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Music

How John Lennon's favourite book defined The Beatles

@SamWKemp

It’s no wonder that a book originally entitled Alice’s Adventures Underground would go on to become the favourite book of one of the key figures of the 1960s counterculture movement. Lewis Carroll’s subterranean fantasy is a subversive, anti-authoritarian and undeniably trippy work of children’s literature, containing all the DNA of the cultural shift that John Lennon would spearhead throughout the 1960s with The Beatles. From drug use to walruses and more, Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland made an enormous impact on Lennon and, by extension, the world of popular music.

Carroll’s book was published in 1865, 100 years before the release of The Beatles’ album Rubber Soul. In it, the titular Alice, a young girl on the cusp of adolescence, falls asleep whilst reading, only to find herself plummeting down a rabbit hole. As she falls, she begins to question the world around her and, as her journey continues, begins to dissect her own Victorian society with more and more clarity. On her journey through the nonsensical landscape of Wonderland, Alice meets all manner of surreal, anthropomorphised creatures who confront her with existential questions – as is the case with the hookah-smoking caterpillar’s question: “Who are you? – and a bewildering array of illogical practices.

Written in response to the stagnant narrow-mindedness of Victorian society, it’s no wonder Lennon fell in love with Carroll’s book. For a child with difficult home life and intense creative imagination, Carroll’s rejection of adult authority, logic, hierarchy, and meaning immediately proved to be a very informative experience for the young Lennon. Reading a book that seemed to celebrate the illogical, the strange, and the different, Lennon felt his own perspective recognised for the first time.

Lennon would later recall feeling immensely isolated as a child, explaining: “When I was about twelve, I used to think I must be a genius, but nobody noticed.” Lennon would have seen his attitude towards school, male authority and the adult world in general reflected in Carroll’s Wonderland. It is, after all, a stunning take-down of everything celebrated by the establishment. In transforming schoolmasters into Griffons and controlling parents into disturbing grotesques, Carroll highlighted the absurdities of the adult world in a way that would have likely resonated with Lennon.

The imagery and concepts contained with the pages of Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland went on to inspire a wealth of Beatles songs, including ‘I Am The Walrus’, ‘The Long and Winding Road’, and ‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’. The latter, for example, tells the tale of a girl’s travels in a surreal land. John would fervently deny that the song was inspired by an acid trip, noting that the name had been inspired by the way his son Julian had described a painting he’d made at nursery school. Like Carroll, Lennon was inspired by the unrestrained imagination of children and used it to influence his own work, going on to add elements of Carroll’s world later. As Lennon explained: “It was Alice in the boat. She is buying an egg and it turns into Humpty Dumpty. The woman serving in the shop turns into a sheep and the next minute they are rowing in a rowing boat somewhere and I was visualising that”.

However, Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland also influenced the eye-catching visual aesthetic that characterised the second half of The Beatles’ career. The influence of Carroll’s grotesque characters can be seen in the carnivalesque masks worn by the orchestra in the video or ‘A Day In The Life’, as well as in the anthropomorphic costumes that adorn The Beatles themselves on the cover of Magical Mystery Tour. Then there’s the video for ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’, in which the action makes the place under a tall oak tree, the same that Alice falls asleep under in the opening pages of Carroll’s book. Beyond these, there are countless other references Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland speckled throughout The Beatles’ discography. Let me just warn you: once you start looking for references to Carroll’s world, it’s hard to stop. But then again, perhaps that’s one rabbit hole you’ll be grateful you fell into.

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