LONGREAD: Why keep talking about The Beatles?
Kevin Hanley talks to Jan Tumlir about his recent book “The Magic Circle: On The Beatles, Pop Art, Art-Rock and Records” A discussion on disillusionment.
Jan Tumlir’s recent book ‘The Magic Circle’ charts a pathway of historical analysis and speculative association outward from The Beatles’ ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,’ a record released in 1967 once the band had definitively renounced touring. This limit-condition is crucial to the emergence of the concept album, and more generally of art-rock. ‘The Magic Circle’ concerns the passage of the album form into a self-reflexive aesthetic work, but one that remains an openly commercial product and never severs its ties to the social facts. On the occasion of this book’s release at the 2016 Los Angeles Book Fair, Tumlir was joined by artist and pop-connoisseur Kevin Hanley to discuss the legacy of The Beatles brass band avatars as a segue between the cultures of industrialism and the information age. The following is an edited transcript of their discussion.
Hanley: By using The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album, released in 1967, as a focal point, your book begins as a contemplation of disillusionment. Whether it be the disillusionment of childhood, as youth is guided into adolescence by the exploration of the music and imagery of a rock album, or the disillusionment of the concept of the British Empire following WW2, which is also a kind of dissolution. You remind us that The Beatles grow up under bombs, those very bombs obliterating an old industrial sector, making way for what it would become in the postwar years.
Tumlir: I like the way you discuss disillusionment, which is, like disenchantment, a two-sided word. It is a necessity—one must become disillusioned at some point—but this always involves some measure of regret. You go from disillusionment to dissolution, which suggests to me the pathway charted by Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s Dialectic of the Enlightenment, an important source in the writing of my own book. So, here, as you say, the passage to adolescence signals “childhood’s end” through a process of disillusionment that is integral to one’s entrance into culture. For those of my generation, and yours, this process was guided, above all, by rock music, and more specifically the form it took on vinyl, as an album. My book is partly a celebration of that “beautiful language of my century,” to quote Guy Debord. But the beauty that I see in it also comes from the later perception that it is inherently shadowed by disaster. So that is another kind of disillusionment that pertains to a revision of the context within which the original disillusionment took place—one that is, as you suggest, a context of dissolution.
I have always been drawn to a particular strain of British art-rock that reflects upon that context. In the US, we have had the opportunity to witness the emergence of rock and roll from its inception—in slave song, then blues, rhythm and blues, and so on—but in the UK, it is largely a postwar phenomenon. It is carried “across the pond” on American fighting ships, by soldiers, on records. This delay in reception seems crucial because the music that would then be made in response is inevitably colored by a host of concerns that are so foreign to this music’s origins. I place these under the headings of industrialism, war, and media. We tend to forget that the LP format is only introduced in 1948. The music industry, as I discuss it in the book, is itself a product of the so-called “great war,” and so is the operating system within which music exists today. The computer is born from Alan Turing’s Nazi code-breaking machine, and this original function remains, I think, operative in its DNA. So, The Beatles, as I see it, were among the first to consider this whole constellation of societal factors surrounding rock music within rock music. With the Sgt. Pepper LP, rock gains the permission to touch on the subject of fascism, for instance, and this will have serious repercussions on a long line of bands to follow, from Pink Floyd to Joy Division to British Sea Power. These are all bands I am drawn to, and it has to do with a kind of taste for a form of rock in which one neither affirms or denounces something, in the sense of actively celebrating or protesting it, but rather retreats into an attitude, or a sensibility, of romantic alienation. “I Love Melancholy” is a slogan by Jeremy Deller, whose work is featured in the book, and I am inclined to agree with him. This comes down to a particular sound, a look. Perhaps it speaks to the dissolution within disillusionment.
Hanley: Let me ask you to speak about The Beatles’ switch from live to strictly studio production, which Sgt. Pepper demarcates. It is well known that The Beatles “gave up” on touring after their 1966 Candlestick Park concert, citing the sound of the crowd overpowering their performance—they literally abstained from their vocal parts for much of the show since apparently no one could tell anyways. It is interesting to me that by bringing your readers to this juncture, we see the live act dismantled by the very screaming masses that fueled The Beatles touring machine. The barricades, which prevented fans from physically crushing the performers, are circumnavigated by their screams of adoration, thus seeing them through with sound itself.
Tumlir: There is a revealing comment that John Lennon made to his former roadie and future Apple CEO, Tony Bramwell, in 1965: “Beatles concerts are nothing to do with music anymore. They’re just bloody tribal rites.” This is just as the band is about to embark on a final global round of concerts in Germany, Japan, the Philippines and the US. What Lennon says next very clearly anticipates the formulation of the Sgt. Pepper concept: “I reckon we could send out four waxwork dummies of ourselves and that would satisfy the crowds.” The Lonely Hearts Club Band, as portrayed on the cover of the album, is just that—stiff stand-ins, mechanical copies befitting, and highlighting, the reproduced nature of the music inside. And, in fact, waxwork dummies of The Beatles, salvaged from Madame Tussaud’s Museum in London, stand right beside them!
