Ken Campbell on "Chaos Theory and the Beatles"
Ben Freeberg: Hello, everyone. Welcome to Expert Open Radio. I am your host, Ben Freeberg. We are the host of TEDx Asbury Park. Today we are here with expert speaker, Ken Campbell, who is going to be a speaker at this year's TEDx Conference on May 18th. Welcome, Ken.
Ken Campbell: Thank you, Ben. Happy to talk with you.
Ben Freeberg: Ken, just to start off, you mind giving a quick introduction of yourself and the title of your talk?
Ken Campbell: Sure. I am a professor of history at Monmouth University in West Long Branch, New Jersey. I teach a variety of courses there on British and European history, including a course on The Beatles. And I've also developed a course called American Culture and … 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. And 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 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: So I have to ask, to start, favorite Beatles song and favorite Beatles member?
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. 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: So why this topic? Why The Beatles for chaos?
Ken Campbell: Well, I have to give some credit to Anthony Longhitano, who's associated with TED Talks, who called my attention to the fact that this conference was coming up in May on chaos theory. And he 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 that I like that idea and started to come up with a way of connecting the two. And 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 that people have already explored, or are you chartering some new territory?
Ken Campbell: I think I'm chartering some new territory, because I don't think that anybody has quite approached The Beatles through this perspective. And I don't think that a lot of historians have seen chaos theory as something that is particularly relevant to history, at least not that I've come across.
Ben Freeberg: And take us back, if you can, to the time period. What was going on at the time and the just either both here within the US and also internationally that they're natural kind of rhythm of the band kind of worked into what was going on in the political and social climate?
Ken Campbell: Right. So I really put this in a broader historical context, not just of the 1960's, but kind of of the whole 20th Century with the chaos that was brought about by the first two World Wars and then the chaos brought on by the Cold War and decolonization and all of the social and cultural changes, all of the stress and psychological anxiety that resulted from these changes, the decay of Victorian standards of morality and codes of behavior. Rock and roll actually kind of 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. There was so much swirling around, change in pretty much every area, social, cultural, political, intellectual, post-modernism.
I mean, you name it, kind of like everything was up for grabs, and nobody really thought the world was being met was that ordered anymore. I think in a way, what The Beatles did was to bring back a sense of harmony, a little bit of a pun intended there. With their philosophy of peace and love and hope. I think was a really positive message that came out of a really chaotic time.
Ben Freeberg: That's great. Is there anything in particular that they did that might not be as public information in terms of working more directly on the political and social activism side that you're really excited about that the listeners might not know?
Ken Campbell: Well, The Beatles were kind of known for not being particularly politically active. And in fact it was very controversial when John Lennon wrote the song “Revolution 1” that came out in 1968 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. 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 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 that's the main contribution that The Beatles made to the generation that came of age in the 60's 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? Do you see yourself as coming when you're sharing and conducting your research and sharing it with students and others, do you come at it from more of a political and historical side, or more from the music side and the love of the band?
Ken Campbell: In my course on The Beatles, I try to do both. But I am a historian, so I really do take a lot of effort probably more than maybe 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 60's”.
Ben Freeberg: Oh wow, great. Do you have any idea of when that'll be coming out?
Ken Campbell: Well, I'm supposed to ... It's under contract with Bloomsbury Press in London. I'm scheduled to finish it about 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 any one or two really interesting fun facts that stand out about The Beatles that you hear and you're just like, "Wow, they are different than most of the bands we've seen over the past few decades"?
Ken Campbell: Well, to me the thing that distinguishes The Beatles the most, and this is hardly an original idea, but was just how much they changed and evolved in their music. And 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 the more popular or they were 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 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 is just how The Beatles maintained this momentum through the really significant changes that took place. I don't know that 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, The Beatles." Well, everybody loves The Beatles, but I don't think it was inevitable that when they did, say, “Revolver” and Beatles fans put on “Revolver” and listened to “Taxman”, which is the first song on the album, for the first time that they were gonna just love that, 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 since the 60's went on.
Ben Freeberg: It's really interesting. I actually, when I was an undergrad I took a class on Michael Jackson, and it was a really, really interesting course because it kind of 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.
Ken Campbell: Right. Right. But, I mean, obviously there are a lot of interesting things about The Beatles. And George Harrison wrote that song, 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: Exactly. Great. And then just two more questions for you before we head out. So first, if you have any advice for our listeners, it doesn't have to be necessarily around The Beatles, but just any general advice or books or videos you found really 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 ( "Magic Circles: The Beatles in Dream and History", Harvard University Press, 2003). And in a way it was that book, 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 actually is very much related to the idea for my talk, which is gonna be a little bit differently focused than his book but that, as I said earlier, it tries to account for The Beatles in a sort of nontraditional 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 ("The Man Who Saw a Ghost" St. Martin's Press, 2012). So he's a great writer, a fascinating writer. But I love his book. As far as the 60's or the post-war period in general, Tony Judt has an excellent book called Postwar on Europe Since 1945 ("PostWar: A History of Europe Since 1945", Penguin Press).
Arthur Marwick did a great book on the 60's ("The Sixties: Cultural Revolution in Britain, France, Italy, and the United States, c. 1958-c. 1974, Bloomsbury Reader) Dominic Sandbrook's books, You've Never Had it So Good ("Never Had It So Good: A History of Britain from Suez to the Beatles". London: Little, Brown) and White Heat ("White Heat: A History of Britain in the Swinging Sixties". London: Little, Brown) about Britain in the 60's 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: That's great. So that kind of answers the next question as well. But 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? Anything that comes to mind?
Ken Campbell: Well, I also have a book coming out. It's an edited book that's coming out this summer called “American Popular Culture and The Beatles”. And it looks at the subject of The Beatles ... 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. And so this book kind of reverses that and looks at American popular culture and places The Beatles within that context and explores what American popular culture was in the 50's and what it was in the 60's. And then how has it influenced The Beatles and how The Beatles contributed to that. That's gonna be published by Cognella this summer. Got my TED Talk coming up in May. We are planning a ... I don't know the dates yet, but people might want to look for a Woodstock 50th anniversary event at Monmouth University ... yeah, probably coming up this Fall. I'm also working on a kind of related piece to my book, but I got a separate piece called “The Beatles at Woodstock”, which they weren't at Woodstock, but I think that their influence was felt, and that's one of the things I'm gonna be exploring there. But certainly... people can check out my website, which is KennethLCampbell.com or just get in touch with me through Monmouth University.
Ben Freeberg: Well, Ken, I want to thank you again for taking the time and thank you to all of our listeners. You've been listening to Expert Open Radio, a reminder to get your tickets for what is officially the largest, highest rated TEDx Conference on the East Coast, TEDxAsburyPark on May 18, 2019. You can google TEDxAsburyPark 2019 for tickets. And be sure to get there soon. So thank you again, Ken, and everyone keep a lookout. And you can hear Ken speak about The Beatles and what was going on in that time period on May 18th. Thanks, Ken.
Ken Campbell: Thank you, Ben.