7 Profound Insights From the Beatles

Fab four

I used to roll my eyes when people talked about the Beatles.  Maybe you rolled your eyes when you saw this article’s headline.  Thank you for bearing with me anyway.  I’ll make it worth your while.

I had always pictured the Beatles as a tired novelty from my parents’ past.  All I knew was that they played lot of teenagey love songs in their early years, and some weird drug songs in their later years, and that they seemed to have written virtually every famous song that I didn’t want to listen to.

Gradually I came around, and began to recognize that they really were something special.  I harbored an understated respect for them for many years, but two summers ago I spent a few incredible weeks devouring all twelve proper Beatles albums, in chronological order.  It was magical.  I was struck by how beautifully and organically their sound evolved, growing more sophisticated and mature every album.

By the final phrases of of Abbey Road, I had grown too.  And not insignificantly.  I can’t quite put my finger on exactly what moved me, but it definitely had something to do with the beautiful metamorphosis I witnessed. 

It wasn’t the music’s development that so thoroughly affected me, though that was incredible too.  It was the spiritual ripening of four young men from Liverpool, whose message to the world matured from “She loves you yeah yeah yeah” to “I’m taking the time for a number of things / that weren’t important yesterday.”

As a incurable music fan, I’ve heard many bands evolve — and sometimes regress — album by album, over the course of their careers and lives.  But never have I heard such thorough personal transformations reveal themselves through recorded music.  As a friend once said, “They got deep, man.”

The world watched these boys grow up, and even though I witnessed it a good forty years late, I’m grateful for the opportunity.  They were certainly not afraid to be absurd, (sitting on a corn flake, waiting for the van to come) but one should not underestimate the wisdom contained in many of their songs.  They even grew beards.

Here are seven gems of insight from the Beatles.

I Me Mine

Now they’re frightened of leaving it,
Ev’ryone’s weaving it,
Coming on strong all the time.
All thru’ the day ,
I me mine, I me mine, I me mine.

The Beatles probably did more to popularize Eastern philosophy in the West more than any other individuals in history.  In 1968 the fab four made a highly-publicized visit to India to study at the ashram of spiritual teacher Mahesh Yogi.  John was famously disappointed by the experience, but his colleagues were not.

George had long been enchanted by the East, sneaking some sitar lines into Beatles songs as early as 1965, and Paul is now a figurehead for the Trancendental Meditation movement.  Their unrivaled influence finally made meditation ‘cool’, and exposed legions of young and open-minded Westerners to Eastern ideas for the first time.

Upon returning to England, it struck George how deeply Westerners were absorbed in ego, and how stubbornly his own persisted in his spiritual practice. I Me Mine refers to the Buddha’s teaching that all suffering arises from thoughts invested with “I”, “me” or “mine.”  In an interview, he said I Me Mine is “About the ego, the eternal problem.”  George sang lead.

Listen here.

All You Need is Love

There’s nothing you can know that isn’t known.
Nothing you can see that isn’t shown.
Nowhere you can be that isn’t where you’re meant to be.
It’s easy.

All you need is love

I’d heard this song hundreds of times before I really began to appreciate the Beatles.  Before then, I interpreted All You Need is Love as just a catchy, feel-good song that contained no real message beyond bright-eyed, Summer-of-67 idealism.  I’d heard it all before: “Love is everything, love is all you need, love, love, love.”  Not that that there’s anything wrong with that, I just didn’t feel like I lived in a world where love was always an appropriate response.  I’ve since redefined love to myself, and now I see what they were getting at.

Every decision can be made from the perspective of love.  Every situation can be handled with love, even tense or unpleasant situations.  Whenever I detect a feeling of “wrongness” arising in the moment, I try to remember that the only appropriate response is to bring acceptance to it, and act out of love, whatever that may mean in a given situation.  When I’m not wrapped up in judgments I’m able to do this.

John was right: as long as you’re looking for it, the loving response to a situation is always clear, and leaves nothing lacking.  It’s easy.

Listen here.

I’m Only Sleeping

Everybody seems to think I’m lazy.
I don’t mind, I think they’re crazy
Running everywhere at such a speed,
Till they find there’s no need (there’s no need),
Please don’t spoil my day, I’m miles away,
And after all, I’m only sleeping.

Another Beatles song commonly misinterpreted as being about drugs.  In fact, I think I was almost disappointed when I found out it wasn’t.  Suddenly it seemed to lose that dark, self-destructive edge to it when I learned that it really is about the joys of staying in bed.

John always insisted the song was just about sleeping, and was not meant to make any social commentary, though he was fond of deliberately misinforming nosy reporters who asked him to spell out the meanings of his songs.  He was also fond of making social commentary.

The line Running everywhere at such a speed / Till they find / there’s no need is what makes me think that he was indeed pointing at a deeper message.  It seems to hint that John was wise enough to see the great value in non-doing, and that the bustling crowds outside his window might one day discover it.

