Why the Beatles

I’ve spent a lot of time in Mexico lately, and some of my younger friends there have asked why there is such a mystique surrounding the Beatles. So here are my thoughts, especially for my younger friends who know something big was happening at the time but crave more context on the Beatlemania that swept the world in the 1960s.

They only released 12 studio albums over 7 years, but in shaping the modern (post-Elvis) era of music, no other band comes close. 11 of those 12 albums reached #1 on the charts (and the 12th peaked at #2). Nearly every song on every album was a hit. When I look today at Rolling Stone magazine’s list of top 100 Beatles songs, I can sing at least 85 of them right now off the top of my head, and so can many people without even realizing it. No other band has seeped into the popular imagination in quite that way. As an indication of their dominance, even the last song on the Rolling Stone list, #100, reached #1 on the singles charts. During some years, they were releasing hit songs so fast that they were taking up all the spots (e.g., there was at least one week in the mid-1960s when three of the top five songs were all Beatles songs). Keith Richards, who was there at the 1960s epicenter as lead guitarist for the Rolling Stones, once said that there would be no Rolling Stones without the Beatles, because “they kicked the door in” for the Stones and everyone else to follow. (You can see Keith, Mick Jagger, and others in a couple of the later Beatles clips below, as they were usually hanging around for the taping.)

Ozzy Osbourne, whose Satanic antics with his late 60s proto-metal band, Black Sabbath, earned him the nickname “The Prince of Darkness,” was once talking to one of the Sex Pistols in the mid-70s London punk scene. The Sex Pistol (I forget which one) said he didn’t like the Beatles. Ozzy’s response was typical Ozzy: “There’s something fucking wrong with you,” was all he said. But he later added: “For a musician in 1970s London, saying you don’t like the Beatles is like saying you don’t like oxygen.”

The revolutionary work of the Beatles – culturally and musically – is less clear now than it was then, partly (1) because they shaped the sound of music so much to their own image that they now sound like just “one of those 1960s bands,” and (2) their own evolution from beautiful pop love songs to psychedelic rock and experimental sounds, though rapid, was steady enough that no one point seems revolutionary (although some would focus on the 1967 release of the Sgt Pepper’s album as that point). So yes, there were many great bands in the mid-60s to mid-70s reshaping the sonic universe of music, and some of them you might like more than the Beatles, but most of them looked back at the Beatles as the groundbreakers.

Here are a few songs in historical order:

(If it helps measure historical impact, note that even what I’ve listed as “late” Beatles came before the emergence of Pink Floyd or Led Zeppelin or the Woodstock festival.)

Early Beatles (1964) https://vimeo.com/241059239
Middle Beatles (1966) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yYvkICbTZIQ
Late Beatles (1967): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=usNsCeOV4GM

And bonus songs/videos from 1967-68:
Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds (1967) https://vimeo.com/249451145
All You Need Is Love (1967) https://vimeo.com/214047758
Revolution (1968) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AFckPkukF7g

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Interesting facts. The 2.4 million stone blocks used for the construction of the Great Pyramid at Giza weigh an average of 2.5 tons each. Built around 2560 BC, this pyramid was (at 481 feet) the tallest man-made structure in the world for almost 4000 years until Lincoln Cathedral was finished in 1311 AD. It contains “more masonry than all the medieval cathedrals, churches and chapels built in Europe added together” (Wilson, 1996, p. 6).


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Turning the Page on Locke: Private Property in the Coming Age

John Locke (1632-1704) left quite an intellectual legacy for modernity to brood over. He was a founding figure of the empirical age, arguing that all knowledge begins with the input of the five senses. (“Perception . . . [is] the first step . . . towards knowledge, and the inlet of all the materials of it” [1].) He applied this to psychology [2], arguing that the mind at birth is a tabula rasa or blank slate (a psychological theory that coincidentally supported the views of his Whig patron, Shaftesbury, who despised the old views of inborn superiority of rank and innate ideas about social hierarchy). Indeed, Locke says point blank that there are no innate ideas “as it were stamped upon the mind of man” [3]. And then of course there’s his political theory, with ideas about the government’s role in protecting life, liberty, and property [4], which would be applied by Thomas Jefferson 100 years later in the founding documents of the US. Jefferson, of course, cagily substituted “pursuit of happiness” for “property” [5], but it’s the “property” idea that concerns me here.

