The Beatles at 60: in difficult times, listening to their music is like going back to the Bible


TThe Beatles were formed closer to the Spanish flu (1918-1920) than our current Covid-19 pandemic. This year marks the 60th anniversary of the band’s formation but, strangely in some ways, I listen to their music more than ever.

As the Arts continue to be affected by Covid-19 – canceled festivals, postponed shows, delayed outings – the only thing we have some control over is what we listen to, read or watch at home. Music, as we all know, can affect our mood in many ways. We can find relief and comfort in music, as humans have always done. We can’t travel very far, but we can travel to the mind via song. Our grief right now will take different forms and so will our music.

Right now, on this strange ghost ship in which we find ourselves, music can be a temporary set of connections. When I miss my friends, I listen to “212” by Azealia Banks because I can imagine them dancing at a house party a few years ago. When I’m sad because I don’t know when I can kiss my father again, I put “Lovely Day” by Bill Withers. But I keep coming back to the Beatles and, more specifically, to the “Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”.

I haven’t really listened to The Beatles for years, decades, even. When writing about music in my twenties, I was thirsty for songs that were “something new”. I wanted new sounds and techniques; music that stands out for its originality and invention. Otherwise, it didn’t interest me. So I put the Beatles aside and found them irrelevant.

But now the world has changed. We are in a dystopian future which should take a little longer to arrive, if at all. I need something refreshing, soothing and familiar, and the Beatles do it for a number of reasons.

First, for the reason that my three-year-old child will allow me to play: the strength of the melody and the rhythmic charge. There is kinetic immediacy in the songs. They train you with percussion, hooks and key changes that look like a rainbow. “Live now, right now,” said John Lennon, and the songs are like that. Immediately uplifting, sunny, tunes written early, mainly by two friends in close creative collaboration. The songs are joyful, optimistic, dynamic: everything that transmits joy is a necessity for the moment. ” Culture? it’s not culture, it’s a good laugh, “as Paul McCartney said.

Second, and I’m sure it’s common, the Beatles feel familiar because I first loved their music in childhood. When everything seems overwhelming and strange, “Sgt Pepper” is a kind of sonic womb. It reminds me of safer, more certain moments when I typed the words “Lucy in the sky with diamonds” on my red typewriter one summer evening when I was eight or nine years old.

But I wonder if there is another reason why I turn Sgt Pepper, the album where the group experimented with tape echo, varispeed, dissonance, sound effects and ideas borrowed from avant-garde composers such as Stockhausen. It’s familiar, but it’s also a strange, kaleidoscopic world that resonates today.

Paul McCartney, left, with John Lennon, Ringo Starr and George Harrison, 1963

Take “A Day in the Life”. To begin with, the lyrics speak of ways of seeing, perceiving, processing information. The music is organized as a collage, changing from act to act, before resolving the orchestral dissonance with this major piano chord at the end played on several instruments (hopefully soon). Even if I know him well, it can be quite dizzying and surprising. The section “I woke up, fell out of bed” is like an alarm clock in itself, reflecting life as usual, as best it can, within the confines of our homes. The comb. The mug. Alas, no bus.

Because the Beatles are much more than their songs. They connect the social and psychological world that ended in the 1950s and has intensified since the 1960s. It wasn’t just the Beatles who started in 1960 – it was the new world, our modern world of freedom, convenience, consumption, technology, secularism, individualism and materialism, which continued in the same way, for many of us, until the last few weeks. Because of their timing, the Beatles are, to use the concept invented by environmental philosopher Timothy Morton, almost a kind of hyper-object: so vast, dendritic and intimately linked to our evolution over the past half century. It’s like going back to the Bible. Or eggs and soldiers.

In Sgt Pepper, you can hear the dramatization of what the late great Beatles scholar Ian MacDonald called “this generational desire for a spiritual life beyond the banality of material life” in heaven and heavenly imagery. You can hear this hippie ideology of community and unity, which we all need right now, as the cracks in our atomized society show, in “When I’m 64” and “With a little help of my friends ”. And you can dance to the title track in your kitchen, while brewing the sixth cup of tea of ​​the day, which might ease the tension a bit, as it has been the case for people for decades.


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