Alan Dent argues that the Beatles' success shows how pop culture entrenches inequality in capitalist societies
It’s widely accepted that the Beatles are one of the most successful international pop bands, if not the most successful. It ought to be possible, by studying the phenomenon they were, to grasp the nature and meaning of their success. It might be argued this was essentially musical: they could play music, of a kind, to a degree and as Ringo Starr succinctly commented: “People liked the Beatles.” Perhaps Starr could have refined his comments a little – mostly young people liked them, and in particular young girls.
Prior to their commercial success from 1962, the market for pop was well established. It was aimed specifically at teenage girls. Cliff Richard, for example, was known to be more popular among girls than boys by some measure. Footage of the Beatles’ performances is enough to confirm that their fans were substantially female. That’s not to dismiss their significant male following, but the screaming, hysterical (or perhaps pseudo-hysterical) girls clearly made up the majority of their fans. Their complaints that they couldn’t hear themselves play weren’t generated by screeching boys.
It’s a commonplace that pop music is listened through, rather than to. Group identification plays, so the argument goes, a greater role than musical appreciation. That’s not to say fans didn’t like the Beatles’ songs. The melodies were catchy and the lyrics had an easy charm to the teenage ear. Yet it’s obvious the girls who worked themselves into a frenzy weren’t listening for chord changes or subtle harmonies. The group’s early songs were designed to appeal to this market. Though Lennon might later sing Give Peace A Chance, he wouldn’t have become a world-famous multi-millionaire if he’d begun with that kind of material in Hamburg and the Cavern. In its earliest manifestation, at least, the Beatles was a money-making venture, properly speaking, a business.
The backing of big business
Their success, it seems reasonable to argue, wasn’t driven by the musical appreciation of their fans. They were more of a sociological than a musical phenomenon. They were four working-class youngsters from Liverpool who liked playing rock music, but they weren’t innocent of vaulting ambition, for all their irreverence and charm. The evidence suggests they set out to become rich. In order to do so they needed the backing of big business. Had they decided to play jazz, talent permitting, as McCartney’s father did, they wouldn’t have secured a contract with EMI or the services of George Martin.
Their ambition didn’t come from nowhere. They were complying with the norms of their culture (even if Lennon, to some extent, rebelled against them later). The norms of capitalism teach the doctrine of personal enrichment. Their huge fortunes didn’t accrue accidentally. They were turned into a product by the capitalists who saw the potential for sales. Epstein dressed them in what became almost uniforms. The putatively rebellious Lennon said he would wear a balloon if he was paid for it. The scruffy jeans and the on-stage smoking and swearing had to be set aside to conquer the market.
This has nothing to do with music. Rather, the music was a conduit, a way into the heads of million of teenagers with a bit of disposable income. Clever capitalists recognised that the combination of apparently sweet love songs (while Lennon was crooning I Wanna Hold Your Hand or I Feel Fine he was engaging in partner-bashing and Starr described himself as “a drunk, a wife-beater and an absentee father”) Liverpudlian charm and the teenage need for belonging could be a remarkable profit-generator. Effectively, the executives at EMI turned the musicians into capitalists with guitars and a drum kit.
This is straightforward on one level, but its implications are more subtle. If capitalism is to be challenged, its inequality has to be seen as unfair: a system in which a small number of people make a large amount of money from a large number of people. The naturalisation of the wealth of the few has to be exposed. The common people have long been amenable to arguments about the undeserving rich: we work hard and can barely manage from week to week while they reap the profits of our effort.
In the early days of capitalism, when the capitalist was a known figure rather than a faceless cohort of shareholders, it was easier to make a connection between the reduced circumstances of the many and the lavish lives of the few. Capitalism’s problem has been to justify its radical inequality. Its principal means has been the myth of the independent entrepreneur, the “self-made man”, the “captain of industry” without whom none of us could engage in productive work.
Marx demystifies this in the first volume of Capital: “A capitalist is not a capitalist because he’s a commander in industry; he’s a commander in industry because he’s a capitalist; command in industry is an attribute of capital, just as, in feudal times, command in war and a seat on the judge’s bench were attributes of landed property.” This gets things in their right order. Capital may buy talent, but it’s capital which provides the means to control. Talent without capital has no power to command.
