Reviewed by Glenn Frankel
Washington Post Book World
Forty years ago, when the Beatles were at the vertiginous pinnacle of their fame and glory, selling millions of records and inciting legions of followers who pored over their every cryptic song lyric as if it were a message from the Almighty, John Lennon acknowledged that even they were bewildered by their own mystique. "People think the Beatles know what's going on," he told their first biographer, Hunter Davies. "We don't. We're just doing it."
More than 500 books later, writers are still struggling to explain the magic and the magicians. The market is glutted with memoirs, anthologies, photo albums, academic treatises and deep-mine analyses of individual albums and songs. These books often bear dubious song titles (my personal favorite: iconic producer George Martin's All You Need Is Ears). Just two years ago, Bob Spitz published The Beatles, a majestic, 984-page narrative -- including 86 pages of footnotes -- that energetically revisited the familiar ground and was rewarded with several weeks on the bestseller list.
Now comes Jonathan Gould, with a 661-page doorstop that weaves together biography, music criticism and cultural analysis. It's a lot to ask of a reader. Fortunately, Gould succeeds in convincing us with fresh insights and vivid prose that the Beatles are worth yet another big book.
He starts off with that golden moment when the Fab Four descended at Kennedy Airport in February 1964 and first captured America's attention with their infectious pop melodies and good-natured insouciance. Then he drops back eight years to Elvis Presley's insolent, doom-struck rendering of "Heartbreak Hotel" ("so lonely I could die") and the London opening of the John Osborne play "Look Back in Anger" to ground us in some of the cultural events that shaped the sensibilities and ambitions of the young John Lennon and Paul McCartney as they grew up in the fading British seaport of Liverpool.
He captures Liverpool's fierce working-class pugnacity, mocking humor and eclectic musical heritage, then dwells lovingly on the remarkable musical collaboration of Lennon and McCartney. Gould doesn't fall for the notion that Lennon was the hard rocker and McCartney the shmaltzmeister; instead he describes in intricate detail how they challenged, goaded and inspired each other -- and how the professionalism and commitment to craft of George Harrison and, eventually, Ringo Starr completed the ensemble. Gould never forgets that the Beatles were a collective: four young men who shared their experience and produced their art together, "a vision of self-sufficiency, interdependence, and shared ambition."
Along the way, we meet a vast array of musical and cultural influences. This is a book that deftly leaps from Max Weber and Daniel J. Boorstin to Little Richard and Chuck Berry. Gould places the Beatles within the context of the technological and cultural revolutions that both benefited and were stimulated by them. The advent of long-playing record albums, prime-time television entertainment shows and trans-Atlantic passenger jets -- "freshly minted products of the postwar world" -- all made the Beatles not just a successful pop act but an international phenomenon.
As Gould notes, the Beatles helped create a revolution in the way popular records were made and listened to, in the nature of songwriting and in the role that popular music played in people's lives. But their fundamental achievement was to pierce our hearts. They took the new sociological phenomenon called the teenager -- a post-war population group with its own identity, sensibility and disposable income -- and spoke to its angst and alienation. "It was into this cloistered community of prematurely lost souls and lonely hearts," Gould writes, "that the Beatles burst, dispensing a fantasy that was made to be shared, turning the languid, self-pitying world of teenage romance inside out."
More than entertainers, the Beatles became icons, spokesmen and avatars, and at their best they did so with self-mocking wit, authority and grace. Gould delights in describing the brimming tension and squealy falsetto of "Please Please Me," the band's first No. 1 record. The explosive choral beginning of "She Loves You," he writes, "created the feeling of plunging into the middle of a boisterous musical party that seemed to have been going on for some time." And he revels in the band's growing creativity, likening the apocalyptic conclusion of "A Day in the Life" to "the sound in the ears of the high-wire artist as the ground rushes up from below."
Sometimes Gould gets carried away. Does the song "A Hard Day's Night" really unfold, as Gould claims, "like a pop-Freudian discourse on the themes of Work and Love"? A little of this goes a long way. For those who prefer to revisit the Beatles' story in all its guts and glory, Spitz is your man. For a highly entertaining review of each and every album, nothing surpasses Ian MacDonald's Revolution in the Head (1994). But if you want to relive the upheaval that the group wrought, Can't Buy Me Love offers a fresh vision that, like the Beatles, brims with energy, wit and charm.
Glenn Frankel, who teaches in Stanford University's graduate journalism program, is the Washington Post's former London bureau chief.
Books mentioned in this post