The Beatles and the Phenomenology of Fame

To declare that the Beatles were, from 1963 on, famous, is a mind-numbingly obvious statement. For all of Beatles historiography’s numerous debates, the Fab Four’s stratospheric amount of fame — both as a quartet and as individuals — is unquestioned. Countless anecdotes, stories and direct comments from Lennon, McCartney, Harrison and Starr, as well as others close to them, reinforce that fame impacted them as individuals and as a group; influencing their friendships, their family relations, their attempts to live semi-normal lives, and their futures. Fame was also an element contributing to the tragedies of the stabbing attack on George Harrison and the murder of John Lennon.

The Beatles never pretended that their ultimate goal was anything less than staking their position as the world’s greatest band, “the toppermost of the poppermost,” and a position that inherently confers global fame, yet evidence indicates that the reality nevertheless proved swiftly and sharply double-edged. Andrew Loog Oldham recounts witnessing Lennon and McCartney fantasizing about being involved in an automobile accident which would disfigure them so utterly it would render them unrecognizable. Starr recounts knowing fame had changed even familial relations when recalling extended family reacting in an abnormally solicitous way after a small spill of tea which normally would have been brushed off. Harrison, in Anthology, declared that the Beatles had sacrificed their nervous systems. And the always canny observer, George Martin, noted how the British Royal Family were trained from birth to cope with fame’s difficulties; but the Beatles, on the other hand, were thrust into the fire with a protective circle but little preparation. (To be fair, expecting Epstein to anticipate the phenomenon of the Beatles hyper-fame would be to judge him after-the-fact with knowledge that was unavailable to him at the time, which is a methodological error, not to mention grossly unfair).

Examples like this pepper memoirs, biographies, interviews and other sources
throughout Beatles historiography, and declarations regarding fame’s impact have seeped into some authorial interpretations. Davies declared in the Authorized Biography that the same fame which seemingly opened every door also trapped them; Hertsgaard that they were lucky to escape their Beatles period with their sanity; and Lewisohn that their fame influenced them to maintain an exclusive inner circle comprised almost entirely, at least initially, of those that had been with them prior to their fame. For this author, it requires an acknowledgement that post-1963 sources, whether primary or secondary, were created in a climate of hyper-fame. Yet a comprehensive analysis of the reality and consequences of their fame on the band’s story is seemingly nonexistent. To begin with, any part of such an analysis would have to seek answers to numerous questions, including the fundamental issue: How does fame impact people psychologically?

In 2009, authors Donna Rockwell and David C. Giles interviewed
over a dozen world-famous individuals: television celebrities, famous musicians, (including those in rock groups), actors, NBA athletes, etc., asking them about their experience with fame, and discussed their findings in The Journal of Phenomenological Psychology. What Rockwell and Giles concluded was that the impact of fame on the individual was strikingly consistent in the patterns exhibited and that many of its consequences were potentially damaging to both the individuals self-worth and genuine, healthy, interpersonal relationships. The authors detailed out the various stages of an individual’s emotional and psychological response to fame:

Stage 1. Elation: Having just achieved fame, the individual is showered with attention and adoration. Every possible door is open to them, and the celebrities recount experiencing personal feelings of value and worth.

Stage 2. Overwhelmed: the individuals begin to describe fame as similar to a tornado; a force out of their control for which they are unprepared and unsure with how to cope.

Stage 3. Resentment: The “animal in a cage” stage, when the individual begins to resent their fans and the intrusions caused by fame.

Stage 4. Addiction: despite their ambivalence to fame, the individual knows they are also addicted to it. They despise its intrusions but also loathe themselves for still craving fame. According to the study, this stage can be particularly debilitating, because this is an addiction that can only be satisfied by the participation of other people in order for the individual to get their fix.

Stage 5. Splitting: Realizing that your famous self is not your genuine self — hence the creation, by some of split personas: one for the public, one for their private family and friends. Also includes the realization that fans don’t know the real individual, and that their adoration is therefore questionable, leading the individual to question their personal value and worth.

