Updated: Sep 26
“Whatever wind was blowing at the time moved the Beatles too. I’m not saying we weren’t flags on top of the ship, but the whole boat was moving. Maybe the Beatles were in the crow’s nest shouting ‘Land! Ho!’ or something like that, but we were in the same damn boat…somebody has to pull the sails up and down.” John Lennon, 1970
From the very beginning the Beatles unapologetically projected their own burning ambition onto the grubby surface of the world. They shone a light breezy confidence that exposed every cobwebbed corner and in it every pipe-smoking miser hiding under a broadsheet, bathing every nook in a blinding light that lead to a terrifying future: The New World.
Alongside a projection of truth, and its byproduct beauty, came a will to express what they saw and how they saw it. It ripped across the globe like a climate change forest fire, holding no one prisoner. Not a soul was impervious, not even the bowler hatted capitalist; he thought he was, but his trousers were on fire and he was beating them out with the Times to the tune of She Loves You.
For every new avenue they signposted, however, burst further, unwitting truths about themselves that they hadn’t intended to broadcast.
You can look at every aspect of their collective personality and claim, such was/is their influence, that everything they did was a subconscious harbinger of a kind of truth - from the iconoclastic imagery on the cover of SPLHCB (Paul is dead, long live Paul), the funeral march cover of Abbey Road, to the sepia toned close to a bygone era that ushered in the new that lay between every note of Please Please Me.
The most burning of questions that no one has had the temerity to answer, (or even ask, frankly) up until now is this: Is A Bearded Beatle A Sad Beatle?
Hmm. Now, that’s a sad thought. ‘I didn’t buy the essential refreshment focused Beatle fanzine* to be made to think sad thoughts about my favourite popsters’ I hear you think. And you’re right to. To teach me a ruddy good lesson, let’s explore.
It’s easy to draw a timeline of the Beatles and suggest that they started out boyishly clean shaven to then meet Dylan, grow hemp and Dexedrine beards and get clinically upset by having to look at them. Ringo’s was particularly depressing. It’s slightly more nuanced than that, thankfully, or I’d have nothing to write about.
In the midst of baby faced Beatlemania they shockingly appeared as four post-mortem Sylvia Plath’s on a Beatles For Sale slab, and yet a collective of moustachioed, glazed eyed and smiling Beatles appear inside the gatefold Pepper sleeve. So there. We begin.
Our John had probably the most changeable facial hair of all the most recognisably hairy song-merchants. From the brave, pre-Queen handlebar of Pepper to the full cornflakes in the ’tache Mr Twit of the Give Peace A Chance session, he ran every gamete of beardal possibility. Never one to shy away from pushing the boundary, he very nearly set himself on fire with the dry, post-harvest cornfield growth of the Tittenhurst, last Beatle photo-shoot bush (don’t picture the black velvet onesie - his trouser Beatle is fully visible). But was he happy?
John had a devastating top lip. Maureen Cleave is quoted as saying so. It withered and pursed, depending on what side of it you were on. It was a perfect conjunctive to that sloping dagger nose, that gave so much of and to his personality. The movement you need to understand John was on his mouth, rather than in it. It’s a key part of his charm, that could disarm and wound those around him in a single breath of the same sentence. The idiot grin that followed a non-sequitur or the thin lipped dive that came before a mortal blow that was itself followed swiftly by a ‘big fucking wink’ kept people in fits of laughter and braced for the unexpected. It’s how he got away with being so brutally honest at best and cripplingly cruel at worst. It was a rollercoaster of facial recognition. Until it disappeared behind a walrus.
John was a happy/sad man. The two modes of mental health intertwined like a visible DNA helix. It was this dualism that drove his creative force and the attraction, frankly, to him. With his plate face on full view, the complexity of the man was on display. When hidden behind a veil, one had to work much harder to ascertain what was happening and what was being expressed. The only chance one had was to stare into the glare. Not sure many dared, when what came back was so unflinching.
The hard Liverpool stare, the thing he claimed gave him his ‘toughness’, belied what was really going on, given his myopia. So, relying on what a short sighted man was giving us with his eyes, is what bearded John transmitted unwittingly. We couldn’t see his meaning, the subtlety of expression castrated.
So bearded John = sad John? I’m not sure I ever saw him happier than in the upstate New York home video of him frolicking on a beach with Sean & Yoko, sporting a beard so full he intended to sail out to catch a shoal of killer whales with it later that day.
