Tuesday, February 2, 2021

The Beatles: the Biography

by Bob Spitz

First published by author Bob Spitz in 2005, his book on the Beatles would be more appropriately subtitled “a biography.” I wasn’t properly introduced to the Beatles’ music until 1981, though I actually remember watching the Beatles cartoon show as a little kid in the late sixties. In the seventies I only heard their hits on the radio during the oldies program on my local Top 40 radio station, and I was intimately familiar with a few of their later songs like “Hey Jude,” because it was on a couple of jazz fusion albums I owned, and “Got to Get You Into My Life,” which was released as a single in 1976 to support the Rock and Roll Music greatest hits package and was given frequent radio airplay. But it wasn’t until I was out of high school and playing music professionally that the bass player in the band I was in loaned me all of his Capitol LPs because one of the songs we played in the band, “I’ll Cry Instead,” absolutely fascinated me. Well, that was all it took. The Beatles instantly became one of the few bands where I liked almost every single song they had recorded—Steely Dan and America are the only other two that come to mind. As far as I’m concerned, they are the most consequential and influentially important band of the 20th century. Further, I would go so far as to say they are the greatest pop/rock group in history.

A couple years later I began purchasing books on the band and devoured them. I read Philip Norman’s Shout!, which I enjoyed tremendously, but couldn’t really get into the Hunter Davies’ biography because it seemed like a PR piece, more fluff than substance. I was far more captivated by the inside stories, like Peter Brown’s The Love You Make, and especially George Martin’s All You Need is Ears. The later was absolutely fascinating because it focused so much on the music. And I even found Mark Lewisohn’s detailed Complete Beatles Recording Sessions an absolute page-turner, though there was no narrative thread at all, again because of the emphasis on the music. In subsequent decades I did very little reading on the group, however, and was instead content to listen to the music—especially after the Capitol LP box sets came out and I could hear the music as I first remembered listening to it. They are still my preferred mixes and track arrangements. So in 2005, when Spitz published his new biography of the group, I immediately bought the hardback and waited for the perfect opportunity to read it. My assumption was that the 856-page book would finally be the definitive biography of the group and I wanted to savor every page. Well, it took fifteen years, but I finally managed to make the time to read it, and all I can say is that it was decidedly not worth the wait.

One of the things I hadn’t been conscious of when I read Philip Norman’s book in 1985 was the particular bias that the biography had. But since it was really the only complete story up to that point—like my VHS copy of The Compleat Beatles prior to the Anthology—as a beggar, I wasn’t in any position to be a chooser. Author Erin Weber gives a nice rundown of the problems with most Beatles narratives in her book The Beatles and the Historians, which she divides into three categories: 1. The Fab Four narrative, which is where the Hunter Davies’ book firmly resides. 2. The Lennon Remembers narrative promoted by Rolling Stone, which is similar to the cult of Miles Davis and John Coltrane in jazz histories in that the story slants so heavily in their direction that there’s little room for anything else. And 3. the Shout! narrative, which I consider a subset of the second category because it makes Paul responsible for every negative thing that ever happened to the group. Well, Spitz’s book lands squarely in the Lennon Remembers category because of how heavily he emphasizes John Lennon to the detriment of the other three members of the band. It doesn’t take long for the reader to figure this out, even in the Liverpool section. If I were to roughly divide the entire book strictly in terms of content, Lennon gets about 50 percent, McCartney 35 percent, Harrison 10 percent, and Starr a paltry 5 percent.

There are long, lavishly detailed sections in the book about everything John does, about his school, his friends, his family, his drug use, and his relationships, first with Cynthia and then Yoko. Jane Asher, on the other hand, though she was Paul’s primary girlfriend during most of those years, barely gets a page. Pattie Harrison gets a single sentence saying that George was able to get her a bit part in A Hard Day’s Night, and Maureen Starky . . . nothing. The reader has absolutely no idea who she is or how she met Ringo. At first it’s a bit shocking, but by the halfway point in the book it’s so disappointing that it makes it difficult to plow through the rest of it. Similarly, the stages of the band’s history are equally uneven. The pre-fame Liverpool history nets an entire third of the book’s length. Then, as they become increasingly famous—and their story increasingly more interesting—Spitz spends less and less time on each subsequent year, until the end of the book rushes to a close, as if the author had been working on a deadline and had to summarize the final years of the group’s existence rather than write about it in any depth. The longer one reads, the more one has the sensation that a lot more was left out of this version of the story than what remains between the covers. Though it doesn’t seem possible, Spitz actually manages to make the story of the most fascinating music group of the rock era boring.

By far the most egregious flaw in the book, however, is the short shrift that Spitz gives to the music. He uses lots of flowery adjectives to describe the music that provide absolutely nothing to the reader in the way of insight or appreciation for either the writing of the songs or the recording of them. But in a way that particular flaw makes sense, as there are major gaffs throughout the book that expose the fact that Spitz has almost no understanding of music at all. Just a couple of examples will suffice. In one section early on, about John and Paul writing songs together, Spitz states that the two were especially conscious about attempting to write a clever “middle eight” for each of their tunes. Then, as a knowing aside, the author tells the reader that what the two songwriters actually meant by the middle eight of a song was the “chorus.” Wrong. Unbelievably wrong. The middle eight of a song is called the bridge, not the chorus. And there are other, less maddeningly stupid, but just as irritating musical errors, like when Spitz states that the solo instrument on “Fool on the Hill” is a flute, when it’s actually a recorder. This is so unfortunate, because the music is finally the point. It’s the reason for Beatlemania, not the other way around. The Beatles’ melodic and harmonic sophistication as a group was light years ahead of any other recording act in the sixties—and even the individual members in the decade that followed. And their execution of that material in the studio was also unmatched. But that wouldn’t be apparent from reading this book, as a ten times more space is devoted to Brian Epstein than to George Martin.

The Beatles: the Biography is simply not a very good book, no matter how one looks at it. Spitz has been commended for conducting a bunch of new interviews, which did have a lot of potential, but then used those sources in a very uninspired manner. And while quotes by the actual Beatles are sprinkled throughout—from extant sources—it only serves to make the paucity of more unique interview material by them all the more noticeable. Even when he does use Beatle quotes it’s to poor effect, as they almost never add anything substantive to the story and therefore feel unnecessary, as if he wasn’t really able to discern which Beatle quotes were important and which weren’t—then went ahead and chose the latter. It’s a shame, because Mark Lewisohn’s first volume of the absolutely definitive biography of the Beatles, Tune In, only reaches the year 1962, and on the author’s website he says that the second volume won’t be out until at least 2023. That biography, however, will be well worth the wait. In the meantime, Spitz is what Beatle fans are stuck with. Though honestly, for all its overt bias and fictionalized history, Philip Norman’s book is a much more entertaining read. My suggestion to Beatle fans is to acquire books by participants like Peter Brown, Derek Taylor, George Martin, Geoff Emerick and the like, and those specifically about the music like A Day In The Life and All The Songs, and forgo Spitz’s biography completely in favor of Mark Lewisohn’s infinitely more satisfying approach.

No comments:

Post a Comment