The lads from Liverpool: Larger than life, but all too human

Book Review Rock history


The Beatles: The Biography

Bob Spitz

Little-Brown / 983 pages

When did the Beatles begin? Readers of this richly detailed tome about the world's most influential rock band have more than 300 pages to ponder the question, for that's how long it takes for Ringo to even enter the picture and make the band whole. That's a good thing, because the Beatles are what seasoned journalists call a rather good story - a long and winding one at that - and author Bob Spitz milks it better than anyone.

Perhaps, in a cosmic sense, the Beatles were fated to happen when John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison separately twisted their dials to Radio Luxembourg in the mid-1950s and went crazy over the sounds of Elvis Presley, Bill Haley and Eddie Cochran crackling over the airwaves.

More concretely, the thing got started in 1957 during the annual St. Peter's Church fair in Liverpool. Lennon's pre-Beatles band, the Quarry Men, had just performed a set on the back of a flatbed truck when a guitar-toting McCartney approached the band and let loose with a wild medley of Little Richard songs. For Lennon and McCartney, it was kismet.

"Their interest in each other was deeper and more complex than it appeared to anyone watching the encounter," writes Spitz, former representative of Elton John and Bruce Springsteen and a prolific freelance author. "There was instant recognition, a chemical connection made between the two boys who sensed in the other the same heartfelt commitment to this music, the same do-or-die. For all the circling, posturing and checking out that went on, what it all came down to was love at first sight."

There are many things that Spitz does well, not least of which is characterizing in brisk, lyrical prose the almost random way in which four boys rattling around bleak, blue-collar Liverpool collided and bonded with each other like charged particles. With scores of bands popping up in town, and most going the way of Cass and the Casanovas, Derry and the Seniors and Bob Evans and the Five Shillings, it is easy to imagine the Beatles never joining forces - not the full complement, anyway.

It is also tempting to imagine someone like Brian Epstein - a sexually repressed, gay record store owner who dressed in suits and hated pop music - never coming along and finding a way to polish and commercialize a band that ate, smoked and swore on stage. But just as the boys did find each other, Epstein and his friend, Alistair Taylor, did cram themselves into the Cavern - a stinking den of musical ecstasy - in 1961 to see and hear for themselves what the local kids were buzzing about.

"Taylor, a notorious yes-man, was honest," writes Spitz, recounting what happened when the two retired to a businessman's eatery. "He thought the Beatles were `absolutely awful,' but admitted there was something `remarkable' about them, something he couldn't quite put into words." Epstein stared at his friend for the longest time, then blurted through a grin: "I think they're tremendous. ... Do you think I should manage them?"

Readers who have scoured the Beatles literature may find some of the stories familiar. Though Spitz interviewed McCartney and Harrison -Harrison died of cancer in 2001 while the book was still in progress, Lennon was murdered 25 years ago this week and Starr simply declined - along with numerous friends, musicians and relatives, he also made extensive use of newspaper articles and books. Chief among them was the "wonderful" (Spitz's word) Beatles Anthology, a coffee table volume of interviews published five years ago. Spitz notes that many other accounts - including an authorized Beatles biography and a memoir by former Beatle wife Cynthia Lennon - are so fraught with error that he checked quotes with witnesses before including any in his book.

Spitz's biography comes as close to being a quick read as any 983-page book has a right to be. Each page seems to have a memorable anecdote, like the boys pouring into a sound booth at Epstein's record store to memorize the latest record without buying it; or John promising again and again that the band would reach the "toppermost of the poppermost"; or Paul waking up one morning with "Yesterday" in his head, then keeping it a secret for two years because the song came so effortlessly, he feared he had "pinched" it from someone else.

Then, there's George booting a photographer in the behind during a Baltimore concert, and John nursing a sore throat with quarts of milk before recording "Twist and Shout" in a voice that "was more of a shriek than singing."

"It was bone-dry," Spitz writes, "stripped bare, with all the resonance husked from the tone, and the sound it made was like an angry hoarse-voiced fan screeching at a football match." And it was perfect.

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