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On Paul McCartney’s Beard

At the intersection of #HairStudies and contemporary Dad Discourse lies Paul McCartney’s beard. Get Back, Peter Jackson’s meticulous and beautiful reimagining of footage from the Beatles’ Let It Be sessions in early 1969, has forever altered the old narrative that the Beatles absolutely hated each other at this moment in time, a narrative that even McCartney and Ringo Starr have publicly said they believed. In its place, across more than eight hours of footage that manages to be both banal and thrilling, Jackson bequeaths viewers with a sense of a band maturing through and past each other who still, despite everything, loved one another deeply. And his team’s restoration of the formerly “chunky, grainy desaturated” film, long moldering in Apple’s vaults, has given viewers another gift: a full appreciation of the beauty and symbolic power of Paul’s beard.

The beard appears as subtext for the first episode’s initial twenty or so minutes, until George Harrison tells Paul what we’re all thinking: “I think your beard suits you, man.” Paul grins and says nothing, which is rare, so I think we can assume he’s pretty chuffed.

Let’s get one thing out of the way first: George is right. Paul’s beard does really suit him. It perfectly balances out his glossy, glossy hair and big giraffish eyes. He has a penchant for dressing in black during this period, the better, it seems, to offset the beauty of his whole head situation.

But Paul’s Beard is more than just fanciable. The Beatles always knew how to use their hair to suggest sex. Some of the Beatles seem to have rejected the sexual power of hair by this period; during the Get Back sessions, John often seems to recede behind his long, center-parted bob, shutting himself off from the world. But Paul’s shag is the perfect length for tossing back insouciantly during a jokey riff on Chuck Berry or Bob Dylan, his beard tempering his hair’s former boyishness into something more mellow. The beard is an articulation of Paul’s desire for authority, undergirded by a hegemonic masculinity that associates facial hair with virility, and also of his iconoclasm within the group—an iconoclasm that Paul’s genius for melody, which he has sometimes pursued past the bounds of taste (c.f., the duets he produced with Michael Jackson; “Wonderful Christmastime”), has often obscured. Paul’s Beard is a portent of things to come and the end of what the Beatles had been. It’s also a part of the story Jackson’s new documentary tells about a different, more palatable, end to the Beatles, in which the Fab Four play one last gig and then grow up, move on, and acquire the cultural currency of fatherhood. With a beard, Paul is not dead. Paul is a Dad.

United in facial hair.

To understand the cultural currency of Paul’s Beard, in 1969 and today, we need to look to a general semiotics of Beatle facial hair. The boys were pointedly cleanshaven during their astronomical rise to fame. Paul was the first Beatle to grow a mustache, which was intended to hide the facial injuries resulting from a dangerous spill off a moped in 1966. “It caught on with the guys in the group: if one of us did something like growing his hair long and we liked the idea, we’d all tend to do it. And then it became seen as a kind of revolutionary idea, that young men of our age definitely ought to grow a moustache!” Paul recalled in Anthology. The mustache covered a wound, but it also allowed the Beatles to disassociate themselves from their Fab Four identities and invent a totally new group, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, to inaugurate a new sound in rock ’n’ roll.

The psychedelic mustaches, like the moptops of their earlier days, signaled difference through sameness: Epstein might make them wear matching bespoke suits, but their long hair suggested rebellion. Sociologists and historians have often made the reductive-but-salient point that, in white hetero Euro-American culture anyway, facial hair on men tends to appear at moments when hegemonic masculinity is under threat. To see this process at work, we might look to the 2010s boom in post-Great Recession beards as a response to a loss in earning potential.

This general idea seems to work for facial hair since, say, Nixon’s resignation. But I think 1960s facial hair generally and Beatle facial hair specifically are doing something different. Beatle facial hair is always an act of collective expression; it only acquires meaning within the context of the group. In this way, we might think of one aspect of the cultural currency of Beatle facial hair as akin to that of queer facial hair, particularly the “Castro clone” look that would coalesce among gay men in the 1970s. Despite the dismissiveness inherent in the “clone” appellation, the look that came to dominate male queerness in the decade after the Beatles broke up embraced collective sameness of appearance, a uniform of sorts, to subvert traditional masculinity and coalesce a queer community aesthetic. In the mid-1960s, the mustache served a similar role in marking not sexual preference per se but a youthful rejection of the Don Draper/George Martin buttoned-up three-shaves-a-day look.

