You thought you’d finished the Beatles reading on our syllabus, but here’s one more before the exam: Can’t Buy Me Love by author and musician Jonathan Gould. It took him years to write, will you take a look?
Though the Fab Four’s saga is nearly as familiar as the Nativity, Gould takes advantage of time elapsed since the major Beatle histories by Hunter Davies, Philip Norman, and Bob Spitz to paint a vivid portrait in three clear strands: the biographies, the music, and what he calls “the real outside story”—the social, cultural, and political context surrounding history’s most successful entertainment phenom.
Like the D minor 11th strum that ignites “A Hard Day’s Night,” Gould should strike a chord with the generation whose identification with Beatledom is second nature. He points perceptively to how Beatle haircuts reminded us of “storybook illustrations about the Middle Ages,” how the foursome’s “sense of unity and camaraderie” became a model for male bonding, and how “I Want to Hold Your Hand” entered the lives of us Johnny-come-lately Yanks between Christmas 1963 and New Year’s as a salve after all the mourning for JFK.
Be prepared for some highbrow analysis (Freud! Max Weber!) that interprets the psychology of female screaming and the subtleties of Britishisms. The mop-tops’ antics are set against cultural influences such as John Osborne’s mid-1950s play Look Back in Anger and the 1963 Profumo scandal. We learn of the northerners’ sense of inferiority stemming from the decline of Liverpool’s port and the wealthier snobs from England’s south. Gould deconstructs the Teddy boys, Mods, and rockers. By the time of the real ’60s hippies, Gould writes, the “Beatles had come to personify an ethic of collective nonconformity that took the loneliness out of rebellion and linked the activist and hedonist wings of the counterculture.”
In recounting postwar Britain’s fascination with America, Gould provides such gems as exactly how the teenage Beatles would have known Eddie Cochran’s song “Twenty Flight Rock.” (They saw the film The Girl Can’t Help It.)
We are reminded that the early Beatles valued their baptism by fire in Hamburg not just because Germans found them exotic but because the nightly gigs were “far from doubts of their families and the disbelief of their friends” back home. News flash: their confidence would grow. Gould observes that the Beatles liked to read about themselves in the papers, but “their self-esteem was largely invested elsewhere, in the idea of themselves as musicians and performers, not show-business celebrities.”
In analyzing the songs, Gould spends too many words describing what is best apprehended by ear. And he’s a purist about preserving the album sequences as released in England, panning the American slice-and-diced creation Yesterday and Today as “the most seriously compromised version of the Parlophone product that Capitol would ever release.” (What about the catch-up album Hey Jude, which mixes Beatlemania-era cuts with psychedelia?)
But Gould is insightful. He describes John and Paul jointly singing lead on “She Loves You” as “the editorial we.” And he traces lyrics to the fact that John wrote from drugged-up isolation in his suburban mansion while Paul lived in hip central London. The snippets that were woven into the Abbey Road medley would have been, in earlier years, worked up into full songs—had John and Paul been on speaking terms. We all have our least favorite Beatle offerings: Gould is pretty tough on “Till There Was You,” “Mr. Moonlight,” and “It’s Only Love.”
He is a phrasemaker. Ed Sullivan introduces the group looking like the “world’s most nervous substitute teacher,” and the disembodied radio voice on “Revolution No. 9” is a “cosmic bingo caller.”
My favorite surprises are the fact that George Martin learned rudimentary guitar to communicate with Beatles who couldn’t read music; that the French in “Michelle” was polished by a teacher who was the wife of Paul’s schoolmate Ivan Vaughn; that the crowd noise on “Sgt. Pepper” is an actual tape from the 1964 Hollywood Bowl concert; and that John had agreed to appear at George’s concert for Bangladesh, but George balked when Yoko insisted on performing. Black-belt trivia buffs will know that Death Cab for Cutie (the name of a current group from Seattle) was a lyric sung by a non-Beatle in the seldom-watched film Magical Mystery Tour.
He gives short shrift to the young Beatles’ sexcapades in Germany and the financial bath Brian Epstein took in rip-off licensing deals for Beatle trading cards and lunchboxes. One factual error: he assumes that the University of Michigan journalist who instigated the Paul-is-dead rumors used a fake name, but Fred LaBour is for real and performing today in the country-western act Riders in the Sky.
But hey, Gould, don’t make it bad. When you get around to the Beatles’ painful break-up—from the thuggish machinations of manager Allen Klein to McCartney’s booking studio time under a pseudonym for his first solo album—I found that, like the group itself, the book left me wanting not to get to “The End.”
Charlie Clark is a Washington writer who’s been tight with the Beatles since he saw them on Ed Sullivan.
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