But who exactly are they, the Lonely Hearts Club Band? In the book, I devote a fair amount of attention to these figures, to their costume, bearing, expression. When I received this album as a young boy—this was some years after it was originally released, at which time I was only five years old—it never occurred to me to ask just what it is that they represent. The question is integral to the concept behind this, the first concept album, as it is often still referred to, at least within rock. So what is the concept? To its American audiences, even to those more mature, it must have proved baffling; everything in it and on it is so historically and regionally specific. Here, perhaps the most striking thing is that The Beatles are attired in a kind of military uniform, which would seem to conflict with the image of hippies protesting the war—then, the Vietnam War. The Beatles are of course known as peaceniks, so there is some degree of irony in this costume. That’s the first prompt to read the whole package more complexly, against the grain, symbolically. And then there is the more local and “sussed-up” take, recognizing that these figures do not stand for soldiers per se, but rather a brass band, which could also be a marching band—the most militaristic segment of the musical community, to be sure, but also the one that supplied music to factory workers in the industrial regions of Northern England. The particular sound that I associate with cities like Liverpool and Manchester owes a great deal to the sound of these bands, which, to my ears, always evokes a kind of broken grandeur, at once strident and sad. So, there is another source for the melancholia I mentioned previously. Deller has done a great deal of work on this connection, charting the lines of influence from the brass bands all the way to acid house in the late-eighties.
But what is remarkable—you could say, doubly ironic—about the brass band’s appearance here is that these were once the primary purveyors of popular music to the working-classes, and now they are being invoked by precisely that medium that renders them obsolete. The brass bands were the former playback system; here, they are human equipment recalled by a non-human, machine technology. The whole Sgt. Pepper album is thematized as a concert, with the sound of a cheering crowd at the start and finish of it, but, as we know, these are songs that will never be performed live. So, there is cruel irony in this, and yet The Beatles always manage to have it both ways. Their brass band avatars reach into the past and the future at once. The Industrial Era is behind them; the Information Age is ahead; the period of the so-called “Great Wars” is the switching station. In the book, I suggest that we could even think of them “prototype steam-punks.”
Hanley: You touch on the fact that, by retreating into the studio from then on, the music of The Beatles departs from the social space of a concert into the private or everyday space of a fan’s bedroom or living room via information technology. Here you have us contemplate the disillusionment of previous experiences of art after “reproduction,” citing the work of Walter Benjamin, while also citing Adorno’s postwar writings that begin with total disillusionment of European society, and the information technology that would “seal the fate of houses.”
Tumlir: That is a quote from Adorno’s Minima Moralia, which is subtitled Reflections from Damaged Life. For those who haven’t read any of his writing, this book might be a good place to start. It takes in so many of his core concerns, and does so in a manner that could almost be described as anecdotal. The passage you cite comes from the section where he bids farewell to bourgeois coziness, the high-point of which must be thereafter confined to “around 1900”—now nodding toward Walter Benjamin’s great essay of nostalgic reflection, “A Berlin Childhood Around 1900.” There, it is war that compels the surge of memories—Benjamin wrote it in exile and was dreaming of home—but in these same memories, war is already present, a gathering presence. Benjamin does not declare it outright, but this much is implied: the harbinger of war is information technology. There’s a wonderful paragraph that deals with the telephone, newly installed in his childhood home. The parents cannot stand its ringing, which inevitably interrupts their afternoon siesta, but the child savors this interruption—it is for him, a member of the next generation. We have to remember the things that have always made war so thrilling to us, and that these also have to do with interruption, with noise, and with testing out new technologies. Later, Friedrich Kittler will go on to align our entire media history with warfare; at every stage, our information technologies arise from war and return to war.
Writing after the war that Benjamin would not survive, Adorno declares: “the house is past.” This house has been literally demolished by bombs, but in a more lasting manner, perhaps, it is the very idea of privacy that becomes impossible in the postwar years, and this has to do with media. The dissolution—to resume that word—of the bourgeois principle of subjectivity, of individual autonomy, of sovereign interiority, and so on, is clearly related to the “fate of houses.” Following their wartime destruction, these will increasingly be rebuilt as nodes in a vast information network. Again, I was thinking about all of this in relation to rock music, which, in Britain, is also an outgrowth of war. And rock is a musical form that, we can say, will go on to wage war by other means. The Beatles’ “British Invasion,” as it was called, very obviously indicates to this.
Hanley: In the context of emptying and transforming everyday life, you focus in on the song “A Day in the Life,” and write: ”Space as the dissolution of everything, makes room for nothing.”