Stage 6. Loneliness and Depression: Individuals can lose lifelong friends due to the distance caused by fame, leaving them increasingly aware that they are isolated, having lost friends who knew the “real” them. The loneliness can be intensified by the belief, by others, that those who are famous have no right to be lonely or depressed.

Stage 7. Wishing for Something Else: In which the individual becomes involved in investing in causes they regard as authentic, while still longing for genuine, caring relationships with friends and/or family.

For Beatles writers and fans, this study could provide the beginning of a rough framework on just how their hyper-fame impacted the band’s dynamics, as well as each of the band’s individual members. Fame is an inescapable, but underexplored, player in the band’s story. For those familiar with Beatles literature and history, its easy to see where certain Beatles exhibited behavior consistent with the various stages in the reaction to fame. As sources and as
historical figures, the Beatles status as among the most famous men on earth needs to be acknowledged when evaluating them. How that fame impacted them is a discussion worth starting.

To be clear: I did not read the entirety of the study by Giles and Rockwell. Mitch Prinstein’s Popular: The Power of Likeability in a Status Obsessed World, (Penguin, 2017)., contains a summary and analysis of Giles and Rockwell’s findings on pages 81-82. For those who are interested, the full citation for the study is here: Donna Rockwell and David C. Giles, “Being a Celebrity: A Phenomenology of Fame:” Journal of Phenomenological Psychology 40, no. 2 (2009) 178-210.

As always, comments and questions are welcomed.

22 thoughts on “The Beatles and the Phenomenology of Fame

  1. Gael Sweeney says:

    That’s the premise of “A Hard Day’s Night.”

    I’ve sen this referenced multiple times, but this is the quick and dirty version from Wikipedia:

    “Owen spent several days with the group, who told him their lives were like “a train and a room and a car and a room and a room and a room”; the character of Paul’s grandfather refers to this in the dialogue.[17] Owen wrote the script from the viewpoint that the Beatles had become prisoners of their own fame, their schedule of performances and studio work having become punishing.”

    So as early as one year into their “fame” – and a few months out from the start of “Beatlemania” in the Fall of 1963 – the pressure was getting to them. That, and the fear that it wouldn’t last! Ringo giving interviews about opening a hair salon, and John and Paul already talking about writing musicals or songs for other artists in order to have a career after the madness died down.

    I know that at one point (around 1969-1970) after Paul and Linda got together, Paul was with her in NYC and he marveled about being able to walk around the Village unnoticed and how freeing it was (perhaps in “Many Years From Now”? I don’t have the book available).

    And yet he also enjoyed his ridiculous level of fame, such as being able to walk into France without a passport to film the “Fool on the Hill” scene for “Magical Mystery Tour.”


    • Erin says:

      Through no fault of yours, Gael, my reply is going to be brusque: I answered this this morning, and the reply promptly disappeared into the ether when I pushed send, but I’ll try to remember the key points. It will just be a little more curt than it would have otherwise been. Sorry about that.

      Yes, we have evidence of the fame as a burden as early as both AHDN and Braun (which had been filmed but not released when Braun was with the band). There’s a part in Braun where George, seeing a group of fans, implores with the fans to leave and/or complains that the fans won’t leave them alone. And you’re right: they seem to exist, early on, in the stages of both 1. Resenting the intrusions of fame and 2. Fearing the loss of its privileges. And you can argue that they remained in that conundrum for the rest of their lives.
      Yes, the part where Paul marvels about being able to walk freely around NY is in MYFN. (I think he also mentions it in Paul du Noyer’s Conversations With McCartney). It didn’t hurt that he was unshaven and wearing a salvation army coat, so he didn’t fit the image of Paul McCartney: global superstar. In my reading, Paul seems to have adopted two primary coping mechanisms regarding fame: 1. Geographic distance from its immediate pressures (Greece, Scotland) and 2. the Split personality method which the study mentions; adopting a public personae while being more genuine, for lack of a better term (again, I’m being glib) and authentic at home.

