The Magic Circle: On The Beatles, Sgt. Pepper and the Invention of Art Rock, Part 4

Jan Tumlir


“No matter where music is heard today,” writes Theodor Adorno, “it sketches in the clearest possible lines the contradictions and flaws which cut through present-day society; at the same time,music is separated from this same society by the deepest of all flaws produced by this society itself.”1 Above all, as Adorno sees it, this contradiction takes shape between what music, in the deepest recesses of its immanent substance, is, and what, in a market society dominated by the profit motive, it actually does. One side of music—let’s say, the front—is concerned with human relations, whereas the other side—the back—concerns the relations between things. These two contradictory and seemingly irreconcilable sides of music are in fact bound up dialectically.What music both is and does in our time is entirely dependent upon this volatile equation.

Music, no matter how much it is objectified, commodified and fetishized, always maintains its hold upon a utopian dimension; this is ultimately what connects it to religion and philosophy—all are modes of truth-seeking and truth-telling. All, moreover, recognize that the truth of being is connected to the pursuit of happiness, and that this happiness, in order to matter, has to be collective. As Theodor Adorno points out, it is to music’s great advantage in this undertaking that it does not share with these other disciplines the means of a conventional referential language. Music does not partake in a differential system of signs; its language is holistic, which is not to say innocent, immediate or even more direct, but rather self-sufficient. Accordingly, the language of music, unlike common language, always inclines toward unity, a structural unity, but one in which we sometimes recognize a lingering reflection of former togetherness, our memory of a “Golden Age.” Not so in the case of music’s “other side,” which is subject to what is possibly the most arbitrary system of all—that which regulates the relations of use and exchange value in contemporary society. “The role of music in the social process is exclusively that of a commodity; its value is that determined by the market. Music no longer serves direct needs nor benefits from direct application, but rather adjusts to the pressures of the exchange of abstract units. Its value…subordinates itself to the process of exchange.”2

As such,music represents the search for truth; as commodity, it participates in the untruth of fetishism—an illusion of perpetual novelty or newness that is itself founded on an act of concerted repression.The psychological function of the fetish is precisely to displace, behind a gleaming surface, the traumatic realization of both one’s origins and one’s end. In this way, an objective ontology is substituted for a human one; upon the fetish we see ourselves reflected back as things still undifferentiated, and thereby also undying.

“Social struggles and the relations of classes are imprinted in the structure of artworks,” Adorno claims. “Society appears in [art] all the more authentically the less it is the intended object. Real partisanship, which is the virtue of artworks no less than of men and women, resides in the depths, where the social antinomies become the dialectic of forms…”3 In other words, art is social before it makes any specific choices in regard to subject matter. Even, or especially, when it dispenses entirely with social content and takes the route of abstraction and autonomy, it is social, though not necessarily socially performative. This only occurs when art becomes self-conscious, when social contradiction is expressly acknowledged within the work—and, again, not as something extraneous to it, but as something embedded within its given language and substance. In the specific case of music, this point takes on added urgency precisely because of the seemingly irreconcilable rift between music’s original edenic promise and its present-day functions as a cultural commodity. It is incumbent upon musicians as much as their audiences to keep both sides of this musical equation in play, Adorno advises, for only as a contradiction, an expression of social struggle and suffering, can music resist becoming absorbed completely into the economy and serve instead as a kind of disillusioned place-holder for a better day.


The generation that fought in WWII would see their children protesting the Vietnam War as selfish dandies and fops. After all,wasn’t it precisely the elders’ self-sacrifice that made this subsequent elevation and celebration of self—this narcissism—possible in the first place? The suggestion that politics and pleasure might be mingled, somehow, on the pseudo-battlefield of protest is anathema to the previous generation.War has always implied something like a vow of chastity: men and women must pull apart when history calls.The image of soldiers waving goodbye to their girlfriends, fiancées and wives as the train leaves the station or the boat leaves the harbor is fondly revisited, ad nauseum, as the outward sign of inner (gender) purity. And the sexual charge of a D-Day reunion is therefore perfectly commensurate to the degree of deprivation endured—it is earned. Not so for the peaceniks who copulate indiscriminately, and in fact spend so much time in the arms of their sexual partners that they have begun to lose their gender distinctions and merge.

