The Beatles and the Dawning of a New Age

On its 50th anniversary, A Hard Days Night has been released in a newly restored digital version to universal critical acclaim. A precious cinematic artifact of social history, even a catalyst of cultural change, the first Beatles movie is now looked upon as more than just a piece of filmmaking, with its four heroes praised for their natural charm, energy and unalloyed youthful optimism.

If only it was that simple.

The Beatles came to prominence with a string of hit singles, arriving to lead a generation from the grim black-and-white post-War World era into the technicolor dream of The Sixties—or that’s how the story goes. Two men played Svengali to the phenomenon that had materialized. The band’s manager, Brian Epstein, emerged from the obscurity of suburban Liverpool to mastermind the various image changes that made the group attractive to mainstream tastes. Out went the grease and leathers of anarchic rebels, and in came the fashionably suited smiling young men. The public image of four “innocents abroad in the big city” à la A Hard Days Night was far removed from the reality of the men who had returned to England after years playing the clubs of Hamburg’s notorious Red Light district. Formed by such experiences, the Beatles’ presentation may have changed, their underlying attitudes hadn’t. The other Svengali was the music producer, George Martin. With Martin at the helm, the Beatles’ combined abilities were crafted in such a way that rapidly moved them from being just another Beat group to rock music luminaries, becoming, by the end of the decade, the musical touchstone for a generation.

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The Beatles’ rise to world superstardom has been well documented. By early 1964, on spiritual recoil from the gunshots heard at Dealey Plaza only months earlier, America enthusiastically welcomed the band—the hysteria that followed was not, however, solely about music. Beatle hairstyles, clothing and, more importantly, their musings immediately became the preoccupation of global youth. It was no longer a case of the band catching the Zeitgeist—they had become it.

By 1966, however, there appeared a change in the Beatles and, as the mask invented for them began to slip, things began to grow darker.

American audiences noticed it first. The US music label, Capitol, released Yesterday and Today with the album’s cover showing the Fab Four dressed as butchers with decapitated baby dolls and pieces of meat strewn around them. After a public outcry, copies of the record were hastily recalled and a more palatable cover was swiftly inserted. The original artwork was supposed to be social comment. It was; but what no one realized then was just how much—for that year marks the start of more liberal abortion laws in some US States; and in less than a year, the procedure became legal in Great Britain. In hindsight, one can see that the cover revealed, subconsciously perhaps, one aspect of where the Zeitgeist of the times was ultimately leading: Roe v. Wade.

That year also marked another unveiling. On a trip to India George Harrison had been introduced to diverse musical influences, and to a spiritual one, namely Hinduism, something he was later to promote with proselytizing zeal. He was not alone in this, though, as, from the start of the decade, the “wisdom of the East” had once again become fashionable. As the Beatles were seen to embrace this trend then, inevitably, so too did many others. There was, however, something more sinister here than the fad of “tuning in and dropping out”; instead, it was an opening up to systems of beliefs, to spiritual powers and influences, that from the outset were seldom understood by eager initiates. Quickly, assorted Eastern meditation techniques gave way to non-Christian mysticism; in turn, the voguish The Tibetan Book of the Dead became an introduction to the occult, especially the Black Magician Aleister Crowley. As that self-proclaimed magus’ corpus was exhumed, the maxim: “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law,” became a softly whispered mantra for much of what was now about to occur.

1966 also saw the release of Revolver. It was the first Beatles album to make explicit reference to these influences then surfacing: the final track, Tomorrow Never Knows, using direct quotations from The Tibetan Book of the Dead. It wasn’t just the lyrics though. That track was musically very different from anything the band had thus far recorded. Its droning, discordant, hallucinatory sound world marking the commencement of what would come to be viewed as the embodiment of the preeminent counter-cultural musical form: psychedelia—at the time seen as an important component part in the dawning of the so-called “Age of Aquarius.” Of course, such an age was entirely bogus; nevertheless, through these mists now came entities all too real.

