The late Ian MacDonald’s Revolution in the Head is by a long way the best appreciation of the Beatles’ music currently available. But it is in a shorter piece, the title essay of his 2003 collection The People’s Music, that he mentions the “Biography Test” ‑ people are culturally important if there is enough to them and to their work to justify a “sustained biographical study”.
It is a test that MacDonald’s earlier subject, the Beatles, passes effortlessly. There have been more than half a dozen lengthy biographies of the band (from Hunter Davies’s official version in 1968 to Mark Lewisohn’s outstanding work in progress, All Those Years Ago) as well as close-up accounts of major turning points in their story such as And in the End, Scot [pictured right] Ken McNab’s chronicle of their final days, and Peter Doggett’s You Never Give Me Your Money, which focuses on their muddled finances. John Lennon and Paul McCartney have each warranted several biographies, George Harrison, at least one that I can think of (plus his autobiography, I Me Mine). Add to that more than a dozen memoirs, and the various, more specialised books about the band’s music, their use of drugs, their solo careers, and so forth.
Erin Torkelson Weber’s The Beatles and the Historians: An Analysis of Writings About the Fab Four (McFarland and Company, 2016) is a welcome and considered account of this vast Beatles industry. The book takes a critical, historiographical look at the various tellings of the Beatles’ story concluding that many of these books fail under analysis, losing marks for bias, myth-making, and myth-perpetuation. Weber has a keen eye for anecdotes of dubious provenance and authors with agendas ‑ Lennon as saint, McCartney as sinner, the benevolence or otherwise of Yoko Ono, Allen Klein and the Maharishi. But the news is not all bad. The last twenty-five years have seen, she says, a continuous improvement in the quality of books about the Beatles. With the passage of time has come a greater objectivity. Also, with so much now in print and so much being exhumed from the archives, musical and otherwise, there is no shortage of source material.
Weber says that most writings about the Beatles can be categorised into one of four principal narratives ‑ four ways of seeing and telling the band’s story. The first and earliest of these is the Fab Four Narrative. This is the more or less official version of the Beatles that evolved following their initial breakthrough. It was propagated by a largely friendly media nudged along by the Beatles themselves, their management and publicists. In the Fab Four Narrative, the Beatles are depicted as four friends whose relationship with each other is easy and free of tension. This is how they come across in their early interviews, their monthly fan magazine, and, especially, in their first two films: A Hard Day’s Night and Help. In Help, for example, the fictionalised Beatles live in a luxurious communal home that is, by mid-sixties standards, high-tech. These are rich young men, leisured and with few responsibilities, but who get along together, well enough to live in the same shared space like perpetual teenagers. As Weber comments, these mainstream films were especially important in differentiating one Beatle from another for a wider public (Jonathan Miller, commenting when they were new on the scene, had thought they all looked the same, like the Midwich Cuckoos). Not only did the films put names to faces, they put (fictionalised) personalities to names ‑ Lennon, caustic/eccentric; Harrison, intense; McCartney, cute/romantic; Starr, happy-go-lucky. (Approximately these same personalities were, a few years later, used as the basis for the Monkees, a wholly fictionalised outfit living the same communal quasi-teenage life as the Beatles in Help, but in this particular imagining with much less success and money.)
Hunter Davies’s official Beatles biography, published in 1968, had been commissioned by Brian Epstein when the Fab Four Narrative was at its peak. One of that book’s intended functions was to consolidate the Narrative. In a second edition, published ten years after, Davies came clean about this, admitting that he had been under some pressure to suppress certain details, such as Brian Epstein’s sexuality. Also, John Lennon’s Aunt Mimi, who had brought him up, intervened to excise the many swear words Davies had, she said, put in her nephew’s mouth. As for drugs, Lennon’s use of cannabis is described coyly, in a scene reminiscent of Michael McLaverty’s The Poteen Maker. An innocent reader, or a careless one, might conclude from Davies’s description that Lennon had lately acquired a taste for hand-rolling tobacco. Only as he ends his description does the author give the game away – “This was during the pot-taking period, which is now over.” Indeed.
