Everytime I even think about putting my pen to paper and writing that “great Beatles’” that I know is inside of me I think of titles like this. There are book about The Beatles’, and then there are things that are much greater. Jonathan Gould’s awesome tome definitely falls in the latter category.
It’s about so much more than the Fab Four. It’s bigger than a dissection of songs and chords. It’s all encompasing of an era. It encapsulates so much, and really takes you back in time. If you haven’t read this one yet then you absolutely should NOT miss this title. It’s one of those essential titles that all music fans should read.
Here’s what we’ve read.
Finally, what the world has been crying out for: a book about the Beatles. This is forgivable sarcasm when you consider that there are more than 500 of them already. I must have about a dozen of them myself, and have read a dozen more. These range from the indispensable – Ian MacDonald’s Revolution in the Head, Bob Spitz’s The Beatles, the Hunter Davies and Philip Norman works and, for my money the most fascinating of them all, Devin McKinney’s inspirational, insanely ambitious Magic Circles – to some of the shoddiest and most opportunistic verbiage you will encounter in the course of a reading life. Anyone with any sense of professional pride now writing about the group must feel like a treasure hunter going over ground that has been thoroughly ransacked by hundreds of people, some armed with pretty sophisticated detection equipment.
But still they keep coming out – and we still want to read them. Well, some of us, and some of them. The group still fascinates. A friend of mine, asked whether he liked them, replied that asking him whether he liked the Beatles or not was like asking a priest whether he liked God or not: the question was all but meaningless. They’re there, and you can, should you wish, accommodate yourself to the fact by inhaling every available datum of information about them.
Jonathan Gould, who by his account spent some two decades writing this, his first book, might have felt a certain despair when Spitz’s near-1,000-page biography of the band came out in 2005; but Gould plodded on, and we can be glad that he did. For it is not so much that he brings anything really new to the party – he says his book concentrates on the music more than the others, but this is true only if you ignore about two dozen of them – as that he manages, almost miraculously, to retell a story that could hardly be called unfamiliar in a way which actually manages to illuminate.
And he does it subtly (compare Henry W Sullivan’s The Beatles with Lacan, a title you could be forgiven for thinking was some kind of joke, but isn’t). The trick is in an easy fluency of writing combined with a sense of when not to dwell too much on stuff we already know. He is very good on the political backgrounds of both Britain and America – particularly, in fact, on the differing sociologies which accounted for the differing versions of British and American Beatlemania. (Interestingly, it is only when that phenomenon kicks off that the book itself wakes up; it does take a while to get going.) He has a nice line in clear-headed assessments of the group’s faults as well as their virtues, and the occasional, never intrusive way with a nice simile. By the time he says that “Tomorrow Never Knows” is “oddly reminiscent” of their version of “Twist and Shout”, you know exactly what he’s getting at.
It is a measure of the worth of the book that there is so little you could find in it to take issue with. So here are some pettifogging quibbles. The song “A Hard Day’s Night” is more like two and a half minutes long than “a full three”. Lennon and McCartney’s decision not to put Harrison’s “Not Guilty” on the White Album was not “churlish” – it was sensible, considering how dire it is. And that’s about it. If he skates over McCartney’s tomcatting or how close they came to being murdered in the Philippines, then that is probably because he knows full well you can go elsewhere for that. He doesn’t even slip up when considering matters of British heritage, culture and politics – quite a feat when you consider that I have read respected American authors dealing with the subject who think that Private Eye is a TV show, or that London still suffers from pea-soupers.
But it is in his descriptions of the songs that Gould really shines. He knows his terminology and is not afraid to use it – but he is not intimidatingly knowledgable, and when he describes a song it really is as if you’re hearing it, too. And if you ask: “What’s the point of that, then?”, maybe this book isn’t for you.
Source: UK Guardian