The foursome hold signs saying the song's title in different languages
The foursome hold signs saying the song's title in different languages
Image: Getty

Fifty years ago The Beatles debuted "All You Need Is Love" on television, in the same month that Israel went to war with neighbouring Arab states, China tested its first hydrogen bomb and almost 500,000 American troops were stationed in Vietnam. The foursome wore colourful outfits and played seated amid an entourage holding signs saying the song's title in different languages. Paul McCartney had a flower behind his ear. John Lennon, the song's writer, phrased his utopian lyrical message with circular logic: "All you need is love, love is all you need."

Viewed from the perspective of its 50th anniversary, Lennon's prospectus for a better world has not aged well. Arab-Israeli relations remain tempestuous, China now has about 260 nuclear warheads and American wars have persisted. Yet the song's sentiment still has the power to inspire. "Love Trumps Hate" read the placards at protests against Donald Trump's presidency last year. After the terrorist attack on her Manchester Arena show in May, Ariana Grande responded with the One Love Manchester benefit concert. "I think the kind of love and unity you're displaying is the medicine the world needs right now," she told the audience.

Protesters critical of the policies of President Donald Trump
Protesters critical of the policies of President Donald Trump
Image: Getty

Love is the chief subject of pop music. But love in the sense of a power transcending borders - a medicine for the world - did not enter pop's language until 1967. That year the Council for the Summer of Love was set up in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco to co-ordinate the tens of thousands of young people flocking to the countercultural mecca. A slang term caught on for these refuseniks from the straight world: hippies. "All You Need Is Love", which topped charts in the US and across Europe on its release, was their anthem. Lennon considered it a form of propaganda.

The song has its detractors. "Well, it's certainly repetitive," George Harrison muttered when Lennon first played it to his bandmates in rehearsal. Beatles writer Ian MacDonald dismissed it as a "wilfully substandard work" in his musical biography of the band, Revolution in the Head. To pragmatists, Lennon's riddling verses ("There's nothing you can do that can't be done") epitomise woolly hippy thinking, the privileged nonsense typical of a wealthy rock star who, in the year he wrote them, installed a mosaic of the Eye of Knowledge in his Surrey swimming pool.

"They really wanted to give the world a message," Beatles manager Brian Epstein said of "All You Need Is Love". That message appears hopelessly naive 50 years on, a quaint Summer of Love relic. But the song's vision of an interconnected world has actually grown in relevance. In 1967 there were almost 3.5bn people in the world. Now there are an estimated 7.5bn. Among them are 2bn Facebook users and 5bn mobile telephone subscribers. Each second there are more than 60,000 Google searches and 2.5m emails sent. Almost 1,500 active satellites are orbiting the Earth right now, gathering and transmitting information about it.

"All You Need Is Love" marked a new chapter in the world's colonisation by telecommunications. It was commissioned by and performed on the first live international satellite television broadcast, Our World, a co-production between 14 countries viewed by an estimated 400m people on June 25 1967.

The Beatles were shown playing "All You Need Is Love" in Abbey Road Studios in London. According to the writer Barry Miles, who was present at Abbey Road for the broadcast, Lennon kept the lyrics as simple as possible for viewers who could not speak English. He and his psychedelically outfitted bandmates were joined by a group of string and horn orchestral musicians in black formalwear. In the ecumenical spirit of the project, the opposing hemispheres of rock and classical music were united. A snippet of "La Marseillaise" was played at the beginning.

Four satellites beamed Our World to 24 countries. Two years later, the same technology allowed live images of the Moon landing to be broadcast to households throughout the world, a mass event witnessed simultaneously by viewers of all races, creeds and nationalities. Contrary to 1960s mythologising, you did not need to drop acid to experience the mind-expanding possibilities of the era. Instead you could simply turn on the cathode tube and tune in. "Our world is circled by televisions," said Our World's Australian presenter James Dibble on the programme, having earlier quoted Puck from A Midsummer Night's Dream: "I'll put a girdle right around the Earth in forty minutes."

The girdling of the world by telecommunications has been accompanied by conscious efforts to promote a global identity. In 1948 the United Nations published its Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a landmark document establishing a core set of shared human values. In 1959 the UN introduced World Refugee Year, the first in what has become a crowded calendar of increasingly spurious international celebrations. Among them now is International Day of Happiness (March 20), International Day of Sport for Development and Peace (April 6) and World Tuna Day (May 2), when the responsible global citizen presumably refuses as a point of principle to eat salad Niçoise.

Pop music has been at the vanguard of cultural one-worldism. The pioneering soul singer Sam Cooke laid down a template in 1960 with "(What a) Wonderful World", in which the knowledge of loving and being loved makes the world a wonderful place. Louis Armstrong expanded the outlook outwards on "What a Wonderful World" in 1967, a panegyric to nature released the same year as "All You Need Is Love".

By the 1970s the one-world anthem was in full swing. "I'd like to build the world a home/And furnish it with love", The New Seekers chorused in their 1971 hit "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing (In Perfect Harmony)", eyes gleaming and teeth beaming in unhinged amiability. "One love, one heart/Let's get together and feel alright," Bob Marley sang with the Wailers in the 1977 song "One Love/People Get Ready". It wasn't just hippies who subscribed to the allure of the "let's all link hands and be as one" message. "One world! Welcome to it/One World! Don't abuse it," speed metal pioneers Anthrax roared on 1987's "One World".