While the Sgt. Pepper’s mustache did not signal homosexuality, it did allow the four lads from Liverpool to express a horizontal intimate homosociality among themselves, one in which power was shared equally and songs were written “eyeball to eyeball,” as John said of his collaboration with Paul. This bodily entwining was key in how the Beatles figured their own closeness: John also liked to say that he and Paul wrote songs by “playing into each other’s noses.” Meanwhile, genesis stories about the band’s early days in Hamburg always emphasize the boys’ physical proximity, living in bunkbeds over the club where they played. Entwined literally and figuratively in each other’s lives since they were teenagers, the Beatles offered, in their songs, films, and public personae, an idealized version of male friendship that deliberately marketed to and cultivate an embodied reaction from fans. John invites the people in the cheaper seats to clap their hands, Paul and George grin and sing into the same microphone, tossing their heads and shaking their hair to the ooooooooohs of “Twist and Shout,” and the audience responds with their own shaking, screams, and tears.    

So I think Beatle facial hair, and Beatle hair more generally, was a corporeal incarnation of the central tensions that animated and undergirded the band’s success: their sexual potency defanged by their communal goofiness; their emotional and literal male closeness balanced out by their ability to make the girls scream; their potential threat to the status quo muted by their interchangeability.

At the same time, though, the mustache allowed the Beatles to maintain their own patriarchal dominance by influencing and providing a visual blueprint for shoring up the symbolic cultural power of, to quote Paul, “young men of our age.” (Perhaps the most blatant example of this shoring-up process is the virtual sausage-fest that is the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s: men outnumber women approximately 5 to 1.) Like the “Castro clone” look, the Sgt. Pepper mustache was, even in its attempt to visually mark and coalesce a marginalized and/or outsider community, grounded in the privileges of race and gender, as well as, in the case of the Beatles, normative sexuality. (Note that Brian Epstein, the only gay person within the Beatles’ close circle, was always immaculately suited and completely cleanshaven.)

Paul was the first Beatle to shave off his Sgt. Pepper’s mustache. A power vacuum had emerged in the post-Pepper’s void, one produced by a number of factors, including not only Epstein’s death but also George’s turn to transcendental meditation, John’s focus on political matters and on his new relationship with Yoko Ono, and Paul’s desire for creative control over the band. The equilibrium of the Sgt. Pepper’s period was dead, but a new form of facial hair attempted to fill the gap.   


Paul’s Get Back beard marks another epoch in Beatle self-fashioning, its symbolic status highlighted by the circumstances that lead George to remark on the beard in the first place. George’s praise occurs while he, Paul, and Ringo are flipping through their own fan magazine, mocking the articles but also, clearly, interested in themselves as public personae. A photograph of a beardless, dreamy, simulacrum Paul in the fan mag inspires George to compliment his real friend’s new look. Jackson is deeply interested in these moments when the Beatles, the most famous people in the world, do a thing you imagined but never hoped the most famous people in the world might do, like reading their own press and making fun of their own old songs. The film even opens with John saying “Who’s that little old man?” about George’s (mostly hairless) Hare Krishna friend, a reference to A Hard Day’s Night that constitutes a private joke about the ongoing public performance of their lives.

And the ongoing public performance of Beatleness was of course always a public airing of hair—shaking it, mocking it, cutting it, not cutting it. Amidst this group of men who care a lot about their hair in a way that embraces (white) femininity* is the Beatle who was and always will be known as “the cute one”—the Beatle who was once described in an SNL sketch as “the one who looks like a broad.” We know from Sianne Ngai that cuteness is an aesthetic category aligned with powerlessness, and, concomitantly, femininity. It is also, in Ngai’s words, a “commodity aesthetic, with close ties to the pleasures of domesticity and easy consumption.” Paul’s cuteness was intrinsic to selling the Beatles, for turning a band into a cultural and capitalist phenomenon. Paul is cute in the photo from the fan magazine, the print object selling the Beatles to the world, but that was then; George acknowledges that bearded Paul is now something different. 

