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Sunday, April 18, 2021

A Feast for the Beatles’ Preschoolers

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Craig Brown has a marvelous story to tell. The No. 1 reason, this very special, best-selling author of several fine biographies of rock stars will tell you, is that the Beatles are more of a real band than any you could conceivably imagine.

“It is hard to overestimate how mysterious it was to think of something like this happening,” he writes. “Only someone who knows nothing about rock ‘n’ roll could believe that five boys from an English Catholic school could somehow disappear into superstardom and ascend to high ranks of mastery of what was essentially old-fashioned, classical music.”

Brown, a veteran and distinguished writer, does not miss a step. He has the charm of a memoirist, the English sense of perspective and wit to hold your attention without making you wait for a punch line. These Beatles are really a band, like the Beatles who recorded together in a studio the names Savoy and Rooks and disappeared into obscurity in the 1950s. These unassuming boys from a northern English town who would go on to crush all before them — like nowhere and no one! — went on to fight for the throne in Sweden, became stardust to much of the world and create a theater of the imagination that created a language all by itself.

In Brown’s telling, the Fab Four belong to the tradition of the Harlem Renaissance, the modern Jazz Age and the decade-long run of the ancient civilization in Rome. They more than rivals that epoch in long-lasting durability.

This is not the platonic Beatles; it is not until the late ’60s that McCartney and Lennon began to really get into it.

In that period, Brown writes, the boys again ventured into a recording studio — this time working with Brian Epstein, the manager who had put them on the map — but the result was slightly longer and quieter than they expected. When the band came back to the studio after a 10-month stint on the road, they had both eyes firmly fixed on the horizon, clearly focused on dominating the musical landscape.

Brown says this was because their attitudes were fuelled by Beatlemania. “The Beatles suddenly were a magnet, and everyone wanted to be a magnet, to be an attraction for all the people,” Brown writes. “They all knew that the Beatles were in demand, that their music was everywhere. But no one was ever sure what they wanted, what it was that a Beatle wanted.”

But if this was the first time in their lives they had really embraced being a band, they just as easily cut their record with a bunch of half-baked peers in the Yardbirds or Traffic. They just went right back to the work they’d been doing with Mahler and Ravel when they lost their minds. This means a Beatles sound has always been out there; it was just denied the opportunity to emerge or be recognized.

This is not the Platonic Beatles; it is not until the late ’60s that McCartney and Lennon began to really get into it.

Now, in the early ’60s, you can trace the Beatles sound to 15 songs that are either the result of adding material in the studio or jamming together in the dressing room, 10 of them written by McCartney. The first of these nine, “Let It Be,” is not included in this book but you can hear it on YouTube. There is a clever idea — a lot of wit there — but when you discover the rest of it, you realize there is very little invention and no innovation. It is really a new sound fit for a new century. “Eight Days a Week” is a recording of more than 40 people at a concert on a Friday evening, by the way, and we have a lifetime of them. “Yesterday” is already pretty good, although Brown underrates it a bit; Lennon was never as clever as McCartney, never quite as musical. Some others just didn’t work.

Brown is primarily interested in the story of where the Beatles came from, how they got there, what they learned and why. He does a marvelous job of vividly describing the band’s beginnings, which were remarkably optimistic and lazy compared to so many in rock ‘n’ roll.

This book is a great contribution to that heftier story of the music and the events that brought us these men and these music and the many, many people for whom they were an inspiration.

Visit Bill Maher’s site “Real Time” with Bill Maher at RealTime.com

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