The same ideas that supported Locke’s epistemology (empiricism) and his psychology (tabula rasa) fed into economics. Instead of the old economic system based on landed hierarchies, suddenly you have “economic individualism” as the cornerstone idea. Each individual is a self-contained unit with a right to their individual property. For “the ingenious Mr. Locke,” as he was often called in the 18th century, ownership was the cornerstone of all social relations. Indeed, Locke argued that ownership over one’s own body is given in the very state of nature, and that all appropriation of additional properties is a natural extension of that relation. (“Everyman has a property in his own Person … [and] the labour of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his … Whatsoever then he removes out of the state that nature hath provided … [and] mixed his labour with … [is thereby] his property,” [6].)

Thus we come to a world where social relations take the form of individuals accumulating and competing for property, and governments organically emerge in defense of “life, liberty, and property.”

If I may take what 18th-century wit, Henry Fielding, said of a certain philosophy of the day, and apply it to Locke’s theory, I might say it is “a very wholesome and comfortable doctrine, and to which we have but one objection, namely, that it is not true” [7].

OK, I can’t quite make the claim that Locke is wrong, but I can raise the question: What if this cornerstone idea of modernity and capitalism, this idea about the primacy of personal ownership, is false? Or perhaps not false, but at least not logically necessary. What if it is but one way of looking at things, and a way that is perhaps no longer the most serviceable?

My alternative would start here. My interlocutor might grant me that the idea of ownership as the primary relation between oneself and one’s own body is speculative and not in any way self-evident. But, my interlocutor might say, the relation between a person and land or objects – there, ownership seems to naturally apply. Surely ownership is fundamentally a relationship between individuals and the things that they own, no? My counterargument is this: Ownership is not fundamentally a relation to self, nor is it fundamentally a relation to objects or natural resources. Ownership at its most fundamental is a relationship between people. “Mine” is a nonsense concept in isolation. “Mine” always means, a priori, “mine and not yours.” Or, one could perhaps narrow that still further and say that (“mine” = “not yours”), and that this is the fundamental equation of ownership. With all due respect to Locke’s contemporary Daniel Defoe and his Robinson Crusoe, an isolated individual cannot own anything [8]. That individual can use resources, can deploy them in the hunt for food and shelter, but cannot own them because there is no “mine and not yours” line to be drawn.

So am I just quibbling or are there consequences to this revision of the ingenious Mr. Locke? I tentatively suggest there are consequences. Once you see ownership and private property in this light, as relations between people and people, not between people and things, it can plant the seed for a new vision of how things could work.

Marx said that the capitalist world of commodity-values converts social relations into the “fantastic form of relations between things” [9]. With social identity thus alienated, we compensate by creating a wedge between “social” and “private” identity, and start to treat private identity as “real” identity.” But what if that world view is coming to an end? Under the pressure of income inequality and ecological imperatives, it seems capitalism must break or evolve into some new form. At least the prevailing definition of human identity and human fulfilment in terms of private identity and private property must break. If we can reverse the Lockean trajectory – instead of casting social relations into terms of private identity and private property, what if we recast identity and property into relations between people?

From Locke to Adam Smith to Marx to Thomas Piketty, we have been in the age of homo economicus, where homo sapiens are defined fundamentally as economic units and human relations fundamentally as economic relations. But is that necessary or is it just the signature paradigm of the 17th – 20th century? I won’t say 21st, because I think it is finally time for a paradigm shift out of the age of homo economicus. Increasing inequality (well-documented in Piketty as an intrinsic feature of capitalism, despite spikes and troughs [10]) and ecological imperatives require it. If we can reconceptualize ownership and private property into the fundamental social relations that they are, perhaps we can start to turn the ship. Perhaps we can redefine human identity and human fulfilment in terms that render the obsessive desire to accumulate private property for one’s own self into a historical curiosity. There are enough resources to go around. As Russell Brand points out in his cheeky anti-Establishment manifesto, Revolution, “a bus with the eighty-five richest people in the world on it would contain more wealth than the collective assets of half the earth’s population” [11]. Stripped of the debilitating definition of human identity as private self and private property, a technology and a sharing economy in the service of something larger than personal gain might flourish – not that ownership will disappear, but it will be conceptualized differently. Instead of “owning” being an absolute relation between individual and thing, a removal of the thing from the field of social relations for oneself, owning would be seen as something provisional and embedded in social relations, an ongoing negotiation, evolving and flexible as our relations to others are evolving and flexible. This way of looking at things is not only possible but as the current cycle keeps turning, it will become more and more a practical necessity.