Lennon himself would later call the official biography “a whitewash”. That was unfair, I think. Davies’s is a frequently revealing account of the Beatles, ultimately more a challenge to the idealised view of the band in the likes of Help than a confirmation of it.
The Fab Four Narrative did, in fact, begin to unravel in the second half of the 1960s, its demise hastened by Brian Epstein’s death and the Apple fiasco. The Beatles’ output from this time received either a mixed response (The White Album and, surprisingly, Abbey Road) or was panned (Magical Mystery Tour, and the initial, and self-indulgent, Beatle solo projects such as Harrison’s Wonderwall and Lennon’s Two Virgins). Other narratives now took over. Weber calls these: the Lennon Remembers Narrative; the Shout Narrative; and the Lewisohn Narrative, named, respectively, for an interview, a biography, and an author.
In 1970, John Lennon gave a lengthy interview to Jan Wenner of Rolling Stone magazine, an interview long enough, and popular enough, that it was subsequently published as a book, Lennon Remembers. It is a cathartic interview dating from roughly the same time as Lennon’s first solo album proper, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, a fine, if unsettling, collection that mixes confession and disenchantment with, here and there, the occasional blink of optimism. The album peaks with the song God, in which Lennon casts off much that he had previously believed in ‑ Jesus, Elvis, Dylan, and finally the Beatles—concluding that “the dream is over”, a phrase that would become almost obligatory in all commentary on the Beatles for about the next ten years. The Wenner/Lennon Remembers interview is the same only more so ‑ an intense, prickly Lennon displaying more than a little self-importance. (“Genius is pain,” he at one point offers, leaving no doubt that he himself is the definitive pained genius, right up there with Vincent van Gogh.)
The essentials of the Lennon Remembers Narrative are that Lennon was the Beatles and that the other three were to varying degrees ancillary. He alone was the true artist in the band, but tortured with it, as all the best artists are. One consequence of this narrative was that, in homing in on Lennon as the talent in the Beatles, it often encouraged a dismissive assessment of Paul McCartney. This dismissal was compounded by the fact that McCartney was widely blamed for breaking up the Beatles (he had publicly quit the band six months after Lennon had privately done so). Moreover, having supposedly broken up the band, he then, after a slow start, became the only one of the four to have a consistent and commercially successful solo career. As this success was based on music generally seen as less impressive than his Beatles work, the worth of his work with the Beatles was sometimes retrospectively questioned. In contrast, Lennon, in death, became a kind of secular saint and his “Imagine” a kind of secular hymn.
The negative view of McCartney would gain considerable currency in the seventies and has not completely lost its grip even now. It is especially noticeable in The Beatles, an Illustrated Record (1974), by Roy Carr and Tony Tyler, a book that Weber does not mention. That is, I think, a surprising omission on her part since it was the most detailed assessment of the Beatles’ music before MacDonald’s Revolution in the Head and a bestseller on publication on both sides of the Atlantic. It is an altogether breezier, if not better, affair than MacDonald’s or than a previous highbrow appreciation by Wilfred Mellers entitled, somewhat portentously, Twilight of the Gods: the Beatles in Retrospect (1973).
Carr and Tyler were journalists on the New Musical Express, the NME, when it was probably at its most influential, speaking its often irreverent mind to the world. In form, their book is primarily a critique of each Beatles release, single, EP or album, whether as a band or as solo performers up to around the middle of 1974. There is also a short biography at the start covering the period up to the band’s Parlophone contract and, in the first edition only, a kind of end-piece that brings the story up to date and assesses the prospects for a reunion. (The authors thought it most likely that there would be no formal reunion.)
I no longer have a copy of that first edition but, from memory, in their end-piece, Carr and Tyler say something like “Few would deny that John Lennon was the most talented of the four original Beatles …” That big claim, and the odd way they phrased it – “four original Beatles” ‑ has made it memorable to me. In contrast, McCartney’s work is frequently downplayed, particularly, it sometimes seems, if it has been generally commended – “Yesterday” (“McCartney’s predilection for schmaltz bursts into full horrendous flower”); “Michelle” (“flatulent and sugary”); and, oddly, “Eleanor Rigby” (“sentimental, melodramatic and a blind alley”).
“Eleanor Rigby” is interesting to consider in the context of the decline of the Fab Four Narrative and the rise of the altogether less appealing image of a band divided that dominates the Lennon Remembers Narrative. It was a tenet of the Fab Four Narrative, at least in its initial phase, that Lennon/McCartney was a conventional songwriting partnership which typically wrote songs together. In fact, most of their songs were written separately, then jointly assessed and amended, then worked over again by the band as a whole under producer George Martin’s guidance. Hunter Davies captures this process in his official biography, sitting in on the development of songs that would later feature on Sergeant Pepper, Magical Mystery Tour, and The White Album. It is clear from his valuable contemporary account how collaboratively the songs were developed even if they were usually substantially drafted alone by Lennon or McCartney (or, increasingly, Harrison). If the Fab Four Narrative overstated the Lennon/McCartney partnership, the Lennon Remembers Narrative goes to the other extreme and plays down the extent to which the Beatles’ music was a collective effort.
Following the Beatles’ split both Lennon and McCartney were quite open about which of them had written which song and their respective lists largely corroborate. “Eleanor Rigby”, however, is a notable exception. Right to the end ‑ including in what was, quite literally, the last interview he ever gave ‑ John Lennon maintained that he had written most of the lyrics. In contrast, McCartney has always said that it was mainly his song but that the band and anyone on hand at the time threw in a few ideas when he was stuck on the last verse.
Who is right here? Weber, and Craig Brown in his recent 1234 The Beatles, come down in favour of McCartney’s claim to authorship. For one thing, Lennon does not appear to have disputed, at the time the song was current, that McCartney had written it, music and lyrics. The McCartney version of how the song came to be composed is the version that appears in the Hunter Davies biography, which was begun about a year after the song had been recorded. The nearest Lennon gets to a credit in the Davies book is when George Martin comments: “Meeting John has made [Paul] try for deeper lyrics. But for meeting John, I doubt if Paul could have written Eleanor Rigby.” And, in fact, only from the early seventies did Lennon claim an increasingly bigger role in the writing of the song’s lyrics. Why might he have done this, and why only in the 1970s? Weber speculates that it was Allen Klein, when he was on his charm offensive to become the band’s manager, who encouraged Lennon in the view that he had had a greater role in the song’s composition than was actually the case. Lennon might not have been particularly difficult to flatter into such a belief. He was widely looked upon as the literary member of the band, the one who read well and widely, the only one, according to Davies, with proper bookshelves at home, and the only one who had, himself, published books, albeit slim volumes of questionable merit and taste. As the literary Beatle, Lennon might have wanted to associate himself with what was at the time increasingly seen as the most literary of the band’s songs (allegedly, Ezra Pound “smiled lightly” when it was played to him by Allen Ginsberg). Here was someone who had been writing since he was no age, and who had published books, but who had nonetheless little to do with the one Beatles song that was, in some circles at least, being considered as serious poetry. If Roy Carr and Tony Tyler thought it “sociological” and unimpressive (except to sociologists), this was an eccentric view with which few would concur. Wilfred Mellers, for instance, comments: “The song proper is a narrative ballad, and the words are poetry …[they] reverberate through their very plainness …” Or Ian MacDonald: “the lyric’s televisual vividness … is never gratuitous being consistently at the service of the song’s relentless despondency”.
