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The Cambridge Companion to The Beatles


Edited by Kenneth Womack


Cambridge: University Press, 2009, 316 pages. £55.00 / £15.99

ISBN: 978-0-521-86965-2 hardback. ISBN: 978-0-521-68976-2 paperback


Reviewed by Claude Chastagner

Université Paul-Valéry, Montpellier III



The Cambridge Companion to The Beatles is the living proof why Wikipedia will never supersede traditional books, even of the encyclopedic type such as the Companion series. Who would have thought that yet another book on the Beatles could garner any attention? A provocative essay, maybe, a series of unpublished interviews, or an insider’s account, provided there are still insiders left who have not yet written their very own private memoirs of their encounter with a cousin of a Beatle. But a compilation of factual articles covering the development of the Beatles’ lives and art, really? This is nevertheless what this book achieves, thanks to the rigour of its editor, Kenneth Womack, and the style of its authors. Not just their knowledge, nor their familiarity with the subject: this, you can find it elsewhere. But the pleasure to move from one individual’s style to another, rather than the bland, colourless, insipid prose of Wikipedia.

Covering popular music is still something fairly new for the excellent Companion series; there has been one volume on blues and gospel, one on jazz, another on musicals, and even one on pop and rock, but this is the first and only one so far devoted not to a genre but to specific artists (in the “composers” category in fact). It was high time for a house that has been publishing for many years what is probably the best academic journal on the topic, Popular Music. And as usual, it does it very convincingly, with both simplicity and efficiency. Unavoidably, there are a few blunders – we shall presently return to them – but on the whole, the volume is a perfect starter for beginners, and a wonderful refresher course for the seasoned fan.

The book features a tricky cover: what seems at first as a picture taken for the inside gatefold cover (a first at the time in the realm of popular music) of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is in fact a painting of the said cover by Peter Bettinger. Nice way to avoid paying what would have amounted to hefty royalties, pay homage to fan art, and at the same time allude to the typically Beatlesque art of ambiguity.

Opening with a personal, rather moving foreword by Anthony DeCurtis (who promises the reader “spiritual nourishment, enriched understanding, necessary insight, and absolute pleasure”, [xvi]), the book features a succinct chronology of the Beatles’ lives and works, substantial but unobtrusive notes, a complete discography, (UK & US releases, including EPs but not solo works), an index, and a perfect, select but ample bibliography. The authors are of high calibre, American or British academics mostly, with a handful of learned fans and the curatorial director of Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum.

The structure of the book does not strive at sterile originality, but rather aims at reflecting simply and clearly the complexity of the music as well as suggesting the “sense of wonder”, the “primitive feel and muscularity” of their rock and roll, combined with “ a deeply felt nostalgia” for the past [1]. Three mains sections: the first one covers the historical context of the early, pre-Beatles years (with a complete list of all the songs they covered in those days, both in Britain and in Hamburg), and focuses on the technological developments they fostered (with a somewhat too purely descriptive article). Then comes the main part, a series of eight articles devoted to their albums, with a most welcome (because rare) section on post-Beatles music (the solo years). The last part focuses on sociocultural readings of the Beatles, from their impact on the 1960s, in terms of politics, fashion, commerce, gender, sexuality, and the arts in general, to their commodification, and the connection between the marketing strategies and the self (re)-definition of what the Beatles were and are. Though on the whole the articles are more informative than analytical, there are useful reminders of the influence of nonsense on John’s writing (Lear, Carroll, or the Goons), or the impact of the homosocial ethos of the era [20] contrasting with the diffuse femininity of the band.

A few articles stand out (perhaps because they deal with particularly pregnant albums or eras, or because of the sheer style of their authors, as mentioned above). Jargon free, with learned references kept to a minimum, here lies the real strength of this book. Of course, the authors have read everything on the subject (including Adorno, Gramsci and Barthes, obviously), but it never impinges on the readability of James M. Decker on Rubber Soul, the transitional album of early experimentations, Russell Reising and Jim Leblanc on psychedelia, or Bruce Spizer, who has devoted a text to a seldom explored subject, the development of Apple Corps and the financial entanglements of the Beatles. 