  1. LockeEssay on Human Understanding, II.ix.
  2. LockeEssay on Human Understanding, I.ii.
  3. Locke, Essay on Human Understanding, I.i.
  4. Locke, Second Treatise on Government, Chap 7, parag. 87.
  5. U.S. Declaration of Independence.
  6. Locke, Second Treatise on Government, Chap. 5, Parag 27.
  7. Henry Fielding, Tom Jones, Book 15, Chap. 1.
  8. The Lockean sense of ownership Defoe gives to Crusoe is almost unintentionally comical as Crusoe surveys the island with “pleasure . . . to think that this was all my own . . . and [over it I] had a right of possession” (Robinson Crusoe, 1985 Penguin ed., pp. 113-14).
  9. Karl Marx, Capital, 1906 Random House ed., p. 83.
  10. Thomas Picketty, Capital in the 21st Century. The documentation referenced runs throughout the book.
  11. Russell Brand, Revolution, p. 8.

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The real problem in the body politic

(Trigger warning: equivalence alert!)

No, I don’t think the Democratic and Republican platforms are equivalent. Ideologically, I’m with the Dems maybe 50% of the time and the Repubs maybe 10%. No equivalence there. But the partisan tone has become equivalent on both sides. If a Dem or Repub leader says anything at all, the other side must consider it a priori wrong (and indeed evil) or risk being kicked out of the club. Perhaps social media is the worst for trapping people into such silos, but with many friends posting political comments daily, I can’t remember the last time any of them on either side deviated from the preset party line when an oppostion leader spoke.

So yes, I favor the Dem platform (or at least find it less bad), but there are three beasts in the cage, and the Republicans are not the most destructive of the three. There are the two major parties, and then there is the “us vs. them” paradigm of politics and social relations, shared equally by denizens of both parties. With my old hippie vision of moving toward a more ideal union, where people still disagree but with the understanding that we are all on spaceship Earth together, it is the paradigm itself that is the most destructive beast of the three. As long as we are locked into the zero-sum, “us vs. them” paradigm, we can move laterally to fix this or that local issue, but there can be no forward movement. We can get short-term ideological gains from our party – e.g., as I favor the Dem platform, I can hope the Dems seize the reins from Trump for at least the short-term benefits I think they would bring. But I cannot hope that Dems any more than Repubs will fix the long-term, and possible fatal, disease in the body politic. Neither party has the slightest motivation to correct the “us vs. them” model that is killing us.

Our only long-term hope is for someone to emerge outside the current political spectrum, an MLK-type voice. Politics per se is dead, killed by the two parties and the army of idiot activists on both sides. I don’t mean the government won’t continue its administrative function, but I mean something more along the lines of Nietzsche’s “God is dead” proclamation. Nietzsche knew that religious structures were not about to disappear, but he also could see that God was no longer a credible anchor of human belief structures. In the same way, for those who would step back from the everyday administration of government and re-envision a better society, politics is no longer a credible tool.  Best to throw it away.

The good news is that underneath the veneer of us vs. them activism, I find that many people are quietly hungry for a unifying voice. I thought Obama was potentially such voice, but his failure to unify the country was pre-ordained by the fact that he emerged within one of the two major parties. Half the country will never listen to any unifying voice that emerges from the opposition party. Thus, my statement that the voice must come from outside the current political structure is a kind of logical tautology. Logic permits no other way. Of course, such a voice, on such terms, may never come, and we may disintegrate slowly or quickly, depending on which of the two parties is in power. But those people I meet hungering for some voice to restore a sense of shared humanness, those people still give me hope. We just need to take all this activist energy invested in one side or the other of the us vs. them paradigm and turn it against the paradigm itself. I would especially ask my friends on the left who consider themselves radical: How radical can you be if you are still hauling around the old albatross of the “left vs right” paradigm? If you want to be radical, break the paradigm.

