Lost Chords, Major Chords, Minor Chords, Dissonant Counter-melodies: ‘Dreaming the Beatles’

This biography of the Beatles illustrates how their personality dynamics served as both a necessary elixir and an addictive poison in the creation of their music.

How we respond to the Beatles as entities in musical pop culture more likely than not depends on when we were born. Those of us born near the middle of the ’60s, that decade when this musical force of nature put their concentrated stamp on the world, came of age with them in the ’70s. We were finishing elementary school six years after their 1970 dissolution as the boy band group that blossomed into introspective intellectuals who unabashedly wore their influences on their sleeves. Through John, Paul, George, and Ringo, countless white suburbanites learned about the magic of Motown girl groups, about Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, and about the omnipresent power of Chuck Berry.

We responded to the Beatles in the ’70s not just because they were superior alternatives to pop fluff like The Bay City Rollers and Starland Vocal Band or dangerous rock theatrics from KISS, but also because they were all still very active (with varying degrees of success) through most of the decade. John Lennon retired from recording in 1975, re-surfaced in 1980 with a new album and a flurry of publicity only to be gunned down weeks later. The dream ended, the music died, and the merchandising and mythologizing went into overdrive.

Veteran Rolling Stone journalist and music writer Rob Sheffield’s wistful, elegiac Dreaming the Beatles: The Love Story of One Band and the Whole World makes no pretense of objectifying the story, and telling it from the comfortable distance of time to create academic context. If we want to know how Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr conspired to capture the national zeitgeist upon their first visit as a group to the United States in February 1964 for a performance on The Ed Sullivan Show, to their final dissolution as an artistic entity in early April 1970, accepting that means we’re comfortable with the received text.

The idea is that the Beatles were the soothing balm that healed the nation less than 12 weeks after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. It’s the usual place to start this narrative, but Sheffield doesn’t settle for convenience. He also notes that The Beverly Hillbillies, “… especially the quartet known as the Clampetts, did as much to comfort the country in the weeks between Kennedy’s murder and the arrival of the Beatles. The show featured the exploits of a painfully stupid backwoods country family that hit it rich after they struck oil. They moved to Beverly Hills, and the fun began as their primal basic new money culture clashed with the world of old money California.” For Sheffield, both the Beatles and the Clampetts were “…soothing fantasies that spoke to post JFK fantasies about the state of the nation.” He goes on to not so successfully extend the metaphor, assigning roles to each member that connected to a Beatle, but the argument is clear. The Clampetts appealed to our slapstick nature and our struggle to succeed without any effort, and the Beatles appealed to our dreams of unity.

If the timeline of 9 February 1964 to 4 April 1970 is the easiest to follow, a paint-by-numbers account of the Beatles and their relationship with the United States, it’s not found in this book. The group had already been a recording entity for two years, and their trip to New York was really their final step in conquering the lucrative teen pop music marketplace. Basically, Sheffield’s thesis seems to be that while there might be a definitive beginning to the Lennon/McCartney relationship (a sort of hybrid brother and spouse union) that can be traced to July 1957, when they first met, there would be no ending.

Sheffield is at his best when he elaborates on how their personality dynamics worked to serve as both a necessary elixir and an addictive poison in the creation of their music. In the chapter “A Toot and a Snore in ’74”, we meet John and Paul at a Burbank Recording Studio. They are in the midst of drug excess, cocaine and booze, and the results of their spontaneous jam session (heard for years through legendary bootlegs) are primary evidence that while the drugs might have enhanced creation and performance in 1966-1969, they were deadly in the next decade and a different context: “John and Paul spent so many years estranged — but the harder they tried to pull away to their opposite corners, the more they resembled each other.”

