Fun with Alternative Histories from Winston Churchill to the Beatles.
Imagining the Past – Fantasy Week
The Beatles at John Lennons house. Photograph by Ethan A Russell from his excellent book, Dear Mr Fantasy.
Among my favorite assignments in college was reading Winston Churchill’s revisionist history of the American Civil War in his 1930 essay If Lee Had Not Won the Battle of Gettysburg. The title, of course, is something of a misnomer. The south did lose at Gettysburg but Churchill, then a prominent historian before becoming a consummate politician and world renowned leader, decides to tell his tale from the perspective written from that alternative reality where the United States are no longer United — proposing how absurd it is how history actually turned out.
For a literary genre based entirely in absurdity, the text is a classic– and classic Winston Churchill. In it, the Prime Minister to-be realizes off the bat that while the very premise of a revisionist historical text is the suspension of reality, what is heightened beyond any sensible proportion is the reader’s standards of belief. The audience arrives immediately skeptical since they have to re-imagine a world in which events that define their world either never happened or ended differently. Hence, it’s much easier (and much more fun) to make some well-researched but thoroughly unlikely claims of what might have happened since you’re not talking about the story of the victors but writing the swan song of failures.
If Lee Had Not Won the Battle of Gettysburg tells us that, had the great southern general marched on Washington then he would’ve easily taken the Union capitol, declared the Confederacy a sovereign state with an alliance recognized by Great Britain, and announced the liberation of all slaves in the Confederacy. Yes, you read that correctly — all slaves in the southern states declared free by Robert E. Lee in 1863. No Emancipation Proclamation, no “all men are created equal”, or “four score and seven years ago”, just the snap of the fingers of the Confederacy’s equivalent to George Washington. All brought to you by the greatest of Britons.
Reading that probably raises many-an eyebrow of those who don’t know Churchill, as a historian, was considered by many during his time to be the foremost authority in the world on the American Civil War. (Only later would he be named the world’s foremost authority on witty insults.) His meticulously researched piece (no doubt, off the top of his head) casts a new light on its subject by presenting outcomes that, regardless of likelihood, do what history itself does best — magnifies the winner. The winner in this case just so happens to be the side that lost when all is said and done.
Which is why I love revisionist histories of the Beatles, which are by all accounts, like reading an alternative history of the Roman Empire for 20th century pop. Re-imagining a late-career comeback by the fab four is like redrawing a map of Europe in terms of genre associations we make today. At the same time, they were just four people (as well as an institution, a few words in the dictionary, a still-thriving merchandising empire, and a one-time litigation cash crop) with stories of decadence and unfathomable-for-their-time celebrity that are just as much a fairy tale of yesteryear as a nightmare of past excess. Whichever it is, it is a vision which they were individually spared from the risks of aging with by breaking up at their creative peak.
Yet, if ten years of continued commercial dominance through the ‘00s by the Beatles through video games, reissues, and #1 hit singles collections aren’t proof enough — we live in a musical landscape still defined by their breakup and unwillingness to reconvene under that moniker. Their contemporaries remind us every few years how much their impeccable legacy might have been tarnished had they tried to soldier on past Let it Be. World-class directors are still churning out documentaries that try to repaint their mere eight-to-thirteen years in the showbiz spotlight, even if doing so can only be done on an individual basis. All of which heightens the ultimate tragedy of the Beatles’ story: how part of it will always feel withheld from the world. The fantasy of accessing that story is lived out through their repackaged art and generation-crossing merchandise. That tragedy itself, of course, has everything to do with the murder of John Lennon — always the focal point of any alternative history of the Beatles. Alas, in order to start with what might have been, you must change that which makes everything what it is.
Just before the 30th anniversary of John Lennon’s assassination, Vanity Fair‘s David Kamp wrote a faux-interview he conducted with the Beatle celebrating his 70th birthday. To give credit where credit is due, Lennon’s middle class brevity, double-sided ego, and fractured everyman charm are not easy to imitate and Kamp’s attempt is assisted by cloudy details mired in a tone that assumes the reader is somewhat up to date on the alternative happenings of this iconic has-been. However, the interview rings true where portions of Lennon’s soul are exposed through plot points that oddly mirror that of his famous friends’ real lives.
That said, Kamp’s creative detours are much harder to swallow. At one point he recounts the shock of seeing Lennon appearing on the 24-hour cable news networks in support of 1984 presidential candidate Ronald Regan. Lennon rattles off some vaguely blue-collar conservative comment, and Kamp poetically turns Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner against him, banishing Lennon from the pages of his magazine as a result of his comments.
Really? John Lennon? A Republican? Even for a minute in the ’80s? I can’t do it. If anyone, why not George– the quiet religious one who wrote that song about how much it sucks for rich people to pay taxes? Alas, our boy George lived on and was far too busy in the ’80s to get tied up in politics, and no one ever changes this. More so than delivering a story line that feels accurate, what Kamp’s ‘interview’ really does is effectively measures the gross sentimentality of martyr worship and how it distorts our perception of clearly human artists. However, the plot turns it takes to convey these character flaws must reject entirely the self-evident idea that Beatles were ever super-human in any respect.
That’s what my other favorite Beatles alternative history, by Christopher Bird who writes for the blog Mighty God King, gets right. Bird recognizes that each of the Beatles’ politics was as similar and obvious as their creative trajectory– all leaning towards expressions of unbridled creativity and bending forms on which ideals of conformity are built. Where Kamp’s creativity with Lennon’s public embarrassments says something vaguely condescending about a generation he could very well call his own, Mighty God King delivers a fairly believable would-be Beatles discography from the ‘70s into the ‘90s.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that Bird could hold a pen to Kamp’s prose or presentation. I’m also not saying that what Bird presents is more plausible, just that it better represents an entertaining philosophical appeal more akin to Churchill’s alternative history of the American Civil War — that being, it’s a worthier victory cry for us nerdy losers who will never get to hear these records.