Tumlir: So there I am talking about the play in the lyric between counting the holes in the road and then filling the Albert Hall with those holes—“Now they know how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall.” As with much of this song, the words are derived straight from the newspaper page, and again these words are not only of, but also about, information. But in relation to the “fate of houses,” you’ve got me thinking about the fact that the story in question that The Beatles are citing is about damage to infrastructure, and then this damage is somehow being carried over to the culture. Of course, there is also the fact that The Beatles played the Albert Hall, and now that they are playing no longer as a live act, this space filled with holes is suggestive. This again is to link war and media via the record; the “hit” makes contact with its “target audience” and leaves a hole.
Now, I don’t want to claim that The Beatles are consciously responding to Benjamin or Adorno. I am choosing to read their work through this critical filter because that is where I come from. But that is not to say that Sgt. Pepper is not also a “reflection from damaged life.” “A Day in the Life” is, in a way, about the space of those holes in the road expanding, taking over, making room in life “for nothing,” as I put it. The song ends with the massive sound of several pianos pounded at once. Lennon had reportedly asked his producer George Martin for a sound “like the end of the world.”
But to return to your prior question, the dissolution of privacy and selfhood is a theme taken up perhaps most explicitly in the earlier song “Fixing a Hole.” Here is where we are introduced to the traumatized postwar psyche, a condition of which soldiers are only the most evident victims. The suggestion that something dire is at stake in what could be written off as a banal task of home-repair—“I’m fixing a hole where the rain gets in…”—is easily missed, because the song is outwardly so easy-going and jaunty. But I would suggest that its “chill” tone is vaguely pathological. The Beatles have returned home from touring, just like the generation of soldiers that preceded them. They are rediscovering the everyday pleasures of domesticity, yet something is most definitely amiss; the roof keeps leaking, “the rain gets in.”
Hanley: You write about The Beatles reflections on the society they come from, claiming that, “In the end, the prodigal sons will have to regain the love of their fathers, and with it, the keys to their ancestral homes.” It is interesting to note that, in 1965, the Beatles were awarded the MBE. The Beatles wearing the turn of the century band uniforms on the cover of Sgt. Pepper points toward a period of British Empire on the rise, but from the year 1967 in which that empire is in the process of being dismantled from the Middle East to Asia and closer to home in Northern Ireland. Such contemplation of disappearance is indexed by the fact that they don something like their MBE on the Sgt. Pepper cover, since The Beatles being awarded such an honor is itself seen by the English of previous generations as evidence of Britain’s decline.
Tumlir: Thanks for pointing this out, as I neglected to mention it in the book. You’re right, and what stands out to me is the idea that they are being treated somewhat like conquering heroes, and now standing in line with a whole historical procession of brave fighters. These were once the men who expanded and consolidated empire; now they are rock stars. The MBE awards begin in 1945—before them, there were the OBEs—and so that is in itself a postwar phenomenon, and a post-empire one as well. But then The Beatles begin to build another kind of empire, a cultural empire, which they adorn, ironically and not, with the heraldic signs of ancient Britannia. Actually, the patch visible on Paul’s arm reads OPD, which has been linked to the Ontario Police Department. This can be read as another swipe at the old system, but a conflicted one, since Canada never quite parted ways with the UK, and so even the lowliest cop summons the authority of the crown.
When I first set down to write about The Beatles and Sgt. Pepper—this was in a series of essays that were published in X-TRA journal a decade before the book—I thought I’d hit on an original idea, and this was that the figure of Sgt. Pepper himself was perhaps based on Lord Kitchener, the embodiment of the British martial spirit, as the British art historian David Mellor suggests in another context. I did some fairly extensive research and never found that name mentioned in relation to the band. So that was, to my mind, an explosive discovery. I thought I had made what was once called, in newspaper parlance, a “scoop.” Ten years later, it’s all over Wikipedia, which didn’t exist at the time. I thought this was an idea that belonged to me, but ideas don’t really belong to anyone. It is perhaps why Adorno figures so prominently in this writing; he always argued against “the fetishism of facts.”
Hanley: By positioning Sgt. Pepper as a fundamental consideration, your book encourages readers to interrogate their approach to cultural criticism since, by entering at a point of disillusionment and with the overwhelming force of reproductive technology, we understand that strictly adhering to the formalism of previous canons would quite literally leave us clueless. You then fold The Beatles, and “rock and roll” in general, back into a survey of modern and contemporary art history to illustrate what earlier generations might consider an irreversible cross-contamination of forms, not to mention a contamination by “the culture industry.” Here, you remind us, we are in the territory of Adorno, as well as McLuhuan.
Tumlir: Right you are. McLuhan figures prominently in this account, and he at least was someone that The Beatles had access to. In a way, I’m surprised that he did not make the cover of the Sgt. Pepper album, which collects together so many of the band’s leading lights or influences. McLuhan offers a more optimistic assessment of the postwar configurations we’ve been discussing; Adorno’s is, of course, the “bummer ending” version. So, The Beatles to a great extent share in that optimism, and their record is obviously much more cheerful than I describe it. But then, compared with someone like Steve Jobs or any writer for Wired magazine, both McLuhan and The Beatles are, at the very least, circumspect.
