All they needed was love: the Beatles’ spirit spoke to us all
Historical phenomenon shaped by imperial and Christian national past
On June 25th, 1967, three weeks after the release of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the Beatles heralded a great leap forward in communications when they sang All You Need is Love live in the first satellite television broadcast. Transmitted to 24 countries, their performance reached an audience of 400 million.
In the era of Brexit, it is poignant to remember the moment, half a century ago, when the music of four Britons was transcending national barriers and enlarging the sum of human happiness.
Yet the so-called summer of love over which the Beatles presided was not just moonshine. The trouble was that its utopian spirit was betrayed by hedonism and drug abuse. “It’s easy,” runs the suspect refrain of All You Need is Love.
After the group’s demise in 1970, John Lennon wondered what the Beatles had achieved beyond spawning a generation of narcissists in gaudy dress. His own idealism was not dead; he went on to compose Imagine.
Increasingly, though, idealism was no match for cynicism.
To the punk generation, Lennon was a charlatan who lived in luxury as he exhorted people to “imagine no possessions”. Yet punk, with its surly commitment to doing as you like, had more in common with the Beatles and the 1960s “counterculture” than was at first apparent.
So did Margaret Thatcher, the Conservative prime minister who came to power in 1979. It is often said that the 1960s cult of self-exploration yielded to the self-fixated individualism that defined Thatcher’s Britain.
HG Wells likened moments of historical promise to the sun briefly peeping through a cloudy sky. An image of Wells was among those selected by the Beatles to adorn the cover of Sgt Pepper’s.
Also included in their pantheon were James Joyce, George Bernard Shaw and Aldous Huxley. The latter appealed to them because of his essay The Doors of Perception (1954), in which he extolled the potential of psychedelic drugs to transform human consciousness.
Their heroes were humanitarians and internationalists who would recoil at the distinction between “people from somewhere” and “people from nowhere” made by Theresa May and champions of Brexit.
It is surprising perhaps that no great Christian personality figures among them. For where did the Beatles derive their commitment to love and peace from if not Christ’s example?
The group’s flirtation with the Hindu guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi has obscured the extent to which they remained quintessential products of Christian upbringings.
It was ironic that they were branded as infidels in the United States after John Lennon claimed that the Beatles were more popular than Christ. When they sang All You Need is Love they were preaching the Christian gospel.
A born mutineer, Lennon might have jibbed at being labelled any kind of Christian. But it may be not be far from the truth to say that the Beatles were exponents of what is known as Christian humanism.
The Beatles were a historical phenomenon shaped by a national past that was imperial and Christian. In the 20th century, “Christian” Britain fought two world wars, interrupted by the Great Depression of the 1930s, as it struggled to preserve its power.
The creation in 1945 of the welfare state was a tribute to the advocacy of progressive rationalists yet it also owed more than a little to Christ’s injunction to “love your neighbour as yourself”.
The social democracy that nurtured the Beatles had deep Christian roots. And what was the enduring assumption that Britain was a force for good, a nation with a global mission, if not the legacy of a Christian culture?
Christianity and empire retained their hold on the British imagination even as the Beatles appeared to be saying goodbye to all that. Arguably, they represented a continuation of the British empire by musical means, a late benign outpouring of imperial energies.
If the Beatles enjoy a special niche in world culture, it is because the generosity of spirit enshrined in their music speaks to people everywhere. Unlike the Brexiteers, they were not just British patriots. They were patriots for humanity.
Neil Berry is author of Articles of Faith: the Story of British Intellectual Journalism. He has written for the New Statesman, the Times Literary Supplement and Arab News