Considering that it takes some formidable organizational chops to serve as a competent Beatles bibliographer, it can be downright daunting if you’re coming to the stacks of Fab Four literature as a neophyte reader wondering where you might start. For those are some buckling shelves, filled with worthy tomes, arresting diversions, gossipy trivia and dense accounts of what kind of gear the band used, who their tailors were, how many times per annum they visited the dentist, etc.
Romantic other-halves have weighed in on the story/saga side of things; ditto competing rivals, A&R men, siblings, business associates, sacked partners. There is a lot of dross. But considering that we’re talking hundreds of books, there are some top-drawer offerings as well.
Philip Norman is an old hand with Beatles-based scholarship, and his massive bio, Paul McCartney: The Life, provides a nice opportunity to survey those shelves of Beatles lit. Here’s a look at 10 of the other best Fab Four volumes to check out.
The standard Beatles history posits the star-crossed Stuart Sutcliffe as John Lennon’s best friend, until his tragic death in 1962, whereupon Paul McCartney became Lennon’s chief mate, but Pete Shotton better fit the bill. He was there first, romping with Lennon as schoolboy tearaways, and in on all the things that boys do with each other: lots of circle jerks, incidentally, in this candid, and very Northern memoir. Lennon later bought Shotton a supermarket, and the latter was awfully adept at telling Lennon when the rocker was full of shit, which was often enough. Bracing, ribald and infused with love.
Williams is the titular figure, and you never have to sweat how good he is, how bright, how canny, etc., because he’s always there to tell you. He was the band’s first manager when, in his words, no one would go near them with a barge pole, Not a lot of people can boast like Williams does and still come off as a likable person, but that’s Williams: avuncular, shady as all hell, but earnest, like some comic-relief character from a Fielding novel who steals an early chapter or two. He loses out on future riches, naturally, but the dude keeps coming back, and even plays his role in the bartering of the wildly under-appreciated Star Club tapes.
Beatles producer George Martin has a nice little remembrance called All You Need Is Ears, but it was his mid-1960s engineer Geoff Emerick who shot past him in the post-career Beatle book game. Emerick was integral to the sounds of Revolver and Sgt. Pepper – he is, in his way, as responsible for McCartney’s bass tone at the time as the bassist himself – and the band’s sonic palette was never richer. Here he tells you how many of those sounds came to be at Abbey Road, and what might have been a dry accounting for gearheads pulses with “damn, I didn’t know that!” narrative glee.
The knock on this Philip Norman bio has always been that he looks down on his subjects, but the author’s honesty is admirable. In fact, the most compelling Beatles books tend to be the ones that you can have a mental punch-up over, disagreeing with a given taken, but enjoying it all the same because it makes you think, or sends you back to reevaluate something. Norman puts his readers through these enjoyable paces, and he also nails the Hamburg period better than anyone. If you want the spirit of the Beatles hustling and grinding on the Reeperbahn, trying like madmen – and pilled up, desperate, manic madmen – to get somewhere, get good, get better than everyone else so as to give the world that eventual fist pump of being the best, you come to this book.
The volume many people think of – erroneously – as the first Beatles book set a high standard with its frankness. Released in 1968, The Beatles was the only place, for a long time, you could get examples of the correspondence between John Lennon and Stuart Sutcliffe. Consider these lines from a poem Lennon sent his friend: “I can’t remember anything/Without a sadness/So deep that it hardly/Becomes known to me.” That is Fitzgerald “dark night of the soul” territory, and it comes from a time when few people would have thought the Beatles anything but louts. Don’t be put off by the authorized-access element – clearly these were guys who needed to unburden themselves of some truths they’d been toting around for the bulk of a decade, and they pile up here.
The Beatles have just ended, and Rolling Stone founder Wenner sits down with Lennon for a confessional that doubles as harsh attack, soul purging, study in how songs came to be, and, in the end, a kind of lament for something that was the defining journey of a life, which would never come close to being replicated. Lennon is more hurt than angry, one senses, as he lobs stones at the stained-glass windows of Beatledom.
