From a dead dog’s eye:
The horror of
The Beatles, four clean-cut chaps from Liverpool, are not an obvious fit for the genre of nightmares. So, R.P. Serin take us on a journey through the horror within the hits…
If I were to ask you to think of a rock or pop group whose creative endeavours fit somewhere within the horror genre, The Rolling Stones, Black Sabbath, or even Mayhem might spring to mind. But The Fab Four? Probably not, and for good reason too. The cheeky innocence of ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’, or the sweeping psychedelia of ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ are hardly the stuff from which most people’s nightmares are made. We’re talking more ‘Kubrick meets King’ than ‘turn that bloody racket down!’ Yet the horror is there – its claws piercing the thin membrane of tuneful mirth. Of course, in some cases it tears right through, bludgeoning some poor soul to death with a curiously ostentatious hammer.
There are plenty of examples of real-life horrors being committed by people who have cited The Beatles and their works as inspiration, but that’s not where I want to go today. They have been well documented elsewhere, so let’s leave them behind us and take a walk through the darkened forests of art, music and fiction. We shall stop to acknowledge those places where darker elements of reality have influenced the work, though we shall not dwell long there.
In the early 1960’s The Beatles were known and loved for their ability to write catchy love songs. It was what their fans wanted, it was what the music industry bosses wanted, and it was, in fact, the only type of song they had released. However, the release of Help! (UK, Parlophone, 1965) saw the focus of their attentions begin to shift. The band had started to grow tired of the same-old safe, crowd-pleasing subjects. Not surprisingly, this was the period in which the horror began to creep in, or to be more accurate, came crashing through the door like a raging embodiment of toxic masculinity. The kind that would, in later years, come to stalk many a psychological thriller of the late ’80s and ’90s.
Take the protagonist of ‘Norwegian Wood’, track two of Rubber Soul (UK, Parlophone, 1965). He had clearly been under the assumption that he would end up sleeping with the woman at whose place he has spent the evening, drinking wine and talking. But that is not what she wants, so he is left to sleep alone in the bath. The lyrics go on to suggest that this man has been so aggrieved by this perfectly reasonable situation, that upon waking, and finding that the woman has left for work, he sets fire to her home. This imagery has always perturbed me, even when I was too young to understand the context of the song, but I had assumed it was just a misinterpretation, a symptom of my own dark imagination, but it seems not. According to Paul McCartney, it was he who came up with the ending to this John Lennon composition (which had originally been about an affair he was having at the time):
‘I had this idea to set the Norwegian wood on fire as revenge, so we did it very tongue in cheek. She led him on, then said, ‘You’d better sleep in the bath’. In our world, the guy had to have some sort of revenge. It could have meant I lit a fire to keep myself warm, and wasn’t the decor of her house wonderful? But it didn’t, it meant I burned the fucking place down as an act of revenge.’
A chilling example of the violent misogyny that was entirely normalised in the 1960s, and sadly, remains commonplace today.
The final track on Rubber Soul (UK, Parlophone, 1965) takes this upsetting theme and pursues it with murderous intent. ‘Run For Your Life’ drags us into the mind of a man who, driven by jealousy, possessiveness, and no doubt a weak and fragile male ego, threatens to hunt down and murder a woman, should he ‘catch her with another man.’ It is deeply troubling, especially since we know that it is, an albeit extreme and exaggerated, example of the author, John Lennon’s own shortcomings (tellingly, one of the main lyrics did not come from the mind of Lennon at all but is taken directly from the Elvis Presley song ‘Baby, Let’s Play House’). In the end, most horror works because it repackages those things that cause us fear and anxiety, delivering them back to us in a form that we can willingly consume. I don’t think ‘Run for Your Life’ is much different really, apart from the fact that it appears on the end of a mid-swinging-’60s Beatles album. Many people would have bought the record, assuming that it would be another collection of catchy love songs, penned and performed by their four favourite mop-tops. It’s doubtful that they would have been anticipating a song that might as well have been a template for the film Sleeping With The Enemy (US, Joseph Ruben, 1991). It was a kind of unsolicited horror: like sitting down to watch an anthology of wholesome Disney animations only to discover that the final cartoon plays out like an animated version of James Foley’s Fear (US, James Foley, 1996). ‘Run for Your Life’ was a controversial inclusion at the time, and Lennon would come to express regret for composing it. It is still divisive amongst Beatles fans to this day.
