Even a few brief moments with the Beatles can be the basis of a book. The Liverpool band, Focal Point, were only at Apple for a short while but Paul Tennant (with John Willis) has written his memoir, All You Need Is Luck (Happy About, 2008). This group experienced both good luck and bad. Good luck when they interrupted Paul McCartney with his dog in Hyde Park and requested an audition. McCartney said okay and they were successful, but the bad luck is that they never had any releases on Apple.
Their demos and subsequent single on Deram have now been released on the CD, First Bite Of The Apple (Kissing Spell, 2005). They’re good tracks and they were unlucky but unless you’re a diehard Focal Point, the sleeve note tells you all that you need to know. The story is unexceptional and the book is subject to appalling proof reading. Didn’t at least one of Paul Tennant, co-writer John Willis or Happy About’s editor realise that Procul Harum, Led Zeppelin and many more names were misspelt or that the “famous” actress they meet is Julia Foster and not Julie Foster. Still, the text is not without interest as Paul Tennant, for example, has the first account I have seen of Pete Best playing with the Black Jacks.
Some reviewers of Bob Dylan’s Chronicles Volume 1 chided him for leaving stuff out but this was unfair as they couldn’t possibly know what was going to be in a subsequent volume. I feel the same about The Beatles At The BBC (Beatles 4-Ever, 2006) as Azing Moltmaker has a second volume in preparation and only then will we know if it lives up to its boast of being The Complete BBC Files. However, on the basis of the first volume, I doubt it.
Azing Moltmaker is a Dutch author and it may seem harsh to criticise him for bad English. I don’t think so. He should have had someone check it out as the many misspellings (for example, Johnny Kid, Otthlie Patterson) and atrocious grammar are not only irritating but may lead to misunderstandings. He reproduces internal memos and by the side he misspells the recipients’ name for the text. He does not say who the individuals are, nor does he put anything in context. This book is slipshod and there is little understanding of broadcasting in the UK: Radio Luxembourg, for example, is called a pirate station.
The Beatles At The BBC looks impressive with 200 315x230mm pages in full colour with a hard cover. Radio Times listings, fan club newsletters and internal BBC correspondence are reproduced, along with many of the contracts for their performances. In addition, official and bootleg recordings are shown with their labels. Azing refers to the depth of his research (“We have managed to locate this document” and the like), but I suspect he has pillaged earlier publications by other writers.
There is a good book to be written about the Beatles and the BBC: what it meant for the Beatles to be on the radio, and what it meant for the listeners. This haphazard collection has been cobbled together with from any documents that he has to hand. If you should meet Moltmaker at a Beatles Convention, he will tell you that his books must be definitive because no one ever criticises them. He can never say that again.
Turning to an American academic, we have Meet The Beatles by Steven D Stark, which was published by HarperCollins in 2005. This has the sub-title, “A cultural history of the band that shook youth, gender, and the world.” That might not sound too impressive in the UK, but media and gender studies are favourite courses at US universities, and if you combine them in one book, you have a winner!
The 270 pages of text are followed by 50 more of references. (Philip Norman, are you reading this?) Stark has commendably studied all he can find on the subject but here, his own interviewees don’t impress as they should. Only 20 of his 150 subjects were part of the Beatles’ circle, but there are many Merseybeat musicians, acquaintances of the Beatles and commentators, mostly from the music world: I was hoping for Germaine Greer’s take on the Beatles but it’s not there.
The book is irritating as the speakers rarely say more than a sentence at a time. George Martin says of Brian Epstein, “He was their only hope.” What does that mean? While still based in Liverpool, Brian Epstein, in order to impress clients, asked another manager to call him and pretend he was Colonel Parker. That doesn’t sound like Epstein behaviour and it would fool nobody and he was more likely to be rumbled.
The gender studies concentrate on the significance of their long hair, but that is not particularly feminine. Most men only had short hair as a legacy from army life. The fact that John and Paul had lost their mothers apparently attracted them to others in a similar predicament. We are told that John could identify with Allen Klein for that reason, so why didn’t Paul like him too? Merseybeat is a matriarch with the dominant Mona Best (mother of Pete) and Mrs Caldwell (we are not told her Christian name, mother of Rory Storm). Mrs Caldwell told Paul that he lacked emotion so Paul called in 1965 and said, “Watch the telly on Sundays and then tell me that I’ve got no feelings.” He was introducing Yesterday.
The Beatles’ story is very familiar but it is possible to cast new lights upon it. Steven Stark in Meet The Beatles (2005) went for a feminist perspective which was forced and didn’t quite come together, but Steve Turner is on sounder ground with The Gospel According To The Beatles (Westminster John Knox Press, 2006), the title echoing Robert Short’s well-known book, The Gospel According To Peanuts. He has undertaken much original research and he has been through all the Beatles’ interviews (including his own) to seek out their comments on religion. John, Paul, George and Jesus, as it were.
Turner is at his most descriptive when writing about their childhood experiences. John and Ringo were raised as Anglicans, and Paul and George as Catholics, although only John was brought up with regular worship. Not that he cared for it. John was so bored during church services that he would count the panes in the stained glass windows. Turner looks into the significance of John’s phrase, “We’re more popular than Jesus” and points out that his half-hearted apology was followed by Paul saying that the Beatles deplored the fact that support for Christianity was shrinking. John’s views were mercurial and at his most buoyant, I feel it unlikely that John would accept a being superior to himself.
For some years, Steve Turner has wanted to write a book about how he himself grew up with pop music. He hasn’t done this but in true Alan Clayson fashion, he has written very entertainingly about his own adolescence and how he was so enamoured by the Beatles that he even read the Maharishi’s books. This fan’s perspective adds a powerful dimension to the book and although it is not as engrossing as his brilliant Amazing Grace (2002), it is still very good and well researched.
I expected George Harrison to be at the centre of the book and naturally, there is much about his quest for fulfilment. George Harrison said in 1968, “We can jump around and try new things which others can’t or won’t. Like drugs. People doing ordinary jobs just couldn’t give the time we did to looking into all that.” I’d never realised that the Beatles were doing this as a public service. Thanks, fellers.