In the film A Hard Day's Night, at the very beginning, is a scene in which John Lennon, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr are being chased by a mob of screaming girls. Paul McCartney, however, avoided the problem by wearing fake facial hair, thereby disguising his identity and saving himself the trouble of dealing with the hysteria. The tactic was not created for the film - Paul actually used the trick on a regular basis. It had a liberating effect, allowing him to walk around in public without the debilitating insanity of Beatlemania. For those few hours, it was as if he was someone other than Paul McCartney.
Indeed, the disguise worked so well that the bassist wondered if the same stunt could be employed by the whole band. Just as it did with Paul, assuming different identities could free the band to try different things by allowing the group to get outside of themselves. Quoting Paul: "With our alter egos we could do a bit of B. B. King, a bit of Stockhausen, a bit of Albert Ayler, a bit of Ravi Shankar, a bit of Pet Sounds, a bit of the Doors; it didn't matter, there was no pigeon-holing like there had been before" (Miles, page 306). After a crazy year in 1966 - in which they stopped touring due in large part to the delirium of live performances - the band found the notion quite appealing, and decided that for their next album they would not be the Beatles.
Miles, Barry. Paul McCartney: Many Years From Now. Henry Holt and Company, New York, NY, 1997.
There are five main characters in the story of the Beatles and the avant-garde. The first two, of course, are John Lennon and Paul McCartney. At the heart of my research are two parallel dynamics that occurred between Lennon and McCartney over the course of the band’s existence: the first a shift in the leader of the group (what started as John’s band ended as Paul’s); the second a simultaneous shift in avant-garde aesthetics (what started as Paul’s experimentation ended as John’s). While the former has been written about and analyzed extensively, the latter has been largely ignored, or at best treated trivially and glossed over.
The third primary character is the catalyst for both of these dynamics: Yoko Ono. While never part of the band, Ono is inextricable from its history for her profound impact on John Lennon. The ultimate focus of my project, then, is on the artistic production and experimentation of Paul McCartney and John Lennon between 1965 (with McCartney’s early tape experiments) through 1969 (with Lennon and Ono’s Wedding Album), paying particular attention to how the avant-garde scene of the time influenced and inspired these experiments.
The two remaining primary characters are both Georges: Harrison and Martin. Both men were integral to the artistic development of the Beatles, and display significant avant-garde influence: Harrison through his connection with Indian music, experiences with Eastern philosophy and religion, and in his solo albums Wonderwall Music and Electronic Sound; Martin through his classical background and education, and experimental recording techniques.
Barry Miles is the author of "The Beatles Diary, volumes 1 and 2", "Zappa: A Briography", "London Calling: A Countercultural History of London since 1945", "Hippie", "Jack Kerouac: King of Beats", "William Burroughs: El Hombre Invisible", and many other books. He co-founded the Indica Bookshop and Gallery, where John Lennon and Yoko Ono would meet for the first time; and was instrumental in the founding of International Times, a fortnightly periodical dedicated to the underground and avant-garde London art scene. He has maintained a lifelong friendship with Paul McCartney, and in 1994 published a biography of Paul titled "Paul McCartney: Many Years From Now". Once in an email to me, John Blaney, author of "John Lennon: Listen to This Book" and several other Beatles-related books, referred to Miles as "Mr. Avant-Garde", and indeed much of my Beatles and the avant-garde research is based on Miles' writing.
I am currently reading through his book "In the Sixties", which details his dealings with not only the Beatles, but also other bands/artists/musicians of the decade, in addition to providing details about his business endeavors like the International Times and Indica Bookshop & Gallery, and his troubles with the authorities regarding drug posession and obscentiy laws. This post, then, is a summary of this book, particularly as it relates to the Beatles, and particularly particularly how it relates to the Beatles and the avant-garde. All references and quotes refer to "In the Sixties" unless otherwise indicated. Full citations may be found at the end of this blog.
Miles teamed up with John Dunbar in August 1965 with the intent of opening a bookshop/art gallery "to introduce people to new ideas and the latest developments in art" (p. 70, 116). Dunbar asked his best mate, Peter Asher (who achieved a substantial deal of fame and wealth through his music duo Peter & Gordon in 1964 with their number one hit ‘World Without Love’). to help fund the project. "Peter agreed to put up the £2,100 we thought we needed to start the bookshop and gallery by loaning John and me £700 each, and putting in the same amount himself. After many thoughtful pot-filled evenings, we decided to call the bookshop-gallery venture Indica, after Cannabis indica" (p. 68).