I think that, in terms of mediation, The Beatles were trying to “ride the wave,” so to speak. The Sgt. Pepper cover clearly speaks to the sort of cross-contamination you mention: it features great authors like Edgar Allan Poe right alongside Laurel and Hardy, for instance. What do these figures share, one has to wonder, aside from the fact that they exist equally as reproductions? But that is the point that The Beatles are making, and it has to do with image, with the projection of oneself as an image. This is, I suggest in the book, increasingly a skill that all of us must master somehow to remain afloat in society. It’s a basic survival skill, and it begins here. Nobody on the cover is much more than a century away from The Beatles; all are products of the “age of mechanical reproduction,” or “technical reproducibility,” as per Benjamin’s famous essay. As an artifact of popular culture, rather than fine art proper, the record reflects on these developments from the inside. It does not summon the protective distance of art, which inevitably turns dismissive. Rather, from the first moment, it acknowledges its implication in the “culture industry,” as you say, and even turns this into a virtue of sorts. But what is interesting to me is that this only happens because of a self-conscious relation to art, because this is “art-rock.” So this is a fresh perspective on things; one could argue that it is unprecedented.
I devote some considerable space in the book to the work of the Independent Group, and to this founding moment of Pop Art in Britain in the fifties. The IG begin the “contamination” process by absorbing popular culture into an advanced art practice, and in this way, clear some ground for The Beatles. It is worth noting that the designer of the White Album sleeve, Richard Hamilton, was a member of the movement. And although Peter Blake, who designed Sgt. Pepper, was not a member, he certainly was part of that moment, that scene, showing at the same galleries, and so on. So there is Pop Art and then there is art-rock, and the links between them can be concretely established. These forms are mutually invasive, but what remains interesting to me is that we never wind up with a wash. Here we are still dealing with the distinction between life-into-art (the IG) or art-into-life (The Beatles), two very different ways to approach avant-gardism via popular culture.
Hanley: You point out the fact that art and rock are literally “in bed together” by the time that Robert Fraser, the “artistic director” of the Sgt. Pepper cover shoot, gets involved. You discuss the formation of Pop Art and the IG, proceeding from the position that “the consumer and the commodity enter into a relation of mutual transformation” and then point to the disappearing distinction between the two as this process continues. Citing Lawrence Alloway, you emphasize that accepting mass media points toward an art that has more to do with “what society does” rather than a formal coherence to high minded ideals, an art that connects on the level of praxis rather than a definition of culture.
Tumlir: Robert Fraser was a very flamboyant gallerist, an emblematic Swinging London figure, known to friends as “Groovy Bob.” He showed the work of Peter Blake and Richard Hamilton, as well as John Lennon, who met Yoko Ono at an event that he organized—so that’s where we can say “literally” that art and rock are “in bed together.” But, again, they do not neutralize one another, at least not at this point.
The IG, interestingly, was composed mainly of working-class members who felt a strong antipathy toward the existing institutions of art in Britain, which they saw as elitist. Alloway’s injunction that art should concern itself with “what society does” rather than with otherworldly ideals of aesthetic perfection is underwritten by a political logic. By focusing on “what society does”—which, as you point out with that great leftist term, is a matter of “praxis”—art can be for everybody, and in turn everybody can be an artist. This is also a classically avant-garde stance, although in this case, I think they really meant it. Moreover, they had located the channels through which this utopia of art could be realized, and these were existing channels where a non-art utopia was already taking shape, or so it seemed to them. One has to remember the context: this was a period of scarcity and rationing in England. In the films of the time, it is always depicted as gray. So the influx of this colorful American culture, mainly through images in the new illustrated magazines, as well as films and records, must really have seemed magical. The highly analytical collage practice, or “praxis,” that they would develop around this new information is actually described by Eduardo Paolozzi, a member of the group, in terms of magic. It is a “magic process of picture making,” according to him. “The reduction of skills and techniques paradoxically focuses the image by the potency of the content … the reassembly of this disparate material reflects a truer state.”
Hanley: Back to the record: through images of media figures past and present, you point out that Peter Blake and Robert Fraser’s work on the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s presents a condensed history of which the Beatles are now the present representation, at once taking out and diving back into mass imagery, and here an activity of making various connections is an activity on offer for the consumer. Is this an example of the space of the “creative consumer”? That is to say, the space of “bricolage” and ”turning distracted reception (of daily givens) into a conscious mode of production”?
