‘150 Glimpses of the Beatles,’ by Craig Brown: An Excerpt

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In their neat black suits and ties, Brian Epstein and his personal assistant Alistair Taylor make their way down the eighteen steep steps into the sweaty basement on Mathew Street. Brian finds it ‘as black as a deep grave, dank and damp and smelly’. He wishes he hadn’t come. Both he and Taylor would prefer to be attending a classical concert at the Philharmonic, but curiosity got the better of them. Four young musicians saunter onto the stage. Brian recognises them from the family record shop he manages: they are the ones who lounge around in the booths, listening to the latest discs and chatting to the girls, with absolutely no intention whatsoever of buying a record.

Between songs, the three yobs with guitars start yelling and swearing, turning their backs on the audience and pretending to hit one another. Taylor notices Brian’s eyes widen with amazement. Taylor himself is undergoing one of the most shocking experiences of his life – ‘like someone thumping you’ – and he is pretty sure Brian feels the same.

After the show, Taylor says, ‘They’re just AWFUL.’

‘They ARE awful,’ agrees Brian. ‘But I also think they’re fabulous. Let’s just go and say hello.’

George is the first of the Beatles to spot the man from the record shop approaching.

‘Hello there,’ he says. ‘What brings Mr Epstein here?’

[ Return to the review of “150 Glimpses of the Beatles.” ]

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Other groups had a front man; your favourite was pre-selected for you. No one would ever pick Hank Marvin over Cliff Richard, say, or Mike Smith over Dave Clark.

But with the Beatles there was a choice, so you had to pick a favourite, and the one you picked said a lot about who you were. For their American fan Carolyn See, there was ‘Paul, for those who preferred androgynous beauty; John, for those who prized intellect and wit; George because he possessed that ineffable something we would later recognize as spiritual life; and Ringo, patron saint of fuckups the world over.’

In Liverpool, the twelve-year-old Linda Grant favoured Ringo ‘for reasons that are beyond me’. There was, she recalls, ‘a real goody-two-shoes at school who liked Paul. George seemed a bit nothing. John seemed off-limits, too intimidating.’

Ringo was the Beatle for girls who lacked ambition. Picking him as your favourite suggested a touch of realism. It went without saying that the others were already taken, but you might just stand an outside chance with the drummer. ‘If someone asked who my favorite was I always said, “Oh, I like Ringo,”’ remembered Fran Lebowitz, who grew up in New Jersey. ‘I liked the personality of Ringo Starr. I still do. He was not, of course, the favorite in my school among the girls. Paul McCartney was far and away the favorite. He was the cute Beatle. So it was probably just a contrarian position to choose Ringo Starr.’

Helen Shapiro was only sixteen but already a major star when the Beatles toured as one of her supporting acts at the start of 1963. Like any other girl, she had her favourite. ‘John was married but nobody knew about it at the time so along with a few thousand other girls I had a crush on him … George was the most serious. He would occasionally talk about what he was going to do when he was rich, and try to pick my brains about the financial side of things. I couldn’t have been a lot of help. I still wasn’t interested in the money. Paul remained the spokesman. Ringo was the quiet one.’

Pattie Boyd met the four Beatles after being chosen to play one of the schoolgirls in Hard Day’s Night. ‘On first impressions, John seemed more cynical and brash than the others, Ringo the most endearing. Paul was cute, and George, with velvet brown eyes and dark chestnut hair, was the best-looking man I’d ever seen.’ Unlike millions of other fans, Pattie was able to take her choice a stage further. Reader, she married him.

There was a Beatle to suit every taste. As a fan, you expressed yourself by picking one over the others. Each personified a different element: John fire, Paul water, George air, Ringo earth. Even their friends liked to paint them in primary colours, with sharply contrasting characters, like one of those jokes about the Englishman, the Welshman, the Irishman and the Scotsman. Carolyn See noted how, in A Hard Day’s Night, they enacted their given personas: ‘winsome Paul, witty John, thoughtful George, goofy Ringo’.

The actor Victor Spinetti once told this story about them. While filming Help! in Salzburg, he caught ’flu and was confined to bed. ‘The Beatles came to my hotel room to visit. The first to arrive was George Harrison. He knocked, came in and said, “I’ve come to plump your pillows. Whenever anyone’s ill in bed they have to have their pillows plumped.” He then plumped my pillows and left. John Lennon came in next and marched up and down barking “Sieg heil, Schweinhund! The doctors are here. They’re coming to experiment upon you. Sieg heil! Heil Hitler!” And he left. Ringo then came in, sat down by the bed, picked up the hotel menu and read out loud, as if to a child, “Once upon a time there were three bears. Mummy bear, Daddy bear and Baby bear.” And then he left. Paul opened the door an inch, asked, “Is it catching?” “Yes,” I said, on which he shut the door and I never saw him again.’ Paul was being the pragmatist, as usual. He knew that if he or the others had caught ’flu, there’d be no filming.

[ Return to the review of “150 Glimpses of the Beatles.” ]

Working alongside Brian Epstein, Alistair Taylor observed the different ways the Beatles dealt with their earnings. ‘Every month, Brian would issue each of the boys with their financial statements, all neatly and accurately itemised, and sealed in a white manila envelope. They reacted very different. John would instantly crumple it up and stuff it in his pocket. George might have a look. Ringo certainly couldn’t understand it and didn’t waste any time trying. Paul was the one who opened it carefully and would sit in the corner of the office for hours going meticulously through it.’

