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These Are the Best Beatles Books | Pitchfork

These Are the Best Beatles Books | Pitchfork

These Are the Best Beatles Books | Pitchfork
May 24
11:34 2018

In the decades since the Beatles’ 1970 breakup, the group’s rise and fall has been told as a myth. It’s also been told via children’s story, salacious gossip, dry history, detailed diaries, technical manuals, cartoons, and graphic novels. There are volumes dedicated to their recording equipment, encyclopedias chronicling all of the music and film the group has yet to release, collections of the photos from before they were stars—basically, if you can think of an idea related to John LennonPaul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr, it’s been published. This constant trickle of books can overwhelm even steadfast Beatlemaniacs, but the greatness of the music has also drawn out greatness within authors. The best books about the Beatles rank among the best pop culture writing—and criticism—ever.

Along with the band’s massive, lasting influence on music, their narrative has a clean, dramatic arc, separated into three distinct acts, each of which is worthy of deep exploration. While there are certainly more than 10 worthy books about the group, the following volumes provide the foundation of any Beatles library. These titles offer richly reported history, incisive critical analysis, detailed accounts of the quartet at work, and insider accounts that humanize a band who are still often seen as larger-than-life caricatures. Reading any one of these books will provide insight into a phenomenon that’s often thought of only in the broadest terms. Reading all 10 will illustrate why their myth only grows stronger over the years: Their story is always the same, yet always different.

The Best Overall Introduction

Shout!: The Beatles in Their Generation by Philip Norman (1981)

Shout! was first published 11 years after the Beatles split and, more importantly, a year after the assassination of John Lennon, during a period when conventional wisdom began to settle. Author Philip Norman received no direct input from any of the four Beatles for the book, so he relied on research and first-person interviews with people who operated in their orbit, all of whom were ready to settle scores while keeping the fires of the Beatles’ myth alight. This perspective distinguishes the swift, thorough, and entertaining Shout! over its only other single-volume bio competitor, Hunter Davies’ official 1968 account, The Beatles, and helps place the quartet’s mercurial ’60s output in the context of that tumultuous decade.

The Definitive Origin Story

Tune In: The Beatles: All These Years, Volume 1 by Mark Lewisohn (2013)

Tune In—the first (and, to date, only) installment in a planned three-part biography from eminent Beatles scholar Mark Lewisohn—is the opposite of Shout! Where Norman’s book moves at a rapid clip, Lewisohn intentionally recreates the rise of the Beatles at a pace so unhurried, it gives the illusion that events are unfolding in real time. Perhaps such deliberateness is the inexorable result of a lifetime spent researching the Beatles, but the remarkable achievement of Tune In is how it makes the group’s first act, which runs from before the band’s formation until the end of 1962, seem like their most exciting era.

All of this is due to to Lewisohn’s decision to start his research from scratch. In doing so, he finds that printing the legend has obscured the truth: Such worn stories like Decca Records refusing to sign the Beatles, how George Martin received his assignment to produce the group, and John choosing which parent to live with simply didn’t happen the way scores of books say they did. These revelations, combined with Lewisohn’s knack at illustrating how the Beatles’ rise was not inevitable—time and time again, they hit limits on their respective circuits, and Lennon and McCartney went years without writing originals—gives Tune In a corrective punch. If Lewisohn never completes the other two volumes, at least he set the record straight for what is perhaps the murkiest period of the Beatles.

The Tales Behind Every Song

The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions: The Official Story of the Abbey Road Years by Mark Lewisohn (1988)

Granted unprecedented access to Abbey Road’s vaults and tape logs, Mark Lewisohn wrote The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions as a sequel to The Beatles Live!, a chronicle of all the concerts the Fabs played. That 1986 book splits the difference between fan service and scholarship, but The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions transcends such distinctions by providing a riveting day-by-day account of how the Beatles created their art. Alternate takes are examined in detail, along with overdubs and unreleased songs, many of which wouldn’t make it out of the Abbey Road vaults until the ’90s release of the multi-part Anthology, if ever. Lewisohn’s skills as a documentarian give this book an enthralling narrative: The songs take shape in print as he precisely details them.