Tumlir: Yes, that theorization of the “creative consumer,” now known as “prosumer,” begins here. Central to the thesis of Alloway and the IG is a reformulation of the logic of industry, the “culture industry” and otherwise, in the postwar years. The old argument of what they call “the guardians of culture” against the popular sphere of entertainment and product design hinges on a perception of “dehumanization.” Mass production inclines toward standardization, and thereby wears away our individuality, our authentic being. But the counter-argument proposed here is that things are actually moving toward customization. More and more styling options are becoming available, and in the process of public interface, the industrial product actually undergoes a kind of human adaptation. At any rate, the consumer and commodity enter into a process of mutual transformation. Alloway and the IG, all lovers of science fiction, are enthusiastic about these developments, but there is still an edge to their work. The present-day possibility of products consuming what the consumers produce is something we can also see here in some incipient stage.
The Sgt. Pepper cover is related to this. It is a kind of mass media kit, and from it, you assemble yourself—you are the product. So, its message is: do not fetishize the thing, and moreover do not fetishize any one thing. As Alloways says, “the treasury of the mass media is a manual for one’s occupancy of the twentieth century.” Mass media as a “treasury” must be met en masse—that is, one has to work with as much information as possible, to contend with the inherent excess of the Information Age, where high culture and trash are inevitably mixed together. The Sgt. Pepper cover adheres to this stance as a cultural product that folds into itself a vast range of other cultural products. This is what we are made of, The Beatles are saying; all of this culture is synthesized in the album you now hold in your hands. And this in turn could serve as a “manual” for your own self-making, your own production.
What makes this all possible is reproduction. As images, all of these cultural producers and products, once hierarchically ordered from high to low, are leveled. The “tabular image” as Hamilton theorized it, is a kind of constellation, a collection of images that radiates outward, laterally. Every part of the “tabular image” is relatable to every other. We can look at someone like Aby Warburg as an important precedent. He essentially founded the field of Visual Studies within a connoisseurial art historical context. Here, though, his lessons are being applied in “the century of self.”
Hanley: The actual LP itself, the disc of grooved vinyl, is a major material consideration for you. You point out that it is reflection on the LP itself that is key to The Beatles arriving at the production of “art-rock.” As in any “serious” formal art practice, the medium, the material fact of the delivery system at hand, is not taken for granted but is integral to “content.”
Tumlir: Yes, the idea of medium-specificity, where medium becomes the generative principle of the content of works, is essential to modern art. It is easier to follow in traditional mediums like painting and sculpture, which can be known as a material fact, and less so in those which involve reproduction, information technology. In this regard, I like to cite McLuhan who famously claimed that “the medium is the message”—so far, so good—but elsewhere he adds that “the ‘content’ of any medium is always another medium.” This suggests to me that a medium-specific approach to media cannot be reductive. Reduction is how modern painters and sculptors got their medium to speak for itself, but no such baseline or zero-degree can be reached in media. Note that every medium exists in the singular, whereas media are plural through and through.
So, yes, The Beatles “invent” art-rock by applying the old modern strategy, and deriving the content of their music from the form of the record itself. This is, first of all, a spinning circle, and this idea of music as something that turns, as a spiraling line cut into a round slab of vinyl, informs so much of their lyrical content, from “Revolver” to “Revolution.” And then of course there is the music itself, which, especially as the band becomes more and more taken with in-studio electronic production, often evokes a swirling movement. All the various tape loops on Sgt. Pepper declare their commitment to this idea in a technical sense. And then later, they will be among the first bands to play with the new technology of the synthesizer, which is essentially built up of loops, a sound that goes round and round. But formalism is inadequate here, because loops are not just circles, but data, bits of recorded sound. In media, plural, we are always pointed elsewhere, toward other mediums.
Hanley: Once the White Album is released, you explain that the attention to the medium of the studio itself pulls to the forefront. As the sophisticated blankness of the cover by Richard Hamilton points to avant-garde art production that finds its way back in high-minded territory rather than popular tastes, so too does the experimental “Revolution #9” impose a noisy experiment with recording on popular music fans. The “art part” of art-rock gets turned up, yet all the while the album is still “an edition of millions,” a thing for popular consumption.
Tumlir: Diedrich Diederichsen has written that the album form is perhaps the best place to attempt a synthesis of those antithetical movements within sixties art, Pop and Minimalism. The vinyl disc is a minimalist object, a black circle, whereas the cover typically bears colorful imagery and typography, and in this way relates to Pop. But Hamilton decided to break with this formula and make the packaging minimal as well. This seems all the more pointed here, because every prior record had featured the band on its cover as a kind of compensatory presence, perhaps. Even outside of the live context, that is, one still has to see The Beatles while listening to them, but now there is nothing to see on the cover other than one’s own shadow, or the oily prints of one’s fingers. Hamilton explains the move as “esoteric”—it partly follows the logic of Robert Rauschenberg’s White Paintings, for instance—but then, as you say, it is performed for the masses. Hamilton, who famously utilized imagery from popular culture in works directed toward the “esoteric” context of the art gallery and museum, here reverses that course. This is an object that winds up in a teenager’s bedroom, where the walls are lined with posters of the band. In fact, inside the album is a foldout “bonus” poster; it is offered as a kind of incentive, a gift, and in a sense compromises the purity of his statement as an art statement. But that is, I think, also the point of it. I see Hamilton’s design as an attempt to focus our thoughts on the album form by messing with its dialectic of inside and outside.
