This article is based on my own speculations, perceptions, insights, opinions and conjectures. It’s based on first-hand observations, historical artefacts and my own life experience. If that’s not for you, stop reading now and go and look at something else. Begone with you! Go on! Be off! For other readers, I’ll share my story.
The Beatles had a big impact on my life and probably on all people my age. We were late baby boomers, growing up in a world in which our older bothers and sisters, the war babies, those quintessential baby boomers, had already begun to exert their influence. Now in their late teens and early twenties, they were already moving and shaking, via rock and roll, staking their claims to growing post-war prosperity and to positions as shapers of modern popular culture – so much so, that it was hard for us younger boomers to get a foothold or a look in. We were elbowed out long before we came of age.
The generations before them had been thinned and cowed by two global wars of such savage, industrial-scale brutality, that humanity could no longer carry on believing in what it had before. The old certainties had been worthless. The devastating aftermath of the protracted conflict was there for all to see. You could hardly avert your gaze and ignore it.
The musician, Ozzy Osbourne, described the arrival of the Beatles into mass popular consciousness as like waking up one morning and finding the world had changed completely. It wasn’t quite like that, for us baby baby-boomers. By the time we were socially conscious, in our early teens, that tumultuous change in culture was already an assumed part of the ambient landscape. All we knew of that former time were the older people, still clinging onto their now-discredited old ideas and ways, like ridiculous buffoons. To us, they represented out of touch fossils, worthy only of pity and contempt.
One of my contemporaries put it best when he said that the sixties happened in the early seventies, in my home town. We grew up assuming the world was driven by peace and love. Therefore, discovering it still wasn’t, as we learnt during the Thatcher and Reagan eras, was doubly painful. Something precious was destroyed, over the coming decades. It still lies bleeding.
What mystified me, coming as I did from a heavy-industrial, maritime town, a place a bit like Liverpool, but in microcosm, was why the ideals of peace and love should have been so powerfully and persuasively espoused by four musicians from essentially non-descript backgrounds, in that city. What were the circumstances, the cultural and social conditions, that caused it to blossom? Why Liverpool, of all places? What set the stage and allowed it to grow? If you had to choose any epicentre, from which the Hippy counterculture was most likely to originate, would anybody have picked grey, grimy Liverpool.
A closer examination of the history of the people and place actually begins to illuminate why this should have happened here, at the time it did. You can do this by visiting the city and its many cultural and historical attractions. A pattern and picture begins to form, as surprising as it is obvious, once you take everything into consideration. It had to start here, of all places, in retrospect. It was a wholly rational response to the circumstances of place and time.
One of the most enlightening things you can do, to understand Liverpool in the fifties and sixties, is to take the Magical Mystery Tour, from the Albert Docks. It tours the childhood homes of the Beatles, as well as various places that featured in the history of the band and in their lyrics. You begin to get a sense of the world that working class and middle class suburban families inhabited, at the time. The pressures, struggles, disharmonies and sacrifices become tangible. What comes across is the search for an answer and an escape from the mundane and limited horizons that post war conformity promised.
To that generation, people who fell in with the project and did what they were told had been horrendously betrayed by the authorities. People had literally been killed in doing so. Trust in the stable, conservative, patriarchal project, with all its arrogance and condescension, was exceptionally low, for the right reasons. The elites in power had been unmasked as utterly incompetent, despite narrowly winning the war. People knew how close they had come to losing. Outright rebellion had been averted, but only just. This is the ambient climate of thought that the Beatles absorbed, perhaps unawares, in their formative years.
Other worthwhile glimpses into Liverpool’s history can be found at the Maritime Museum and the excellent Liverpool Museum, both located on the old docks, walking distance from the commercial heart of the city and the famous Cavern Club. One of the standout exhibits was a film entitled, “The Power and the Glory?”, If I recall the title correctly (https://vimeo.com/63156381 ). The question mark in the title is significant.
Liverpool became prosperous because it was a maritime trading hub. A disproportionate share of the wealth of the British Empire flowed through Liverpool. This was wealth obtained by force, violence and conquest, not the least of which was built on the back of the slave trade. All of the city’s fine old buildings and leafy avenues were bought and paid for with human exploitation and suffering. Penny Lane, in fact, was named after one of the city’s more prolific slave traders, commemorating his wealth and influence. The dirty little secret that taints the history of the city is that it was, in the main, enthusiastically complicit in the injustices meted out in the name of commerce.
That’s not to say the city’s inhabitants weren’t honest, up-standing, industrious and hard working. It was a place of exceptional initiative and innovation. The industries attracted to this trading hub exported the genius, design and craftsmanship of ordinary people throughout the world. With the spoils, the city developed a culture of its own, funding vast cathedrals, concert halls, orchestras and theatre. Upper middle class people could live as urban sophisticates, even as their workers eked out precarious existences in icy two-up, two-down terrace houses, with outdoor toilets.
