Also offering a particular picture of the Beatles is the film producer, Denis O’Dell, who told his story to Bob Neaverson in At The Apple’s Core (2002). He was involved in three of their films and worked with Ringo on The Magic Christian. Similarly, George Harrison appears in Ravi Shankar’s autobiography, Raga Mala: An Autobiography (1997), which is more than can be said for his daughter, Norah Jones.
Ray Coleman wrote a fine biography, Brian Epstein – the Man Who Made The Beatles (1989), certainly the first book on any rock manager which did not make him a rogue. Coleman did not dwell on Epstein’s gay life but had some valuable chapters on his business dealings. A further book, The Brian Epstein Story (2000), based on interviews for the BBC’s Arena documentaries veered the other way. The Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, Glenn Frankel, has been in Liverpool recently, researching what should be a definitive book about the Beatles’ manager.
Coleman ghosted Gerry Marsden’s autobiography, I’ll Never Walk Alone (1993) but I suspect that he accepted whatever Gerry said for an easy life. The book is a warning about accepting someone at his own evaluation. Gerry’s narcissism and self-justification are unbearable, especially the claim that he was John Lennon’s best friend. Factual errors abound and yet Coleman’s John Lennon biographies were meticulously researched: for example, Frankie Vaughan did not star in the film, Violent Playground, and Fats Domino would not be an obscure name to Brian Epstein – he did, after all, manage a record shop.
There are relatively few key players left to write their story – Ringo Starr, Jane Asher (who has never spoken of her relationship with McCartney), Neil Aspinall and fan club secretary Frieda Kelly – but not many. I keep coming across Merseybeat musicians who are working on their autobiographies – Billy Hatton of the Fourmost, Faron, Kingsize Taylor – but they do ever get completed or published? There are, I think, still new angles to be explored and I am surprised that no one has written about the Beatles’ links with the other Merseybeat groups. Surely the Beatles were more inspired by their peers than by any number of Aunt Mimis?
A memoir by the Beatles’ road manager, Mal Evans, remains unpublished some 30 years after his death. I like the authentic photographs in Prem Willis-Pitts’ Liverpool The Fifth Beatle (2000), but unfortunately the author’s personality is too off-beat to make the book work properly.
Even though so many have passed on or left, Liverpool is still an interviewer’s paradise when it comes to the Beatles. As well as the familiar names, there are plenty of lesser-known characters with a story to tell. And they should tell it. The rise of the Beatles is recognised as one of the key events of the twentieth century and the more first-hand history that can be recorded the better. Indeed, I would like to see the city setting up a repository to collect these stories. This is especially true of people who would never write their own books. It would also be good to have the verbatim transcripts from the research undertaken by the various authors.
Bob Wooler, on the other hand, felt that many biographers put a list of names in their acknowledgments to look impressive when they had not done the interviews at all. Quite often he would tell me that he had been credited in a particular book but he had never met the author. I wrote a biography of him, The Best Of Fellas, and though I felt that he was a reliable witness, at times his memory was at fault. (I realise with some trepidation that some may view this feature as me knocking the opposition.)
It is a shame that no one at the time kept a diary regarding the day to day happenings on Merseyside. Nowadays anyone who is connected to the Beatles will be 60 years old or more and an element of hindsight is almost inescapable. It may be that Wooler kept notes and files during the Sixites and these are amongst his belongings which are in storage. If they are made available, they could throw new light on that period.
Surprisingly few authors have carried on the biographical work of Hunter Davies. Several biographies can be dismissed because they do not offer new material and are a cut-and-paste job from previously published works. For many, the key Beatles’ biography is Shout!- The True Story Of The Beatles (1981) by Philip Norman, which was well researched and well written, but it was not really the true story of the Beatles as it relied on untruths for sensationalist publicity. I can’t believe that Norman had evidence of a Mafia-styled plot to kill Brian Epstein and more significantly, nor did anybody else.
