Writing about the Beatles has saddled me with two heavy burdens. The first is that almost everyone considers themselves an expert on what the band’s publicist Derek Taylor called “the 20th century’s greatest romance”.
I’ve noticed that many of these self-appointed sages hate to hear something about the subject that they don’t already know. My new biography of Paul McCartney was full of revelations about his life, in and after the Beatles, yet from many quarters still brought that resentful chorus of “nothing new here”.
The second, long-term burden is becoming classified as a “rock biographer”. In Britain, writing about rock music still isn’t really taken seriously — and, by and large, doesn’t deserve to be. In the US, by contrast, it’s taken far too seriously, with the earnest, plodding pair Greil Marcus and Peter Guralnick vying for supremacy in the field. To me, their combined surnames suggests a new verb, “to greilnick” - i.e., churn out leaden paragraphs overstuffed with show-offy facts, yet be unable to create a compelling narrative or convey character or atmosphere.
In listing my top 10 Beatles books, I’ve omitted most of the best-known “full” biographies. One reason is that they’re often by American authors who combine greilnicking with laughable ignorance of British culture. (In Bob Spitz’s the Beatles, for example, teenage John Lennon learns of his mother Julia’s tragic death from police arriving by “squadcar”, whereas in late-50s Liverpool it would just have been a lone copper on a bike.)
Most of my choices are peripheral works, illuminating a specific era or personality.
When I embarked on Shout! — my Beatles biography — in the late 1970s, friends and journalistic colleagues told me I was mad; there was nothing more to know. Indeed, at the beginning I was almost embarrassed to mention the B-word, saying instead I was writing about popular culture in the 1960s. How different from today, when the appetite for Fab Four trivia seems inexhaustible. If I proposed a book of Ringo’s collected laundry lists, publishers would form a queue.
1. Love Me Do: The Beatles’ Progress by Michael Braun
Braun was a 27-year-old New Yorker working in London, who presciently joined the Beatles’ 1963-64 British tour and so was on hand for their first breakthrough in the US with I Want to Hold Your Hand. Though American, he was no greilnicker but a gifted reporter whose fly-on-the-wall account prefigured many later scenes in A Hard Day’s Night. Braun paid a high price for this amazing access: John later admitted the Beatles had been “b******s” to him and photographer Dezo Hoffman remembered them throwing him a lamb chop from a room-service trolley “as if he was a dog”.
2. Paul McCartney: Many Years From Now by Barry Miles An authorised biography.
Formerly known simply as “Miles”, the author was a co-founder of Indica, the art gallery and bookshop that became the epicentre of London’s underground scene in the mid-1960s (and where John famously met Yoko Ono). Initially, Paul intended the book to deal solely with his “London years”, proving how he, not John, was the first to explore the avant garde, but Miles convinced him to include his childhood as well. The result is part-biography, part-autobiography, with long, fascinating first-person reminiscences by its subject. But there’s little about his marriage to Linda and nothing about their much-criticised career in Wings.
3. Daddy Come Home by Pauline Lennon
John grew up believing that his father, Freddy, a ship’s steward, had deserted his wife and child when John was a toddler. That feeling of abandonment continued to haunt him even as a Beatle, finally erupting in an anguished shriek of “Daddy, come home!” on the first Plastic Ono Band album. Having reappeared in John’s life in the mid-1960s, 54-year-old Freddy astonished everyone by marrying 19-year-old university student Pauline Jones, with whom he had two further children. Jones’s memoir casts him in a more sympathetic — and believable — light.
4. The Longest Cocktail Party by Richard DiLello
One of many American flower children who washed up in London in the late 1960s, DiLello became Apple’s “house hippy”. His sharp-eyed account runs from the early days, when the Beatles’ business was plundered by con artists and freeloaders, to the arrival of Allen Klein and the reign of terror that followed. Along the way, he assists in ticklish PR projects like promoting John and Yoko’s film Self-Portrait. When this extended study is boycotted by conventional reviewers, Yoko comments that “the critics wouldn’t touch it”.
5. Magical Mystery Tours: My Life With the Beatles by Tony Bramwell
Bramwell was one of the many babies delivered by Paul’s midwife mother, Mary; his house was on George’s round as a butcher’s delivery boy. As the Beatles grew more famous on Merseyside, long before they had roadies, he’d carry their guitars into gigs, becoming so ubiquitous that John nicknamed him “Measles”. His rollicking autobiography describes how he worked for Brian Epstein’s NEMS company, became an indispensable aide to Paul in particular — witness to the very moment that he fell in love with Linda — and later successively head of Apple Films and Apple Records.
6. Lennon Remembers by Jann S. Wenner
The full text of a marathon interview John gave to Rolling Stone’s co-founder in 1970, just as the band’s breakup was moving into its final chaotic phase. Like an extension of the therapy he was undergoing, it pours out John’s frustration during years straitjacketed by the Beatles’ image and his bitterness at media attacks on Yoko. It swipes at George and Paul even downgrades the Beatles’ incomparable producer George Martin to a mere “translator”. “What was all that shit about, John,” Martin finally got the chance to ask just a few months before Lennon’s murder in 1980. The reply?: “Out of me head, wasn’t I?”
7. The Man Who Gave the Beatles Away by Allan Williams
In later years, Williams competed with Pete Best as the worst case of what I call “Liverpool eyes” — the tragic gaze of those left behind when the Beatles conquered the world. His coffee bar, the Jacaranda, was the favourite hangout for a band he initially termed “a right load of layabouts”. He nonetheless got them their first work in Hamburg, driving them there in his own beaten-up van. But after they’d avoided paying his commission, he let Brian Epstein take over. This book, ghosted by Daily Mirror journalist William Marshall, has the authentic reek of Liverpool back alleys circa 1961.
8. All You Need Is Ears by George Martin
The first of the much-mourned Sir George’s two autobiographies, describing the career path — studying oboe at the Guildhall School of Music, producing classical music and comedy records by the Goons and Peter Sellers — that seemed least likely to lead to the greatest pop act of all time. And how that left him uniquely qualified him to help Lennon and McCartney to their undreamed heights.
9. As Time Goes By by Derek Taylor
Though Taylor started as a journalist, his unique wit was too subtle to work in cold print. This is mainly a collection of music-press articles written between his two stints as the Beatles’ press officer when, as he recalled, “I was a Hollywood character, which is easy if you’re a murderer or a twat or know a line of Keats”. One piece of reportage captures the authentic Derek tone in a classic instance of Paul’s readiness to perform anywhere. Driving down from the north on a golden summer’s evening in 1968, they followed a signpost to a village called Harrold simply because they liked the name. Thrilled by this whimsical visit, the villagers laid on a sumptuous cold supper, then they all adjourned to the pub where Paul sat down at the piano for a first sneak preview of Hey Jude.
10. The Lives of John Lennon by Albert Goldman
Included as a masterclass in how not to write a biography of a pop star — or anyone else. Firstly, for its blitz of untruths (John is portrayed as a schizophrenic, epileptic, autistic, bisexual killer and wife-beater) which often contradict one another. Secondly, for its ludicrous ignorance (to take just one random instance, the British police are said to wear “balaclava helmets”). Thirdly, for the sheer futility of writing an 800-plus book about a musician — and a music — its author despises. Even if the subject is a monster (which John wasn’t) your first duty as a biographer is to love your monster.
–Guardian News & Media Ltd
Paul McCartney: the Biography by Philip Norman is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson.