Oliver Craske looks at how Beatlemania bewitched the West
It is 40 years since The Beatles held America transfixed during their debut on the Ed Sullivan Show, the highlight of their first US trip. In Britain, which the foursome had conquered a year earlier, the reports and pictures trickling back across the Atlantic must have seemed familiar. In fact, the band's impact Stateside was of a different order again. As George Martin has written: "It is impossible for people in Britain to appreciate what Beatlemania was really like in America." By April 1964, they held the top five places on the US Hot 100 singles chart, a feat never rivalled.
Brooklyn-based Devin McKinney tries to make sense of America's overwhelming, instant and hysterical love affair with the band, his method strongly influenced by critical theory. He treats not only The Beatles'
music and lives but also the society they were helping to shake up as texts that are alive and possessed of multiple truths waiting to be reinterpreted. Thus, he opts to focus on themes that are usually marginal in others' accounts of the great fairytale, indeed often the realm of conspiracy theories. He dwells at length on the "Paul is dead" hoaxes and the Charles Manson murders; while one persistent metaphor, that of meat, originates in the surreal images of the "butcher" cover photograph of their 1966 American album, Yesterday and Today , famously withdrawn after complaints of poor taste.
The American mania was even greater than the British, partly because of the glamour lent by distance, and partly because The Beatles arrived in the US at a time of well-documented social, political and cultural turmoil. The entire country's reaction is likened by McKinney to that of one lovestruck 15-year-old girl, to whom the new heroes manifested as "the willed gratification of a generation's boldest and basest fantasies".
From there, he argues, they continued to shake up the culture, via music and deed, repeatedly piercing holes in popular consciousness through which they disgorged radical meanings. These holes are characterised as "magic circles", a phrase apparently considered as an alternative title for the album Revolver.
This kind of critical approach being relatively rare in the world of pop, Magic Circles is a book that should not be missed by cultural studies and popular music departments. It is less likely, however, to appeal to a mass readership, many of whom will be inclined to give up well before the initial chapter has finished expounding its dubious thesis that The Beatles' early (pre-1963) music was "the very sound of the toilet".
In fact, the first chapter is by far the most problematic. Here, McKinney's tendency to forced metaphor and overwritten prose is most evident. He may be too young to have experienced the group first hand, but in analysing a previous generation's hysteria he periodically exhibits symptoms of a full-blown case himself. Aside from this tendency, plus an unaccountable obsession with the song Yellow Submarine , and an underestimation of the importance to the band of George Harrison and Ringo Starr, the greater problem seems to be one of perspective. Magic Circles has garnered some rave reviews in the US, where McKinney's avowedly America-centred approach matters less, but there are serious problems in trying to understand The Beatles, especially in their early years, without an appreciation of where they came from. When the group's breakthrough gig at Litherland Town Hall is described as "Beatlemania, ground zero", they are clearly being reinvented in American form. It is only when he moves onto his central subject, the impact of The Beatles on his own country and - in particular - himself, that his analysis is on surer ground.
Interestingly, he probes the mythical position held by Sgt Pepper , which has in recent polls lost its long-accepted status as their greatest album.
He portrays it as a kind of fake or cover-up, in that its relentless, summer-of-love optimism (he has to grant an honourable exception to A Day in the Life ) contrasts with all other Beatles albums, which benefit from the equilibrium provided by a dark side. This view may not persuade all, but it is worth remembering that it is Starr's least favourite Beatles album.
McKinney is also good on their first two movies, pointing out, for example, the appropriateness of Kali, the bloodthirsty incarnation of the Hindu goddess Durga, being the deity whose followers pursue them in Help!.. "She is Female," he notes, "standing in for all of the female horde whose love, hunger, hysteria and jelly babies assail The Beatles."
Magic Circles does not make me want to revisit all the songs in the same way that rereading Ian MacDonald's Revolution in the Head still does, but there is much to be gleaned from this examination of how America was seized by "the grip of the familiar and the lure of the strange".
Oliver Craske edited The Beatles Anthology and Playback , the autobiography of George Martin.
Magic Circles: The Beatles in Dream and History
Author - Devin McKinney
Publisher - Harvard University Press
Pages - 420
Price - £18.95
ISBN - 0 674 01202 X