It could be argued, and it’s about to be, that John was simultaneously both and either happy/sad throughout his life. He was rarely less than FULL LENNON, so sticking a disguise on him was just that. Bless his Henry VIII mouth cushions.
That such a handsome beggar like George could ever hide away behind one of rock musics most harrowing acts of facial terrorism is still a question that is yet to be answered. Until now.
An approximately three year old Georgie was often found mincing about in winkle-pickers cadging fags off of nursery maids and altering his shorts into drainpipes that cut off the blood supply to the knees. What ever ‘it’ is, he had it. He pulled a large slice of ‘it’ into the Beatles, too. Beatle suits suited him best. The modish mid ‘60s peak of Beatle cool had George at the centre of it, driving ridiculously cool topless cars, in ridiculously cool tailored suits knocking off spiky pop songs and ridiculously cool spindly topless pop models. He always had the best clothes, the best face and the best name (my name being Osborne unfortunately renders me unable to ever name a yet unborn son ‘George’). However, George was relegated to the position of second division Beatle (if there ever was such a thing) due to two things. Songwriting. Hair.
The Beatle mop, that so suited John & Paul, looked forever as if someone had carefully placed a small jet black bean bag atop George’s head. It didn’t diminish his ‘it’, but had to wait until the White Album to be promoted to the top tier of the Beatle Barnet league. However, he had a trick or two up his sleeve yet. The Goatee. And Shamelessness. And some killer songs, or Something.
As the Beatles began to exhibit, willingly, their own personas, George perhaps moved the fastest and the furthest from Candlestick Park. That he went via proto-David Brent surprised no one more than George himself. Around the time of Sgt Pepper, he was arguably the most influential of the four. Sure, Paul had the idea, the genius, the voice and the easy multi-instrumentalism that made the other three want to push him down the stairs from the control booth in number two, but George was the mystic Beatle now. And hoping to find the answer, they all followed suit; it’s just that George’s fitted him better.
As his hair grew out, so did his confidence. But if dualism is key to John, so too is it to George. George never wanted what he had, but had so much of it so as never to be sure what it’d be like within, without it. To be number three in the world’s best four was a point of contention. To only get a clutch of songs on the worlds biggest selling albums that changed humanity was a nudge in the back. To get what he both wanted and didn’t was an annoyance to George. Like a boil on the end of your nose. It’s all you see.
So, as the three were growing their modish moustaches to join the Lonely Hearts Club band, George went full goatee out of spite. When John became a fire risk in ’69, George’s was so lush it hid bottles of Timotei for hourly applications.
So far so good, the more in control George felt the more facial hair he sported. George’s facial hair comforted him through some of his greatest moments - Something. All Things Must Pass. Within You Without You. Let It Beard. Samsonesque. It was when he stepped out of the white heat of the Beatles that things began to…happen. And what happened was crimes. When he was summoned/invited to Tittenhurst to record Imagine with a now permanently hung over looking John, he arrived with a denimly deranged tramp who claimed to be George, and certainly played like him. He here himself tells a story of meeting Elvis for a second time, this time dressed as a wiry bearded hobo who’d broken into Graceland unnoticed, foreshadowing the deranged lunatic that did the same at Friar Park two decades later.
After his disastrous tour of America in ’74, George shed his beard and along with it his pop star ambition. Were the two connected? Did the Fagin-like disguise harbour his muse? He did pick the Chiffons’ pocket after all. He certainly seemed, outwardly at least, like he’d retreated. Mission accomplished.
A bit of a grump when it came to discussing the band that gave him his lectern to lecture, but adored by those closest (he was the Beatle with the most friends, which says all you need to know about the man), George’s glory days seem most attributed to his part in the history of cheek carpets, but he certainly seemed happiest once he’d rid himself of the burden.
Such a shame that he hid that wonderful face whilst the spotlight was so firmly planted on it. Happy George = Handsome George.
Now I’ve asked the question that you didn’t know warranted an answer, I can only imagine your frustration at having to wait until issue three of the Teatles book to find out how happy Ringo’s beard was and what Paul kept in his sideburns. But wait you must. Until next time…Happy shaving!
This piece originally appeared in the Teatles Book issue two. Reproduced with permission by @teatlemania