One Two Three Four: The Beatles in Time, by Craig Brown, Fourth Estate, 642 pp, £9.99, ISBN: 978-0008340032
Two men prepare to descend to the basement venue. High above them, a sequence of planets is moving into position. The men are wearing suits and though the venue is a bit of a dive, they’ve heard encouraging things about this new group; so down they go. The band members ‑ “three yobs with guitars” and a drummer ‑ are not what you’d call polished; they shout and swear and they horse around between songs, pretending to hit one another. The planets have not yet aligned. Appalled, and yet impressed, by what they have witnessed, the visitors go over afterwards and introduce themselves. “Hello there,” says George Harrison. “What brings Mr Epstein here?” The planets click into place. Brian Epstein has met the Beatles.
Wait, not another book about the Beatles? Surely that story’s bones have been picked clean by now? What saves One Two Three Four from being just another Beatles indulgathon is how the author has reworked the standard biography template. His take is a seductive miscellany of essays, insider accounts, opinions, flight-of-fancy yarns, and more. Much of it is sourced from already published material but Brown also includes his own opinions and anecdotes. Somehow he has managed to create a uniquely fresh perceptive on a well-worn story.
In 1961, when that first meeting with Epstein takes place, the Beatles are four talented youngsters high on nothing more psychedelic than Starbursts, larking about in the Cavern. The lightning celerity of their ascent to the top of Mount Fame still astonishes. By 1962, they have a number one hit in Britain. The following year, as if operating on fast-forward, they hold the top five places on America’s Billboard chart. Here’s how Brown describes the reach of their stardom by 1963: “In MadameTussauds, their wax effigies took their place alongside world leaders, mass murderers and members of the royal family. In West Bridgeford, Nottinghamshire, four brainy pupils of the Becket Grammar School closed their school concert with a spirited rendition of From Me to You in Latin [A Me ad Vos]. The students of Leeds University elected Ringo Starr their vice-president in preference to a former lord chief justice. Visiting the EMI studios, Sir Malcolm Sargeant, the most celebrated British conductor of the day, asked George Martin if he might effect an introduction (‘Chaps, Sir Malcolm would like to say ‘Hello’).”
Everyone had a favourite Beatle, though Brown unkindly suggests Ringo was the Beatle “for girls who lacked ambition”. However not everyone liked the Beatles, even in their heyday. Forced together for a 1964 photo shoot with Muhammad Ali (then Cassius Clay) the atmosphere was anything but relaxed, with the boxer referring to them as “little sissies” and them hitting back with “stupid wanker”. The Beatles were awestruck by Elvis but he, according to an official memo, later told the FBI he believed the group “laid the groundwork for many of the problems we are having with young people by their filthy unkempt appearances and suggestive music”.
Neither were all Lennon-McCartney lyrics immediately appreciated. After playing their newly composed She Loves You (yeah, yeah, yeah) to Paul’s father, Jim McCartney said he liked the song but wondered if the lyrics needed to sound so American. “Couldn’t you sing, ‘She loves you, yes, yes, yes’?” he suggested. They didn’t, knowing the song was perfect. Within a month of being released in August 1963, the single sold three-quarters of a million copies in Britain – the UK’s fastest-selling record ever. But the song wasn’t just a successful toe-tapper that charted for thirty-one weeks. For conservatives She Loves You was an “an alarm call”, writes Brown, while for Marxists it symbolised the decadence of the West. In a speech to party comrades, the communist East German leader Walter Ulbricht called for a stop to the Beatle’s monotonous “yeah yeah yeah, or whatever it’s called”, then asking: “Is it truly the case that we have to copy all the dirt that comes from the West?”
By then the Beatles were the most famous people on earth, and everyone wanted a bit of them. Sometimes literally. For Sylvia M in New York City, who addressed her fan letter to John, it was some of their hair: “You know you have plenty of hair, so you can spare one lock each for me.” For Canadian dentist Dr Michael Zuk, it was a decayed tooth that once resided in the Lennon jaw, for which he paid £19,000 at auction. To be displayed as a warning to patients? No, it was the possibility of extracting DNA from the discoloured molar “for people who believe they are John Lennon’s child and have a claim to his estate”. With a finder’s fee coming his way.
