The Beatles and the Dawn of Global Culture

by |April 24, 2017
Steven Cohen, August 11, 2015 Photo by Bruce Gilbert

Read more from Executive Director Steven Cohen at the Huffington Post.

In this day of anti-immigration, anti-science, ‘America First,’ and less-than-subtle racism, I found a welcome arrival recently with Ron Howard’s film The Beatles: Eight Days a Week — The Touring Years. Like many people my age, I grew up with the Beatles, and their music, values and image are deeply ingrained in my view of how the world works. I remember the day in early 1964 when they flew into New York’s Idlewild (now JFK) airport. I was home from school with the flu, but listening to their progress on a transistor radio, and hearing the song, “I Want to Hold Your Hand”, so many times that I could play each Beatles’ part. But more than hearing the pieces, I remember the sheer rush of emotion that washed over me whenever I heard the song begin and the deep sense of wellbeing I felt as the song ended. Their music was an emotional experience for a ten-year-old school boy in Brooklyn. As they evolved through the 1960s, we grew up along with them.

Growing up in Brooklyn I knew many people from other countries and I knew we weren’t alone in the world, but I suppose I saw Europe and Asia as places where people were from, not as a place we were going. Europe was where they tattooed numbers on the arms of old people I saw sitting on Brighton Beach in the summer: the survivors of the Holocaust. Or as my father once told me after one of his many business trips to Europe: “Europe is an overrated old place. New York City is the best place in the world, America is the best country, and my parents were right to leave that place.” I remember reminding him that like most Jews in the early 20th century, they were chased out of Europe, but he correctly focused on the wisdom of their leaving. There wasn’t a lot of sympathy for the “old country” when I was a kid. The point I often heard was that America was the future and nothing interesting could come from someplace else.

But the Beatles were proof that something absolutely spectacular could be grown outside of America. It turned out that the music they made was a global mix of sounds from England, Ireland, the Caribbean, Africa, Germany and America. Later on, they added the sitar and other sounds from Asia. In 1964, the Beatles’ chief musical influences were Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Elvis Presley and even Brooklyn’s own Carol King. But when the Beatles covered American rock ‘n roll hits and started to write their own songs, they brought their personal history and collective memory to the sounds they made and created something new and fresh that had never been heard before.

And that is when I learned that even the relatively primitive mass communication technologies of the mid 20th century could open up closed cultures to new images, sounds and values. Ron Howard’s documentary pointed out that the Beatles provided us with more than music as they toured America. When they played in the American south, during our own civil rights movement, they refused to play to segregated audiences. They weren’t subtle about it, saying they had come to America to play to everyone and segregation made no sense. Later they were part of the early opposition to the war in Vietnam.

The Beatles’ sound came from many places. The American influence on their sound came from the American records brought over in ships to their home port city of Liverpool, England, throughout the 1950s. It was combined with the Beatles own unique sense of history and place and then returned to America where it influenced a generation of American musicians. Add to this drive to learn from each other and the special contributions that can be made by combining these many unique experiences and you see the seeds of the global culture. Today we have inexpensive jet travel, the internet, smartphones, search engines and geographic information systems–and the world’s knowledge, culture, art and sounds are at our fingertips. The Beatles didn’t have Google and streaming music; they waited for ocean freighters to arrive with the latest American records. They hungered for these voices from far away and imagined lives different from their own. Modern technology has made it possible to imagine different lives, and then see them–first on the web, then in person. Moreover, “sharing economy” innovations like Airbnb make it possible to skip the standard hotel and stay in a home with people raised in a different world than the one you live in. We can only imagine the type of art and music that these experiences will generate.

It may seem that those of us raised here in New York City in the 1950s and ‘60s would grow up exposed to many cultures and many nations, and in some ways, that was true. But we were largely taught to reject those other places, or minimize them as sentimental touchstones of a past we’d left behind. The Beatles demonstrated that something foreign could be exciting and worth exploring. The spirit of exploration of the space program, the Peace Corps, and student travel abroad was crystallized with John F. Kennedy’s inauguration and his “new frontier”.  Kennedy’s assassination pulled the rug out from under that sense of optimism and change. But when the Beatles landed in America about 100 days after the horror of Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas, it seemed as if the forces of globalization and generational change might not die after all. The sense of depression we felt at JFK’s somber funeral was swept aside by the four moptops singing “yeah, yeah, yeah, wooo!” on the Ed Sullivan show.

Next year we will celebrate the 50th anniversary of a photo we now call Earthrise. Earthrise depicts the Earth and parts of the moon and was shot by Apollo 8 astronaut William Anders on Christmas Eve, 1968. This image of a single globe, a beautiful fragile blue jewel sitting in the black void of outer space, reinforced the connection of nations and humans to each other. It too reinforced the need to look beyond the purely local and parochial that both comforts and limits us. Jim Lovell, the commander of that flight observed: “The vast loneliness is awe-inspiring and it makes you realize just what you have back there on Earth.”

That photo, the music of the Beatles, the idealists from all nations marching for science last weekend, and the judges tossing out the anti-Muslim executive orders all represent the positive value of a world where people engage with each other. We learn from each other. We help each other. We don’t build walls to keep people out or keep people in.

We don’t need to make America great again or only think of America first. America has its flaws, but is still quite special. I am not saying that I don’t still root for the home team, or that the world does not have its share of crazy people. But a world where we live our lives in fear of each other is a sad and lonely place. John Lennon was assassinated nearly four decades ago. He was a victim of that craziness. But he loved New York, and loved the sense of freedom he saw here–even as he fought deportation. It is absolutely essential that we not allow the xenophobic, anti-immigration “America firsters” to change America’s culture of freedom and possibility. It is this country’s defining characteristic. There is pain and unfairness in the world. Today is a day when we remember the victims of the holocaust, a clear reminder of the evil in the world. But then there are also moments when four working class geniuses from England recorded the most amazing popular music ever made. The Beatles lit a creative flame that like Ron Howard’s great film shows, can never be extinguished.  The Beatles came into being at the dawn of our global culture. I strongly believe we are nowhere near its dusk.


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