Lead book review

From Liverpool’s Cavern to the world stage: how the Beatles became a global phenomenon

Alan Johnson describes how four young men from Liverpool revived Britain, healed America and brought joy to millions

28 March 2020

9:00 AM

28 March 2020

9:00 AM

One Two Three Four: The Beatles in Time Craig Brown

4th Estate, pp.302, 20

When the Beatles’ first authorised biographer, Hunter Davies, clinched the deal in 1967, his publisher remarked that ‘we know everything we could possibly know about the Beatles and they’ll disappear soon’. In that same year, the philosopher Bryan Magee adopted an incredulous tone in the Listener: ‘Does anyone seriously believe that Beatles music will be … part of daily life all over the world in the 2000s?’

But here in the recently released statistics for the Top Ten global recording artists of 2019, among the Taylor Swifts and the Ed Sheerans, 50 years after they broke up — let me introduce you to the band you’ve known for all these years. As for Davies’s publisher, the seven pages of ‘sources’ at the back of this book list around 100 volumes about the Fab Four written since 1967 — and they’re just the good ones.

Craig Brown isn’t trying to emulate those biographers. He’s not attempting to compete with Mark Lewisohn, who is doing for the Beatles biographically what Robert Caro is still doing for Lyndon B. Johnson. Neither is he seeking to rival the encyclopaedic wealth of musical detail contained in Ian Macdonald’s superlative Revolution in the Head. Instead, we’re taken on a magical mystery tour that ends where it began — with Brian Epstein making his way down the 18 steps that led into the Cavern to hear John, Paul, George and — er Pete (yet to be replaced by Ringo) for the first time.

Just as in his previous book, Ma’am Darling, about Princess Margaret, the aim isn’t to provide a traditional biography; indeed Brown seems to have invented a wholly new biographical form. In a polychromatic cavalcade of chapters of varying length, the man with kaleidoscope eyes conveys what it was like to live through those extraordinary Beatles years, with the odd glance at what came before and after.

Taking as its link the sister of Brown’s previous subject, here’s a daisy chain of extracts that I enjoyed making. In 1953, a child in Liverpool enters the City’s Coronation Essay competition. Ten-year-old James Paul McCartney wrote:

On the Coronation day of William the Conqueror, senseless Saxon folk gathered round Westminster Abbey to cheer their Norman king as he walked down the aisle. The Normans, thinking this was an insult, turned upon the Saxons, killing nearly all of them. But on the Coronation of our lovely young queen, Queen Elizabeth II, no rioting or killing will take place because present-day royalty rule with affection rather than force.

Sixteen years later the other half of what was by now the most successful song-writing partnership in history, wrote to Queen Elizabeth II:

Your Majesty,

I am returning this MBE in protest against Britain’s involvement in the Nigeria-Biafra thing, against our support of America in Vietnam and against Cold Turkey slipping down the charts.

with love,

John Lennon

Twenty years after receiving that letter, at a celebration of her golden wedding anniversary, the Queen said: ‘What a remarkable 50 years they have been for the world … Think what we would have missed if we had never heard of the Beatles.’ Encapsulated here is Paul’s conformity, John’s rebelliousness and Her Majesty’s astuteness.

For we who lived through those years it is impossible to overstate the effect the Beatles had on music, fashion, culture, the universe. The British music scene in the 1950s and early 1960s was a world in which Pinky and Perky were serious recording artists, George Martin produced records such as ‘Nellie the Elephant’ and professional song-writers in Denmark Street provided material for our homegrown pop stars, all of whom were Elvis Presley tribute acts.

Chief among them was Cliff Richard, who had been trying to crack the American market for years with no success whatsoever. The US charts were immune to our cheap imitations. ‘Stranger on the Shore’ and ‘Telstar’ were the only British records ever to have enjoyed any success on the Billboard Hot 100 and they were very much niche recordings. Chapter 44 of this book simply reproduces the Billboard chart for 4 April 1964. Not only are the Beatles at No. 1 but they occupy the top five positions and in total 12 per cent of its entirety.

As Brown relates, poor Cliff, born just five days after John Lennon, went from being Britain’s rock’n’roll superstar to family entertainer almost overnight in the slipstream of the Beatles’ rocket. One of the many delicious footnotes in this book describes how much the nine-year-old Brown enjoyed watching Cliff as Buttons in Cinderella at the Palladium, and mentions that it was about the same time as the Beatles were recording ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ and ‘Penny Lane’.

