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Sunday, December 27, 2020

150 Glimpses of the Beatles

150 Glimpses of the Beatles by Craig Brown (2020) ****

150 Glimpses of the Beatles by Craig Brown (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, October 2020)

I'm really enjoying reading Craig Brown's 150 GLIMPSES OF THE BEATLES, a Christmas gift from my wife. (150 GLIMPSES is the American retitling of Brown's ONE TWO THREE FOUR: THE BEATLES IN TIME, which was released in the UK in April 2020). It's a pop cultural snapshot of the Fabs that cherry-picks the labor-intensive research of Beatles musicologists like Bob Spitz, Mark Lewisohn (TUNE IN) and Tim Riley (TELL ME NOW) to present "glimpses" of their legacy in 150 short chapters for the word-count conscious Twitter Generation. As a result, you can open the book at random and dive into any chapter, willy-nilly, kind of like throwing the I Ching, and still come away with memorable facts and anecdotes from the sprawling, all-encompassing legacy. 

I'm at the age when all I can retain is "glimpses" - general impressions rather than exhaustive details - so it's perfect for me and my peanut-sized brain. And, at the end of the day, you have to ask yourself: would the Beatles themselves have had the patience to slog through all those telephone directory-thick tomes the indefatigable biographers and long-winded critics penned about them? I think not. (Therefore I ain't, Mr. Descartes!) Sure, it too is thick at 600-some pages, but like my favorite Beatles book, THE MAMMOTH BOOK OF THE BEATLES anthology (edited by Sean Egan, Running Press, 2009)...

The Mammoth Book of the Beatles (Running Press, 2009)

...it's designed so it can be read in bits and pieces, like clicking through various Google sites, as opposed to chronologically turning page after page (though you can try it on that way, as well - reader's freedom of choice!) By now, we all know the mythology behind what Brown calls "the chance fusion of the four key elements" that made up the Beatles - fire (John), water (Paul), air (George) and earth (Ringo) - it's been handed down through the ages, generation by generation; it's these capsulized anecdotes that will warm us as we settle down around the campfire to share enjoyable reminiscences.

Case in point...I randomly opened the book to Chapter 148 and did a double-take reading the first sentence - "The most successful pop group of the twentieth century was formed in Liverpool in 1959 by Gerry Marsden and his brother Fred" - before realizing he was taking the piss! What followed was a delightful "What If?" bit of speculative fiction musings, as excerpted below:

The Fab Four: Gerry, Fred, Les and Arthur

The most successful pop group of the twentieth century was formed in Liverpool in 1959 by Gerry Marsden and his brother Fred. Together with Les Chadwick and Arthur McMahon, Gerry and the Pacemakers built up a huge following in their home city, while fine-tuning their talents in Hamburg, West Germany.

Many books have been written about Gerry and the Pacemakers, their origins, their influence, and their sociological and artistic impact on the 1960s. Different periods of their lives - from their early days rehearsing at the Campbell Laird shipyard at Birkenhead to their eventual break-up - have been turned into movies, the most recent starring Ryan Gosling as Gerry Marsden.

Why did Gerry and the Pacemakers succeed in overtaking musical rivals like the Dave Clark Five, the Searchers, the Beatles and the Swinging Blue Jeans to become four of the best-known faces in the world of pop?

For a start, their repertoire was broader than their rivals: by 1960 they had built up a repertoire of 250 songs, from rockers like “What’d I Say” to ballads such as “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?” Contemporary Merseybeat groups like the Beatles, who met with similar success in the early years, never possessed quite the same range. Moreover, the Beatles lacked a front man, so had no focal point. It’s hard to imagine, but had things gone differently, the world might now be talking of John, Paul, George and Ringo (the first names of the Beatles) instead of Gerry, Fred, Les and Arthur.

Their success was rapid. In January 1962, Gerry and the Pacemakers were voted number 2 in the Mersey Beat readers’ poll when the Beatles were number 1, but this proved a blip. Historians now see the Beatles decision to turn down the hit song “How Do You Do It?” as their greatest mistake. It had been offered to them by record producer George Martin, but instead they insisted on releasing one of their own songs, “Love Me Do.” This left “How Do You Do It?” to be snatched up by Gerry and the Pacemakers. And the rest is history…

But what became of the Fab Four’s early rivals, the Beatles? George Harrison died of cancer in 2001, following a successful career as a session musician. John Lennon and Paul McCartney toured Britain last year with their “Tribute to Gerry and the Pacemakers” show, thrilling audiences up and down the country with their exact rendition of “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” Touchingly, they still perform one or two of their own numbers - “Yesterday” and “A Hard Day’s Night” - in each set. “We sneak ‘em in, even if no one wants to hear ‘em,” quips John. Ringo Starr retired from the music business in 1966 to pursue an earlier ambition. He now owns and manages a successful chain of hairdressing salons throughout the North-East.”
When I posted the above excerpt on Facebook, both my wife Amy and my friend Scott Wallace Brown recommended the similarly-modeled speculative fiction of Mark Shipper's novel Paperback Writer (Fred Jordan Books/Sunridge Press, 1978), which is loquaciously subtitled The Life and Times of the Beatles: The Spurious Chronicle of Their Rise to Stardom, Their Triumphs & Disasters Plus the Amazing Story of Their Ultimate Reunion. 

Paperback Writer by Mark Shipper (1978)

The Village Voice critic Greil Marcus hailed it as "the finest novel ever written about rock and roll...there's a real empathy for the Beatles and anger at what we, as fans, may be doing to the Beatles by refusing to let them drop their old identities." Hey Dullblog commentator Alexander added, "The value of the book is in how 'accurately' it satirizes its past, and how perceptively it propels the Beatles into unexpected (for us) positions in its future." As critic Alex Bledsoe commented on those "unexpected" positions, "The date of publication is significant. John Lennon was murdered in 1980; after that, any book like this would’ve seemed tacky, if not downright heartless. But in 1978, with Paul and John both still vital presences in the music world, it seemed reasonable to poke fun both at their excesses, and at the fans who would never let them forget their past." The novel's clever premise is that in an exclusive interview for the book, Ringo Starr recounted the entire Beatles story to Mark Shipper, who lost his notes on the way home. As a result, the author decided to make up his own version of their story. And that, as they say, is his history...I can't wait to read this book next! Curiously, the author vanished off the grid following one more book, leading Hey Dullblog critic Devin McKinney to christen Shipper the "J.D. Salinger of rock writers." Shame, that. 

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