      There’s a great bit in the LIB sessions where Paul is discussing fame with John and George and makes a really good point: they’re never going to stop being famous. Even if they become reclusive and never record another song or give another interview for the rest of their lives, they’ll just be like Garbo. I can’t recall what John and George’s response is, or if there is one.

      And that’s the cliffs notes version of my reply. Sigh.


  2. Karen Hooper says:

    So much to chew on, Erin; I’m glad you provided a synopsis for us to read. My thoughts on the subject are kind of forming, so bear with me if I ramble a bit.

    You could road map the band’s evolution and ultimate dissolution by the stages outlined by Rockwell and Giles:

    1962–1964: Stage 1 and 2: Elation and Overwhelmed: The Beatles are close, “a four-headed monster”, almost telepathic in their understanding of each other. They operate as a cohesive unit. John and Paul, in particular, talk about writing songs together forever, even when the band breaks up. No-one, not even band members themselves, envision their success lasting more than a few years, which engenders an “enjoy it while you can” attitude.

    1965–1966: Stage 3 and 4: Resentment and Addiction: Their unprecedented fame shows no sign of slowing. Drugs and alcohol use within the band increases as the band seeks ways to innocuate itself from the pressures of fame; Group norms and expectations begin to change, and pressure exists within the group to conform to these new standards of behaving (think John and George pressuring Paul to take LSD.)

    1967-1968: Stage 5 and 6: Lonliness/Depression, Wishing for Something Else: Cracks in the band’s cohesiveness begins in earnest. Individual creative differences bubble over, brewing resentment and frustration. Individual band members begin to disentangle themselves from a group identify (in particular, George and John.)

    1969-1970, Stage 7: Wishing for something else: The Band dissolves, shed earlier interpersonal relationships (Paul/Jane, John/Cynthia) and other relationships which were associated with their now defunct identities; new relationships, which are perceived as more complimentary to the new identity (particularly true of John) are cultivated.


    • Erin says:

      I don’t think its rambling at all, Karen. I think its a pretty helpful roadmap. And conflict (passive aggressive or overt) would be bound to arise when certain members of the group are experiencing differing stages and/or displaying differing coping mechanisms regarding their reaction to fame at different times.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Tim says:

      Karen – I think this is great analysis. To some extent each of the Beatles probably progressed through the stages at different paces (George and John more quickly) but your timing seems to fit the band as a whole very well. I wonder if there should be a Stage 8 – “The good old times” where some of the negatives of fame (such as stages 3 and 6) fade and the period of fame is remembered more for the positive impact it had. Seems like Paul and Ringo have experienced this – although the same could probably not be said for George and perhaps John. Add I agree with your observation below we will need to see how Erin reacts to her “catapult” into the world of rich and famous.


        • Erin says:

          When I experience my stratospheric fame, I’ll let you know as I experience each stage in real time.

          Seriously, there’s something to be said for being prepared for fame: having been trained to deal with its pitfalls and privileges the way, as George Martin said, the Royal family is but the Beatles never were. I’m drawing on my Kansas City Chiefs knowledge here, but one of the reasons they fell head over heels for Patrick Mahomes and chose him as their franchise QB (thank you, God) is because they expected that he would be able to deal well with world-wide fame. (For examples of those who can’t handle it, just look at Johnny Manzell. Fame can destroy careers). And part of the reason the Chiefs thought Mahomes could handle it is because his father played in Major League Baseball for over a decade and, once it was clear that he had a son who was athletically gifted, was prepping him for dealing with the fame of being a pro athlete: his father was practicing mock interviews with him when he was 12-13. Mahomes also got to observe as he was growing up how huge baseball stars, like A-Rod, handled it, and developed some coping mechanisms accordingly. They even mentioned it as a plus in Mahomes’s scouting reports out of college: that this is a guy who should be able to deal with the fame and pressure of being a pro-athlete because he knows what that means. And thus ends my football tangent. But its an interesting issue: the Beatles had virtually no preparation before becoming the most famous foursome on the face of the earth.


  3. Hologram Sam says:

    I wonder if Stages 1 to 7 are accelerated nowadays.

