I’d like to start with a chunky quote from my favourite music writer, Ian MacDonald. Revolution in the Head: The Beatles’ Recordings and the Sixties is the book I take off the shelf more regularly than any other. Sometimes to check what he has to say about one particular song; at other times, to go to an especially favourite passage. MacDonald is great on tiny details and then even better on vast social generalizations. However, the following words, about The Beatles, are not from Revolution in the Head (although he makes some very similar arguments there). Instead they come from my favourite piece of MacDonald’s writing – his long, acute, emotional essay on Nick Drake. This is one of my sacred texts. I read it in 2000, when it first came out, and I’m still thinking about all it brings up –
Quality of consciousness was the key motif of the countercultures’s revolt against consumer materialism in the sixties, running, for instance, through the Beatles’ work from Revolver onwards and reaching a zenith with ‘A Day in the Life’. The nub of the countercultural society was that the ‘plastic people’ of ‘straight’ society were spiritually dead. New Leftists spoke of ‘consciousness-raising’ while hippies offered a programme of ‘enlightenment’ through oriental mysticism supplemented by mind-expanding drugs. In today’s pleasure-seeking world, introspection holds no appeal and the sixties’ focus on innerness is ignored or derided as a cover for nineties-style chemical hedonism. The truth was otherwise in 1965-9.(‘Exiled from Heaven: The Unheard Message of Nick Drake’,The People’s Music, Ian MacDonald, 2003, Penguin, p220.)
If my new novel Patience has a slogan, it’s ‘quality of consciousness’.
I was thinking about quality of consciousness all the time I was writing it – over twelve years, start to finish. And I was thinking quite a bit about The Beatles, too. The two are intimately linked.
The main character in Patience is left alone with his consciousness for long periods of time, and he has developed the quality of it to a very high level – with very little other education.
His name is Elliott. He is a boy, not an orphan, whose parents have handed his care over to a Catholic children’s home. The date is 1979. At that time Elliott would have been called ‘a spastic imbecile’. Elliott has cerebral palsy. Oxygen-deprived at birth, he is only able to move the fingers of one hand. But he looks and he listens. How he looks, and how he listens! He is, as Henry James put it (meaning it for writers) ‘one of the people on whom nothing is lost’.
The Sisters who are in charge of the children often have the radio on. Elliott’s favourite station is Radio 3. He adores Mahler. But he also loves Radio 1 and pop. More importantly, there’s a cleaner who has a portable cassette-player and only two cassettes – The Beatles’ so-called Red and Blue albums. Her nickname is ‘Mrs Beatles’. Elliott knows all the lyrics to all the Beatles’ songs on those four sides.
When Jim, a blind boy who doesn’t speak, arrives in the home, Elliott powerfully wants to make friends with him. After many non-starts and confusions, they find a way of talking to one another – through humming the Beatles’ tunes, and knowing the words that go along with those notes in that sequence. ‘Hello Goodbye’ is Hello. ‘Get Back’ is Move my wheelchair back. And ‘I Wanna Hold Your Hand’ is self-explanatory.
I didn’t really choose The Beatles for this role in the book, they were just there from the start. Who else was as ubiquitous and as useful? They were always central – not just for the story but for me.
The first time I became interested in words, as written words, it was through reading the lyrics on the back of my parents’ copy of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. I remember hearing ‘tangerine trees and marmalade skies’ then checking I’d heard it right. What did it mean? How could someone put those words together and get away with it?
When I was a boy, the Blue Album (1967-1970) was one of the tapes in our family’s Peugeot 504. We would listen to the songs as we drove around the excitingly narrow lanes of Cornwall, on our summer holidays. I was the perfect age to dream about living in an ‘Octopus’s Garden’.
When I became a teenage surrealist, with a serious Salvador Dali poster habit, I was chasing a visual equivalent to ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’, ‘Come Together’ and ‘I am the Walrus’. (Both John Lennon and Salvador Dali were egg men, and both liked them runny.)
When I started to learn guitar, I got the songbook The Beatles: Complete. It was anything but complete, and most of the chords were hopelessly wrong. I knew nothing about multi-tracking, varispeed recording, backmasking or microtonal glissandi. Instead, I knew that ‘Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite’ scared the crap out of me – like the whole of reality was sliding sideways in an existential soulmelt. I knew that ‘A Day in the Life’ was the end of everything ever, because my heart stopped during the climactic chord crash.
