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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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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."

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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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