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Sunday, June 26, 2016

Brexit & the Beatles: get back to what you never knew

Yesterday, by a random coincidence, I happened upon a prime, high-profile example of the mysterious process by which an author ends up hiding the personal and/or the political in the subtext of published words which then become famous. Those who follow this blog know I’ve found a few hundred such examples in Austen’s prose and Shakespeare’s verse, but today, as my Subject Line hints, I bring an example of Beatles lyrics which cast startling, ironic light on the Brexit occurring nearly a half century after those lyrics were written. As you’ll see, the “Get back to where you once belonged” chorus we’ve all sung along with Sir Paul has turned out to be eerily prescient of the Brexit now hogging the world’s headlines, and giving the jitters to all Americans (like myself) in the “Never NEVER Trump” camp.

To begin, listen to this YouTube audio https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WcjBF1uj6Do   of an early version of “Get Back” with lyrics very different than the ones we all know, which of course are:

Jo-Jo was a man who thought he was a loner  But he knew it wouldn't last
Jo-Jo left his home in Tucson, Arizona  For some California grass
Get back, get back Get back to where you once belonged
Get back, get back Get back to where you once belonged Get back Jo-jo Go home

Sweet Loretta Martin thought she was a woman But she was another man
All the girls around her say she's got it coming But she gets it while she can  [Chorus]
Get back, Loretta Your mama's waiting for you
Wearing her high-heel shoes And her low-neck sweater Get back home, Loretta

So, how did the Beatles get from there to here? To find out, now read the following informative 2013 Salon.com article, describing, with satisfying detail, how those edgy earlier lyrics morphed into the innocuous ones we’ve all known the past 45 years:
Although I urge you to read the whole (not very long) article, here are the most relevant highlights:

“No Pakistanis”: The racial satire the Beatles don’t want you to hear   by Alex Sayf Cummings
The song that became Get Back began as an anti-immigrant satire so easily misunderstood it remains in the vaults    Imagine that a popular American rock band – say, the Black Keys – wrote a song about immigrants. There are too many of them, the lyrics suggest, and they take jobs away from native-born workers. The chorus recommends that they go back to their countries of origin, where they really belong. Though the song was meant to satirize xenophobia, “No Mexicans” could be easily interpreted as an anthem of racism. This was the situation that the Beatles faced in 1969, when they first concocted the song that would become “Get Back.” Better known as a playful take on counterculture, starring the gender-bending Sweet Loretta Martin and the grass-smoking Jo-Jo, the song originally dealt with South Asian immigration to the United Kingdom.
…The year, of course, was 1968 – a time of race riots, political assassinations, and social ferment. Into this heady atmosphere walked a British M.P. named Enoch Powell…Enoch borrowed the words of Virgil to describe the threat of continued immigration to the United Kingdom. “As I look ahead,” he said, “I am filled with foreboding; like the Roman, I seem to see ‘the River Tiber foaming with much blood.’” For maximum poignancy, he told the story of a gloomy constituent who wished he could afford to leave the country, because the influx of immigrants meant that “in 15 or 20 years’ time the black man will have the whip hand over the white man.” A friend recalled that Powell expected the speech to “go up ‘fizz’ like a rocket,” and a local TV crew rushed down to tape what they expected to be a much-discussed news item after seeing an advance copy of speech.
The so-called “Rivers of Blood” speech caused the media firestorm that Powell had wanted. Accusations of racism led to his cabinet ouster by Prime Minister Edward Heath, but some citizens maintained that “Enoch was right” – a slogan that became a commonplace of racial resentment in the following decades. The Beatles, however, did not share this view, and Powell became the target of several songs the band recorded for…Let It Be in 1970. In a recording known as “Back to the Commonwealth” or “The Commonwealth Song,” the band blasts the politician by name. “Dirty Enoch Powell said to the immigrants, immigrants you better get back to your commonwealth homes,” McCartney warbles over a skittering beat. Soon enough, however, we learn that “Heath said to Enoch Powell you better get out, or heads are gonna roll.” …Lennon chimes in occasionally, in the voice of a prim old English woman, “The Commonwealth is much too common for me.
… Who McCartney was actually referring to is difficult to determine from the recording, but the Beatle later insisted that any pejorative racial tone was not intentional. “There were a lot of stories in the newspapers then about Pakistanis crowding out flats – you know, living 16 to a room or whatever,” McCartney said in 1986, one of the rare times he talked about the songs. “If there was any group that was not racist, it was the Beatles. I mean, all our favorite people were always black.”…“Get Back”… shed its racial implications on the way to wide release. Instead of a Puerto Rican and a Pakistani, the official version deals with Jo-Jo, who “left his home in Tucson, Arizona, for some California grass,” and a cross-dresser named Sweet Loretta Martin. McCartney advises Jo-Jo to get back to his roots, while warning that Martin will “get it” some day if she keeps up her transgressive ways. The Beatles evidently felt more comfortable addressing counterculture and sexual liberation in the song, rather than risk releasing a recording whose satirical intent could be misconstrued as an anthem of racial backlash.”