Eventually, I knew that I too quite fancied being a paperback writer.
You could say that The Beatles opened up art to me. They certainly – along with Bob Dylan and David Bowie – had a big effect on what I thought an artist was. An artist was someone who made something as one person, then went away and came back with something else, as a completely different person.
What keeps me returning to The Beatles, apart from still being amazed at almost everything about them (yes, even Ringo’s early drumming), is the feeling of inclusion their music gives me. It wants to give a lot to me, but it also wants me to give it something. It wants me to hand over myself. ‘Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream’.
In other words, The Beatles’ music (as Nick Drake’s also) requires me, you, everyone to improve the quality of our consciousness. It’s the price of entry and the full refund. They want you to hear more, see more, understand more – because they believe you’re capable of all that. Whoever you are. And that means people like Elliott just as much as anyone else.
John Lennon often did what used to be called ‘spazzing out’. When Paul McCartney encouraged the crowd at their concerts to clap their hands and stamp their feet, Lennon would go into a routine. He’d stick his tongue in front of his bottom teeth, within his closed mouth; he’d put his limbs at awkward angles; he’d stomp one of his booted feet, as if it was an awkward hoof; he’d go cross-eyed; he’d make his hands into claw shapes and pretend to be unable to clap. (Check the YouTube video ‘john lennon sence of humour’. Be prepared to wince.) He did that thing with his tongue all the time – whenever there was a camera in his face that he didn’t want there.
Although our image of Beatlemania is screaming pubescent girls, the first rows at their American shows were often disabled children. The defence of Lennon’s behaviour, made in one of the Apple-sanctioned documentaries, is that he was a bit freaked out (my word, not theirs – but I’ve chosen it carefully) by playing to that audience, and that he was mimicking back what he saw in front of him.
I haven’t heard anything from those children, now grown up. Or from anyone trying to imagine seeing Lennon doing what he did, from these particular children’s point of view. Without wishing to speak for them, this was the period of time when almost everyone loved almost everything the Beatles did. And so I find it hard to see how the children would have felt other than delighted. Even if Lennon was being cruel, even if he wanted people to laugh at his momentarily disabled body, he was still making himself like them. He was displaying and performing them, and getting a reaction. He wasn’t ignoring or being pious about them. However crassly, he was including them. He was bringing them in.
The Beatles always brought people together. It’s easy to be snide about a song like ‘All You Need is Love’, but I would take all the downsides of the blandness of the message for the sheer global positivity of it. Britain has been emitting something a lot more like ‘Paint it Black’ or ‘Gimme Shelter’ for the past few years. (I don’t just mean since Brexit.)
For all the criticism he gets, Paul McCartney’s upbeatness – his core belief that if you’re on a downer, you’ll bring everyone else down – stands in absolute contrast to much of the art of our time. He has taken a near impossible stand, quite a brave one, and done it with grace and genuine resilience. It’s not easy being keen. He’s continued one part of The Beatles – the inclusive part – by other means.
When you listen back to them, The Beatles – with each new song – sound like they have given all they have, and found they have infinitely more to give. From album to album, they raised the quality of their consciousness – until, for a couple of years, they hummed and made the rest of us resonate. This is Ian MacDonald’s argument, and I agree with it.
In Patience, I needed something simple to bring together two boys who had no common language. It’s a small story that takes place in a very limited space – most of it on a single corridor. But if Mahler’s Second Symphony is playing, or ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’, then a corridor can become a near infinity, and the sounds resounding down it can make a revolution in the head.
About the author of this post
Toby Litt has published novels, short story collections, comics and, most recently, Wrestliana, a memoir about about his great-great-great grandfather, William Litt – a champion wrestler, smuggler, exile and poet. Toby grew up in Ampthill, Bedfordshire. He runs the Creative Writing MFA at Birkbeck College, and regularly blogs about writing at www.tobylitt.com. When he is not writing, he likes sitting doing nothing. He is one of the judges of the 2019/20 Galley Beggar Press Short Story Prize.