Sign up for our free newsletter
Fans of the Beatles who came of age in the ’70s and ’80s have always lamented having “missed” the group’s heydayas if the ’60s were a train whose departure we had stupidly slept through. How cruel that we’d never know the Instant Karma generated by the first Ed Sullivan show, Shea Stadium, or the far-out sounds on the new Beatles album! Even more cruel: The only seminal Beatle Moment we could digest firsthand came one miserable December day in 1980.
But the Information Age may have given us reason to rethink our second-class Beatle-fan status. After all, the generation that screamed its collective head off for John, Paul, George, and Ringo never actually heard the band play, certainly not in the delicious detail enjoyed by the post-boomer Beatle freaks. Need all 27 studio takes of “Strawberry Fields Forever”? Complete soundboard-quality documents of any live show? Dozens of superb CD bootlegs surfaced in the late ’80s and early ’90s, yielding unprecedented insight into the Beatles’ musicand sending the band’s label, EMI-Capitol, scurrying to the vaults to find unbootlegged material for official releases like The Beatles Anthology, and, more recently, The John Lennon Anthology.
With this endless, if slowing, issuance of “new” Beatles musical product has come an equally lucrative commerce in Beatle-related video, merchandise, and, especially, publishing. Each Christmas season brings us new books about the Fab Four, and this year proves no different. For the discerning Beatle fan this December, happiness is a warm love seat with the stereo on, plus the words of The Beatles: An Oral History, by David Pritchard and Alan Lysaght, and the pictures of The Beatles Files, by Andy Davis.
Pritchard and Lysaght are fans and radio people who began interviewing major and minor figures in the Beatles’ saga around 1978, with the aim of compiling “the most complete and accurate Beatles radio documentary ever done.” The 105 subjects captured here, including all four Beatles and Yoko Ono, are each described in a “cast of characters” occasionally notable for its archness (e.g., George Harrison is listed as “Liverpool Institute student and musician”).
But the authors’ failure to provide any citations for the interviews is disappointing. Where and when, exactly, did they talk to John Lennon? None of his quotes come from familiar sources, like the 1980 Playboy interview, so it’s possible that the authors really did speak with him in person; lacking any foundational evidence, however, we are left to wonder.
Only extremely knowledgeable readers will recognize that it must be 1989 when Paul McCartney is quoted as saying (erroneously, at that) “‘Hey Jude’ I’ve never done live till [sic] this tour.” (In fact, Paul and the Beatles sang “Hey Jude” before a live audience on The David Frost Show on Sept. 4, 1968.) George Harrison’s fascinating song-by-song exegesis of Abbey Road is spoken in the present tense”John, Paul, and I all sing [‘Because’] together”meaning it must come from a 1969 interview, presumably one the authors did not conduct. Yet at other points, George’s words clearly convey decades of remove from the frenzy of fame he describes as “20 years of experience crammed into three or four years.” What someone said in 1969 is not interchangeable with what he said in 1989. Though the word “history” appears in this book’s title, that discipline’s obligations were not respected here.
One might also complain about the priorities demonstrated in devoting more space to the recording of Mary Hopkins’ 1968 hit “Those Were the Days,” produced and arranged by Paul McCartney, than to the recording of the albumand filmMagical Mystery Tour.
With those caveats, however, The Beatles: An Oral History provides a solid account of what must be, even to the most remote igloo dweller, a familiar story. Preserved here are the gritty recollections of dozens of ordinary people who helped the wise-cracking Liverpool lads metamorphose, in the words of Let It Be producer Glyn Johns, into “totally untouchable…superhuman” figures.
Early fan Liz Hughes describes the stairs leading to the Cavern Club, so narrow and dank “you went down sideways, like a crab.” Even in those days, when Pete Best played drums and Stu Sutcliffe served as ersatz bassist, the group’s aura transcended its nascent musical talent. Cavern DJ Bob Wooler recalls the effect of the Beatles’ beginning a set by “exploding” into “Long Tall Sally”:
The crowd was as stunned as I. Now I got quite worried, because when people in these dance halls in those days stopped dancing, it was either to cause a fight or to witness one….But they were transfixed, and they were drawn, as if by a magnet, toward the stage….I was looking down at the sea of bewildered faces. They hadn’t seen or heard anything like it.
A similar epiphany seized Derek Taylor, later the group’s publicist:
[W]e heard the opening bars of “From Me To You” and The Beatles crashed onstage, and life has never been the same from that very minute to this one….From then on I was their devoted slave. I made up my mind that I had to join them somehow.
The sudden replacement of Pete Best with Ringo Starr in 1962, shortly after the band’s years of toiling in Hamburg clubs finally paid off with a recording contract, provides a pitifully touching moment. Suspicions aroused, Best pressed the Beatles’ manager, Brian Epstein, for the truth. “‘Rest assured, my boy, [Epstein told Best], nothing like that’s going to happen. You dismiss it. I mean, there’s no reason for it. You’ve been with them two years. You’ve been down to Abbey Road [for the band’s June 6, 1962, EMI audition]. There’ll be no changes.’…And then,” Best recalls, “all of a sudden…he calls me into the office, and bingo!”