Much the same can be said for the music on the White Album, especially that track “Revolution #9.” I say “track” because it is the first thing that the Beatles put on one of their records that cannot be properly described as a song. It obviously takes its inspiration from the Futurist “Music of Noises,” John Cage’s “Music of All Sounds,” the “Musique Concrèt” of Pierre Schafer and Pierre Henri, and the “Electroacoustic Music” of Karlheinz Stockhausen—who is, incidentally, portrayed on the Sgt. Pepper cover. These are all highly “esoteric” sources. The Beatles have flirted with such material previously, but mainly as a kind of musical embellishment, something in the background. On “Revolution #9,” it is pushed upfront and center. This is not so much a composition as a construction, some would say a sound sculpture, a splicing together of prerecorded material, only some of which is musical. The Beatles neither play nor sing on it, though occasionally we hear their voices speaking or yelling. At any rate, for those expecting mass-market rock, this would have been a highly alienating proposition.
At the same time, however, these various sounds, for the most part non-musical noise, operate differently within the popular context than the “esoteric” one. Even by 1968, that is, so-called “New Music” would still have been controversial among the more elite audiences, the philharmonic crowd, whereas the controversies incited by pop are much more short-lived. One function of pop, especially rock, and art-rock above all, has always been to absorb and normalize noise.
Hanley: Jeremy Deller’s History Of The World, the work of musical historiography mentioned earlier, shows Throbbing Gristle and brass bands on the same page. TG, a band that is an “art band” from the get-go given it’s focus on medium, seems to use the territory of “Revolution #9” as a starting point, and later, in reformed iterations, will make pop songs here and there. Further, bands such as TG, being primarily identified with the aleatory and “noise”-centric aspects of recording, have a fan base who distinguish themselves as “counter to” popular music audiences. Here we see a reinvestment in the experimental as key to cultural growth and at the same time a call to distinction. Will the quest for “new musical consciousness” result in hierarchies within leveling mass reproduction or does it all become a matter of consumer tastes?
Tumlir: Well, that is the question I tried to broach with Alloway’s discussion of customization versus standardization. Adorno, for his part, is utterly inflexible on this point: the “culture industry” is a top-down system, producing your taste right along with the product. The old saying “the customer is always right” is here exposed as just a coercive marketing strategy, a way to make you purchase what you don’t need, or perhaps even want. Alloway hews closer to a classically liberal outlook, but he is no dupe. The customer, according to him, does not exactly determine the product according to the innate “right-ness” of their choosing; rather, customization is a mutual process; the customer is customized as well by the product. This is something endlessly fascinating to think about in relation to rock, and specifically experimental art-rock, inasmuch as it deals with noise, because noise is always initially just what you don’t want and didn’t ask for. Implicitly it exceeds what the customer would know as “right.” It is wrong, but then in the context of this music, to quote another Beatles lyric, “it doesn’t matter if I’m wrong, I’m right.” The wrong is made right; noise is normalized, and then we have to find something even more noisy and egregious. There is something utopian in this aspect of popular music, I think. Jacques Atalli says that noise is a herald of the future.
But noise here also bears the marking of “cool,” and this might point in a less utopian direction. “Distinction,” as a function of taste, is related to customization, but it’s also related to elitism—this is something that Pierre Bourdieu talks about. So, here we are just reinforcing social divisions. TG has always been a “cool” band to like because few people like them, so if you’re a fan, you’re separating yourself from the mass as a special person. The Beatles are another story due to their mass appeal; they mobilized the forces of mass music more effectively than any band before or since. That’s really what makes them worth discussing at this point when this idea of consensus in culture has broken down. Now we can consider whether such a thing is still possible, or even desirable. Personally, I am very drawn to the idea of a cultural product that everyone has to somehow weigh in on, but then I have also always wanted to be “ahead of the curve,” so to speak, as a consumer. There’s a push and pull there, but then elitism in the rock context is not strictly a social fact, or one that has only to do with class and with money.
Hanley: William Burroughs being included on the Sgt. Pepper album cover indicates for you the awareness of the recombinant nature of reproductive technology that The Beatles had. In hindsight, the connection of Burroughs cut-ups reaches back to Surrealism, and forward to hip hop and techno music. Here we are talking about a technique born from mass reproduced materials.