Norman is working on a definitive biography of John Lennon and considering his dismissal of McCartney in Shout!, it says much for his powers of persuasion that McCartney has agreed to help him. Norman’s spiteful assessment of George Harrison in the Sunday Times does not suggest he has changed his ways. Tim Riley from Ohio, who analysed the Beatles’ songwriting in the acclaimed Tell Me Why (1988), will be walking down the same garden paths as Norman as he too is writing a biography of John Lennon.
The only rock writer whose name is known to the general public is Albert Goldman, but what a reputation to have. Like looking in a fairground mirror, he distorted the facts for The Lives Of John Lennon (1988), and he could not even be bothered to spell Mathew Street (the home of the Cavern) correctly. Unlike Cromwell’s “warts and all” portrait, this book concentrates on the warts. Anything that John did was either bizarre or creepy and the overall tone is highly unpleasant, tantamont to a second assassination. With no evidence, he says that the cleverness of John’s puns stems from his dyslexia.
When I met Goldman, he scoffed at Ray Coleman in writing for “the fan’s buck”, but who else buys these biographies? The fans didn’t buy Goldman’s book and no one else was interested. The book was rarely seen in libraries as copies would be defaced and dropped on the floor. As the Liverpool playwright Alan Bleasdale remarked, “For every finger Albert Goldman points at John Lennon, he points three back at himself.”
Following the controversy over his book on Elvis Presley, Goldman was reluctant to travel and hence, he had asked others to undertake the interviews. Because of Goldman’s bias, it scarcely mattered who conducted the interviews but this is a unprincipled tactic for a writer to adopt. How can he be sure that the researcher is going to be attentive and pick up on the leads? How can be sure that the interviewee isn’t spinning a yarn? In the event, I know that Goldman received some exceptional interview material and couldn’t even be bothered to transcribe most of it.
And what about the people who refuse to be interviewed? A good example would be Johnny Hutchinson, the explosive drummer with the Big Three. Maybe they have a different take on the Beatles and a good book could be written from people who haven’t told their story before. I believe that almost anyone can be interviewed if you go about it the right way, although there may be certain things they will not talk about. As the actress Sarah Bernhardt told one journalist, “I must reserve a few secrets for my memoirs.”
It would be difficult to upstage the luridness of Goldman’s text but Geoffrey Giuliano did his best with Lennon In America (2000). Claiming to have access to Lennon’s private diaries, we learn how Lennon had a sexual relationship with his mother, was responsible for Stu’s death, beat up Yoko, slept with Linda, and was bulimic and bisexual, using male prostitutes. Apart from that, he was a regular guy. Giuliano rode over the storms of protest by saying, “I must be doing something right because I have upset people so much.” If someone kept a diary, he would have to be incredibly honest to write about such transgressions and so I regard this book, until better evidence comes along, as a flight of fancy.
Most UK music writers complete their books while they are doing other things. In America, it is rather different as academics take leave of absence, usually existing on a solid advance. So it was with Steven Stark who brought his family to Merseyside while he researched Meet The Beatles for Harper Collins. It is described as “A cultural history of the band that shook youth, gender, and the world.” This was a killer concept: media and gender studies are favourite courses at US universities, so if you combine them in one book, you could have a winner. Unfortunately, it does not reveal Germaine Greer’s take on the Fabs. The gender studies concentrate on the significance of their long hair, but that is not particularly feminine. Most men had short hair as a legacy from army life.
Timing is everything in the Beatle world and now there is The Beatles – The Biography by Bob Spitz. This is perfect timing because there is a gap in the market for a solid, decent and lengthy biography. So why did he blow it?
Because the Beatles story is ipso facto very dramatic, The Beatles – The Biography is a good read but ultimately disappointing. I learnt no new facts of any significance; the copyreading is atrocious; and there are no musical, cultural or sociological insights. How can this possibly represent seven years of research: more likely, one of research and six of indolence. Despite its length, it is short on details and makes several mistakes. For example, the manager of the Star-Club, Horst Fascher does not three fingers missing: I have the photographs to prove it. Being an American does not help: the Beatles did not take their name from the film, The Wild One because the Marlon Brando film was refused a certificate in the UK and they never saw it. I was irritated by references to the young Beatles meeting up in “malt shops” and “drugstores”, the reference to Barbara Baker as John’s “loyal moll”, and his comments on Scouse terminology, which are usually UK slang. The reference to “chick butties”, however, is almost certainly that Scouse delicacy “chip butties”. Many of the Beatle books are poorly edited as well as being poorly written: The Beatles – A Biography is a case in point.