Was it mere coincidence that there was an explicit reference to Catholicism on Revolver? In the dolorous, Eleanor Rigby, the lonely, sad death of a churchgoer was recounted, with her equally lonely parish priest, Fr. McKenzie, sat writing sermons that no one will hear—a clerical version of Nowhere Man. It all sounded so forlorn. Later, George Martin was to comment on how the strings on that track were influenced by Bernard Herrmann’s score for Psycho. In hindsight, perhaps it was fitting that Hitchcock’s bleak start to the decade was now referenced at its midway point just as the killing—in all its guises—really got underway.

Seemingly, the first thing to be “killed” was Christianity. This was the year of Lennon’s pronouncement that: “Christianity will go, it will vanish and shrink. I needn’t argue about that. I’m right and will be proved right … We’re more popular than Jesus now.” The contemporary press report went on to note that the Beatle had been reading, amongst other books on the subject of religion, the revived Gnosticism of the just published and best-selling, The Passover Plot by Hugh J. Schonfield—the new beliefs and repackaged heresies then flooding the West were being embraced with little or no critical faculty by Lennon and others. In contrast, Christianity was to be accorded no quarter; instead, the “prophets” of the age had decreed that that religion’s time had come and gone.

Others thought otherwise, however.

The following year, 1967, saw Pope Paul VI announce a Year of Faith starting on June 29, the Feast of Sts. Peter & Paul. This was in response to: “a so-called ‘post-conciliar’ mentality … [that] … question[s] or distort[s] the objective sense of truths taught with authority by the Church.” But, as if pre-empting this, earlier that same month an alternative spiritual center had been declared. On June 1 the Beatles released their eighth studio album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and, with it, the “Summer of Love” began, along with a new era. Although subsequently much romanticized, this “Summer” did herald the beginning of something; however, perhaps only from a distance of years is it possible to fully make out its contours, and, ultimately, to recognize to whose lies the world had turned once more to listen.

Consistently rated by music critics as the greatest rock album of all time, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was the Beatles at their musical peak. The album started with a pretend “live performance” before propelling its listeners through to the suicide and drug induced daydreams of the climactic A Day in the Life, with its apocalyptic final note. This strange disillusioned melancholy was to be the overture ushering in the new age.

Nevertheless, with its striking cover and sophisticated lyrics and soundscapes, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was a signal that a changing of the guard was taking place. This was about more than just music, though. A new age was indeed dawning, and on the album cover the world saw the “founding fathers” of this coming reality. It should have set alarm bells ringing. Amongst a seemingly random selection were: assorted Hindu gurus and deities, Jung & Marx, H.G. Wells & G.B. Shaw, and, of course, Aleister Crowley—not included in the final edit was Lennon’s choice of Hitler.

The beginning of Pope Paul’s Year of Faith coincided with the start of the so-called “Summer of Love,” and was to conclude with the Credo of the People of God: “In making this profession, we are aware of the disquiet which agitates certain modern quarters with regard to the faith. They do not escape the influence of a world being profoundly changed, in which so many certainties are being disputed or discussed. We see even Catholics allowing themselves to be seized by a kind of passion for change and novelty….” By now, however, popular culture had radically shifted, and as these words were spoken Rosemary’s Baby was released into movie theatres worldwide. And so, what for many had started with the idealism of the “Summer of Love” anthem All You Need is Love was to come to a shuddering halt two years later as Helter Skelter became a soundtrack to murder.

Released into mainstream culture were forces that represented the very antithesis of the message proclaimed by the Year of Faith. Unfortunately it was not love that had been trumpeted during that summer of 1967 but license, and, surrounded by illusions, this led many only to enslavement, made all the more bitter having turned away from that which could have set them free—the Love that was really all that was needed. In the end, the “free love” of those sunlit days came at a price, and, sadly one still being paid to this day.

Maybe not surprisingly, I find it difficult, therefore, to share the widespread wide-eyed reception bestowed upon the re-release of A Hard Days Night. There was, and is, just too much “debris” strewn over the last 50 years that points to this movie as a genesis of sorts. Watching its four heroes on screen today, one feels only sadness at the forces then carrying them into a future they could never have dreamed of, or even bargained for.


  • K. V. Turley

    K.V. Turley is the National Catholic Register’s U.K. correspondent. He writes from London.

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