Murder, Apologism, and the Beatles

(This post was originally written on Medium, and was featured as an Editor’s Choice. It is re-published here for the sake of completeness. Published 16/04/2014.)


‘Run For Your Life’ is a song in which the singer-protagonist’s female partner is repeatedly threatened with death, if caught with another man. Sexual violence is an undercurrent in popular musics of the twentieth century, but rarely in the Beatles’ output is it framed this explicitly: ‘I’d rather see you dead, little girl, than to be with another man.’ More disturbing, though, are the lengths to which fans go to defend the song: It was written by John, who was jealous of Paul’s more adventurous sex life. It was written as a parody, based on lyrics from Elvis. It’s a good song, if you ignore the text. It was the ‘60s, things were just different back then.

Lennon later disowned the song, stating that it was the one he most regretted writing, a sentiment that has given fans further grounding to simply ignore the undercurrent of sexual violence that it arguably brings to the rest of Rubber Soul, or even all of Lennon’s output. The topic of a ‘jealous guy, born with a jealous mind’ is revisited in his solo song ‘Jealous Guy’ (from the Imagine album, six years later), framed in a more apologetic context, but this does not, etiher, absolve him of the original sentiment. ‘Run For Your Life’ is, ultimately, a jaunty pop song about sexual violence and abusive relationships, and while it can (and should) be contextualised, such a process shouldn’t come at the expense of problematising what is a hugely troubling topic in pop music history. The question ‘How and why can this song exist?’ prompts more profitable thought about the musical nature of pop/rock music in the ‘60s, and its social frame of reference.

Musically, ‘Run For Your Life’ is unremarkable, which is partly what makes it so dangerous. Propelled by simple strummed acoustic guitar, a regular tonic/dominant bass pattern, and driving quaver tambourine, little distinguishes it sonically from other songs of the same tempo on Rubber Soul, like ‘I’m Looking Through You’ or ‘Wait’. In its simplicity in harmony, verse/chorus structure, and instrumentation, it almost goes out of its way to be innocuous. Other songs on the album demonstrate that the Beatles were capable of stretching the sonic and harmonic palette of the standard pop song—the cod-Elizabethan piano solo on ‘In My Life’, or the gypsy jazz-come-doowop of ‘Michelle’ stand as evidence for their technical ability—which suggests that ‘Run For Your Life’s simplicity is entirely conscious. Simplicity gives pop songs their staying power (see also: ‘Blurred Lines’), and the song’s catchiness has undoubtedly influenced fan responses.

The reason I would propose for this uncomplicated musical setting relates also to the presence of aggressive masculinity as a music/lyrical ‘topic’ in popular music, made acceptable, or even noble, through its simplicity of sentiment and expression. Jealousy and violence were perceived, in the 1960s, as staple themes in the blues’ stock lyrical arsenal. Male-on-female violence, in particular, usually in response to (suspected) female infidelity, was simply part of the aesthetic. Robert Johnson’s ‘Me and the Devil Blues’:

Me and the Devil, woooo

Was walking side by side

And I’m going to beat my woman

‘Til I get satisfied

Bo Carter’s ‘Old Devil’:

I beat my baby, man with a rope and a line

… , until she went stone blind.

While these are also evidently problematic, it is worth noting that (as is also true of the Beatles output) these lyrics are not representative of the vast majority of blues, which, while a manifestation of the systematic violence leveled by white America against African Americans and women, are frequently witty, homely, or hedonistic. Blues, too, was also in its original forms performed as much (if not more) by women than men, and while men’s and women’s lyrics differed with regard to subjective experience, the broad themes (love, work, drink, partying) were universal. While these themes do exist in the blues, the roots of the equation of ‘blues’ as a genre with the ‘jealous lover’ topic lie perhaps not in the blues itself, but in its revival.

The blues revival of the 1960s reignited primitivising myths that encompassed ‘violence, sex, irrationality, and, at the same time, noble innocence and childlike naïveté’ (Filene, 2000), largely based on biographical anecdotes and mythologies regarding itinerant bluesmen (specifically men) like Johnson, rather than a close reading of their lyrics. While the ‘jealous lover’ has been a near-constant trope through history, the moment of the ‘60s revival combined its performance of unhinged masculinity with the genuinely re/oppressed figure of the African American male, creating a stock persona that singers might adopt, a persona to be respected, empathised with, and feared. While the specific musical language of the blues was not employed by the Beatles, the emphasis on power and simplicity, combined with the lyrical topic of the down-and-out, socially outcast and jealous lover, is arguably derived from this more recent re-imagining of the travelling blues musician. It is a simple song from a simple man, expressing plain (and, through this simplicity, justified) desire.

