Review of Craig Brown's One Two Three Four: The Beatles in Time
Harper Collins, 2020
Contrary to what is stated in Craig Brown’s most recent book, One Two Three Four: The Beatles in Time, Gene Vincent did not die alongside Eddie Cochran when their taxi crashed in Chippenham on 17 April 1960; Harold Wilson was not a Liverpudlian; and the family business run by Brian Epstein was North End Music Stores, not North East Music Stores. These days any new book about The Beatles inevitably invites comparison with Mark Lewisohn’s scrupulously accurate and detailed All These Years, a three-volume account of the group’s entire career of which so far only the first weighty tome, Tune In, has been published. Lewisohn’s stated aim of telling the whole story “even-handedly, without fear or favour, bias or agenda,” whilst collecting every scrap of evidence still available to back up his findings, has engendered a heightened level of awareness amongst Beatles aficionados for dubious recollections, unsubstantiated ‘facts,’ and hitherto unquestioned howlers. Consequently, anyone venturing into the field of Beatles biography these days needs to tread carefully lest they make the kind of rudimentary errors which might once have been overlooked but now immediately devalue their work.
Having said that, and setting aside its minor mistakes, Brown’s book does not purport to be yet another chronological Beatles narrative nor seek to cover anywhere near the same overall territory as Lewisohn’s magnum opus eventually will: instead it is an eclectic survey of the Fab Four’s enduring cultural impact by way of a series of glimpses into their story and its wider resonance. Fans of Brown’s previous book Ma’am Darling, which cumulatively established how appalling Princess Margaret was, will be familiar with this format —however, this time Brown’s anecdotal montage serves to show that, unlike his previous subject, these four individuals (despite their occasional transgressions) did at least collectively do their bit to make the world a brighter place.
Structuring his book as a sort of pick’n’mix of Beatles-related trinkets gives Brown the licence to juxtapose disparate episodes in the group’s career whilst stirring in snippets from their biographies and various fan accounts of following them in the sixties. Such an approach is reminiscent of the Beatles’ own predilection for combining layers of diverse elements and found sounds in their later compositions such as I Am the Walrus, A Day In the Life and Revolution No. 9. This means that within the space of a few brief chapters a number of curious, amusing, and thought-provoking episodes sit side by side, so that the reader swoops in to witness one scenario before swooping out in search of the next. Having said that, the author sticks to a chronology of sorts in terms of setting out his material: early on he relates his experiences of visiting the childhood homes of both Paul McCartney and John Lennon, each now owned and administered by the National Trust, as well the trouble that he got into with the tour guides at both houses for taking unauthorised notes on their talks. From there we move to Lennon and McCartney’s historic meeting at the 1957 Woolton Parish Fete (although Lewisohn supplies an intriguing little footnote in Tune In which suggests that this wasn’t actually their first encounter). Their bonding as teenagers in a shared sorrow over the deaths of their respective mothers leads into a short profile of Julia Lennon. This remarkably vivacious and carefree woman, whose loss served to further envelop her son in his innately defensive cynicism, was knocked down and killed by an unaccompanied learner driver who would later become a postman and deliver fan mail to the McCartney family home —one of the surprisingly frequent, odd coincidences which punctuate the Beatles story.
Brown’s account of the group’s musical apprenticeship in Hamburg’s more insalubrious music venues, and their antics whilst living there, rehashes several anecdotes which have contributed to making this pre-superstardom period a legendary saga in itself. Just how debauched The Beatles were on and off stage during these early days, fuelled by considerable youthful appetites for alcohol and amphetamines, is impossible to determine at this distance. The surviving photographs seem to suggest that Lennon, McCartney and Harrison were having a great time, in contrast to their original drummer, Pete Best, who just looks glum. The actual motives and veiled machinations around the replacement of Best with Ringo Starr have proved impenetrable for many other Beatles annalists before Brown, and so, judiciously, he chooses not to attempt to crack this particular case, providing instead a poignant account of Best’s life afterwards, including how he battled with suicidal depression before slowly learning to be at peace with his past and indeed, these days, celebrate it via his celebrity appearances and touring band.
Following the Hamburg years, Brown documents the increasingly rapid momentum with which The Beatles’ career took off from 1963 onwards, as they left the rest of the British music scene flailing in their wake. Some within the business were charmed by their crowd-pleasing charisma and innately iconoclastic attitude to conventional expectations of popular entertainers, but others were less enthralled, including Rolf Harris: appearing on the same bill as the group in the early sixties, he was infuriated to be heckled from the wings by Lennon larking about with a microphone. Cliff Richard’s inability to similarly crack the American market seems, from the quotes that Brown uses, to rankle even to this day —Cliff being, of course, the epitome of the polished and polite performer ultimately left behind by sixties teenage pop culture.