Listen here.

Help

When I was younger, so much younger than today,
I never needed anybody’s help in any way,
But now these days are gone and I’m not so self assured,
Now I find I’ve changed my mind I’ve opened up the doors.

As far as I can tell, John wrote this song about my experience in college.

For the first ten or twelve years of my academic career, I was invincible.  I got great marks, never studied, never asked for help.  Through high school, my marks started to taper off mysteriously, and by the time I was in college I began to fail.

Part of the reason was that I had never asked for help in my life.  I didn’t know how to admit I couldn’t do something by myself.  My whole self-image rested on being smart and independent, so I thought I was a dead man if I ever looked dumb.  It was a severe phobia, no exaggeration.

Near the end of one particularly dismal symester I knew I had to bite the bullet or repeat one of my courses, so I did.  I walked into the instructor’s office — virtually trembling, as if I was marching to the gallows — and admitted I didn’t know what I was doing and I needed help.  My questions were cleared up in a few minutes, but I had hesitated too long.  I got an F and graduated three months late.

John Lennon, often uncomfortable with his past work, was always proud of Help.  He said, “The lyric is as good now as it was then.  It is no different, and it makes me feel secure to know that I was that aware of myself then.  It was just me singing ‘Help’ and I meant it.”

The truth I tried so desperately to deny is that we need other people. There is no true independence among mortals.  I had isolated myself on grounds of ‘necessary self-reliance’ for so long, yet now other people are just about my favorite part of the world.  I do need them, and I love that.

Listen here.

Eleanor Rigby

Eleanor Rigby died in the church and was buried along with her name.
Nobody came.
Father McKenzie, wiping the dirt from his hands as he walks from the grave.
No-one was saved.

All the lonely people, where do they all come from?
All the lonely people, where do they all belong?

I often think about throngs of young, rabid Beatles fans in 1966, rushing home from the record store to listen to their first ever spin of Revolver.  After bobbing their collective heads to the straightforward guitar rocker Taxman, they must have been stunned to hear the trademark Beatles sound give way to a dark, brooding string section.  It was a jarring departure from all previous songs in their catalog — one of many to come, but still the first.  Certainly by the end of Eleanor Rigby they must have been moved, one way or the other.

This song just breaks my heart when I hear it.  I’ve met Eleanor Rigby, many times.  I’m sure you probably have too.

It’s a sad fact, but so many members of society are lonely and broken, and they do a great job of seeming not to exist at all.  They’re the ones no longer waiting for their ships to come in.  They’re the ones who have not made eye contact in fifteen years.  The ones who really do have nobody.  Some of them live in a self-created fantasy world, where their dreams did come true.  Others just spend life mourning themselves.  Paul pays tribute to the unseen, the shut-in, and the forgotten Miss Havishams of the world.  Nobody else really talks about them.

Listen here.

Let it Be

And when the broken hearted people
Living in the world agree,
There will be an answer, let it be.

Whether or not you infer religious overtones into this lyric (or into your life), there does seem to be some sort of divine plan to the ups and downs of our lives.  When something goes amiss, in the moment it often seems so dreadfully wrong. But when we look back on them with older and wiser eyes, we invariably see that each one of those heartbreaking episodes had just as important a role to play as our more agreeable experiences.  Imagine how powerful we could be, if in the midst of a every crisis we could just remember Paul’s advice: There will be an answer, let it be.

While “let it be” is profoundly wise in its own right, the passage above contains an idea even more powerful: we all suffer, and that brings us closer. No matter what differences people have, the one guaranteed common thread among us all is that we know what it means to lose and to grieve.  A timeless anthem for broken hearts everywhere, Let is Be has become a staple of soundtracks to more somber occasions; Paul had it played at Linda’s funeral.

Listen here.

The End

And in the End
The love you take
Is equal to the love you make

The closing lines of the the Beatles’ swan song, Abbey Road.

No elaboration is necessary.

Listen here.

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If any of the links to the songs are no longer valid, please contact me.

Photo by Oddsockr

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{ 25 Comments }

Jay Schryer April 24, 2009 at 7:16 am

I’ve been a Beatles fan my whole life, despite the fact that my parents were never really that into them. I’ve always found deeper meanings in most of their songs, even if it was only because they spoke to whatever situation I was going through. “Let it Be”, in particular, has been a staple of my life story. Even before I got into philosophy, or spirituality, or anything even remotely “consciously living”, “Let it Be” was my mantra. It’s such a great reminder to release attachments, and let go of the need to control.

