Today sees the release of The Beatles remastered back catalogue on CD, the high price of which reflects EMI’s (justified) confidence in the band’s continuing appeal yet which may also signal the last gasp of the traditional recording industry. Over the last week, the BBC has broadcast considerable amounts of new Beatles material on TV and radio which remind us of the hot-house atmosphere in which the band operated in their short public career of seven years.
What perhaps remains most astonishing is the way they glided into the public consciousness of a United States still reeling from the death of President Kennedy, gaining record television audiences and becoming a fixture of American popular culture.
There are some questions I think worth pondering by historians of the period. How much were The Beatles a culmination of a particular kind of British popular culture – marked by mastery of technique, a romantic, sometimes surreal and humorous vision of Englishness and a very old fashioned work ethic – and how much were they part of a paradigm shift towards globalisation, the current dominance of the English language and the ubiquity of youth culture? Probably something of both.
And, to think counterfactually, what would Britain’s reputation be like had they never gained the public attention Brian Epstein so skilfully garnered for them? Undoubtedly, the Beatles phenomenon, especially their success in the US, pointed towards the opportunities available in the creative industries to a once powerful country whose manufacturing base was in terminal decline. They gave Britain an enormous fillip in the process (exploited shamelessly by Prime Minister Harold Wilson) and established a British role in global popular culture wholly disproportionate to its size which lingers to this day.
Churchill’s state funeral of January 1965 saw the passing of one Britain; the imminent release of Rubber Soul confirmed the triumph of another. But, in their Englishness, their love affair with America, their originality, their popular appeal and their magical ability to make people feel good about themselves and the world, the old warrior and the new superstars had much in common.