Dr Martin King
Sixties activist Abbie Hoffman has argued that The Beatles were part of a cultural revolution where the best and popular were, at a particular historical moment, the same, citing the Sgt. Pepper album in particular as a cultural artefact with wide reaching implications (Giuliano and Giuliano, 1995). This is, of course, a contested position, with The Beatles’ relationship with the 1960s’ counterculture the subject of much debate since, not least in the discussion around Lennon’s song Revolution, resulting in written correspondence between Lennon and the London-based underground magazine Black Dwarf, or the debate between Richard Goldstein of The New York Times and Robert Christgau in Esquire on the merits of Sgt. Pepper. In a recent book the author has explored The Beatles’ role in changing representations of men and masculinities in the 1960s. The 1960s is, perhaps, the most re-presented decade of recent times, and this article will explore The Beatles’ role in reflecting and popularising the values of the counterculture, both at the time and in retrospect. Coser (1965) drew parallels between the new intellectual elite of the 1960s and the court jester of medieval times, a role which allowed for the subversion and ridiculing of the established order of the times, positioned beyond the social hierarchy. Inglis (2000a; 2000b) has developed this concept, presenting The Beatles as men of ideas, constantly associated with changing visual and musical styles and reflecting on intellectualism at work in the new world of popular music. Their role can be characterised as providing a focus, a prism through which to read the social changes of the 1960s, bringing a number of ideas into popular consciousness, magnified through the lens of their position in popular culture at the time. MacDonald (2003:87) saw them as picking up ideas before their competitors: ‘above and beyond the ordinary world: ahead of the fame and orchestrating things’. This paper explores this idea in relation to 1960s’ counterculture with a particular reference to the impact on men and representations of masculinity in the period. This exploration will take place through a discussion of their 1967 film Magical Mystery Tour, which is, it will be argued, a key countercultural text, much debated but, in retrospect, containing radical and subversive ideas in terms of content and form. Neaverson (1997) sees Magical Mystery Tour as filled with satire and mockery of establishment values, and draws comparisons with surrealist cinema, in particular Dali and Bunuel’s Un Chien Andalou. The film also attempts to represent a state of heightened awareness, achieved through the use of psychedelic drugs, and this must also be considered as part of the subversive and counter-hegemonic (Gramsci, 1971) agenda of the film. While Sgt. Pepper is seen by many as the pinnacle of The Beatles’ musical achievement, Magical Mystery Tour, generally panned by the critics at the time, represents a key point in The Beatles’ transformation from loveable mop-tops to spokesmen for the counterculture (in the public perception), providing a challenge to ideas about men and masculinity within a countercultural context.