Another dimension of Brown’s book, and one which allows him to pan out every so often in order to get a wider perspective on the phenomenon of Beatlemania, is the inclusion of first-hand fan reminiscences of being swept up in all the frenzy. Whilst the communal roar of mostly female adulation which met the group’s every appearance in theatres across the land was undoubtedly intensely real and heartfelt for those involved, the fact that this unprecedented form of teenage excitement emerged within a national culture that still retained a good many of the social and class-stratified observances fostered in the Victorian and Edwardian periods can be glimpsed in one journalist’s account of how the same group of girls who had just screamed the house down during The Beatles’ performance suddenly stood solemnly to attention for the National Anthem at the end of the show. In America, when the group made their debut on the Ed Sullivan Show in February 1964, not only was the studio audience caught up in the moment of encountering The Beatles at first hand, this initial broadcast also beamed a similar real-time experience straight into the homes of young people across the continent and proved to be an epiphanic moment for many of them. As the author Joe Queenan describes it, “to this day I believe my life as a sentient human being, and not merely as my parents’ chattel, began at that moment,” whilst it occurred to the thirteen-year-old Tom Petty that “There is a way out…You get your friends and you’re a self-contained unit. And you make the music,” and for twelve-year-old Chrissie Hynde “it was amazing. It was like the axis shifted…it was like an alien invasion.”
In addition to such oral testimony of the group’s impact on American popular culture, Brown supplies examples of fan mail that provide a curious insight into the way in which they permeated the country’s collective teenage psyche. Irma S. in North Carolina wrote to ask whether they would dedicate their next song to her, arguing that this would make it “a terrific seller, because I have loads of friends,” whilst Joan G. from Minnesota requested that they sing at her upcoming school dance, since Marsha Goldman in Grade 10 was the only person who had previously performed at these functions and “she sings ok but she always forgets the words.” Donna J. of Portland wanted them to know that she was a loyal fan, so much so that “I have every one of your records and I don’t even have a record player,” and Maxine M. of Cleveland asked them to give her a ring on the phone number supplied, although she did warn them that “if my mother answers, hang up. She is not much of a Beatles fan,” a view with which Lillie K. from Alaska was familiar, given that —as she informed her idols— “I told my mother that I can’t imagine a world without the Beatles, and she said she could easily.”
Despite what Lillie K.’s mother thought about The Beatles, within a couple of years of their first releases it was hard to imagine a world in which they were not a prominent constituent of popular culture: as a result, it seemed as if everyone wanted to know them or express an opinion about them. In the former category, Brown recounts the tale of a young Jeffrey Archer who, by 1963, had already embarked on “a lifelong career in self-promotion” and through some inventive manoeuvres managed to “elbow his way backstage” at one of the group’s concerts and persuade them to pose with him in front of a poster for a nebulous fundraising event, much to the fury of their manager Brian Epstein. An altogether more successful attempt to use The Beatles’ popularity for endorsement purposes saw Harold Wilson hobnobbing with them at the 1964 Variety Club Awards, in an effort to associate them with his self-consciously ‘pop’ campaign in the lead-up to the October General Election. Other famous names who didn’t particularly need to be associated with The Beatles in order to boost their own careers were still ready with a quotable opinion about them. These included Benjamin Britten, who admitted “I think they’re charming creatures. I don’t happen to like their music very much, but that’s just me,” whilst Noel Coward was altogether more damning in his view that The Beatles were “totally devoid of talent. There is a great deal of noise. In my day the young were taught to be seen but not heard – which is no bad thing.” In fact, being seen but not heard proved to be an ever-increasing problem, as the ear-splitting wall of sound which greeted The Beatles’ appearances at concerts across the world grew so loud that neither they nor the fans could hear the music. Despite the sybaritic lifestyle which came with life on the road, and all its financial rewards, by 1966 they had decided to stop touring altogether, having grown increasingly resentful of being immured in the constraining —and at times frightening— confines of their own phenomenal success.
