The Beatles: The Biography
by Bob Spitz
Published by Little, Brown and Company
992 pages, 2005
A Beatlemaniac's Dream
Reviewed by Ron Kaplan
It may be difficult for some to fathom the impact that the Beatles had on myriad disciplines: music, art, fashion, culture. But as we approach the 25th anniversary of John Lennon's murder, Bob Spitz's The Beatles: The Biography serves as a remarkable reminder.
As one who grew up with, and loved the music of, the Beatles, but never one to delve any further than the liner notes, I can't imagine a more detailed account than The Beatles. Spitz, who worked as Bruce Springsteen and Elton John's manager, leaves little unsaid, sewing together the fabric of the Beatles from the individual swatches of their early lives. One wonders where they might have wound up if they hadn't found each other through music; none of them had much in the way of academic aptitude or ambition, and the author paints a fairly bleak picture of their Liverpool environment.
The author divides Beatles history into three broad eras: the early days as struggling individuals, heading towards the inevitable collaboration; the golden years, when they became a phenomenon and "raised the bar of rock and roll" and the painful decline, as their star sputtered and ultimately flamed out.
Spitz devotes the bulk of the narrative to Lennon, the ringleader, visionary and angry young man, but Paul, George and Ringo still get plenty of ink as he dives deeply into the evolution of Beatles songs, the competition (primarily between John and Paul), and the rewards and price of glory.
This Herculean effort, weighing in at almost 1000 pages, is a Beatlemaniac's dream, covering every aspect, public and private, of the group's life and artistic death. There's no question that Spitz has a taste for detail; he devotes six pages to the remarkable artwork that went into the cover for the Sgt. Pepper album.
Spitz enjoys taking his time; we don't even meet Ringo for the first third of the book. This leisurely approach is perfect for fans who don't want this party to end. He makes clear, perhaps more so than in any previous book, that the boys were no saints. John, in particular, was an emotional type, given to verbal and physical outbursts with friends as well as foes. His treatment of his first wife, Cynthia, is particular boorish, but the rest of the group displayed similar bouts of bad judgment.
The author portrays most of the Beatles' women, especially Cynthia Lennon, in a sympathetic light. On the other hand, he has special enmity for Yoko Ono, whom he castigates as an intruder -- even a gold digger -- and puts a great deal of the blame for the Beatles' breakup on her shoulders.
Other supporting characters, such as Brian Epstein, Stu Sutcliffe and George Martin -- among many others -- are given their due for whatever influence or involvement they shared with the group as a whole, or the Beatles individually.
Just as interesting as the deconstruction of the group are the too-infrequent analyses of the songs. (Such books as William J. Dowdlings Beatlesongs and Tim Riley's Tell Me Why are excellent resources along these lines.) Spitz notes that the Beatles were breaking old rules and making new ones, but counters with a strange proclamation: "The more [they] bathed in the limelight, the less they seemed willing to make a defiant splash." Success seems to have bred a certain attitude that was at once creative and disturbing. Each member wanted to expand the scope of the group's music and collective persona, but consensus on how to do that became more and more contentious.
Yet there were those who were not enamored of the Beatles. According to Newsweek, which reported on their American television debut on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964 to a record-audience of more than 70 million, "Visually they are a nightmare," Spitz quotes the news weekly. "Musically they are a near disaster .... Their lyrics are a catastrophe." Parents bemoaned the long-haired foursome as corrupting their children, not unlike Elvis a decade earlier.
Drugs, relationships gone awry with spouses and each other, and bad business dealings nevertheless also took their toll and are just as much a part of the story as the gold records. (There was even turmoil over who made the announcement, after numerous rumors and temporary separations, that the Beatles were finally through.)
Such a book could not have been written 25 years ago, but this is more than a simple tell-all tale. The Beatles, as a group, may have been through, Spitz concludes. But as the recent spate of new books indicates, "the legend ... has only just begun." | November 2005
Ron Kaplan is a freelance writer from Montclair, New Jersey and a contributing editor to January Magazine.