December 31, 2014

The Beatles Anthology: Book Review

You can keep the books by those who were ‘there’ at varying periods. Those by Peter Brown, Cynthia Lennon, Pete Shotton, maybe Hunter Davies. The “Day-by-Day” series of books by Mark Lewisohn are also invaluable. But all the other Beatle books scribbled by hundreds of journalists, music critics, and quickie biographers can be swept off the shelf and tossed in the can. From this moment forward, there is no real point to future authors rehashing the history of the world’s most famous rock group. The Beatles themselves have thoroughly detailed every significant iota of their tale in the new 5-pound doorstop of recollections titled “The Beatles Anthology.”

Embellishing on the details covered in their 1995 series of videocassettes, this coffee- table tome is packed with seemingly-fresh anecdotes and insights into the whirlwind rise and ride of the moptop revolution. Unlike that 9-hour anthology, which tended to skirt quickly past the “Rubber Soul”-to-“Sergeant Pepper” phase of their career, this 368-page book generously lends equal weight to all episodes of the group’s journey. With a 12” x 15” format and tiny font, the final tally of pages if shrunk to fit a regular-sized hardcover would come to around 500 pages worth of remembrances. For those who have read and re-read the story of The Beatles, there are no revelations that have not been unearthed before. Instead, the fresh approach of hearing each Beatle tell their side of any one incident lends psychological insight into their varying personalities and the dynamic adhesive that bonded four creative Liverpudlians.

It is no surprise that Paul’s personality, as depicted in the book, comes across as a guy who views the world through ‘can-do’ optimistic shades. He has always been unfairly pegged as the Beatle who writes the silly love songs, and he incessantly tries to remind us of his avant-garde, experimental leanings (folks, he did write the manic screed of “Helter Skelter”). John, whose contributions are lifted from various interview sources, of course, cuts through the nostalgia with acerbic wit and weariness. George’s spirituality sprinkles his testimony, putting into perspective that the Beatles were simply just a rock group in the grand scheme of the universe. Surprisingly, it’s Ringo’s observations that lend the book its most concise summations and objective analyses. We don’t usually hear much from Mr. Starr, and his viewpoints and side-stories are refreshing and extremely aware.

Where most biographies of the bunch recount the tale of their rise to notoriety in a mythical, cut-and-dry narrative, this version truly shows how rather ordinary these blokes were when they started out. The hallowed moment when Paul met John at the Woolton church gig has been deified to no end, but, as told by the Beatles themselves, it was actually a happenstance afternoon in the lives of some childhood chums. They were just a bunch of kids who barely knew how to strum an instrument. Their talent may have been genetically-bestowed, but their versatility was borne out of hundreds of hours of practice, practice, practice. When Ringo first spotted John and Paul teaching Stu Sutcliffe how to play guitar at Liverpool’s Jacaranda club, he surmised that “they meant nothing in those days – they were just a group of scruffs.”

At first, capitalism, and maybe not art, played a big part in their drive for success. John recounted, “I had to be a millionaire. If I couldn’t do it without being crooked, then I’d have to be crooked.” George relates, “I never felt that because I was from Liverpool I shouldn’t live in a big mansion house myself one day.” Ringo had concocted a plan to contact the world’s richest men, like Sinatra, request a loan of a million from each, bank it for a year’s interest, then return the loans, and reap the interest gain. Their quest for the almighty pound was realized, and although business relations soured, taxmen collected, and money couldn’t buy them love, none of the Beatles appears to vocalize any corruption from the fruits wealth has afforded them.

While the foursome appeared to be shockingly counterculture for their day in the ‘long-hair’ psychedelia phase of the late 1960s, the Beatles were truly at their craziest during their early ‘60s Hamburg jaunts. Performing the long hours on uppers to unruly, gangster-laced Germans, the boys seemed to relish every vice. The bonds of unity amongst the group’s members solidified, as exemplified when young George lost his virginity to a local German girl in a bunk bed, while the others quietly looked on, cheering him afterwards. A certain callousness seemed to filter into their personalities during this giant period of discovery that still lingers in their current recollections.

Their original drummer, Pete Best, is a casualty of that callousness. He is barely mentioned in the book, yet he was with the boys for two years. His viewpoints, if allowed to have been a part of the narrative, would’ve perhaps shown how the innocence of John, Paul and George evolved into a street-wise, ‘us-against-them’ attitude that pervaded their psyches over the next decade. When their other Hamburg bandmate, Sutcliffe, died of a cerebral hemorrhage, the callousness had already been set. The band hardly mourned for him, as Paul relates, saying, “being so young, we didn’t go on about it.” The carefully-constructed wall they’d erected around themselves seems to have allowed them to grow creatively as a microcosmic entity, but also fostered their dismissal in the work of others.

Lennon in particular is quoted as having a love-hate relationship with outside contributors. Their producer, George Martin, unquestionably was a tremendous asset when the Beatles stopped touring and moved into the studio. His suggestions to add orchestrations and brass to classics like “Penny Lane” and “A Day In The Life” propelled the group in innovative and critically-acclaimed directions. But Lennon began to dismiss Martin’s contributions towards the end of their reign, growling how he didn’t want Martin ‘messing about’ with the songs on “Abbey Road.” (It is ironic that Lennon praised producer Phil Spector’s bombastic over-orchestrations on the previous “Let It Be” album). While writing “A Day In The Life,” John couldn’t think of a word to place in the line “now they know how many holes it takes to – something – the Albert Hall.” Friend Terry Doran suggested the word “fill.” Lennon dismissively is quoted as saying, “Other people don’t necessarily give you a word or a line, they just throw in the word you’re looking for anyway.” Yes, God forbid, others helped the great John Lennon!