Separation aids in the hyper-definition of gender outlines, claim the fathers to their hippie-sons. “Use it or lose it,” these respond to their soldier-fathers, whom they see as emasculated, in turn, by the war machine. The hippies have honed their sexual technique to the nth degree; they have no need for penis-substitutes when the thing-in-itself can be made into such a devastating weapon.To them, the soldier that “just follows orders” is ultimately half a man, and the son that follows in step with his soldier-father, even less. Remember that the sexual thrill of a D-Day reunion cannot be sustained; in the politics of the bedroom and boudoir, at least, these men will always be the losers.

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band takes shape in between these various factions—generational, occupational, sexual. The outfits they wear on the cover bespeak a masculinity compromised by frills, over-bright colors; even more disruptively, they have let their hair grow. The Beatles have stood in the eye of a media hurricane for as long as humanly possible, giving, giving, giving. They have preened and posed; they have willingly objectified and eventually feminized, themselves. At the same time, however, they brandish the martial regalia and heraldry of a former order of urban-industrial patriarchy as if it were theirs. Formed “twenty years ago today,” they span time: the length of a generational turnover. In the interim, the lads have become dads, each tending his own individual piece of the Apple pie.

The Beatles’ discography is a steady movement of separation and differentiation. Starting out as basically a cover-band, their evolution can be charted in shifting proportions of assumed to original material, right up until their emergence, with 1965’s Rubber Soul, as full-fledged pop auteurs, and then still further, in the following albums, and in the rifts that would appear between individual members, each one defining his own unique aesthetic and idea of what the band is about.4 Starting from a condition of oceanic inclusion and togetherness—rock as the shared language of youth—they would embark on a process of maturation symbolized as departure, leaving home. This course is far from linear, and their lyrics, from this point onward, evince a paradoxical turbulence as motifs of transience alternate with motifs of stasis, of rootedness and communal belonging. Everything happens so fast; the actual brevity of The Beatles’ lifespan is compensated by a tremendous experiential compression. It seems almost laughable how early on in the whole process their lyrical voice, first worldly, then world-weary, begins calling for a return to older ways.With Sgt. Pepper the band has effectively reached the edge of the world and is returning home, to Liverpool, to England; their American adventure is over—or is it? Afterwards, what can they do but depart and return again—that is, to become professional tourists?

What The Beatles promised from the start was a journey. This has always been a kind of traveling music: sound tracking an innocent joyride at first, it is gradually extended into a voyage of self-discovery, and then an aciddrenched, walkabout-style initiation rite that somehow serves to structure the evolution of youth culture into the culture as such. In this way, the Sgt. Pepper album charts with great precision the frontier (and the limits) of a certain youthful imaginary. Beyond this point, all their sixties positivity will begin to dissolve into irony, paranoia and all-out aggression. Maturity marks the journey’s end, as does the start of a new decade.

In Friedrich Kittler’s thinking, the mass media conspire to end “world history” as they replace mankind’s memory banks with their own. It is this transition that The Beatles’ records narrate from the perspective of a community that falls gradually silent. In this regard, the Sgt. Pepper album marks a critical juncture, since it is here that the band parts company with its live audience in order to begin addressing the vinyl disc directly. From the introduction of the Lonely Hearts Club Band at the start of the album to the final reprise, we can track the progress of a gradually fading signal, as the historical imperative to remember, and to relate the substance of memory across the generations, is finally abandoned. The lines of sound and sight that bound together the musical performers and their audience are cut as the first prerequisite of phonographic recording.

Now we have a bounded “length” of music that may be wound-up and then unwound, and unwound, and unwound. Between musicians and their audience appears “a long and winding road”— a maze, of sorts. Once bound up in time and space, these two parties are sent into orbit, to continually chase each other’s tails around this thing, this music-object. This is the distance, “the road,” that the music once traveled in order to connect; now, cut off at either end, it is a bounded length that simply turns and turns.