Bearded Paul and Linda in autumn 1968.

Paul’s beard rejects cuteness as a category of commodification and accepts another, more stereotypically masculine signifier, embracing a form of white masculinity often denied him in broader culture. In other words, his appearance projects that he’s not just desirable to screaming girls now, but also to sexually mature women. At the same time, the beard reflects his desire to assert power within the Beatles. That beards, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, often accompanied a male pop star’s turn from studio puppet to self-guided auteur aided the symbolic nature of the look.

But the other side of Paul’s beard’s suggestion of virility is fertility: bearded Paul now has a young stepdaughter called Heather and, concomitantly, access to the cultural currency of dadness. Get Back era Paul anticipates, and in many ways sets the mold for, a form of patriarchy that embraces a domesticity traditionally associated with the maternal while not acquiescing traditional masculine power—a form of patriarchy exemplified in modern Dad Discourse. To boil this discourse down to its simplest terms, we might look at the archetypes our culture associates with dadness: Hot Dad Bod, Big Dad Energy, BBC Dad, even (God, remember that day?) Bean Dad. Each of these contemporary iterations of dadness reveals the breaks we give dads in Western society. Not all fathers are dads, but all dads are doing their best. Dads are involved. Dads are uncool but sincere (“Ebony and Ivory”). Dads are Barack Obama. Dads are Bob Saget, or at least the character he played on TV, but also, if the hagiographies are to be believed, actual Bob Saget. (Again, it’s vital to note that these breaks are extended to dads who fit society’s conception of who can and should hold power. Black dads, gay dads, trans dads, impoverished dads, disabled dads, unemployed dads, etc., need not apply for canonical dadness.)

Heather, Paul, Paul’s beard.

In 1969, Heather’s presence in the studio during the recording of “Let It Be” provides a satisfying narrative conclusion to what we’ve witnessed in Jackson’s film: after George leaves the band and John nearly joins him, our boys are finally back together and having fun. Whether she’s discussing eating cats with John, wearing Glyn Johns’ fuzzy jacket, or goofing on the drums with Ringo, Heather makes everyone a softer version of themselves; the avuncular Heather-and-Ringo clip made every trailer and promo for the film. And it seems vital, for Jackson’s narrative, that all this happens while Paul is sitting at the piano recording “Let it Be.” It’s a song that, in lyric and in melody, performs a secularization of the sacred that is grounded in a transference of power from mother to son, from the feminine to the masculine. Paul dreamed about his mother, and then Paul transformed the experience into a post-religious hymn, an “Amazing Grace” for a godless society. And he does it all with Heather on his lap. In the recording sessions of “Let it Be” as restored to us by Jackson, Mother Mary comes to Paul, and Dad Paul comes to all of us. Paul can bring his daughter to work and not suffer monetarily or artistically. For a woman, this would be career suicide if not a crime. But for a white hetero man, this is both endearing as hell, and a way of shoring up hegemony.


By August 1969, the month when the Beatles shot the infamous cover of Abbey Road, the fracturing of the group’s homosocial dynamic was underscored by their facial hair: now Paul was cleanshaven, while John, George, and Ringo each had grown beards of varying degrees of intensity. It’s as if the other Beatles knew the power of their collective homogeneity, and Paul rejected it all over again. Maybe they, too, had realized the cultural currency of dadness. Certainly in later years, each of the other Beatles would to differing degrees embrace fatherhood, most particularly John. When Paul appeared on Desert Island Discs in 1984, he chose John Lennon’s “Beautiful Boy” as the one song out of all the songs ever written that he would save from destruction. “Beautiful Boy” epitomizes John’s turn to dadness with his second son Sean—in contrast to his negligence of Julian—and a final point of convergence between the two old friends.

