Hey, Bono, the Beatles were not Irish – they were American to the core

The Beatles

At first it looked like Bono, the robber baron of pop, had struck again.

Not content with trying to turn the world’s mobile phones into a global brainwashing droid army by secretly implanting U2’s new album into their otherwise immaculate iTunes libraries, now he’s trying to steal the Beatles.

John Lennon was an immigrant,” he said on Ellis Island on Wednesday, at a celebration of the 40th anniversary of John Lennon being granted his US green card. “One more Irish immigrant on an island full of Irish immigrants … Let’s claim him, in fact let’s claim all the Beatles, not as immigrants, but as Irish.”

He may have been semi-comically nodding to America’s widely claimed Irish roots but you could virtually hear Merseyside bristling at his blasphemy. Yet Bono’s argument has precedence. The Beatles’ Irish roots have, according to some cultural repatriators, never been properly acknowledged.

Lennon was born and raised in Liverpool, as were his parents, after which his family tree starts sprouting shamrocks. Some sources claim that his paternal grandfather, a freight clerk called John (Jack) Lennon, originated from 19th-century Dublin and married an Irish woman called Mary after moving to Liverpool.

Others have the pair as Liverpudlians from birth and John’s great-grandfather James as the original immigrant, arriving from County Down around the time of the great famine. Whenever the name shifted across the Irish Sea, anglicised from the original O Leannain as it went, the Lennons nurtured a family tradition of singing for their supper that stretched back to the old country; John’s grandfather was a professional minstrel singer and his great-grandfather a celebrated vocalist in Ireland. The bloodline certainly sounds solid enough for Dan Brown to get a couple of blockbusters out of, seemingly written by his pets.

Having been estranged from his father at the age of five, John never knew his (possibly) Irish grandparents and was instead raised by his mother Julia’s family, who were of Welsh extraction. But Irish traditions were strong in the childhood home of Paul McCartney, who undoubtedly had Irish grandfathers, and both would openly explore their heritage in song.

Following the Bloody Sunday massacre in Derry in 1972, in which 14 unarmed civil rights protesters were gunned down by British troops, Lennon and McCartney separately became embroiled in Irish politics, McCartney finding his single Give Ireland Back to the Irish slapped with a BBC ban and Lennon beginning to identify himself as Irish. Lennon’s take on the tragedy, Sunday Bloody Sunday (a title Bono would later crib for U2), stared at the atrocity through unequivocally Irish eyes: “You Anglo pigs and Scotties sent to colonise the North/You wave your bloody Union Jack and you know what it’s worth/How dare you hold to ransom a people proud and free?/Keep Ireland for the Irish, put the English back to sea”.

But these and subsequent Gaelic touches were entirely post-Beatles; there was precious little Irish influence in their music as a band. And when Bono declares “let’s claim all the Beatles … as Irish”, however tongue-in-cheek, he’s not talking about their individual bloodlines but appropriating the entire cultural behemoth as crudely as a frat party drunkard whooping around in a Native American headdress. If the career of James McCartney has proven anything, it’s that musical genius is definitely not genetic, and those genealogists pointing at the Beatles’ Gaelic ancestry as informing their talents might also point at this writer’s French surname as explanation for him being an accomplished lover and never having finished a fight.

No, setting aside genes and geography and speaking purely culturally, the roots of the Beatles weren’t Irish. They weren’t even – sorry, Penny Lane tour bus operators – particularly English. The Beatles, at their creative core, were blatantly American.

Yes, American. The Fabs were dyed-in-the-wool, rootin’-tootin’, 10-gallon yankophiles, as American as apple pie, needless gun crime and writing the Brits out of world war two movies. Just look at the photos of Johnny and the Moondogs, a band name desperate to soundtrack stool fights in biker bars of the deep south. Elvis quiffs, leather jackets, blue suede shoes, Rickenbackers – these were gleam-toothed teddy boys in thrall to Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Little Richard and Jimmy Dean, bashing out US rock’n’roll and skiffle tunes and dreaming of the Hollywood Bowl. Even after their modernist Brian Epstein makeover they were covering the Isley Brothers, Smokey Robinson, Carl Perkins, Buddy Holly, US girl groups, Motown hits and Broadway show tunes. Their own early material electrified these same sources, plus a dash of very British melodicism all their own.

Later, several of their notable stylistic leaps were reactions to the Greenwich Village folk explosion and the rise of Bob Dylan (You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away, Rubber Soul) and the Beach Boys’ revolutions in psychedelia (Revolver, Sergeant Peppers’ Lonely Hearts Club Band). When more British influences emerged during their experimental latter period – antique bandstand brass, baroque chamber music, mod pop, clipped music hall melodies and cheesy West Country sing-alongs – they sat alongside pastiches of C&W storytelling, huge southern blues bawls and 20s Radio City flapper tunes. That this catch-all amalgam of US influences was woven into the quintessential British sound of the 60s, and decades of Britrock since, is one of the major strokes of the Beatles’ genius.

Even as a self-proclaimed 70s Irishman, did Lennon plant his Dungoogoogajoobin’ in the misty meadows of Cork or Galway? He came close, buying the Irish island of Dorinish in 1967 for £1,700 ($2,656.53) and applying for planning permission to build a cottage there. But ultimately he only visited the island once, and instead felt most settled in New York City. After all, you can’t deny the call of your true homeland.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Mark Beaumont, for theguardian.com on Friday 31st July 2015 16.16 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010