    The nature of fame nowadays seems so different than it was in the 1970s, or 1960s (or ’50s and ’40s) because of social media, and because of the “take no prisoners” approach of the entertainment media.

    In the 1940s, celebrities got away with all sorts of things. Movie stars had the protection of the studio system, and embarrassing stories could be squashed.

    Paul McCartney has gotten a taste of the “new” fame. He said paparazzi follow him around and yell insulting things, trying to get a dramatic reaction out of him.

    John benefitted from the “old” fame. His attack on Bob Wooler didn’t sink his career as a lovable moptop.

    The spotlight is much harsher nowadays, so I assume Stages 1 through 7 are more severe now, and happen more quickly.

    But I suppose for someone who craves fame, it’s still better than languishing in obscurity.


    • Erin says:

      Great point, Sam. You could argue that the stages have both accelerated and intensified, with the advent of social media and the shift in the press from the earlier era you identify (we’re not going to mention the band’s drug use/affairs) to the current one which, as we discussed in an earlier post, is demonstrated in part by the contrast of the coverage regarding Paul’s breakup with Jane vs. the coverage of his divorce from Heather.

      For me, I’d prefer obscurity, particularly after reading the information regarding the study. Almost all of the participants discussed sustained, deep period of depression stemming from their fame, particularly when they discussed the stage of being isolated from lifelong friends, and losing some of those lifelong friendships with the few people they felt they capable of being themselves with. Their lifelong friends could not conceive the reality of their now-famous friends hyper-famous lives, and they lost some commonality. That’s why it was striking to me that at least one of the celebrities surveyed was in a world-famous band: the collective nature of the group, you would think, would help insulate you from such isolation, because the whole band is famous, albeit not necessarily to the same degree. But the musician’s account of dealing with fame was just as bleak as those famous individuals in more individual pursuits (actors, etc.) If you had to vastly oversimplify, the conclusion of the study is basically that fame is, to some degree, detrimental to your mental health and interpersonal relationships. And that’s not a price I’d be willing to pay.


      • Karen Hooper says:

        If you had to vastly oversimplify, the conclusion of the study is basically that fame is, to some degree, detrimental to your mental health and interpersonal relationships. And that’s not a price I’d be willing to pay.

        So we’ll have to keep an eye on you when your book catapults you into the land of the rich and famous. 😉

        Seriously, though, good points Erin and Sam. And if you consider that famous people may have pre-existing depressions and other mental health issues, the compounded effect of fame must be that much more difficult for them.

        Paul must be some kind of one-off: he seems to thrive on fame, particularly now that he’s come into a sort of second career. I’m like you Erin; I wouldn’t last a week.


        • Erin says:

          Funny you say that, Karen. After I guest starred in another professor’s class (his subject is the British Invasion) and gave a Beatles oriented presentation, one of the students asked me what one of my major personal takeaways was regarding the band’s story, and my answer was “I don’t want to be famous.” And this was four/five years ago.


  4. Steve says:

    I have given a lot of thought to the Beatles’ fame and its consequences. At some level, and I am a big fan but there was no way around this, the Beatles got too famous. Think about it this way: (1) Lennon was murdered because he was a Beatle; (2) George was nearly fatally stabbed because he was a Beatle, and that traumatic event probably hampered his cancer recovery, and I read somewhere that the stabbing incident may have contributed to his death. Very few rock starts are murdered because of who they are; those who are killed were not attacked because they were famous but for other reasons (Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye, etc.). Those are the two most obvious examples.

    Their huge fame made them insular and their entourage was mostly their pre-fame Liverpool connections. That means, when Epstein died, the Beatles tried to manage themselves, either because they thought their success as musicians would translate to success as businessmen or because they did not trust anyone else to handle their affairs because that person would have to be an outside. Most Beatles histories regard the self-management decision as the beginning of the end. Doggett’s book about the breakup starts with Epstein’s death.

    I also think their decision not to go back on the road probably stemmed from being too famous. They could not deal with the craziness that touring would have entailed. I don’t think they expected a return to Beatlemania, but any Beatles tour would have been unmanageable. Touring might have kept them together, but I am not sure about this. Any reunion could never happen because expectations would have been too high and I think the solo members really wanted to forge their own identities (except maybe for Ringo). That could not happen if they reunited.

