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The Beatles: The Biography by Bob Spitz (2006)


Is the world ready for a thousand-page critical history of the boys from Liverpool? The answer is a resounding yes, because Bob Spitz addressed this project with the thoroughness of a presidential biography. Moreover, he is a magnificent story teller, and even at its length this work is a page turner. The young reader will find this a remarkable tale of a defining moment in the entertainment industry, while old “Uncle Alberts” like myself will remember the days when we all hacked around on guitars to get that opening chord to “Hard Day’s Night,” George Harrison’s G7 with an added ninth and a suspended fourth, as the author explains. [502] So what can the reader expect to learn from this compelling tale of the foursome?

The British Setting. All four Beatles grew up in a country recovering from war, in an industrial port town [Liverpool], where the natives called themselves “Scousers” and nurtured a long-standing inferiority complex regarding London and England’s upper class. The government owned radio station, the BBC, effectively embargoed the emerging US rock music as substandard. Teenagers like John Lennon devoured American artists like Elvis and the Everly Brothers from a rogue radio station in Luxembourg, of all places, while revealing in England’s youth pop of the time, Skiffle.

The Lennon-McCartney Brotherhood. Spitz is masterful in describing the twelve year relationship of the two, who met at roughly the age of 17. They became like brothers, though in the mold of Esau and Jacob, perhaps. Much has been written of their composing mastery, but Spitz documents just how prolific and spontaneous they actually were. What is equally surprising is how they composed during periods of terrible strains in their relationships. When John and Paul could no longer be reconciled, the Beatles dissolved.

Brian Epstein. He is, as the story unfolds, the best thing and the worst thing to happen to the Beatles. He was the young manager of the record department in his family’s department store, who for a multitude of reasons made the Beatles his project. His moxie, coupled with the Beatles’ stage charisma and not a little luck, landed the group’s contract with Britain’s recording giant EMI [and its American subsidiary, Capital]. Again, for complex reasons, Epstein was able to control the group’s inner dynamics after it became internationally famous. But he was a dreadful business manager–the EMI contract, for starters, paid pennies for most of the Beatles’ greatest hits and copyrighted lyrics, and as an afterthought he sold marketing rights to Beatles’ products to an unknown entrepreneur for a 10% return. [465ff] Distracted by a dark and violent homosexual lifestyle, he probably cost the group close to a billion dollars in lost revenue.

Ringo Starr. Aren’t drummers a dime a dozen? Not superstar drummers, apparently. As the Beatles stood on the threshold of their breakout in 1962, McCartney and Lennon determined that the absence of a first rate drummer was the missing piece. Although it meant parting with the handsomely popular but average stroker Pete Best and a lot of fan fallout, the Beatles raided Rory Storm’s band for Richie “Rings” Starkey, and the rest, as they say…

The Turbulent American Tours. Those of us who remember the two Beatles’ tours of the US-including that Sunday night TV extravaganza with Ed Sullivan-will probably be shocked to discover the Beatles’ own bitter reactions to their treatment by American audiences. Mick Jagger attended the Shea Stadium concert in the stands and became “visibly shaken,” telling a friend “it’s frightening.” [577] Aside from stage crashing and riots in the audiences, American fans mistook “jelly babies,” the little gummy candies reportedly enjoyed by the Beatles, for “jelly beans” and pelted the group mercilessly with these painful missiles. John Lennon in particular became convinced that the noisy crowds had no interest in their musical art [impossible to hear in the melees] and after their second tour of the US the group decided to become a recording studio group only.

Reinvention. Spitz carefully examines the evolution of Beatles’ style and substance. The milestone markers of the evolution were the albums. Beatle fans to this day can probably identify each Beatle album as a particular statement of where they were-artistically, emotionally, philosophically-at the time of release. And within the group itself, George Harrison came on strong at the end to establish himself as a lyricist, soloist, and musician. Harrison brought Eastern sound to the medley and later penetrated the mysteries of the new “synthesizer,” making the Beatles the first to use new age gadgetry in the recording process.

John Lennon’s Drug Addiction. Spitz does not back away from the truth that the Beatles were no strangers to mind altering substances, and all indulged prodigiously in alcohol, amphetamines, and marijuana [not to mention tobacco and, apparently, coffee]. But Lennon became a regular LSD user, and believing it expanded creative powers, he was enraged with McCartney’s caution about the drug. Lennon later declined into serious heroin use, which led to paranoia. He came to believe, for example, that “Hey Jude” was McCartney’s permission for Lennon to court the questionable Yoko Ono.

Yoko Ono. In a departure from his uniform decorum, Spitz refers to Ono as “loopy,” and this may be an understatement. What else can be said about a woman who marketed the sound of her miscarried child’s heartbeat on an album? [834] Of course, by the time she “stole” the deeply disturbed Lennon from the Beatles, it was petit larceny at worst.

George Martin. A middle-aged man with classical tastes, he was assigned the task of producing everything we know, love, and remember of the original Beatles’ sound. Underpaid, infinitely patient [particularly in the Yoko Ono days], and remarkably open-minded in his shirt and tie, he gave the imprimatur to every sound of every track. Of everyone in this book, Martin is the man of shining character. God bless him.

You will never hear the Beatles again in quite the same way.

May 14, 2013 Posted by | Book The Beatles: The Biography by Bob Spitz | , | Leave a comment