I haven’t exactly kept up with the state of Beatles biography over the years, but they were certainly significant in the biographies of me and my mates at school, and it’s interesting to consider again from almost half a century’s distance, what was going on with them while what they were doing was having such a profound effect on us. You’ll just have to take my word for it when I say – I was in thrall to the Americans, first LP I owned was The Fabulous Style of the Everly Brothers – that the first time I heard ‘Love me do‘ on 208 Radio Luxemburg (in bed, by torchlight, yea, yea, yea) I just knew something had changed. And how quickly it continued to do so. You picked, identified with, one of ’em; a friend who’d long eschewed the first name on his birth certificate, known by all by his adopted middle name, suddenly wanted to be called Paul; Lennon was my man, rhythm guitarist as I was.
Tim Riley‘s Lennon: the man, the myth, the music – the definitive life (Virgin, 2011) was touted as being special because it took in the story from both sides of the Atlantic. And boy, doesn’t that show in some hilarious faux pas – but more of that later. Anyway, dangerous claim that – definitive; one also shared, I notice, by earlier books from both Philip Norman and Ray Coleman that I’m not familiar with. The American Riley’s is big enough – 661 pages of text, and just over 100 more of references, discography and index – and I would guess that psychologically he’s done a good job on John Lennon, the human being. By looking mainly at the books published over the years by John’s friends in Liverpool and Hamburg, relatives (ex-wife, father, sister), colleagues and miscellaneous others, he draws together a picture of a complex, intelligent and troubled boy and young man who achieved so much and so quickly, while so much was happening to him on an unprecedented scale; a man who was trying to get a grasp on and to have – what he tried so hard make – a positive impact on his times.
What happened to John Lennon as a child is just awful; age 6, on glorious holiday in Blackpool with his usually absent seafaring dad, saying come to New Zealand, a fresh start with me, and then girl-about-town mum with new paramour comes bidding for him back into her new life in Liverpool, where everyone else he’s ever known is, they say to him, in a Blackpool hotel room: you choose. On such events history turns. Riley also delves into his artistically crucial friendship with art school buddy Stuart Sutcliffe and the other losses he endured when young – some of these I knew, but not in this detail. Similarly the trauma of being a Beatle – why, you really are in the realms of Shakespearian tragedy; he was saved by (genre change to comedy?) – and whatever else you think of her, this cannot be denied – the love of his life, Yoko Ono. He does lay the myth that she was the one who split the Beatles; they were in a bad enough way without her (and no wonder given the scale of what they were experiencing), and establishes beyond doubt that Working class hero is not to be taken literally, autobiographically (in Liverpool, “None of the other Beatles had indoor toilets“).
So, as I say, I’m OK with the big picture; I suspect Riley’s done a good job on the man and I’m glad I read it. I learned a few things it’s good to know. There are omissions: I could have done with more about the only briefly mentioned UK package tours after their early singles successes (but then it’s the Ray Davies connections, as per his X-Ray, I’m after); the question of his introduction to marijuana is rather glossed over (the Dylan ‘connection’ not even given status as myth to be rightly debunked); we don’t hear of his reaction to McCartney’s game changing Band on the run album; I would have liked to see mention made of John’s much bootlegged sardonic ripostes to Dylan’s Christian period. I usually say my measure of a book about music or musicians is how much it makes me want to go straight to the hifi for the music. He did make me think it’s time I gave Sgt Pepper another listen (I don’t own it), though – to tell the truth – not much else apart from The Standell‘s Dirty Water, and certainly not John’s solo career. I put on my vinyl ‘Rock’n’roll’ album and was disappointed; maybe I need to try the remastered issue. (For the record, my favourite Beatles album is Hard day’s night, when they were all still mates.)
What I can’t reconcile myself with – definitive? – is the sheer hilarity and inexcusable naffness of some of the incidental factual errors that abound, in particular with regard to the United Kingdom, which – given he’s obviously spent time over here in the UK – beggar belief, and make you wonder how much further publishing and editorial standards can fall. It does make you wonder about the main thrust of the book, but, as I say, these are incidentals. Here’s my list:
- apparently the Scouse accent is “Often mistaken for London Cockney” (p6). First time I got on a bus in Liverpool I had to resort to my version of cod Scouse (learnt from the Beatles, of course) to be understood.
- despite its various spellings, parole is not one of them as far as the entertaining camp gay subculture language (as per Julian and Sandy in the glorious radio show, Round the Horne) goes; he means polari – maybe he can blame his spellchecker (p14)
- inspiration “pianist Lonnie Johnson” (p46) was actually an influential guitarist, an innovator in blues and jazz circles both before and after the war
- Huyton is not “across the Mersey from Liverpool” (p74) or “on the peninsular across the Mersey” (p87). That’s Birkenhead. Huyton is a suburb of Liverpool bordering on the Borough of Knowsley. It was also the parliamentary constituency of soon to be Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, he who (realistically) was responsible for giving the Beatles their MBEs (and not, as Riley suggests, the royals) and – here’s the thing, a fascinating link – Stuart Sutcliffe’s mum knew him because she was the minutes secretary of the local Labour Party branch. Which leads us on to the best of the bunch …
- Millie Sutcliffe could, her daughter says, in her book about Stuart, “tell the distinctions between a Bevanite and a Gaitskellite as easily as the distinction between an Elvis or Cliff Richard record.” Riley annotates Bevanite and Gaitskellite as “Scottish accents”; apart from the fact that Aneurin Bevan was Welsh, they were in fact the two main wings in the ongoing debate about the aims of the Labour Party
- George Harrison’s Cry for a shadow on the Tony Sheridan album made with the early Beatles – “the song veered between Cliff Richard tribute and parody”(p125) – is actually an instrumental. The clue is there in the title – The Shadows were Cliff Richard’s backing band.
- He makes far too much of the Beatles appearance on the ’63 Morecambe & Wise Show, citing Lennon’s live on TV ‘disgust’ at Eric Morecambe: “His manner simply dismissed this tired, silly-straight duo as passé.” (p225) Did M&W take umbrage, as he claims? I think not; this was a standard performance on their show and I bet the Beatles loved it. Some things Americans will never understand.
- Similarly, “Lennon and Dylan began to spar in the British imagination, the antic scouser who always threatened to go round the bend against the oddly prolific American whose epic abstractions quite nearly absolved him of being Jewish.” (p261) This is nonsense; it simply was not like that over here.
- to throw away the explanation of mod as “a term derived from modern jazz buffs in the late 1950s” (p284) is linguistically correct but just plain inadequate background to a significant grouping in the whole ’60s panorama. Who?
- “the Carnival of Light Rave, scheduled for the Roundhouse in Kilburn” early 1968 (p337), for which the Beatles produced the fabled and still unreleased (because basically, unlistenable) Carnival of light … The Roundhouse, scene of the famous gig introducing the Jefferson Airplane to London (the Doors wiped the floor with them) is in Chalk farm. Kilburn to Chalk farm is one hell of tube train journey.
- something seismic must have happened for John and Yoko’s much publicised bed wedding to be held on the “island of Gibraltar” (p444) given that Gibraltar is still actually firmly attached to the Spanish mainland
- also geographically, in explaining George’s Concert for Bangladesh (p524), Bangladesh was a breakaway state from Pakistan, and not, as stated, India.
Truly dreadful, and for a book retailed at £25 inexcusable; I dare say I’ve missed a few, too. Did Yoko really go to school with a future Emperor of Japan and novelist Yukio Mishima? Probably.