Assessing Lennon’s claims to co-authorship of “Eleanor Rigby” by reviewing the available source material ‑ as Weber does ‑ is neatly illustrative of the point of The Beatles and the Historians. Here is a claim that some at least might find attractive, credible and worth repeating, particularly if they were favourable to Lennon and hostile to McCartney. But if you look at the sources, Lennon’s claim to authorship does not seem to hold up. Pete Shotton, a friend of Lennon’s since schooldays, has said in print that he was the person who resolved that tricky final verse by suggesting that McCartney should round things off by having Father McKenzie officiate at Eleanor Rigby’s funeral. Shotton says that Lennon scorned this idea at the time, but it was, of course, the idea that McCartney ran with, for which McCartney later thanked him.
The “Eleanor Rigby” authorship debate touches on another, thornier question asked (and answered) in the Lennon Remembers Narrative. Who was the greater talent, McCartney or Lennon? And which of them, therefore, contributed the most to the Beatles as a lasting cultural phenomenon? Ultimately, these things come down to personal taste. For what it’s worth, I prefer Lennon ‑ the songs that were mainly his – “I Am the Walrus”, “Strawberry Fields Forever”, “Hey Bulldog”, “Dear Prudence”, “Sexy Sadie”. His verses in “A Day in the Life”,with their chilly, disinterested vocal. I agree with MacDonald that Lennon was the great innovator in the Beatles and that when he stopped innovating ‑ MacDonald says that “I Am the Walrus” was the last of his innovative compositions ‑ it marked a turning point in the band’s short history. But to say that Lennon was the great innovator is not to dismiss McCartney.
Lennon had a choice when he first met McCartney at that church fete in July 1957. This superior musician, two years his junior, would enhance the band but was also a potential rival. And so he would prove. Paul McCartney, in his youth and young adulthood was both an exceptional talent and, as Weber notes, resistant to what she sees as Lennon’s domineering position, whether in the band or out of it.
By 1967, Hunter Davies thought, McCartney was in many respects already the Beatles’ leader. He was surely the most musically talented ‑ a great singer and bass player, a superb guitarist, a competent drummer, and the best keyboard player of the four. Also, an ever-evolving songwriter with a massive gift for melody and arrangement, and musically innovative, striving almost on a song-by-song basis for greater sophistication. It was around 1967 that Lennon ceased to dominate the songwriting partnership, Sergeant Pepper being the first album on which there was more McCartney than Lennon.
Thereafter it was McCartney, not Lennon, who tried to give the band projects and tried to hold it together musically when it was disintegrating, as in Let it Be/“Get Back”. Though Anthony Fawcett, in his 1976 Lennon memoir, One Day at a Time, thought that only Lennon was genuinely heartbroken by the Beatles’ ongoing demise, in the Get Back film especially he seems generally bored, his mind on other things. Only McCartney appears keen to go on, the only one who still thinks the band has a future, and who is enthusiastic for it. In scene after scene, he sits like a teacher vainly trying to motivate a class in the last half hour before home time. Lennon contributed only a handful of songs during this final Let it Be/Abbey Road phase, one of them, “Come Together”, sufficiently close to Chuck Berry’s “You Can’t Catch Me” that it would embroil him in litigation until 1975. In contrast, McCartney produced at least four strong songs – “Let it Be”, “Two of Us”, “The Long and Winding Road” and “Get Back”, plus the long medley from Abbey Road that goes a long way towards making that final effort one of the essential Beatles albums.
So much for the music. There is, I think, something else going on in the Carr and Tyler book. It is something that is also going on in several other books about the Beatles. It is not simply that they do not like McCartney’s music as much as they like Lennon’s; they do not much like McCartney, the idea of him, or the idea of him that they have formed. And it might be that their idea of him has affected their assessment of his work. He is not their kind of guy and because he is not their kind of guy, he is rarely singing their kind of song.