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Roger - A Content Life April 24, 2009 at 7:59 am

I used to like the Beatles before I went to college. My college roommate worshiped the Beatles and so he would listen to them everyday and sometimes several times a day on our shared stereo. After a few months, I couldn’t stand the Beatles anymore. :(

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David April 24, 2009 at 8:20 am

@ Roger — Oh no! I am very careful not to over-listen to any good music. I’ve ruined many good albums in the past that way, so now I space out my listenings, especially with the Beatles. Luckily they have a lot of material

@ Jay — Hi Jay, I figured you were a Beatles fan. Let it Be really was a stroke of brilliance; go-to wisdom for any rough situation. I could listen to it anytime.

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Lisis | Quest For Balance April 24, 2009 at 8:29 am

Beautiful post… tweeted and stumbled. Have you seen the movie, “The U.S. vs John Lennon?” I love to see someone so very passionate about something… especially when that something is peace, love and helping others. One of my all-time favorite songs is “Imagine.”

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Nadia - Happy Lotus April 24, 2009 at 9:36 am

I love the Beatles! I used to make the joke that the song “Help” could be like a prayer to God…you know, someone calling for help.

“All You Need Is Love” is also one of my theme songs because in the end, that is what life is about!

Great post! :)

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Positively Present April 24, 2009 at 10:27 am

Great post! I wrote some thing sort of similar on my blog today, but it was 5 tips from Alice in Wonderland. As I mentioned in my post, it’s great to look at the things around you and the things that interest you and find insight and inspiration in them. Thanks for sharing these great ideas!

http://positivelypresent.typepad.com

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Rev. T. Monkey (aka JBPM) April 24, 2009 at 11:12 am

David,

I grew up on Elvis and the Statler Brothers, and really didn’t discover the Beatles until I was in college. Of course, I’d probably heard at least one of their songs on a daily basis–that ubiquity alone shows me how important these four Liverpudlians have become to the entire human species–but I’d never really listened.

Whether we’re talking about the powerful truth of the lyrics, the relentless experimentation with the bounds of popular music, the ability to remain amazingly fresh after nearly a half-century of heavy rotation, or the fact that we’re still discussing their relevance four decades after they ceased to exist as a band, the Beatles continue to show me that they’re pretty hard to over-rate.

Now that you’ve meditated on the entire Beatles oeuvre, you’ve got to listen to John Lennon’s first solo album, Plastic Ono Band. When I first heard the litany of things John had lost faith in (at the end of the song “God”) I was absolutely shattered (as I imagine so many original Beatles fans were as they sat staring at their turntables) to hear him say, “Don’t believe in Beatles.” I still play this album when I’m grieving, because of its power. In my opinion, POB provides a far better coda to the Beatles saga than did the “new” Beatles songs released in the early 90s.

Cheers,
Tai-Ping Monkey

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Tim April 24, 2009 at 12:58 pm

David:

Great post!! In high school, I sat next to a guy who was a big Beatles fan and we had some interesting debates because I was not a Beatles fan. Then something happened and I grew to appreciate their music and become obsessed with it. For a period of time, right after college, I attended Beatlefest in Chicago for at least 10 years in a row.

I love the way they evolved. Sure, much of it was likely drug related, but I know they were looking for a deeper meaning in life (which is something I can identify with). Another band whose evolution I have enjoyed is U2 and their new CD is great.

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David April 24, 2009 at 2:52 pm

@ Tim — That seems to be a common pattern: not liking the Beatles at first, and then discovering something amazing in them years later.

@ Rev. T. Monkey — Ah yes, I have Plastic Ono Band, and I liked it, but I’ve probably only given it one or two listens. John really developed a critical edge to his music; I like it. I’ll put it on tonight.

@ Positively Present — I liked your Alice in Wonderland post. I’ve noticed that a lot of the stories I liked at a face-value level as a kid actually contain deeper meanings that reveal themselves years later. I’m excited to see Alice again.

@ Nadia — All you Need is Love will always remind me of my sister’s wedding. They got married on the beach in Mexico, and after the ceremony that was the first song they played. A crowd of strangers had gathered around us, and they all applauded.

@ Lisis — No I haven’t seen the US vs. John Lennon. I’ll check it out, thanks!

{ Reply }

rgdaniel April 24, 2009 at 4:00 pm

I’m lucky enough (i.e. old enough) to have experienced the maturation of the Beatles in “real time”, alongside my own. Only the later stuff has held up for me these days, but you’re right about the PROGRESSION being the key factor. We’ll probably never know exactly how much of their progression, their transformation from muppets to prophets, was due to society itself changing through that period.

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David April 24, 2009 at 4:28 pm

Hi rgdaniel, welcome to Raptitude.

I wish I could have watched their evolution unfold in real time. Perhaps in forty years my kids will be blogging about profound themes in Radiohead songs and I can say “I was there, I bought every album with bated breath.” I don’t know if anyone in my lifetime will match the magnitude of the Beatles’ empire.

I suspect this coming generation will also see profound cultural changes, I’m excited to hear the soundtrack.

