Ken Campbell and on-stage co-host Ben Freeberg talk about The Beatles and Chaos Theory, which will be presented at TEDxAsburyPark on May 18, 2019
Ben Freeberg: Hello, everyone. Welcome to Expert Open Radio. I’m your host, Ben Freeberg. I’m one of the on-stage hosts of TEDxAsburyPark. Today we are here with Ken Campbell, who will be a speaker at this year's TEDxAsburyPark Conference on May 18th. Welcome, Ken.
Ken Campbell: Thank you, Ben. Happy to talk with you.
Ben Freeberg: Ken, just to start off, would you mind giving a quick introduction of yourself and the title of your talk?
Ken Campbell: I am a professor of history at Monmouth University in West Long Branch, NJ. I teach a variety of courses there on British and European history, including, of course, on The Beatles. I've also developed a course called American Popular Culture and The Beatles, which I will be offering for the first time this coming summer.
My talk is on The Beatles and chaos theory. I'm going to talk a little bit about how to account for the phenomenon that The Beatles became and the culture of the 1960's with a historical background. This is related to the idea that sometimes great and beautiful and amazing things result from some of the most devastating chaos. It's sort of a thought experiment to see if some of the ideas that relate to science and nature can be applied to history, and in this case, in particular, to The Beatles.
Ben Freeberg: Wow. I love it. So I have to ask, to start, what is your favorite Beatles song and who is your favorite member of The Beatles?
Ken Campbell: My favorite Beatles song, I guess, would be The Ballad of John and Yoko, although that's a hard choice. But that's just a song that I always enjoy listening to. And I think that there a lot of things to like about that song.
I go back and forth with my favorite Beatle, because each of them have their own strengths that I admire. But I think right now I might be inclined to say Ringo just because of his general joyful personality and laid back philosophy of life, which is probably the thing that I am most impressed by. But I do find something to admire in each of them.
Ben Freeberg: Great. So why this topic? Why The Beatles for CHAOS?
Ken Campbell: Well, I have to give some credit to Anthony Longhitano, who's a volunteer with TEDxAsburyPark. He first called my attention to the fact that this conference was coming up in May and that the theme was CHAOS. Anthony knew some of my work on The Beatles and asked if I thought that The Beatles could be a topic that applied to chaos theory. And the more that I thought about it, the more that I thought“I like that idea” and started to come up with a way of connecting the two. Hopefully I've done that and hopefully I'll be able to do that in my talk.
Ben Freeberg: Is there anything else going on right now with this topic that people have already explored, or are you charting some new territory?
Ken Campbell: I think I'm charting some new territory, because I don't think that anybody has quite approached The Beatles from this perspective. I don't think that a lot of historians have seen chaos theory as something that’s particularly relevant to history--at least none that I've come across.
Ben Freeberg: That's fair. Take us back, if you can, to that period. What was going on at the time, both here within the U.S. and also internationally, that the natural rhythm of the band kind of worked into what was going on in the political and social climate?
Ken Campbell: I really put this in a broader historical context, not just of the 1960s, but within the whole 20th century. Chaos was brought about by the first two World Wars, then additional chaos from the Cold War, decolonization, and all of the social and cultural changes that followed. A lot of stress and psychological anxiety followed these changes, including the decay of Victorian standards of morality and codes of behavior.
Rock and roll actually contributed to that in a way and that was itself something of a response to the changes that were occurring in the middle of the 20th century. I just find that there was so much swirling around, with changes in pretty much every area, social, cultural, political, intellectual, even in post-modernism.
You name it, it was like everything was up for grabs, and nobody really thought the world was that ordered anymore. I think in a way, what The Beatles did was to bring back a sense of harmony, with maybe a little bit of a pun intended there. But it was their philosophy of peace and love and hope. I think was a very positive message that came out of a really chaotic time.
Ben Freeberg: Is there anything in particular that they did in terms of working more directly on the political and social activism side that you're really excited about that our audience members might not know or that isn’t already public information?
Ken Campbell: The Beatles were known for not being particularly politically active. In fact, it was highly controversial when John Lennon wrote the song Revolution 1, in which he pretty much said that you could count The Beatles out if you were talking about violence and destruction and revolution, which a lot of young people were talking about in 1968, when the song was released. But I think that what The Beatles really did was to provide, like I said, a positive message of hope and constructive change and a restoration to a world that was in desperate need of it. I think a lot of people had lost their religious faith or their faith in pretty much anything. And then The Beatles came along as these great cultural heroes with a message that has resonated in every religion.
It was almost like a restoration of the golden rule when they said, in The End that ”the love you take is equal to the love you make.” And I think that's the main contribution that The Beatles made to the generation that came of age in the ’60s rather than through being particularly politically active. Although John Lennon, of course, became pretty politically active in his opposition to the war after the band broke up.
Ben Freeberg: That makes a lot of sense. So what about yourself? When you're sharing and conducting your research and sharing it with students and others, do you see yourself coming at it from more of the political and historical side, or more from the music side and your love of the band?
Ken Campbell: In my course on The Beatles, I try to do both. But I am an historian, so I really do take a lot of effort--probably more than some people who teach about The Beatles--to place them in their political and in their historical context. I'm actually working on a book right now called The Beatles’ Reception in the ’60s.
Ben Freeberg: Do you have any idea of when that'll be coming out?