Here they are, for instance, opining on McCartney’s 1971 solo album, Ram (to be fair, not his most distinguished effort) –“ready-to-wear music, to be listened to in a lounge with plaster ducks on the wall … it positively reeked of cosy domestica ‑ the kind of environment which stifles all creativity”. They go on to mention “Paul’s long-drawn-out yearnings for cucumber sandwiches at the local Rotary Club and a family of his own …” In short, not only did Paul McCartney break up the Beatles (allegedly), he is, to boot, bourgeois, in the colloquial rather than the Marxist sense. In Marxist terms, Lennon and McCartney were both firmly in the rentier capitalist class by their early twenties, living increasingly on vast private incomes. And looking at where they came from, Lennon was by far the more privileged of the two. The house in which he grew up ‑ the house of his Uncle George, a business owner, and his Aunt Mimi ‑ was owner-occupied and had a name, Mendips, rather than a number. It even had the workings of the bell system by which its previous owners had been able to summon their domestic servants. McCartney, who lived in a rented house and, from age fourteen, in a low-income single parent household, would, he said, go to Mendips anxious to make an impression on a woman, Mimi, who made no secret of the fact that she considered him her social inferior. It was Lennon himself who decided, belatedly, that he was working class, a self-identification that at least some of his chroniclers (the sympathetic Anthony Fawcett, for instance) either go along with or do not challenge.
McCartney was bourgeois in the sense that he was conventional, to the extent that someone with his wealth and in his line of work could ever be conventional. Also, more user-friendly, at least until Lennon, post-Wenner, post lost weekend, began turning on the charm.
Though Carr and Tyler refer to McCartney’s “essentially bourgeois talent” and so forth they also, and I think accurately, describe all four Beatles as products of the postwar welfare state and the opportunities it brought. None of the Beatles made particularly much of those opportunities, at least in the way they were expected to make use of them. McCartney might have gone to Liverpool University or a teacher training college after he was done with school but his academic performance tailed off because his mind was elsewhere, focused on music. And Lennon, an avid reader from childhood, could also have gone to university had his academic performance not slumped, earlier than McCartney’s. However, because such opportunities were available to Lennon and McCartney and because they went through the motions of trying to avail of them meant they were able to evade regular paid work in a way that previous generations, and many of their Liverpool contemporaries, had not been able to. Lennon went to art school, for example, where he was by all accounts as unremarkable a student as at Quarry Bank Grammar, but it allowed him a few more years out of the workforce in which to stick with his music. MacDonald comments perceptively on the importance of the art school to the rise of rock music in Britain. Art schools, a nineteenth century innovation, offered, he writes, “a parallel educational structure … a home from home to the gifted but wayward and often frankly eccentric people with which English life overflows (or used to). John Lennon was a classic case of the art school type: an academic misfit who could more or less draw and was otherwise consumed by a chaotic creativity in need of channelling.” Many rock musicians, he goes on to say, including many major talents, were former art students. As well as Lennon there were Keith Richards, Pete Townshend, Ray Davies, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Syd Barrett, and Ronnie Wood (a superbly gifted visual artist). Art school, says MacDonald, brought kindred musical spirits together in a place where they were able to spark off each other. Also, and more prosaically, art school provided a venue where aspirant musicians might practice and perform. Liverpool Art College modified Lennon, who arrived there a teddy boy, or something like one, but became gradually more arty through the influences of others ‑ his future wife, Cynthia Powell, his friend Stuart Sutcliffe, and Bill Harry, who encouraged and published his writing.
The Lennon Remembers Narrative would get a second wind from what Erin Weber calls the Shout Narrative. The Shout Narrative takes its name from Philip Norman’s 1981 Beatles biography, the first since Hunter Davies’s. It was a book that, on publication, immediately raised the standard of rock biography, and by some margin. Shout was being finalised at the time of John Lennon’s murder in December 1980 and the text was duly rewritten to reflect this, resulting, perhaps, in the somewhat downbeat mood of its final pages. The book sold well when it was published a few months later, benefiting in part from the massive renewal of interest in the band following Lennon’s death but thanks, also, to its own considerable strengths.