The sentiment probably reached its peak in the mid 1980s with the release of the Band Aid song, "Do They Know It's Christmas?", a charity single released in 1984 to help alleviate famine in Ethiopia. Organiser Bob Geldof said: "I wanted to make something that could be sung all around the world, like 'All You Need Is Love'." Geldof's memory of watching Our World live on television as a child was an inspiration for the subsequent concert Live Aid in 1985, which was watched by an estimated 1.5bn people in 100 countries.

Pop's global consciousness increased with the size of its market. When The Beatles released "All You Need Is Love", the scope of their touring was limited by logistics and geopolitics: their 1964 "world tour" took place in seven countries. It was not until 1979 that Elton John became the first western pop star to play in the USSR. Six years later Wham! did the same in China. By the time Michael Jackson embarked on his HIStory world tour in 1996, he was able to play concerts in 35 countries. Among the songs in his set was "Earth Song", a dystopian take on the world-anthem genre: "Did you ever stop to notice/This crying Earth, these weeping shores?"

Conditions for horizonless pop music have never been more favourable than they are today. Digitisation means that songs can be listened to anywhere there is an internet connection: to borrow the language of One World, our planet is encircled by computer networks. Traditional Anglo-American ascendancy is being tempered by the rise of other music-making markets, such as Japan, Korea and Sweden. The world's third-largest music subscription business is Tencent Music Entertainment in China. According to the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry, China's recorded music revenue rose 20 per cent in 2016.

Afropop stars collaborate with their western equivalents, as on Drake's 2016 hit "One Dance", made with Nigerian singer Wizkid. Jamaican dancehall rhythms percolate through the charts: this year's most popular hit, Ed Sheeran's "Shape of You", is an example. The Puerto Rican singer Luis Fonsi's song "Despacito" recently became the most streamed ever, having been played 4.6bn times. Yet despite the global sound of pop, songs addressing humanity in the grand manner of "All You Need Is Love" have faltered.

Sheeran invokes its spirit on his latest album, singing "Love could change the world in a moment," only to shrink from the sentiment in the song's chorus: "But what do I know?" Coldplay's 2011 song "Paradise" ticks all the right anthemic boxes yet hesitates to express a matching outlook: "When she was just a girl she expected the world/But it flew away from her reach."

Beyoncé's "Run the World (Girls)", also released in 2011, could be a forthright riposte to Coldplay's drippy protagonist, a bass-heavy tribute to the women who are "taking over the world". But the tone is confrontational, an assertion of rights rather than a celebration of unity. It updates the feminist sentiments of Helen Reddy's "I Am Woman", which speaks for collective womanhood in the voice of personal self-empowerment: "I am woman, hear me roar/In numbers too big to ignore."

The self-empowerment anthem has a history as long as the one-world anthem. Frank Sinatra's "My Way", released in 1969, might alternatively have been titled "All You Need Is Self-Love". Queen, ever grandiose, combined both forms of anthem in "We Are the Champions". But these days personal advancement dominates over general idealism. Justin Bieber's "Believe" ("It didn't matter how many times I got knocked on the floor/You knew one day I'd be standing tall") is pop as fitness tracker, willing its listener to perpetual self-improvement.

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Before it was recorded by the New Seekers in 1971, "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing (In Perfect Harmony)" was a jingle for a Coca-Cola campaign. And while utopianism may have faded from pop, it survives in advertising. Last year, Samsung used the same mawkish imagery to sell its flagship mobile phone, showing people in different parts of the world singing each other's anthems. "Love is all you need" reads the strapline for adverts for Amazon Echo, the Alexa-voiced robotic "home assistant".

Tech companies such as Amazon are irresistibly drawn to high-flown rhetoric about global improvement. Apple - which fought a lengthy battle with The Beatles' company, Apple Corps, over naming rights - has a self-proclaimed mission "to leave the world better than we found it". Last year its chief executive Tim Cook asked employees to vote on 20 different "community themes" for the company to support. A leaked internal document showed the list of options was headed by the aspiration to bring its products "to more people through new channels and experiences". All you need is Apple, in other words.

The ease with which "All You Need Is Love" and the wider flower power movement were co-opted by commercial interests shows how naive the hippies were. A less generous interpretation is that the baby-boomers who preached free love in the 1960s have turned out to be hypocrites. Fifty years later, as they retire to enjoy their comfortably apportioned pensions, their stint in charge of the world has left the poor planet in more need of love than ever.

The hippy utopia faded because peace and love turned out to be feeble counterforces to the brute reality of power. Three months after "All You Need Is Love" was released, the military-industrial complex came under sustained assault from thousands of long-hairs descending on the Pentagon to try to make the building levitate. It was a valiant act of political absurdism, but subsequent decades of warfare and astronomical defence spending showed who won.

Global anthems have also suffered from a demoralising lack of effectiveness. Globalisation itself has become decoupled from the liberationary rhetoric that once accompanied it, the promise of lifting the world out of poverty made at a G8 meeting in 2005 following lobbying from one-worldist rock stars such as Geldof and U2's Bono. Conflict, pestilence and hate have not been banished by the plaintive sight of wealthy pop stars warbling about how much better everything could be if we loved each other. Yet for all the shortcomings of the one-world singalong, I miss it.

Music is a powerful mobiliser of collective identity. Choruses are designed to be chanted, melodies trigger emotions, rhythms make bodies move as one. The One Love Manchester concert was about defiance in the face of murderous assault, not utopia, but it recognised a universalising impulse in music, a communal aspect that the sectarian terrorists of Isis want to destroy. In an age of advancing nationalism, global threats and multiplying communications links, the stage is set for a 21st-century "All You Need Is Love".


This article was originally published by the Financial Times.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017.

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