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16th December 2016

2016, psychedelia and The Beatles

2016 has seen the build up of events of the last few decades finally burst — and The Beatles saw it coming

Even if we put the claim that 2016 has been the worst year ever to one side for a moment, we can agree that the year has been characterised, especially for the young and liberal, by the fading belief in truth.

It seems that this year the simmering tensions of a digital age have came to the fore — the post-Cold War liberal agenda faced a searing conservative backlash, the post-Arab Spring Middle East continues to burn while swarms of its victims are swatted away by a crumbling European Union — while individuals’ interactions with the world are shaped by the distorting veils of online filter-bubbles and the murky threats of Russian hackers and fake news.

‘Post-truth’ is the Oxford Dictionary’s Word of the Year. As we interact with our world socially, politically, and even emotionally through virtual mediums, it seems hard to escape the sense of an Orwellian disintegration of reality into a digital sludge of Trump memes. We struggle to tell truth from half-truth, fact from fiction.

Inevitably, there has been a cultural response — the youth culture’s dizzying nostalgia for the past is exemplified in the revival of 90s fashion and music, while creative online movements reflect our collective confusion by mashing together a queasy tonic of old video game music and clips from The Simpsons into a dystopian echo of our childhood years. This digital haze appears to in many ways resemble the blur of late-60s psychedelic culture.

The parallels between the 1960s and the present are clear: as brought to life in the V&A’s recent Revolution exhibition in London, domestic and international political uncertainty, racial tensions and a vibrant boom of creativity characterise both ages. However, where I propose that we might find a close relationship between the ages is in our common questions of perception and reality — especially in music. This conversation of reality can be traced to the mid-1960s when popular culture drew upon west-coast hippie movements, and, fuelled by LSD and loosely political utopianism (helped by an English World Cup victory), British counter-culture, led by its music, defined the decade.

Nowhere were these concepts entertained and expanded more in popular culture than in the music of The Beatles. In their psychedelic period, The Beatles sought to tear down all that mop-top Beatlemania had achieved, evolving both lyrically and sonically to change (or rather, blur) their focus, disorientating their listeners and invite them into a different reality. They uniquely used techniques of tape-looping and modification of sound in the studio (as well as the introduction of foreign instruments and forms). In fact, some Beatles records from this time sound genuinely modern (Baby You’re a Rich Man), while others are still fresh and exciting despite their typically 60s aesthetic (She Said She Said).

Where these recordings relate to 2016 is in their common discussion of hazy confusion in an unclear reality. While “Tomorrow Never Knows” borrows loose Buddhist themes, its commentary is coldly political when applied to the 21st century — the iconic ‘turn off your mind, relax, and float downstream’ is relevant in our context of constant digital contact and blaring TVs. Meanwhile, its loose contemplation of the different realms of perception relate to our modern grapples with anchoring our identities in the pace and fluidity of a digital life. The themes of the simplistic “All You Need is Love” are strikingly relatable to the modern cosmopolitan outlook adopted by the young and left-leaning. For example, Barack Obama’s claim to being a ‘citizen of the world’ in 2008 is an increasingly popular rhetorical answer to the puzzle of globalisation, and echoes the communitarianism of 60s counter-culture. The experimental use of backwards recordings (“Rain, I’m Only Sleeping”) acts as a sonic translation of the dislocation we can feel in modern society, its incoherent language an echo of the almost-reality of the 24-hour news that forms the white-noise backdrop of 2016 living.

Indeed, the hazy chaos of “Blue Jay Way” and “Only a Northern Song” appear as natural predecessors to 2016 online trends of vaperwave and the blaring dystopianism of contemporary avant-garde artists. For instance, Hype Williams’s vague online identities appear as submerged in doubt and disorientation as the aesthetic of their music. In this period, The Beatles truly created not only a broader, more abstract scope in their lyrics and themes, but produced a unique aesthetic of blur and confusion in their more experimental recordings. While other titans of psychedelia, such as Hendrix and The Doors, were capable of incredible feats of colour and musical innovation, “I Am The Walrus” and “Strawberry Fields Forever” create a unique combination of exciting possibility and haunting distortion that our digital world promises in equal measure.

Somehow, the otherworldly opening to the titanic “A Day In The Life” seems eerily relevant to today’s context of the digitally warped news-media. Drenched in haunting delay and delivered in John Lennon’s characteristic rasp, ‘I read the news today, oh boy’ is a cultural landmark, appearing to echo the very 21st century melancholic sensation of being afloat on an ocean of information without feeling any nearer to ascertaining truth. 1960s psychedelic culture, driven by The Beatles, and in particular the aesthetic of haze and disorientation in art, were essential to expressing feelings of confusion and distance in a tumultuous 2016: as we enter the year of Trump’s coronation, it is surely here to stay.

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