ONE of the strange things about The Beatles phenomenon is that the further we are from the 1960s, the more fascinating, unique and important they become.

Sixty years ago, John ­Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr produced new ­levels of excitement and exhilaration as ­“Beatlemania” reached a crescendo. The Beatles returned from their all-conquering trip to America – something no other British musical act had done before. Can’t Buy Me Love was released and topped the charts; in the first week of April 1964, the band occupied the top five spots in the US singles chart, and were making their first film A Hard Day’s Night.

Does any of this matter beyond the endless ­nostalgia industry and the remaking and ­repackaging of ­music? Is this just the propensity of the baby boomer generation to be one of the most self-congratulatory and self-indulgent ever known, endlessly going on about the joys of their youth?

The Beatles matter more now than they ever did since they broke up 54 years ago in 1970.

They seem to offer a never-ending fountain of stories. Part of this is about understanding their unique ­phenomenon, but it is also about what has happened since in ­Britain and the world, the crises and ­disappointments and, often unstated, what this says about Britain and ­Britishness then and now.

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The ever-expanding industry of Beatles books and studies has until now left this last strand mostly ­unexplored – namely, the relationship of the band with changing Britain, first as an expression, then, ­facilitator, and finally, as pioneers. From this comes the thorny issue of the band’s lasting impact beyond their music, and what happened to the 1960s energy and creativity that seemed to herald a more ­progressive, enlightened Britain and Britishness.

If the 1960s were so groovy and fab, so ­life-affirming and changing, what happened to that spirit? How can the 1960s be all they are claimed to be if the ­decades since have been a long let-down and ­disappointment?

Kenneth Womack is one of the world’s foremost ­authorities on The Beatles, author of a biography of the band’s personal assistant Mal Evans, and ­before of producer George Martin. He assesses the ­influence of the band: “I liken their impact to the Big Bang ­theory, which – as Einstein proved – is still ­reverberating across the universe.”

Womack continues: “The Beatles’s impact is very much like that – still continuing to resonate across various art forms. They elevated the concepts of ­authorship and artistry in both high and low culture. Musicians and other creatives alike began rightly thinking about themselves as content-makers with the power of originality at their fingertips.”

Britain before and after Beatlemania

Britain before The Beatles – or so the story goes – was stuffy and hierarchical, with the Second World War officer class in charge of many walks of life including politics, dominated by grandees such as Harold Macmillan and Alec Douglas-Home.

Young people, the working class and minorities were meant to know their place, be subservient and thankful for their lot. There were barriers to ­prevent the entry of black people into numerous sectors, while women were discriminated against and ­encouraged to remain at home, care for domestic affairs and bring up children.

Yet the Britain of the early 1960s was going through dramatic change. There were rising living standards; greater job opportunities for working-class people; increased consumer power for younger ­generations; new areas of life opening in TV, media, arts and ­culture – all aiding the emergence of new voices and perspectives.

The older order was creaking and being challenged. The Lady Chatterley’s Lover obscenity trial in 1960; the Profumo affair and Christine Keeler trial in 1963 combining Tory scandal, spies and sex, and the ­advent of Private Eye and That Was the Week That Was heralded a new disrespect of the establishment and the onset of a cutting age of satire.

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Ken McNab is a renowned Beatle authority whose latest book Shake It Up, Baby! looks at the historic year of 1963. He told me that the scale of change ­during that period has to be comprehended: “1963 was indeed the watershed year that saw Britain ­transition from a dull monochrome into a kind of glorious technicolour that drew back the veil of gloom that had characterised Britain in the austerity of the post-war years.

“And much of that was due to the transformative effect that the music of The Beatles had on the lives of millions of young people.”

Britain before and after The Beatles are very ­different worlds. Before The Beatles of 1962-63, there really was no British rock ‘n’ roll worthy of the name. There was Cliff Richard – safe and respectable – and a whole coterie of pale male performers such as Adam Faith and Tommy Steele. The early era of The Beatles – from the release of Love Me Do on ­October 5, 1962 (the same day the first James Bond film Dr No came out) to their first film A Hard Day’s Night in July 1964 – is one of non-stop activity and change.

Their music, wit and exuberance, and the joy and hooks of such singles as Please, Please Me, She Loves You and I Want to Hold Your Hand are genuinely beyond compare. The ­obvious ­self-confidence, irreverence and ­self-contained nature of the “Fab Four” even led Mick Jagger to describe them as “a four-headed monster”.

The Britain of 1963 did not ­universally take The Beatles to its heart. While ­younger generations were mostly ­excited at the shock of the new, older and ­establishment voices were sceptical – if not downright hostile.

It was commonplace then to dismiss their initial success as a flash in the pan, of which The Beatles themselves were aware. But in other places, this went much further – into disdain and condescension.

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When The Beatles returned from a tour of Sweden in October 1963, they were asked to respond to Lord Privy Seal Ted Heath’s comments that he could barely “distinguish what they were saying as the Queen’s English”.

Lennon stated: “I’m not going to vote for Ted.” Later, McCartney added: “We don’t all speak like them BBC posh fellas, you know.”