There are more snippets from fan letters, some of them heart-crushingly lovely. This girl in Atlanta, Georgia could barely contain herself in a breathless letter that begins: “Dear, darling Beatles, To think that I, Harriet Watts, live on the same planet with the Beatles, breathe the same air as the Beatles, see the same sun, moon and stars as the Beatles. Oh! It’s just too much!” Donna J from Maine wanted them to know that she had bought all their records “and I don’t even have a record player”. Maxine M in Ohio sent her phone number along with the warning, “If my mother answers, hang up. She is not much of a Beatle fan.”
A writer wanting to get heavy about it would be noting how those teenage letters in fact reflected the inter-generational polarisation that was dividing America at the time, but Brown doesn’t overanalyse the phenomenon or try and explain away the magic; mostly he provides readers with views from a variety of angles and lets them decide. Unless it’s to do with Yoko Ono. The core mythology about Ono has always been that the band was carefree and creative until she pushed her way in and destroyed Camelot. Brown seems to agree and there is plenty here on the pyrotechnic hatred Ono attracted, and why.
The chapter on the band’s 1964 Ed Sullivan Show appearance is a masterclass in descriptive reporting, a very pleasing companion piece to the clips we can view on YouTube. “Head down, eyes darting to and fro, [Ed] Sullivan enters, sombre and shifty, looking like the shady brother of Humphrey Bogart.” The already overwrought audience have to endure Sullivan’s ramblings and breaks for cheesy adverts (“Nothin’ says lovin’ like something from the oven – and Pillbury says it best”) before their idols finally come on. How to describe those piercing screams? The New York Herald-Tribune reporter in the studio has a go, comparing the noise to “that terrible screech the BMT Astoria train makes as it turns east near 59th Street and Seventh Avenue”.
The show had seventy-three million viewers, second in size only, we are reminded, to the number that had tuned in eleven weeks previously following an announcement that began, “News just in of shots fired in Dallas”.
In some chapters Brown can’t help playing for shock value, for instance on the phenomenon of “uncontrollable” fan behaviour. When the Beatles landed in Houston, their plane was surrounded while the engines were still running. Fans surged forward and some managed to clamber onto the wings and crawl to the portholes so they could wave in. In Dallas, teenagers walked from the airport to the Beatles’ hotel, many of them in tears. One clutched a bunch of grass in her hands, screaming: “Ringo! Ringo walked on this grass!”
Throughout there are modest but still interesting revelations. Hey Jude is literature’s most mentioned song. The inspiration for the name Sergeant Pepper came during an inflight meal when Paul noticed the S and P initials on the condiments. Paul was the only band member to visit the heart-broken Cynthia Lennon after John left her for Yoko Ono; on his way home he wrote Hey Jude (originally Hey Jules) to cheer up her five-year-old son, Julian. (Full disclosure: Paul was my favourite Beatle.)
There’s a tragicomic chapter on the Singing Nun, the unlikely chart-topper best-known for her uptempo song in French about St Dominic. There was no place Sister Luc-Gabriel’s sweet voice and wholesome lyrics once the Beatles burst on the scene, and her life went into a downward spiral. Once-famous bands tell how the arrival of the Beatles permanently elbowed them out of the limelight. For the unfortunate Pete Best, replaced early on in the Beatles by Ringo, nothing would ever be the same again. Elsewhere there is an affecting account of the driver who in 1958 knocked down and killed John Lennon’s mother, Julia. The wattage of Lennon’s celebrity ensured that he would never be able to move on from the horror. Tracked down by a reporter in 1998, he said he had never told his wife and children about the accident, adding: “I suppose I will have to now.”
Such is their enduring legacy that the Beatles industry rolls on half a century later. As well as tours, festivals, fairs, auctions and academic courses there are more than a thousand tribute bands worldwide, many of them, we are reminded, playing together for longer than the real Beatles ever did.
Brown went to Liverpool to see one such act. Gazing around the large hall filling up with senior citizens, many of them “togged up in their Beatles gear”, he wonders what he has let himself in for: “With a change of clothes it might almost have been a reunion of Second World War veterans, gathered for a fly-past of Spitfires.” But when the band comes onstage and kicks into She Loves You it’s powerful and it’s transformative, because “for as long as they play, we are all fifty years younger, gazing in wonder at the Beatles in their prime”.
It’s now half a century since the band that redefined pop music broke up. George and John are dead. Ringo is eighty, Paul is seventy-eight. The Beatles’ influence is huge and enduring; so yes, there will always be room for another book. Craig Brown has put together a witty and profound wallow in nostalgia. We are reminded what all the fuss was about.
Maura O’Kiely is an Irish Times journalist.