Can we really get a critical mass of people to shed the dead snakeskin of politics as we know it and start over with a blank slate, a social vision stripped of politics with nowhere to turn but to heart and imagination? Probably not, but it’s worth a try.

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How woke is woke (or, gimme that old progressive vision)

I sort of fell into my recent blog series on the cultural lead-up to Woodstock (1969), but now that I’m there, I’ll piggyback with a curious political look at those filthy hippie progressives.

This may come as a shock to my younger woke friends, but back then, progressives were the ones fighting AGAINST official restraints what to say, think, and do; fighting AGAINST sorting, judging, and voting for people based on skin color or sex organs; fighting AGAINST double standards based on demographic identity and AGAINST tribe-specific definitions of truth and justice. And conservatives were the ones fighting FOR all those things. In a word, that old progressive vision was to obliterate the cultural police, while conservatives wanted to BE the cultural police. So when you criticize an old-timer whose values were forged in the Civil Rights/hippie days for being too conservative, remember: To them, YOU may look a lot like the conservative they grew up fighting against 😊

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Three language tricks

To finish off this spontaneous chain of posts on Woodstock and antecedents (from Joe Cocker to Elvis, from Elvis to Roy Rogers), let’s do just one more – Country Joe McDonald’s “Fixin’-To-Die-Rag,” an object lesson in how to use language in multiple ways outside the scope of literal meaning. In fact, I tried it twice on my intermediate-to-advanced ESL (English as a second language) students for just that reason – once it was a hit, once it was a flop. Go figure. But let’s listen.

Friends, lovers, hippies, it’s a long way back to Elvis.

But the language. The only literal meanings in the clip come in the 10-second aside at the 2:00 mark. Everything else elapses via three essential language tricks:

Rhetorical frames
Clichés, collocations, and idioms

My ESL students pretty quickly get that the song is ironic – that the words literally advocate support for the war (“Put down your books and pick up a gun / We’re gonna have a whole lotta fun”) but the speaker’s point is the opposite. But when they go through the irony line-for-line, it is still a learning experience for them to see how each phrase flips to its opposite meaning and how some of the flips can be quite serious and powerful (as when the speaker tries to energize parents with the upbeat thought that they could “Be the first ones on your block / To have your boy come home in a box”).

This brings me to the second trick – rhetorical frames. First, the playful tone that frames the whole song. It’s like a children’s sing-a-long (“one, two, three … five, six, seven …”). When up against content as heavy as “your boy come home in a box,” the emotional impact is amplified. The US government would like you to think this is a game, but Country Joe’s language tricks (which are really just an undoing of the GOVERNMENT’S language tricks) make it clear that this is NOT a game.

The second rhetorical frame is that of the all-American high school football game. The Fish cheer (“Give me an ‘f’ … give me a ‘u’ …”) and indeed the whole song can be seen as a kind of (mock-) pep rally. If the Man can’t distract you from the brutality of the war with the “children’s sing-a-long” veneer, maybe they can get you to think of the Vietnam war as a high school football game. Rah-rah-rah for our side. The rhetoric of the high school cheerleader. Not so in the hands of Country Joe. He takes that trivializing frame and turns it on its head. Is his inversion of the cheerleading rhetoric in the Fish cheer offensive? Absolutely. But this is not just a rebellious kid breaking the household rule. Country Joe’s point is that “your war is offensive – your turning it into a cheerleaders’ game is offensive – WE are offended by your war and your rhetorical tricks to make us comfortable with it. These are our friends coming home in boxes, so you’ll excuse us if we get a little offensive in this song.”

