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
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.
He 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 1,000 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
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 lays a great deal of the blame for the Beatles'
break-up 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.
Dowdling's 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 TV
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
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
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."
Reviewed by Ron Kaplan on December 22, 2010