Alas, Surface-Skimming Is the Dominant Mode in ‘The Beatles Solo’

Books about the Fab Four need to justify themselves. The Beatles Solo, a handsome but information-light and overpriced doorstop, doesn't get there.

More than other works of non-fiction, Beatles books need to justify themselves. With such a preposterous glut available and new installments joining the ranks every few months, it’s not enough, or shouldn’t be, anyway, for authors and publishers to simply coast on the Fab Four brand (redoubtable though it may be).

What results from the industry’s cynical, because-we-can mentality is that, for every Tune In – a rigorous history tome that actually boasts original research – there are dozens of superfluous offerings like 100 Things Beatles Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die or The Beatles in 100 Objects. Curious about the band’s horizontal pursuits? Randy Scouse Gits: The Sex Lives of the Beatles will fit the bill. All four of these titles hit shelves last year.

The point almost states itself: The Beatles are the greatest band in pop music history, but enough is enough. These days, “a must read for Beatles fans” loosely translates as “coming soon to a used bookstore near you.”

The Beatles Solo is more of the same, even with the minor caveat that author and journalist Mat Snow recounts the less familiar post-Fab existences of John, Paul, George, and Ringo. Yes, here are the messy, far-ranging, often fascinating solo years, treated to summaries that don’t rise above the level of slight and perfunctory. Each exceptionally slim volume of this four-pack has the weight and feel of a glorified Wikipedia synopsis. Sure, they’re longer, more polished, and heavier on opinion (sometimes gratingly so, as I’ll detail later), but surface-skimming is still the dominant mode.

George’s historic Concert for Bangladesh walks away with three pages of actual text. Macca’s fruitful and varied run since the turn of the century? Six. And, predictably, very few of the particulars will be new to Beatles enthusiasts.

But not everyone is a fanatic. What about less avid (but still interested) types who might have use for a primer that encompasses Imagine and Red Rose Speedway, the Traveling Wilburies and the All-Starr Band? This was probably Snow’s guiding concept for The Beatles Solo, and it’s appealing in theory. But there’s a small complication: the list price of $50.

In addition to the hyper-abridged career bios, each book comes attractively decorated with an array of photographs: individual shots, album artwork, advertisements, concert footage, movie scenes, etc. Snow didn’t skimp. And the whole package is housed in a nifty slipcase that features stylized caricatures of the Four on the front. In terms of production values, The Beatles Solo grades out as first-rate.

Unfortunately, these enhancements also inflate the book’s price tag to the point where it’s completely at odds with the introductory spirit of Snow’s mini histories. There’s a clash of visions at work. The generous eye candy notwithstanding, who would want to shell out top dollar for a mere token tour of post-Beatledom?

That tour unfolds along roughly these lines for each Beatle: auspicious success early on, followed by creative misfires, commercial washouts, and personal failings, followed by renewal and resurgence rooted in lifestyle changes and new outlets. Despite my criticism of Snow’s reductive modus operandi, there is some truth to the general pattern.

For example: John hit his solo artistic peak with John Lennon / Plastic Ono Band and Imagine, his first two proper LPs, and two of the finest issued by an ex-Beatle. He then bottomed out as a songwriter on 1972’s Some Time in New York City – an instantly fossilized overdose of radical chic – and as a responsible adult from ‘73-‘75 during his “lost weekend”, a dissolute 18-month separation from Yoko that found Lennon rampaging and recording in L.A. with Ringo, Harry Nilsson, and other notable rock ‘n’ roll debauchees. As Snow writes, John was “losing himself in vodka, Brandy Alexanders, and marching powder, yet clearly having no fun at all.”

Realizing he’d gone astray, John eventually reconciled with Yoko before shunning the music business altogether and retreating into a five-year period of Mr. Mom domesticity. (His second son, Sean, was born in late 1975.) John’s return to the spotlight, punctuated by 1980’s Double Fantasy, was of course tragically short-lived.

How about a less-chronicled example? Starkey’s career has veered from smash single “Photograph” and the rest of Ringo to a spate of flop records, even worse films, and alcohol abuse to sobriety, the touring bonhomie of the All-Starr Band, and reruns of Shining Time Station. A long and winding road, if you will. But not in Snow’s handling.

(Side note: Of late, Ringo has been locked in a public contest with Yoko to see who can invoke peace and love more frequently. Hey, I hope they both win.)

It’s to Snow’s credit that, despite furnishing only bare-bones sketches of the solo years, he didn’t go down the path of hagiography on top of that. The Beatles Solo is a warts-and-all retelling. But that’s not to suggest he’s evenhanded in his treatment of each Fab. The short version: Snow is emphatically not on Team Paul. And his repeated underlining of this fact grows stale in a hurry.

Comparing Paul’s “Too Many People” and John’s “How Do You Sleep?”, which both were aimed at the opposite party, Snow opines that at least the Imagine broadside “was written in blood and acid in contrast to the vanilla essence that flowed through Paul’s writing.” Indeed, kudos to John because he was by nature an asshole and thus a better one than Paul. Or how about the implication that when John reached #1 on the charts, it was born of his high-minded artistry; but when desperate-to-please Paul did so, he had only his shallow “craft and whimsy” to thank.

Lastly (though there are more illustrations), observe this line: “Though somewhat fragmentary and oblique, in keeping with the movie footage, George’s Wonderwall music (sic) held its own when compared with Paul’s 1966 soundtrack for The Family Way”. But why compare the two at all? They aren’t remotely similar. Unless the sole purpose was to take a needless and immature potshot at Paul?

Snow couldn’t help himself, it seems. I mean, go ahead and stake a claim to your favorite or least favorite Beatle. Confession: I’ve never really connected with the Quiet One . But please don’t be so frivolous when making your case.

In the most significant sense, Snow said too little with The Beatles Solo. And in a far more trifling way, he said too much. Beatles books are rarely win-win propositions. If you’re a solo-years novice and a handsome but information-light and overpriced doorstop sounds satisfying, then The Beatles Solo will suit your tastes.

RATING 4 / 10