Updated: Oct 7, 2020
To date there have been over 72 billion books written about the 1960’s. 84 billion of those have been about the Beatles. There is, however, still one topic that is yet unfettered ground: lips and their importance in the cultural paradigm shift from old to new in 1960’s culture.
Lips did exist before the decade began, of course, let’s not be silly, but also: did they? Well, the answer’s still yes, but let’s explore anyway.
Lennon has an upper lip which is brutal in a devastating way - Maureen Cleave
Cleave, later of ‘more popular than Jesus’ fame, was amongst the first and, indeed the only, to point out the importance of 1960’s lips. She peered at him, immediately in thrall of being in the presence of all four alien beings at once when at the bequest of the Evening Standard she first was asked to interview a pop group. A serious and extremely insightful writer, she questioned what the point was of interviewing teen stars just when such a thing had come into being in the UK until the very moment she found herself face to face with three sat behind someone she felt had the presence, face and more importantly upper lip of Henry VIII.
As the Royal families of Europe found themselves diminished, deposed, deaded or disgraced having played their insestual part in two world wars and numerous domestic barny’s, they were forced, if they had eyes to, witness the lips of a triumvirate of commoners rise to levels of ubiquitous prominence and influence that Henry VIII himself would have pursed his lips at.
It is something that appears, perhaps only to me, that there are three central sets of lips, and as an extension, nasal areas that arrived in the early ‘60s that seemed to forever change the way we saw, heard and thought about the world. The lips and noses all seemed the same, on very different faces and in two different countries.
John Lennon had a nice set, we’ve established that. Bob Dylan and Peter Cook possessed the other two. Or Four. Which all depends on how you look at it.
One can imagine the Queen, should she even have noticed, what with being busy sitting down and looking (I’m taking the third series of the Crown as my only primary source of evidence, not being remotely bothered to research her) as perhaps having some sense of security with the likes of Peter Cook - he of a public school and Oxbridge breeding that seemed to lead naturally to the Foreign Office. He had a feline quality to his upper middle class grace. A handsomeness that leads people of all sexual orientations to lustful envy, and a wit that illuminated the West End, Broadway, Cambridge Footlights (all at roughly the same time) and ‘time machine’ dinner parties that included around the table at different points both McCartney and Mr. Fab Rapier himself, Lennon.
Cook disarmed with his Establishment etiquette and subverted with his scathing takes on key public figures, from masters of war to judge envious coal miners to serving Prime Ministers. Everyone was fair game, and they were in the case of Harold Macmillan, forced to sit and smile as they came into view. From this point on, no one was out of harm’s way, and the modern British cynicism of those in power was born. A rug had been pulled, and so quick was it that for now everyone was left standing.
Cook executed his flights of slightly menacing fantasy with a delicate, feminine feline sneer. Fragile lips that curled around his teeth under the protection of a straight imperial nose. His top lip lured you in and cut to the quick as a smile lurked beneath, softening the blow. It was only a joke, but it took your arm off.
Perception of society permanently altered, it can be argued that Cook got all he had to do done by the time that The Beatles were releasing All I’ve Got To Do in 1963. So quickly, he did more than what he had to, and much more than what was expected. He was propelled into the limelight with a destiny, force and brilliance similar to those other men in slim tailored suits from three hundred miles north. He, like two of those others, proffered from a symbiotic give and take relationship with a partner who squeezed ambition and drive out of the other. Cook & Moore were probably the closest popular culture got to replicating the chemistry of the Lennon/McCartney partnership.
Cook’s career is littered with brilliance, but as he ventured into acting and the dreaded world of the ‘70s chat show, his individualistic and un-pinpointable wit remained his best vehicle. His only car, but it was an Aston Martin DB5 with All He Could Do on the number plate.
