OP-ED: The Beatles need a Nobel prize
It may be the right thing for the world of 2021
A brief caveat — most of the pros and cons of nominating a band that split up five decades ago for a Nobel prize were already apparent 40 years ago.
For clarity, I mean the Peace prize chosen by the Norwegian Nobel Committee for the Nobel Foundation. Bob Dylan’s 2016 award for literature perhaps expands possibilities, and some might even say the legendary quartet deserve a bespoke category.
The foundation’s own website name-checks them in an article crediting the huge profits their records generated for EMI in helping the conglomerate which owned the company to fund the intensive research Sir Geoffrey Hounsfield conducted to invent the computed axial tomography (CT) scan in 1971, for which he received a Nobel prize eight years later.
While this underplays the EMI of that era, having a long-term ethos towards cross-subsidy and investment, it does illustrate the reach and scale of the band’s historical impact.
Because potential arguments for a nomination, such as their song-writing, pioneering of paths for other musicians to build upon, and lifelong instincts against war and racism, have many advocates, I find objections more interesting than merits.
The two most obvious reasons for mockery, notably that for all their tightly knit friendship, the four at times could not even keep the peace among themselves and also that the Peace prize is not currently given to individuals posthumously, can be dispensed with in one go.
Simply put, the band can be nominated as an organization, not as four individuals. Amnesty International and International Physicians against Nuclear War are among the many organizations to have received the award.
For all the creative differences and rivalries which outlasted their multiple lawsuits, the Beatles as a business is clearly an extant and enduring entity, in many ways much more unified (and lucrative) than during the 1960s.
Whilst as is the nature of lawsuits, some took forever to unravel, it took only two years from the pivotal break-up litigation for all four to agree with Paul McCartney that a new manager (Allen Klein) could not be trusted to act in all their best interests.
Search on YouTube via “John Lennon weekend world 1973” if you want to see a prestigious current affairs show lead with Lennon’s acknowledgement that he was possibly wrong on Klein, treated in the same way as a breakthrough in Middle East peace talks.
Before anyone who qualifies — primarily past winners and members of the ICJ but also certain types of politician and professor — rushes to file nomination papers before the annual deadline of February 1, consider at least one more objection.
The Beatles were overrated, and the world should be ambivalent about fans and fandom. I totally agree. A “fan” murdered John Lennon, and another seriously wounded George Harrison inside his own home. Not for nothing does the word derive from “fanatic.”
Growing up in the 1970s, I was familiar with Beatle films but had little reason to explore their albums as a pre-teen. With so many other strong acts around and exploding genres from disco to metal to reggae and punk making for much more to like and less incentive to look back. It took respect for George Harrison’s Concert for Bangladesh and joy at his funding of Monty Python’s Life of Brian plus the explosion of books after Lennon’s assassination, for this to change. (An aspiration to graduate from nerd to maven followed.)
The decades since then make it easier to advocate a Nobel peace prize for the Beatles. For a start, their influence and longevity are more than proven. And, unlike more than one past winner, there is no likelihood of surviving members embarrassing the foundation now.
Of course, the old assumption “they are a passing fad” is highly plausible; the adoption of their moniker by Daesh murderers supports the view that the only thing that might be remembered a century or two hence will be a few fragments of songs living on in nursery rhymes and that they were around when the first humans landed on the moon.
On the other hand, the “they will be studied like Shakespeare” school of thought is aided by the ample archives and fly on the wall footage the band left behind. John Lennon especially took the latter tendency to a TMI level of candour in lengthy interviews lasting for hours. Just as well really, because Lennon is the Beatle whose private life faces the most criticism and discussion — not least by himself while he was alive — for various hypocrisies and violent verbal and physical outbursts at both men and women.
His various expressions of regret do sound heartfelt. And he is frank that guilt at neglecting his firstborn led him to proselytize about becoming a house-husband for his younger son a decade later. But Paul and Linda — cancer and the Tokyo pot bust aside — make for a more enviable, less traumatic love story than the avant-garde rollercoaster life of John and Yoko.
Misogyny and racist undercurrents have helped fuel much derision towards Yoko Ono over the years, but her partnership with John Lennon and their influence on each other stayed strong in the long run. The pair were sensible and right to have questioned male chauvinism in meetings of left-wing radicals they worked with at the time. Hindsight also shows the “bed ins” for peace they did during their honeymoon in 1969 in a better light.
These may have looked comic as the whim of a self-indulgent rock star, but the media savvy Lennon had said at the start: “We will be happy to be the world’s clowns if it helps makes an advertisement for peace.” Exactly what the couple delivered in their songs and slogans. And all done without losing the self-awareness and wit that had Lennon singing “they look like two gurus in drag” in a best-selling single just a few weeks later.
Peace and love have been a consistently common theme in both the lyrics and largely complementary causes and campaigns supported by every member of the band.
Ringo Starr and Paul McCartney may have expressed opposing opinions on Brexit however. But then again, what British couple has not?
With both still working, key colleagues like Klaus Voormann and Pete Best, Yoko, and a majority of spouses still around, it is not quite too late to honour them further.
The Beatles do not need a Nobel prize. But they have earned one. I think it would be right for the world of 2021 for them to be honoured this way. Before all of them move on.
Niaz Alam is London Bureau Chief of Dhaka Tribune.