There have been so many books written about the Beatles from almost every angle that there are almost too many to count. This is why I'm usually a little skeptical when I'm about to read a new Beatles book...so many of them cover the same tired ground and usually offer nothing new other than more repetitions of fallacies and innuendo, oftentimes wrapped up in the author's personal bias. However, when I was asked to review the new book The Beatles and the Historians, it seemed different enough that it piqued my interest. Once I received the book, a quick glance at the back cover told me this wasn't a typical Beatles book at all; its angle was to look at not only what has been written about the Beatles, but how it's been written. With that tantalizing bit of information it seemed unique enough that it wouldn't be like any other Beatles book I've read and a few pages in, I knew I was right.
Author Erin Torkelson Weber is a history professor at Newman University in Kansas and in the introduction she lays out the premise of the book: she's not writing about the Beatles directly, but rather she's writing about the historiography of the Beatles. More to the point, she's examining how historians have been writing about them over the fifty-five years since they released their first single in 1962. As she stated, the book isn't the story of the Beatles, but the story of how their story has been told. Using established historical methods which she cites, her angle was to look at how the various authors of the most notable works on the Beatles have written about them and how it's shaped the narrative of Beatles history over the decades. As she rightly points out, the Beatles are unique in modern history in that they've been written about almost continually from the very beginning of their existence in the public consciousness and as such, most writings about them haven't (until recently) had the necessary historical distance in order to be fully credible and unbiased.
Weber breaks her book and the Beatles' history in four distinct narratives: 1) the official Fab Four narrative that was propagated by the band, their management, Hunter Davies' official biography, and the contemporary press, 2) the Lennon Remembers narrative based on John's blistering screed of an interview given to Rolling Stone magazine in the immediate aftermath of the band's 1970 split, 3) the Shout! narrative put forth by Philip Norman in his influential biography in the immediate aftermath of John's murder in 1980, and 4) the Lewisohn narrative that has become the prevailing orthodoxy since the late 1980s/early 1990s. By examining each of these narratives in order, not only does Weber discuss in detail the flaws and virtues of each, but she examines the evolution of how the Beatles history has been told over the previous half-century. The initial Fab Four narrative portraying them as a unified band of brothers captained by the unbreakable Lennon/McCartney partnership gave way to Lennon's complete tearing down of the myth in 1970. However, Weber shows that not everything about the Fab Four narrative was a myth, and she also shows how the unintended consequence of Lennon's attack (and Rolling Stone's knowing perpetuation of it even after Lennon disowned what he'd said years later) was to cause writers to take sides and become either "John fans" or "Paul fans." It's also shown how, in doing so, the invaluable contributions George and Ringo made to the Beatles were downplayed, neglected, and even ridiculed in the ensuing years. Later on in the 1970s and up until his death in 1980, John took back much of what he'd said in Lennon Remembers, but his sudden and senseless death froze him forever in the public mind and the resulting narrative spearheaded by Philip Norman in his influential biography Shout! served to almost canonize John. The unsuspecting victim of this was Paul McCartney, who now found his own contributions to the Beatles diminished/dismissed and his place in history reduced to little more than a conniving pretty face who annoyed everyone else in the band. Combined with the critical drubbing he received throughout the 1970s (much of which Weber shows was the result of the music press wanting to get on and stay on John and Yoko's good side in exchange for access to them), Paul has had to spend the last 30+ years trying to set the record straight and reclaiming the credit that's rightfully his. Finally, with the Lewisohn narrative, enough years have passed that, combined with his impeccable historical research methods and unbiased writing style, a new orthodoxy in Beatles historiography has taken hold and become the standard. Alongside seminal works by Mark Hertsgaard, Barry Miles & Paul McCartney, Ian MacDonald, and Peter Doggett (the last two of whom I will review in the near future), Lewisohn has shown that the Lennon/McCartney partnership was not only one of equals, but based foremost on their shared personal bond and friendship. He has also show how George and Ringo were not ancillary to the Beatles success but rather were fully involved and extremely valuable contributors to it, as well as various other myths and half-truths he's corrected.
When I began this book, I was afraid that the writing would be dry and academic given that it was a more nuanced and historical look at writings about the Beatles, and not the Beatles themselves. However, I needn't have worried as it was very engaging and interesting and easily kept my attention throughout its entirety. While I've read almost every book and article Weber cited (and she cited all of her sources), it was revealing to have them all placed into proper context and examined in a way I'd never thought about before. I was in unanimous agreement with her on the authors whose works merit respect (Lewisohn, MacDonald, Doggett, Hertsgaard, Davies) and those who don't (Jann Wenner/Rolling Stone, Goldman, Goodman, Connolly, Spitz, and to some extent Philip Norman). The person who comes off the worst, and deservedly so, is Wenner and his magazine Rolling Stone. Not only does the author cite proof that he forced critics Greil Marcus and Langdon Winner to rewrite their initially positive reviews of McCartney's first two solo albums (McCartney and RAM) to be 100% negative in order to appease Lennon and keep his favored access to John and Yoko, but in the face of numerous new facts coming to light debunking Lennon Remembers (including denunciations from John himself), Wenner continued to double down on his claims that it was a definitive and wholly accurate account. It wasn't until the early 2000s that Wenner had no choice but to admit it wasn't, but by this point in the book if one didn't already have a negative view of the man and his publication, it would beggar belief.
This isn't a book for the casual Beatles fan, but if you're a hardcore fan like me who has read just about everything there is to know about them, I encourage you to read this book. It's a completely different take on the Beatles...think of it as a book about Beatles books. The Beatles and the Historians is a fascinating examination of the history of how the most unique and influential phenomenon in 20th century popular culture, one that is as strong as ever in the 21st century, has been chronicled. For the more cerebral Beatles fan, one with an open mind and an intellectual curiosity beyond the band's well-worn story, this will be a valuable and enlightening book.
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