It was the American invasion (following the steady conquest of Liverpool, Britain, Europe and the Commonwealth) that turned the extraordinary into the legendary. Curiously in a book so plump with quirky details, Brown doesn’t mention that the album With the Beatles was released on the very day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. But he does give a vivid account of the band’s effect just over two months later when, ‘looking as if he’s about to announce a fatal car accident’, Ed Sullivan introduces the Beatles to the 73 million viewers of his Sunday night show. By then they were already at No.1 in the US charts. Epstein’s brilliant strategy as their manager was only to take them to America when they were. ‘In Britain,’ Brown points out, ‘the success of the Beatles was comparatively gradual: they hoved into view. But in America they arrived with the sudden impact of a tidal wave.’

Brian Wilson heard them and never wrote another surfing song. The 14-year-old Bruce Springsteen heard them and worked through the summer to raise enough money to buy a guitar. Tom Petty, Billy Joel and Chrissie Hynde were among the other young Americans inspired by that appearance. Leonard Bernstein was older (aged 41), but said that he too ‘immediately fell in love with the Beatles’ music’.

On the day after Kennedy’s assassination, Bernstein conducted the New York Philharmonic, playing Mahler’s ‘Resurrection Symphony’ for a televised memorial. Brown mentions this and puts his finger on a more profound Beatles effect beyond the music and the screaming girls. ‘In many people’s minds,’ he says, ‘the assassination of JFK was winter; the Beatles are spring.’ To put it another way, as the American writer Joe Queenan said: ‘The Beatles helped to heal America.’

Years later, on the other side of the iron curtain, Mikhail Gorbachev told McCartney: ‘I do believe the music of the Beatles taught the young people of the Soviet Union that there is another life.’ These were huge responsibilities to place upon the slim shoulders of four young, working-class men from Liverpool, but it’s undeniable that they went well beyond being simple pop stars. In Britain they were already helping to restore the balance of payments. ‘If any country is in deficit with us,’ said Sir Alec Douglas-Home as prime minister, ‘I only have to say the Beatles are coming.’

Apart from the phenomenal record sales there was the merchandise. In New York alone 20,000 Beatles wigs were being sold (at $2.98 each) every day. Harold Wilson, as leader of the opposition, used the Beatles in his successful portrayal of Douglas-Home and the Tories as ‘aristocratic apostles of a bygone age’. Ted Heath bizarrely called them ‘the saviours of the corduroy industry’. Years later, Margaret Thatcher did a photo call on the famous Abbey Road zebra crossing.

But Brown also gives voice to the detractors. On the right, William F. Buckley Jr. said they would be regarded as ‘crowned heads of anti-music, even as the impostor popes went down in history as anti-popes’. On the left (sort of), Paul Johnson, then editor of the New Statesman, wrote a furious condemnation. Its heading was ‘The Menace of Beatlism’ and it attracted more letters of complaint, Brown tells us, than any NS article before or since. But the fact that such commentators mentioned the Beatles (as did an entire gallery of unlikely figures from President Sukarno of Indonesia to the Duchess of Windsor) is proof of their impact.

Brown is obviously a fan. I say that because in his last book it was not obvious that he had any sympathy for his subject. As a child he received a Beatles wig for Christmas, cherished the ‘White Album’ (bought for £3.12s.6d) and in a very personal chapter describes being at a Catholic prep school as a ten-year-old, grappling with the Benediction hymn ‘Tantum Ergo’. ‘Lady Madonna’ is released in the spring term and little Craig can feel that ‘pop music was moving away from meaning, and closer to the language of “Tantum Ergo”, forcing sense to make way for something more mysterious’.

In the end, any analysis of the Beatles phenomenon always comes back to their songs and the incredible contribution they made to the evolution of pop/rock music; from the sheer joyfulness of ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’ to the dark autobiography of ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ in just four years.

The entire Beatles journey was a short one, and Epstein didn’t make it to the end. In an interview with the Observer quoted here he describes what he found at the bottom of those 18 steps into the Cavern:

Everything about the Beatles was right for me. Their kind of attitude to life, the attitude that comes out in their music and their rhythm and their lyrics and their humour and their personal way of behaving — it was just what I wanted.

Epstein loved them. So did Craig Brown. So did I.

Hunter Davies and Mark Lewisohn remain their great biographers, but if you want to know what it was like to live those extraordinary Beatles years in real time, read this book.

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