Sheffield continues by elaborating on “Silly Love Songs”, the hit McCartney would have two years after this night in the Burbank studio. For Sheffield, and for those who were tuned into pop radio at the time, this was an anti-love song, a defense of exactly what the title contained. For Sheffield, McCartney’s “Silly Love Songs” of 1976 and Lennon’s “Revolution” of 1968 were “…in favor of love but squeamish about the details…” Lennon dabbled in protest pop with “Revolution” and other songs, to varying degrees of success. The radical chic sentiments were sometimes pedestrian and misguided, but they were heartfelt, like McCartney’s love songs.

“‘Revolution’ is John making a statement, though the statement is John making a statement. He condescends to Rock, just as ‘Silly Love Songs’ condescends to pop, pandering to clichés… For John, songs weren’t enough unless they expressed a big idea; for Paul, pop was the big idea…”

Sheffield’s narrative of this scene sympathetically and convincingly paints a picture of two drifting rock ‘n’ roll legends stuck in time. Lennon was in the midst of his famous 15 month “Lost Weekend” estrangement from wife Yoko Ono, and McCartney was still trying to find his definitive identity as a solo artist. He had released “Band on the Run” three months earlier, a strong collection of songs, but his biggest popularity (and perhaps validation) would come later in the decade as a touring warhorse.

George Harrison’s experiences in the ’70s had more glaring pits of despair, and Sheffield shines an interesting, equally sympathetic light on them. We know 1970’s triple album All Things Must Pass and 1971’s Concert for Bangladesh. What we don’t know as much is his 1974. In “When George sang ‘In My Life’,” Sheffield carefully navigates what must have been a dark time for the more overtly spiritually-minded Beatle who was still drifting at sea with no sign of help on the horizon:

“Each night’s ‘In My Life’ is horrifying in its own way… George begins singing, and you can hear the crowd wake up… His pipes choke on the low notes… or high notes… For the big climax, he rasps ‘I love God more.’ It’s like he summoned up an intimate memory for the fans just to tell them it doesn’t mean shit to him.”

It’s this direct honesty that serves an interesting role in Dreaming The Beatles. Sheffield isn’t aiming to hang any of them out to dry. He might lean towards uncomfortably precious hagiography more often than not, but he sincerely knows and loves their work, their legacy, the connected spirit they developed in their career as a unit and through their lives.

What this book emphasizes is how tough it must have been to come up with a second act at least in that first decade after they were finished as a group. In the chapter “I Call Your Name”, Sheffield builds on the idea that the relationship between Lennon and McCartney was loving. It wasn’t sexual in nature, but they loved each other. They called each other’s names. The scene: Madison Square Garden. The time: Thanksgiving 1974. Lennon joins his friend Elton John to fulfill a commitment. If their collaboration “Whatever Gets You Through The Night” hit Number One, he’d perform it on stage with him. They sing it, the Beatles classic “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” (which Elton had recorded in a reggae-tinged version), and then they sing an encore. Sheffield makes a good point here when he wonders about their choice of a second song, “I Saw Her Standing There”, most famously performed by Beatle Paul eight years earlier

“Why is he doing a Paul song? Why is he making this moment about him and Paul, when all anybody wants is to cheer and shower John with love? But in the middle of the crowd, he calls Paul’s name.”

Ringo gets his solo moment in the chapter “The Importance of Being Ringo”, and Sheffield wisely focuses on the general perception of the drummer as heard on record rather than the quality of Starr’s post-Beatle work. Ringo shined brightest when recording work by other ex-Beatles. “Photograph” was a Starr-George Harrison classic given life by Ringo’s earnestness and Harrison’s production. Ringo was an actor, a raconteur, a mediator between the others while they were in their last days as a group. He was the last to join, but also the oldest and most experienced. He was the bearded drummer poached from Rory Storm and the Hurricanes in 1962 and he was the foundation that provided the steady strange backbeat to “Tomorrow Never Knows”, the tough time signatures of “Rain”, and the difficult rhythms of a song like “Blue Jay Way”. He may have been slighted and underestimated and relegated to one novelty song per album, but Ringo was a Beatle for a reason:

“Ringo’s bumpkin charm has always tempted people to underrate him as a musician, but he was the only Beatle hired strictly for his playing… They couldn’t have done it without him.”