Those actual miles covered in the course of touring, the literal length both toward and away from, becomes imminently susceptible to allegorical revision. After all, the first prerequisite to passionate expression is loneliness: those who sing or play passionately always do so from a distance. The song is much like a love-letter in this regard, and this remains its main stylistic model; it is a form of communication wholly predicated on the separation of its two parties. Singers sing of breakup and solitude, they sing of sadness more often than joy, and their joy tends to be tenuous and bittersweet for this very reason. “Absence makes the heart grow fonder,” as the saying goes; it inspires a kind of passion that can only dissipate upon return, one that is fundamentally unrealistic, even fantastic. In effect, it is the impossibility of reuniting “for real” with the object of one’s affection that opens the way to the imaginary and the symbolic. Metaphorical figures fill the space between the desiring subject and object, and ultimately replace it. Even when “the road” comes to an end, as in the case of The Beatles, all of those miles formerly covered continue to impact the romantic imagination, asserting their impossible distance.

Of course, the road is not without its pleasures, but these are fleeting. Doomed love is the only sort known to the rock and roll drifter who seizes any brief moment of tenderness from the arms of anonymous groupies, and makes them last long after the fact. Memories of towns and lovers merge; this is the experience that their lyrics recall explicitly, but then, doomed love is also that which momentarily unites the pop star with his audience. Here too, the affair boils down to a desperate grope in the dark, with the inevitable goodbye and goodnight waiting to be uttered as soon as the house lights come back on. Finally, there is the precarious romance that the band conducts with itself. Members of the opposite sex can only exercise a negative function, or so it is believed by the general public. Yoko, Linda, Layla, Barbara—these are all women who “got in the way” of the music.


“Mass music heralds the death of the family,” writes Jacques Attali in Noise.5 Broadcasting the call of the jongleur, the traveling minstrel, the rock-and-roll drifter, it charms and coaxes the fan out of the old community structures like a snake from its basket, and out into the open market. Thereafter, all communing will be carried out on (rather than with) the commodity product. The fan club exists only as a kind of withering afterimage of what came before. A marriage of convenience, a momentary truce between competing interests, it is fundamentally ill-suited to deal with so-called “intimacy issues.” Now what?

On their next album, The Magical Mystery Tour, The Beatles propose to take us, their audience, away with them—that is, to follow through with what was only a vague suggestion on Sgt. Pepper (“We’d love to take you home with us”)—and it is precisely because the tour bus is now stationary, languishing outside the Apple studios, that any such thought would even occur to them. “Roll up, roll up”—The Magical Mystery Tour begins as a call to all comers, but from there on in it is all formality and etiquette: you need “an invitation to make a reservation.” “They’ve got everything you need / Satisfaction guaranteed”—basically, this is rockand- roll as a cut-rate package tour. The subjective voice, the “I” who’s “got an invitation to make a reservation,” is that of a fan torn between rock’s intimate address and indifferent economy, the faceless and generic mass one must join as a consequence of being drawn, pied-piperstyle, into the fold. Accordingly, the tour is resumed as a fantasy of togetherness, while the actual distance between the band and their fans only grows and grows.

No doubt, The Beatles had caught a whiff of malevolence, something aggressively unsound in all those adoring, beatific expressions aimed back at them in Candlestick Park on August 29, 1966, and maybe earlier. A new kind of energy is taking hold of the audience en masse, to explode, later, at Altamont and Monterey. Something there in the crowd perhaps puts them in mind of their future stalkers; it is time to seek cover.

