The music's fabulous, the lyrics go from the simple to the surreal. But do they mean anything? And does it really matter?
The Beatles returned to top spot in the charts recently with their album of greatest hits, One. Adored by all generations, their music still thrills people all over the world. But how well do we really know their music? Certain songs, such as "Yesterday" and "Yellow Submarine", are readily sung by people of all nationalities, but whether or not the lyrics are understood is a different matter. What's more, did The Beatles have much to say in their songs?
Initially, if we are referring to their early days the answer would be "no". The Beatles were synonymous with such lyrics as "she luvs you, yeah, yeah, yeah!" In rising to the pinnacle of success, they were strongly controlled by the record companies they were contracted to, and therefore produced "commercial music", easy to remember and easy on the brain!
Once established, though, they gained the degree of independence necessary to produce more serious music. Lennon and McCartney, the prolific song-writing duo who wrote most of the Beatles' tracks, had little to say directly about politics (apart from high taxation, perhaps, in "Taxman"!) but much to say about the world and many issues within it.
"She's Leaving Home", a slow ballad, depicts parents giving their daughter all the material possessions she needs, but not the love and sense of fun she requires in life (see Taskmasters p.40). The song reflects a lack of understanding of the younger generation. Such a generation gap was a major issue in the 1960s. The Fab Four themselves came from one-parent families, and perhaps felt that some love had been missing from their teenage lives. As with novelists, songwriters often use personal experiences for their inspiration.
One of the saddest and most frequently played songs, "Eleanor Rigby", refers to "all the lonely people" in the world, especially the old. Whilst loneliness is undoubtedly the main theme, there are references to Father McKenzie and his empty church. Poles may find the concept of empty churches difficult to comprehend, but The Beatles were clearly questioning the role of the Church in England, not such a church-going country, and suggesting that it was out of touch with the needs of the people. Father McKenzie is probably a Catholic priest, since he is unmarried. Eleanor Rigby is his housekeeper.
The Beatles sought enlightenment from other religions, and went to India under the influence of the Maharishi, who was subsequently shown to be a fraud. "Fool on the Hill" was dedicated to his memory. Needless to say, he had a palace on a hill!
Another issue in the 1960s, besides the search for new ideologies, was the increase in drug usage. The Beatles, like most pop stars of that time, experimented in drug-taking, and from the Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts' Club Band album came the ultimate drugs anthem, "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds". The initials of the key words in the title, "LSD", match up with the famous hallucinatory drug, thus serving as a major clue to the song's contents.
John Lennon, who was addicted to LSD for two years, suffered by his own admission a subsequent loss of identity and confidence. It's worth taking a closer look at the lyrics of "Nowhere Man", a song which summarises his problems with the drug.
A taboo issue in the so-called enlightened sixties was that of homosexuality. Fear of talking openly about the subject affected even the outspoken Lennon, the "object of desire" of The Beatles' manager, Brian Epstein. When Epstein tragically committed suicide, Lennon blamed himself for the death, as he had spurned his manager's romantic advances. "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away" is a tribute to Epstein, as well as a sad commentary on the way homosexuals were forced to behave in society. However, when you hear the lyrics, the subject of the song is a "she", not a "he". The lyrics are deliberately ambiguous. This reflects The Beatles' fear of offending too many people in the wild but still definitely heterosexual sixties.
Another death that was to haunt them was the murder of Sharon Tate, the American actress wife of Polish film director, Roman Polanski. Several months pregnant, Tate was brutally stabbed while Polanski was filming Macbeth in London. Manson was a fanatical Beatles fan, and his followers used her blood to scrawl the word "piggies" on her living-room walls. "Piggies", as you may recall, is a track from the Beatles White album. The Beatles were appalled to hear the news of the vile murder, wondering if their lyrics had inspired it.
The episode shows that much responsibility rests on the shoulders of songwriters. Lennon was aware of this later when he promoted world peace with the famous song chant, "Give Peace A Chance". Recently, much debate has centred around the song lyrics of Eminem, with their focus on violence. So, in future, don't just listen to the music - give the lyrics a chance! They may turn you off, they may turn you on, and they may turn you upside down.