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 that time.

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 leather jackets.

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 on fire.

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 music.

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.