As I was writing this, a photo of Paul with his grown-up daughter Mary flashed across my Instagram feed. Paul would soon be appearing in an episode of Mary’s cooking show, making vegan Yorkshire puddings and something called (dad joke) a Maccarita. This vision of Paul with the adult Mary reminded me of the apotheosis of Paul’s Beard, which he grew back in the months after Abbey Road. There’s still plenty of debate over who caused and what marked the true end of the Beatles, but the McCartney album, which was issued with a press release stating that Paul had no plans to work with the Beatles in the future, publicly marked the end of the line. The album features a somewhat forgettable front image of a bowl of spilt cherries, but its back cover is immortal: it’s a photograph by Linda McCartney of Paul holding their baby Mary in a furry coat. Bathed in golden-hour Scottish light, the beard is back, as is a big, unguarded, unburdened smile.

Madonna and Child

In this picture Linda transforms daddy and daughter into Lady Madonna and Child. Drawing on sacred feminine iconography, modern fatherhood turns into a commercially viable category of pop stardom. Paul McCartney always knew how to translate an innate femininity into something marketable to women within the homosocial group dynamic of the Beatles, but Linda’s image harnesses the power not just of femininity but of motherhood. Buy this album and invest in something new, it says. Invest in a Paul who has replaced his bandmates with something else, something even better: a nuclear family. The beard is back, to counter the femininity of the Marian image; in fact, the beard plus the fuzziness of Paul’s coat suggest a sort of hyper-hirsute masculine maturity. The Paul who fought for control in the waning days of the Beatles is now writing every song, playing all his own instruments, eating vegetarian, and babywearing. Talk about having it all!  

Part of me says, good for him! Dads should be caring, and goofy, and present. And they might even become more desirable in the process. With a beard and with a baby, Paul gets to graduate from cute to sexy. But I can’t let go of the fact that this Dad/Daddy persona is signaled through the visual marshalling of what little power mothers have been granted in Western society (the power to nurture, the power to console)—power that female artists of the era could never have accessed without forfeiting marketability. (Seriously, try to imagine a similar image on a 1970 album by, say, Aretha Franklin or Joni Mitchell—women for whom the state of motherhood held a deep ambivalence, if not an outright danger to their lives and livelihoods.) We are lucky, I guess, to live in a time when artists from M.I.A. and Pink to Beyoncé and Rihanna have made mothering and pop stardom not antithetical, who have incorporated the corporealities of parenting into their brand image without sacrificing their sexiness or artistry. But don’t we still afford dads breaks that moms could only dream of? Doesn’t Paul’s beard augur a version of fatherhood that liberally borrows from the limited narratives our culture can tell about mothers but requires none of the sacrifices? Dads get to have a discourse. Moms are too fucking overwhelmed.**

Fifty years on from McCartney, achieving the balance between caring and overbearing, masculine and feminine, cool and uncool, that we expect in modern dads isn’t easy: just ask Bean Dad, or Obama on the day he wore the tan suit. But if you can get it right, you can go from being a member of the world’s greatest band to making Maccaritas and actually become more powerful and more sexy.

Paul’s beard is the physical manifestation of this narrative; it signifies the cultural currency of modern dadness, and the ways that being a modern dad is often predicated on rejecting homosocial collectivity and transferring the relatively limited sociocultural authority we grant to mothers to the realm of the dad. It’s this narrative that, as concretized in Get Back and in Linda McCartney’s photograph, helps us tell a different, and differently comforting, story about the end of the Beatles. It wasn’t Yoko who broke up the Beatles, this story says. It was the potent symbolism of the nuclear family and Paul’s overwhelming desire to embrace the role, and concomitant currency, of the Dad. Within the prevailing cultural logics of both yesterday and today, can we blame him?

Jill Spivey Caddell: hair, there, and everywhere. She tweets at @jillcaddell.

* In a refreshing reversal of lazy stereotypes, the maintenance of hair is entirely the prerogative of men in Get Back. Yoko Ono and Linda McCartney have hair that is remarkable for its lack of doneness, marking a radical break from the feminine beauty standards of earlier in the decade: we’re artists and the most famous men in the world love us and the 1960s are dead, their hair says, and we are over it.

** A notable exception is the Wine Mom, which is a cry for help disguised as a meme.

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