    Bottom line, though, is that the most horrific event in rock history, Lennon’s murder, undoubtedly happened because he was John Lennon, the most identifiable member of the biggest rock band of them all.


    • Erin says:

      That fame-prompted insularity is a great point, Steve. Pete Shotton says that the more famous they became, the more insular the four became as a consequence. Pete emphasizes it as a coping mechanism and a demonstration of their genuine friendship, but your point also highlights the negative aspect: once one of the key trusted insiders within that circle was gone, they didn’t trust a non-insider to come in and instead they tried to manage themselves, with less than sterling results.

      It’s interesting, particularly in the light of how, once both sides of the managerial split do go with outsiders — John with Klein, Paul with the Eastman’s — they strongly emphasize that personal connection with their particular outsider, as if to compensate for them not being a day one member of the inner circle. With Paul, the personal/familial relationship is self-explanatory: John and Lee are his in-laws (although you could make a case that Paul was not Lee Eastman’s biggest fan, at least regarding Lee’s treatment of Linda) and literally family: and John and Yoko will repeatedly, hyperbolically discuss multiple times how Klein is one of them; how close he and John are; how completely and utterly they trust him.

      I think the speculation of the knife attack on George contributing to his eventual death by cancer comes from the Scorsese documentary, when Eric Clapton mentions that, prior to the attack, George had been seeming to do better with his cancer treatment, but after it he declined rapidly. And you certainly highlight the most tragic consequence of their hyper-fame: even more so than the emotional and other damage it doubtless had on them as individuals, it led to John’s death and led to the attack on George.


    • Karen Hooper says:

      I also think their decision not to go back on the road probably stemmed from being too famous. They could not deal with the craziness that touring would have entailed. I don’t think they expected a return to Beatlemania, but any Beatles tour would have been unmanageable.

      This point can’t be made often enough. In fact, The Get Back sessions (upon which the Let It Be movie is based) is a failed attemp to jumpstart the band’s creative energy via some kind of public performance, George was vehemently against it–even when it was pointed out to him that the fans are older and more mature (which may be debatable), and that it wasn’t an attempt to recapture the old Beatlemania days.


  5. Karen Rothman says:

    A question I’ve been pondering since reading these excellent posts on an amazingly overlooked topic: How much did this overwhelming fame contribute to the now-pervasive framing of The Beatles music and group career as a John vs. Paul, George vs. Paul, John vs. George narrative? As a fan experiencing The Beatles in real time, this was not the case. At the time it was the group that was celebrated and discussed (The Four-Headed Monster). This changed after 1970 and now is almost the opposite.


    • Karen Hooper says:

      Hi Karen;

      Interesting you brought this up: we actually talked about this very thing a few posts ago, I believe in the female fandom post.

      I also experienced the band in real time and agree with you: this kind of zero-sum game comparisons between band members didn’t happen then. One was not lauded at the expense of the other–although they did get pigeon-holed into caricaturish descriptions, which they probably hated.


  6. Steve says:

    Another interesting byproduct of their fame is that the Beatles are subjected to debates that never apply to other bands, such as:

    Which of the members do we like best (or was more talented), i.e., John or Paul?
    Was the drummer any good?
    Should their double album have been a single album?
    Was their most heralded album overrated (i.e,, Sgt. Pepper)?
    Was the whole greater than the sum of its parts?
    Should they have gotten back together?


    • Erin says:

      That’s a good point, Steve, regarding the link between the fame and the debates.

      I think there are multiple ways they impacted one another. One would simply be the glut of material that’s out there, much of which is a consequence of the band’s fame. A less stratospherically famous band would not have the amount of documentaries, books ,memoirs, etc. on it that the Beatles do, and that’s an issue, because there’s an unfortunate tendency (by some, not all) to consider themselves an authority on the Beatles and/or venture into the debates and choose sides when they’ve examined maybe 15% of Beatles historiography. Watching “Anthology” or reading one or two bios (particularly depending on their time period, biases, etc.) does not make one a well-balanced expert, and yet I’ve seen people on forums basically argue 1. I read Shout! when it first came out and 2. I liked it, so 3. Therefore, I have no reason to expand further into the band’s historiography. Yet they will engage in these sort of debates, many of which circle endlessly.

