Ahead of the inaugural issue of The Journal of Beatles Studies we bring you a special preview of its introduction, written by co-editors Holly Tessler and Paul Long, to offer a sneak peek of what’s to come in this issue and beyond.
In September of 2021, the Journal of Beatles Studies published a call for contributions to what you are presently reading: our inaugural issue. At the time, the world was eagerly anticipating the release of Get Back, Peter Jackson’s 8-hour documentary series which undertook to recast the long-held, dour narrative of the Beatles’ final months together as presented in Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s 1970 film, Let It Be. Following its release in November, 2021, Get Back more than fulfilled its promise. With thanks to the technological wizardry of Jackson and his team, the grainy audio and video from the original 1970 footage when restored looked and sounded as if it could have been recorded last week, not more than a half-century previously. The vitality of the visuals, the clarity of the audio and the palpable charisma of and between the Fab Four that was captured on film created a popular culture sensation last autumn, making household names and social media contemporary stars of not only the Beatles themselves, but of people long-relegated to the footnotes of Fab Four history: Glyn Johns and his flamboyant fashions; Mal Evans and his everyman affability; Kevin Harrington’s ineffable Jeeves-like presence. More substantially, Get Back deliberately sought to tell a more inclusive story than its predecessor. Here, we see the Beatles not in an isolated bubble but working amidst a constant stream of visitors. We see they are friends, partners, collaborators, husbands, brothers and fathers: their creative exceptionalism proven not despite these external relationships but rather because of them. Scenes of the Beatles creating new music interspersed with quotidian vignettes of them drinking tea, eating jam butties and playing with their children fosters in viewers a more human and down-to-earth conception of John, Paul, George and Ringo not as ‘The Beatles,’ larger-than-life characters in some fanciful fairy-tale myth, but of four young men whose sensibilities, beliefs and attitudes are remarkably like our own.
In June of 2022, as we finalize copy for this inaugural issue, Paul McCartney has just performed a more-than-two-and-a-half-hour headline set at England’s Glastonbury Festival. Performing exactly one week after his 80th birthday, much was said in media stories of McCartney being the oldest-ever solo headliner at Glastonbury, this year sharing the bill with 20-year-old Billie Eilish and 35-year-old Kendrick Lamar. McCartney’s 38-song set included music that spanned almost the entirety of his career: from ‘In Spite Of All The Danger,’ a song he wrote in 1958 to tracks including ‘Come On To Me’ and ‘Fuh You’ from his second-most recent album, Egypt Station released in 2018. The audience of around 100,000 inherently seemed to grasp the significance of the moment, not only singing along to every song, but serenading McCartney with an impromptu version of ‘Happy Birthday To You,’ which Macca seemed genuinely stunned to hear. Even special guests Dave Grohl and Bruce Springsteen appeared slightly in awe of the occasion, as both usually ebullient performers were instead content to be (comparatively) modest sidemen. In what might have otherwise been the most moving moment of the show, McCartney finished his set with ‘Hey Jude,’ with the adoring crowd continuing the singalong even after Paul and the band had walked offstage. However, the real showstopper moment came in the encore, when McCartney performed a virtual duet of ‘I’ve Got A Feeling,’ with John, via film footage of Lennon taken from Jackson’s Get Back documentary. The performance created a palpably emotional experience, with both audience and performer overwhelmed by the magnitude of what they were witnessing: the now-octogenarian Paul playing alongside the 29-year-old John, a Beatles reunion across space and time, in what was likely to be the last Glastonbury performance of McCartney’s career.