Tumlir: Yes, this allows me to discuss Burroughs a bit. His concrete mode of writing, which involves randomly recomposing language via cut-ups or tape manipulation, is obviously derived from Surrealism, with its operations of chance and automatism. Famously, he claimed that writing had fallen behind art, and so this was an attempt to bring it more up to date. But we also have to remember that Surrealism, for its part, was taking a cue from popular culture, from the randomness inherent in it. Distracted reception here becomes an intentional mode, as when André Breton and his followers would attend several films in one day, always coming in late and then leaving early, and composing a whole other narrative from the fragments of their viewing. Benjamin elaborated a more or less positive theory of distraction, I’d say, on this model; he believed that in distraction a kind of training, and hence a kind of production, takes place. There is some of that in all avant-garde art, right up to the IG. So Burroughs wants to plug it into literature, the tradition of the “Great American Novel.”
But what is interesting is that we never wind up with a generalized, neutralized word-salad. Burroughs’ writing is suffused in his personality, his idiosyncrasies, his obsessions and perversions. It almost winds up lyrical, as opposed to epic, if we want to relate it to poetry, and this is perhaps why it goes on to resonate so forcefully with the more experimental end of the music industry, from art-rock to hip hop, as you say. Burroughs is all over Dr. Octagon, for instance. But maybe the most Burroughsian band of all is TG—the name alone seems like it was lifted from him. This influence is harder to locate in The Beatles, but when you know it is there—because the Sgt. Pepper cover tells you so—then you can hear it. It’s in the absurdist, grotesque, and occasionally even cruel side of this band that we generally still think of as so sweet.
Hanley: Recently the website, thequietus.com, asked Laibach, a band who heavily demonstrates a self-aware play with historical and cultural recombination, to list their favorite albums, and their #1 is Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
Tumlir: On the one hand it’s surprising, but then it also makes perfect sense. The legacy of The Beatles is extremely complicated, and this is what made this book such a pleasure, almost an indulgence, to write. I never really conceived of it as a work of proper scholarship; all of the “hard information” in it can be found elsewhere, in other books, or again on Wikipedia. Rather, this was more a project of mining my own past, my own historical construction, and by extension, my present constructed-ness. The Beatles served as the through-line; Sgt. Pepper was an album that I located at the center of a complex configuration of aesthetic and social facts that largely determined the world I came into. But this is something that one only comes to realize later in life, in retrospect: this world that I once understood as the world, the only world, was only a world, a particular, happenstance, and fleeting world. This goes back to your discussion of disillusionment, which, I think, unfolds in successive stages. It is a quality that I see as well in many of the artworks reproduced in the book; most of them are by so-called “nineties artists,” artists who would have encountered The Beatles early in life, but also after the fact. Whereas the prior generation experienced this music in time to their age, as an age-appropriate soundtrack to adolescence and early adulthood, we first heard it as children. The story of the epigone, the latecomer, is also in there somewhere.
The legacy of The Beatles is complicated, as I was saying, and what it produces by way of response is no less complicated. We’ve been discussing TG, a band that would seem to inhabit the other end of the ideological as well as aesthetic spectrum from The Beatles, yet we can enjoy them both, maybe equally, and this is because they actually share quite a lot. There is Burroughs, for one thing, as well as all the various avant-garde sources he recycles within his writing. Then there is Stockhausen and that tradition of Musique Concrèt and Electroacoustic Music that goes back to Futurism. And finally, there is the dress-up factor, the references to militarism and/or para-militarism in a parodic mode, where the idea of the rock band is reformulated as an instrument of fascist mind-control, but one that actually operates in the opposite fashion, on behalf of your emancipation. None of this would have been imaginable, I think, without the precedent of Sgt. Pepper.
You mentioned how, post-TG, the band members were prone to releasing, “here and there,” the sweetest pop songs. After all that noise, this would here be their only chance for a “curve ball”; it exactly reverses the one pitched by The Beatles on “Revolution #9,” for instance, but still in a sense mirrors it. The same goes for Laibach. How do we associate their (once) cutting-edge hardcore industrial noise with the “old-timey” cabaret, vaudeville, music hall, variety show aspects of The Beatles? Seemingly, as opposed to Laibach, theirs is from the first moment a sound of nostalgic reassurance, one that should lead down the path of “regressive listening,” as per Adorno. But in actuality, the band goes back and forth: nostalgia is summoned up as a backdrop to the shock of the new. This shock is thrown into sharper relief against it, and that’s something we could see as strategic, psychotronic, messing with the mind of the listener. This, to me, is the genius of the Sgt. Pepper routine or gimmick, to employ the language of Burroughs—and Laibach is in on it too. They are also playing vaudeville dress-up, equating rockers with soldiers, and effectively mocking both sides, so again it makes perfect sense that they would be fans of The Beatles.