If the rhetorical framing is really just one expression of the overarching irony, my third and final language trick – clichés, collocations, and idioms – is really just one more aspect of the rhetorical framing. The entire text is composed of clichés, collocations, and idioms. Just look at the first 10 lines, with italics on the phrases the might be called clichés, collocations, or idioms:

Well, come on all of you, big strong men,
Uncle Sam needs your help again.
He’s got himself in a terrible jam
Way down yonder in Vietnam
So put down your books and pick up a gun,
We’re gonna have a whole lotta fun.

And it’s one, two, three,
What are we fighting for?
Don’t ask me, I don’t give a damn,
Next stop is Vietnam.

We could go on through the lyrics – pearly gates, tools of the trade, kingdom come, etc. – but why collocations, idioms, and clichés? Doesn’t that just show a lack of originality? When used gratuitously, yes. But this is far from gratuitous. It is part of the design. Country Joe is not interested in literal meaning but in emotional impact, and this is one way to get it. Collocations, idioms, and clichés are the things that localize language. They give you a house built of baseball, hot dogs, and mom’s apple pie. This is Americana in its most cliché form. Leave it to Beaver and Ozzie and Harriet. That’s the image the US government is using to sell you the Vietnam War. And Country Joe’s counterpoint is probably most anchored to the idiom, “I don’t give a damn.” After all, that’s the million-dollar question that Country Joe really wants to press on these 400,000 hippies: “What are we fighting for?” In 1969, no one really knew. And yet cousins and neighbors were coming home in boxes. This is the question Uncle Sam most wants you to look away from (“no, no, no, you shouldn’t give a damn about that”). So naturally that’s exactly where Country Joe, wordsmith, musician, counterculture icon, and smart-ass par excellence (who was already on an FBI watch list at the time of this clip, btw) goes to build his lyrical house.

Country Joe’s website: http://countryjoe.com/

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Elvis called to life

Per my last post, describing Joe Cocker’s band at Woodstock (1969) as remarkably contemporary in sound and appearance and Elvis (in the 1962 clip) as a character from a bygone era (despite his intrinsic merits), I received a good-natured complaint that I underestimated Elvis’s own ability to shock and rattle the culture of his day. He was not just some 1960s “square” holding onto the old ways.

Guilty as charged. Or half guilty. I will now do Elvis the service I did to Joe Cocker and the Woodstock generation in the previous post. I’ll post the famous theme song from one of the most popular TV shows of 1952, followed by a re-post of the clip with Elvis singing the #1 song of 1962.

From The Roy Rogers Show (1951-1957, song by Dale Evans, released 1952)

Elvis in Girls, Girls, Girls (1962)

In this context, one can see Elvis as all-round provocative to the Roy Rogers generation that preceded him. That’s my half-guilty part. But I claim half-innocence as well, insofar as the central thesis of my previous post still stands: If you stumbled upon a festival in the park today, Elvis, however risqué he may have been to his elders, would cut an odd and outdated figure on the stage, whereas Joe Cocker’s band would fit right in.

Now, as microscopically scanning others for flaws so that we might sit in public judgment over them has become the #1 national pastime (at least in the US), I hereby submit myself to your judgment. Innocent or guilty of misrepresenting my case?

P. S. For those of you following this choppy musical path from 1952 to the Woodstock generation, note that Janis Joplin recorded a version of “Happy Trails” to send to John Lennon shortly before she died in 1970.

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1960s culture in two clips

You always hear about rapid cultural change in the 1960s. Is it true? Is it measurable?

Here are two clips:

  • The #1 song of 1962, set in a film clip that captures the cultural moment in all its imagery
  • A song from 1969, set in a documentary clip that also captures the cultural moment in all its imagery





You can draw your own conclusions. Or you can read on for mine 😊

My conclusion:

The culture shifted more in those 7 years than it has in the 50 years since. Why do I say so? Because if you look at the dress, the haircuts, the sound on that Joe Cocker stage, these guys could pop up at any outdoor festival today and not be out of place. Elvis, though – I love Elvis, I’ve been to Elvis’s house in Tupelo – but culturally, Elvis seems a million miles away in this clip compared to the Woodstock scene.

P.S. If you are wondering what the hell Joe Cocker is saying (and can’t remember the Beatles original), try this “misheard lyrics” version:

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