Most notable is Steve Hammelman’s on the band’s last albums. It is necessary to quote more than a few words to pay justice to his beautiful and powerful prose: “No matter how battered and bruised by the collapse of empire, image, and friendship, the band limped toward death singing like the swans of ancient fable, sweetly, beautifully, of their own demise” [130]. Or: “Unimaginably gifted, they wrested marvelous songs from the jaws of their abject failure as friends and business partners” [ibid.]

On the other hand, one could have wished for a more spirited section on the first rock’n’roll album than the pedestrian, unimaginative prose of Howard Kramer (who manages to write exactly the same kind of meaningless comments rock records reviewers wrote in the early 1960s: “joyous and steady rocking songs with fantastically emotive lead vocals and harmonies” [70]. Similarly, we could have done without the over-handed, almost ludicrous text on the rhythmic nature of the Beatles music. Granted, I am no musicologist, and I suppose there are people for whom it makes sense, but even if it does, was this book the best vehicle for developments (on “I Should Have Known Better”) such as

The melodic drop to an inner-voice b1 at measure 23 (a pitch class2 highlighted later in the bridge with a dramatic register shift to b2) only briefly interrupts the rise to the eighth scale degree, g2, that would have marked the conclusion of the second2verse had it continued as did the2first“?

The last part of the book, which goes beyond a mere chronological account of the Beatles’ work, is of particular relevance for anyone interested in cultural studies. Though Sheila Whiteley deals rather too much with the predictable (the impact of art colleges, Lennon’s cheeky retorts, and comments on Jesus v. the Beatles, the iconic events of the 1960s), she does provide interesting insights as to the scope of the changes induced by the Beatles and their limits. Gary Burns’ chapter is much more innovative. After detailing how the concept of “news” has been cleverly applied to a defunct band to turn it into a perennial brand, he tries to establish the Beatles’ role in defining a rock pantheon. He thus delineates three areas where they were influential – a sociological canon, a literary one, and the musical one, which he further subdivides into five conventions: rock performers as songwriters, rock as art, rock as LP based, rock musicians as competent instrumentalists, and rock music as expanding the palette of musical instruments, style, and (recording) techniques. For Burns, “we see in these conventions an emerging romantic, auteurist ideology of originality, expression, transcendent genius, and authenticity” [227], which enables him to conclude that the Beatles were one of the first rock bands susceptible to this level of analysis, and thus instrumental in the founding of popular music studies.

By far, the most ambitious essay is undoubtedly John Kimsey’s. Kimsey focuses on the marketing strategies deployed by Apple Corps from the late 1980s onward, from the Anthology project to the Love album, through Let it Be…Naked. It tackles important issues such as the notions of revisionism, be it crass commercialism or inspired mashups, reassessing the respective creative (and political) roles of Lennon and McCartney, questioning the latter’s characterisation as a mere tunesmith, and in the process, the gender-coded, structuring opposition so fundamental in the reading of rock music, between courage, authenticity, and risk-taking on the one hand, and sentimentality and scheming on the other. The essay also deals extensively on museum politics, including Yoko Ono’s will to turn her late husband into a bona fide political activist and avant-garde artist. The cultural strategies surrounding the Beatles enable Kimsey to conclude his essay on one of the central issues of rock music:

Rock ideology is founded on a “paradox”. Rock wants it both ways. On one hand, it reproduces the critique of mass culture that sees forces of mass production, consumption, and communication as threats to the autonomy and integrity of the individual. On the other, it re-frames that critique, claiming that one can consume the products of mass culture without compromising one’s integrity. Of course, qualities like authenticity and alienation do not inhere to the artifacts. They are rhetorical constructions whose meanings are loaded and ambiguous. [252]

To this debate, the Beatles have been instrumental. They are the protagonists of a narrative that unfolds around the question: “is it possible to sell out (be immensely popular) without selling out (compromising one’s integrity)?” [ibid.]

In the end, what prompts us to read another collection of essays such as this one, or play Beatles music over again, and introduce our progeny to their work is that, in the words of Ritchie Unterberger, “there is a timelessness about the joy, curiosity, and ceaseless hunger they had to constantly change that is immediately tangible, almost overpowering, in their music” [254]. Over the years, the Beatles have been at the same time the agents of mass consumption, and the harbingers of idealism, a combination which could perfectly be the very definition of rock music, as this timely collection reminds us.  



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