The uniforms worn by The Lonely Hearts Club Band are two sided: sweet in relation to the brass bands and sour in relation to militarism. Peter Blake states in an interview that Sgt. Pepper might even be worse than the imperialist Lord Kitchener, that he might in fact be German. Whichever the case, fascism is a subject addressed upfront, right on the cover. The brass band somehow bends toward fascism; the music of the industrial era becomes linked to the noise of “total war.” Laibach, a band that originates from Slovenia, have a somewhat different, again reversed, perspective on this, because fascism, to them, is a somewhat more familiar, lived-in, and perhaps worn-out proposition. In any case, fascism and nostalgia are not necessarily antithetical here. We’ve talked about the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, inviting Laibach to play at one of his rallies. This is someone whose taste can encompass the sweetness of Disney and sourness of Industrial music, and again you could say that this conflation is both surprising and not inappropriate. It’s another sign of the cross-contamination we’ve been discussing, and the supposition that it is involuntary, a category mistake put down to cultural differences, is actually more reassuring than the opposite—that is, that he might be as savvy, and willfully perverse, in his cultural consumption as you are.
Hanley: Can you break down some of the industry aspects you touch on toward the end of the book: “a baroque series of financial maneuvers” by and for The Beatles, which is all part of the bands legacy. Take for example, the record label Apple and the idea of independence and further “the shameful awareness of inequity.”
Tumlir: Yes, the last section in the book mainly concerns the music industry, which is to say the social facts, seen from an economic standpoint, behind the aesthetic proposition of art-rock. The Sgt. Pepper LP sleeve is the first place that we see the appearance of the Apple logo, even before the company is formed in earnest. I point out in the book that there is also an economic incentive behind the formulation of this concept album, and this has to do with a contract renegotiation. Previously compensated mainly for their live performance, The Beatles work out a deal that will give them a substantial cut of every record sold. This, of course, is interesting from our present vantage where the opposite seems to be happening: recorded music, streaming on-line, is basically free, and once again the stage returns as the more profitable site. It is another indication of the particularity of this culture I wanted to explore in the book. That things were not always this way is driven home by the fact that they no longer are. People still listen to albums, and they listen to vinyl, but this now implies a choice, and moreover one that instantly reads as a sign of “distinction,” to return to that discussion.
I end the book on a Marxist note because I also believe that aesthetic propositions are always underwritten by social facts. But these facts are not absolutely deterministic; not even Adorno is onboard with that. Aesthetic interpretations of social facts change the social facts. The Beatles focus on making records because they want to make more money, but they also do so to preserve their music, the original intention behind it, which, as you’ve pointed out, is getting lost onstage. Rock is interesting in that way, because it is one of the first forms of music that is learned from records rather than a score. So, this music that is learned from records is returned to records, and there is a kind of self-circling autonomy in that: it constitutes a “magic circle.”
I first came across this term in a Benjamin essay about collecting. When a collection is completed, when every work is possessed, the collector is enclosed in a magic circle, a world onto itself. Benjamin describes this process dialectically, as a two-sided proposition: on the one hand, it points toward alienation, but this is also the kind of alienation one desires, to be “at one” with culture. There’s a utopian aspect to it, and one that is not unrelated to the first version of the magic circle in which there actually are no possessions—“Imagine,” as Lennon would later sing. In the case of music, this first magic circle is the one that contains the players and listeners in real time and space, together. Atalli discusses this, the first stage of the musical economy, as sacrificial. The second stage, the one represented so clearly by The Beatles, is that of representing and repeating. Here music is commodified as a product, a thing, so from the perspective of this socialist thinker, that is a wrong turn. But Atalli does not pay much mind to this other more utopian function of records, which has to do with “what society does” with them. Records, and rock records especially, de-professionalize music; they are incentives to make more records. The Beatles first focus on the record form and then on the record industry, all in swift succession between the years of 67 and 68. They become corporate types, and for some this would signify a sell-out, joining the “other side” outside of the magic circle, but they describe it instead as an instance of “Western Communism,” a redistribution scheme, or a way to spread the wealth. This utopian aspect is inherent in the choice of the Apple logo, with all its Edenic implications. But then, as we know, the apple in Eden is also a two-sided proposition, and this brings us back to the discussion of disillusionment, because this is perhaps its original site. The apple signifies knowledge, which is essentially knowledge of difference, first sexual difference, and then social, political, economic, what have you—all of this is also imprinted on their logo. Now that we think of this logo mainly in relation to computers, it would seem that we have to move away from a dialectical relation to culture and toward one that is increasingly theorized as paradoxical. But I would argue that, although dialectical nature of it has certainly grown more complicated, it has also grown more pronounced. Our entire world now seems to be produced from the difference between ones and zeros. The Internet constitutes another magic circle, one that surrounds everything and in which we all live. It is so pervasive that it slips toward the unthinkable, but by taking some steps backward with Sgt. Pepper, I was actually trying to think about it.
Kevin Hanley is a Los Angeles-based artist whose practice includes video, photography, performance and sound.
Jan Tumlir is an art writer, teacher, and curator who lives in Los Angeles. He is a founding editor of the local art journal X-TRA, and his articles appear regularly in Artforum, Aperture, and Flash Art.
‘The Magic Circle: On The Beatles, Pop Art, Art-Rock and Records’ was published earlier by Onomatopee in Eindhoven (NL).