[The Monitor occasionally reprints material from its archives. This review originally ran on Feb. 5, 2008.] If there's one thing the world certainly does not need, it's another book about the Beatles. Except this one.
While Christmas shopping a few months ago, I walked right past a brand-new Beatles book ... a first for me, for I am all about all things Beatle. Maybe it was the rather bland title and cover, or it might have been a feeling of maximum satiation brought on by reviewing Bob Spitz's 800-page Beatles opus a few years ago. It wasn't until a fellow Beatlemaniac recently waxed rhapsodic about Can't Buy Me Love that I finally stopped to pick up a copy. Remember the joy of opening all your Christmas presents and thinking you'd finished, then someone goes to the closet and emerges with one final, very special gift? Reading this book felt like that.
It was as if the very best had been saved for last. A nearly 20-year labor of love by a first-time writer, it's a fascinating, witty, and highly original take on Beatles music and mystique, and a worthy addition to "Beatle lit." If you happened to miss any of the 500-plus Beatles books before, not to worry – this will catch you up nicely. Author Jonathan Gould's long and winding road from concept in the late '80s to final publication last fall is a fascinating tale of its own (for details, listen to the author interview at csmonitor.com/books), but I'll stick to the book's compelling contents for this review.
The author chronicles the Beatles saga from three vantage points: biographical, musical, and historical. What he does better than anyone before him is to vividly re-create the world that incubated the four lads – not only their hometown of Liverpool, the once bustling seaport that had already faded into scruffy irrelevance by the time the boys were born – but an entire country reeling from another devastating war, mourning its dead, and trying to carry on.
"Britain – its cities scarred, its wealth depleted, and its vitality sapped by war – was turning its gaze inward as it abdicated its great power and disassembled its empire," writes Gould.
We're introduced to the theater of the Angry Young Men, the madcap Goons, the curious new miracle of television, and an exploding London art scene that was impertinently discarding all the rules. The irreverent attitude the Beatles exuded in public was genuine, indeed – but it was hardly unique. In postwar Britain young people were suddenly questioning everything.
Increasingly, the world turned its envious gaze on America, where confidence was high, the economy was booming, and charismatic stars like James Dean, Marlon Brando, and Elvis became idols to young men everywhere and catnip to young women.
Boatloads of "Yanks" frequently docked in Liverpool and brought their records with them. So even though their rough seaport town was 200 miles and 100 light-years away from a much hipper London, the four lads – even as schoolboys – were exposed to (and smitten with) not only Elvis, but rhythm-and-blues stars like Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and Smokey Robinson.
In bespectacled Texan Buddy Holly – the rare star of that time who wrote all of his own music – they found a true role model, as well as the inspiration for their name. (His band was called The Crickets).
But England's war babies weren't content to watch their American idols on TV or merely listen to their records – they wanted to rock, and on their own terms.
Britain's return gift to America
"Just as Britain had once bequeathed one of the world's great literary traditions to America, where it became infused with the native genius of writers like Poe and Wharton and Twain, America was now bequeathing one of the world's great musical traditions to Britain where a tight little band of young Liverpudlians stood ready to infuse that tradition with a native genius of their own," writes the author.
Gould spins out their familiar story with insight and affection. The first awkward encounters between Paul and older schoolyard rebel John, the early days honing the band's stage act and material in Hamburg's notorious Reeperbahn nightclubs, the rise of Beatlemania and their conquest of the ears and eyes and hearts and minds of America.
The Beatles' triumphant arrival in the US, exactly 44 years ago this week, was not only an unexpected thrill for millions of all ages, but a necessary, healing diversion from the deep malaise all Americans were suffering since the Kennedy assassination just three months prior. The country was nearly paralyzed with grief and suddenly, with a shake of their moptops and Ringo's jaunty downbeat, the sun came out.
Writing that sings
But it's not all biography and historical context that makes up the 600 pages of "Can't Buy Me Love."
It's professional musician Gould's uncanny ability to so vividly describe the Beatles' music – so vividly that you'd swear you could hear it playing – that elevates his book above the rest of the Beatles canon: George's guitar solo "knifes into the body of the song like a sinister peal of funhouse laughter"; "Paul's bass, like a dancing bear, turns pirouettes under his voice"; and "the joy that radiates from the blend of their voices sounds like another installment of their gift of grace to the world."
Recounting the dramatic ending of "Day in the Life," the powerful, final cut on the Sgt Pepper's album, "[T]here is the blinding flash of silence, then the stunning impact of a tremendous E major piano chord that hangs in the empty air for a small eternity, slowly fading away, a forty second meditation on finality that leaves each member of the audience listening with a new kind of attention and awareness to the sound of nothing at all."
Whether defining their enduring appeal, illuminating the nuances of John and Paul's complex relationship, or waxing rhapsodically over one of Ringo's signature drum fills, Gould delivers a multifaceted gem of a book that should delight and surprise even the most oversaturated fan.
• John Kehe is the Monitor's design director. He's vowed to never intentionally walk past a Beatles book again.