In film, at least, this state of affairs can only end in tears. The generation of British cineastes that emerge in the sixties is not weaned on the “glass teat” so much as the radio. They can still remember a world partly unoccupied by electronic imagery and the “never-ending story” of television, and are thereby all the more eager to report on the process of takeover. The particular dynamics of hit parade stardom receive special attention from such figures as Richard Lester, Ken Russell, Lindsay Anderson, Nicolas Roeg, etc.— all directors with an inside line to the gaudy, disposable heart of pop. Music-lovers and fans themselves, they seize hold of the means of (information) production to sacrifice their sonic idols in a steady outpour of featurelength rock videos. Motivated by the post-war influx of consumer culture, the post-scarcity economy as well as its emerging critiques, they will enact, on the most spectacular scale imaginable, a series of variations on that familiar theme of hero-worship, betrayal and murder.

The story of the superstar is never less than tragic. Part one involves the ritual snuffing of the pop-idol scapegoat on the altar of fandom; part two, the butchering of the body, the artistic corpus, and its piecemeal consumption as host; part three, the surprise resurgence of the listener, the everyman and nobody, in a David and Goliath type turnabout that literally brings down the stars from the sky.

The ones who feel small join forces, holding hands and chanting in unison to raise the Dionysian spirit; as one, they are equal to, and perhaps even greater than, those onstage. This is just a matter of numbers. The massed ardor of an arena audience is literally devastating, and, as one, they are equal to the task of devastation. At the extreme, every emotion will start bending toward its opposite: the lovers destroy and devour the loved. Either one joins the fray, or else becomes its object—it is as simple as that. Individual will is gladly surrendered, renounced, in favor of the transcendent buzz of the hivemind. The lyrical voice fills one’s being like an invading spirit, until all one can do is mouth those words in turn. Music, meanwhile, enfolds the body, shaping the space within which it moves. Such control: the band plays its audience as much as its instruments. But whatever it is that the audience sends back to the stage is just as crucial in determining this moment as bliss or pain, as freedom or constraint, as shared or imposed.

As the sixties reach their peak, these play-politics of the rock-and-roll stage increasingly take on a concrete radical potential, and accordingly the lines between performers and audience are either darkened in or completely erased. Just as The Beatles pull back, for instance, the German Kosmische freak-out band Amon Duül will cross the dividing line to set up, with their fans, a commune. 1966, 1967, 1968: It’s countdown time to revolution! Accounts tell of a sensibility opposed to privacy in all its forms: henceforth all action will take the form of an acting-out, group-therapy.The commune is founded as an alternative to the atomization of the bourgeois family as much as the alienated posture of the spectator in the “Society of Spectacle.”With their crowdedness and hysterical moodswings, films such as Anderson’s If, Russell’s The Devils and Roeg’s Performance speak eloquently to this changing audience—meek no longer, but still bent on inheriting the earth.

If the commune is built on the ruins of the nuclear family, it also counters its consumer imperative with a recycling tendency. The Manson family dub themselves “The Garbage People” not only out of low self-esteem, but because they have opted out of the official economy, generating no income (except from contraband) and thereby also not spending (except on contraband).They live for free in squats like Gary Hinman’s house in the canyons, Spahn Ranch in the valley, and finally Barker Ranch in the desert, while conducting periodic scavenger forays into town. As family-member Susan Atkins puts it: “Scavenging became a way of survival for the family.The supermarkets all over Los Angeles throw away perfectly good food every day… Us girls used to go out and do garbage runs, is what we called it. Pick up the food and take it back to the ranch, and cut out the blue spots and check it over to see that it was good food…We went out on garbage runs and we went and panhandled, and one time one girl and I put on dark clothes and…we went out and creepy-crawled. It’s moving in silence so that nobody sees us or hears us—wearing very dark clothes and moving at night.”6

Charles Manson describes his family as a collection of outcasts, a kind of refuse in their own right. These are “people that were alongside the road, that their parents had kicked them out and that did not want to go to Juvenile Hall, so I did the best I could and I took them up on my garbage dump and I told them this, that in love there is no wrong.”7 Having spent close to the entirety of his young life in prison, Manson emerges, at last, in the culminating years of “The Age of Aquarius,” which he sees “clearly,” through the hardened gaze of the con-man, not as a progressive moment, but one of decline, and thereby also one of unlimited opportunity. According to him, the hippie-movement is merely the first symptom of a dissolving social order—all of it: uprooted, shiftless, drifting waste. “I could see these people on the street—see them with clean eyes, you know. These people on the street were like me. Thrown out of life like your paper coffee cups and hamburger sacks and rags and stinking Kotex pads and dirty rubbers. They were the garbage floating around and shit sticking to the sides of your toilet and your drain holes… That’s what they were doing as hippies.”8