Peter Asher lived in a house with his father Richard ("the first neurophysician to identify Munchausen’s syndrome, a condition in which people invent medical problems in order to draw attention to themselves"), mother Margaret (who "taught oboe at the Guildhall School of Music, and often had her students over for lessons in the basement music room. George Martin, the Beatles’ producer, had been one of her students, as was Paul McCartney"), and two sisters Clare and Jane, the latter of whom just so happened to be dating Paul McCartney (p. 72-73)
Paul and Jane met on 18 April 1963, at a social gathering following a performance at London's Royal Albert Hall. All of the Beatles knew Jane Asher - she was at the time just as famous as they were for her performances as an actress - but this was the first time they had met in person. Lennon took an immediate interest in her, and (presumably under the influence of alcohol) made crude sexual references towards her. Paul, no doubt sensing his own opportunity, rose to Jane's defense, and the two left the party arm in arm. They started dating shortly thereafter. (Carlin p. 87-88).
When McCartney wasn't busy, he offered to help prepare the Indica for its opening, "hammering and sawing, filling in the holes in the plaster and helping to erect bookshelves. ... [R]umors spread and soon everyone in the nearby shops and galleries knew all about the Beatles’ new art gallery" (p. 81). The Indica opened its doors in September 1965 - it's first customer being Paul McCartney, who purchased "And It’s a Song, poems by Anselm Hollo; Drugs and the Mind by DeRopp; Peace Eye Poems by Ed Sanders; and Gandhi on Non Violence. This showed both his range of interest and the type of stock I was buying" (p. 74).
The following March, McCartney brought John Lennon to the Indica. "He scanned the shelves and soon came upon The Psychedelic Experience, Timothy Leary’s psychedelic version of the Tibetan Book of the Dead. ... On page fourteen of Leary’s introduction he came upon the line ‘Whenever in doubt, turn off your mind, relax, float downstream’. With only slight modification, this became the first line of ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’, the Beatles’ first truly psychedelic song" (p. 113).
In September 1966, London hosted a "Destruction in Art Symposium", inviting Yoko Ono (among many others) to participate. Impressed with her work, John Dunbar offered her an exhibition at the Indica Gallery, and scheduled it to open on 9 November 1966. John Dunbar, now friends with John Lennon from his visits to the Indica, invited the Beatle to visit the exhibition the night before it opened to the public, and it was there that John Lennon and Yoko Ono met for the first time.
The avant-garde scene of the time was notoriously negative and pessimistic - and John despised it intensely. Indeed, the very engagement that brought Ono to London in the first place was the "Destruction in Art Symposium", in which "Otto Muhl skinned a lamb and covered everyone with blood, and Ralph Ortiz, a tall Puerto Rican artist, chopped Jay Landesman’s piano to pieces" (p. 144). Anticipating similarly negative art, Lennon admitted how close he was to walking out of the gallery when one of the first artworks he observed was a step ladder leading to an unintelligibly tiny word written on the ceiling. Hanging down from the ceiling was a magnifying glass to be used to read the infinitesimal text. Lennon held up the magnifier and read the word, “yes”. Quoting Lennon: “If it had said ‘No’, or something nasty like ‘rip off’ or whatever, I would have left the gallery then. Because it said ‘Yes’, I thought, Okay, this is the first show I’ve been to that said something warm to me" (Solt p. 120). Though it would take two years before John and Yoko established their romantic relationship, the moment when he decided to stay at her exhibition would prove to be the most pivotal point in Beatles history. Once John found Yoko, she completely eclipsed Paul as John’s primary artistic collaborator. With John now more interested in Yoko than the Beatles, Paul was able to replace him as leader of the group; and with the introduction of a full-fledged avant-garde artist, Paul’s involvement and enthusiasm for the movement abated, freeing John to adopt the role.
Carlin, Peter Ames. Paul McCartney: A Life. Touchstone Book, Simon & Schuster, New York, NY, 2009.
Miles, Barry. In the Sixties. Jonathan Cape, London, UK, 2002.
Solt, Andrew and Sam Egan. Imagine John Lennon. Penguin Studio, Sarah Lazin Books, New York, NY, 1988.
This blog is a workshop for developing my analyses of The Beatles' music.