Capitalism’s doctrinal system needs a justification for inequality most people will accept more or less unthinkingly. Celebrity culture provides it. The Beatles are emblematic. Not only super-rich, they also became inordinately famous. Their fame was positive. Not all fame, of course is: Hitler and Stalin are very famous but not widely loved. Shakespeare is one of the world’s most famous figures, and is viewed principally positively. Trump is one of today’s most famous men, yet many disdain him. The trick is to combine huge wealth, inordinate fame and almost universal popularity. What flows from this is that the celebrities are defined as the people’s choice. They take on a democratic hue. No one was forced to buy a Beatles record. Peer pressure did its work, but the system could rightly claim teenagers flocked to the record shops of their own free will.
Not only that, but the musicians were objects of adulation. Coming from the common people in a working-class city, they were perfect material for transformation. Harrison’s father was a municipal bus driver. McCartney grew up in a council house, and Starr came from Dingle, one of the most deprived parts of Liverpool. He also suffered what has been called Dickensian misfortune: peritonitis after a childhood appendectomy, later tuberculosis, and a long spell in hospital which seriously disrupted his education.
Lennon was raised in more middle-class surroundings. In spite of his self-description as a “working-class hero” the Woolton where he lived is very well-heeled. Houses on Menlove Avenue sell for well over £300,000 and there is one for sale currently (summer 2020) at £735,000. That may sound relatively modest in London and south-east terms, but it is very posh for Liverpool. You can buy a terrace in Starr’s Dingle for £70,000 and the average is around £100,000. Lennon wasn’t materially but emotionally deprived.
All the same, the Beatles exuded ordinariness. Though Lennon had been to art college (from which he either dropped out, or was expelled, or possibly a combination, the evidence isn’t conclusive) none had been to university or studied A Levels. They appeared to be like the majority of youngsters at the time, leaving school at fifteen or sixteen – though preparation began in 1964 with Wilson’s first victory, and many secondary schools encouraged their more academic pupils to stay on to take O Levels or CSEs, the leaving age wasn’t raised to sixteen till September 1972.
Most youngsters at the time had to limit their horizons: finding whatever work you could and hoping you could stay in a job was the norm. Boys would try for apprenticeships which would provide a trade, or go into office jobs, or the merchant navy; girls might go into nursing, hairdressing, secretarial or shop work. Lennon, the oldest, was born on 9th October 1940 and Harrison, the youngest, on 25th February 1943. They could have left school between 1955 and 1959. At that time, eighty per cent of young people were in secondary modern schools. The grammar schools prepared the fortunate 20% of the population for university and the professions. The rest had to take what they could find.
Big profits from people just like us
Yet the Beatles were not at all like the majority of their contemporaries. Lennon, McCartney and Harrison passed the 11-plus. Starr failed, perhaps due to his absence through illness. So three of them were in the top 20%. What provoked their leaving school early wasn’t lack of ambition, but surfeit. They didn’t leave, like most kids, because they had no option, and to survive as they could in the employment market, but because they were drawn to popular music and saw it as a way to money and fame. Their ordinariness was partly authentic, they weren’t toffs – but it was also substantially manufactured, part of the product the Beatles quickly became when capitalists saw the chance of big profits.
The ordinariness of the group permitted an easy identification. Fans could see them as “just like us”. For the boys, the minority, this meant vicarious participation in an ostensibly easy-going, fun-loving, uncomplicated culture; for the girls, the musicians might have been their boyfriends – without, of course, the potentially tiresome and restraining effects of real partners.
For most people, employment means years of hard work on modest wages which permit a mortgage or rent to be paid: the kind of life Harrison’s father knew as a bus driver. There are no chances of overnight fortune short of winning the pools (in those days) or the lottery. Life is not glamorous or exciting: it’s routine. Capitalism, as we always hear from the “business” lobby, needs stability. The Beatles represented the opposite: sudden success, fame and wealth, glamour, interest, every day different.
Or so it seemed. That was the image the fans must respond to, for by so doing they were engaging in the fantasy on which the enterprise floated. George Harrison is reputed to have remarked about his days as a Beatle: “No one should be forced to live like that.” The image wasn’t supposed to entail the musicians being forced to do anything, nor that their life was unpleasant. Harrison was letting the mask slip: they were a product and were no more in control than a decapitated chicken on a production line.
The identification made by the fans played a crucial psychic and doctrinal role: these are your celebrities, you admire them. In the case of the young girls, you love them – throwing knickers at pop stars and offering themselves as “groupies” was common among young girls. You have chosen them of your own free will; they are rich; thus you not only accept the existence of the rich, you fawn before them; you adulate them; you want to have sex with them; you chase them down the street; you get into a frenzy over them; you set them on a different plane to that of all other people.
