Beatles. Ten Years That Shook the World
This thick, lavish book could easily be mistaken for yet another coffee-table book on the Beatles, a perfect companion to Bill Wyman's Rolling with the Stones, reviewed in Cercles a few months ago, or even to the 2000 Beatles Anthology. Mistaken we would be. Admittedly, after leafing through it a couple of times, enjoying the truly outstanding and breathtaking iconography, 9O% of which is never released material, I reluctantly started to actually read it (456 30x22 dense pages make a long read), but the reluctance did not last long. The Beatles, 10 Years That Shook the World is simply one of the most satisfying, refreshing, nurturing books on the Beatles I have read in years, miles from the dry academic fodder we are regularly supplied with, which, however interesting from an "intellectual" perspective, never stands the comparison with "the real stuff." By "real stuff" I mean the plain, unadorned, day by day narration of the Beatles' lives during the 60s or accounts of how the songs were written and recorded.
Food for fans, do you object? I am not sure. First, because anything about the Beatles necessarily relates to deeper issues which dominated the sixties, such as the connection between politics and popular culture, the role of the media, the tug-of-war between economics and creativity, or more specific ones like the birth of the counter-culture, the psychedelic experience, and their impact on both the mainstream and the Establishment. Second, because unless I am one of a kind, it is hard not to yield to the temptation to peep inside what remains the most fantastic and mysterious fairy tale of the 20th century, which, like all fairy tales, requires numerous repetitions of the same. Trying to make sense of fame and glory is no vain attempt. It has to do with our fascination with mythical figures from Shakespeare to Marilyn Monroe, from van Gogh to Rimbaud, and the way they somehow end up shaping and informing a larger portion of our lives than is reasonable. The Beatles, 10 Years That Shook the World allows for an intimate view of the Beatles; there is nothing there that truly quenches our thirst, but the book makes our questioning of fame and of the creative process more acute, and more poignant (and so, it is also of course a book for fans!).
The conception and structure of The Beatles, 10 Years That Shook the World accounts for much of its quality and fascination. Basically, the book is a collection of short articles commissioned by Mojo, one of the best British rock magazines with Uncut, and written by the cream of today's British rock journalists, some of Beatles' fame: Hunter Davies, their official biographer, Mark Lewisohn, who wrote a fascinating book on the recording of their songs, David Fricke, editor at Rolling Stone and head of the Seattle Experience Music Project, Nick Kent (NME, Sunday Times), Chris Ingham, Andy Gill (The Independent), Robert Sandall (Radio 3), Paul Du Noyer (founder of Mojo), Ian MacDonald (NME), Mark Ellen (founder of Q and Mojo), and even Donovan! The book simply chronicles, year by year, event after event, in chronological order, the lives and work of the Beatles. Each article is a page long, dealing with extremely specific, sometimes minute episodes about which, most of the time, little was known. They all start with a one-line description of their content, place and date (a few examples: unsuccessful Decca audition, the first customer of the first Beatles' single, Stuart Sutcliffe dies, playing the Ed Sullivan Show, the Beatles' Christmas Show, the Beatles meet Elvis, In His Own Write is published, John and Yoko's first meeting, Lady Madonna is realeased...). All their albums (including each Beatle's first solo effort) are thoroughly reviewed on four pages, with an in-depth analysis, a comment about the sleeve, excerpts from the press at the time of release, and a short, impressionistic piece by luminaries of the rock world (Lemmy, Billy Childish, Astrid Kirchher, Gary Moore, Trevor Horn, Jack White, George Martin, Marianne Faithfull, Linda Thompson...). Alongside each page runs a diary documenting Beatles-events for most days of the month. The whole is complemented with a series of longer, in-depth, special features: the Beatles' childhood, Hamburg/Liverpool, the first auditions, Beatlemania, the songwriting talents of Lennon/McCartney, the building of a commercial empire, shooting Help, Magical Mystery Tour and Let It Be, the psychedelic experience, the Eastern influence, the death of Brian Epstein, life at Apple, the issue of the Beatles' publishing rights, etc. Among the strongest assets of the book are several portfolios of photographs annotated by the artists who took them (Terence Spencer, David Hurn, Robert Whitaker, Tom Murray, and Tony Bramwell). The books ends with an amusing section on Beatles memorabilia, complete with current selling prices. Due to the structure of the book, there is no table of contents but a detailed index.
the fascination justified? To what extent are such books a response
to popular demand? or do they artificially sustain the myth? It
is interesting to notice that in two years only, La Cité
de la Musique in Paris will have devoted two major exhibitions to
stars of the sixties, Jimi Hendrix and John Lennon. Is this merely
a tribute to their talent? Why has this decade generated a fascination
that has not yet abated, 40 years later, despite the emergence of
a new public, new artists, and different tastes? An element of answer
may be suggested by Canadian sociologist François Ricard
in his book, La Génération lyrique (Castelnau,
Climats, 2001). What Ricard calls "the lyrical generation"
is the first wave of babyboomers born even before the war was over.
This upsurge of births struck a marked contrast with the demographic
deficit that had been created by the depression of the thirties.
Convinced that the world was about to change for the better, numerous
couples decided to start families. The sheer numerical weight of
the age group which resulted gave it, a few years later, an economic,
cultural and ideological clout all the more powerful as the period
called "youth" or adolescence began to stretch out and
last much longer than before. The "old" world could no
longer assimilate and digest the mass of teenagers as it used to
do. The newcomers imposed new rules, new principles, and new tastes
to which the older generation offered little resistance, so engrossed
were they with their offspring and with the hopes they had endowed
them with. However, when it came of age, the babyboomers' generation
was spared the same abdication to the smaller, following generation,
probably because of its size. They renounced nothing and despite
their age, still rule the western world's political and economic
life. They also dominate much of the cultural agenda and press their
own values and tastes. Could this explain why publishers still find
a market (and journals reviewers) for books on the Beatles? Will
the spring dry when this generation dies? Will nostalgia for the
sixties disappear with the last witnesses of the era? Or have they
managed to implant the very taste for nostalgia into the brains
of the following generations?