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Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Wesley Britton Compares Beatles Books

The Beatles: The Biography
By Bob Spitz
Little, Brown and Co., 2005

Can’t Buy Me Love: The Beatles, Britain, and America
By Jonathan Gould
Random House, 2007

Review by: Wesley Britton originally posted at Wesley Britton’s Entertainment Scrapbook

One might have thought that by 2005, new biographies of The Beatles would have become major exercises in the redundant. Still, they keep coming, and it seems the history and legend are an apparent bottomless well of fascination for writers and readers alike. From time to time, such titles do warrant attention for their fresh perspectives to the saga, and Bob Spitz and Jonathan Gould both deserve close readings, albeit for very different reasons.

After the admittedly sanitized and truncated authorized bio by Hunter Davies in 1968, the elephant in the room arrived in 1981 with Philip Norman’s Shout!, which purported to be as detailed and researched as any one volume history can be. But Shout! was marred with a clear bias toward the contributions of John Lennon. Over the years, Norman took heed to criticisms of his lack of objectivity, and in 2005 put out an updated version which allegedly cleans up that misstep and includes more recent events in the lives of Paul, George, and Ringo.

For my money, in 1984 Peter Brown and Stephen Gaines’ The Love You Make did Norman a few turns better as Brown was not only an insider to the original events, but maintained an access to participants that gave his book a bit more depth and a more balanced overview. Then, of course, the 2000 Anthology claimed to be the final word on the subject, the story told by the lads themselves. Along the way, we got books on individual Beatles on their own—my favorite remaining Pete Shotton’s 1987 memories of John in In My Life. So, what would be left for a new historian to uncover all these years later?

To Bob Spitz’s credit, he returned to primary sources to more-or-less retell the story from scratch, supplementing the public records with new interviews and documents Albert Goldman didn’t use in his largely discredited bio of John Lennon. Strangely, while Spitz refers to a number of sources throughout the text and notes, he barely mentions Norman. This is most surprising, especially in the notes, leaving the reader to infer reasons why Shout! doesn’t count. Well, it does. While it’s been years since I read the first edition, I did notice matters Norman explored but Spitz didn’t, such as more on the come-and-go drummers in the early days and what the Beatles did in their off hours in Hamburg. I especially remember one chapter on “Apple Scruffs” where Norman talked with the star-struck girls who haunted Beatles HQ. While not essential to the Beatles story, Norman clearly went into corners Spitz didn’t.

The major distinction between these books is mainly that of emphasis and not so much the minutia of who did what and when. Spitz tells the story with detailed economy, revealing little new I noticed, although his conversations with Liverpool contemporaries like Rory Storm do add perspectives about the band’s place in the club scene in the very early ‘60s. I did spot Spitz trimming off tales that couldn’t be confirmed. For example, one tale repeated in many sources is that Stu Sutcliffe’s brain hemorrhage was caused by a beating after a Beatles concert. While Spitz notes the occasional violence the band suffered on the road, he makes no direct connection to Sutcliffe’s later health and the beatings, and rightly so. Without medical records ascribing Sutcliffe’s decline to a specific concussion, there’s no tangible evidence to support the myth that Sutcliffe was the first Beatle martyr. I could be wrong, but Spitz may have more on the private life of Brian Epstein than previous histories. The tragedy and surprising emptiness of his life are sketched in increasingly sad detail, ending with an overdose that was almost a foregone conclusion. Oh, as with most reliable sources, Spitz doesn’t even mention the story of a youthful record buyer coming to NEMS looking for a Beatle record, the first time Epstein supposedly heard of the band. The evidence clearly shows that Epstein sold and advertised in Mersey Beat, a local paper that promoted the group in nearly every issue.

