New crop of Beatles books plumbs history, cultural context

Chicago TribuneDecember 22, 2013 

I was in seventh grade when I began poring over Beatles books. That was shortly after I’d gotten the “Red” and “Blue” double-record compilations and started methodically, obsessively buying album after album, hoping to fill all gaps.

The Beatles had broken up years earlier, and I couldn’t help but be vexed that I’d never enjoyed the thrill of hearing a groundbreaking new Beatles album at the time it came out. So the books were my ticket to experience some of that excitement, retroactively at least.

There was Roy Carr and Tony Tyler’s “The Beatles: An Illustrated Record,” a big square paperback the size of a vinyl album boasting page-sized color photos and descriptions of all of the band’s records in historical context.

We also spent more time than might seem reasonable with Ron Schaumburg’s “Growing Up With the Beatles,” a picture-laden, oversized paperback in which the author presents the band’s chronology in the context of his awkward adolescence in Kansas and his feelings about each release.

When we wanted just the facts, we turned to Northwestern grads Harry Castleman and Walter J. Podrazik’s “All Together Now: The First Complete Beatles Discography: 1961-1975,” which offered release information for every record that featured any or all of the Beatles. In those pre-Wikipedia days, such a resource was invaluable.

But these days are not those days. Now you can read individual Wikipedia entries on pretty much every Beatles song, album, film and live appearance, and each year the market becomes more glutted with Beatles books, many of which are finding new ways to repackage old information.

The package really is the selling point for Jean-Michel Guesdon and Philippe Margotin’s “All the Songs: The Story Behind Every Beatles Release” ($50, Black Dog & Leventhal).

This is a handsome, heavy, hardcover book packed with full-page photos and organized chronologically by album. It appears to contain no new research; the footnotes cite sources such as Mark Lewisohn’s “The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions” and the Beatles’ own “The Beatles Anthology” oral history. The Beatles snob in me desires more in a book than what’s already been published, but the seventh-grade me would have devoured this.

The balance between presentation and content is even more skewed in Mat Snow’s “The Beatles Solo” ($50, Race Point), which chronicles the foursome’s post-breakup years.

The cover, boasting elegant line-art illustrations of each Beatle, is actually a box containing four thin hardcover volumes, each summing up a solo Beatle’s career and life in 91 pages (plus index).

This uniform length makes little sense: You can’t detail Paul McCartney’s highly active 40-plus solo years in the same amount of space as John Lennon’s tragically shortened post-Beatles decade. Then again, given the large type and abundance of photos, none of these books offers much more depth than you’d find in an article in the literate music magazine Mojo, which Snow used to edit.

In contrast, “The John Lennon Letters” ($25, Little, Brown), a 2012 release edited by original Beatles biographer Hunter Davies (with cooperation from Lennon’s widow, Yoko Ono) and recently issued in paperback, offers a treasure trove of revelatory visual and written material. Lennon was a great letter and postcard writer, from the pre-Beatlemania years up to his 1980 murder, and he also did much whimsical drawing and scribbling on these missives.

His unmistakable combination of humor, romanticism and acidity comes through whether he’s in Hamburg, Germany, repeatedly professing his love to future wife Cynthia Powell back home while complaining about bunkmate Paul’s snoring (“Sharrup McCartney! Grunt grunt”) or doing post-breakup battle with Paul and Linda McCartney and tangling with others who have given offense.

The last include various journalists and musician Todd Rundgren (referred to as “Sodd Runtlestuntle,” “Turd Rundgreen,” “Dodd” and “Godd”). With the letters and postcards reproduced and transcribed, you can open this book to any page and find something that draws you closer to the artist.

Another book that pushes the ball forward is Kevin Howlett’s “The Beatles: The BBC Archives 1962-70” ($60, Harper Design), which chronicles the band’s many BBC performances and prints interviews with its members, all in a coffee-table-worthy book that comes in a faux reel-to-reel tape box.

The book works as a companion piece to the newly released early-performances collection “On Air – Live at the BBC Volume 2” and the superior rereleased/remastered “Live at the BBC” (originally issued in 1994). But it also stands alone as a revealing series of interviews moving from the band’s fresh-faced, happy-to-be-here days to their been-through-the-wringer later years.

But by far the most anticipated of this season’s Beatles releases is Lewisohn’s “Tune In: The Beatles: All These Years, Vol. 1” ($40, Crown Archetype). The first of three planned volumes, it offers 803 pages of narrative plus another 129 of end notes and index (plus three photo sections) to take the band’s history to the end of 1962, with the group’s debut album and Beatlemania lurking around the corner.

This is a lot of book to devote to the Beatles’ least sexy period, and the early chapters are slow-ish going as Lewisohn introduces the family histories and the contexts that produced four wartime babies who would grow up to become the century’s dominant popular-music figures.

Yet like a skyscraper’s foundation, this back story is necessary to support all that follows, acclimating us with great specificity to the world in which the action will take place. When the paths of Lennon, McCartney, George Harrison and Richy Starkey begin crossing – their common bond being a love of American R&B and early rock ‘n’ roll records – the book’s momentum snowballs just as the band’s does.

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