Ferry, across the … Päijänne?!?

Notes on the Beatles 2000 International Cross-disciplinary Conference in Jyväskylä (June 2000)

By John Richardson

While the study of popular music has only in the past two decades become anything like a respectable pastime, the music of the Beatles was among the first to be taken seriously in an academic context, thanks largely to the groundbreaking work of scholars like Wilfred Mellers (1). However, by the time popular music studies had truly established itself as an independent area of research, and begun to develop for itself a more eclectic and sophisticated methodological palette in the mid-1980's, the age of the Beatles was rapidly receding into the past, leaving scholars to turn their attentions to more recent musical phenomena, like the punk and new wave movements, dance culture, and music television. But the turn of millennium, the Beatles "reunion," and retro movements like Britpop have encouraged some scholars to take a fresh look at this landmark period in 20th Century history.

The Beatles 2000 conference in Jyväskylä tapped into the current zeitgeist, catching the attention of a wide range of scholars working in many disparate fields. Indeed, this was probably the main strength of the event. So often academic conferences seem either to draw an insular set working in the same area, or else a group so disparate and disinterested in the viewpoints of colleagues with different backgrounds that they seem constantly on the verge of coming to blows. In Jyväskylä, happily, neither was the case; scholars representing approaches as diverse as cultural studies, English literature, music education, popular music studies and traditional musicology mingled on the whole cordially and with genuine mutual respect and even interest.

But why Jyväskylä? Why arrange such an event some 2000 kilometers north-east of the Mersey on the shores of the beautifully picturesque lake Päijänne? The responsibility for this lies with a small but active and ambitious group of scholars based at the University of Jyväskylä working under the leadership of Yrjö Heinonen, proud possessor of Finland's first Beatles PhD. This group cast their net afar and were rewarded with a catch of the some of the most exciting and distinguished scholars from their respective disciplines. All of which bodes well for the future of the Jyväskylä Beatles project, whose academic shares have fared well as a result of their successful staging of the event, which served as a useful shop-window for their own Beatlestudies publication series (2), the third volume of which  will be made up of papers from the conference.  

The highlights of the conference for me included keynote addresses by several prominent scholars. One of the biggest names at the event was Walter Everett, author of the recently published book The Beatles as Musicians (3) and numerous scholarly articles on both popular and classical music, whose paper called for a pulling together of recourses in Beatles studies and the establishment of an archive of Beatles-related material, either in the United States of the United Kingdom. Everett's endorsement of traditional musicological methods, such as source studies and Schenkerian analysis certainly struck a chord with the hosts, whose first publication espouses the benefits of precisely such methods and calls for the establishment of a separate research paradigm resembling those found in the study of classical music (such as Schubert and Beethoven studies).

Gender Studies was another prominent theme. This was perhaps most clearly articulated in Sheila Whiteley's keynote address, where the author of The Space Between the Notes: rock and the counter-culture (4) spoke of the influence of the Beatles in shaping her own identity as a teenage girl growing up in the 1960s. Whiteley's presentation was both animated and insightful, and was illustrated with examples that included a photograph of the speaker herself in the 1960s, complete with all the requisite hippy accessories! A second noteworthy presentation that addressed issues of gender was that of Jacqueline Warwick, a graduate student from the University of California at Los Angeles. Warwick's paper was one of several, including my own, that encouraged scholars to reassess influences on the songwriting style of the group. This speaker convincingly argued  that a large part of the group's distinctive vocal style can be attributed to the influence African-American girl groups. Although fairly obvious when one looks closely at the evidence presented by Warwick, this assertion has profound repercussions for discussions of the reception of the group and notions of gender identity that are likely to have been perceived by both girl and boy fans of the group in the 1960s .

Both Derek Scott and  Kenneth Gloag discussed the group in relation to the recent modernism/postmodernism debate, an area of much heated polemic in recent cultural studies, and arrived at contradictory conclusions as to which category they should be placed in. Scott used the example of the Britpop band Oasis, a group supposedly heavily influenced by the Beatles, to illustrate how this and other recent groups' approaches to questions of influence and expression contrasts strongly with Beatles' own orientation with its emphasis on stylistic coherence, development and creative originality. For Scott, this places the Beatles squarely in the camp of modernism.  Gloag, on the other hand,  concentrated on the later works of the group in which he perceived elements of stylistic eclecticism, discontinuity and disjunction, which are commonly held to be postmodern traits.

Psychoanalytical approaches to the music of the Beatles represented another key theme of the conference.  This was in evidence in presentations by Russell Reising and the prominent North American cultural theorist Ronald Schleifer, but it was most manifest in those of Yrjö Heinonen and myself. All of these papers coincidentally — or not — focused on the Revolver album and, more specifically, the song Eleanor Rigby. There was, however, very little overlap between the papers and this became one of the key areas for fruitful discussion in the conference. 

