GIMME SOME TRUTH
Confused by all the books about the Beatles? Spencer Leigh has read them all.
Please Note – This feature has been added to the website on 7 December 2005. Any comments and opinions will be welcomed. Write to Spencer Leigh.
“A bad book is as much of a labour to write as a good one. It comes as sincerely from the author’s soul.”
(Aldous Huxley, 1928)
(Spencer Leigh, 2005)
In her 2005 biography of her former husband, Cynthia Lennon believes that John really loved her. Part of the evidence is that he wrote All My Loving for her. Only he didn’t. In separate interviews, both John and Paul have said that it was Paul’s song and, of course, it also sounds like a McCartney song. Was Cynthia deluded, a classic Freudian slip, or was it bad research by a ghost writer and even worse acceptance by Cynthia and her publishers? Is it none of the above and simply carelessness, a disregard for the reader, the Beatle fan?
That sounds an extreme example of inaccuracy but it is by no means alone. The literature about the Beatles increases in epidemic proportions: there are already 400 books with several more in the pipeline. How do we decide which are reliable and which tell us something new? In this feature and for the first time, we assess which books to read and which to ignore.
By and large, I am looking at first hand accounts – the autobiographies and authorised biographies – of those who were there. As we shall discover, being there does not necessarily mean accuracy, and there is self-deception and the cynical creation of anecdotes. Even if the facts are right, the author may be woefully wrong about human nature, and with personal scores to settle, the books can be battlegrounds as well as biographies. Most authors want to show themselves in the best light possible, and lionisation goes hand in hand with self-publication. All authors want to please their readers, which means leaving out the boring bits and providing an entertaining read.
All this has made me question the accuracy of the history I was taught at school. Unquestionably, the Beatles’s story is modern history and yet so much is being told wrongly. Many of the books can’t separate the trivial from the important and are ridden with errors: all too often authors pick up mistakes from other books and repeat them. A biographer may undertake commendable research but he can find himself identifying with his subject, which again distorts the view. In a curious exception, Albert Goldman came to hate his subject, John Lennon, which led to a totally biased biography. There is one major difference with the history I learnt at school. There the historical facts had come from the winners: this time the losers also get their say.
The Beatle books that tend to work best are the complete biographies and this is because the narrative drive is so strong. The film, Stoned, made me realise how much stronger the Beatles story is than the Rolling Stones’. With its many twists and turns, it is a fantastic soap opera. To quote the student in Alan Bennett’s play, The History Boys, “History is just one fucking thing after another”, and that is the Beatles’ story to a T.
In 1964 and at the height of Beatlemania, Brian Epstein wrote his autobiography, A Cellarful Of Noise, which was ghosted by the NEMS Organisation’s new personal assistant, Derek Taylor. A Cellarful Of Salt, more like. Taylor wasn’t around as it happened and as he had limited access to Epstein due to his commitments, he invented certain things for his approval including a girlfriend. Nothing earth-shatteringly wrong, but don’t rely on the book for accuracy. In the lightweight text, we learn little of Epstein’s motivations and nothing of his gambling or homosexuality. Nor could it be otherwise as homosexuality was illegal. The book was simply another device to sell the Beatles as lovable moptops. Even in 1964, the truth was somewhat different.
Derek Taylor made the best of a bad job and it is worth commenting on the role of ghost writers. Some of the books which are pilloried below are as much the fault of the ghost writer as the author. The general view is that ghost writers are seasoned hacks, able to extract the anecdotes from the subject, put them in order, sort out the inaccuracies and combine grammar with the glamour. Perhaps I am being sceptical but I am certain that some writers are also under orders from the publisher to egg the pudding as much as possible and certainly not to lose a good story by asking, “Did this really happen?”
An experienced journalist for The Sunday Times, Hunter Davies was given access to the Beatles and their inner circle to write The Beatles: The Authorised Biography, which was published in 1968. The book set the template for Beatle biographies and has several enthralling passages – Davies was fortuitously present when John and Paul are writing With A Little Help From My Friends, the only observed account of their writing together. Unfortunately, Davies had a cavalier attitude to his work: he did not spend enough time on interviews – where, for example, are the Quarry Men they left behind? – and there is a lack of candour.
In a foreword to Keith Badman’s book, The Beatles:Off The Record (2000), Davies, as good as admits he was lazy: “When I was doing my authorised biography of them, all those years ago, I had terrible trouble getting them to remember how many times, for example, they’d been to Hamburg and the names and order of the clubs they’d played in. They gave contradictory answers: John could hardly remember anything. Yet Hamburg was vital in their life and had happened relatively recently.” What’s wrong with doing some research? The dates in their passports would have been a good start.
Davies’ updates to his biography, which are simply additional chapters, are also sluggish although in one of them, a peeved McCartney said, for the first time, that the canonisation of his late songwriting partner had gone too far. Davies should have revisited his notes, sought out fresh material and reworked his text: more than anyone, he could have, should have, attempted the definitive book on the Beatles.
You would never know from reading Hunter Davies’ book that there were drug problems in the Beatles, but once the group had broken up, John Lennon told all. He was now studying Primal Therapy and rather like Elton John, he used the interview as therapy in extended conversations with Jann Wenner for Rolling Stone. Lennon had an enormous chip on his shoulder and had lost his sense of humour, but they make remarkable reading, the first time that any celebrity had been so frank. Lennon remarks, “If there is such a thing as a genius, then I am one.”