Outside of these varied egotistical tendencies, the Beatles do exude their fair share of charm. Recounting their travails in 1963 touring the English countryside in a dilapidated van, lying on top of each other to conserve warmth in a ‘Beatles sandwich,’ their tales spotlight the struggles they endured to attain a modicum of success. When they began to fly to gigs, the boys were so cheerfully naïve about air travel that on an overbooked trip from London to Glasgow, Ringo offered to stand the whole way, as if he had boarded a double-decker bus.

Anecdotes help bring a more genial picture to familiar, overly-reported instances in the lives of the Fab Four. While everyone was on the great spiritual quest to see the Maharishi in Rishikesh, India, Ringo relates how he had to virtually shout at the top of his lungs to keep tarantulas and scorpions out of his tub each time he bathed. George shares how the rest of them always got irritated with Paul’s constant crowd-pleasing and impromptu autograph sessions. “Where is he? Oh, bugger, there he is – ‘Oh yes, what’s your name? Betty – To Betty, love Paul!’ – ‘Come on and get in the f****** car. Let’s get out of here!” While vacationing in Miami, during the 1964 tour, the jovial Ringo commandeered the controls of a speedboat and managed to crash the craft while trying to dock at a jetty, not realizing boats don’t have brakes.

One of the best anecdotes about their camaraderie comes from Paul, who described this motoring ritual in early 1966: “After recording sessions, at two or three in the morning, we’d be careering through the villages on the way to Weybridge (where John lived), shouting ‘wey-hey’ and driving much too fast. George would perhaps be in his Ferrari – he was quite a fast driver – and John and I would be following in his big Rolls Royce or the Princess. John had a mike in the Rolls with a loudspeaker outside and he’d be shouting to George in front: ‘It is foolish to resist, it is foolish to resist! Pull over!’ It was insane. All the lights would go on in the houses as we went past – it must have freaked everybody out.”

As mentioned before, Ringo has a very keen eye for detail, and his voice has been the least heard of the group’s up to this point. Particularly insightful are his throwaway lines about the band’s first year of skyrocketing success. He points out that if one looks at the members around the time they started to first record, everyone appeared heavier because they all could finally afford to eat. Like his fellow moptops, he never shies away from the fact that the Beatles partook of many drugs. His funny take on their narcotic habit is given the wry Ringo humor in his recollection of their summer tour through America in 1964. “The police were very good to us in those days because they would take all the pills or stuff off the kids and give it to me. I loved the police!” While the others talk about the incessant screaming fans at performances that continually drowned out their music, journeyman Ringo dryly comments on how he valiantly tried to keep the band grooving. “I just had to hang onto the backbeat all the time to keep everybody together. I used to have to follow their three bums wiggling to see where we were in the song.”

For many, the big paycheck is the defining moment of transition. For others it is the adulation one suddenly receives from the masses. For Ringo, he trenchantly observed his ‘passing’ into celebritydom amongst his own family, when he went to his aunt’s home for a routine visit in 1963. “We were having a cup of tea one night and somebody knocked the coffee table and my tea spilt onto my saucer. Everyone’s reaction was, ‘He can’t have that. We have to tidy up.’ That would never have happened before. I thought then, ‘Things are changing.’ It was absolutely an arrow in the brain.”

Folklore is finally, definitively, quashed or affirmed as fact in several instances throughout the book. Everyone agrees that “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” was based on a picture drawn by young Julian Lennon and was not about LSD. John did not laugh, as some reported, when Stu Sutcliffe died. The movie “Help” was indeed filmed in a pot-filled haze, after the boys had been introduced to the mind-altering drug through Bob Dylan. The line “I know what it’s like to be dead” in the song “She Said, She Said” was uttered by Peter Fonda at a Hollywood gathering (George on Peter: he “was very uncool;” John on Peter: “we kept leaving him, because he was so boring”).

The book is arranged chronologically in short bursts of monologue randomly contributed from each member. George Martin, Derek Taylor (the Beatles’ press officer), and Neil Aspinall (the group’s road manager) also contribute their reveries on days of yore. This technique results in a “Rashomon” approach to every event, with each eyewitness recounting their spin on the litany of fabled incidents. This style is exciting during moments of high adventure, such as the band’s nightmare stopover in the Philippines, and redundant during times of casual encounters, such as the boys summit with Elvis Presley. (All four Beatles simply reiterate how the shy King just stared at the TV and strummed a bass guitar). While some incidents like their Ed Sullivan appearances are dealt with swiftly, others, like the passing of their best friend and manager Brian Epstein are given detailed solemnity. Overall, the balance of first-person reporting is comprehensive and valid.

Packed with photos, invoices, tickets, notes, documents, and formative lyrics, “The Beatles Anthology” delivers enough eye candy for repeated browsing. Many of the candid photos reveal the easygoing nature between the four members, even during the supposedly-tense final days. Standout shots include the boys waiting to walk across the street for the “Abbey Road” cover photo and the dour faces of all involved while seeking enlightenment in India with the Maharishi.

For the majority of this book, The Beatles’ assessments appear honest and sometimes startlingly concise. “You have to be a bastard to make it, and that’s a fact. And The Beatles were the biggest bastards on earth,” John eloquently concludes. Ringo succinctly wafts through the mountain of speculation on all of the ‘why’s’ regarding the dissolution of the Fab juggernaut. “Yoko’s taken a lot of s***, her and Linda, but The Beatles’ breakup wasn’t their fault. It was just that suddenly we were all thirty and married and changed. We couldn’t carry on that life any more.” ‘Nuff said. If you’re cruising for the most comprehensive source to authoritatively quench your Beatles fixation, then “The Beatles Anthology” is your ticket to ride.


© 2000 Ned Truslow


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