“Half a century since their break-up, the Fab Four grimly reaped to the tiresome two, the Beatles go on. Documentaries and dramas continue to be made, interviews are bigged-up, and last year, as so often, the Beatles made the top 10”
“Does anyone seriously believe that Beatles music will be an unthinkingly accepted part of daily life all over the world in the 2000s?” So thundered Bryan Magee in a review of Fiddler On The Roof for The Listener in February 1967. Well, Magee lived a long life, only dying last year at the age of 89, and surely came to realise that whatever anyone believed back in the winter before the Summer of Love, endure the Beatles most certainly have.
Half a century since their break-up, the Fab Four grimly reaped to the tiresome two, the Beatles go on. Documentaries and dramas continue to be made, interviews are bigged-up, and last year, as so often, the Beatles made the top 10. In their early days of struggle and strife, John Lennon would ask his band mates where they were going. “To the toppermost of the poppermost”, they’d howl in unison. The Beatles got there, and stayed there. A few years ago, a discoloured and cavitied tooth once resident in Lennon’s mouth went for £19,000 at auction.
Teeth turn up a lot in Craig Brown’s One Two Three Four. Fans had a thing for the Fabs’ gnashers. A girl told Paul she loved his “pearly white teeth”. Another told Ringo he had “the nicest smile of all the Beatles” before asking “are those your real teeth?” Indeed they were, as Elvis Presley couldn’t help noticing. The Beatles grew up worshipping “the King”, but the day they finally met their idol it was he that was gobsmacked: “They got all that money,” Elvis harangued his hairstylist, Larry Geller. “Why don’t they get their teeth fixed?”
Actually, at least one of them had. A few months earlier, George Harrison, whose choppers were, Brown says, particularly “uneven and rickety”, had endured hour upon hour of painful work at John Riley’s Harley Street dental clinic. So long did the work go on that Harrison and Riley struck up a friendship. Hence the Bayswater dinner party at which Riley—the son of “an upstanding south London police constable”—spiked the coffee and introduced the Harrisons and the Lennons to LSD. “The walls moved,” Brown quotes John’s first wife Cynthia, “the plants talked, other people looked like ghouls and time stood still.”
Brown’s book is not that far-out, although next to your traditional life and times it’s pretty avant-garde. It owes more to the twisted perspectives of cubism and the fractured narratives of Dada than it does to the linear structure of conventional biography. Like Ma’am Darling, Brown’s 2017 life of Princess Margaret, it is a mash-up of letters and diary entries, newspaper clippings and memoir asides. There are even a few mocked-up party invitations, as well as some of the delicious parodies with which Brown beguiles readers of Private Eye.
In a note on his sources, Brown suggests that the general standard of his Beatles book is “much higher in terms of style and honesty than those . . . about my last subject”. I dare say he’s right, though One Two Three Four has no pretences to being definitive. Brown pretty much takes it for granted that we know the Beatles’ story and that he need not bother us with details. Fair enough, though minor characters do have a habit of shimmering into the action unannounced. The cops make a drugs raid on the day of “Paul and Linda’s wedding”, although, a footnote aside, this is the first we’ve heard of Linda Eastman. As for the incident that happened “when Julian was three weeks old”: oughtn’t we to have been introduced to the Lennons’ first child beforehand?
Then again, one of Brown’s main themes is the sheer contingency of life and, therefore, biography. Early on in the book, he tells how the young McCartney was bright enough to take his Spanish and Latin O-levels a year early. At which point the text splits into two columns. In one of them, McCartney aces his exams and heads on up to the Lower Sixth with his then best friend Ian James. In the other, McCartney fails Latin, is held back a year and . . . pals up with the younger George Harrison.
Elsewhere Brown devotes a chapter to the vexed question of just what happened in the Cavern Club on the night that the MC, Bob Wooler, taunted Lennon about his having recently shared a hotel room with the Beatles’ homosexual manager, Brian Epstein. After several pages of trying to work out who did what to whom, Brown resorts to a three-column table of the various descriptions of Lennon’s assault on Wooler. The weapons used range from fists, through a big stick, and on to a shovel, while the injuries sustained include bruised ribs, a cracked collarbone, and a broken nose. Which account to believe? Brown throws up his hands: “No other event in the lives of the Beatles,” he writes, “illustrates more clearly the random, subjective nature of history.”
But what of the random, subjective nature of taste? Love the Beatles though Brown does, he never seeks to bat away the Magee line with which his book ends. So how good were they? Were they, as Leonard Bernstein argued, “Schubert-like [in their] flow of musical invention”? Were they, as the Sunday Times critic Richard Buckle claimed, “the greatest composers since Beethoven”? Did “Strawberry Fields Forever” deserve the great Mahlerian Deryck Cooke’s praise for the way its “flat seventh [is] harmonised by the minor seventh on the dominant”? Did the “flat submediant key switches [and] autocratic but not by any means ungrammatical attitude to tonality” of “This Boy” really merit the attention of The Times’s William Mann?
Certainly the Beatles have lasted better than anyone but their most devoted fans would have predicted. Then again, Magee’s dismissal of the band was accompanied by his confident claim that “the songs of George Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Cole Porter, still live—not merely live but thrive”. I yield to no one in my love of the Great American Songbook, but does it really thrive today? Brown’s subtitle is The Beatles in Time, though just in time might have been nearer the mark. With the baby-boomers dying off, it’s a nice question how long the Fab Four have left. As George Harrison—far and away the most distinguished songwriter of the post-Beatles’ solo years—sang, “All things must pass”.
One Two Three Four: The Beatles in Time
By Craig Brown
Fourth Estate, 402pp, £20