Young girls and boys rarely screamed at, got into a frenzy over or copied the style of factory owners, directors, shareholders, bosses. But by doing so in relation to pop stars, they were subtly inveigled into accepting that huge disparities of wealth are not only to be tolerated but enthused over. If the category “the rich” contains only aristocrats, toffs, conventional capitalists, there is an inevitable gap between them and the common folk. Celebrities bridge that gap and by so doing valorise inordinate wealth. Further, the category “the rich”, conceived politically, can exclude some of the wealthiest people on the planet.
The socialist poet Adrian Mitchell was a lifelong enemy of “the rich” but an adulatory fan of The Beatles. Somehow, they escaped opprobrium, despite being far richer than many of the capitalists that Mitchell disdained. This is not to be invidious about Mitchell. His attitude was representative. Capitalist culture has appropriated the common people’s desire for relief from the boredom of its routines, created celebrities for them to identify with, made those celebrities fabulously wealthy and sited them in an apparently glamorous world, in order to defeat well-placed resentment over the grossly unequal distribution of what is produced by collective effort.
Even convinced, self-conscious, socialists, it seems, accept a culture in which pop stars, actors, footballers, celebrity writers and people who are famous for being famous should earn more in a week than most people earn per year. This is an astonishing success of the doctrinal system, for the obvious reason that socialism is grounded in equality and wealth buys power. Not only is socialism spavined by huge wealth, democracy is, whether that wealth is in the hands of a drummer or a CEO.
That this phenomenon took off in the arena of music is interesting. Everybody, almost, likes a nice tune. Some people, it seems, have a poor response to melodies, but they are a small minority. Melody has the power to charm. Aaron Copeland in his little book What To Listen For In Music suggests melody is the only aspect of music that can’t be taught. Being able to write good melodies is, apparently, a matter of pure talent. Melody is a kind of magic. In serious music it plays an important but not a dominating role. Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is much more than its famous melody. In pop music, there is little but melody. The architecture of a pop song is minimal. The idea is to get the “ear worm” installed. Millions then want access, on the Dansette in the early days, on an iphone today, and will hand over their bit of money which makes not just the performers but the executives handsome fortunes. Simple melodies are the royal road to huge wealth.
People like stories too. Hence the spread of this celebrity culture to the literary world. J.K.Rowling elaborated a universe children could identify with. Wizardry, like the putative glamour of the pop world, offers escape from the dullness of life in the classroom. It isn’t accidental that the essential setting of the books is a school. Like the Beatles, she had a struggle to get going. Brian Epstein was told guitar bands were passé. But once the commercial possibilities hoved into view, the marketing became fierce. Just as fans didn’t listen to The Beatles’ music so much as through it, so fans don’t respond to Rowling’s writing, rather they read through it. She’s a mediocre writer, almost incapable of producing a surprising sentence.
A shilling for a single would have been enough
How can you argue against her wealth? No one was forced to buy her books. She’s rich because people wanted what she produced and were willing to pay for it. There you have the perfect defence of capitalism and its rank inequality. The arguments, in fact, are easy: the price of Beatles records, once they were selling millions, could have been reduced to virtually nothing and they could still have made handsome livings. The more you produce of anything, the lower its unit cost. The price was set at a level to ensure fabulous fortunes. Kids in the mid-’60s queued to hand over seven and six for a single which, sold for a shilling, would still have turned a good profit. Capitalism is searching for big, easy markets. When it finds them, it sets prices at a level the market will bear, but which will provide maximum returns. Ten shillings for a Beatles single might have pushed down sales just far enough to diminish profits.
Pop-star and celebrity culture has elaborated a bulwark against arguments for equality. It works very well – George Best deserved to be rich because he was supremely talented and people paid voluntarily for the pleasure of watching him. Watching him was, of course, a pleasure for sports fans and they were willing to pay: but in reality they have no choice. The ticket prices are beyond their control. As punters, they pay or miss out. Of course, ticket prices for Premiership football games could be a tenth of what they are, and the players could still live well. What looks inevitable, what is passed off as natural, is a contrived system whose purpose is the creation of a super-rich elite, because that serves the needs of capitalism.
