The Beatles Anniversary (Essay, Bob McParland (c) 2006

Yesterday: The Beatles, Narrative and Memory

            The Beatles, possibly the most popular and influential music act of the past century, wrote and sounded a cultural moment. From 1963 to 1970, the years of their recording output, they were engaged in significant cultural work. Their artistry and awareness was deeply in tune with a transformation of culture and popular music. In memory, their music, image, lyrics, and ideas have become a cultural legacy that remains steadily with us.

            Because of their continuing relevance, it is necessary to explore how we remember The Beatles. Memory studies provide us with a lens through which we can investigate their cultural impact upon the generation of listeners who first experienced them and those who encountered them later. The Beatles signify a generation: the wonder, passion, and energy of people who met a world of change during the 1960’s. One recreates the sixties in listening to The Beatles. They act as a catalyst for remembering this time in specific ways. The Beatles recall for many people the vitality, dreams, and struggles of a not too distant past: a time of dramatic upheaval characterized by issues of war, civil rights, and shifting lifestyles. The significance of memory to The Beatles themselves and to their listeners will be examined through theories of memory from Pierre Nora’s Realms of Memory and Dominick La Capra’s considerations of holocaust memory. The work of The Beatles calls us to reexamine the points that Nora and La Capra have made.   

            In this essay, I will first examine how the theme of memory appears as continually relevant to The Beatles in their writing and music. Memory is at the center of many of the songs of The Beatles. From “Yesterday” to “In My Life” and “Penny Lane,” The Beatles set out maps of personal memory. As The Beatles memorialized their personal past, they created a treasure of memories for their listeners.

            Considering this impact, in the next part of this essay, I will offer the view that audiences have used the music of The Beatles to remember things they have lived through. Each Beatles song, becoming popular, has acted as a cultural marker for its audience, a thread amid the pattern of yesterday.           As a widespread cultural phenomenon, The Beatles participated in creating history and consciousness. The Beatles’ songs, as literary texts, continue to act as a framework for memory and have a role in the formation of cultural memory as they enter public discourse. The participation of their audience records memory as their lives intersect with The Beatles’ songs. Thus, their music has entered what Pierre Bourdieu refers to as “the cultural field,” a unique space of family frames, personal life-histories, and class and aesthetic differences. [note 3] Listeners to The Beatles continually re-read them, producing social knowledge and discourse. They circulate meaning through interpretation of common texts and celebrate deeply felt emotions that emerge from memory. The original Beatles audience recalls with what Raymond Williams has called “a particular community of experience” and “the structure of feeling.” Subsequent audiences of The Beatles interact with this recollection of a “common element.” [note 4]

Finally, we will look at the continuing importance of The Beatles at the present time. In doing so, we can see that The Beatles provided a public text that continues to be widely circulated and reconstructed. Their music has become a site of memory. This is true for people who lived through the 1960s as well as for a generation of listeners who have been born afterward. Parents and their children have discovered in The Beatles a common bond. Even as The Beatles, in their time together, transformed and recast themselves, today The Beatles are recast for new audiences in multiple ways. From their pop songs of 1964 through the innovations of Sergeant Pepper (1967) and The White Album (1968) to their closing days of Abbey Road and Let It Be, The Beatles changed visually and musically. Now, through the remastering of their recordings and films, the sale of t-shirts and memorabilia, and concerts by Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, The Beatles’ legacy is reconstructed and passed on to future generations.

            These new placements of The Beatles texts have prompted re-readings of The Beatles and revisions of cultural memory. This practice is consistent with the revisions of history and recovery of areas of history that have brought increasing emphasis upon memory. Pierre Nora speaks of the sense of “belonging, collective consciousness {…} memory and identity.”[ note 6] He suggests for our period the term “the age of commemoration” (4). As Nora puts it, “the most continuous or permanent feature of the modern world is no longer continuity or permanence but change” (5). [note 7] For The Beatles themselves, rapid change or an “acceleration of history,” to use Nora’s term, appears to have prompted a desire for memory that appears in several of their songs. This may also be true of their audience, for whom a reinvention of The Beatles texts in the Beatles Anthology, the Beatles’ Love album, or anticipated digital availability brings yesterday alive again in fresh and new ways. The relative permanence and familiarity of The Beatles enables their audience to cope with change. [note 8]

             In his introduction to Realms of Memory, Pierre Nora tells us that “history is needed when people no longer live in memory but recall the past through the assistance of documents that help to recall it” [note 1] Much about The Beatles is within living memory but the band also exists in recorded documents that trigger personal memory. The recordings of The Beatles today continue in a lively conversation with culture. Their work continues to be represented and documented in new media forms and is soon to be digitized for today’s listeners. The Beatles have crossed boundaries and cultures. They have entered “social frames” of memory. Because of this it is important for us to consider how memory is embodied and enacted in the image, the lyrics, and the music of The Beatles. Then, by setting them within their historical and social context we may further investigate through memory theories their lasting impact on their audience. That is the work of this essay.

                                                            I.

            The Beatles crafted many of their songs in an attitude of recollection and often set their lyrics in the past tense. Here we arrive at la Capra’s first two points: the relation between authorial intention and the text and the relation of the author’s life and the text. La Capra argues that life and text may challenge one another in a complex interaction (Rethinking 60-61). For The Beatles, the increasing pressure of the music industry at the peak of their success called for a turn toward memory which helped them to situate themselves. The Beatles obviously intended to create pop music. Their primary thrust was sheer creativity, an impulse to produce songs. At first they rewrote Little Richard and Elvis and the rock and roll of the late 1950s. Then they participated in writing an integral portion of the soundtrack of the 1960s.         