The Critical Analysis

Revolution in the Head: The Beatles’ Records and the Sixties by Ian MacDonald (1994)

With Revolution in the Head, Ian MacDonald breaks down every song the Beatles ever released, placing each one within its cultural context while sussing out the motivations behind both compositions and covers. As a critic, MacDonald is exacting and not overly generous: He’s quick to dismiss songs he deems as throwaways, sometimes ascribing emotional attributes to the Beatles that aren’t entirely supported by the text. But these critiques hardly diminish the massive achievement of Revolution in the Head, nor its influence. It’s a sober, compelling read that frequently questions deeply cherished beliefs, a book that lives inside the head as much as it does on the page.

The Official Story (According to Paul)

Paul McCartney: Many Years From Now by Barry Miles (1997)

After years of being painted as the soft, fuzzy one in the Beatles, Paul McCartney took part in this biography written by his longtime friend Barry Miles. It relies on never-before-published interviews between the two mates and, given this tight relationship, Many Years From Now is as close to a McCartney autobiography as we’re likely to get.

It’s fascinating—and revealing—that the bulk of this weighty book is focused on the life of the mind. McCartney isn’t as interested with the old tales as he is with getting proper credit for his achievements, so Miles devotes most of his lengthy tome to Paul’s insights on nearly every composition he penned in the ’60s and, tellingly, the narrative comes to a close when the Beatles do. Consequentially, the book reads like a necessary corrective: It smashes the stereotype that Paul was merely a pop star by establishing his avant-garde credentials, a move that illustrates just how complicated the creative team of Lennon/McCartney really was.

What Beatlemania Was Really Like

Love Me Do! The Beatles’ Progress by Michael Braun (1964)

Published during the waning days of Beatlemania, Love Me Do! is the definitive document of what the Beatles meant during their popular peak. Embedded with the band between the release of Please Please Me and the filming of A Hard Day’s Night, the American journalist Michael Braun reported the sensation around the Beatles with a fond detachment. He was open to their charms but cognizant of their flaws—neither of which the Beatles disguised, because their success was so sudden and they’d yet to develop their guard. As such, Love Me Do! captures how the Beatles really were during this heady time: They spiked their Cokes with Scotch, they flexed their muscles, while John admitted the avant-garde bored him, and Paul puzzled out the meaning of Fellini. Braun nails the personalities of all four of the Fabs while also capturing the chaos surrounding them, and that makes Love Me Do! the rarest of things: an act of snap journalism that transcends its time.

The Insider Account

As Time Goes By by Derek Taylor (1973)

Derek Taylor was one of the great non-musical figures of ’60s rock’n’roll. He served as the Beatles press agent twice, once during Beatlemania and once after the 1967 death of the band’s manager, Brian Epstein—before returning to helm the press office of Apple Corps, the doomed multimedia conglomerate the band established in 1968. He also spent the middle of the Swinging Sixties in California, where he worked with the Byrds, organized the Monterey Pop Festival, and was unsuccessfully wooed by Hollywood icon Mae West. Taylor attracted these luminaries because he was there during the heat of Beatlemania, but the wondrous thing about his memoir, As Time Goes By, is how he’s as much an observer as he is a participant in the chaos. Already in his 30s when he discovered the Beatles, Taylor’s life was transformed by the Fabs, yet he never considered them gods. His weariness with the group sometimes seeps through—at one point, he claims he never hated another person like a he hated Paul in 1968—but that’s why the book still crackles. It was written in 1973, when the group were all alive and all thorns in his side, but he was keen to capture just how wondrous their moment in time was.