What both Get Back and Paul’s headlining gig evidence is that even more than 50 years after their breakup, the Beatles remain a musical and cultural phenomenon. Perhaps somewhat counterintuitively, cultural and scholarly fascination with the Beatles has not diminished but flourished over time. More than a simple exercise in nostalgia, the Beatles, their music and particularly their story resonates just as much with today’s Beatle ‘twts’ and ‘stans’ as with the original Beatlemania generation. How and why this is the case is a core concern of this journal. Interest and scholarship about the Beatles is dizzyingly complex and diverse. There is, for instance, research on the Beatles and mathematics (c.f. Brown 2014) and the Beatles and electrical engineering (c.f. Zhou et al 2018). In 2012, ZV Maizlin and Patrick Vos asked, ‘Do We Really Need To Thank the Beatles for the Financing of the Development of the Computed Tomography Scanner?’ [Spoiler alert: No, we don’t]. The point being that since the 1960s, there have been thousands of scholars, researchers and writers producing millions of words about myriad facets of the Beatles’ lives and music. And each of these writers brings to their work expertise from a given field or discipline. Yet to date, beyond conferences, edited collections and fixed-term research projects, Beatles scholars have been working in comparative isolation, compelled to publish their findings for non-Beatles specialists and audiences. It is a situation that begs the question of why isn’t there a field of Beatles Studies? Furthermore, what would it look like, who would define its agendas, methods, quality and potential and to whom would it speak? It is a scholarly gap that the Journal of Beatles Studies seeks to redress. At its most elemental, the Journal of Beatles Studies will be a place, the place, for critical study, debate about discourse about the Beatles. It is not our intention to be prescriptive in our editorial approach as to what issues might shape and inform Beatles Studies. Instead, we endeavour to be the vehicle that allows scholars and writers to ask new questions about the Beatles, to help us understand why they have remained omnipresent in the popular and academic consciousnesses of the 20th and 21st centuries.
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Accordingly, the theme of this premier issue is ‘Navigating and Narrating the Beatles: Establishing a Research Agenda for the 21st Century’. Through this idea we have sought contributions that explore how, why and through what means the Beatles are both subject and object of critical study. Our aim in doing so is to set in motion a forward-facing and dynamic agenda for not what about the Beatles is being studied, but rather a framework for how research might be undertaken, by whom and through what media and which channels. Thus, the first section of the journal features articles that seek to understand Beatles scholarship not as a celebratory and uncritical exercise in fact-finding or ‘trainspotting,’ but as a means through which we can begin to answer the question of why the Beatles have remained a cultural constant, the focus of continuous evaluation and re-evaluation for more than half a century.
In the first article, Dori Howard takes an autoethnographic approach to both studying and teaching the Beatles within the UK Higher Education sector. Through her experiences of the first Beatles-focussed postgraduate programme, Liverpool Hope University’s MA The Beatles, Popular Music and Society, which ran from 2009-2019, Howard discusses how programme staff navigated the often cynical popular perceptions of offering what was at the time seen as a ‘Mickey Mouse’ degree. Through detailed analysis of module content and the pedagogical approaches employed in the MA, she articulates how the MA established a Liverpool-centred community of scholarly practice where not only students and staff of the MA, but also visiting academics, researchers as well as those people employed within Beatles tourism have the means to interact, manage and reconceptualize the complex issues surrounding the group’s Liverpool heritage and legacy. These enduring structural changes can be evidenced through the establishment of Beatles-focussed enterprises including the Liverpool City Region’s Beatles Legacy Group, the University of Liverpool’s MA: The Beatles, Music Industry and Heritage as well as its Yoko Ono Lennon Centre and the Journal of Beatles Studies published by Liverpool University Press.
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The complex and often contested issue of the Beatles’ place in wider strategies of Liverpool heritage and cultural regeneration is discussed by Clare Kinsella and Eleanor Peters. Unpacking the connections between music, memory and place the authors interrogate whether the economic and cultural benefit of being the only city in the world to be able to proclaim itself the Beatles’ hometown has overshadowed the efforts of other Liverpool voices and other communities to tell their stories. Particularly in the period since the city’s designation as 2008 European Capital of Culture, Kinsella and Peters question whether Liverpool has regularised and perhaps even sanitised the history of the Beatles’ time in the city to fit a more convenient and marketable tourism and heritage narrative. Like Howard, Kinsella and Peters conclude that moving forward, a more plurivocal and discursive view is essential for keeping the Beatles’ and Liverpool’s heritage relevant to contemporary and diverse communities.
Steve Jones and Walter Podrazik take an approach to questions of Beatles history, legacy and narrative that is broadly akin to that of Kinsella and Peters, but reach a substantially different conclusion. In the context of their research Jones and Podrazik also view the story of the Beatles as something that is, ‘culturally, generationally, industrially and dynamically constructed’ (p. @@). They argue that the ubiquity of new technologies and media has made it easier for the Beatles and their stakeholders to craft, fix and reinforce key moments of their history whilst downplaying others. The result of this interaction between art and authenticity, fandom and commerce affords people with no personal lived history of the Beatles access to the group’s story from multiple points of time, allowing them to pick and choose which aspects of the band’s music, fashions, eras and beliefs are most compatible with their own interests and preferences. In this way, the real-life Beatles transform into ‘The Beatles,’ musical, cultural and especially narrative icons whose value and meaning are adapted, reinterpreted and re-presented across time and generations.
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Looking at the Beatles not as a musical group but as an enduring cultural phenomenon is an idea Jones and Podrazik share with our final contributor, Cass Sunstein. In his work, Sunstein asks the biggest Beatles question of all: Why did the Beatles become a worldwide sensation? The simplest and perhaps most romantic answer is, he suggests, that the Beatles succeeded because of the self-evident quality of their music. But if considered from a more clinical point of view, Sunstein argues the Beatles enjoyed the benefit of ‘informational cascades’. Much like social media influencers, he writes that, ‘People learn from others, and if some people seem to like something or to want to do something, others might like or do the same’ (p. @@). Indeed, informational cascades seem a convenient means of describing how and why Beatlemania took hold of the world’s youth in the 1960s. But are they alone a sufficient explanation for the Beatles success? Via the concept of ‘Lost Einsteins,’ Sunstein queries if a different set of cultural, temporal and economic circumstances had prevailed would the world have experienced a ‘Kinksmania’ or a ‘Holliesmania’ instead? Or were the Beatles truly one of a kind, emerging from the confluence of ability, fortuity and influence?
To produce a journal on the Beatles that only publishes scholarly research would be to exclude much of the important discourse and debate that is happening outside the academy. Thus, found in the middle section of each issue of the Journal of Beatles Studies is a feature called ‘Across The Universe,’ a place where Beatles-related news, performances, exhibitions, innovations and releases can be discussed. In this issue we feature two contributions. The first, from journal co-editor Paul Long, is a commemoration of Lizzie Bravo, the famed Apple Scruff who died on 04 October, 2021. Through conversations with Lizzie’s daughter Marya, Long shares anecdotes drawn from the detailed journals Lizzie kept throughout the three years she spent in London, hanging around outside Apple’s Savile Row offices, culminating in John Lennon’s invitation to Lizzie and another Scruff, Gayleen Pease, to come into the studio and sing backing vocals on the Beatles’ recording of ‘Across The Universe.’ A central issue for this piece concerns the future of Bravo’s memoir of her encounter with the Beatles and her life as a fan. Our second Across The Universe feature offers reflections on the music of Paul McCartney on the occasion of his 80th birthday, 18 June 2022. A collective labour of love shared between the four journal editors, we have put together ’80 at 80,’ a co-operative piece where each of us reflect on 20 of our favourite McCartney songs and recordings. The different approaches we all took in completing the exercise is reflective of not only the depth and breadth of McCartney’s catalogue but also in the varied and complex ways listeners engage, identity and connect with his music.
DOWNLOAD THE PLAYLIST FROM ’80 AT 80: COMMEMORATING PAUL McCARTNEY’S 80TH BIRTHDAY’. SCAN OR CLICK ON THE SPOTIFY CODE TO START LISTENING.
The final section of the journal features reviews of recently released Beatles media. In keeping with the remit of the journal, the materials selected for review are deliberately diverse. Allison Bumsted reviews Sibbie O’Sullivan’s autoethnographic fandom account, My Own Private Lennon (Ohio State University Press, 2020); Luis Díaz-Santana Garza evaluates Leadership Lessons with The Beatles: Actionable Tips and Tools for Becoming Better at Leading by Shantha Mohan (Routledge, 2022); Taran Harris reviews the 2020 limited edition release of John & Yoko/Plastic Ono Band, edited by Simon Hilton (Thames & Hudson 2020); and Michael R. Fisher reviews Paul McCartney’s The Lyrics: 1956 to the Present (Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2021).
It is our intention for the journal to highlight new thinking and scholarship about the Beatles, particularly from writers with original perspectives and diverse views. Although limitations of time and space restrict how much we can publish in any issue, our aim is to reflect – and reflect upon – the ever-expanding field of activity which encompasses Beatles Studies and we are privileged to present to you our first issue of the journal.
University of Liverpool
Monash University, Australia
Co-editors, the Journal of Beatles Studies
Brown, Jason I., 2004. Mathematics, physics and a hard day’s night. CMS Notes, 36(6), pp.4-8.
Maizlin, Z.V. and Vos, P.M., 2012. Do we really need to thank the Beatles for the financing of the development of the computed tomography scanner?. Journal of computer assisted tomography, 36(2), pp.161-164.
Zhou, Y., Chu, W., Young, S. and Chen, X., 2018. BandNet: A neural network-based, multi-instrument Beatles-style MIDI music composition machine. arXiv preprint arXiv:1812.07126.
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