You Can Count Me Out (In)

There’s something about the Beatles that transcends time and other linear realities. My friend’s daughter—a nine-year-old whom I watch most every day after school—plays their music constantly. My son, a college sophomore, does, too. So do I. Even my contrarian anarchist friends, who are now all in their thirties and somewhat settled (yet still anarchists), found themselves singing along to their albums when I played them in the house we used to share in Olympia, Washington back in the late 1980s.

Sure, they were probably the first global corporate rock band that was over-hyped and overplayed, but they also were part and parcel of the 1960s cultural revolution. Like may other aspects of capitalist culture, they not only reflected the reality of the revolution in mores and politics that occurred during the period known as the Sixties, they also helped to form and spread that revolution. Even if you weren’t cognizant of it at the time, the Beatles influenced your reality. For those who weren’t alive then, the Beatles still influence your reality.

They were never overtly political, with the possible exception of their well-publicized (like everything they did) rejection of their knighthood because of the Crown’s support for America’s war on Vietnam, yet they were revolutionary. It’s hard to remember, but rock music used to be a revolutionary phenomenon. Politicians and parents, priests and university presidents, and police and professors all used to decry its influence on youth and society, blaming it for everything from the girl next door’s pregnancy to the resistance against the war and draft. I’m not talking about a hypocritical outcry over a popular performer’s breast baring on television, but a genuine fear that the world as-we-know-it was crumbling into ashes like Rome in the wake of Atilla and the Huns. And it was.

I recently watched the Oscar-nominated documentary The WeatherUnderground with a group of socialists in their twenties. Besides the obvious criticisms of Weather’s early politics and politically suicidal organizing approach, my fellow audience members made several cracks about the rhetoric from Weather members and others concerning the counterculture. How the hell, they wondered, could a bunch of hippies be revolutionary? A couple songs about revolution and some lyrics about a Panther being bound and gagged do not a revolution make. Freeing a confirmed doper like Timothy Leary was even less so. LSD is just a drug.

Little did these young people know, but their comments were echoes of the conversations I heard all around me in 1969 as I discovered anti-imperialist politics and acid. To me, rock music and revolution went hand in hand. Like Weather wrote in one of their communiqués in 1970: “Freaks are revolutionaries and revolutionaries are freaks.” The revolution really was alive wherever counterculture types gathered—rock concerts and festivals, barracks full of GI freaks and brothers, college dorms and houses, and high school smoking areas. Yet, at the same time, the serious politicos who hadn’t got the counterculture bug were working overtime trying to figure out how their politics could have the same popular appeal that the counterculture revolutionaries were having.

Unfortunately for all, the counterculture got co-opted and the politicos took the road already traveled. The corporate hipsters commercialized the revolution, sprinkling their advertisements with rhetoric straight out of the Black Panther newspaper and Abbie Hoffman’s books. Eventually all that remained was the sex, drugs, and rock and roll. As for the politicos, they took the square pegs of third world revolutions and the even squarer pegs of Stalinism/Maoism and tried to fit them into the ever-changing hole of US society. The politicos rendered themselves irrelevant and rock went completely corporate with a few exceptions (like the Grateful Dead) until punk blasted its way into the ears of the angry young.

If I were to have one criticism of today’s left organizations in the United States, it would be their seeming failure to understand the importance of culture in building resistance. Although I would be one of the first to acknowledge the shortcomings of the counterculture as a culture of resistance, the more important element in any discussion of its role in the movements of the 1960s is its success in rallying people to those movements. I would bet that many more people who took part in the resistance to war and racism in the 1960s and 1970s came to it through the counterculture and not through political theory. Of course, that is also one of the essential reasons that those movements did not develop into a more permanent revolutionary movement. While the culture was certainly a culture of resistance, it was not revolutionary in a fundamental sense, nor did it have a legacy to draw from.

Now it does. There is a line that can be drawn from the folk movement that is represented by the Weavers, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Phil Ochs and the rest to the radical rock rantings of the Jefferson Airplane, the late-1960s Rolling Stones, Bob Marley and even Steppenwolf’s Monster to the 1980s Clash and AKA Special, and onward to the political rap and rock of Public Enemy and Rage Against the Machine. It is up to today’s radicals and revolutionaries to make the connections. Culture does matter. Even if it is only rock and roll.

(By the way, the line in the title is from the Beatles’ song Revolution #1 and reflects the argument going on in John Lennon’s head, the group itself, on the pages of the Ann Arbor, Michigan underground paper The Argus between Lennon and White Panther John Sinclair, and in the counterculture at large. In essence, the argument was over the course of the revolution. Should we free our minds or the institutions? John Sinclair had the best answer: why not both?)

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Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. He has a new book, titled Nowhere Land: Journeys Through a Broken Nation coming out in Spring 2024.   He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: