Classic review: The Beatles

What can there possibly be that we don't already know about the Beatles? Read this book to find out.

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    The Beatles:
    The Biography
    By Bob Spitz
    Little, Brown & Company
    992 pp.
    View Caption

[This review from the Monitor's archives originally ran on Nov. 8, 2005.] I wouldn't be surprised if there are as many books about the Beatles as there are Starbucks, and most that I've read are as soothing as their lattes, sweetened and smoothed over the years by popular myth and faded memories. If you like your Beatles just as you remember them - cute and cuddly and dusted with magic - you might want to avoid this book.

Conversely, if you're looking for insights into the flesh-and-blood men behind the mop tops - warts, peccadilloes, drugs, and all - then The Beatles: The Biography by Bob Spitz is your definitive Beatles volume.

It's a meticulously researched, finely detailed biography, filled with intimate scenes from inside the boys' humble childhood homes, and affectionate re-creations of early, often awkward, encounters with one another in the playgrounds and schoolrooms of 1950s Liverpool.

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Among its indelible highlights are almost palpable eye-witness accounts of seminal performances, including their wild and woolly coming-of-age days playing marathon shows, night after night on Hamburg's notorious Reeperbahn. At three inches thick and almost 900 pages, it's by no means a quick read, but it's a cracking good one, especially for fans who think they already know the whole story.

The first third of this opus is a treasure chest of revelation. Author Bob Spitz demonstrates his deep research and writing chops by transporting us to the place where it all began, decades before the Beatle boys were born. We peek in on the O'Leannains (later changed to Lennon to bridge the sectarian divide) and McCartneys, two Irish families among the tens of thousands fleeing the ravages of the Great Potato Famine in the 1840s, casting their lots in the then boom-town of Liverpool. By the time the Beatles were born, smack- dab in the middle of World War II, Liverpool was a rusting, decaying husk of what had been a proud and thriving seaport. "To the rest of the country, Liverpool was an anglicized Siberia: out of sight, out of mind."

But the "scousers" (slang for local residents) were proud and hard-working folks. Spitz writes, "The people living within these confines saw the seaport as a threshold on the horizon. Beyond it, an invisible world beckoned."

In the late 1950s the unknown horizon being scanned by four Liverpool lads came in with a good deal of static. It arrived via Radio Luxembourg, a dim signal from a "pirate" radio station that carried the exotic sound of rock 'n' roll and rhythm and blues hits from America to the living-room radios of John Lennon, James Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Richard Starkey.

Living within a few miles or blocks of one another, but not yet acquainted, they would soon be blazing uncharted musical waters of their own.

The brief courtship and nearly instantaneous marriage of musical soulmates gets plenty of ink, with rich quotes from several members of John's schoolboy band, the Quarrymen.

Percussionist Pete Shotton recalls: "Right off, I could see John was checking this kid out. Paul came on as very attractive ... wildly confident. I could see that John was very impressed." He quotes Lennon's impression of the first time he saw the baby-faced McCartney perform.

"I half thought to myself, 'He's as good as me.' It went through my head that I'd have to keep him in line if I let him join the band. But he was good ... he also looked like Elvis. I dug him."

John and Paul's was a creative marriage that lasted over a dozen years and spawned some of the greatest pop music ever made. Prolific songwriters, they were daring, undaunted by the limitations of what a song could be or what a band could do. As musicians, they saw in each other the "same heartfelt commitment to this music, the same do-or-die."

But as people, they could hardly have been more different. Paul's relentless cheerfulness and desire to please rubbed against John's quicksilver nature, disdain for conformity, and appetite for drugs, until eventually they couldn't stand to be in the same room together.

Yoko Ono's disruptive arrival on the scene in 1968 certainly didn't help the relationship, but it was already in irreversible decline. The music wasn't enough. Being a Beatle wasn't enough. And by 1970 the divorce was final.

One of the new dimensions offered by this book is the degree to which George and Ringo are fleshed out.

There's a touching scene in the tuberculosis sanatarium where little Richie Starkey was forced to spend nearly all of his 12th year. As part of his therapy, he would beat rhythms out on the hospital bedframe with whatever was lying around. This so entertained and impressed his nurses that they gifted him with "Bedtime for Drums," a swing-band record which he played over and over. "Someday, I'm going to play just like that," he boasted.

More familiar material - the first trip to America and the Ed Sullivan Show appearances, Beatlemania's early giddy excitement before becoming a virtual prison for the band, the making of A Hard Day's Night and the revolutionary Sgt. Pepper's album, the trek to India to see the Maharishi - is chronicled with fly-on-the-wall detail and an impressive array of quotes and sources.

The John and Yoko coupling and John's cruel discarding of wife, Cynthia, and his son Julian is heartbreaking and will be disillusioning for his fans. In fact, if ever there was a case for John Lennon to be de-sainted, this book makes it. [Editor's note: The original version misidentified the son of John and Cynthia Lennon.]

The Beatles' jaw-dropping naiveté at trying to start their own businesses under the Apple umbrella even as their patina was rapidly wearing off is somewhat comical. The ugly infighting and jockeying for financial control - portrayed in high-definition and living, seething color - is not.

The fact that in the middle of this litigious, tension-racked disaster called Apple, they could break away and record one more Beatle masterpiece - Abbey Road - is a final testament to their fathoms-deep love of musicmaking.

As the Beatle dream finally disintegrates, the air comes out of this book. Or maybe that's just the pain of reliving the slow death of a too-good-to-be-true dream.

But it was true. Many of us were grateful witnesses to the Beatle years, and this book works well at evoking for us their glorious art even as it reveals their sometimes inglorious humanity. In the end, when they broke up, they were just slightly older versions of those "scouser" lads, ears pressed to the radio, lost in the music.

"A vastness of talent, of charm, of genius ... an ocean like the one the four boys looked out upon, peering west from the hills of Liverpool ... a flood that cascaded out of the Cavern Club and Hamburg ... that pushed aside what had come before, that cleansed and battered and in the end nourished."

This book reminds us - in generous detail - that the Fab Four were just people. Not gods, saints, or shamans. We like our idols to be perfect. These men clearly were not. But in the end, the music they made came awfully close.

• John Kehe is the Monitor's art director.

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