If you share the belief that The Beatles were responsible for a collective madness that settled on the western world in the 1960s and which, in diminished form, lingers to this day, then this is the Beatles book for you.
Craig Brown is a comic author best known for his spoof diaries of celebrities in Private Eye magazine. His last book, Ma’am Darling; 99 Glimpses of Princess Margaret, established a non-linear style of biography comprising snapshots from the life of its subject, in this instance a litany of largely unflattering facts and occurrences. He’s done much the same with this award-winning book on The Beatles, except it’s not unflattering, with a kind of ‘believe it or not this really happened’ air about it as he examines the Beatles phenomenon in great and often amusing detail. It’s also a clever idea, a cunning collage.
Brown is clearly a fan of The Beatles but he has done little, if any, original research for his book. In a lengthy bibliography at the back he lists his sources, which is just about every Beatle book of note to have been published in the last 50 years, plus scores of other books that refer to the group in passing. So, what he’s done is to read them all, extract the more bizarre manifestations of Beatlemania and relay them in his comic style, usually dryly and without comment. Taken together they offer an ‘alternative’ history of The Beatles or what Brown terms a ‘kaleidoscopic’ view of his subject.
Though the book won’t tell committed Beatlemaniacs anything they don’t already know, Brown has fun with his theme and it’s fun to read. Its 640 pages are divided into 150 chapters, almost all of them quite short, with plenty of lists, and things like fan letters and arcane trivia derived from seldom travelled tributaries of Beatle folklore. It’s the kind of book you can dip into and set aside without losing the plot; or read from back to front, which is apt because Chapter One, Brian Epstein’s first sighting, is repeated verbatim at the end of Chapter 150.
In investigating various incidents that occurred during the Beatles’ collective life that have become semi-legendary, Brown occasionally scrutinises accounts of individual episodes from several different books, comparing widely differing reports from separate eye-witnesses, the conclusion being that no two people recall things the same and we will never know what really happened (though Mark Lewisohn, of course, will beg to differ). For example, he dwells on John’s scrap with Cavern DJ Bob Wooler at Paul’s 21st birthday party in 1963, comparing no fewer than eight accounts that vary wildly in regard to the nature of the assault and extent of Wooler’s injuries. I was hoping he’d do the same for the 1966 incident in the Philippines where The Beatles inadvertently snubbed Imelda Marcos but he doesn’t, perhaps because all the accounts are the same.
Brown also digs deep into crevices that are mere footnotes in other Beatle books, like the fate of Jimmie Nichol, who briefly deputised for Ringo in 1964, and the feelings of the off-duty policeman at the wheel of the car that killed Julia Lennon. Only later did the driver discover the identity of his victim and the realisation that it was John Lennon’s mother has haunted him ever since.
Looming large towards the end of the book is Yoko, about whom Brown is circumspect in a rather droll fashion. Also featured at length is Norman Pilcher, the drugs squad police sergeant who made it his mission in life to bust rock stars, the more famous the better. However, Brown is wrong to state, on page 499, that in 1967 Pilcher “led the raid on Keith Richards’ house, Redlands, in West Wittering”. In fact, it was led by Chief Inspector Gordon Dineley from the West Sussex Police HQ in Chichester. Pilcher had nothing whatsoever do with the notorious Redlands bust, though it’s a pound to a penny that it inspired his pursuit of John, George, Brian Jones and sundry others.
Brown’s reportage on Beatle tours of Liverpool is wryly amusing, as is his account of attending the annual International Beatleweek in Liverpool during August, presumably in 2019, which contains his most profound observation in the entire book. He’s watching a tribute band, one in an endless parade of similar acts, and, drawing a parallel with the 1970s TV show The Good Old Days, is reminded of lines from A E Houseman’s poem A Shropshire Lad: ‘The happy highways where I went, And cannot come again’.
“But when they started to play ‘She Loves You’, and they sounded just like The Beatles and, to my fading eyes, looked just like them too – Paul arching his eyebrows and rolling his eyes to the ceiling, George slightly dreamy and distant, Ringo rocking his head from side to side, John with his legs apart, as through astride a donkey. I was witnessing something closer to a wonderful conjuring trick. One half of your brain recognises that these are not the Beatles: how could they be? But the other half is happy to believe that they are. It is like watching a play: yes, of course you know that the couple on stage are actors, but on some level you think they are Othello and Desdemona. The drama lies in the interplay of knowledge and imagination. And with the Fab Four, there is another illusion at work, equally convincing, equally transient: for as long as they play, we are all fifty years younger, gazing in wonder at the Beatles in their prime.”
I liked that a lot and if, like me, you are convinced that The Beatles will forever tower above everyone else, One Two Three Four – The Beatles In Their Time substantiates that conviction in spades.