Blame it all on the Beatles

The tide of global pop culture sparked by the lovable Fab Four has caused a crazy French backlash
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The Independent Online
Twenty-five years ago the Beatles broke up and "yesterday" - to quote Paul McCartney - the French government imposed a quota on the amount of radio airtime allowed to foreign pop. France's radio stations must now ensure that 40 per cent of their pop output is French, a draconian, not to say sadistic measure in view of the fact that 100 per cent of French pop is awful. Johnny Halliday was about the best they could do and the superb Jacques Brel, before you write in, was Belgian and anyway not, strictly speaking, pop.

"The law was made," said an apologist for this latest gloriously doomed attempt at cultural protectionism, "to defend French culture and economic activity. If we're taken over by American music, we won't be economically viable any more." One could argue with this last point - most of the world has been taken over by American music and some of it remains economically viable - but one sees what she means. I and many others stopped being economically viable for several months after hearing the Grateful Dead's American Beauty, and whole industrial sectors must have been wiped out by Lou Reed's absent-minded giggle on "Sister Ray". American music does have this awkward habit of disabling the consciousness of vulnerable types who might otherwise be productively employed.

But, of course, the point the French are really making is the serious one that local cultures are in danger of being swamped by globalisation. They made the same point about films - during the Gatt negotiations they fought off Schwarzenegger to protect Depardieu. Since the latter is arguably the greatest screen actor alive, they had a considerably stronger case about movies than they do about pop. But the point was the same: how can medium-sized countries with medium-sized home markets hope to compete culturally with big countries with big home markets? How, in particular, can non-English speaking countries compete in fields - such as film and pop - in which an effectively global language provides a built-in commercial advantage?

The obvious point to make here is that rock 'n' roll, whether the French like it or not, is an Anglo-American monopoly. Abba, Bjork and other Nordic aberrations notwithstanding, only the British and the Americans really know how to do pop. For the French to protect pop as local culture is, on the face of it, just silly - we could respond by giving heritage grants to British croissant makers.

But I suspect there is a deeper aspect to this cultural paranoia. With their radio quotas the French are not really trying to nurture the delicate creative blooms of Johnny Halliday and his progeny. Rather, they suspect that pop groups are, in fact, the shock troops of globalisation. It's not the pop they are worrying about so much as what comes after. Pop seeps across frontiers, softening up the young and paving the way for Levis, Coca-Cola and Microsoft. Pop subverts nationality by imposing a single rock 'n' roll aspiration and, overwhelmingly, that aspiration can only be expressed by American products. Bon Jovi and Michael Jackson are corporate ads for corporate America.

Which brings me back to the Beatles. A quarter of a century on, their celebratory resurrection on television and CD has been remarkable - hype maybe, but good hype. Teenagers love them all over again. A new wave of British bands acknowledge them as the true precursors. John, ageless, frail, disembodied, returns from the dead to join his wizened pals in the charts. From millions of pairs of 40-plus eyes, hot tears spurt at the sound of "Here Comes the Sun" or "Let it Be". In the ITV series The Beatles Anthology, which ended on Sunday, Andringo, as he was always known, re-emerged as the flat voice of common sense and group stability while Paul returned as the arrogant, demanding force that detonated the band from within. It all seems like "yesterday".

What this has all made clear, with the wisdom of hindsight, is that the Beatles were the first. This was the Ur-band, the original. They were not, of course, the first pop stars, Elvis and Cliff came long before. But they were the first to define the global role of pop. They took the forms of American music, improvising and softening, and then they resold them, first to the British, then to the States and then to the world.

Before the Beatles no group, no individual was so intimately and globally known. Elvis was big, of course, but he remained part of a recognisable American star system. What newness and rawness he had was carefully removed to leave only a fat but empty Las Vegas floorshow, yet another bombed- out freak to join the huge pile of human wreckage spewed out by the American entertainment industry.

But the Beatles, in everything they did, asserted the freshness and transnational appeal of pop. They were not - not obviously at least - part of some old marketing system. They seemed to say and do what they liked. Their amiable jokes and gentle put-downs were noted and treasured. And, looking back at that footage, they were weirdly, improbably nice. Their work was nice - as Paul pointed out, they only ever said that all you need is love, without attempting to rip up families, distort psyches or detonate society - and their personalities were nice - even John at his most acid never approached the spurts of demonic virulence of Bob Dylan or Lou Reed. They were good, sharp, unpredictable but essentially unobjectionable.

As a result they crossed frontiers effortlessly. Even the Japanese young could buy this smiling assertion of teenage autonomy, of soft-hearted dissent. The crowds lined the airport viewing terraces and screamed. The Beatles laid the international hippie and tourist trail that guided the wanderings of late Sixties youth. By 1969 you could exchange greetings in English pop lyrics in almost any city in the world.

But, of course, those were relatively innocent times and the Beatles were English. They and Swinging London may have boosted tourism and guaranteed the future of the pop industry, but BP and ICI didn't flog oil or chemicals to the world on the back of their success. We invented the form of the globalised culture but, typically, we didn't exploit it.

Instead, global pop returned to its American roots. The jeans and the soft drinks followed the bands. And later, as the fans grew up, the corporate culture was taken over by the Woodstock generation. Now almost everything American, from jeeps to boots to software, is sold with either an explicit or implicit appeal to the authenticity of rock 'n' roll culture. As a final, if subtle, insult, Microsoft now uses "Start It Up" by the Rolling Stones, the English band that most slavishly aped American authenticity, to sell Windows 95.

So the truth is that, nice as they might have been, achingly sweet as their songs may now sound, the Beatles were among the leading precursors of that terrifying, culture-incinerating phenomenon known as globalisation. It was not their fault. They did nothing wrong. They only said: "All you need is love". Twenty-five years later the French, with their silly gesture, signal the sombre truth: we need much, much more.