Martha Bayles’s expertise, which besides her punchy prose is the main attraction of her Hole In Our Soul, extends beyond the p’s and q’s of American popular music, but also covers the impact various theories of modernism and art had upon the music’s development. She is particularly interested in the interaction of these theories with various social/racial dynamics. I cannot recommend the book highly enough for those interested in popular music, but I would also recommend it for art-history students, or those otherwise interested the questions raised by the category “modern art.”
So while last time we saw how her (and Charlie Gillett’s) detailed knowledge of Afro-American music allowed her to discern the key ingredients in the Beatles’ sound, her full account of their breakthrough has to go into extra-musical factors. For a key aspect of it was the in many ways unprecedented praise given them, unprecedented for a mere pop band, by various elites. Some of this was due to British ignorance about the full gamut of American music (or “greater ignorance”–it took the Stones and such for lots of American whites to really notice the blues, and the Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo and such for lots of middle-class whites to really notice the C&W), and to British pride–a bit like the current South Korean pride in K-pop–in their big pop export. But more was involved. Bayles concludes her discussion of the Beatles by saying that their
…true significance is not…that they…brought rock n’ roll to a level of distinction never before achieved by Afro-American music…Instead, the Beatles’ significance is that…they began the process by which popular music would achieve an elevated cultural status for reasons that have little or nothing to do with Afro-American musical quality.
As far as that that quality goes, Bayles would judge Motown as superior to the Beatles, while admitting the high quality of each. I would agree.
One key ingredient to the new sort of cultural status for pop music, was what Bayles calls the Beatles’ “touch of camp.” She discusses the importance of camp for 20th century cultural history by building upon Hilton Kramer’s discussion (here) of the famous Susan Sontag essay “Notes on Camp,”:
As Kramer explains, both pop art and camp involved a self-conscious rejection of high culture, combined with an equally self-conscious embrace of popular culture—the kitschier the better. Sontag leaps about quite nimbly trying to delineate the shared camp attributes of the French Academy, Flash Gordon comics, Busby Berkeley musicals, and Japanese horror films. But it is Kramer who cuts to the heart of the matter, writing that camp offers “‘forbidden’ pleasure in objects that were corny, exaggerated, ‘stupid,’ or otherwise acknowledged to have failed the respectable standards of the day,” while also excluding the ‘straight’ public.” Thus camp skips the challenge of genuine art, while keeping the avant-garde “distinction between ‘us’ and ‘them.’”
The date of Sontag’s influential essay? 1964.
Now Bayles is not saying that the fans embraced Beatles music in a camp spirit, nor … that the Beatles took a camp attitude toward Afro-American music—that would come later. [i.e., Blondie, The Ramones, Kraftwerk, Devo, Malcolm McClaren, The Cramps, etc.] But they did add a touch of camp to their act, just enough to give them an edge on the black American competition.
What Bayles primarily means is that the Beatles found ways to slightly distance themselves from their music and the element of commercial calculation they had mixed into it, ways appreciated by the cultural guardians of the time. This comes out most vividly in the way they handled the press. Instead of serving up formulaic entertainer talk for their interviews, they gently mocked their pop commercialism: When asked by American reporters to sing, the Beatles grinned, “We need money first.” When asked to explain their popularity, they retorted, “We have a press agent.”
Bayles notes that while Chuck Berry, a middle-class black whose sister actually played Beethoven, was never asked for his opinion about the composer, the working-class blokes making up the Beatles actually were, because looking like British schoolboys,… their American interlocutors assumed that they would have something to say about high culture. Needless to say, few Americans ever remarked on the complete evasiveness of Ringo’s droll reply: “I think Beethoven’s lovely…especially his poems.”
The Beatles found themselves culturally positioned to be praised coming and going. On one hand, they played concerts for the Queen and received praise from elite critics like William Mann for being quite original and restoring dynamics of the European classical tradition to pop music, and on the other, they themselves acknowledged the Afro-American sources of their sound, and behind the scene dismissed the likes of Mann as b.s.-ing pseudo-intellectuals. On one hand, the release of their records, their unique image, and even their wooing of the elite press were all coordinated with military precision by their manager, but on the other, they made fun of this entertainment-business side of their career, and downplayed their desire for success.