As they grew older, the differences in their characters became sharper. It was as though the wind had changed, and each had been stuck with the face he last pulled. Asked to submit ideas for famous figures to include on the Sgt. Pepper album cover, George suggested a few Indian gurus, and Paul picked a broad variety of artists, from Stockhausen to Fred Astaire. John’s suggestions were more macabre or offbeat: the Marquis de Sade, Edgar Allan Poe, Jesus, Hitler. And as for Ringo, he simply said he’d go along with what the others wanted.

Of course, the Beatles revolved around the contrasting characters of Paul and John. Their recording engineer Geoff Emerick watched the two of them at work. ‘They couldn’t have been two more different people. Paul was meticulous and organised, he always carried a notebook around with him, in which he methodically wrote down lyrics and chord changes in his neat handwriting. In contrast, John seemed to live in chaos: he was constantly searching for scraps of paper that he’d scribbled hurried ideas on. Paul was a natural communicator; John couldn’t articulate his ideas well. Paul was the diplomat; John was the agitator. Paul was soft-spoken and almost unfailingly polite; John could be a right loudmouth and quite rude. Paul was willing to put in long hours to get a part right; John was impatient, always ready to move on to the next thing. Paul usually knew exactly what he wanted and would often take offence at criticism; John was much more thick-skinned and was open to hearing what others had to say.’

John was brittle, demanding and caustic; Paul emollient, engaging, agreeable. But there were those who detected something single-minded, perhaps even self-serving, beneath Paul’s charm. Tony Barrow, who worked as the Beatles’ press officer, felt that ‘John made the most noise, especially with Epstein. But it was Paul who let John do the heavy lifting when there was a dispute with Brian. Then Paul would finish the persuasion. John would make Brian cry at times, but Paul, more of a politician, would use a quiet influence to get his way. John’s bark was worse than his bite. He used the bark to cover up low self-esteem … Paul promised people everything, tickets, gifts, then left it to people like me to fulfil the promises. He wanted to look like a good benefactor, and he was long on promises, short on performance. He was a charmer who was a public relations delight, a man who was master of image-making. He is and was a sheer showman, from his bone marrow to his fingertips. He feeds on the approval of his public.’

Paul was baby-faced, meticulous, perky, diplomatic, energetic, tuneful, ingratiating, optimistic, outgoing, cheery, sentimental, solicitous. John was angular, slapdash, maudlin, difficult, lazy, dissonant, edgy, sardonic, pessimistic, solipsistic, sulky, cool, brutal. Paul considered himself lovable; John believed himself unlovable.

Paul once tried to explain how the two of them had become what they were. ‘John, because of his upbringing and his unstable family life, had to be hard, witty, always ready for the cover-up, ready for the riposte, ready with the sharp little witticism. Whereas with my rather comfortable upbringing, a lot of family, a lot of people, very northern, “Cup of tea, love?”, my surface grew to be easy-going. Put people at their ease. Chat to people, be nice, it’s nice to be nice … Mentally, no one could say much to hurt me, whereas with John: his dad wasn’t home, so it was “Where’s yer dad, you bastard?” And his mother lived with somebody and that was called “living in sin” in those days, so there was another cheap shot against him. John had a lot to guard against, and it formed his personality; he was a very guarded person … He had massive hang-ups from his upbringing.’

The peculiar power of the Beatles’ music, its magic and its beauty, lies in the intermingling of these opposites. Other groups were raucous or reflective, progressive or traditional, solemn or upbeat, folksy or sexy or aggressive. But when you hear a Beatles album, you feel that all human life is there. As John saw it, when they were composing together, Paul ‘provided a lightness, an optimism, while I would always go for sadness, the discords, a certain bluesy edge’. It was this finely balanced push me/pull you tension that made their greatest music so expressive, capable of being both universal and particular at one and the same time.

Even as teenagers, they approached their songwriting with a sense of purpose. Paul would bunk off school, and John would join him in the McCartney house in Forthlin Road. Then Paul would open his school notebook, with its blue lines on white paper, and write, ‘Another Lennon-McCartney original’ on the next blank page, and the two of them would get straight down to composing their next song. Looking back, Paul struggled to recall a fruitless afternoon. ‘We never had a dry session … In all the years, we never walked away from a session saying, “Fuck it, we can’t write one.”’

Sometimes their contributions to the same song were so keenly differentiated that they seemed to be playing up to their caricatures. Paul comes up with ‘We can work it out’, and John immediately undercuts it: ‘Life is very short’. Paul sings ‘It’s getting better’ and John butts in with ‘Can’t get much worse’. In ‘A Day in the Life’ it is John, compulsive reader of newspapers, who just has to laugh at the man who’s blown his mind out in a car, while it is the happy-go-lucky Paul who wakes up, gets out of bed, drags a comb across his head.

Many of their songs have bright melodies but dark lyrics, or dark melodies but bright lyrics. The words of ‘Help!’, ‘Run for Your Life’, ‘Misery’ and ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’ are all about depression and psychosis, but they are set to jaunty tunes. Deprived of this tug-of-war between the two competing partners, their solo songs often lack that dimension of otherness, with John falling back on self-pity and Paul giving in to whimsy.

As time went by, their collaboration dwindled, and they composed more and more of their songs separately. But they remained driven by a shared sense of competition; each sought the other’s approval. ‘It was an ideal match,’ wrote the critic Ian MacDonald. ‘They laughed at the same things, thought at the same speed, respected each other’s talent, and knew that their unspoken urge to best and surprise each other was crucial to the continuing vitality of their music.’

[ Return to the review of “150 Glimpses of the Beatles.” ]

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