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Craig Brown

One Two Three Four: The Beatles in Time

Category: Music | Published: 2020 | Review Added: 14-07-2020

Rating: 4 - A top read

Fifty years after the Beatles split up, their story continues to fascinate. When they hit the music scene in 1963, no pop group matched them for songwriting talent, musical range or charisma. No group before or since them has reached the same heights fame, popularity and adulation, contributed so much to the development of pop music, or had so much influence on the public consciousness. In many ways, the story of the Beatles is the story of the 1960s.

Hundreds of books have already told it. The boys ride an early wave of success with an apparently inexhaustible supply of cheery, ingenious pop songs; they catch on in America in 1964, and very quickly the weirdness begins. Their concerts transform into rallies of mass hysteria in which the music is drowned out by the screaming of teenage girls. By the mid-point of the decade, they're forced to stop touring. As individuals they turn inward, discovering drugs and Indian mysticism, and their music becomes darker and more experimental. Relationships within the group grow fractious, and the process of decline - paradoxically running parallel with the production of their most original and inventive work - is hastened in 1967 by the suicide of manager Brian Epstein. When John Lennon's strange second wife Yoko Ono insists on attending recording sessions, and Paul MacCartney refuses to work from the headquarters of Apple Records in protest at the band's vetoing of having his father-in-law as new manager, the writing is on the wall.

What does Craig Brown have to add? Certainly nothing much in terms of facts: what can be known, is known, and what is unknown or disputed is likely to remain so. The unique qualities of this book, then, are Brown's distinctive prose style, and a few experiments with narrative technique.

A satirical journalist by trade, Brown adopts largely the same tone as in One on One: drily detached, amused, and occasionally cruel. He writes well when the subject matter is either too serious for jokes (Epstein's suicide) or too ludicrous for serious treatment (the organisational chaos of Apple Records; the duping of the group by a rich young Greek, "Magic Alex"). In general, as long as Brown's own interest is engaged, he draws in the reader.

When he's bored, the writing becomes sloppy and self-indulgent. His descriptions of less-than-fascinating tours he joined of historical Beatles sites in Liverpool and Hamburg are tedious and snobbish: a German tour guide speaks English with, surprise surprise, a German accent, enough to provide the "humour" for a whole chapter.

It's this puerile superciliousness that sometimes tips over into cruelty. Brown is tickled pink by the tale of the drummer, Jimmie Nicol, who stood in for Ringo for a few days on the Austrialian leg of the 1964 tour. Having brushed with fame, Nicol became chronically ensnared in its lure, staking money and ambition on grand musical plans that failed, and ending up unknown, embittered and destitute. From a sceptical standpoint, he was, no doubt, the author of his own undoing; but Brown's sneering epitaph "too forgotten a figure even to feature in round-ups of forgotten figures" is not the only instance of unappealing Schadenfreude in the book.

Brown's social and political sympathies are conservative, and he makes no attempt to appear unbiased. When Lennon speaks of peace - and admittedly he did so in interviews from a hotel bed shared with Yoko, not a great aid to credibility - he's a complacent middle-class posturer. When the Queen speaks on the same subject, she is dignified and sincere. MacCartney, charming but hard-headed, is generally given a sympathetic write-up, while the complicated rebel Lennon is roundly ridiculed. Yet after Epstein's death, it was Lennon's remark that moved with its simple eloquence: "I can't find words to pay tribute to him. It is just that he was lovable, and it is those lovable things we think about now."

The narrative method is anecdotal. Chapters centre around episodes that are prisms to periods in the band's development: plane flights, meetings with other pop stars, parties. For the most part, this approach works well, but it assumes a fair amount of prior knowledge of the band's history, because there are many lacunae. Producer George Martin, historically renowned as the "Fifth Beatle", doesn't crop up on more than half a dozen pages. The business stand-off between MacCartney and the other three, which contributed so much towards the band's internal tensions, is mentioned incidentally right at the end of the book in a quotation from the Daily Mirror. I've no idea which of the countless books on the group is the best for a Beatles newbie, but this one isn't it.

As mentioned earlier, Brown plays around a bit with journalistic technique, but his experiments tend to fall flat. There are a couple of chapters built around the conceit of "What if?" If Paul MacCartney had passed his Latin "O" Level, he wouldn't have stayed down a year and got to know George Harrison and George wouldn't have become a Beatle. Big deal, but that's not what happened. If Gerry and the Pacemakers had become the most famous band in the world, the Beatles would have been also-rans like Gerry and the Pacemakers. But that's not what happened. Chance is a funny thing, but what were ever the chances of Gerry and the Pacemakers revolutionising pop music?

One Two Three Four is a flawed book that's written with some panache, but not so much craft, and it contains mistakes both factual and editorial. Huyton is not across the Mersey from Liverpool, and there are orthographic howlers like "higher plain". I feel obliged to assign it fours stars, because once Brown gets into his flow, at around the hundredth page, it makes for compelling reading. The focus is on the band's personalities and cultural impact, with rather little musical analysis, but at the end of the day it's an informative page-turner, and there are plenty of better books about which one can't say as much.

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