I don’t think Bayles’ idea and phrase “touch of camp” adequately explains the dynamic here, that of avoiding seeming pretentious while nonetheless benefiting from hyperbolic praise, and that of not seeming too earnest about their commercial success while nonetheless pursuing it with maximum drive. And, that of somehow being representatives of solid working-class grit, but also of sophisticated mod-ishness and fine-arts awareness. But it works to a degree, and Bayles is good at describing the advantageous situation they were in. It was in certain ways magnified in America, where they benefited from the way elite Anglophilia combined with prejudices uglier yet:
…the Fab Four were enjoying the one type of crossover success never achieved by America’s native rock n’ rollers. In the words of [the key early rock writer] Mike Jahn, “The Beatles, by being noticeably intelligent, proved that rock could have intellectual appeal.”
Jahn’s phrase, “noticeably intelligent,” captures the essence of the moment. The Beatles’ predecessors, from Presley to Berry, had plenty of native intelligence. But the intelligence of poor white Southerners and blacks was hardly “noticeable” to America’s educated elite. Along with plain old racism, that elite also suffered from chronic Dixiephobia—as illustrated by a 1956 New World News Telegram article beginning with the headline PRESLEY DRIVES ‘EM WI-ULD WITH HIS SINGIN’, WIGGLIN’.
…Unfortunately for the black Americans who had cast their lot with Motown, the mid-1960s were a bad time to be straightforward and sincere about show-business glitz and upward mobility. This was certainly true in Britain, where a 1965 Motown tour failed to attract audiences and got dismissed by one Glasgow critic as “reminiscent of production numbers in pre-war Hollywood films.” Ironically, all those charm-school lessons aimed at preparing young ghetto youngsters to play Buckingham Palace led to one London critic’s writing that Motown was too polished, lacking “the rough-edged common touch which is the vital link between…the Beatles and the audience.”
Sometimes the cool ain’t so cool. “Failed to attract audiences?” Motown in its prime!?!?! Bayles is channeling there some old bitterness felt by not a few black musical entertainers about the British Invasion, much of it merited, even if we can’t exactly blame the Beatles for making the most of their chance.
So as not to end on that downer but down-right real note, I’ll leave you with a quote from a fine rock book, the meticulously researched Turn! Turn! Turn! The 60s Folk-Rock Revolution by Richie Unterberger. The quote comes from Kenny Edwards, who went on to form the folk-rock band the Stone Poneys, describing the reaction to the Beatles by many in the LA folk-scene of the early 60s:
“… everybody sort of looked up from their folk page and heard the Beatles, and were going, ‘Wait a minute, there’s something VERY interesting happening there.’ …that sort of broke down the barriers between the so-called commercial folk people and the traditional folk people. ‘Cause everybody went, ‘Hey, this is too exciting. We all have to get involved in this.”
One more from Unterberger’s book, from another then-folkie, David Crosby:
“Clem walked in one afternoon with that first Beatles album…He put it on, and…it just absolutely floored me. ‘Those are folk music changes, but it’s got rock and roll backbeat. You can’t do that, but they did! Holy yikes!”
Do note, those were reactions to sound first and foremost. A genuinely impressive sound, as we’ve discussed. The swooning over the Beatles’ camp-touched cheekiness was a secondary phenomenon, even if it did help them get their initial publicity. And of course, the alleged quality of the Beatles’ lyrics, other than their ability to convey simple formulas and complement the sound, was in no way noted by anyone—not in ’63 and ’64. So even before they began following Dylan’s lead into lyrical seriousness, they were successfully presenting themselves as more self-possessed and authentic than the competition.
That is, whatever injustice Beatlemania did to the careers of various American musicians, black and white, we have to recognize that for many persons, and especially to various middle-class ones (found, on one hand, in those sophisticated folk-attuned downtown coffee-shops, and on the other, in those teenaged record-player-equipped suburban bedrooms), the Beatles really did arrive like a new dawn. New sound, new look, and most subtly, new attitude. We have to enter our analysis of 60s rock and its connection to 60s “Love,” in that spirit.