There was relatively little in the way of new material in Shout. But it told a familiar story a great deal better than it had ever been told before. Philip Norman was an accomplished journalist and fiction writer and, in Shout, wrote believable characters and vivid, memorable scenes. When the Beatles first arrive in Hamburg, for instance, he has them surprised by what they see:
… tree-lined boulevards, seamless with prosperity; chic shops and ships chandlers and cafés filled with well-dressed, unscarred, confident people …What was said inside Alan Williams’ minibus that August evening would be echoed many times afterwards in varying tones of disbelief. Wasn’t this the country that had lost the war?
Shout is full of wonderful writing like that but, all the same, Weber is critical of its historical reliability. She reckons that the style in which the book is written, coupled with its lack of referencing (not even an index on its first outing), makes it difficult for readers to disentangle what are Philip Norman’s own opinions and imaginings from what he has drawn from reliable primary sources. That passage I quoted above, for instance, can it be considered a reliable account of how the Beatles first saw Hamburg, how it looked to them? Did they really reflect on how prosperous the country that had lost the war was looking, and were they truly among the first to make this observation? Shout also suffers from its proximity in time to the events it describes, and to a relative lack of sources upon which to draw ‑ none of the Beatles agreed to an interview with Norman and the surge in Beatles publishing did not come until a few years after the book was published. But perhaps its biggest flaw, in Weber’s view, is its bias.
In Shout, Philip Norman is generally sympathetic towards Lennon and correspondingly hostile to McCartney and all ‑ or almost all ‑ his works. “Michelle”, for example is “a bland love song with words that lapsed into French as a plain act of social climbing”. McCartney, Norman writes, “could be … suddenly imperious and petulant. Possibly he knew that Lennon’s Sergeant Pepper music was destined to outshine his.” And McCartney’s self-penned press release written to announce his first solo album comprised “smiling yet sly phrases” that “revealed his most ingratiating, least agreeable side”.
These observations are, I think, are fairly typical of how McCartney is depicted in Shout, or certainly in the first edition of Shout. (It is only fair to say that in subsequent editions of the book comments such as those I have quoted are either greatly softened or excised completely. Philip Norman has also since written a Lennon and a McCartney biography which are as compelling a read as Shout but without its flaws. However, I cite the first, 1981 edition because it is the edition that I think had the greatest readership and reach.)
The effect of Shout in its first edition was to put something close to the Lennon Remembers Narrative into the mainstream and thereby to contribute to Lennon’s growing, posthumous legend. Someone reading Shout (1981 edition) would have come away burdened with considerable Lennon Remembers baggage ‑ Lennon, flawed but brilliant; McCartney, “tyrannically particular and perfectionist”.
Weber writes that, in the years following Shout, a great many books were published on the Beatles, including Albert Goldman’s The Lives of John Lennon, which is a kind of anti-Shout in that it adopts an unremittingly hostile view of its subject, several memoirs, and the Anthology project, curated by the Beatles themselves and comprising a documentary film history of the band, an accompanying book and three double albums of outtakes and similar. (“Little of it is worth a second listen, let alone the scores of millions of pounds it has cost the group’s worldwide fans to acquire,” comments Ian MacDonald, sourly, in Revolution in the Head).
One consequence of all of this productivity, writes Weber, is that it has greatly expanded the amount of material on the Beatles now available to readers, writers and researchers. This, the passage of time, and the gradual disempowerment of earlier narratives have enabled the creation of better, more evidence-based Beatle histories. Weber considers Mark Hertsgaard’s A Day in the Life (1995) as the first Beatles biography that might be considered genuine historical writing. But it is the work of Mark Lewisohn that she regards as the most important in recent decades, to the extent that she names the fourth, and most satisfactory of the Beatles narratives for him.