Country music, also rooted in earlier blues traditions, also makes use of the ‘jealous guy’ persona to garner sympathy from its intended white, working-class Southern audience. Through rockabilly, country music managed to exert a huge impact on the music of American and Britain in the 1950s, and played no small part in shaping the Beatles’ musical and lyrical vocabulary. One of the fan defences of ‘Run For Your Life’ that its first lyrical hook, ‘I’d rather see you dead, little girl, than to be with another man’ is taken from Elvis Presley’s ‘Baby, Let’s Play House’ (words & music by Arthur Gunter). The lyrics of ‘Baby, Let’s Play House’ are a plea addressed to a former girlfriend, who has already deserted Presley, to come back so they can ‘play house’ (i.e. perform the roles of a traditional family) just as before. As the lyric ‘I’d rather see you dead’ is accented by a break in the music, it comes across as a short emotional eruption, but the song’s pleading tone is quickly resumed. While it is still problematic, one never gets the impression that Presley is actually capable of violence. In Lennon’s setting, ‘I’d rather see you dead’ is a sustained threat, made repeatedly and combined with original lyrics that make its meaning unambiguous: ‘Catch you with another man, and that’s the end’. If Lennon’s intent is parody, then, it does not come across very well: the musical simplicity and associated earnestness do nothing to problematise the lyrical topic evoked, but in fact solidify the associations the lyrics make between blues and country formulations of aggressive masculinity.

‘Run For Your Life’, then, is a performance of gender, channeled through musical and lyrical topics with deep social histories. Arguably more significant, though, is the fact that this performance was, and still is, allowed to take place. Defenders of the song have used the fact that gender relations in the 1960s were (on the surface) very different to what we’re used to now as a way of absolving the lyrics of their problematic content. Defenses of this sort are based in part on an unwillingness to compromise one’s status as a ‘Beatles fan’ by questioning the moral integrity of one’s musical idols, but also, in setting the ‘60s as an Other age distanced from our own, on an inability to question their own enjoyment of the music based on what it says about past and contemporary gender relations. To imply that domestic abuse, like Bakelite or tie-die trousers, is some relic far removed from the modern world is simply wrong, a damaging lie that stokes the engines of patriarchy and rape culture. When two women a week are murdered by their partners, and one incident of abuse is reported to the police every minute, one can as much distance oneself from this violence as one can from the ground beneath one’s feet.

Is a catchy hook and driving tambourine all people need to ignore abuse? I’m not sure people even need that. The fact that campaigns such as It Happens Here need to even exist is testament to the fact that such violence generally passes under the radar. Whatever musicological insights one can gain from looking at ‘Run For Your Life’ (and, problematic as it is, I hope to have demonstrated that it is useful) must come second to the fact that its reception makes painfully apparent our inability to talk about domestic violence, and the myths that surround its perpetration. Yes, gender relations have changed over the half-century since Rubber Soul’s release, and great theoretical advances have been made, but in saying that, one’s purpose must be clear: we are still in no position to distance ourselves from ‘Run For Your Life’, while hundreds of thousands of people are still running for theirs.

References:

The Beatles, Rubber Soul (Parlophone, 1965).

Bo Carter, ‘Old Devil’ (Bluebird, 1938) reissued on Jackson Blues 1928-38 (Yazoo 1991). Music: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pRoUVTZgJUE&feature=kp Lyrics: http://www.elyrics.net/read/b/bo-carter-lyrics/old-devil-lyrics.html

Benjamin Filene, Romancing the Folk : Public Memory & American Roots Music (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000).

Arthur Gunter & Elvis Presley, ‘Baby Let’s Play House’ (Memphis: Sun Records, 1955). Music: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=92iwC-xI3mE&feature=kp Lyrics: http://www.sing365.com/music/lyric.nsf/Baby-Let’s-Play-House-lyrics-Elvis-Presley/813EB2D02D15CDC7482568740028DD44

Robert Johnson, ‘Me and the Devil Blues’, (Vocalion: Unknown). Music: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3MCHI23FTP8&feature=kp Lyrics: http://www.lyricsmode.com/lyrics/r/robert_johnson/me_and_the_devil_blues.html

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