The vision and musical sound of The Beatles shifted during their time together. While John Lennon, in particular, moved toward songs that expressed a socio-political awareness, The Beatles appear to generally not have intended to make large social statements. We can gain some perspective on what they were trying to say through their interviews. Biographers on The Beatles have speculated on the intentions that lay behind their songs. However, a search for the relation between authorial intention and the Beatles’ texts has to be guided by a close reading of their own comments about their craft.

There is a relation between the lives of The Beatles and their songs. However, we may never know to what extent John Lennon’s wry imagination transformed the encounters which prompted songs like “Norwegian Wood.” Clearly, his imaginative playfulness sends his narrator to crawl off to sleep in the bath to elude his erstwhile love, as he sings, “Or should I say, she once had me.” The Beatles bring to this song music with a nostalgic quality. This song is built upon the sitar sounds that George Harrison began experimenting with on the set of Help. The sitar plays in modal patterns, similar to the modal forms that lie behind medieval chant. The music itself is meditative and nostalgic. It hearkens back to an ancient time, one as enduring as well-crafted wood, even as it breaks new ground in the pop music world. Thus, it typifies where The Beatles appear to have been in their own lives: busy, pressured in love and business, rushed, seeking secure ground (even in the bathtub), always amid innovation. Harmonically, the song begins and stays on A, an obvious key center, while the melody descends one octave from E to E, with a riff that begins E F# E D C#. (Ravi Shankar characteristically tuned his sitar to C#). The lyric, in wistful recollection, begins “I once had a girl, or should I say she once had me.” It moves into sounding  “sh…” (“she showed”) and “oo” (“her room, isn’t it good, Norwegian wood”).  The singer’s attitude toward the girl is perhaps somewhere in between “grrr” and “ooo.” He bides his time, drinking her wine. She is in a hurry; she has to work in the morning.  He appears to wish for nothing more than to find permanency and rest, but there is no chair. Now there is only the memory.

Personal memory fills several of The Beatles’ songs. It anchors them in a fond and secure recollection while they are plunged into the hectic swirl of Beatlemania. For example, the specific locale of a roundabout in Liverpool, Penny Lane, is a memory lane that helps The Beatles to reconceptualize their own roots and identity as they are increasingly swept up in London and the music business.  

 

 

Yesterday: The Beatles, Narrative and Memory

Notes

  1. Pierre Nora, Realms of Memory, Introduction, i-iv.
  2. Holwachs, Maurice. Social Frames  of Memory. Quoted in Kimberly Smith, “Mere Nostalgia: Notes on a Progressive Paratheory,” Rhetoric and Public Affairs 3.4 (2000): 517-18.
  3. Bourdieu, Pierre, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste, trans. Richard Nice, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984. Pp. 113-20. Cited by John Story in Cultural Theory and Popular Culture pp. 159-60.
  4. Williams, Raymond. The Analysis of Culture in Cultural Theory and Popular Culture, ed. John Story, London: Pearson, pp. 32, 36-37. See also Williams, Culture and Society. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1963.

5.    Criticisms of The Beatles’ peace and love themes are mentioned in several accounts. See Henry W. Sullivan, The Beatles with Lacan: Rock n’ Roll as Requiem for the Modern Age (1995), Bob Spitz, The Beatles. (Boston: Little Brown, 2006),Devin McKinney, Magic Circles: The Beatles in Dream and History (2003), David Quantick, Revolution: The Making of The Beatles’ White Album (2002).  

6.   Pierre Nora, Realms of Memory, Introduction, i-v.

7.     Ibid.

8.   The Beatles Love album liner notes were written by Giles Martin, who produced the album with his father, Beatles producer, George Martin.

9. Dominick LaCapra,

10. Pierre Nora, p. 5

11. Pierre Nora, p. 7

12. Dominick La Capra,

13. Dominick La Capra, Rethinking, p. 52.

14. Ibid.

15. Kenneth Womack, “The Beatles as Modernists,” Music and Literary Modernism, ed, Robert McParland. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Press, 2006. P.223. This essay is intended as a conversation with Womack’s essay.

16. Kenneth Womack, “The Beatles as Modernists,” 228.

17. Gary Burns, cited by Kenneth Womack in “The Beatles as Modernists,” 229.

18.  Annette Hanes and Ian Inglis, 182, cited by Kenneth Womack in “The Beatles as Modernists,”   227.

19. Kenneth Womack, 227.

20. Kenneth Womack, 229.

21. See Kenneth Womack’s discussion of “A Day in the Life,” 232-33.

22. Kenneth Womack, 233.

23. Halbwachs, Maurice, quoted in Kimberly Smith, 517-18.

24. Paul McCartney has said that he saw the phrase “Memory Almost Full” on his cell phone.

25. This is Andreas Huyssen’s phrase. See Andreas Huyssen, Present Pasts.

26. Andreas Huyssen, p. 94.

27. The Beatles “Love” album liner notes by Giles Martin.

28. See Andreas Huyssen, p. 94, and The Beatles Love album liner notes.

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