“There is, in Pinner, Middlesex,” writes Philip Norman in the original endpiece to Shout, “a serious young man of 22 who holds the title ‘Beatle Brain of Britain’, so labyrinthine is his knowledge of their music and history. His name is Mark Lewisohn.” Lewisohn had worked with him on Shout as a researcher. But it is Lewisohn’s subsequent books (The Beatles Day by Day, 1987, The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions, 1988, and the exemplary biography in progress, All Those Years Ago) that have established a clear, and evidenced account of the band and so made him the indispensable Beatles authority. The first volume of All Those Years Ago ‑ the only one yet published ‑ runs to some 1,000 pages, concluding with the release of “Please, Please Me” in 1963 and the beginnings of Beatlemania. Two further volumes are planned, taking the story up to 1970. I, and millions like me, await these with childlike impatience.
As the telling of the Beatles’ story has become more satisfactorily historical, it has become more sympathetic to McCartney, acknowledging his contribution as well as that of Harrison and Starr, George Martin, Brian Epstein, and Dick James, their publisher. The emerging view, which Weber summarises, is that the Beatles worked best when they were a partnership. The songs might not have been composed jointly, but they were recorded jointly and with patient dedication. The quality of the Beatles’ music was high more or less from the start but increased as this working partnership matured ‑ Rubber Soul, Revolver, Sergeant Pepper. Significantly, it is primarily as performers of their own music on record that the Beatles have remained popular and not, say, as the writers of songs that others perform and interpret. This is especially the case with their more innovative and groundbreaking work. In songs like “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “I Am the Walrus”, for instance, the pleasure is arguably more in the finished recording than in the songs themselves as words and music, and therefore in recordings greatly enhanced by the work of people other than the songs’ actual composer. In the case of “I Am the Walrus”, the basic melody derives from a police car siren Lennon heard when he was in his mansion in the stockbroker belt. He fretted that the police must be coming for him. Why else would they be there in that affluent place with their siren blaring but for him, the one resident who was least typical of it? If the song has a theme, it is a theme that follows directly from this anxiety ‑ the persecution of the transgressor. Hence, Edgar Allen Poe. A random sampling of King Lear from a BBC broadcast by chance achieves relevance and meaning, like a found poem. After the bridge, for instance, Lennon sings “I am the Eggman” just before Gloucester says “Now, good sir”. Only “Now good sir” sounds a lot, I think, like “Are you, sir?” Which works a treat. Likewise, when Lennon sings “they are the eggmen”, Edgar says “Poor man made tame by fortune”, although for years I misheard that as “This man he claims a fortune”, which again sort of fits. I assumed at the time and for years afterwards that these semi-audible voices had been put there deliberately by Lennon himself. I had no idea they were from King Lear. Nor had John Lennon. This is not to diminish the achievement, which is arresting and unforgettable, but it is to question how much of it is Lennon’s, how much George Martin’s, who orchestrated, recorded and quality assured it, and how much the Beatles as a group. It is as they stop working together that they begin their descent, the quality of their work more patchy as the partnership itself disintegrates. On The White Album, as Carr and Tyler note, the Beatles have started to work more as each other’s session musicians and less as a band. The result is a mixed album on which strong songs sit alongside weaker efforts and self-indulgences like “Revolution 9”. “They were no longer invulnerable,” the authors comment.