A silhouette of a sloped nose, with thin lips leading to a devilish and unnerving mouth was also to be found in New York City in 1962, having burrowed its long way home from Minnesota. In a pinser movement in a cultural war, waged against the tide of form and function of normal societal behaviours, Bob Dylan was absorbing and subverting every damn idiom he could find, as Lennon was across the big blue. The means were similar, the ends too, the journey inverted.
Performing folk ballads with an electricity he’d ultimately harness in three years’ time, a direct result of the to and fro between England’s Beatles and America’s Voice, he found a truth in old things that could be made anew with the power of his personality. Driving rhythms and an ugly/beautiful voice, Dylan found a way to harness similar traits to Lennon - wordplay, iconoclasm, acerbic wit, rebellion - into a solo career in a way that Lennon would have been unlikely to do. Perhaps Dylan had enough of Lennon & McCartney’s qualities combined to achieve what neither would have been able to do alone, whilst remaining absolutely singular.
All I’ve Got To Do. All I Really Want To Do. Similar titles, nothing more? They do the same thing with different material.
All I’ve Got To Do is John channeling Smokey Robinson’s Miracles or Arthur Alexander’s plea through a Northern English filter. Irregular strumming rhythms, a deceptively complex time signature and an oddly chorded introduction marks this out as an early outlier of Lennon originality. Taking something familiar (to American not British ears), and making it something entirely other.
Ringo’s steady loping swing and a darkly, lustful vocal make this a rarely covered Beatles’ song for good reason - in anyone else’s hands, its colour changes from shadow to light. Even the Beatles didn’t play it live. This isn’t just palatable R&B, this is blue and black and it’s beautiful. It’s dark and deftly harmless. Light and heavy. No mean feat, and not in part thanks to George Martin.
Weaving a purposefully darker mood, foretold by the daringly bleak cover of With The Beatles, All I’ve Got To Do and other Lennon cuts (You Really Got A Hold On Me) is John sneaking in sex, lust and a slight air of menace and possessiveness to an unsuspecting audience of young girls, boys and radio’s cheeriest establishment pop-pickers. Lennon could do nothing but sneak in his naughty feelings through the back door and upstairs to his little bedroom while Mimi looked the other way, and he does it here and elsewhere during the early Beatles’ career in broad daylight. All I’ve Got To Do indeed. Naughty boy.
All I Really Want To Do is Bob Dylan taking Pete Seager’s hand and leading him to the axe to find it not plugged in. The American folk idiom of 1964 was earnest and traditionalist to the point of chin strap bearded dullardry. Melody and entertainment made way for storytelling and technical nous, and little else. Then came Dylan, with his irony and his horizontally harmonic dramatic interpretation. Taken from the 1964 Another Side of Bob Dylan album, a playlist of humour, sarcasm and pop songs wrapped up in the traditional uniform of acoustic guitar and sincerity, Bobby shifts the paradigm of a protest singer from political to personal. He even parodied this self later, lifting the melody and metre of Motopsycho Nightmare for the cod American biography of Bringing It All Back Home's Bob Dylan's 115th Dream. Surrealist political art meets proto-psychodelic rock. When you're onto subverting yourself, you're onto something other than folk.
Dylan believes every word of what he sings, he’s just not singing what’s expected of him and for now he gets away with it. At the Newport Folk Festival where iconic performances of Chimes of Freedom and Ballad in Plain D he was the darling of the scene, cheekily subverting expectations with breezy newness and originality. With All I Really Want To Do he takes a solemn ode to love and converts it to a yodelling, laughter punctuated paean of friendship (a la ‘I’ll buy you a diamond ring, my FRIEND’).
The swift shift from political to personal is the rug pulled under foot party trick played on the resurgent but staid folk scene. Barely ever to be taken seriously ever again, the American folk movement suffered its own Peter Cook Harold Macmillan moment.
All He Could Do. All I Really Want To Do. All I’ve Got To Do. Conjoined by lips, noses and wits, and like the tongues that poked through, they split the 1960’s wide open and blew a raspberry at all expectations laid bare.