By 1966 things were getting creepy. The haunting strings of ‘Eleanor Rigby’ work perfectly with McCartney’s lyrics, creating a gothic masterpiece. The character from whom the song takes its name might well be dead, but she is present too; almost tangible, but not quite. It feels like you could reach out and touch her, though a part of you knows that if you tried your hand would pass right through her ethereal form. The woman to whose funeral nobody came might well have been ignored in life, but her spectre refuses to stay quiet in death. The ghost of Eleanor Rigby wanders the echoey halls of this haunting song, and the minds of all who have heard it.
‘She Said She Said’, from the same album, also takes a peek beyond the corporeal veil. The opening lines ‘She said I know what it’s like to be dead,’ send a deeply unsettled Lennon, and thus the listener, descending into a spiral of crippling confusion and existential self-doubt.
The explosion of psychedelic experimentation that informed the next twelve months of Beatles activity resulted in the beautiful ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’, the monumental Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (UK, Parlophone, 1967), and the sweepingly off-kilter ‘I am the Walrus’. From this point onwards many Beatles compositions would contain elements that bordered on the discordant, often juxtaposed with beautifully crafted melodies, creating an unsettling atmosphere that was so subtle as to be almost subliminal. ‘I am the Walrus’, which does nothing to conceal its sonic freakery, contains some of the most unnerving imagery in the Beatles canon, while also making a direct reference to the great master of the macabre, Edgar Allan Poe (who in this particular nightmare is receiving a kicking from a semolina pilchard and a Hare Krishna penguin). The line ‘Yellow matter custard dripping from a dead dog’s eye,’ creates an image, the horror of which is inexplicably more than the sum of its parts: Yellow matter custard + dripping + canine cadaver eye = bloody hell Ken, really? When I was a kid this was my favourite Beatles song.
The horror of The White Album (UK, Apple, 1968), both real and imagined, is already the stuff of much-discussed legend. Most of the 30 tracks that span this double LP have elements that are disquieting and strange, and when listened to in its entirety it can be an oddly uncomfortable experience. For many, this record is a poorly constructed mishmash of ill-fitting influences; an omen, foretelling the decline of The Beatles as a fully functioning, coherent unit. There are others that consider it one of their greatest creations. I am more inclined to the latter and think the way that it doesn’t all quite hang together is what makes it work and sets it apart from any other Beatles release. The journey it takes us on is like something that came from the mind of Gene Wilders’ playfully menacing Willy Wonker. This boat trip, along cherry-cream rivers of hell, takes us through the lurid perversions of ‘Happiness is a Warm Gun’, the downward spiral that is ‘Helter Skelter’, and the twisted insanity that is ‘Revolution #9’. This song has a similar psychological effect on me as watching Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (US, Stanley Kubrick, 1980) – not scary, as such, just deeply, deeply, disturbing. ‘Good Night’, the final track, is the icing on this corrupted cake. What was intended as an antidote to ‘Revolution #9’, with its lullaby lyrics and 1920’s Hollywood orchestration, ends up sounding like the kind thing that the malevolent ghosts of The Overlook Hotel might be dancing to as Jack Torrance stops by for a bit of the old ‘hair of the dog that bit me.’
