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.