If this book had not been pretentiously heralded as the definitive biography, John Lennon – The Life would be a good airport read, something to pass the time on a long journey, but because of the conceited publicity, we expect much more than that.
From the title, it is evident that John Lennon – The Life is more concerned with his life than his music and some of Lennon’s songs are not even mentioned. For a thorough examination of his solo work, I recommend Lennon – The Albums by Johnny Rogan (Calidore, 2006). This book gives serious consideration to aspects of John Lennon which are more usually glossed over. Philip Norman spent only three pages on Some Time In New York, but Rogan offers 30, putting the album into historical context, analysing the music and even speaking to an IRA operative who met him. Lennon, it turns out, was ambivalent: he wanted to do benefit concerts for both Catholics and Protestants.
Let’s contrast one small example from Philip Norman’s book with another account. In Norman’s book, in spring 1967, John Lennon reads about an uninhabited island for sale off western Ireland for £1,700. He and his friend, the gallery owner John Dunbar travelled to Dorinish in Clew Bay, which John bought and never set foot on it again.
A different story is told in The Beatles And Ireland by Michael Lynch and Damian Smyth (Collins, 2008) In March 1967. John Lennon asked Alistair Taylor to find him an island retreat. After a lack of success, Taylor saw an ad in The Times for Dorinish, which was being sold by auction. John sent him to the island, which he bought at the auction for £1,550. The two Johns then went to see the island, and John and Yoko in June 1968. John had arranged for his Romany caravan to be shipped to Dorinish, but he didn’t return. The island was sold in 1985 and is now a wildlife reserve.
As the Beatles only made three appearances in Ireland, The Beatles In Ireland seems a slender project but the authors document every visit they can find and include holidays, Paul’s marriage to Heather, and the text of radio and TV interviews. The Beatles with Ken Dodd on Granada TV is included because the host was an Irishman, Gay Byrne. Henry McCullough has his own section as the only Irish member of Wings. There are 26 pages on the Beatles appearance in Dublin on 7 November 1963. In all, there are 230 pages with well-reproduced illustrations and press cuttings. The first chapter is the most suspicious as the authors do their best to establish Irish links in the family tree of each Beatle. The book should have explained why the Beatles only made three appearances in Ireland: by way of contrast, Bruce Welch told me that the Shadows often appeared there so it wasn’t as though nobody came from England.
There is a second book about the Beatles in Ireland, The Beatles Irish Concerts by Colm Keane (Capel Island, 2008), which ignores Dorinish and concentrates on those three appearances in Dublin and Belfast. It is told in a 200 page narrative with a commendable amount of interview material. The person who wanted to use the same toilet as John Lennon makes another appearance and so do many more of the participants. We also have Bob Geldof’s sister and a member of Horslips.
I particularly liked the views of the concert from supporing acts – the Kestrels, the Brook Brothers, Peter Jay and the Jaywalkers, and the Vernons Girls. According to this book, John and Paul had originally offered the Vernons some new songs, and they had shown no interest. Now, when they were famous, Maureen Kennedy of the Vernons asked them for songs and was told to get lost. Did this happen? According to Philip Norman’s book, Maureen had an affair with John Lennon, and as Maureen has now died, I doubt if we will ever know which version is correct. Colm Keane is a good writer and I enjoyed George on stage, pawing the ground like a horse. Even though the girls were screaming, I doubt that John Lennon would have said “Shut fucking up” on stage in 1963. Were the Beatles the first to wear suit jacket and jeans? I thought that was Lovejoy.
I wanted to find out more about the Beatles’ Irish performances, but although Stuart Shea and Robert Rodriguez’s Fab Four FAQ (Hal Leonard, 2007) has been marketed as the ultimate trivia book, it doesn’t have an index and it’s hard to find what you want. The authors have consulted scores of books, newspapers and magazines to come up with what they determine as mistakes in their recordings (John and Paul start singing different verses at the same time in Please Please Me), unlikely contributions (Paul plays drums on Back In The USSR) and Beatle myths (George did not write Something for Pattie). Again, it would be useful to know how the team came by their conclusions – the Philip Norman syndrome – but it is an entertaining book, often dealing with little-known areas of Beatle life. However, more research would have been in order: for example, the founder of the Cavern, Alan Sytner, certainly made known his views on the Beatles; rather forcibly, too!
I’m a little suspicious of anyone who calls himself Mallory Curley and it is a pseudonym for a Harvard archivist who has spent five years researching Pete Best’s background for a remarkable book, Beatle Pete, Time Traveller (Randy Press, 2006), although it is difficult to recommend it.
Pete Best has written three books about his life, and it appears from Beatle Pete, Time Traveller, that he either withheld significant information or did not know it. Mallory Curley has the answers, but for some daft reason best known to himself, he has chosen to write a fictional account of what might have happened between Pete Best and his fellow Beatles. However, we are assured that the copious footnotes are as accurate as they can be.
The footnotes take up half of the 450 A4 pages and we learn, through diligent research, that Pete is not the son of the boxing promoter, Johnny Best, but rather was born Randolph Peter Scanland in Madras when his mother was 17. Because the author has had the assistance of estranged relations rather than the Best family themselves, the whys and wherefores are missing, but it is evident that this was a house of secrets. This could explain why Pete was so shy and withdrawn during the early 60s.
Beatle Pete, Time Traveller is only for Grade A, hardcore Beatlenuts and even they will find it hard going. If only the author had ditched his fantasies and presented the findings chronologically. For all that peculiarities, it is a welcome addition to Beatle research.
If Stuart Sutcliffe is more to your liking, there is an impressive catalogue-cum-analysis of the exhibition of his work, displayed in the Victoria Gallery in Liverpool during 2008. The book, Stuart Sutcliffe – A Retrospective (Victoria Gallery and Museum) contains well-illustratred memories and several analyses of Stu. My favourite piece is Rod Murray’s hilarious account of being at art college and leading a bohemian life with John Lennon, Stu Sutcliffe and Bill Harry.
A highly-detailed memoir of local Merseyside history, Penny Lane Is In My Ears And In My Ears, by Stan Williams was published by Pegasus in 2008. With a sense of detail, Stan Williams gives us a full portrait of what it was like to live around Woolton and Allerton in the 1940s and 50s. However, despite the title and the references on the back cover to John Lennon, this has only tenuous connections to the Beatles. Williams was at school with Lennon at Dovedale Road but he was always wary of him and they were acquaintances rather than schoolfriends. Still, there are excellent anecdotes, especially about growing up with the emergence of rock’n’roll.
When Frank Kenny was a young boy, he went to see the Beatles’ homecoming on 10 July 1964, which coincided with the Northern premiere of A Hard Day’s Night. He was caught short, went home to relieve himself and when he got back, he was too late. He has developed his memories of the day into a novel, Waiting For The Beatles (Portside, 2006) but this time he speaks to John Lennon. It’s a pleasant, light-hearted read and it does give a feeling of what was it was like to be young and in Liverpool on that momentous day. The sections on Catholic guilt and left-wing politics ring true to life.