Classic review: The Beatles
What can there possibly be that we don't already know about the Beatles? Read this book to find out.
[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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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."