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The Beatles and McLuhan: Understanding the Electric Age

by Thomas MacFarlane
The Scarecrow Press, Washington D.C., 2013
194 pp., illus. 30 b/w. Trade, $65.00; ebook, $64.99
ISBN 978-0-8108-8432-8; ISBN 978-0-8108-8433-5.

Reviewed by John F. Barber
The Creative Media & Digital Culture Program
Washington State University Vancouver


Beginning with publication of The Mechanical Bride in 1951 and continuing to his death in 1984, Canadian communications theorist Marshall McLuhan compared pre-literate and electric communications, always calling attention to the fact that the medium matters to our experience of the message. These comparisons were often couched as enduring metaphors. “Global village” is one example. In The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962), McLuhan described the global village as an acoustic space of all-at-once-ness simultaneous happening, an electric media environment that would create a new form of interdependence and reverse the ascendency of the visual with the aural as the primary sensory input––in short, an electrical environment in which one no longer had to be anywhere in order to do everything.

By 1966, The Beatles, four young men from England then and still reigning as the world’s most famous and influential rock music group, knew exactly what McLuhan meant. For The Beatles, live concerts paled against the potential for creative expression they found in recorded sound. It was increasingly difficult for them to perform in concert the complex multi-track sonic textures they were exploring in the recording studio. At the height of their international success, The Beatles retired from the concert stage and devoted the remainder of their career to multi-track recording, exploring in each subsequent album two other McLuhan metaphors: figure and ground.

McLuhan described ground as a subliminal yet configurable surface from which figures arose and into which they receded. Considering ground as acoustic space, another McLuhan metaphor denoting the tribal context of the global village where sound provided the primary sensory input, figures would be sound. For The Beatles, ground was the creative canvas afforded by multi-track recording technology. Their groundbreaking vocal and musical compositions were the figures.

In short, The Beatles, like no other musical group, explored the shift in the cultural mindset of the late twentieth century predicted by McLuhan, a shift from visual modes of perception to a way of knowing based increasingly on sound, a shift to a world where immersion in a global community increasingly trumps the fixed individual viewpoint.

Scholar and musician Thomas MacFarlane chronicles this shift in his book The Beatles and McLuhan: Understanding the Electric Age. MacFarlane, using what he calls a “mosaic” approach, explores two record albums: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967) and The Beatles (White Album) (1968) and their individual songs applying McLuhan’s theory and The Beatles’ practice to view each as a technological and cultural artifact where parallel moments can be recorded sequentially but experienced simultaneously and the individual life is subsumed into a collective experience. Several interesting examples of collective, live mixing sessions and how they produced unrepeatable results are included.

The reason for this approach, argues MacFarlane, is that conventional methods of musical analysis are incapable of accessing the interplay between McLuhan’s ground and figure. A multi-track recording, he says, does not create an enclosure for musical sound. Instead, this technology facilitates the perception and manipulation of musical sound without the use of intermediary symbols. It facilitates “the exploration of space (ground) through sound (figure) and thereby makes possible an engagement of figure (sound) and ground (space), as well as the dynamic interplay that exists between them” (102).

A final metaphor from McLuhan. Every medium, he says, undergoes a “tetrad,” four questions that can be asked of the medium and its impact. What aspect of society or human life does it enhance or qualify in the culture? What aspect in favor or high prominence before its arrival does the medium question, obsolesce, or push out of prominence? What does the medium remove from the past, from the realm of the previously obsolesced and put back center stage? What does the medium reverse or flip into when it has run its course or reaches the limits of its fullest potential?

MacFarlane says multi-track recording enhances music composition by “allowing for the shaping of sounds in motion.” Multi-track recording obsolesces music notation as intermediary symbols for musical sound, as well as linear time in favor of simultaneity. “Figure now returns to the ground of possibilities.” Multi-track recording retrieves dynamic space, creating opportunities for deep participation and involvement. Multi-track recording reverses into individual work overlayed with a definitive interpretation (106).

As a group, according to MacFarlane, The Beatles functioned as ground, a collective entity. Individual figures (personalities / musical contributions) emerged as points of focus (figure) and receded back into the group collective identity (ground). Late in the 1960s, when The Beatles began to fragment, the individual personalities of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr emerged as figures abstracted from the original ground of The Beatles’ group identity.

In concluding The Beatles and McLuhan: Understanding the Electric Age, MacFarlane says that The Beatles (as a group) enhanced collective identity, the electric global village. They retrieved the preliterate, the collaborative. In the process, they obsolesced the individual viewpoint created by phonetic literacy and print. As a group, The Beatles reversed into individuals when each member left the band and began to perform individually. The original ground dissolved, or became part of a new ground as each band member pursued individual projects. In this sense, The Beatles offer an account of the transition into a postliterate electric media present foreseen by McLuhan. MacFarlane says we are just now beginning to feel the effects of this transition, but a reexamination of The Beatles and McLuhan can show us how we have changed.

The Beatles and McLuhan: Understanding the Electric Age includes the first ever-complete transcription of the filmed conversation between John Lennon and Marshall McLuhan, as well as an interview with Michael McLuhan regarding his father’s legacy and that of The Beatles. The Beatles and McLuhan: Understanding the Electric Age will be of interest to scholars and students interested in music, music history, recording technology, media studies, and popular culture.

Last Updated 3 June 2013

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