Like The White Album (UK, Apple, 1968), McCartney’s gleefully dark ‘Maxwells Silver Hammer’, the second track on Abbey Road (UK, Apple, 1969) has been divisive too. Many of its critics tend to ignore the grisly aspects entirely, citing instead the musical composition or its ludicrous reputation as being the song that broke up The Beatles. But I suspect that the way that its light-hearted and jocular music is starkly contrasted with the disturbing lyrics – telling the fictional story of Maxwell Edison, who murders a range of unsuspecting victims with a hammer blow to the head, has more of an influence over people’s reaction to the song than they themselves might be aware.
Deliciously dark and morbid gems can also be found beyond the music. Notorious occultist, alleged ‘wickedest man in the world’, and self-proclaimed ‘Great Beast’, Alistair Crowley, and the aforementioned Edgar Allen Poe both feature on the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (UK, Parlophone, 1967). Nestled, as they are, amongst a seething mass of influential figures from all walks of life, the horror here is easy to miss. Not a problem that horror enthusiasts would encounter when viewing the original cover for Yesterday and Today (US, Capitol, 1966). Known now as ‘the butcher cover’, Robert Whitaker’s photograph shows the band sitting together, wearing goofy smiles. Not particularly unusual, apart from the fact that they are adorned with large pieces of raw meat and the baby-like body parts of dismembered dolls. The butchers’ gowns that the foursome wear only adds to the effect. It’s a sight to behold. In fact, it caused so much outrage in the US that all copies of the original release, and associated promotional material, were recalled. The cover was banned, only to be replaced with a much less interesting and pedestrian image. Butchers’ gowns have been replaced by smart-casual attire, the raw meat is nowhere to be seen, and gone are the creepy dolls along with the goofy smiles. They are all looking decidedly bored – I can fully understand why.
The films A Hard Days Night (UK, Richard Lester, 1964), Help! (UK, Richard Lester, 1965), and Magical Mystery Tour (UK, The Beatles, 1967) are all pretty light-hearted affairs, though even here it’s not all cheeky laughs and farcical set-pieces. Watching the Magical Mystery Tour, much like listening to The White Album (UK, Apple, 1968), can be a troubling experience. What starts as a quaint and innocent English post-war holiday caper, quickly descends into the kind of drug-induced psychotic nightmare that would not be out of place in a nerve-shattering folk-horror, complete with dancing, cult-like, policemen, and people wearing terrifying animal masks; eat your heart out Ari Aster. And the opening scenes of Help! (UK, Richard Lester, 1965), depict the attempted ritualistic human sacrifice of a young woman, like something that might be found in a long-forgotten b-movie from Hammer Films.
In 2019 the NME reported on a fan-made video that cleverly merged footage from A Hard Days Night (UK, Richard Lester, 1964) and Train to Busan (South Korea, Yeon Sang-ho, 2016). I Been Working Like a Dog… (S4RK, 2019) is a thing of beauty. Never again will I be able to watch that footage of John, Paul, George, and Ringo running for a train, being chased by hordes of crazed fans, without thinking of those speedy zombies from films like 28 Days Later (UK, Danny Boyle, 2002), World War Z (US, Marc Foster, 2013), and Train to Busan (South Korea, Yeon Sang-ho, 2016).
Pioneering director John Carpenter claims that The Beatles inspired him to rebel against the ultra-conservative influences of his ‘bible belt upbringing’, fuelling the anti-authoritarianism that has been a defining feature of much of his work. And the creator of pus-filled-gore-fests Bad Taste (NZ, Peter Jackson, 1987) and Braindead (NZ, Peter Jackson, 1992), Peter Jackson, is such a fan of them that he has recently spent four years scouring over 60 hours of video footage and 150 hours of audio recordings to produce the superb, and gorgeous looking documentary Get Back (UK; NZ; US, Peter Jackson, 2021).
I have always thought that The Beatles were more subversive than many of their 1960s peers. You could see the rebellion of the more ‘edgy’ bands before they’d even produced a sound. Those four lads from Liverpool were rarely so obvious. And so it is with the Horror, like a mischievous demon wrapping at the walls, willing us to set it free. Those of us who oblige are quick to discover that once released, it will never go back.