We can consider the appearance of cool, and the steadfast poker face he had backing up George at the Concert for Bangladesh, the fact that even just in the way he looked he never really wavered or lost his beat. Sheffield considers the surface level issues a drummer should always have, that it’s okay to be goofy and flamboyant so long as you’re still cool, but he also follows through with moments in songs that should be memorialized (though Ringo’s solo in “The End” is conspicuous in its absence.)

If there are distinct schools of music criticism, the high-minded literacy of Greil Marcus or the pointed critical rants of Lester Bangs or the navel-gazing tendency of so many others to impose their own narratives onto the artists in question, Sheffield’s style here takes a little from each camp. It can get frustrating when music criticism falls deep into the pool of discursive solipsism, the idea that the tunes were significant because they changed my life, but Sheffield can be forgiven for those occasional indulgences. He makes that style work because he knows the material. We follow his reflections on the 1968 release The Beatles (better known as “The White Album”) and how the legacy of the insane Charles Manson has permanently marred the power of that collection of songs. We are also with Sheffield as a ’70s kid encountering that first wave of product from Capitol Records in those years after the Beatles had broken up. He might be cramming his own narrative into this story of the music and how it mattered in its time, but it doesn’t completely derail the book’s flow.

The best thing any book about such a remarkable entity as the Beatles can do is shed light on deep cuts that are perhaps even now best known only by hardcore devotees. He does this with “Yes It Is”, “Mr. Moonlight”, and “This Boy”, three songs featuring gorgeous lead vocals from John and harmony from the others. Sheffield could have trimmed or removed the chapter “Instrumental Break: 26 songs about the Beatles” in favor of more discussion about similarly neglected Beatles songs. That chapter is great when looking at Prince’s cover of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” and Aretha Franklin’s cover of “The Long And Winding Road”. The history of other great covers of Beatles songs (where is Ray Charles’ “Yesterday” and “Eleanor Rigby”?) shouldn’t be relegated to a small chapter. Sheffield’s attempts to offer thumbnail sketches of all 26 songs in this chapter, some of which are a stretch to connect with The Beatles, falls too much into Dave Marsh music writing territory, and Marsh is the master of that domain.

Dreaming the Beatles, minor flaws considered, is still a strong and heartfelt appreciation of The Beatles as a force in their time and examples of potential that was greatest when working as a unified force. In 2017, upon the release of the 50th anniversary of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and 46 years after they ceased existing as a group, they are now the top-selling vinyl artists. Record albums are back, and The Beatles are at the forefront of that movement. This news was too late to include in Dreaming The Beatles, but that absence doesn’t hurt the book.

Sheffield is at his best when he’s reflecting on scenes, quiet moments in a group not known for them. He knows enough to start with their iconic final live performance, 30 January 1969, on top of London’s Apple Records offices. On that day, captured in part in the film “Let It Be”, this explosively popular combo was stripped to their simplest form. They’re plugged in, but it’s freezing. They’re fumbling with lyric sheets and their fingers are too cold to form the guitar chords. They’re playing “Get Back”, the performance that ends with John saying “I hope we passed the audition,” and Sheffield wonders what Paul was seeing during those last moments that would (excepting later work on “Abbey Road”) for all intents and purposes begin their post-Beatles lives:

“Paul probably looks into the future and sees the end of the road. He sees solo careers. He sees his thirties. Married life on the farm. Not spending time with John anymore… He sees uncertainty, which is not Paul’s scene. He doesn’t know how to begin talking about this future…”

There are lost chords, major chords, minor chords, and dissonant counter-melodies. In his own way, with Dreaming the Beatles: The Love Story of One Band and the Whole World, Sheffield has added an extended chord to this seemingly never-ending story of The Beatles that’s lush and resonant with infinite varied possibilities.

RATING 8 / 10