Best’s mother, who provided an early venue for the band, never forgot the “greedy and selfish” “dirty trick” the Beatles played on her son: “[Y]ou can imagine how he felt. He cried. He was so depressed he almost took his life.”
Many interviewees waver between gratitude and sorrow for their cameos in the Beatles’ story. Richard Lester, who directed A Hard Day’s Night (1964), Help! (1965), and How I Won the War (1967, starring John Lennon), recalls:
For three years I was in the center of the universe…and I knew at that time that it would be the pinnacle of whatever I did….[But] I’m perfectly happy because at least I’ve had…that experience. So life is downhill, okay, but at least you’ve been up and seen the view.
Indeed, it’s the peripheral characters who prove most reliably entertaining. Louise Harrison, George’s Texas-based sister, recalls her brother’s first visit to America, made a few months before his bandmates arrived here in February 1964. As Louise tells it, the still-unknown guitarist sat in with the Four Vests, a bar band playing the El Dorado Club in southern Illinois, in late 1963. After wowing the locals with an advance taste of Beatlemania, the future composer of “Something” was approached by a local barfly, who told him: “You know, with the right kind of people looking out for you, you could really go places, son.”
And then there is the tale of Vancouver DJ Red Robinson, whose good fortune to welcome the Beatles onstage in 1964 turned unenviable when policeand then-Beatles manager Brian Epsteinordered him to interrupt the show to quiet the screaming fans. “Can you imagine my position?” he asks today.
When the song finished and the crowd was screaming, I walked out to the microphone. As I was going by John Lennon, who was on my left, he said, “What the fuck are you doing on a Beatles stage?” So I went over to him…and said, “John, I apologize for this, but your manager, Brian Epstein, and the chief of police told me to come up and make this announcement for [the fans’] safety. John said, “Oh, that’s okay.” So I went and did it. You can see in one of the photographs…Paul McCartney is saying, “What the hell is going on here?”…I guess I’m one of the few people in our business in front of a crowd of 25,000 that ever had John Lennon say, “Get the fuck off our stage.”
For such anecdotes, The Beatles: An Oral History makes a fine addition to the Beatles bookshelf. But Andy Davis’ The Beatles Files represents an invaluable one. This elegantly designed coffee-table book collects 400 unpublished photographs recently found rotting away in the bowels of the London tabloid the Daily Mirror, an archive Davis heralds as “the most comprehensive single-source pictorial record of the group in existence.”
As McCartney biographer Barry Miles notes in the foreword, “These are news pictures, not art.” They begin in September 1963, just before the band’s first big splash on British television, and end in December 1969, with one of John and Yoko’s daffier stunts for peace.
Davis writes without exaggeration:
These pictures tell the story of The Beatles’ rise and fall as vividly as
any biography. In 1963 and 1964, they were at the world’s beck and call. After 1965 they stopped posing for showbiz-style shots. And after 1967, the Mirror found it increasingly difficult to even photograph the four of them together. Only once in the next three years did the paper manage the feat, with a telephoto shot of them playing live on the roof of the Apple building in January 1969.
If The Beatles Files chronicles the band’s diminishing cooperation with the press (and each other), it also traces the newsmen’s reciprocal “shift from presenting an image of infallible, inseparable moptops to portraying four independently minded individuals with their own views and (apparent) faults.”
Early photo opportunities on British soil, including countless airport shots, dominate the book. (Numerous other picture books detail the tours of America, Japan, and so forth.) Whereas 52 pages are allotted to the year 1964, the years 1963 and 1965 receive only 20 pages apiece, and 1966 through 1969 are each covered in 16 pages or less (with a mere 12 pages needed to chronicle 1966).
Davis’ text incorporates material from Mirror articles that accompanied the published pictures, including unintentionally hilarious assessments of the Beatles’ appeal by ossified psychiatrists, sex doctors, and the like. As the years advance, the newspaper’s punchy tabloid approach and the “hit-and-run” black-and-whites of its photographers (who get their own chapter to reminisce about working Beatles-related events) seem ill-suited to the colorful counterculture era. But in spite of their limitations, the Mirror staffers captured some priceless moments: John and Yoko waiting as a maid changed their Bed-In sheets; Paul McCartney charming a photographer he’d just met, named Linda Eastman; George Harrison playing Monopoly with Jackie DeShannon (whom Lennon later boasted of bedding); Ringo shivering behind his drum kit on the grassy fields of Salisbury Plain, site of the tank scenes in Help!
Many years later, in a scene recorded in the oral history, John Lennon bumped into Sid Bernstein, promoter of the band’s Shea Stadium concerts. Lennon’s words on that occasion echo a sentiment shared even by those who “missed” the ’60s, and one these two books inevitably, admirably, evoke: “Shea,” Lennon mused. “Weren’t those the days, Sid?”CP