Fifty years since their dissolution in April 1970 the Beatles live on. The bands music, their significance and their individual personalities exert a hold on the cultural consciousness that seems to tighten as their heyday recedes. But is there anything new to say? Craig Browns One Two Three Four, the latest to enter the crowded library of Beatles books, is not a biography so much as a group portrait in vignettes, a rearrangement of stories and legends whose trick is to make them gleam anew.
The subtitle, The Beatles in Time, marks out the books difference from the rest. Brown goes on Beatles jaunts around Liverpool and Hamburg, visits fan festivals, tests the strength of the industry that has agglomerated around them. So many of the clubs where they played are now lost or changed beyond recognition – “a memory of a memory” – and the fans who do the pilgrimages are simply chasing shadows.
Brown, the arch-satirist, is wry about the 1,000-plus Beatles tribute acts worldwide. At times, the slightly desperate nostalgia of International Beatle Week in Liverpool reminds him of his parents watching The Good Old Days in the 1970s, a collective delusion that the dead can be revived. But then he watches tribute band the Fab Four play She Loves You and hes transported. A double fantasy is at work – “for as long as they play, we are all 50 years younger, gazing in wonder at the Beatles in their prime.”
The book is a social history as well as a musical one. Success came slowly at first, and then quickly, “as a landslide, flattening those ahead”. Cliff Richard, once the golden boy of British pop, sounds (even decades later) mightily miffed about the way the Beatles displaced him. Prime ministers were as susceptible as teenagers: Harold Wilson sought an audience with them and later arranged their MBEs.
In the US, their appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show had a seismic effect: it seemed nobody could talk about anything else. Some responded in bemusement. Cassius Clay, after a jokey photo session with “the boys”, asked a reporter: “Who were those little sissies?” The actor Eleanor Bron recalls girls screaming “like starlings” as the Beatles landed at Heathrow – “a high sighing hopeless poignant sound, unrequitable”. You can almost feel the 1960s bloom from monochrome into colour as the band plays irresistibly on.
Brown is an able memoirist, with an instinct for selection that quite eludes the Beatles most exhaustive chronicler, Mark Lewisohn, whose basic principle is to include everything he knows. One Two Three Four hasnt the authority or the insight of Ian MacDonalds sacred Revolution in the Head, and lacking an index it isnt as useful as Philip Normans 1981 biography Shout! But it does an intriguing sideline in characters who were tangential to the Beatles story – such as Richard and Margaret Asher, who welcomed Paul as one of the family into their Wimpole Street home when he was going out with their daughter, Jane. Or the drummer Jimmie Nicol, a Beatle-surrogate for 10 days when Ringo had tonsilitis and whose life thereafter fell through the cracks. Or the sad figure of Eric Clague, former police constable, who discovered by chance that the woman he had accidentally run down and killed years before was Julia Lennon, Johns mum.
This is the strange paradox of the Beatles. Listening to the sound that John, Paul, George and Ringo created still plugs us right into the “happiness and exhilaration” that their producer, the gentlemanly George Martin, talked of. Reading about them, conversely, is quite a melancholy experience, because the end seems always in sight.
Its noticeable in this book how, once they are famous, they become prey to the most outrageous hangers-on. This vulnerability is most evident in John, the prickliest of the four, and also the neediest. He was first seduced by Magic Alex, a Greek conman whom he appointed his guru and electronics expert. Then he and George fell under the spell of the Maharishi.
Finally, and fatefully, came Yoko Ono, who John initially assured his wife Cynthia was “crackers, just a weirdo artist who wants me to sponsor her”. Brown reserves a particular scorn for Yoko, not because she “broke up the Beatles” – that was inevitable – but because her narcissism egged Lennon on to painful extremes of silliness and self-importance.
The saddest irony was that the Beatles once did have someone to take care of them. The Hamlets Ghost of this book is Brian Epstein, whose story Brown plots in reverse – from the eclipse of his lonely suicide to the bright-eyed overtures as manager and impresario. It makes a poignant epilogue. Of course that story is nothing without the Beatles talent, but here is the reminder of how Epstein discovered it, packaged it, and sold it. Had he not taken himself down the steps of the Cavern Club one lunchtime in November 1961, the world might never have heard of the Beatles. As Lennon once admitted: “Brian … made it all seem real. We were in a daydream til he came along … We stopped chomping at cheese rolls and jam butties onstage.”