The meeting of Elvis with the Beatles is simply a synopsis of Chris Hutchins’ book and again, surely Lennon didn’t criticise Presley for his “soft-core singles”. Despite the bias towards John Lennon (presumably because he used Goldman’s research), I only found a single one-liner that was new to me. That was when John sang the parody, “I like New York and Jews, how about you?” With its annotated sources, The Beatles – A Biography looks masterly but it is confused and inaccurate.
The editor of the Mersey Beat newspaper, Bill Harry is the most industrious of all the Beatle authors, always with a new book in the stores, another being written and another being touted. However, he prefers to compile highly confusing encyclopedias rather than write biographies. The encyclopedias are confusing.
For example, I wondered if the Beatles had ever played in New Orleans so I looked in the 1,200 pages of The Beatles Encyclopedia. The entry for New Orleans told me that this was a song by US Bonds, which the Beatles sang on stage. To find out about any gigs, I had to find out from Mark Lewisohn’s The Complete Beatles Chronicle that they played the City Park Stadium. I referred back to Harry’s book and it gave me some anecdotes about them playing there in 1964, but did they play anywhere else in New Orleans? It is impossible to tell from Harry’s book. This is the most user unfriendly encyclopedia that I have come across.
The facts that you want about George Harrison might be hidden in the 70 page Chronology which is part of the 400 page encyclopedia, and from the entry on Ringo Starr, you would never know that he wrote songs with George. Look up Writing’s On The Wall, the B-side of All Those Years Ago, and you will find it is 3 minutes 55 seconds long and learn nothing else.
Bill Harry prides himself on his historical accuracy and it is unfortunate that so much of his own work doesn’t meet his own standards. In his columns in various Beatle magazines, Bill Harry is quick to point out the faults of others, but he should look in a mirror. His book, The British Invasion, is kept behind the counter at The Beatle Store in Liverpool and in slack moments, the staff mark up the mistakes. The pages are riddled with comments.
Allen J Wiener with The Beatles: A Recording History also prides itself on historical accuracy but he omits the name of John Lennon’s killer. This is because Mark Chapman wanted to have his name permanently linked with his victim. Not naming him creates a contradiction in the quest for accuracy.
The most acclaimed of all Beatle authors, Mark Lewisohn, has yet to write a biography of the band. He has written day to day accounts of their gigs and recording sessions and combined them in The Complete Beatles Chronicle. Mark has done many interviews but being an assidious researcher, he relies on calendars, catalogues and contemporary newsprint to sift through the bumf.
This very impressive book has, nevertheless, been in remainder shops at £9.99 for the past few years, so he must have a spectacular agent to arrange an alleged £1m contract for a new three-part biography, with the parts being published in 2008 (Liverpool’s European Capital of Culture year), 2012 and 2016. For that money, the publishers may be hoping for some unique and mind-blowing revelations. There were plenty in Mark’s sad biography of Benny Hill, but I doubt if there is much left in Beatleworld to be unearthed. And possibly Philip Norman will have got there first.
But has the world been Beatled out? Does the public, and even the fans, want to read three huge volumes about the Beatles? The second volume of Peter Guralnick’s biography of Elvis Presley sold substantially less than the first and the second volume of Gary Giddins’ study of Bing Crosby was cancelled. Although several years in the preparation, the mass acceptance of Lewisohn’s work may depend on the moment: as said earlier, timing is everything.
Having read all these books, you might think that I am bored by the Beatles, but the reverse is true. Once you have the appetite for it, you can’t wait for the next book to come along and see how it measures up.