George Harrison: did the world gently weep?

The death of former Beatle George Harrison was greeted with predictable eulogies from on high - but the people were as quiet about Harrison’s death as he was in life.

Andrew Calcutt

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When George Harrison died from cancer on 29 November 2001, the great and the good queued around the block to eulogise him – but the public stayed away in droves. Such varied responses suggest that while The Beatles still have spiritual authority over the fortysomethings now in positions of power, for today’s younger generation they are smaller, not bigger, than Jesus.

UK prime minister Tony Blair wasted no time telling us how he ‘grew up’ with Harrison, rushing to the nearest-available microphone to say how much The Beatles had meant to him – just as three years ago he told us how much he was affected by the death of somebody else he ‘grew up with’: Frank Sinatra. Liverpool and Little Italy as well as Fettes College and Oxford – Tony Blair had a truly remarkable upbringing.

With Blair as chief mourner, tributes flowed from all quarters of officialdom. Even the Queen expressed her sense of loss, perhaps prompted by fond memories of the Fab Four smoking dope at the Palace. But just 1000 people attended a candlelit vigil in Liverpool – not many more than the numbers who watched The Beatles at Liverpool’s Cavern Club before they hit the big time.

It is a good thing that Blair stopped short of declaring Harrison ‘the People’s guitarist’, though. Unlike the pervasive ululation that accompanied the funeral of Princess Diana in September 1997, the people were as quiet about Harrison’s death as Harrison was in life.

Maybe it’s because The Beatles are yesterday. They mean so much to those who are now over 40 and so much less to anybody much younger. This is hard to take if, like erstwhile Oz schoolkid and music journalist of 30 years standing Charles Shaar Murray, you are part of that older generation who placed The Beatles at the centre of its formative experiences.

In a tribute article in the London Evening Standard, Shaar Murray insisted that the ‘reaction to Harrison’s death last week merely confirmed the enduring appeal of The Beatles’. But if The Beatles’ appeal really was so enduring, surely there would be no need to remotivate and restate it? Shaar Murray went on to undercut his own argument by correlating the ‘enduring appeal’ of The Beatles with what he sees as the optimistic social mood of the 1960s – exactly the sort of mood that is now noticeable by its absence:

‘The real reason that The Beatles’ work survives is not simply because they were the greatest pop artists of the modern era. It is because, more than any of their predecessors, contemporaries or successors, The Beatles speak to us both from, and about, a world that is “getting better”.’ (1)

The yawning gap between that world and ours, where white powder means days of ‘anthraxiety’ instead of amphetamine nights, is one reason why most young people are frankly bored by The Beatles. If The Beatles speak to the young at all, it is as the voice of their misguided parents.

Shocked by such heresies, the ageing priests of pop protest that The Beatles are key to its history. But pop and history are like oil and water. The whole point of pop is to reject past and future, and live for the moment. Even though much of today’s pop depends on recycling yesterday’s hits, the pop mentality cannot conceive of past or future as anything other than the extension of the present moment.

In entertainment, and increasingly in education, young people are presented with ‘history-lite’, the past repackaged in the image of today. Engaging with a different set of social conditions requires more effort than many young people are prepared to make. Not that they are necessarily incapable, rather that their teachers and parents – contemporaries of Harrison – have not trained them to do it. The legacy of The Beatles generation, with its singular emphasis on the present moment, is that subsequent generations are ill-equipped to understand history – even the history of pop. No wonder they failed to get excited about the supposed historical significance of Harrison.

In a ‘lite’ culture such as this, past achievements count for little, and ordinariness becomes the supreme virtue. It was their ability to play up being ‘just like us’ (even if they weren’t) that made Princess Diana and Linda McCartney into such celebrated victims. If they’d had a bit more substance it would only have obstructed their role as blank screens on which others could project their concerns.

Poor George not only outlived his godlike status, but also lived to see an age of low expectations in which being ordinary rules while substance is as taboo as drugs used to be.

Andrew Calcutt is the author of Brit Cult: An A-Z of British Pop Culture, Prion Books, 2000 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)); Arrested Development: Pop Culture and the Erosion of Adulthood, Continuum International Publishing Group, 1998 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA); and White Noise: An A-Z of the Contradictions in Cyberculture, Palgrave Macmillan, 1998 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)). He is also coauthor of Cult Fiction: A Reader’s Guide, Prion Books, 1998 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

Read on:

Party politics: it’s only rock’n’roll, by Andrew Calcutt

(1) The Fab Four are still with us, London Evening Standard, 5 December 2001

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