After managing to bring the whole mop-top touring juggernaut to a screeching halt, it would have been perfectly understandable if the group had drifted apart as they attempted to establish some level of self-possession and equilibrium in their personal lives. Instead, what is often regarded as The Beatles’ true purple patch was just about to begin. With the release in February 1967 of the double A-side Strawberry Fields Forever/Penny Lane, and then, in May of that year, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, the group seemed to effortlessly transform themselves from teen idols into cutting-edge experimental musicians who could still knock out great tunes. For a while during this time LSD seems to have been their mind-expanding drug de jour, particularly (it would seem) for Lennon, who on one occasion was left for several minutes tripping alone on the rooftop of their Abbey Road recording studio, before the others realised and rushed up to save their band-mate from psychedelically plummeting onto the street below. An indicator of the extent to which the group had matured and expanded their horizons can be seen in the fact that Joe Orton was asked to write the screenplay for a projected film which would portray them in a wholly different light to the cheeky chaps of A Hard Day’s Night and Help! Orton’s script, entitled Up Against It, envisioned The Beatles committing murder, dressing in drag, and blowing up a war memorial, amongst other activities. That this venture never came to fruition is one of the most tantalising ‘what ifs’ in the whole Beatles story.
Outside the studio, their most headline-generating escapade during this period was their involvement with Transcendental Meditation (TM) in the form of the Indian guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. By 1968 they had hit the hippie trail in order to stay in Rishikesh for several months, in what was meant to be an opportunity to seek spiritual enlightenment via a fuller exploration of TM. With the possible exception of Harrison, this proved an ultimately disillusioning experience for them, and the four young men who finally emerged from the confines of their ashram to once more inhabit the Beatles’ collective persona seemed noticeably less flower-powered than hitherto. Gone was the boisterous exuberance of old, replaced by an altogether world-wearier and more mordant outlook — a mindset which gives a whole new level of intensity to their remaining albums, though this isn’t to deny how joyous each of those records are, in their own idiosyncratic ways.
Then comes the grand finale and, in the process of spotlighting aspects of The Beatles’ much documented and intricately fractious final few years together, Brown revisits several well-known examples of “where the whole thing started to seriously unravel.” These include the arrival of Yoko Ono as Lennon’s very own avant-garde inamorata who, according to some, purposely set out to drive a vitriolic wedge between John and his old gang with such inexcusable acts as intruding on the group’s recording sessions, sitting on McCartney’s amp, and helping herself to Harrison’s biscuits. Then there was the extravagant folly that was Apple Corp, not so much a business venture as an extended bacchanal of good intentions and astonishing profligacy. Then, in 1970, The Beatles officially broke up. In just seven years as recording artists, they had produced a body of work which remains unrivalled in its transcendent cultural impact to this day.
For all that Brown succeeds in putting a fresh spin on the oft-rehearsed major events in The Beatles’ story, where his book works best is in capturing the many incidental details and curiosities which act as a kind of vivid predella in relation to the bigger, more familiar picture. A few examples will have to suffice. There is the odd little tale of Melanie Coe, who had met McCartney when he was judging a miming contest on Ready Steady Go! in 1963, and was later the subject of the newspaper article that inspired the song She’s Leaving Home. Then there is Jimmie Nicol, who temporarily played with the group when Starr was hospitalised prior to their Australasian tour in 1964, and whose subsequent return to obscurity Brown recounts with intriguing poignancy. The roguish adventures of Fred Lennon and the bad-penny manner in which he re-entered his son’s life after years of absence, along with tales of John’s formidable Aunt Mimi, are all recounted with an engaging ability to highlight certain apparently mundane but telling details.
What perhaps doesn’t work so well is Brown’s counterfactual conjuring of scenarios in which, via a minor twist of fate, the four individuals whom we know as The Beatles either didn’t form a group or, as one example has it, didn’t achieve the dizzy heights of fame reached by their contemporaries Gerry and the Pacemakers. It is also questionable whether ending the book by working in reverse order from the death of their manager, Brian Epstein, through his troubled private life to his first sight of The Beatles in The Cavern in 1961 actually works, even though it completes the cyclic journey begun in Chapter One. But these are minor quibbles compared to the wealth of well-written and cleverly-structured content to be found in the rest of the volume. Although The Beatles disbanded over fifty years ago, everything to do with them continues to generate significant amounts of interest and cold hard cash: expanded reissues of their back catalogue, polished-up versions of their old films, or Paul McCartney’s latest money-spinning tour. For those agnostics who can take or leave The Beatles, this volume might be described as a miscellany of passing interest, but worth a look all the same. However, for those of us who have long since entered the Holy Order of Beatlemania, Brown’s book is, all in all, a charmingly impressionistic take on our sacred text.--Mark Jones