Behind the Wall of Illusion
Book excerpt by Sean MacLeod
ED NOTE: Below is an excerpt from a new book from Limerick Writer's Centre which focuses on the personal and spritiual side of the Fab Four that came out in their songs.
While the Beatles were a unit, consisting of four equal elements, they also had other numerical combinations, as two, three four and five. The Beatles, like Elvis, had seemed to channel the energy of Dionysus unconsciously and simply as a part of the sixties' cultural evolution but the Beatles would later move beyond just the mere forces of Dionysian unconscious regeneration and wild ecstasy. They would, by the mid-sixties, become a conscious creative force, becoming more conscious of their artistic abilities, the poetic quality of their lyrics, and the effects both they themselves and their music was having on their culture. In this sense, the Beatles moved into the more controlled and consciously aware aspect of their art and expressed a more Apollonian aspect to it.
As the musical landscape had changed from the carefree, teen-centric sound of the '50s and early '60s, so did the Beatles. The Vietnam conflict, Kennedy's death, and other sobering, faith-shaking factors shifted popular music towards a more globally conscious level with folk and protest-laden acid rock marching towards the forefront. The Beatles stayed relevant by growing up along with their audience, their music informed by current events and the new ventures each Beatle found himself diving into.1In Lennon's case, it led to his interest and belief in 'Love' and 'Peace,' which began to take expression at the height of Beatlemania, mainly during the Rubber Soul period and after the unconscious destructive and uncontrollable elements of Beatlemania became too much for him. He was drawn towards these ideas as a means to confront his personal pain, which he had, up to this point masked by consumerism and hedonism, though inwardly screaming for 'Help!' Harrison would find his Apollonian side in the form of spirituality and the search for God, best expressed in his songs "Within You Without You," "The Inner Light," "Something," and his solo hit "My Sweet Lord." McCartney would seek it in both traditionalism (i.e. classical music, music hall) and the mundanity of life in which he tried to find beauty, as in songs like "Eleanor Rigby" and "Penny Lane."
The Beatles would push past the lower and unconscious elements of the Dionysian cult of rock and roll and become a conscious force, mostly for good, with their music, lyrics and lifestyles, a move which seemed to alienate those who had become so stuck in the notion that rock and roll was simply about sex drugs and the Dionysian destruction 2, ignoring the fact that the Beatles were ultimately transcending the forces that brought them about and tried to operate on a more creatively conscious level. Bands like the Rolling Stones were really unable to make it past the basic unconscious forces that inspired them and most other bands unable to do the same collapsed once the initial fan frenzy wore away.
However, a major split came in culture of the youth ? those wanting to move forward in a more conscious manner and those who remained stuck in the old unconscious world of rock and roll. Sitars, orchestras and Avant Garde as well as studio trickery and capability was not part of rock and roll and neither was social commentary or philosophical-shaped lyrical content. Out of the conscious drive forward, the hippies sprung, while out of the unconscious force arose Altamont, but this will be dealt with in another chapter.
This Dionysian/Apollonian duality, a preoccupation with the ancient Greeks in their search for perfection of the individual and a theme which is central to the philosophical thinking of the mystic philosopher Fredrick Nietzsche, particularly in his work The Birth of Tragedy (1872), also existed within the songwriting partnership of Lennon and McCartney, two songwriters, both complementing while simultaneously competing with each other. In many ways, this was the essence of the Beatles, particularly from a musical point of view. "John Lennon was the flipside of McCartney in that he played it fast and loose, carving out chunks of albums in scant hours whereas Paul agonised over the smallest details. Each was a creative force in their own right, yet represented two sides of the same coin." 3
The two songwriters would produce material that would resonate with the Apollonian/Dionysian elements of their listeners, those of a fiery, active, often rebellious nature finding something in the songs of Lennon while those tending towards the Apollonian or passive nature, more romantic and easier going in outlook were drawn towards McCartney's compositions. The early music of the Beatles in which Lennon and McCartney seemed to write together brought a happy-sad quality to the music, songs like "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" began with an upbeat energetic positivism that gives way to a down beat section in a minor key expressing a vulnerability contrasting with the frenetic energy of the songs main sections. This dualistic element would be noticeable in other songs like "We Can Work It Out" or "A Day in the Life," while singles would also reflect this dualistic nature with a particular song like McCartney's "Paperback Writer" offering up a more traditional and conventional single while its double A-side, "Rain," written by Lennon, would offer up something contrasting. "Rain" was an early psychedelic composition in which the trippy soundscape, with processed instrumentation and backwards recordings, differed with the conventional approach to "Paperback Writer." The lyric to "Rain" was more abstract and personal compared to the straightforward narrative of McCartney's song, which was removed and distant from the composer and performer.
"Penny Lane" and "Strawberry Fields Forever" were probably the most obvious and celebrated example of this dualism of which much as been written about while other prominent and extremely notable singles are "Hello Goodbye"/ "I am the Walrus," "Hey Jude"/"Revolution." "I Wanna Hold Your Hand"/"This Boy," where the B-side shows off a much softer ballad type song contrasting with the fast pace of the A-side, "Can't Buy Me Love"/ "You Can't Do That," though both songs are upbeat tracks with a strong R&B flavor, the attitude of each is different were one expresses McCartney's more romantic notion of love, while Lennon's B-side offers up a more pessimistic controlling and jealous side of love.
While McCartney's lyrics may often express the sunnier personality type of its composer, it might also suggest a conventional lyric that doesn't really consider the personality of its composer at all, drawing its themes from the conventions and generalities of pop songs as a type and genre, Lennon's lyrics are not so conventional and express a more authentic and personal element. In the case of "You Can't Do That," Lennon expresses his jealous and insecure nature, a theme which he dealt with in many of his love songs from "If I Fell" to "Jealous Guy."
From this dualistic approach, the Beatles were in effect their own antithesis, their very own Rolling Stones, so to speak, reflected in the personality types of Lennon and McCartney. Again, it suggests the dualistic nature that existed within the group. The group also had a dualistic nature by splitting the group into its pairings, Lennon and McCartney, Starr and Harrison, the creative two and the complimentary two, the major two and the supporting two. The "economy Beatles" as Harrison would refer to himself and Starr.4
1. Lana Cooper "The Magical Mystery Four: The Beatles As a Successful System of Archetypes" (Popmatters, November 8, 2009)
2. See Nik Cohn's Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom: The Golden Age of Rock (Paladin Press, 1969)
4. The Beatles Anthology TV series, 1995
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