From Lewisohn’s account in All Those Years Ago, it would seem that the Beatles, around 1961-62, had no clear idea what they were going to be. Earlier accounts, like those of Hunter Davies and Philip Norman, depict them as more focused and resolute ‑ they would be a band that played, primarily, the songs of Lennon and McCartney and not a band for whom others wrote songs behind the scenes. Lewisohn and other of the more recent Beatles writers reject this. Lennon and McCartney in 1962, alone or together, had written only a handful of songs, few of which they felt were good enough to perform, and then only rarely. They thought their audience, which even in 1962 was considerable and dedicated, wanted to hear songs that had either been hits or had at least been recorded ‑ songs that had gone through some kind of quality control. In 1962, Lennon and McCartney were hobbyist songwriters who between them had averaged around one or two songs a year with long fallow periods. And yet it was one of these songs ‑ one of McCartney’s – “Love Me Do”, that interested the publishing section of EMI and thereby secured them their recording contract with Parlophone, which was an EMI subsidiary. It might be that this small recognition ‑ of a song and not its singers ‑ by what had been up to then an otherwise indifferent music industry was what sparked them into action as songwriters. Certainly, in 1962, with their new Parlophone contract and a producer, George Martin, who had yet to take to them or see them as something special, they nonetheless dug their heels in and insisted that they recorded their own “Love Me Do” and not the Formbyesque “How Do You Do It?”, by the professional songwriter Mitch Murray. So “Love Me Do” it was, a better effort than it is usually given credit for, then “Please, Please Me” and, soon, a sea-change in popular music.
The Beatles’ success relied on a number of lucky accidents. It is surely a good thing, for example, that they failed their Decca audition. Imagine they had nailed it. They would almost certainly have become some kind of variety act. Decca would have signed them, not as songwriters but as performers. They would have had their songs written for them and been assigned in all likelihood to a conventional producer who would have steered them in a predictable direction. Instead, they went to Parlophone, where they were assigned to George Martin who was not only a little more offbeat and experimental than his peers but ambitious too, keen to make his mark, and to establish that a producer of recorded music was no mere bureaucrat but as creative a person as any artist.
After the Beatles, it was more or less obligatory that bands and solo artists who wanted to be taken seriously wrote their own material, or the greater part of it. Also, that they should regularly, or at least periodically, release albums of new, original music and that these albums, not individual songs or live performances, were the main landmarks in a band’s or an artist’s career, the work by which they would be assessed. That is the template the Beatles established, more or less by chance, and in a very short space of time ‑ the four or five years after their breakthrough.
It is sixty years since “Love Me Do”. The year after it was released, 1963, would see the Beatles achieve not just rapid success, but that particular fame that extends beyond its core audience. Even so, few at the time, including the Beatles themselves, thought they would last. The band’s early years were lived day to day on the assumption that their acclaim would be short-lived ‑ five years being the general life expectancy in what was then still very much pop. Five years of people knowing who you were and what you did, then a lifetime of oblivion. The Beatles would have a mere half-decade in which to live the high life of hits and movies, tours and TV appearances, after which they would go the way of every flash in the pan. That was roughly how long Helen Shapiro had lasted. She was the headliner on the Beatles’ first, post-breakthrough tour. Over the course of that tour, their respective statuses shifted, she on the way down, they on the rise. And though it was now the Beatles’ turn, soon it would be someone else. The Dave Clark Five perhaps. Both Lennon and McCartney explored other career options in preparation for their inevitable post-Beatles lives. Lennon wrote his books, appeared on the TV comedy sketch show Not Only … But Also and acted in How I Won the War. McCartney wrote the score for the film The Family Way (scripted by Bill Naughton) and found that other artists were keen to record his songs (his more so than Lennon’s). Only towards the mid-decade did it seem they might last longer than expected, that the world around them had changed and that they were an essential part of that change.
And an enduring part of it, too. As Erin Torkelson Weber writes, “their music and their mystique continue to sell. The world finds the Beatles endlessly fascinating.” The recent success of the Get Back film and the remastered Revolver are evidence of this continued interest. But so, too, is the Lewisohn biography, which Weber rightly sees as part of a step change in the telling of the band’s story. Close on a thousand pages just to reach the first stirrings of Beatlemania and yet a bestseller across all territories and in all formats. That is MacDonald’s Biography Test definitively passed.
Top picture: Renton footballer George Ryden and Hugh Robertson, both of Dundee FC., pictured on a night out with the Beatles back in the Sixties.
Martin Tyrrell is currently under contract to Athabasca University Press to complete a book on George Orwell’s wars, from class war to Cold War.