These people are not his responsibility, but yours, ours. Manson only helps them to realize what is already there, inside. “So I took these people that were your garbage, that’d been thrown away by society, and I put them to work.” In the Dickensian scenario that ensues there are precious few luxuries—that is, apart from sex and drugs and rock and roll. The family remains adamantly out of touch, media-wise. Cultural commodities are never allowed to collect as they might in a “regular” home. Records are not stockpiled into glorious totems of selfhood, but passed around and played over and over for months at a time. In this hothouse climate, The Beatles’ output—an obsession with Manson—can only bring forth a feverish bloom of evermore obscure and hermetic in-readings.

The connection had been made long ago, and then cemented with the Sgt. Pepper LP. This is music that speaks directly to Manson and for him. (In this belief he is just like any other fan, only, as Adorno might say, more so.) For instance, family-member Linda Kasabian remembers “a certain passage in one song where he said he thought he heard, or did hear, The Beatles calling him, saying, ‘Charlie, Charlie, send us a telegram.’”9 But what begins in pathology, delusions of reference, will swiftly gain a much more credibly objective dimension as Manson in turn makes a name for himself, becoming representative of a certain limit-experience that The Beatles would also approach, in later years, with mounting trepidation.Who can say that they are not in fact conversing, sending signals back and forth across the ether? As revolution approaches, it would seem that the “Walrus” is not only John, but Manson as well; the two of them merging with each other, as well as everything and everyone else, by way of their common belief in “The Infinite Soul.” Even in much more prosaic terms,we find that the “She” that is “Leaving Home” in The Beatles’ song of that name will ultimately- wind up on Manson’s doorstep, having been rejected by her pop-idols. And he, in turn, will again send her back out, properly attired this time in “creepy-crawler” black, to “Climb Through the Bedroom Window” and back into The Beatles’ lives.

Rudimentary insight into Freud’s “family romance” is the secret of Manson’s success. Here is how Susan Atkins, another member of the clan, recalls it: “He (Charlie) asked me if I ever made love with my father. I looked at him and kind of giggled and I said, ‘No.’ And he said, ‘Have you ever thought about making love to your father?’ I said, ‘Yes, I thought I would like to make love to my father.’ And he told me, he said, ‘All right, when we are making love imagine in your imagination that I am your father…’ And I did, I did so, and it was a very beautiful experience…”10 For someone who had never really experienced the presence of his own father, this point of the Oedipal triangle is from the start somewhat vague and mutable. “In time, he was to call himself Satan,” Atkins continues. “And the Devil sometimes. He personally never called himself Jesus, but he represented a Jesus Christ-like person to me.”

Of course, John Lennon does call himself Jesus, or an even higher (or at least, more popular) power, in 1966, in that notorious Maureen Cleave interview for London’s Evening Standard. The upshot is a very significant loss of popularity on the other side of the Atlantic where record-burning rallies are immediately organized amidst a Crucible-like flurry of soul-searching and soul-purging. In effect, it is the American Religious Right that finally denounces The Beatles as devils, causing them to dump the ballast of their Judeo-Christian creed in full, and set sail for the East to seek counsel from the Maharishi. At the start of their third and last US tour, the images of all those Bible-Belt zealots dancing around their vinyl funeral pyres exert an impact that cannot be overestimated, giving the band a glimpse of an audience comprised wholly of enemies.