A cadre of rich celebrities the common folk identify with is the way capitalism sells people their disappointment, in the form of dreams. In addition, there is the simple confounding of wealthy celebs and wealthy capitalists. It’s to be noted that capitalists now behave like celebs. This conflation robs the people of their anger at injustice and strips them of the arguments for equality. V-neck capitalism, that of Richard Branson dressed down on the TV as if he’s the bloke next door, picks up on pop culture and reverses the effect. Pop culture says that these are your loved and admired celebs and they are fabulously wealthy – therefore you must accept a culture of gross inequality or you can’t have them.
By implication, you accept the astronomical wealth of Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg and so on. Corporate culture says look at us, we’re just like the celebs you love and admire, we dress like them, talk like them, live glamorous lives like them. The mill or mine owner wasn’t a figure the poor weaver or miner could easily identify with – but the modern capitalist is assimilated to the status of a rock star or Hollywood actor.
Challenging the system
There has always been, of course, the odd and disappointing phenomenon of Gramsci’s class hegemony. The working poor of Victorian Britain tried to make their homes look like those of the middle classes – but the transformation brought about by pop culture is of a different kind and on a different scale. It’s a sociological phenomenon with important psychic implications. But the very working people of Victorian Britain who tried to emulate those further up the social scale also built an opposition movement. By creating trade unions, funded by small contributions from millions of workers, the common people discovered a capacity for self-realisation in defiance of the ruling culture. While John Bright was extolling free trade, working men and women were defying the system’s definition of them as mere labour costs. They were asserting not only their determination to get the best price for their labour but their humanity – and in doing so, they challenged the system’s rule by money. As they didn’t have much, they had to find some other value. They relished solidarity and in contradistinction to capitalism’s doctrinal system, elaborated the basis of a socialist movement whose aim was the re-socialisation of what was socially generated but privately appropriated.
After the Second World War, capitalism had to respond to more money being in the pockets of the many. It did so by accelerating the consumerism Daniel Defoe had recognised as entrenched in the system. Consumerism, though, isn’t enough. It contains a risk to the system: why shouldn’t the money in the (often offshore) bank accounts of the rich be in the pockets of the majority, then they can spend it on furniture, cars, clothes, beer, hairdos, holidays and keep the economic wheels turning? Clever but unscrupulous people recognised a psychic identification with the system was necessary to keep it safe. Provided by patriotism, adulation of the Royal Family and a simmering xenophobia, the old identification was under threat from a generation which, liberated to some degree from the want of the 1930s, looked like it might break down barriers.
The period in which the Beatles rose to fame and wealth was one of questioning. Behind the flummery of the 1960s, there was a genuine attempt to challenge and to refuse glib answers. Imagine they hadn’t been appropriated by capitalism, that they’d remained a rock band playing pubs and clubs, with a good following and able to make a living – wearing jeans, leather jackets, smoking and swearing on stage, and coming from a Labour city. A free-floating culture of popular bands unhitched from the commercial market had the potential for subversion; and had they been turned down by the system, their disaffection might have given elan to the Labourism they absorbed from their culture.
It was a work of genius to turn them into a product, simultaneously out of reach yet to be intimately identified with. Naturally, they were more than willing, as fame and wealth were their aim, as the culture teaches. Yet they discovered the nasty nature of what they were part of, as Harrison’s remark quoted above, Starr’s descent into alcoholism (“I lost years” he said) and Lennon’s heroin addiction suggest.
Celebrity culture now permeates. It is an enormous success. Working people once educated themselves (as Jonathan Rose’s The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes reveals); their homes had little libraries of classic texts. Today they have enormous TV screens on their walls (to watch celebs) and books from the 3 for 2 table in Waterstones, mostly commercial trash which makes rich, celebrity writers. Legitimate anger at injustice and the determination to act against it are diluted in this solution of mindless absorption. Above all, the circle is complete: these are your celebs, they are filthy rich, therefore you accept a society of debilitating inequality in which power can be bought and democracy is mocked.
By and large, the Left hasn’t found a way to talk about this. It’s outside classical Marxist theory. Celebs aren’t a “ruling class”. They aren’t even capitalists, strictly speaking. Yet McCartney, according to the media, is worth some £500 million. The Left has to make the connection between that and the poverty that blights lives in Liverpool or we will never shift opinion in favour of a radical transformation of our economic and social arrangements.
Alan Dent is the founder and editor of The Penniless Press and its successor MQB.