The Ultimate Hanger-On Tells All

The Longest Cocktail Party by Richard DiLello (1972)

He was called the “House Hippie” when he worked at Apple Corps between 1968 and 1970, and for good reason. Richard DiLello was a Californian refugee who was Derek Taylor’s deputy, clipping press notices and participating in flights of fancy, such as scouring London to find a giant barrel to house bushels of apples to add flair to a promo party. Ultimately, he was a fly on the wall for the madness of Apple Records in the late ’60s—a neverending million dollar bash he dubbed the “Longest Cocktail Party.”

Published a year before As Time Goes By, this book sometimes seems to be in dialogue with its companion—DiLello’s affection for Taylor is apparent on every page—but where Taylor was an equal to the Fabs, the House Hippie was a lucky hanger-on who got to witness the disintegration of the Beatles. The Longest Cocktail Party captures the rapid collapse of Apple Corps, as DiLello gives PR cover for John and Yoko’s increasingly elaborate art stunts, champions a completely forgotten band named White Trash, skips gingerly around the Hells Angels invited (and subsequently discarded) by George Harrison, then navigates the sudden changes when Allen Klein—the American music mogul and impresario who every Beatle but Paul hired as a manager in 1969—decided to turn the flailing vanity project into a business. Swift, swinging, and alive, it’s by far the funniest Beatles book out there.

The Dramatic Afterlife

You Never Give Me Your Money: The Battle for the Soul of the Beatles by Peter Doggett (2009)

Peter Doggett begins You Never Give Me Your Money where most Beatles books end: when the group began to splinter in the wake of Brian Epstein’s death in 1967. It’s an inspired move. The Beatles may have ceased to function as a band in 1970, but John, Paul, George, and Ringo began to drift apart much earlier than that. And ever since, despite a lack of new Beatle music and a surplus of lawsuits—not to mention the deaths of Lennon and Harrison—that perpetual dysfunction has remained a constant undercurrent driving the group’s afterlife.

You Never Give Me Your Money traces the tangled personal and professional relationships of the Beatles all the way through to the 21st century. Doggett focuses on the business, never losing sight of how the Beatles turned into a corporation long before they stopped playing as a band. There may be some gossip lurking in these pages, but the real excitement comes from the revelations of how lawsuits and record contracts affected both the Beatles legacy and the solo careers of all four musicians: witness how each member received royalties from the solo albums of their former bandmates until the mid-’70s, at which point Paul becomes the biggest individual star of the group, tipping the financial balance decidedly in his favor. As these grimy economic particulars constitute largely unexplored territory in Beatles books, You Never Give Me Your Money is riveting in a unique way, as Doggett’s clean and lucid style turns courtroom battles and petty grievances into high drama.

The Contemporary Reevaluation

Dreaming the Beatles: The Love Story of One Band and the Whole World by Rob Sheffield (2017)

Nearly every book about the Beatles is a historical document of some sort, attempting to capture the group within the confines of the ’60s. Rob Sheffield turns this concept on its head with Dreaming the Beatles, choosing instead to interpret what they meant as an evolving cultural institution in the decades following their breakup.

This isn’t to say Sheffield dismisses history. As a music critic who grew up with the Beatles as a constant in his life, he’s absorbed countless books and articles about the band, which frees him to draw fresh, surprising insights about their music, including the stacks of records the Fab Four released as solo artists. The thrill of Dreaming the Beatles is discovering how Sheffield finds all the good and not-so-good of McCartney within “So Bad,” a forgotten single from 1983—a conclusion that demonstrates not just the author’s depth of knowledge, but how the Beatles are no longer anchored to history. Here, Paul’s solo recordings are in dialogue with the music he made as a Beatle, as well as the music George, John, and Ringo made on their own, and we, as an audience, hear it as a collective piece, too. Dreaming the Beatles is the only book to acknowledge this interconnectivity and it’s also filled with sharp criticism that challenges conventional wisdom. Once you know the history by heart, this is the place to understand what the Beatles mean now.

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Source: These Are the Best Beatles Books | Pitchfork

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Martin Nethercutt

Martin Nethercutt

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