The Beatles - a Biography
Reviewed: November 21, 2006
By: Bob Spitz
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
983 pages, $22.99
The first thing I have to say about Bob
Spitz’s captivating book is that it made me go back and listen to my Beatles’
Anthology tapes, all three volumes of them. They hit the road with me back
and forth to Whitehorse, and formed the background music for two layout Fridays
at our local newspaper. They sent me back to my two favorite albums (Rubber
Soul and Revolver, just for the record) to listen more carefully to some of
the changes in form that these two records signaled when they appeared.
For Canadian listeners in the mid-sixties
this was a little harder to figure out since the twenty-eight songs on these
two albums were divided among three instead, with the contentious “Yesterday
and Today” and its scandalous original "butcher" cover disrupting
the progression of the material.
There are a lot of questions that automatically
arise when you consider the Beatles as a phenomenon, but perhaps the main
ones would be "why them and why then"?
Time and place certainly had something
to do with it. There were a lot of other groups that came out of the same
area around the same time, but there aren't many - besides the Stones and
the Who - who can still mount first rate world tours forty years later and
get people excited about their music.
Just this week Cirque de Soleil has caused
a stir by releasing a "mash-up" of Beatles' tunes used in one of
their recent stage shows. The author of this book himself has expressed reservations
about this "new" album of remixed material.
All of that said, it remained true that
this group of young men - John, Paul, George, Stuart, Pete and Ringo - had
a particular drive and a special set of skills that made them stand out from
the other Mersey Beat groups that suddenly mushroomed out of Liverpool at
A lot of that seems to be due to the influence
of the Beatles' manager, Brian Epstein, a truly messed up man who nevertheless
had an ear for talent, and knew something about what to do with it when he
himself wasn't under the influence of a variety of recreational substances.
It was Epstein's influence that gave us
the tidy moptops who captured so many hearts on the Ed Sullivan Show instead
of the greasier appearance offered by the Rolling Stones and the Animals.
Left to their own devices, the lads would have been in greased back hair and
But I'm getting ahead of myself. Spitz
does a great job of showing how four lads who really weren't suited for doing
anything else managed to work their way into living their dream. A good portion
of the early part of the book is about how John, Paul and George, along with
a changing cast of fourth and fifth players, grew up trying to play rock and
roll, learned how, went from bad to better to good to excellent, finally acquired
the fourth man they needed in Ringo, and proceeded to set the musical world
It an inspiring story, but it's not always
pretty. There was a lot more of sex and drugs than we ever knew about at the
time, and a lot more infighting. They may have needed to get rid of drummer
Pete Best, but they way they did it was just nasty, as nasty as when John
left Cynthia, perhaps as nasty as Paul's present divorce case with Heather.
On the other hand, the book makes sense
of the fact that Paul still wants to tour at sixty-four and why John disappeared
into Yoko's ego for as long as he did. It hints at why McCartney would build
a band that included his wife, even though a recent release of Linda's back-up
vocals shows her to have had little talent in that direction.
It make sense of the drive that has led
him to dabble in other art forms and attempt forays into the world of classical
It shows why RIngo would continue to put
together his All-Starr bands and still be having a great time out there.
It shows how the process that produced
the two new songs on the Anthology tapes was exactly like the way much of
the Lennon-McCartney catalog was written.
While it concentrates on the John - Paul
rivalry/partnership that fueled so much of the band's success and perhaps
led to its disintegration, the book also shows Ringo to have been the excellent
drummer that he was so seldom credited as during the group's heyday, and it
chronicles the gradual development of George from sideman to his own man.
It's a story that ends in a train wreck,
of course, with the lads breaking up the greatest band of the 1960s when they
weren't even out of their twenties. Knowing that it ends badly does not, in
this case, damage the compulsive quality of the saga. In spite of the errors
on fact that have been noted in some of the fan reviews, the book comes across
as a clear look at what life must really have been like for those young men
from the poor side of town who rose to set the benchmarks for style and performance
during that very fertile period in the history of pop music.