultural impact of the alternative Fab Four of Beyond the Fringe goes unremarked. Nor is there anywhere any consideration of the particular importance of The Beatles in the affections of youths behind the Iron Curtain: a topic addressed in literature such as Leslie Woodhead’s ‘How the Beatles Rocked the Kremlin’ and even, to a certain extent by Paul himself, in the ‘Paul McCartney in Red Square’ DVD.

On the other hand, The Beatles’ own contributions to chipping away at deference, such as their banter with journalists and one another in press conferences and Lennon’s superbly judged ‘rattle your jewellery’ remark at the 1963 Royal Variety Performance are covered by both abundant archive clips and insightful commentary.

It is worth pointing out that like ‘It Was Fifty Years Ago Today!’ (also reviewed here) this documentary has numerous ‘talking heads’ who possess great expertise, including Bill Harry, Tony Bramwell, Barry Miles and John Dunbar. Moreover, unlike ‘It Was Fifty Years Ago Today!’ this documentary enjoys a budget which allows the inclusion of a sprinkling of audio clips of Beatles’ songs and of film of The Beatles in performance.

The overall story the film presents is, of course, familiar to any Beatles fan and occasionally at times here comes close to descending into cliché (“provided the soundtrack for a generation”), hyperbole (Dylan would not have gone electric without The Beatles), or indeed attributing every change in popular music and culture to The Beatles (yes, they helped make singer-songwriting the norm but one shouldn’t overlook pioneers in this regard such as Buddy Holly and Chuck Berry).

However, the film has some really interesting suggestions, chief of which is that after ‘Beatles for Sale’ when the group was exhausted and when John, George and Ringo had all settled more or (in John’s case) less happily into something resembling a married suburban lifestyle in the Surrey stockbroker belt, it was the still single Paul, based at the Asher residence in London and insatiably curious about everything avant garde and experimental that the capital had to offer, who was instrumental in ensuring that The Beatles retained their artistic edge, although George’s increasing interest in Indian music and Eastern religion, and John and George’s experimentation with LSD also contributed to their period of most extraordinary innovation from ‘Rubber Soul’ through to ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’.

There is no gainsaying the fact that The Beatles lost some of their audience when their more strait-laced fans considered them to have ‘gone weird’ but there’s equally no denying the fact, made with considerable eloquence in ‘How the Beatles Changed the World’ that had it not been for the Fab Four then far fewer people would have embraced Transcendental Meditation® or the counter-culture.

In more reflective moments Lennon was ambivalent about violent change (“You can count me out … in”) but ‘How the Beatles Changed the World’ entertainingly leaves one in no doubt that the group became a revolutionary force for change in many more ways than the length of our hair.

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