More pronounced was a Daily ­Telegraph editorial of November 1963, clearly demonstrating that ­conservative England did not approve of The Beatles, as it loftily declaimed: “Is there not something a bit frightening in whole masses of young people, all apparently so ­suggestible, so volatile and rudderless?”

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The appeal of pop music, it mused, ­represented something amiss about ­society. It rather cynically observed that “professors, writers, intellectuals, ­bishops all take care to be discreetly ‘with it’, fully conversant and in ­sympathy with all that wells and throbs up from the slums beneath them”.

An iconic Beatles moment was their November 4, 1963 show at the Royal Variety Performance, attended by Princess Margaret. Watched by a massive TV audience, people in their homes saw John Lennon memorably remark: “Would the people in the cheaper seats clap your hands. And the rest of you, if you’ll just rattle your jewellery.”

Afterwards, there was a shift, as The Beatles profile and success became ­stratospheric, causing even elements of the British establishment to warm up a bit. But this was not universal, as the ­Daily Mail’s TV critic Monica Furlong wrote in October 1964: “They are not charming, not handsome … they are not witty”, but rather “four monumental bores”.

Generational and global change

Australian academic Christine Feldman-Barrett, author of A Women’s History Of The Beatles, sees the group symbolising and leading wider change across the decade, telling me: “When reflecting back on the 1960s, we can see that it was a decade when many people – ­especially young people – were wanting to truly express themselves as ­individuals. The younger generation wanted to kick off whatever social ­shackles were potentially limiting them.

“As the 60s wore on and The Beatles sought to expand who they were as musicians – as a collective, and as individuals – so too did young people the world over seek transformations in their own lives.”

“Beatlemania” was a term invented in October 1963, whose origins have been much debated and contested. Beyond doubt is that Scotland has a good claim that the word was coined in Scotland as a reaction to The Beatles’s tour of the country in late 1963, and then captured the zeitgeist and immediately passed into everyday usage.

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McNab previously authored the ­acclaimed The Beatles In Scotland and locates “Beatlemania” thus: “Many have claimed ownership, including Andi ­Lothian, a buccaneering Dundee-based promoter who was instrumental in ­helping to arrange the concerts they played in Scotland in 1963. Andi has long insisted he conjured up the ­famous ­appellation/soundbite during a ­conversation with a radio journalist. “It’s only Beatlemania,” he replied when asked to sum up the mayhem.”

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The Beatles then went global. ­Stories have been told and retold of the US ­invasion, but what is critical is that the America they arrived in on February 7, 1964, at the newly named JFK Airport, was still stunned just two months ­after President Kennedy’s assassination on November 22, 1963.

The band came to an America yearning for something new to help people to unite – and found some of it in The Beatles. In so doing, the acclaim The Beatles were met with changed American perceptions of how they saw Britain – which then fed into how the UK saw itself.

Womack reflects on this change: ­“During the 1960s, they ­certainly broke down notions of stodginess that perhaps Americans had about Brits. And the whole pop explosion certainly elevated our concepts of UK art. It was suddenly as if the Brits were opening up a new front. They already had Shakespeare and several literary epochs all sewn up – and now The Beatles come along and establish a new legacy in pop music.”

The Beatles are central to the 1960s. They represented what seemed at the time a new confident version of ­Britain and ­Britishness that linked to new ­possibilities in the arts, culture and ­society.

The writer Hanif Kureishi expressed what The Beatles meant to him ­growing up in Bromley, stating: “The Beatles ­became heroes to the young because they were not deferential – no authority had broken their spirit; they were confident and funny; they answered back; no-one put them down.”

Challenging the folklore and mythology of the 60s

Yet it is too easy to get carried away in this story and its many myths. The Beatles changed popular culture. But what they did not and could not change was the nature of power, the establishment and structural barriers which shaped so much of Britain.

Britain in the 1960s was a society facing huge challenges such as UK long-term laggard economic growth, the “stop-go” nature of the economy of boom and bust, and relative economic decline. This was amplified by the inadequacies of ­Harold Wilson and Labour in office from ­October 1964. In November 1967, after much delay, Wilson finally devalued the pound – which he saw as humiliating and having a detrimental effect on how the government and UK economy were seen.

Added to this was the slow ­unravelling of Labour’s coalition of the working and middle classes, pressures from trade ­unionists and from business to do ­something about trade unions.

The rise of race and racism saw the first Race Relations Act passed in 1965 alongside curbs on immigration. Labour lost the safe seat of Smethwick in 1964 with the Tory candidate Peter Griffiths allegedly campaigning on the slogan “If you want a n****r for your neighbour, vote Labour”. Without the asterisks Four years later, Enoch Powell cast ­himself into the political wilderness with his infamous “Rivers Of Blood” speech, ­being instantly sacked from the Tory front bench by Ted Heath.

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Fault lines began to emerge in ­previously homogenous UK politics. The SNP won the Labour seat of ­Hamilton, Plaid Cymru stormed to victory in the Labour heartland of Carmarthen, and Northern Ireland witnessed the ­emergence of the civil rights movement and challenging of Stormont’s one-party rule.

