Commonweal Meets the Beatles

In an earlier post I linked to this L.A. Times roundup of short-sighted critical reactions to the Beatles' first U.S. appearance, fifty years ago this week. It all reminded me of a favorite passage from Muriel Spark's short stories (in this case, from the 1967 story "Alice Long's Dachshunds"):

Sister Monica has said that there is no harm in the Beatles, and then Mamie felt indignant because it showed Sister Monica did not properly appreciate them. She ought to lump them together with things like whisky, smoking, and sex; the Beatles are quite good enough to be forbidden.

Commonweal didn't properly appreciate the Beatles at first, either, though it didn't get around to mentioning them until September 4, 1964. Then, the editors wrote:

Is there any connection between the fact that the Beatles' latest movie received good reviews in New York and Clare Boothe Luce's candidacy for U.S. Senator? As of yet there is no evidence; but, it is said, the FBI is investigating.

Ho ho. But to be fair, it took a lot of people by surprise when A Hard Day's Night -- not just the "latest" but the first Beatles movie, released in July '64 -- was met with critical acclaim. It didn't have to be good to be a financial success, after all. But good it was. Commonweal's film critic, Philip T. Hartung, contributed his own bemused but positive review in the magazine's next issue (September 18, 1964): "No doubt the biggest surprise of the summer was an English film, A Hard Day's Night, in which the Beatles turned up and proved that these four lads have more than so-so voices and mops of hair.... They are completely unpretentious and have sense enough to make fun of themselves along with everyone else."

The Beatles' sense of humor, and their self-awareness about the "mania" that surrounded them, won them the grudging respect of many journalists who covered their arrival in the United States. On landing in New York, they gave a press conference that featured reporters asking questions that were essentially variations on "Isn't this all a big joke?" They replied with confidence and ironic humor -- they got the joke, and they didn't engage the insults. Such encounters with the press inspired a scene in A Hard Day's Night that both showed off the Beatles' wit (scripted, in this case, but based on true events) and signalled to the attentive that the film was in part a satire, and the joke was on those who condescended to the Beatles, and young people in general, as mop-headed fools. (See also this scene, my favorite, in which George wanders into the office of a supercilious television producer. "You don't think he's a new phenomenon, do you?")

At Commonweal it fell to Hartung to keep track of the Beatles over the next couple of years; he admired the subsequent work of A Hard Day's Night's director, Richard Lester, and enjoyed Help!, their next movie, which premiered in July 1965. One of the distinctive features of the Beatles' career is how fast it all happened -- that's two movies in two years, plus a nonstop barrage of hit singles and a constant churn of well-honed albums, and an exhausting tour schedule. (But the pace of pop culture in general used to be much faster--just look at how many feature films Shirley Temple made between 1934 and 1939, to use an example that struck me yesterday with the news of her death.) Their musical progress and experimentation is all the more incredible for having happened in so short a period. In 1964 the editors were joking about an FBI investigation into the Beatles' critical success; by 1971 the FBI was actually investigating John Lennon, noted antiwar and anti-drug-war activist, author of "Revolution" and "Power to the People" and "Give Peace a Chance." (From that 1964 press conference at JFK: "Q: What about all this talk that you represent some kind of social rebellion? JOHN: It's a dirty lie. It's a dirty lie.")

But back in November 1965, Commonweal Associate Editor John Leo was still feeling confidently supercilious. He included this squib in his "News and Views" roundup in the November 12 issue:

Also in England, Archbishop Beck recently called a press conference under the title "The Council, Culture and the Mersey Sound," which refers to the Vatican Council, Western Culture and Beatles music. The gist of the conference turned out to be that modern music -- perhaps even the Beatles -- will be part of a pageant to open Liverpool Cathedral in 1967.

On the way in, a priest asked what the Council has to do with the Mersey Sound. Nobody asked the other question -- what the Beatles have to do with Culture.

A punch line worthy of William F. Buckley. And yet culture would keep churning, and in May 12, 1967, Richard Corliss contributed an essay to Commonweal, "A Beatle Metaphysic," that began with a prediction -- "Within ten years, rock-and-roll will be part of the modern college's curriculum" -- and went on to give an attentive and appreciative analysis of the Beatles' artistic progress.

The provocateurs of rock-and-roll's respectability kick are, of course, the Beatles. When, in February 1964, the boys first appeared in America, preceded by a $50,000 publicity outlay by Capitol Records, few perceived (or even heard) the music behind the mania. Later, after their film A Hard Day's Night won the intellectuals' attention, people began noticing modal progressions in their music and well-expressed observations in their lyrics. The last two years have seen adult Beatlemania bloom. Bobby Kennedy has long hair and Ravi Shankar will soon be teaching sitar courses at CCNY.

After examining the merits of the Beatles' musical output (this was just before the release of Sgt. Pepper), Corliss concluded:

The complexity of these two songs ["Penny Lane" and "Strawberry Fields Forever"], of most of the Beatles' recent work and, in fact, of much new rock and roll, suggests that scholars in the field may have enough material to base any number of monographs upon. But the Beatles' songs, at least, are not just musical cryptograms. They are a delight to listen to, fine for dancing to, and are where all the Love Generation's excitement is, to use a well-known expression, at.

And thus did Commonweal learn to properly appreciate the Beatles -- says the associate editor with the Beatles coffee mug on her desk.

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Mollie Wilson O'Reilly is an editor at large and columnist at Commonweal.

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