This semester, I have a cultural studies class called 50 Years of The Beatles. So I read all three books for the class. You get to read the reviews.
Meet the Beatles: A Cultural History of the Band That Shook Youth, Gender, and the World
Steven D. Stark
The first book is a straight-forward history of the band in terms of their cultural impact. Stark goes from The Beatles first days as the Quarry Men where they were very much like The Monkees who poked gentle fun at them later. They weren’t very good and often lacked a drummer. But when Paul McCartney and John Lennon formed a partnership, something sparked, solidified by the addition of George Harrison. Their biggest problem was keeping a drummer. They often performed without one, and it would be 1960 before Pete Best and the future Ringo Starr (who started out covering for Best occasionally) would provide stability behind the kit (and, more importantly, the kit itself). Best and Stuart Sutcliffe are often remembered as The Beatles who lost out. While Best was ousted (mainly through the prodding of George Martin and Brian Epstein), Sutcliffe lost interest, drawn more to art. However, their role is almost as important in finishing The Beatles as the arrival of Ringo. (Best, it should be noted, was the only former Beatle to attend road manager and Apple CEO Neil Aspinall’s funeral, the others represented by children, one ex, and Yoko Ono to prevent the service from becoming a circus.)
Stark then proceeds to elaborate how The Beatles phenomenon caused a cultural shockwave. They were the first somewhat androgynous rock stars, well-dressed and rather asexual compared to the raging machismo of Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis, and, to a lesser extent, Buddy Holly. Their encounter with Bob Dylan led to chemical and lyrical experimentation that only enhanced their popularity, which in turn made them trailblazers in the counter-culture.
On the downside, Stark is rather uncharitable to The Beatles’ efforts after their breakup, is dismissive of Abbey Road, and has a bit of a bias against Paul McCartney in his role in the band’s end. Everyone puts the blame at least one of The Beatles, except maybe Ringo. He also ignores the closeness that remained after the breakup. John and Paul made several attempts to bury the hatchet, potshots in the press aside, and George Harrison was extremely distraught over Lennon’s murder.
But where Stark shines is showing where The Beatles came from and why they were who they were. John, Paul, Ringo, and, Stark adds, Pete Best were all from homes where one parent had died or abandoned them. George came from a hard-working blue collar family who saw his efforts with The Beatles as an extension of their Liverpool roots. Moreover, the importance of Stuart Sutcliffe’s presence, particularly his influence on John Lennon long after his death in 1961, becomes crystal clear.
Read the Beatles
Edited by June Skinner Sawyers
Read the Beatles is a different kind of history of the group. Editor Sawyers collects 52 essays from all corners, kicked off with a foreword by Astrid Kirchherr, the band’s ardent supporter in their Hamburg days and girlfriend of original bassist Stuart Sutcliffe. The essays range from speculation (“The Afternoon Hours” by Jim O’Donnell, a fictionalized account of John and Paul’s first meeting) to eyewitness account (Jim Kirkpatrick’s piece on George Harrison’s first ever radio appearance in America) to fanboyish (Christopher Porterfield’s Time Magazine essay practically drooling over the band’s output and position in culture.)
It’s the interviews that give the best account of The Beatles. Gloria Steinem conveys a sense of confusion after meeting the human whirlwind that was the pre-Yoko John Lennon.More poignant is Lennon’s last interview, give only 48 hours before his death. Perhaps more poignant was the inclusion of a poem by Paul McCartney where he is barely able to convey his grief over the loss of his former partner.
There is, however, an annoying tendency by the critics in this collection to dismiss the Beatles’ solo efforts as lacking or pale shadows. Also, one essayist seems miffed that Abbey Road is as beloved as it is. Despite firsthand accounts by three of The Beatles (Ringo is criminally underserved here.) stating that the breakup was almost inevitable after Sgt. Pepper, many of the writers are very much guilty of asking the same question Robert Plant summed up about Led Zeppelin later. “Where’s my ‘Whole Lotta Love, Parts 2, 3, and 4?” They seem to want Sgt. Pepper, Volumes II, III, & IV. Even if they had stayed together, a 1970’s Beatles would have sounded vastly different from even Abbey Road. (Ironically, the most Beatlesque former member these days is Pete Best, whose output sounds like a fresh take on Beatle co-conspirator Jeff Lynne.)
What really sells the collection, though, is the final essay by music writer Toure. Toure writes about discovering The Beatles as a kid, which seemed odd to him as he is black. But while the racial angle provides a unique perspective on The Beatles, Toure came to the group the same way I did, becoming aware of them after they broke up. The only Beatles tune I remember when it was current was “Something,” which may explain my fondness for Abbey Road. But Toure compares those who grew up watching The Beatles grow into an institution to his early adulthood and Michael Jackson’s rise and fall. Jackson appeared during my high school years and was the closest thing to an Elvis or a Beatles my or Toure’s generations knew.
Revolver: How the Beatles Re-imagined Rock and Roll
This last book could a literary version of Sound City, only instead of a bunch of bands trying to get the sounds of their amps onto vinyl, The Beatles attempt what was never attempted before: Putting sounds that can’t be made onto vinyl. Whereas the former derides digital recording as a cheap way to cover the shortcomings of less talented musicians, the latter shows what happens when the studio becomes an instrument. Granted, much of what was accomplished on Revolver could be done in a couple of hours now using Pro Tools, the sounds on that album came about from trial and error. It’s rather telling that Paul McCartney is in Sound City, because much of his approach to creating “Cut Me Some Slack” with the remnants of Nirvana date all the way back to the experiments he did with Lennon, Harrison, and Starr.
Rodriguez also posits that Revolver, not Sgt. Pepper’s, is The Beatles artistic peak. In the first third of the book, he describes the back and forth with other bands that drove the Fab Four to higher and higher creative efforts. There were creative rivalries with the Beach Boys (Brian Wilson was insanely jealous of Paul McCartney), the Rolling Stones (who, despite their friendship with The Beatles, annoyed John Lennon to no end), and The Byrds. They also had a collective man crush on Bob Dylan.
The last third deconstructs Sgt. Pepper’s, which Rodriguez ultimately finds wanting, with the exception of the brilliant “A Day in the Life.” In between, Revolver is a music nerd’s delight, discussing such arcane things as varispeed and ADT. While the book does give insight to the band’s inner workings and politics, it dispels several myths about how the band got along in the mid-1960’s. George Harrison truly came into his own on this album, not only contributing three songs, but providing some of the glue that holds the album together. Also,the importance of Ringo Starr’s presence in the studio is brought into clear focus here. Starr was not the typical rock drummer, who are generally seen as light-headed, unpredictable, and otherwise there for rhythm. Not only were Ringo’s instincts on the drums crucial to nailing the right sound, but he also provided snippets of lyrics and melody that brought many of the songs together.