Post-traumatic screaming disorder

I won’t be the first to suggest that, in the latter half of the 60s, The Beatles were, variously, suffering from varying degrees of PTSD. There is no answer to this, just opinions, but personally it explains a lot to me.

I’m not a doctor (not that kind, at least) and am very much unqualified to diagnose anybody whether in person or at a distance, so take all this in the spirit in which it is meant: speculative pondering.

They gave their money and they gave their screams, but the Beatles kind of gave their nervous systems.

George, 1995

First of all, they were all affected by something unprecedented in the history of entertainment. Yes, Sinatra had had screaming bobbysoxers, and Elvis had caused a sensation, but the sustained, jet-engine screaming in larger and larger venues between ’63 and ’65 was something new in the world (we’ll stipulate ’66 was different). George Harrison liked to say that The Beatles ‘gave their nervous systems’ and I don’t think he was only joking.

It was the ’66 tour that left them in varying states of disturbance, to which they reacted in their different ways. After the Philippines, after the Beatles bonfires, after the death threats and the assassination fears of the ’66 tour, they decided, collectively, they needed to stop.

It’s worth spending a little bit of time to unpack that 66 tour and its context. In the Philippines, they were used as scapegoats by an actual corrupt dictator and harried at the airport by the very security services that were supposed to protect them. I think they genuinely feared for their lives. The sheer number of flights involved in those tours was bad enough, and there was at least one close call in the USA. In the Philippines, it must have felt like touch and go as that plane took off. And I think in a way that it’s symptomatic of the conditions they were working in. A wing and a prayer, badly organised, treated like livestock, chucked in the back of panel vans, with microphones that wouldn’t stay still and shitty PAs.

In Japan, there were protests against their playing the Budokan arena. It was more of the same madness. Protests everywhere! In America, the whipping up of the religious right against John’s Jesus comments was only in addition to a general culture war against long haired youth, and the baying and shouting and burning was in the context of a nation always at war with itself — and definitely in the business of assassinating public figures on a whim. What kind of a country burns pop stars in effigy? Iran? Afghanistan? America has always had its own Taliban, and they came for the Beatles in ’66. When the group heard the report of a backfiring engine, or whatever it was, they genuinely thought someone was shooting at them. And with good reason: who can look at the history of mass shootings in the USA and not think it something of a miracle that nobody took a shot at the Beatles… until 1980, at least.

In a parallel universe some Jack Ruby type came surging out of the crowd at the Chicago “apology” press conference, bullets flying everywhere.

When it was over, the touring, Paul, as is known, threw himself into his work, becoming the driving force of the now gig-less band. Springsteen has said, in his autobiography, that his epic shows have been driven by his personal demons. It’s not too much of a leap to suggest something similar was behind Paul’s workaholism. Without regular concerts, the group really became rudderless and lost momentum. In that last three years there was some extraordinary work, but it all needed a push to keep it going. All the pushing was coming, effectively, from one person. When the pushing stopped for Get Back in January 1969, it stalled. There was push, but also a lot of pulling in different directions.

Lennon continued to self-medicate in an extreme way. First too much acid, and then too much heroin, later too much booze, and in interviews talked about feeling lost and in pain for much of the time, even with Yoko by his side. The extraordinary vitriol of Lennon Remembers bears no relation to the actual size of his actual grievances. Lennon bought a Kalashnikov to a fist fight. Of all the Beatles, he was the one who returned least often and most reluctantly to the concert stage. There might have been an 80s return, but his live work from 67 onwards was restricted to short, one-off events. 

Off the top of my head: Rolling Stones Rock ’n’ Roll Circus (one song, with one from Yoko); Beatles Rooftop; Live Peace in Toronto (what was it, half an hour?); New York with Elephant’s Memory (two shows); the Elton John guest appearance (three songs); and the Lew Grade tribute (three songs). Is that it? Is that yer lot? If we wanted to insist that only a full set list would count, then maybe three shows in total is what Lennon did between ’66 and ’80.

How can it be that one of the leading members of the greatest band of all time became crippled by stage fright?

Ringo didn’t obviously suffer (certainly didn’t publicly emote like Lennon), always being the one possessing the most equilibrium, but he did lose his confidence and decide the others were doing better than him. Hence his ’68 walkout. He fancied an alternative (film) career, too, and was the Beatle with the most sidelines. I’m not suggesting the sidelines were a manifestation of PTSD, but he may have seemed more stable because he felt as if he had an escape route. That said, he went on to spend much of the 70s in an alcoholic haze.

George, it seemed, was the most disturbed by that final 1966 tour. He was the one most adamant that the band would not be going back on on the road, and his walkout during Get Back was only reversed when they promised they would not be doing the planned concert after all. They persuaded him to play the rooftop gig, but he’s hunched over in the cold and his contribution is very limited in the footage I’ve seen. He takes no vocal, and tellingly leaves the lead guitar on ‘Get Back’ to Mr Lennon. George may not have been ‘done’ with the Beatles by 1970, but he was certainly ‘done’ with Beatlemania in 1966, and so scarred by it that it took baby steps to get him back on the stage. Perhaps the rooftop wasn’t as bad as he thought it would be, which later that year made Delaney and Bonnie seem like something he could do. And isn’t it interesting that both he and Eric Clapton wanted to blend into the background as sidemen to D&B in December ’69? This is the same George Harrison who was frustrated by being Lennon and McCartney’s sideman.

George’s whole demeanour changes after the events of 1966. He turns to religion, much more profoundly than the others – and meditation has been shown to be a real help for sufferers of PTSD – and he also kind of puts down his guitar for quite a while, becoming a kind of Bartleby lead guitarist who would prefer not to.

To reiterate, this is just unfounded rumination, and I’m not suggesting the group would have been somehow improved without the trauma. The creative tensions that existed in the group after ’66 led to some of the greatest music in history. At the same time, though, the ending, when it came, was driven by four people who didn’t have the tools to communicate effectively. Let it Be is characterised not by what they say to each other but by what they don’t say. Paul’s ponderings wander around the point but never make it. They’re all reluctant to tread on each other’s toes, running scared, afraid of what might emerge.

But doesn’t everyone agree that it’s confused at the moment? So all I’m trying to say is let’s get the confusion unconfused, then confuse it.

Paul, 1969
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