We love them, yeah, yeah, yeah: the Beatles are so compulsively dissectible and evocable, year after year, because they’re first-class cultural iconoclasts. No one could have anticipated their impact, for there had never been anything quite like them; for many, imagining a life before Beatles is implausible. Ever since the four lads from Liverpool took the world by storm, rock ‘n’ roll has been on a steady decline: a decline of expectations, of innovations, of character and thrill and universality. The Beatles’ number of firsts so many that most of them are now obscured by cliché or assumption combined with their popularity made for the quintessence of an unrepeatable phenomenon.
This is why we can’t purge them from our cultural consciousness, why we’ll never tire of the extraordinary work they left behind, why they’ll always command a prime piece of social, historical, and emotional real estate. Of course, recognizing all of this as a fact of the most crushing obviousness, one will understandably call the true worth of Bob Spitz’s new biography The Beatles into question: For the umpteenth time, is another biography of this band absolutely necessary?
Yes: for the obsessive fan, the cultural archivist, the absolutely true believer, undoubtedly yes. Spitz’s seven-year labor of love, an 860-page tome with nearly 100 pages of notes, is the definitive account of the Beatles to date, trumping even the band’s own Anthology book in terms of readability and accuracy. Correcting mistakes, deflating myths, and comprehensively organizing all trustworthy documentations, Spitz transforms truth into imagination, making one of the most familiar musical histories engaging once again. His prose is alternately drunken (he practically mythologizes Liverpool as a cradle of fairy tales, a “remarkable seven-and-a-half-mile natural harbor studded with chocolate-dark rock that clung to [its] lofty townscape like a dressmaker’s hem”) and methodically descriptive: some scenes are so incredibly detailed that the book takes on the narrative propulsion of fiction.
Most notably, Spitz contextualizes the band’s timeline into more accurate proportions. His narrative redistributes the load, placing greater emphasis on the formative pre-Ringo days in decadent, seedy Hamburg; likewise, the years following the band’s decision to cease touring are less about the heady studio experimentations and more about the inevitable unraveling (although the majority of one chapter is dedicated to the making of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band). Where history has focused on the Beatles’ progressive entrenchment in the studio, Spitz’s book reminds us that the period from Sgt. Pepper’s to Abbey Road was merely a small slice of the big-picture pie. In fact, the final third of Spitz’s book seems to empathize with George’s reaction to Paul’s Sgt. Pepper’s concept: “Now, from what [George] could tell, ‘it felt like going backwards.’”
There are generous descriptions of the enigmatic George throughout The Beatles; as a teenager, he was “an eerily detached, introspective boy with dark, expressive eyes, huge ears, and mischievous smile that seized his whole face with a kind of wolfish delight”. Even more notable than the rich descriptions is how personality traits exhibited early on would remain tethered to the Beatles for life: Paul’s intense work ethic and John’s dodgy distrust of humanity, for instance, had seemingly been set in place before the two even met. When they did finally meet, and became songwriting partners, their clashing styles produced a mutually beneficial give-and-take:
Where John was impatient and careless, Paul was a perfectionist or, at least, appeared to be in his methodical approach to music and the way he dealt with the world. Where John was moody and aloof, Paul was blithe and outgoing, gregarious, and irrepressibly cheerful. Where John was straightforward if brutally frank, Paul practiced diplomacy to manipulate a situation. Where John had attitude, Paul’s artistic nature was a work in progress. Where John’s upbringing was comfortably middle-class ... Paul was truly blue-collar. Where John was struggling to become a musician, Paul seemed born to it.
The devastation at the heart of Spitz’s book is the way in which John and Paul’s “compromise”, as he calls it their bond of friction that “produced an aggressive inventiveness” would eventually drive a wedge between the two as friends and collaborators. Paul’s perfectionism would not only put increasing demands on John, but it would arouse feelings of inferiority and jealousy; John, who “dreaded appearing weak or unmanly”, would use those feelings to sabotage any latter attempts at group cohesion. The Beatles doesn’t shy away from the band’s acrimonious disintegration, but Spitz deals with it more as a classic denouement to a tremendous story than a descent into tabloidesque exploitation.
Beyond the four main characters, Spitz meticulously inspects all those ensconced in the Beatles’ orbit, especially manager Brian Epstein, whose charmed life was interrupted by frequent bouts with a destructive self-loathing. Epstein’s story is just as improbable (and, ultimately, more tragic) as the band he ushered to the “toppermost of the poppermost”, and Spitz offers liberal insight into his upbringing, personal battles, and lifelong demons.
If The Beatles doesn’t exactly boast a series of mind-blowing revelations, it does offer a wealth of reinforced truths that may have been lost throughout multiple retellings: how the band used its frenetic ascent up the charts to party like it was going out of style; how John and Paul wrote Rubber Soul in two weeks; how John’s compulsive cruelty gnawed at even his closest relationships; how the band’s repeated business naiveties led to a unwieldy corporate collapse. There’s so much of the Beatles’ mythology to be absorbed and considered that, most likely, Spitz’s book will yield different discoveries for different people.
Like the Beatles, whose greatest feat, perhaps, was producing an unparalleled catalog of pop music amid debilitating internal conflict, Spitz conquers the sensibilities of common logic by telling us a story we know by heart as if we’d never heard it. We all know how a band that started out making “convulsive, ugly, frightening, and visceral” music turned the world on its ear and tickled its collective fancy, but we didn’t know it could be recounted in such emphatic detail.
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