'Please Please Me,' The Beatles and capitalism
Today marks the 50th anniversary of the release of The Beatles’ debut album, “Please Please Me.” Six years and 12 studio albums (United Kingdom figures) of mostly original material later, the group never again recorded as a unit after Aug. 20, 1969.
It’s now been 45 years since the Fab Four hung up their collective spurs, but the band’s legacy lives on through the careers of two surviving members, the advent of classic rock and oldies radio formats, Internet downloads, boxed sets, remastered reissues and used record, cassette and compact disc emporiums, estate sales, eBay and rummage sales. All this points out both the prescience and hindsight of the Beatles aptly titled 1964 album, “Beatles for Sale.”
Several years ago, the Internet exploded over claims that The Beatles were capitalists. The assertion was made by Cambridge University historian David Fowler in 2008. Many fans took exception to Fowler’s claim that the group “cynically exploited youth culture for commercial gain” as stated in “The Guardian.” Here’s Fowler: “[The Beatles] did about as much to represent the interests of the nation's young people as the Spice Girls did in the 1990s.”
As the same individual who screened The Beatles’ “A Hard Day’s Night” to his appreciative daughters as a tonic for enduring “Spice World,” this writer finds Fowler’s charge a bit harsh. It’s neither cynical nor exploitative to ambitiously pursue one’s bliss whilst simultaneously attaining financial security, as did The Beatles and the numerous recording acts with which they competed for Top 40 singles.
But, on the other hand, there has been written a lot of tosh regarding the band’s motives —mostly perpetuated by the group itself with such songs as “All You Need Is Love.” Yeah, right. As for “Can’t Buy Me Love,” that adage may or may not work out for a courtship but is pretty shaky ground for a long-term relationship as evidenced by the lyrics to “You Never Give Me Your Money” from the band’s 1969 swansong “Abbey Road.” In it, Paul McCartney dreams of taking his lover away in a limousine because, in reality, “all the money’s gone, nowhere to go.”
The Beatles started out as a rough-and-tumble group from Liverpool, England, with big dreams of reaching the “toppermost of the poppermost.” By their second album, “With the Beatles” (1963), the mop tops built upon the enormous success of “Please Please Me” by appropriating Motown artist Barrett Strong’s signature “Money (That’s What I Want).”
This writer contends the group intended no irony. Here was a group who idolized Elvis Presley musically but also sought to dethrone the King. Reports from the 1960s reveal John Lennon’s frustration with Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein’s bumbling financial matters that Lennon compared unfavorably to Elvis’ manager, Col. Tom Parker. Parker, after all, negotiated $50,000 for three Elvis performances on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” whereas Epstein only nabbed a total $10,500 payday for an equal amount of Fab Four performances on the same program.
Apart from management difficulties, the British government received George Harrison’s scathing indictment in “Taxman” from 1966’s “Revolver” album. In fact, The Beatles were subjected to a “super tax” imposed by Great Britain’s ironically labeled Labour Party, whose leader, Prime Minister Harold Wilson, is name checked bitterly by Harrison as is Conservative Party leader and eventual Prime Minister Edward Heath.
The song’s impetus was the 95 percent tax Harrison discovered he had to pay on royalties he earned for such songs as “I Need You” from the 1965 “Help!” soundtrack and “Think for Yourself” on 1966’s “Rubber Soul” McCartney explained in a “Playboy” interview: “[George] wrote it in anger at finding out what the taxman did. He had never known before then what he'll do with your money.”
Harrison explained in his 1980 autobiography, “I Me Mine”: “Taxman” was when I first realized that even though we had started earning money, we were actually giving most of it away in taxes. It was and still is typical.”
It bears mention as well that the group’s musical success — to borrow from the title of another Harrison song — derived from both within and without the band’s members. Liverpool was a thriving port city in the 1950s and 1960s, and the sailors brought with them their favorite American rock’n’roll: Elvis, of course, but as well Eddie Cochran, Chuck Berry, Roy Orbison (with whom The Beatles eventually toured) and Motown. Without these influences, it’s difficult to imagine the group ever scaling the heights of the rock firmament.
Not everything about The Beatles’ success was about money and their desire to attain and keep it, however. Certainly the working-class background of the individual Beatles makes their tremendous success a large part of their enduring appeal. Who but the most hard-hearted among us doesn’t want to see four talented young musicians parlay their witty charm, musical genius, good looks and impeccable timing into a lorry-full of cash and a recorded catalog of great music with a swinging beat?
This leads us to the songs themselves that work not only as hit singles but as well chapters that complement the larger works on which they appear. The songs they wrote and performed are the enduring legacy of four young men who pooled their talents for less than 10 years and yet managed to create the most recognizable body of musical work in 20th century pop culture. It’s a triumph of talent and drive in the face of heady competition, relative obscurity and high taxation.
Ultimately, if it weren’t for capitalism, The Beatles might never have attained any success outside Liverpool. That’s one more thing to celebrate when recognizing the 50th anniversary of the release of “Please Please Me.”