I just checked out your site and I think it’s great! You have the best tagline ever, I think:

Haiku du Jour

They’re bad, but they’re short

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rgdaniel April 24, 2009 at 8:04 pm

Yes, cultural changes are always ongoing, but depending on the state of the world, the soundtrack will probably continue to get darker and angrier. Hope I’m wrong…

Thanks for stopping by the site!! Cheers.

{ Reply }

David April 24, 2009 at 11:08 pm

I hope you’re wrong too. :)

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Angus April 25, 2009 at 7:12 pm

Great post David. Did you see “Across the Universe”? If not, get it immediately—you’ll love it.

cheers,
Angus

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David April 26, 2009 at 1:31 pm

Yes, I did. I was wary of it at first; I am not really a fan of musicals, or Beatles covers, but I was really impressed. I especially liked Joe Cocker’s version of Come Together

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Ian | Quantum Learning April 27, 2009 at 6:24 am

David

The Beatles first album ‘Please, Please Me’ was at number one in the UK album charts on the day I was born. They were one of the first groups that hooked me on music, despite not ‘discovering’ them until a few years after they split up. Thank you for dispelling the myth that they are soft and fluffy with little depth. Nothing could be further from the truth. And if you want to hear their raw musical power – try Twist and Shout. John took some time for his voice to recover after that!

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David April 27, 2009 at 8:01 am

Hi Ian,

At first I only liked their later stuff, but now I sure do love the early, poppier tunes. It really was high-quality stuff, full of energy.

I love Twist and Shout. Must have been a blast to do the twist at one of those early live shows. Helter Skelter is another great one if you’re looking for visceral screaming.

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Peter Elbeshausen April 29, 2009 at 5:49 pm

If you’re a music fan and now a Beatles- Fan here is THE book for you: Revolution in the Head by Ian Macdonald. Read it and discover the music all over again.

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David April 29, 2009 at 8:01 pm

I just put it on my to-read list. Thanks Peter!

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Beatles Fan in Boulder August 5, 2010 at 12:26 am

Thank you for this beautiful, heartfelt post!

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John February 4, 2011 at 11:13 am

I came across your site by sheer accident. What an encouraging breath of fresh air. Like rgdaniel, I experienced them in real time. I was fortunate enough to have been living in Germany as a teenager in the early 60′s. I missed them when they played in Hamburg.

Like so many young Americans, my musical taste were very diverse. I enjoyed everything from The Beatles, to The Beach Boys, Soul Music (aka Motown), The Letterman, Bob Dylan, etc. There are only two kinds of music: Good and Bad!

My favorite Beatles song is “Across the Universe” which I feel could be added to your list. Another group that comes to mind from this “baby boomer” is the Moody Blues. They have a very similar journey. Anyway, keep up the great work.

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The Fuddler January 26, 2012 at 9:20 pm

You forgot “Tomorrow Never Knows”. The title of that song says as lot as do the lyrics (“Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream/It is not dying, it is not dying”). Which may have just been a very lyrical way of saying “Hey, lighten up! It won’t kill ya!” Granted, the music and sound-effects *behind* those lyrics aren’t very relaxing! But they do get your attention, don’t they?

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AJ February 1, 2013 at 8:32 pm

The last song on Abbey Road is not “The End,” it’s “Her Majesty.” “The End” is the final song of the B-side medley.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Her_Majesty_(song)

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Paul February 18, 2014 at 10:53 am

“Maybe you rolled your eyes when you saw this article’s headline.”

“I had always pictured the Beatles as a tired novelty from my parents’ past.”

These lines are so sad.

4 young lads from Liverpool. They had absorbed such surreal magic in their environment. They quickly realised their own power. They got glamourous cars and girlfriends. But it wasn’t vulgar- it was within the tastes of 1960s society. They became like philosopher musicians really and their messages, underneath the simple ‘All you need is love’ idea, were actually complex.
Community, Liverpool, America, working class dreams of the avante garde, forged them. They were pioneering for their particular background.
It still strikes me as unforgivably bizarre that anyone could talk about them so casually as you did in these opening lines. They are legends for all the ages, not the equivalent of just some pot smoking band your mum and dad once liked.
Harrison was even in a second fantastic band (that he founded) The Travelling Wilburys plus he financed Monty Python films.
They were complete human beings in an unusual band dynamic. Oddly, Lennon and Harrison were the closest in character- serious intellectuals. McCartney was more the ‘music hall’ man turns rocker. Which itself was a kind of self consciously old fashioned novelty at the time.

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Mark Kandborg April 21, 2014 at 3:55 am

The End is indeed the last song the Beatles ever recorded (obviously, tracks are not assembled in chronological order) so David is correct. And there and could there be a more concise summing up of the band’s spiritual legacy than what amounts to their final message to the world: and in the end/the love you take/is equal to the love/you make. Perfect.

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