- 06 May 20
The Act You've Known For All These Years...
Even if you don’t think The Beatles were the greatest band of all time – I don’t, but I know I’m wrong – you can’t help but be familiar with their story. It’s an endlessly fascinating tale, helped by its impossible brevity – seven years separate the release of Please Please Me from that of Let It Be. Let’s think about that for a second, that’s the same amount of time that passed between the last two Strokes and Pearl Jam albums. Will anyone be writing and reviewing books about them fifty years after their gone? How about this? Ringo Starr, the oldest Beatle, was still a few months shy of his thirtieth birthday when they broke up. It’s genuinely staggering. As the English critic David Hepworth once commented, if anything, The Beatles are underrated.
I, like many other fans, have, at this stage, read far more than my share of books about them. I can safely say I know their histories better than I know those of my father or my mother. Despite the fact that my Ma and Da, as far as I know, never had a hit single, that’s still odd, but it illustrates how the stories and the myths of The Beatles has permeated our collective consciousness. Bearing that in mind, why the hell would we need another book about them? Surely it’s all been said? What about Mark Lewisohn’s The Beatles: All These Years? The first volume, Tune In, of a proposed trilogy, runs to over 1,700 pages and it only takes us to 1962. I mean, Jaysus.
With all that in mind, if you’re going to trot these well-trodden tales out again, you’d best have a good way with a story and something at least kind of new to add. Luckily for us, Craig Brown, in One Two Three Four: The Beatles in Time, has both. Brown is a satirist, perhaps best known for his work in thorn-in-the-side-of-the-prominent British magazine, Private Eye, and though his great love of The Beatles is evident throughout, he’s not afraid to poke fun at them either.
His approach is a series of short chapters which augment episodes known to even the most lackadaisical of Beatle admirers with the stories we may have missed. Here’s just a few examples. Did you know McCartney nearly jacked the whole thing in after returning from Hamburg in December 1960? He got a job with the cable-winding firm of Massey & Coggins and was making £7.10s a week. How about the time Lennon tried to open the emergency door on a plane flying at 22,000 feet when they discovered one of the engines was on fire? Ola Na Tungee as the original lyrics for ‘Eleanor Rigby’? Bobby Hart writing ‘Last Train To Clarksville’ as a direct result of mishearing the words of ‘Paperback Writer’? Lennon reviewing The Goon Show Scripts for the New York Times? McCartney proving what a good egg(man) he is in the village of Harrold? Richard Branson’s flexi-disc? What’s that I hear you scoff? “I knew all those, you dilettante!” Well, if you did, may I suggest that it might be time to leave the house.
All the major incidents are covered – Brian Epstein visits The Cavern, ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’ goes to number one in America, Beatlemania, Sgt. Pepper (Mal Evans, salt and pepper on a plane from Nairobi, there’s no way you knew that one), and the unmitigated disaster of Apple (rotten to the) Corps, which Brown details with relish. As the cast of charlatans and chicaners grow, Brown gets the knives out, taking the legs out from under the Maharishi, The Fool, the ridiculous Magic Alex, and, of course, Yoko Ono. While Ono now has her share of admirers and apologists, Brown is having none of it, calling out her total and utter bullshit, whether it be the conceptual ‘art’ or her truly execrable poetry – he hardly mentions her music, a mercy to us all – and even her continued contributions to human wisdom on Twitter. The chapter that deals exclusively with her artistic endeavours will have you laughing out loud, and confirm, if confirmation were needed, that she remains the chancer’s chancer. On a more serious note, the interview between New York Times war correspondent Gloria Emerson and John & Yoko about bagism and the bed-ins, conducted as war raged in Vietnam, exposes those “concepts” as the pure nonsense that they surely were.
Just like the music – and the lives – of his subjects, Brown’s book is a joy that’s - if you’ll allow it - guaranteed to raise a smile, followed by several loud guffaws. It’s just reverent enough, placing The Beatles on a deserved pedestal, while gently tugging at the rug underneath. Highly recommended to both the insanely obsessed, and the rest of us, who just happen to love them.