Paul Morley: Imagine a world without the Beatles. Would anyone except Oasis notice the difference?

Imagine a world without the Beatles. Would anyone except Oasis notice the difference?

I don't know about you, but if there had been a world where Lennon and McCartney never met, possibly because they were on different buses, or one lost his threepenny bit and had to walk, and therefore the Beatles never existed, then, at the very least, it would be very difficult to begin an essay like this wondering what the world would be like if the Beatles never existed.

I turned into a teenager in the 1970s when it seemed to some extent an absolute necessity to defy the Beatles because, if there is no belief that the sound and meaning of the Beatles can be improved or developed, then they become not a vital force for era-defining change and action but a major component of a banal energy that merely conserves the past as a neat and tidy pattern. By the mid-70s, there were newer forms of subversive play, and pop culture, to engage in, and the Beatles had to be made to seem old-fashioned. It is a sign of how powerful they were that the strongest reaction against them, and the sharpest rejection of the coalescing pomposity that surrounded them, crystallised as punk and then post-punk, movements dynamic enough to create an equivalent impact on sound, time and meaning. In fact, was post-punk the truest hint of the world that would have existed without the Beatles? If there had been no Beatles could there still have been the Sex Pistols, or was the latter simply another inevitable consequence of the former?

Many are convinced that what the Beatles started has made the world a better place. I've never been convinced, not because of their music, but because of the docile, distracting culture of acceptance, habit, reverence and wistfulness that has been erected around the music and the history that sprang from it.

If there were no Beatles, would it seem achingly obvious that something was missing, even though we couldn't quite explain it, a palpable hole in space and time, a conspicuous lack of another not necessarily better, not necessarily worse reality? Would we still be waiting for something to happen?

If the Beatles had never made it out of Liverpool, would we vaguely long for a set of songs that mentioned love an awful lot and then appeared, if only in manipulated hindsight, to prefigure, anticipate or possibly invent many of the genres that appeared between the late 50s and the late 60s - as music moved from the buttoned-up Shadows to the opened-up Jimi Hendrix, from power pop to folk-rock to psychedelia to prog to MOR to AOR to Britpop. Would those leaps and diversions not have happened because there were no Beatles? Would there have been no Cheap Trick, ELO, Tears For Fears, Oasis or Take That without the Beatles?

Or would the world be pretty much the same even if the Beatles hadn't made it beyond local status, and hadn't taken off for Germany - and how historically crucial was it that they ventured there, a place so recently the enemy, to become men, to take charge of their lives and repair, with self-deprecating, bossy flamboyance, damaged British influence on the world? Were they just a last bizarre spasm of a corrupted empire rather than an emancipating fresh start? Would others equally as charged, talented and lucky have filled the vacuum, and ensured that an equivalent version of the sweet, sentimental and acerbic Beatles hybrid of jaunty British music hall, taunting American rock'n'roll, country and western and early Motown inevitably emerged? Could it have been anybody, really? What was ultimately extraordinary about them was their ordinariness, and the way they exploited their time and place, and their time and place exploited them, and they played the given role of greatness with the appropriate amount of grace, cheek and abandonment.

The Beatles were compelled to be the Beatles because there was the most extraordinary demand for something that ended up doing exactly what the Beatles did. If it had not been the Beatles, would it have been something else, the same but different, because circumstances, and television, and a new kind of audience, demanded it?

Did the world actually change the way it did because of what George Martin did in the studio, urbanely turning turbulent, articulate post-adolescent angst into a kind of aroused, inquisitive and extremely satisfying poshness. To keep up with the Beatles' endless ejaculations of turned-on ingenuity, he was continually forced as committed technician and sober aesthete to reimagine recording possibility. Could he have done something similar with other emotional specimens, another gang of competitive, irascible auto-didactic ruffians craving glamour, experience and self-enlightenment? Was it specifically those four scurrilous, quick-witted, goonish, angry young men?

But once the Beatles existed, once one agreement, or argument, led to another, once they appeared on the Ed Sullivan show in February 1964, there would always be Beatles, myth, hoop-la, industry, lark, bank, religion, universe, canon, diversion, dictatorship, merry-go-round, game, stunt, reminder, and you can think of a world without the Beatles only because the world is exactly what it is, at least on the surface, because John met Paul and managed to speak a few awkward words and then the world couldn't stop talking about what happened next.


Paul Morley

The GuardianTramp

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