Although Lennon didn’t gloss over his faults, he stressed the weaknesses of others, being especially critical of the talents of Paul McCartney. .The full text of the interview has been reprinted in several editions, but unfortunately Lennon Remembers: The Rolling Stone Interviews (1971) is missing an index, which is a necessity as he rambles from subject to subject, often contradicting himself.
If he is to be believed, Allan Williams was the Beatles first manager and the person who arranged their initial residency in Hamburg, although both statements could be challenged. Williams wrote his first autobiography with the assistance of Bob Azurdia, a Merseyside journalist from the Catholic Pictorial. Although this unpublished text still exists, it has not been seen publicly. Because I knew Azurdia, I feel that this would provide a truthful account of the Beatles’ coffee bar and Hamburg days.
In 1975, Williams retold his life story to another local journalist, Bill Marshall, but the publishers wanted something more salacious. As Williams had run out of anecdotes, Marshall concocted some amusing tales and offered them for Williams’ approval. With great delight, Williams added them to his repertoire and now, well and truly in his anecdotage, he suffers from reverse Alzheimer’s where he remembers events which never happened. Nobody minds as he is a Grade A raconteur.
Allan Williams’ biography, The Man Who Gave The Beatles Away, is great fun but Paul McCartney in a superlative put-down said, “Some parts of this book are partially true.” Providing an author has the cash, Williams is a must-see for anyone writing a Beatles book and he has written a further book, this time with journalist Lew Baxter, The Fool On The Hill (2003). The books are similar but a mellowing has taken place. As Williams tells everyone, “I am not rich but I am a millionaire, a millionaire of memories.” And if you believe that…
As it happens, I have an example from personal experience as to how the tales have been spun. In 2002, I spoke at the memorial service for the Cavern DJ, Bob Wooler. According to Allan Williams’ account in The Fool On The Hill, I criticised him during my address and he retaliated “in a strident voice that echoed round the stone walls” and his ripe language “stunned the vicar”. This never happened, although I wish it had, and if I told anyone about the service, I would be tempted to add it.
Although you shouldn’t read Allan Williams’ books for historical accuracy, they do convey what it was like to be a young Beatle and they reveal the argumentative relationships between Williams and the group. Williams doesn’t mind showing himself in a bad light, something which would never occur with another impresario, Sam Leach. Leach, who promoted the Beatles at the Iron Door and the enormous Tower Ballroom in New Brighton, thought he had been omitted from Beatle history and called himself “The Man Whom Merseybeat Forgot”. After some self-publishing adventures, he told his story in The Rocking City; The Explosive Birth Of The Beatles (1999) and he did it to set the record straight as he saw it.
Sam Leach goes way too far in the other direction: he puts himself in the centre of all their development on Merseyside, does not admit to mistakes (for example, did he always pay his artists?) and given a few more pages, might have invented the wheel. Who, I wonder, is Sam wanting to impress? Maybe himself more than anyone else. At the end, he lists his promotions, but, if you look at the original posters, many of them were not his doing at all. For all his bluster, it is self-evident that Sam Leach lacked the vision to become an Epstein. In 2005 he promoted a benefit for New Orleans at a Liverpool club. He secured the services of P.J. Proby and 27 Liverpool acts, which made the bill unwieldy, and because of poor publicity, only 250 attended.
In 2000, Professor Mike Brocken of the Institute of Popular Music at Liverpool University wrote a very stimulating if contentious academic paper on the over-simplifications in Beatle literature for the book, The Beatles, Popular Music And Society. Brocken himself had ghosted an unpublished book for the Merseybeat promoter, Joe Flannery. As “Flannery handled the entire Pete Best affair for Brian Epstein”, the book sounds absorbing, but “entire”? Wasn’t Best personally sacked by Epstein? Do Flannery and Brocken have the reasons that have eluded everyone else for years? It’s worth waiting for but in the past, I have suspected that Flannery was not as close to Epstein as he claimed.
He maintains, for example, that he and Epstein had regular meetings about the promotion of their artists but Flannery’s artists (Lee Curtis, Beryl Marsden) never made the charts leading to the Liverpool expression, “Flannery’ll get you nowhere.” Considering that Brocken has been so critical of the standards of Beatle biographies, I will be intrigued to read the Flannery tome and see how it measures up to his theories on the limitations of history.
The idea of publishing two (or in Pete Best’s case, three and a DVD) autobiographies is widespread in the Beatle world. In 1978, John’s first wife, Cynthia, wrote, by her own admission, the “lightweight” A Twist Of Lennon, but, despite all the hurt and the fact that she was married to another man (John Twist), it was full of admiration for John and aside from her illustrations, it offered little that was new and certainly nothing sensational. Although John and Yoko disapproved of the book, it was kinder than they could have expected.
Cynthia Lennon’s 2005 version, John, is more critical and a passing comment to John’s “unreasonable rages” is now a full-scale beating. Cynthia displays her contempt for John’s Aunt Mimi, who throws a chicken at him and she reveals an affair between Ringo’s wife, Maureen, and George Harrison. However, in the light of that All My Loving comment, can the book be trusted? Cynthia also writes about events to which she was not party, and it would have been helpful to know the sources. Did the information come from John or from other books?
Cynthia closes her second book by saying that “If I’d known as a teenager what falling for John Lennon would lead to, I would have turned round right then and walked away”, but she has been backing down from this outlook in interviews. This alone suggests that the book needed more insight: have two of Cynthia’s subsequent marriages failed because of the problems of measuring up to Lennon or did Cynthia just have an unfortunate choice in men? Perhaps it’s telling that she calls herself Cynthia Lennon rather than Cynthia Charles.