It’s easy to forget how different the world was before The Beatles. The band arrived during a time when the UK was reeling from the impact of the Second World War. During the 1950s, when the would-be Beatles were still at school, the legacy of that cataclysmic conflict was still everywhere to be seen. In major cities like London and Liverpool, children still played in bombsites, rationing was still enforced, and countless houses remained derelict. The war had enforced a uniformity on the UK population, one that a generation of teenagers coming of age in those post-war years stood in stark opposition to. And, in an interview in 1976, Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page described the immense cultural impact The Beatles had on the social fabric of the UK.
The post-war period was one in which established modes of thought were being thoroughly examined. Having inherited the trauma of the Holocaust, the atomic bomb, and the bloody conflict of WW2, the young population started to dissect everything around them. Necessity, as they say, is the mother of invention, and, seeing the devastation the war had caused, young people must have felt that an alternative was absolutely essential. Combine this with the proliferation of popular culture, and it’s easy to understand why, in the decades following the Second World War, young people became the incubators of a radical new cultural identity. Simply put, there was nowhere else to go, and pop music provided a soundtrack for this new cultural outlook.
Jimmy Page, responding to a question about the influence of The Beatles music on the present day’s (1976) breakout of rock music, said: “I don’t know about today’s. Certainly, at the time, you know, the social question poised by The Beatles, with the long hair and the sandals – it was cool the long hair then – it had a lot of impact. A lot of change went down a lot of social barriers. We broke down the class barriers even though it may have been resented afterwards, but nevertheless, they (The Beatles) helped to do that. And over the years that they were very musically prominent and productive, I think there is a classic example of a group who shows so much development and maturity within their music, within the years that they were together. I mean, let’s face it, the early records aren’t really anything to write home about. But by the time they’re at Magical Mystery Tour, I mean it was really going somewhere.”
The Beatles, being a group of working-class lads from the port city of Liverpool, devastated any notion that there was a hierarchy in the arts. Before The Beatles, the pinnacles of artistic expression were classical music, poetry, the literary novel, and classical painting. Contrastingly, at the bottom of the list sat the things which the establishment barely regarded as art at all. I’m talking, film, television, and the most derided of all – pop music.
However, The Beatles popularity established that you didn’t need to be highly educated to enjoy art and that art didn’t need to be painful to be enjoyed by the masses. Their early music was clearly inspired by the dancehall, by vaudeville and by hymns. As a result, The Beatles seemed to speak for the British everyman, standing in stark contrast to The Rolling Stones, who embraced American culture far more readily. They were neither rich more poor, working-class, nor overtly privileged. They seemed to be a cross-section of UK society and created a unique form of music within which all listeners were able to find something they could appreciate, regardless of their class background.
Because The Beatles exploded onto the scene when the media was growing rapidly, the group also came to symbolise an increase in social mobility. Whereas in the past, one might have needed a wealthy family and an expensive education to secure a career as a doctor or a lawyer, The Beatles were proof that money could be made in the arts and media sectors. Witnessing The Beatles live, children were suddenly able to imagine themselves being musicians, actors and artists in a way that hadn’t felt achievable in previous decades. They represented a way of life that was entirely detached from the class structures that had dictated the British people’s lives for centuries. In this way, their position in the public eye had a profound effect on the way working people saw themselves, allowing for a renewed sense of possibility in a country ravaged by a century of poverty and conflict.