Fabulous tome full of wry humour about the Fab Four

Review: Vivien Horler

One Two Three Four – The Beatles in Time, by Craig Brown (4th Estate)

You could wonder what more is to be said about the Beatles – certainly the bibliography at the end of this book is a reminder of how much has been written about them.

There have even been books about the guys who weren’t in the Beatles during their post-Hamburg years, like Stu Sutcliffe and Pete Best.

But Craig Brown has managed to pull together an engaging, lively and readable tome (628 pages) about the Fab Four and their relatively brief time as the Beatles.

Brown’s writing has a hilariously dry touch, which is probably why he has been writing the parodic celebrity diary for Private Eye magazine for more than 30 years. His last book was the wonderful Ma’am Darling: 99 Glimpses of Princess Margaret, which I loved.

Early on in One Two Three Four we go on a tour with Brown to 20 Forthlin Road in Liverpool, now owned by the National Trust, where Paul grew up. It’s one of an “unassuming row of nondescript houses most National Trust members would normally drive through, rather than to”, Brown confides.

It’s not a cheap tour: Brown paid £31 (about R600) to visit both it and Mendips in Menlove Avenue, where John grew up.

There were people who disapproved when the Trust bought the house in Forthlin Road, but its value “comes from the vicarious, mystical contact with genius. The problem for the Trust’s architectural historians is that, since the house was pretty much denuded of its contents, there is no possibility of various, mystical contact with the genius’s telly set, kitchen unit or any other artefact that might might afford an insight into the inspiration that gave us such a torrent of brilliant words and music. So they set about faking it.”

But the quarry tiles on the kitchen floor are original, as is the sink. “We gazed awestruck at the kitchen sink,” writes Brown wryly, “imagining young Paul hard at work on the dishes.”

Mendips is also owned by the Trust – bought by Yoko Ono and presented to the Trust to avoid it being “commercially exploited”.

Everyone visiting the houses has to leave their handbags and cellphones at the door to prevent any photography or audio recordings inside. But Brown keeps his phone in his pocket so he can record the guide’s spiel in both houses, and spends the whole visit terrified it might ring and expose him.

Eventually he switches it off and starts taking notes, only for the guide to ask why. She says she’s checking he’s not a journalist. He is, he says, he’s writing a book. She says what she tells the visitors is private information.

“But you’ve said you tell it to 12 000 people a year. It can’t be all that private.”

Well, quite.

The book is loosely – very loosely – chronological and draws on interviews with the Beatles and people close to them, plus some of their own writing. It also quotes people who were unimpressed by the Beatles at the time, like Noel Coward.

Their recording engineer, Geoff Emerick, said 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.”

Brown writes about their Beatles’ early relationships with women and quite a bit about Yoko Ono, although Linda McCartney gets scarcely a mention. There is of course lots about Brian Epstein, about their first ground-shifting tour of the US and their appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show on February 1964 to which 73 million Americans tuned in.

This was apparently the second largest viewing figure in the history of commercial television. The first had been 11 weeks earlier, following the words: “News just in of shots fired in Dallas.”

To this day there are people who see a link between Kennedy’s shooting and the Beatles on their first US tour. Writer Joe Queenan Jr, whose father had forbidden him to watch the show and who had to sneak out to see it, said: “The Beatles helped heal America.”

Brown digs up memories of that show and tour from some who were inspired, like Billy Joel, 14, who watched it and said: “This is what I’m going to do – play in a rock band.”

In California brothers Tom and John Fogerty and two friends watched and said: “Wow, we can do that.” The band eventually developed into Creedence Clearwater Revival.

Fourteen-year-old Bruce Springsteen saw the cover of the album Meet the Beatles in a record shop in New Jersey, and was blown away by the group’s hair. “What did it mean? It was a surprise, a shock. You couldn’t see them on the radio. It is almost impossible to explain today the effect of THE HAIR.” Springsteen immediately adopted a Beatle cut, prompting his father to ask: “Bruce, are you queer?”

Brown writes of the joy and ebullience and then of the slow decline in the group’s enthusiasm for what they had created, and the sad end. Fourteen years after the group broke up, Paul told Time Out magazine: “I know I’ve lost my edge… I need a kind of outside injection, stimulus, that’s not there anymore.”

The kids of the world loved the Beatles, but not everyone was impressed. Bryan Magee, a British philosopher and politicians, wrote in The Listener in February 1967: “Does anyone seriously believe that Beatles music will be an unthinkingly accepted part of daily life all over the world in the 2000s?”

Well we know how that turned out. This book is a delight.

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