Performance serves to charge the inert music-object, the record album or single, with the memory and fantasy of living presence. Even after The Beatles have played their last concert, the image of them onstage will continue to haunt every new release. The audience remains put as a rocking Leviathan, lighters held aloft, and never stops wishing for a reunion tour, while The Beatles keep trying to channel that wish into a range of alternate products, what the psychologists of child-rearing term “transitional objects.”This is an enormously delicate operation.The public is spurned by the performer who refuses to appear; it is abandoned and set adrift like an unwanted lover. It winds up “lost in the supermarket,” as The Clash would put it some years later. Now there is only the cold white glare of the fluorescent lights that line the aisles of the record store, a very poor substitute for the throbbing, kaleidoscopic synaesthesia of the concert hall. The experience of betrayal is endemic to rock, and it is felt in inverse proportion to the infinite hope for connection and contact that music fosters. In other words, it is devastating, and if any hope for civility remains, it must be preceded by a substantial compensation.

The road traveled by any given band on tour is subsequently wound-up, and then again unwound, on record. The distance traveled to your town describes the literal trajectory of the musical “message,” growing closer and closer until it is (almost) there. The record cannot compensate for the presence of the band performing— this arena is wholly foreign to its own particular substance. What it displaces is the experience of anticipation and approach, the movement of something faraway drawing closer. The record is inscribed with the distance of miles traveled while “on the road,” and the yearning it inspires is not just for that climactic moment of connection and contact. The ostensible object of desire has already been replaced by this thing, this shored-up distance that both connects and separates, and it is now this turning line in-between that one covets “in and for itself.” This line is movement in potentia. In the form of the literal road it served to draw the music closer, but now that it has been abstracted as a swirling vinyl groove, it may begin to draw one, rather, away.


“One does not want to accord it any form other than the one it itself exhibits,” claims Adorno of the record as such; “a black pane made of a composite mass… [and] covered with curves, a delicately scribbled, utterly illegible writing…”11 The phonograph record turns music into an objective commodity, but it is the way that it does so, bypassing every arbitrary system of notation, translation, and instead directly deriving from the musical substance as such a form of inscription, writing, text, that counts here. It is precisely as a form of non-arbitrary, motivated writing that the phonograph record makes a contribution that is unprecedented in the history of media. “…The phonograph record’s most profound justification,” Adorno suggests, ultimately has to do with the redemption of music as writing. “Music, previously conveyed by writing, suddenly turns itself into writing.”12 “This occurs at the price of its immediacy,” he goes on to say, “yet with the hope that, once fixed in this way, it will someday become readable as ‘the last remaining universal language since the construction of the tower,’ a language whose determined yet encrypted expressions are contained in each of its ‘phrases.’” It is an enormously conflicted, yet vivid, proposal: on record,music may yet recover the common purpose that was lost in the initial phases of its becoming-object.Trapped in the amber of the commodityform, the edenic language of names becomes code, an object of scholarly inquiry, but one that that addresses, and implicates, all of us equally.

Jan Tumlir is an art-writer based in Los Angeles. One of the original editors of X-TRA, he also contributes regularly to Artforum, Frieze and Flash Art.

Karl Erickson is an artist based in Los Angeles, Program Coordinator at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions, and is considering taking up alchemy. His most recent exhibition was at Kristi Engle Gallery in Los Angeles.


  1. Theodor Adorno, “On the Social Situation of Music” (1932), Essays on Music, ed. Richard Leppert (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2002), p. 391.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Theodor Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), p. 232.
  4. With Rubber Soul, “The Beatles had…come to assume full control over all aspects of their ‘product’ (except its American contents); they selected the covers, dreamed up the titles, and had the time and money to record at their own speed. Everything about the album showed the Beatles being consciously arty for the first time…” Nicholas Schaffner, The Beatles Forever (Harrisburg: Cameron House,1977), p. 49.
  5. Jacques Attali, Noise: The Political Economy of Music (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989), p.110.
  6. John Gilmore, The Garbage People (Los Angeles: Amok Press, 1995), p. 75.
  7. Ibid., p. 76.
  8. Ibid., p. ix.
  9. Ibid., p. 95.
  10. Ibid., p. 34.
  11. Theodor Adorno, “The Form of the Phonograph Record,” Essays on Music, p. 277.
  12. Ibid., p. 279.
Further Reading