Thus in the world according to Bird, the Beatles are not the poster children of the teenage innocence in the early ‘60s gone asunder or the torch bearers of failed left-leaning counter cultural principles, but much more so the late baton carriers of pop appeal. After taking up Saturday Night Live producer Lorne Michael’s offer to reunite on his show for $3,200, the Beatles 3-hour long televised jam session in 1977 (the height of punk, which doesn’t get mentioned) becomes a cultural touchstone. Appropriately, it stands on the proportions of what Elvis Presley’s 1968 comeback special and the Beatles own “All You Need is Love” broadcast (then the first ever satellite broadcast of its kind) did for their respective era. Getting the band back together also leads them into the studio to create an unabashedly positive comeback record titled Neither Here Nor There.
Sure it’s a bland title but in a way that could be interpreted as the awkward return of Beatlesque humor facing the prospect of reconvening under the world’s most intense microscope. Though, what really sells the sunnier ends of Bird’s prediction is where he aligns the Beatles’ with late ’70s pop, albeit haphazardly. While working on their first record in seven years, they don’t find their artistic kindred spirits to be their old cast of friends (Keith Richards, the Bard, Brian Wilson, Donovan, Harry Nillson, or the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band), but the Jackson family instead. As of 1982, their second LP since reuniting actively competes with Thriller as they had with Pet Sounds in 1966. Joint concerts shared with Michael Jackson feature the king of pop and the fab four continuously try to one-up each other in ways you wish MJ and Macca had actually done in real life.
Go ahead and call that a total fantasy, then listen to “The Love You Save” by the Jackson 5. Because the song isn’t “ABC” or “I Want You Back” or “I’ll be There”, (since somehow those are the only three Jackson 5 songs the ‘00s seemed to remember from the ‘70s) it might be easier to tell if I’m wrong here: What were the Jackson 5 but the stellar soul-ification of Magical Mystery Tour? Listen to those cascading guitars playing single note scales and the hypnotically heavenly string quartet taking over the final chorus, all of which sets the banquet table for a prominent tenor preaching a street-corner populism. Give it a philharmonic-worthy piccolo trumpet solo and the song could be “Penny Lane”, or give it a meaningless repetitive outro and it could be “Hello Goodbye”. Replace Tito and Jermaine’s “ba-ba-boom”s with mouth-horns over the bridge and it’s “Lady Madonna”– you get the idea. The only difference here seems to be that Joe Jackson was smart enough to realize these songs make better singles than deep album tracks.
Bird’s positioning of the Beatles with the Jacksons shows how easy it is to forget how the Beatles couldn’t have been more mainstream during their times. No more is this true than when the typical snobby, white blogger’s history of 20th century pop always and sensibly draws lines of intellectual ancestry between them and the most prominent figures in fringe and independent music today. As much groundwork as they’ve laid for Radiohead and the Elephant 6 collective sonically and artistically, they’ve also laid out for the Bee Gees, Duran Duran, the Jonas Brothers, or even Nirvana in terms of defining how artists deal with being the mass media’s answer to “what the youngins are listening to today”.
Which is why it makes less sense when Kamp cynically paints the Beatles’ reunion as an utter failure as a true testimony that the idealistic beauty of the late ‘60s could not be resurrected — because the ‘60s are not everything the band represents. Part of the reason the Beatles apart did not shine as brightly as they did as a whole is because their chemistry was as unbearable to foster as it was invincibly prone to stylistic evolution. If the extremity of their personal turmoils could turn out arguably their best and most inventive work (The White Album) then would ten years spent apart be so bad for the hunting of muses? Lastly, if a functional Beatles reunion in the late 1970s is as implausible to imagine as the south winning the Civil War, let’s remember how history actually unfolded.
I’ll give you a moment to think about asinine musical events of epic proportions like “We Are The World”, “Say Say Say”, “Ebony and Ivory”, and the Traveling Wilburys. Just think of how incredibly preposterous, awkward, and sometimes horrible these collaborations are (seriously, Paul Simon trading verses with Kenny Rogers?) yet somehow they work on paper if nowhere else. Then take a moment to realize that Michael Jackson is dead and Keith Richards is alive right now and let that really sink in.
As both MGK’s alternative history of the Beatles and Churchill’s take on the Civil War magnify — the most ridiculous and absurd alternative history out there is the one in which we live and breathe. Christopher Bird goes on not to spare the reunited Beatles from career-crippling embarrassments but does assert the belief that this band was comprised of more than a few mere mortals (you know, like those chumps Jagger and Dylan) capable of bearable work in the ’80s and realizing that their day jobs could really be get aways from middle-age celebrity.
Pop culture is full of these questions about what might have been based on the pessimistic notion we in no way live in the best of all possible worlds– perhaps more so in sports and film than in music. In fact most don’t give much room for the idea that things could not have gotten much worse. For instance, would the Boston Red Sox had an 86-year slump without a World Series pennant had Ted Williams not enlisted in the Air Force during World War II? If Bill Buckner could catch a ground ball? Would The Godfather Part III been a redeemable flick had Wynona Ryder played the role of Michael’s daughter Mary instead of Sophia Coppola? Would Richard Williams’s The Thief and The Cobbler have ascended to it’s rightful place as the last great hand-animated classic of the 20th century had Disney not stolen it’s thunder with Aladdin?
My answers to these questions range from “maybe” to “I would like to think so.” As for the Beatles — had he lived to see the election, would John Lennon have voted for Ronald Regan? That’s some Kool-Aid I just can not drink.
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