Liverpool was the embodiment of hierarchy, where everyone knew their place. This it has in common with the miniature fiefdoms that exist onboard ships, from the captain down to the firemen. People didn’t dare step out of place, for fear of summary discipline. The whole edifice ran on hierarchy, which was stable and strong; the source of all the prosperity. But hierarchy, even one as strictly observed and maintained as Liverpool’s, failed.
As the British Empire crumbled, the injustices and conquests were simply too difficult to enforce indefinitely, so the prosperity drained away. By the sixties, Liverpool was poor and getting poorer; bypassed and forgotten. The world moved on and the wealth flowed elsewhere. Mighty industries predicated on the strength of the trading port withered and died, as did the commercial port itself.
Like all faded glory, it never died entirely. Even today, the fine buildings still stand – hollow ghosts of a bygone age. Vigour, in the city’s people, was somewhat replaced by shame and despair, though the sense of dignity and pride in past achievements never disappeared. A strange self-confidence remained, even as people endured straightened circumstances and privations. They knew what they had been capable of producing, but also felt the taint of the suffering inflicted on the nations of the world, in the name of empire.
The die-hards always try to resuscitate a dying empire by doubling down on brutal authoritarianism, bullying the weak and blaming the victims. Indeed, this is what brought politicians such as Margaret Thatcher to power. The others, seeing the bankruptcy of their leaders’ ideas, organised in worker’s collectives, attempting to redress the imbalances, inequalities and injustices. Because Liverpool’s labour force had learnt that authority was illegitimate, duplicitous and powerless to stop the decay, they opposed the privileged and were punished by successive Conservative governments for their lack of compliance and reverence, right up to the present day, but all of this was in the future, relative to the sixties.
People instinctually knew that when the going got tough, they were left abandoned, despite their previous loyalty and dedication to the cause of wealth accumulation. The wealthy simply betrayed their minions and moved on. Materialist Capitalism and Imperialism were fickle mistresses.
The problem with slavery, plunder, violence, exploitation, authority, brutal repression and conquest is that it’s antithetical to life. It preys on life, rather than enhancing it. The predators may flourish for a while, but life eventually reasserts itself, for sheer survival. This is reflected even in domestic hierarchies. Working people were preyed upon, by the leaders of commerce, almost as much as the so-called “inferior races” were, in far-flung corners of the empire at its height. Plunder leads inevitably to ruination and the taint of moral guilt, for the reprehensible, officially-sanctioned, unconscionable behaviour to other human beings. Calling it what it is, empire was built on theft with menaces, threats and murder.
Even the oppressed, hard-working and honest people of the lower classes were dragged down with the greedy. They shared in the pain of karma and divine retribution. As the prosperity left the city, every man, woman and child felt the effects. Those with no prospect of leaving felt it worst. This is why so many Liverpudlians harboured secret dreams of escape, I think, despite their undoubted pride in their city and their family ties.
They figured it out first here, in Liverpool. Nostalgia for empire is muted. Love is all you need. Despite the worst of circumstances, familial love can sustain you. Violence is a self-evident dead-end, as shown amply by the decay of empire. Authority is not to be trusted and respect for it seldom earned or justified. This is the intellectual undercurrent John, Paul, George and Richie grew up in. These were the ideas in the air.
When looked at in the context of the city’s story, it becomes clearer why peace and love should have found vocal, articulate devotees here. The forces and pressures that could cause such an eruption were all there, perhaps more so than in other similar places, experiencing similar events. Liverpool was perhaps the biggest and so felt the changes most acutely. Unlike London, there were few alternatives open to the city, once trade with empire dried up. It was the city’s raison d’etre.
Though they figured out the universal, unarguable, inevitable answer way back in the sixties, people from other places still haven’t gotten it. Perhaps the people of Liverpool, for all their self-assurance and no-nonsense plain speaking, have begun to lose sight of the answer, too. Peace and love are all you need. Indeed, it’s all that works. Everything else ends in disaster. Denial of these fundamental truths does not change the historical evidence or the facts.
Ultimately, every member of the Beatles just wanted to be left in peace, as do we all, I suppose. You can’t keep making the case for peace and love to people that respond to it with open hostility and even murderous violence. Their art stands the test of time, though, with its potent message, even if those that once made it are gone, or tired of evangelising it.
War is over, if you want it, but apparently not enough want it. We were encouraged to imagine there’s no countries, even as we close the borders to those in genuine need of asylum.
Incidentally, the Penny Lane fire station, so evocatively portrayed in the famous eponymous song, has closed – a victim of savage austerity budgets. There is no clean machine or firemen to keep it clean, any more. Even today, Conservative governments are disciplining the city with unnecessary, ideological punishments, singling it out for the more excessive cuts. There is no peace or love offered.