In 1960, the British abolished National Service. Before that, all the country’s lads — including four from Liverpool — grew up believing they would have to serve at least a year in the army. Paul McCartney vividly recalls when George Harrison’s big brother Harry came back, all in uniform, from Christmas Island: so tough, tan, and impressive. This scared Paul. He thought he’d choke in the army. He didn’t like killing, but as a boy he willed himself to practice combat on the frogs in the outskirts of this port city where German bombs had killed more than 2,600 people and demolished 10,000 homes. Both John and Ringo were infants during the Liverpool Blitz.
Had National Service kept on, the future Beatles would have been called up in staggered fashion: Ringo and John, the two oldest, then Paul, then George. Pretty hard to keep a band going with such disruptions. “I don’t think there would have been the Beatles,” says Sir Paul to author Barry Miles in “Paul McCartney: Many Years From Now” (Henry Holt, 1997). “So that was great luck, the government just stopped that in time, allowing us the parting of the waves, and we went through and we had the freedom and the sixties.”
Fifty years ago this month — Feb. 11, 1963 — the Beatles recorded 10 songs in one day to make their debut album, “Please Please Me.” I was born in 1961, just old enough to become hopelessly imprinted by their joy, their aura: One of my earliest memories is watching my parents dance to “I Want To Hold Your Hand.” My husband, a musician even more Beatles-besotted than I am, wooed me by pointing out Paul’s glorious bass part on “Something.” And at our wedding, I walked up the aisle to “I Will.” So I’m hardly objective.
But I’ve tried to be rigorous with the following books. They have to appease my inner fangirl but also say something surprising. And one reason I love “Many Years From Now” is because Paul, so often vilified in the past, speaks from a calmer place of maturity.
Most fans know that “Let It Be” is based on a comforting dream Paul had of his mother, Mary, a decade after she died when he was 14. But here I learned she was a midwife, and that Paul holds dear an image of her in the snow late at night, biking off to bring a child into the world. I also learned that “Eleanor Rigby” springs, in part, from his memories of visiting lonely, aging pensioners when he was a Boy Scout. But it’s good to cross-check Paul’s version of how the songs came to be with John’s (they synch quite well, actually) in “John Lennon Remembers: The Full Rolling Stone Interviews from 1970.” (Verso, 2000) This book is so alternately raw and charming, it will bereave you all over again.
The proper distance comes hard for me, but Ian MacDonald, a former editor at New Musical Express, achieves it. First out in 1994, his path-breaking “Revolution in the Head: The Beatles’ Records and the Sixties” (Chicago Review, 2007) tries to replace “gushing hero-worship with a detached, posterity-anticipating tally of what the Beatles did.” To that end, he also examines the factors that produced the Fab Four. Paul points to the end of National Service. MacDonald credits the British art-school system, a “parallel educational structure” in most decent-sized cities; several Beatles attended one, plus a bunch of the Rolling Stones, the Kinks, the Who, Pink Floyd, etc. These places offered a home “to the gifted but wayward and often frankly eccentric people with which English life overflows,” writes MacDonald.
As for the songs themselves, there’s choice stuff here: how Lennon wrote “Come Together” for Timothy Leary’s 1969 California campaign for governor. Or how Capitol didn’t want to release the single “Please Please Me” in America because the title sounded too sexual, but changed its mind after the success of “I Want To Hold Your Hand.” For the full exegesis experience, there’s Mark Lewisohn’s magisterial, sadly out of print “The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions: The Official Story of the Abbey Road Years 1962-1970” (EMI Records, 2006). And it goes without saying that any fan must have “The Beatles Anthology” (Chronicle, 2000), a glossy, prismatic, thoroughly absorbing tie-in to the documentary.
Also consider 1994’s lighter but highly delectable “A Hard Day’s Write: The Stories Behind Every Beatles Song” (It, 2005 edition) by Steve Turner. Here we learn how John and Paul started off wanting to be the British Gerry Goffin and Carole King, but instead took the much rarer move toward performing their own material. How Paul wrote his dance-hall-ish songs (“Honey Pie,” “Your Mother Should Know,” “When I’m 64”) as homages to his dad, a bandleader in the 1920s. How Lennon and McCartney freely admit they were trying to mimic their heroes for certain numbers (Chuck Berry in “I Saw Her Standing There,” Smokey Robinson in “All I’ve Got to Do,” Bob Dylan in “I’m a Loser). And how Paul’s positive temperament was spliced with John’s negative. In Paul’s “Getting Better,” for instance, John added the line: “It couldn’t get much worse.”
The next book homes in on a crucial period for the band, exploring the refining fire of Hamburg. “Magic Circles: The Beatles in Dream and History” (Harvard University, 2003) is a trippy affair — check out its take on the Paul-Is-Dead rumor — but author Devin McKinney’s analysis of how Hamburg turned the band into the Beatles made this old fan really think. From 1960-1962, they played in seedy Reeperbahn clubs all night long to sailors, gangsters, and prostitutes, “[s]et eyeball to eyeball against a volatile crowd with a talent for confrontation and a hunger for raw meat,” as McKinney writes. It’s worth quoting him at greater length: The Beatles “had been a skilled but not outstanding live group, pre-Hamburg; by the time they left, they were a buzz saw . . . And on returning home, they were able to force that same violence upon a crowd that, up to then, had not been pushing them. There, I am guessing, is the seed of all that came later: the mania. The Beatles pushing: their audience pushing back.”
This last one is as painful and necessary as growing up: Peter Doggett’s “You Never Give Me Your Money: The Beatles After the Breakup” (Harper, 2010) sharply chronicles how things fell apart: the insane fame, John’s heroin addiction, Paul’s bossiness (one girlfriend called him “a little Medici prince”), spiritual seeker George chafing under the supreme egos of Lennon/McCartney, Paul and George’s cruelty to Yoko (only Ringo flew to New York to comfort her after John was murdered), the horribly tentacled lawsuits — “All You Need Is Cash” as Eric Idle once quipped.
After I closed the book, train-wrecked, I tried to select the perfect track to wash away the sadness. “Hey Jude?” “Rain?” No. I chose “the wisest song never recorded by the Beatles,” to quote Ian MacDonald. George offered “All Things Must Pass” in the “Get Back” sessions, but John and Paul (criminally) said no, and so he recorded it solo after the breakup.
The tremendously moving music filled the room, and one line shimmered especially. More than a meditation on life and art and perspective, maybe it also told why the Beatles meant so much at one moment in history, and so much still: “Daylight is good/At arriving at the right time.”
Katharine Whittemore is a freelance writer based in Northampton. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.