Very unlike Norman, the trail Spitz traces is about a band largely led by Paul McCartney after Beatlemania, John Lennon being the most reluctant Beatle once heroine and Yoko come into play. In fact, without Spitz editorializing any points, Yoko Ono once again takes on her “Dragon Lady” garb, her presence the obvious impetus for the band’s latter day turmoil in the studio. This isn’t to say George’s understandable resentments and Paul’s heavy-handedness aren’t on display—in fact, Bob Spitz should be credited with the most balanced and most human history of a group that soared very high based on its talents and timing before plummeting due to naivety, a lack of business acumen, drugs, leeches, egos, and the loss of the energy and commitment that bonded the Fabs together in the first place.

In short, Bob Spitz’s biography is as good as a blow-by-blow account of John, Paul, George, and Ringo in one book can be. Anyone who knows the story will find few new surprises, but perhaps will have a different take on events, perhaps.

But revelations are aplenty in Jonathan Gould’s occasionally superb Can’t Buy Me Love. Gould isn’t interested in a day-by-day retelling of the saga. Instead, Gould focuses on the music and the cultural and sociological contexts that influenced the group and shaped their destinies while showcasing why they were able to break new ground both intuitively and deliberately. No where else have I read the linguistic background for the Liverpool accents, and how the Beatles emphasized their Northern heritage in their public speaking. Gould makes original observations such as noting “All You Need is Love” did debut on the international “One World” broadcast, but few Americans knew about it or saw it. The special was only sporadically aired on a number of Public Broadcasting stations in the states, the song following apparently boring sequences such as the ins and outs of soybean farms. I didn’t know “And Your Bird Can Sing” had nothing to do with girls but was instead John Lennon’s response to a press release in which Frank Sinatra mocked the Beatles. According to Gould, the partnership of John, Paul, and George in songwriting and playing was unique as it all happened among themselves as an insulated group of teenagers listening to and imitating records , not as musicians who came together later in life mixing and blending their influences.

Gould elaborates on many points long discussed by critics, such as the idea that America responded so deeply to the Beatles because of the emotional grief after the death of President Kennedy. But Gould nails down this speculation by quoting authorities who discovered that teenagers, more so than any other demographic, reacted to the assassination so strongly. Likewise, the idea that Decca executives fouled up badly when they rejected the group and Capitol Records were tone deaf when they drug their feet turned out to be very rational decisions at the time. As Gould states simply, the “Beatles choked” during their Decca auditions. No news there, but if Decca had signed them, then we wouldn’t have had the guiding hand of George Martin in the studio. No “Please Please Me” and likely no Beatlemania. Had Capitol issued “Please Please Me” when it was new, then the timing of the British Invasion would not have coincided so perfectly with an American cultural climate so receptive to the Beatles. Not to mention the fact Meet The Beatles was a far superior debut than Please Please Me.

I suspect most readers will find Gould’s study one to skim as many sections take their time to explore the definitions of terms like “charisma” and “mod” and thus the tome often takes on the tone of a reference volume. Other sections showcase Gould’s considerable musical knowledge, analyzing the anatomy of many of the Beatles most significant numbers. But Gould’s conclusions are more than arguable—he praises “Here, There, and Everywhere” as being a songwriting departure for the group and offers any number of technical and lyrical comments that are either tedious or overblown. For Beatle fans, such observations can serve as a bit of a game—that sounds right, no, don’t buy that at all . . .

Both these volumes demonstrate there are still writers who can offer new twists and insights into the story of the greatest rock band of all time, but I still suspect the well is drying. As those who were there disappear and memories dim, the only new perspectives will be about the Beatles place in the present and future, not the past.


Reviewer Dr. Wesley Britton is co-host of online radio’s “Dave White Presents” which features interviews with a wide range of entertainers. Past programs are archived at He is also author of four books on espionage and runs Wes teaches English at Harrisburg Area Community College.

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1 comment:

Paul said...

Without the Beatles there would be no Pop Music so we have then to thank and 40 years on there is still huge interest in the band

Paul Saunders
The Beatles Place