Ken Campbell: It's under contract with Bloomsbury Press in London and I'm scheduled to finish it in July 2020. I hope that it will be out by the end of next year.
Ben Freeberg: And in the book or in your classes, are there one or two really interesting or fun facts that stand out about The Beatles that you hear and make you think, "Wow, they are different than most of the bands we've seen over the past few decades…?"
Ken Campbell: To me, the thing that distinguishes The Beatles the most (and this is hardly an original idea), was just how much they changed and evolved in their music. They had this enormous popularity at the height of Beatlemania with their pop and their pop/rock songs. And they were doing things that a lot of other groups were doing. Maybe they were more popular or more successful than, say, The Dave Clark Five or Herman's Hermits or some of the other groups that were still very popular. The Beatles, obviously, eclipsed all of them in their popularity. But by 1965 and 1966, they are changing as people. Their music is changing. And yet their fans stuck with them.
And that's a phenomenon that I'm not sure that people have really accounted for--just how The Beatles maintained this momentum through the really significant changes that took place. I don't know if that really qualifies as a ‘fun fact,’ but that's probably the thing that stands out the most to me that maybe people don't think about. They say, "Oh, well, it’s The Beatles." Well, everybody loves The Beatles, but I don't think it was inevitable that when Beatles fans put on Revolver and listened to Taxman (which is the first song on the album) for the first time that they were going to just love it simply because they were The Beatles. They might've just said, "Oh my gosh, this is terrible. This isn't The Beatles that we know and love." And yet if anything, their popularity seemed to increase as the ’60s went on.
It's really interesting. When I was an undergrad, I took a class on Michael Jackson, and it was a really, really interesting course because it took you through the same idea in terms of his changing style ‘phases’ and when he was actually performing with regards to just keeping a similar audience.
Obviously there are a lot of interesting things about The Beatles. And George Harrison wrote Taxman because he was discovering that the British tax code was pretty extreme, especially for people who had great wealth. And all of a sudden he was realizing, "Wait a minute. I'm now in a tax bracket, they're gonna take 90% of what I make," and then he wrote this song that universalizes the sentiment that everybody feels which is, "We don't like the taxman." We don't like when taxes roll around.
Ben Freeberg: That makes sense. Just two more questions for you… First, if you have any advice for our audience members; it doesn't have to necessarily be around The Beatles, but just any general advice or books or videos you’ve found inspirational that you feel you want to share.
Ken Campbell: Well, one of my favorite books, not just about The Beatles but in general, is a book that Devin McKinney wrote called Magic Circles: The Beatles in Dream and History. I had a lifelong interest in The Beatles. And I'd been to Liverpool. And as a British historian I had always recognized their importance historically and culturally as well as the greatness of their music. But that book really opened my eyes to thinking about The Beatles in a different way and that you can't use normal standards of measure or rational ways of thinking to account for a phenomenon as large and sensational as The Beatles; that really defies understanding.
This book has played a large role in my teaching. It’s actually very much related to the idea for my talk, which is going to have a slightly different focus than his book but that, as I said earlier, tries to account for The Beatles in a somewhat non-traditional way of thinking. Because I don't think you can account for them in a traditional way of thinking. So I think he's a fantastic writer. He also has a biography of Henry Fonda called The Man Who Saw a Ghost. So he's a great writer, a fascinating writer. But I love his book. As far as the ’60s or the post-war period in general, Tony Judt has an excellent book called PostWar: A History of Europe Since 1945.
Arthur Marwick did a great book on the ’60s called The Sixties: Cultural Revolution in Britain, France, Italy, and the United States. Dominic Sandbrook's books, Never Had It So Good: A History of Britain from Suez to the Beatles and White Heat: A History of Britain in the Swinging Sixties about Britain in the ’60s are all books that I would recommend for people who are interested in this time period and interested in The Beatles and the culture of that era.
Ben Freeberg: Is there anything else, if audience members want to get more engaged with either yourself or that idea (aside from the book that will coming out in 2020) that comes to mind?
Ken Campbell: Well, I also have a book coming out this summer called American Popular Culture and The Beatles. It looks at the subject of The Beatles more from a different perspective. Most people look at The Beatles and say, "Okay, they were influenced by American popular culture,” and American popular culture becomes part of The Beatles’ story. This book reverses that and looks at American popular culture and places The Beatles within that context, exploring what American popular culture was in the ’50s and what it was in the ’60s. And then how has it influenced The Beatles and how The Beatles contributed to that. That will be published by Cognella this summer, and of course my TEDxAsburyPark Talk is coming up in May. I don’t know the dates yet, but people might also keep an eye out for a Woodstock 50th anniversary event at Monmouth University, probably this Fall.
I'm also working on a somewhat related piece to my book. I have a separate piece called The Beatles at Woodstock. They weren't at Woodstock, but I think that their influence was felt, and that's one of the things I'm going to be exploring.
People can also check out my website, which is KennethLCampbell.com or just get in touch with me through Monmouth University.
Ben Freeberg: That all sounds great. Ken, I want to thank you again for taking the time and thank you to all of our listeners.
Don’t forget to get your tickets for what is officially the largest, highest-rated TEDx Conference on the east coast. The 2019 TEDxAsburyPark main event will be held on Saturday, May 18th and you can order tickets now at TEDxAsburyPark.com and hear Ken speak about The Beatles and what was going on in the ’60s.
Read more about Ken Campbell here