As I mentioned the other day, I’ve just finished Jonathan Gould’s Can’t Buy Me Love, which is one of the best books about the Beatles I’ve ever read (and I’ve read more of them than I probably should have). Not quite as good on the music as Ian MacDonald’s dazzling Revolution in the Head, and a bit less precise in its focus than it might be from time to time (I’m not convinced some of the detours into contemporary history are really necessary) but smart, suitably sceptical about some of their achievements and very usefully engaged with both the individual narratives and the wider picture against which they played out.
One of the problems for any study of the Beatles is the seemingly impenetrable mystery of how it all happened. How did four young men from Liverpool become the most famous people in the world in the space of a few short months, then, once they were famous, go on to dominate popular culture for a decade and produce a string of records that redefined popular music while also acting as one of the catalysts for the immense social change that swept through the western world in the 1960s? As Ruth and Martin on RAM Album Club put it in their hilarious piece about Help the other day (don’t argue, just read it), “The Beatles? It’s the maddest story I’ve ever heard”.
Confronted with this question a lot of writers fall back on handwaving about their extraordinary talent and singular personalities, or mystification about the unique psychology of Lennon and McCartney. But the problem with these sorts of arguments is that they simply beg the question: after all, as Gould’s book makes clear, in the early days they really were just another band (describing their infamous rejection by Decca in 1962, he notes rather dryly that “faced with an oddly named, oddly dressed and openly quarrelsome four-piece group playing a grab bag of outdated material, none of it too well, Decca did what any other well-run record label would have done: after a polite interval, it turned the Beatles down”). And while with the benefit of hindsight it’s possible to see the intersection of qualities that made their records so particular – the harmonies, George Martin’s production and preparedness to experiment, the interplay of Lennon and McCartney’s different sensibilities, the way Lennon’s tough guy exterior made the vulnerability of songs such as ‘Help’ and ‘You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away’ so affecting, the humour and wordplay – it’s difficult not to allow the story we know to determine the weight we place upon those characteristics.
Gould by contrast offers a fascinatingly nuanced account not just of the social and political preconditions that made their sudden, unprecedented popularity possible, but of the particular personal elements that allowed them to sidestep the sorts of mistakes other acts made, an account that is complemented by a thoughtful and nuanced account of their creative evolution (and subsequent unravelling).
In respect of the former he has a particularly interesting argument about the way the band both internalised and transcended class distinctions, at least in Britain (Americans, less attuned to the complexities of the class system, responded differently), but he also makes clear the shift away from DJ-driven programming to top 40 formats in the aftermath of the payola scandal in the United States allowed the band to achieve national exposure in a way that had not been possible only a year or so earlier.
But he’s also very aware of the importance of Epstein’s unconventional management style, and his insistence the band should seek status over money (apparently Ed Sullivan’s producers were bemused by his simultaneous focus on the band receiving top billing on the show and lack of interest in their fee), and of the practical ways the band’s fame was manufactured, as his anecdote about the promoter of their 1964 concert in Carnegie Hall guaranteeing mayhem in the city by deliberately booking the show for a school holiday attests.
He’s also pleasingly even-handed in both his approbation and his criticism. In contrast to Phillip Norman’s championing of Lennon in Shout! he’s sympathetic to McCartney, both as a composer and a human being, but that admiration doesn’t preclude criticising some of McCartney’s schmaltzier tendencies, In this regard his discussion of the way ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’ demonstrates the way McCartney’s “workmanlike tendency to build on past successes had caused him to translate the genuinely charming novelty and subversive parody of ‘When I’m Sixty-Four’ into a personal subgenre of songs that had devolved in the two years since Sgt Pepper into a form of musical schtick” is particularly well-judged (his praise of McCartney’s 1981 album, Tug of War, in the final chapter is a bit over the top though). Nor does he pull his punches when describing the band’s excesses and their occasional musical limitations (in one memorable image he says the two sides of Please Please Me, resemble musical bridges between the strong songs at either end and the progressively weaker material at their middles)
It’s also extremely well-written, at least for the most part, both at a line by line level and, more importantly, at an observational level. Describing the press conference when the four of them arrived at Kennedy Airport in 1964 for example he writes that “through it all, the four of them exuded an almost mysterious sense of solidarity and self-possession. They were their own show and their own audience”. Similarly his discussion of the albums is extremely thorough and perceptive, particularly in the book’s middle section (interestingly the book’s best sections relate to the albums from A Hard Day’s Night to Sgt Pepper) and his analysis of the film of A Hard Day’s Night is simply exhilarating. And he’s genuinely fascinating not just on the complex ways in which Dylan influenced the band after their famous meeting at the Delmonico Hotel in New York in August 1964, but on the rather less often acknowledged impact the Beatles and their success had on Dylan. Likewise he is admirably succinct in his analysis of the band’s various psychologies, and interesting about the way they shape the music and, ultimately, the band’s demise.
And then there are the fascinating nuggets of information scattered through the book: apparently the Stones chose the title of Let It Bleed after hearing the album that was originally called Get Back was now going to be called Let It Be, ‘The Continuing Saga of Bungalow Bill’ was Lennon taking the piss out of Dylan’s John Wesley Harding (which he was obsessed with), ‘And Your Bird Can Sing’ was at least partly an attack on Frank Sinatra, who had been very critical of the Beatles and used to call people “birds” all the time, and Brian Wilson used to lead the Beach Boys in prayer meetings in the studio to ask God to help them make a better record than Rubber Soul.
So while I think MacDonald’s book is still the gold standard when it comes to discussion of the music (and one of the best books of popular criticism written in the past few decades), the first volume of Mark Lewisohn’s mammoth All These Years, Tune In offers the most exhaustive account of the band’s formation, and Pete Doggett’s wonderfully-titled You Never Give Me Your Money gives a better account of the band’s breakup and its aftermath, if you’re after a wide-ranging biography of the band that’s also attuned to the social context, sympathetic to the human side of the story and interesting in its analysis of the work, it’s absolutely the one I’d recommend.