From that article, and other Net content, I take McCartney at his word– after all, only a few years earlier Lennon inadvertently ignited a firestorm with these candid ruminations from the cultural mountaintop he and his fellow Beatles sat atop in 1966:  “Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. I needn’t argue about that. I’m right and I’ll be proved right. We’re more popular than Jesus now. I don’t know which will go first, rock ‘n’ roll or Christianity. Jesus was all right but his disciples were thick and ordinary. It’s them twisting it that ruins it for me.”  Plus, McCartney, as the world knows, was devastated by the end of the Beatles, and also was aware of how the White Album had served as inadvertent inspiration to Charles Manson’s demonic cult.

McCartney must’ve recognized what my research on Austen has shown me countless times - how easily a clever satire can be missed entirely, and can instead be taken literally. So the last thing he was going to do in a recording, which he hoped would keep the group going by returning to its rock’n roll roots, was to risk triggering yet another nightmarish public uproar.

But that’s not quite the end of this story of surprising Lennon-McCartney subtext in “Get Back”. The stimulus that first prompted me to even look at the above Powell-Trump echo via the Beatles, was not, as you might’ve guessed, my experiencing a sudden epiphany of the aptness of the phrase “Get back to where you once belonged” to Brexit – you can go on Twitter right now and find several examples of Tweeps making that connection having no awareness of the history of the song.

Of all things, it was my happening to hear yesterday that one of John Lennon’s little known nicknames was “Jo-Jo”. It took me about 5 seconds to ask myself the following question --- did McCartney have Lennon specifically in mind when he wrote that chorus? Was this his way of telling John to “get back to where you once belonged”? I.e., was Tucson his metaphor for the Beatles before John left under the allure of California grass and Loretta in the low neck sweater (i.e., Yoko)?  

I knew it was a long shot, but imagine my pleasure when I quickly came upon what I hope you’ll agree is a smoking gun in the Wikipedia entry for “Get Back”:

In 1980, Lennon stated "there's some underlying thing about Yoko in there", saying that McCartney looked at Yoko Ono in the studio every time he sang "Get back to where you once belonged." “

Q.E.D.

So, who’d have thunk that “Get back to where you once belong” was a line that meant so much? In any event, while my generation’s fondest cultural fantasy, of a reuniting of the Beatles, can never be (except in the afterlife, if there is one and if the deity is especially merciful to Baby Boomers), at the very least we can all still hold out hope, and work hard, for some miraculous averting of implementation of Brexit, and for Trump to go down to ignominious defeat here in the States in November. For then we might once again imagine “all the people sharing all the world”, and hope that we all “get back to where we once belonged”—in a true Garden of Eden of world peace.

But as long as Trump still exists as a threat to our civilization, one final parting shot at him -- is there any way, in addition to his copy of Hitler writings by his bedside, did he happen to be an admirer of Enoch Powell as well, with his "River of Blood", and was that on his mind when he uttered his foul innuendoes to Megyn Kelly about "blood coming out"? It's so disgusting a possibility that it's probably true! For more in that vein, read this:

http://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/23/opinion/campaign-stops/donald-trump-and-the-rivers-of-blood.html?_r=0



Cheers, ARNIE

@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

2 comments:

ginaann said...

Very interesting to learn about "Get Back," but the politics of Brexit is much deeper than just immigration. When the Beatles wrote, the EU had barely begun its evolution into a Superstate of anonymous dictocrats seizing control of every local resource and civic freedom.

Arnie Perlstein said...

Thank you very much, Gina Ann, I only just noticed your comment a moment ago. Yes, your gloss makes a lot of sense.

ARNIE