      The flip side of that is because the Beatles are so enmeshed in popular culture that these debates, irresolvable as they are, are ones that you can jump into with little relative preparation or research (although that generally tends to weaken your arguments). Some areas of the band’s story are so broadly known that people want to debate on them/hear them discussed. My fellow professor attended a number of conferences where I’ve presented material on my Beatles research, after which there’s almost always a Q&A from the audience, and after the last one she observed that, at every presentation and Q&A session she’s seen me do, someone always asks about Yoko. Even when Yoko is not mentioned in the presentation, there’s always a question regarding her.


  7. Ben says:

    Great post, Erin (though really, all of them are – this is just the first one where I’ve had the confidence to add my voice to the comments!).

    I was immediately reminded here of the ‘McCartney Interview’ album from 1980. It’s an insightful recording on a lot of counts – he’s pretty honest and unguarded – but particularly because Paul answers a question about the psychological effects of fame with a pretty accurate recounting of the stages you mention! Roughly 21 min into this video:

    I think Paul decided very early on that the only way to survive was to take the ‘split’/’persona’ method and run with it (he says as much in the above interview – ‘this is the thing about me, I may seem to be a lot of things, but really…’), and luckily it seems to have worked well for him. I don’t doubt that it has been horrendously difficult for him at times – if anything, the media and public have punished him for it – but he strikes me as the Beatle who established the most successful coping strategy.

    By contrast, there’s John. Well, Hertsgaard may say that the Beatles were lucky to escape with their sanity, but I’d go so far to argue that John didn’t. When I see John’s psychology discussed and the various contributions to his issues – drugs, childhood trauma, possible hereditary mental illness, all the rest – fame is rarely mentioned as a factor, but it’s the one thing that underpins and exacerbates all of those issues. If he hadn’t become famous, he may well have still spent a couple of years guzzling LSD, but would it have been as damaging? Ringo’s anecdote about familial changes also reminds me of the Twickenham recording where John is reading out the letter from Stu Sutcliffe’s mother asking him for money, and there are other, more troubling examples, like his father visiting at the height of his fame. When you consider John’s already extant deep-rooted insecurities around love and trust, can you imagine how brutal those latter stages must have been to him?


    • Erin says:

      Welcome, Ben. I’m extremely sorry for giving such a terribly late reply; the holidays (and family sickness) consumed all my time. (I greatly enjoy your name, btw; Ben is my son’s name, except when he’s in trouble; that’s when he gets the full Ben-ja-min treatment.)

      I like yourcomment on Paul’s seeming coping strategy being the “splitting” method, and your comment made me curious as to what you view the other Beatles coping strategies as. It would seem that, during and immediately after the Beatles period, part of everyone’s coping strategy was drugs, with the amount and type varying, but all using it as some form of escape. And what an excellent point regarding John’s conflict regarding family and fame; his father, Stu’s mother — for someone already on shaky psychological and emotional ground, the belief that others only valued him for his wealth and fame would have only exacerbated his already fragile belief in family. We have Mimi telling John that very thing in that devastating letter she wrote him in the mid-to-late 70s: I’m paraphrasing, but her line is basically “the only reason anyone would ever want to be friends with you is because you’re rich and famous.” What’s devastating about the comment is that there’s some validity to Mimi’s critique — there were plenty of people who wanted to use John’s wealth and fame — but Mimi only gives her advice in the most toxic way possible.


  8. Karen Hooper says:

    Hi Ben, and welcome.

    It’s strange how fame is only considered a negative element when the artist dies of an overdose, or engages in some other kind of self-injurious behaviour. Otherwise, the expectation is that artists should suck it up and keep their problems to themselves. Any difficulties they exhibit, as a function of the negative effects of fame, are labelled as some sort of character flaw.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s