Looking back on the 1960s from the ­present many only see buzz and ­energy but ignore other dimensions and the ­nature of the UK. Despite Wilson’s ­courting of The Beatles pre-1964 and awarding the “Fab Four” MBEs in 1965, politics and culture were not easy ­bedfellows and ­often complete strangers.

Wilson and Labour may have ­campaigned on the platform “The New Britain” in 1964 but despite having a ­critique of Whitehall and the dead hand of the Treasury – which is more than can be said for Keir Starmer’s Labour – their zeal for reform and modernisation were not up to the task of taking on entrenched vested interests in the British state, establishment and business.

Hence when Time magazine ­eulogised “Swinging London” in its issue of April 1966, prior to the release of the ­pathbreaking Beatles album Revolver, its connection to the political ­environment was not obvious. The evoking of the ­“London scene” soon passed into ­legend (and was ultimately satirised in the ­Austin Powers” films). But it was a very select affair, metropolitan and ­Londoncentric, excluding most of the country and most of the capital.

What happened to get from the 1960s to the Britain of today?

What happened after the expansive, hopeful 60s when John Lennon announced in 1970 “the dream is over”? If the 1960s were so emancipatory, how do we explain the state of the UK now?

The answer to what happened to the power and potential of the 1960s is ­complex. First, the rising tide of the ­buying power and cultural clout of young people and the working classes in the 1960s was based on a fragile economy which ­encountered harsher challenges in the 1970s and 1980s.

Second, the economic and social ­progressive currents of the decade were based on an economy which faced ­structural problems which proved ­beyond government then and since. The dominant discourse of mainstream politics under Wilson and Heath ­became focused on sorting “the trade union ­problem”, which saw Wilson publish and then retreat from the union reforms of In Place of Strife in 1969 and Heath pass the Industrial Relations Act 1971 ­before retreating from it – laying the ground for Thatcherism.

Third, evident in the 1960s was the ­obvious point that the decade was not ­homogeneous in the UK or elsewhere. While young people were finding voice and a “New Left” feeling emboldened against the Vietnam War and limits of liberal conventions, a counter-attack of conservative opinion was gathering.

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This could be seen in the 1960s with Nixon winning the US presidency in 1968 talking about “the silent majority”, de Gaulle winning a parliamentary landslide ­after the May protests of the same year, and the likes of moral campaigner Mary ­Whitehouse waging war against the ­supposed sins of the permissive society.

Finally, the Britain of the 1960s and the present are very different places. An obvious difference is that young people in the 1960s were a larger, growing part of the population with rising collective power impatient for change.

Today, Britain is a society where the ­elderly are the fastest growing part of ­society and young people a declining ­portion. This has consequences for the priorities of government with a focus on older people, leading to the calamity of Brexit, while young people are shafted by government and locked out of the jobs and housing markets.

The pervading view of the 1960s and The Beatles story has too often been told through male-privileged eyes: “the Fab Four” as the ultimate “Boy’s Own” ­fantasy. But as the story has been ­reappraised, new voices and strands have come forward which offer different ­interpretations of the 1960s.

Christine Feldman-Barrett says of the shifting nature of women in the 1960s and after: “As the most iconic of all rock bands, it’s significant to highlight the influence and impact of women in The Beatles’s story because girls and women often have been marginalised and or ­stereotyped within it – and that’s been true within rock music history more generally.

“In Beatles history, it’s often been the case that young, female fans of the ­Beatlemania period have been ­written about as a senseless and hysterical mass, rather than as individuals with ­compelling stories to tell.”

What did we gain with The Beatles and the 1960s?

It is the last great British story. The Beatles were effortlessly ­British, ­English, Northern, Liverpudlian and working class. In this they were ­outsiders who became insiders, all underlined by the character of their manager Brian ­Epstein who was also gay and Jewish.

To this day conservative critics still sneer at The Beatles. Historian Dominic Sandbrook wrote dismissively of John Lennon as a rebel, saying that all he and the Rolling Stones wanted was to live in English country homes. Pulp singer Jarvis Cocker was more apposite when he ­reflected on the power of “the Big Bang” of the 60s on “Britpop” ­describing it as representing nothing more than ­“Children of the Echo”.

What does the enduring fascination with The Beatles tell us about Britain and Britishness? Taking the genius of their music as a given, it asks us questions about the nature of the hope and optimism of the 1960s and whether it was a one-off. Is Britishness inherently reactionary and beyond saving – or are other variants to the present possible?

One lesson from the 1960s shows the limits of cultural and political change unless the fundamentals of the nature of the British state, establishment and capitalism are adressed. On this, despite 14 years of failure under the Tories, the impetus for far-reaching change is more obvious than ever but weaker in terms of political agency and the agenda of Starmer’s Labour Party.

The Beatles and the 1960s changed much about society, art and culture. In this they offer insights and lessons into the scale of dramatic change required in the present – drawing upon the cultural and political imagination, while summoning up the courage and public support to challenge the vested interests and reactionary forces which have, to this day, a hold on Britain. All this requires spirit and daring which the 60s had and more.