The Beatles as Hauntologists?

I’ve always been fascinated by The Beatles’ Anthology songs ‘Free As A Bird’ and ‘Real Love’. The three surviving Beatles constructed these songs in the mid-nineties, as readers may know, using old John Lennon demos as readymades to develop and finesse. The critical reaction usually damns the songs with faint praise, or, occasionally, is dismissive, as shown in Ian Macdonald’s famous study Revolution in the Head: ‘The Beatles’ post-Beatles story is, on the whole, unedifying’. For me, this critical reaction has always seemed totally incongruous to the powerfully mystic, spectral force of the songs. At the most immediate level, the songs (in their recorded form) present a revenant time-space of trembling presences. Lennon’s voice, grainy with technological time (heard as celestial time), sings from a beyond that the living musicians mediate and penetrate with digital technology (heard as profane time). The two songs offer a play of presence, both on the sonic and biographic levels, that seems to flicker between an unknowable cosmic affirmation on the one hand (the messianic-Lennon figure defying death as we all hoped and knew he would), and a more mundane, human negation (which comes in the form of the other Beatles, and which could be felt as positive, or pragmatic, depending on your attitude).

A potent nostalgia, a lusting after a virtuality that has never and can never be, emanates from the records. But is it something more interesting than that? Or, if the affect is one of ‘mere’ nostalgia, is one that derives ‘merely’ from the stupid ingenuity of the Symbolic, why is it so potent here?

The subject of the songs, thematically and technically, is legacy, is the hauntological (the past in the present), and is death. Thus: ‘Whatever happened to, the life that we once knew?’. Thus, the slick attempts to occlude time with technical sophistication in rescuing, repairing, and retrofitting the demos. These subjects of legacy, nostalgia and haunting seem to me, at this distance, to be at the very essence of our relationship as listeners to The Beatles’ music as a whole. Their catalogue, to most western individuals born in the fifties and beyond (and many others besides), exists in (as?) a mythic canon impervious to criticism, at least in the main. We hear their songs in our youth and, without realising it, by the time we are coming into consciousness, have an intimate acquaintance with many of them. By the time of our adolescence and beyond, we hear the music as a postcard from an era just distant enough to evoke longing, but close enough too to feel immediate and accessible. The Beatles music is a jukebox of nostalgia, heavenly coloured by hope and innocence, but made melancholy by death (particularly Lennon’s own, and ours too), and by distance.

‘Free As A Bird’ and ‘Real Love’ present to the listener a streamlined (by age? by expectation?), but still potent form of psychedelic memory-manipulation. They take as their subject and their means the flavour of the relationship audiences have with The Beatles’ music, and they sacralise it in shadowy sound. That is how they achieve their force.

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4 Responses to “The Beatles as Hauntologists?”

  1. Mr WordPress Says:

    Hi, this is a comment.
    To delete a comment, just log in, and view the posts’ comments, there you will have the option to edit or delete them.

  2. The Beatles’ Anthology as Cultural Symptom « Robots Dancing Alone Says:

    […] retrospection, incapable of generating any authentic novelty’. With reference to my previous post on the haunted aspects of the ‘new’ (newest?) Anthology songs, I would say the […]

  3. Anonymous Says:

    I like this idea – Beatles as hauntologists, the road not taken and all that…mmm.

  4. facebook Says:

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