Ironically, for all of the bashing, the book presents McCartney as the Beatles’ most talented member, reflecting a respect that Lennon clearly feels. He tells you – not always correctly — who wrote what, song-wise. But beyond the hurt feelings and foggy memories is a clarity of thought that emerges almost despite the man himself. As he says: “And the thing about rock and roll, good rock and roll, whatever good means, etc., ha-ha, and all that shit, is that it’s real. And realism gets through to you, despite yourself. You recognize something in it which is true, like all true art.” Hear, hear.
You wouldn’t think you’d be able to turn what’s basically a log book of every Beatles session at EMI studios – running down who the producer was, who the engineer was, what songs, backing tracks or overdubs were put on tape – into a page-turning wonder, but so it goes here. Lewisohn, whose gargantuan Tune In – the first of a three-volume Beatles series – came out a few years ago, has never been good at discussing why a song functions as well or not as well as it does, but he does have a knack for situating you in a spot. Reading Recording Sessions, you practically find yourself sitting in the studio as the band start up the next take. This was also the first time readers got a sense for the treasures locked away at Abbey Road, the gems that would surface on a lot of bootlegs that further changed how one understood the band.
The scandalous choice. This 1983 gossip orgy was a huge seller, and it brought the dirt, thanks to Brian Epstein assistant Peter Brown. Is it akin to Gibbon? No – it’s very clickbait-y, paperback-style, but it does capture the spirit of the Beatles as a unit, and as individuals, like little ever has. You might even say as well as the Beatles themselves did on their own. The band possessed a strange alchemy in that there was something about them, and their music, that fostered works not by them but which were very Beatlesque works nonetheless. The Yellow Submarine film is another example. Reading The Love You Make feels, at times, illicit, and if a book can give you a contact high, this would be it.
Woe that MacDonald didn’t write more – he committed suicide in 2003 – but this is a major work quite apart from the Beatles book repository. He takes on every song, and some sacred cows are off to that processing plant never to return home again. One wonders how such eviscerations would be greeted in the Internet age. MacDonald has no problem telling you he thinks some beloved work sucks – like “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” – which is fine, but what is better is that he backs it up. Do you have to agree? Hell no. We’re not here to agree, we’re here for an experience: to think, to challenge old saws, to see, too, things we loved anew, and better. That teacher who changed your life when you were a kid was not the one who dispensed the easy A’s, but rather the one who made you work, and MacDonald is a tough grader. This is the Beatles book to read a dozen times. Every pass through brings something new. Also, while the critical reputation of Sgt. Pepper has been eclipsed in recent years by Revolver, Rubber Soul, and Abbey Road – with the White Album and A Hard Day’s Night making progress, too – MacDonald just flat out gets that album better than any other writer on record. Even when he’s panning individual parts of it, he knows, and he helps you know, how the totality is something else entirely, and that this is one of the key documents of Western Civilization.
The first, and what I’d maintain as the best, Beatles book is one even most Beatles fans are unaware of. Hasn’t helped that it tends to dip out of print, but this is as close to a Beatles ride-along as you’ll get, with American writer Michael Braun following the band at the end of 1963 and into the early phases of the U.S. invasion the following year. Lennon himself, in the Wenner book, singled out this one as better than the Davies, a true book that portrayed them as they were: as bastards, in his word. And, yeah, there’s some of that. They make cracks at the expense of Jews, the disabled, gays. A lot of it is in a blow-off-steam kind of way, and Braun does a compelling job of conveying the non-stop pressure the group was under. In some ways they can’t handle it, and sleep away huge amounts of time; in other ways, they do what they do, and write songs no one else could touch. The Beatle wit is depicted better here than in any other book, and if the four, and their patter, were in effect a hermetically sealed entity so designed as to better take on the world, this is your chance to crack the fold.