Musically, not that impressive, an instance of the Beatles’ rock-meets-music-hall mode, but winsome enough if you don’t listen to it often. It’s fun, and it knows it’s sing-song-y. Irony-hounds might even ask whether that hints at some kind of reversal being the true message. But, no, the tone is more humorous than sly. It seems to say “we know that there’s something mock-able about declaring one’s allegiance to Love, but we’re going to do it anyway.” The Beatles invite us to join in the song’s humor about itself that preempts that of any mockers, that is, they invite us to be adult enough to make a child-like stand for Love.
Wikipedia tells us that the BBC commissioned the song for a special global television show. “The Beatles were asked to come up with . . . a simple message to be understood by all nationalities.” Lennon was apparently its main author. “According to journalist Jade Wright, ‘Lennon was fascinated by the power of slogans to unite people . . . When asked in 1971 whether songs like ‘Give Peace a Chance’ were propaganda songs, he answered: ‘Sure. So was All You Need Is Love.’”
But what is meant by “Love” here? The key is found in the verses, which express both a number of expectations bred by false consciousness, and then, the enlightened responses to them.
Nothing you can do
that can’t be done.
Nothing you can sing
that can’t be sung.
Nothing you can say,
but you learn how to play the game.
It’s easy . . .
And then comes the culminating answer, that all you need is love . But the initial step is to recognize that the desires to do, sing, or say original things, are all forms of delusion. These things either have been done already, or, we might say that they might as well have since they are inherently do-able. And since the world is eternal, as the enlightenment on offer here assumes, that “might as well have” logically means they really have occurred before. So you don’t need to strive for these, but need instead to welcome the consciousness of their futility and inevitability, which allows one to smile upon them, to love the all and all that happens.
So the correct consciousness is a sort of Buddhist or pantheist one. And “Love” is simply a facet of this consciousness.
Yes, you learn how to play the game, that is, to interact with your fellow humans on the basis of what you and they say , wherein we all speak rather too seriously about what we do, sing, and know, or to skip ahead, about what we want to do or who we want to save. The higher consciousness sees beyond all this, and yet understands that even the one who sees beyond the game still must play it.
No one you can save
that can’t be saved.
Nothing you can do but you
can learn how to be you in time.
There’s nothing you can know that isn’t known.
Nowhere you can be that isn’t where you’re meant to be.
We should admit that the way the Beatles’ pantheistic bromides attempted to calm the ambitious rush of the sixties Revolution, wherein too many too intense desires to do, sing, and know world-saving things had been unleashed, could have a salutary balancing effect. Listening, for example, to the lovely “Let It Be,” we can sincerely wish that the persons portrayed in Todd Gitlin’s The 60s, or in Oliver Stone’s THE DOORS, possessed as they were by insanity-bordering intensity, political and otherwise, had been sufficiently calmed by such moments. Don’t you know it’s gonna be, all right? A musical medicine certain sixties people needed.
Still, and particularly with this song, the enlightenment offered is awfully smug. The Beatles seem peculiarly blind to certain problems which I assume real teachers in the Buddhist or other monist traditions at least grappled with. Three incoherencies, each running right through the entire sixties counter-culture, are seen in their lyrics here.
First, and most obviously, the Beatles don’t mind the fact that even though the real message of their song is that Love = pantheistic consciousness, the chorus will cause many listeners, circa 1967, to assume that song is an endorsement of the hippie embrace of other things assumed to embody Love, especially the new sexual hedonism and pacifism. That’s the propaganda here.
Indeed, how can it not be an endorsement of these? Is there anything in the song or in the self-presentation of the Beatles that would deny that those attitudes better lead you to the brink of the true consciousness than others?
Second, the song makes a common association between self-realization and pantheistic self-surrender that is untenable.
There are really only three actions endorsed by the song: 1) to love everything, 2) to nonetheless learn how the play the game, and 3) to learn how to be you in time. Now, one can be immersed in false-consciousness, and particularly about oneself, because one has become an inauthentic conformist, which we caught a glimpse of in the “Sounds of Silence” This is a theme of countless rock songs. YOU need discover the full uniqueness and potentiality of YOU. Everyone has a hard time doing this, however, which is why it is something that has to be learned . But it must be learned soon. You will live a bad life unless you learn in time.
But if there’s Nowhere you can be that isn’t where you’re meant to be , all this goes to pot. (I assume the discussion of place here does not simply stand for spatial situation.) The quest for self-realization becomes meaningless if there are many possible equally valid versions of the you that you can be. That’s what the lyric says, unless they mean to say that whatever place in life the interaction of the relevant factors has brought you to is your destined one, and thus the appropriate one. Either way, there’s no need to trouble yourself about learning who you really ought to become.
Third, by the same logic, there’s no reason for falling in love with any particular someone. The song fades out with a quote from “She Loves You,” I think to suggest that there is a continuity of sorts between, and a natural progression from, the Beatles’ earlier role as pop romance-merchants and their present role as pop pantheism-preachers. But love as eros focuses upon one particular person, or at least does so one at a time. Even if, as Socrates suggests, it can be taken to its highest and most general sense, its focus would still be selective , focused upon The Beautiful, whereas love as pantheism is supposed to love all, and equally so. To in any way believe in romantic love is to insist that certain pieces of “the all,” i.e., certain in-love persons, better fit one another than others, and that the fit, and even the mere pursuit of it, ennobles human lives. That is, as the Beatles said in a simpler mode, whatever we can know about the all, whether it is good, whether it is bad, to know that SHE loves YOU should make you glad. Notice that should. So despite the quoting of “She Loves You,” its eros-love is radically unlike the Love of “All You Need Is Love.” Indeed, it actively opposes pantheism by insisting on the importance of the particular person.
Duped enough by his own word-association propaganda, and deaf enough to the handed-down wisdom lurking amid the common expressions about love—expressions his own songwriting had so skillfully played with—these problems did not occur to Lennon.
We saw with “It’s Only Love,” that as a more conventional songwriter Lennon could propose that one might need to adopt a philosophic attitude towards eros while simultaneously warning against taking such an attitude too far. So, even though he did this in a spirit of simply playing with love-song formulas, what little he could do with such simple and straightforward lyrics actually conveyed sturdier wisdom than what he would soon be attempting with great seriousness to convey with elaborately paradoxical ones, such as those of “All You Need Is Love.” While those lyrics come in with an aura of profundity, we see that if given minimally serious consideration they are revealed to be nearly incoherent. The song might serve as effective propaganda, but its confusions are stark enough that we might better understand why fifteen year later Elvis Costello would have to wonder why the typical hippie creed of peace, love, and understanding had become so funny. In any case, I have my doubts about the very worthiness our considering “All You Need Is Love” here. We are reduced to trying to capture, for the sake of better understanding that era and in turn our own, the distinctive mixture of confusion such a song imparts.