My own paper, “Black And White” Music: Dialogue, Dysphoric Coding and The Death Drive in the Music Of Bernard Herrmann, The Beatles, Stevie Wonder and Coolio" (5) took as its starting point one of the findings of Heinonen's paper, which drew attention to an influence on Beatles producer George Martin by the film music composer Bernard Herrmann, best known for his work with director Alfred Hitchcock (including scores to the films Psycho and Vertigo). In my own paper, however, I did not stop with the influence of Herrmann on the Beatles but went on to consider the use of "Eleanor Rigby strings" by subsequent artists and to examine a number of similarities in song lyrics and the surrounding dramatic/psychological contexts of the examples discussed. A chain of influence was traced from Hermmann's now infamous Psycho strings to George Martin's string arrangement for Eleanor Rigby, to the use of "Eleanor Rigby strings" in Stevie Wonder's Pastime Paradise, to the use of samples from this song in Coolio's Gangsta’s Paradise, and their use in the recent film Dangerous Minds. A core motif of isolation, alienation and, more specifically, death was identified in each of these examples. It would seem that when musical borrowing occurs it does so not with complete disregard for the meanings that are bound up with the source of the influence, as has been claimed in some recent studies, but that these play an important, although not defining, role in the connotations the new piece of music carries. In other words, a great deal of semantic baggage is invariably carried around whenever musical borrowing or influence of one artist by another goes on. One of the most striking illustrations of this is the film Dangerous Minds, the opening sequence of which is accompanied by Coolio's rap song Gangsta’s Paradise. Here we hear strings very similar to those featured in the murder scenes in Hitchcock's Psycho, we see a makeshift alter for a victim of gang-related violence, the song's lyrics contain the biblical allusion "as I walk through the valley of the shadow of death," and the entire sequence is filmed in black and white, as was Psycho. Compelling evidence that some kernel of meaning is retained in each one of the examples, even though the origin of the musical effect was almost certainly not known by the makers of the film Dangerous Minds. My own paper, then, examined the music of the Beatles not only with respect to the time and place in which it was produced, performed and consumed  or with respect to any perceived intrinsic values the music might have, but as actively participating in the circulation of ideas in the broader cultural sphere. This idea resonated with several of the other papers in the conference, such as those of Derek Scott's and Jacqueline Warwick, both discussed above.

Given the freeness with which ideas circulate in the contemporary world, as illustrated by the above examples, the ease with which they are transmitted to faraway locations and are borrowed or appropriated by diverse cultures or subsequent generations, why not lake Päijänne rather than the river Mersey as the new centre for Beatles studies? My only misgivings concerning this conference are relatively minor: prohibitively expensive conference fees actually prevented several students and scholars I know from attending; and, unfortunately the event took place during one of the coldest June weeks in central Finland I can remember! The conference was, however, extremely well organised, and numerous events were thankfully arranged where participants could take sanctuary indoors. Perhaps a similar event should be arranged in the near future, if for no other reason then to convince participants that the climate in Finland in June is usually quite pleasant!  


1: For example, Mellers, Wilfred, Twilight of the Gods: the Beatles in retrospect (London: Faber and Faber, 1973).

2: For details on the Jyväskylä Beatles research project and information on how to order the "Beatlestudies" publication series, go to www.jyu.fi/musica/b2000/

3: Everett, Walter, The Beatles as Musicians (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999).

4: Whiteley, Sheila, The Space between the Notes: rock and the counter culture (London: Routledge, 1992).

5: See my "Black and White" Music: dialogue, dysphoric coding and the death drive in the music of Bernard Herrmann, The Beatles, Stevie Wonder and Coolio" in Yrjö Heinonen, Tuomas Eerola, Jouni Koskimäki, Terhi Nurmesjärvi and John Richardson (eds.), Beatlestudies 1: Songwriting, Recording, and Style Change (Jyväskylä, Finland: University Press of Jyväskylä, 1998), pp. 161-182.

The author: John Richardson is a Lecturer in Music at City University, London (www.city.ac.uk/music ), who received his PhD from the University of Jyväskylä in 1995 and lived and worked in Finland for over a decade.  He is author of the book Singing Archaeology: Philip Glass's Akhnaten  (Hanover and London: Welseyan University Press, 1999; www.dartmouth.edu/acad-inst/upne/0-8195-6342-0.html) and co-editor of Beatlestudies 1: Songwriting, Recording, and Style Change.

Dr. John Richardson lectures at the Department of Music, City University. London


[home] [focus] [archive]