Essential Beatles Reference Books

Nancy Carr's collection of Beatles books

The stacks.

I‘m thinking about which Beatles books are essential because I moved last week and was confronted by the sheer volume of tomes I possess about the band (not to mention the ridiculous number of books about other subjects . . . .) So here’s my list of the ten Beatles reference books I pull off the shelf most often—the ones I’d put in the box if I could take only one box of Beatles books with me on my next move. Hey Dullblog readers, I’d love to see your lists as well.

[Note: These are listed in no particular order, since it became clear I could spend a whole day moving books up and down the list. So all these just get the “essential reference” tag.]

The Beatles, Anthology. For getting the story (various slants and all) from the folks the rest of the books are about.

Mark Lewisohn, The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions. Nothing like learning how things played out at Abbey Road day by day.

Bruce Spizer. Beatles for Sale on Parlophone Records and The Beatles on Apple Records. All Spizer’s descriptive, lavishly illustrated discographies are definitive and fun to read.

Ian MacDonald, Revolution in the Head. A song-by-song look at the complete works, with some of the best musical analysis of the band ever written. Even when I disagree with MacDonald, I learn from him.

Tim Riley, Tell Me Why. It’s instructive to read Riley’s song-by-song criticism next to MacDonald’s. Both books are excellent.

William J. Dowlding, Beatlesongs. Concise look at facts related to the songs: when recorded, chart action (if any), authorship, etc. Quoted comments about the songs from the band, George Martin, and others are a great addition.

Steve Turner, A Hard Day’s Write. This look at the songs is less exhaustive than MacDonald’s or Riley’s and more impressionistic than Dowlding’s. Turner writes well, and the photos make this a visual guide to the band’s look at the time each song was written.

Barry Miles, The Beatles Diary. Slightly (but only slightly) edges Lewisohn’s The Complete Beatles Chronicle for me. The illustrations and quotations make this day-by-day account lively.

Mojo/DK, The Beatles: Ten Years That Shook the World. The dark horse on this list—I find not so many people are familiar with it—this is an extremely well-done compendium of pieces about various aspects of the band and its history, done on a year-by-year basis. Well worth seeking out.



14 Comments

  1. Avatar Anonymous wrote:

    In His Own Write and A Spaniard In The Works.

    Also, a slim paperback called The Man Who Gave The Beatles Away

    – Hologram Sam

  2. Avatar Nancy Carr wrote:

    Sam, I was kind of fudging by specifying “reference” books, and saving biography/narrative books for another list. Says a lot about how many books I have, I know.

    I’ve got to look up “The Man Who Gave the Beatles Away.” I’d heard of it before, but have never read it.

  3. Avatar Anonymous wrote:

    “The Man Who Gave The Beatles Away” is a funny, sad book by the guy who was the inspiration for the short, grumpy manager in the Hard Days Night movie (“Stop being taller than me!”

    The book sounds like it was dictated all in one night in a boozy liverpool pub. Because he was there at the beginning of the lads’ career, he is never in awe of them. Instead, they come across as fussy, sarcastic teenagers rather than the living legends portrayed in so many bios. Some great photos from the early days, and stories about other bands who burned out and sank into obscurity.

    I love the scene at the end of the book, when the author shows up during the concert for Bangaladesh and begs George and Ringo for some cash for tapes he has discovered. Even though they are now superstars, he still relates to them like it’s 1961, and they respond in the same way. George even tells him that no one else in the world would have the nerve to talk to them like that.

    – hologram sam

  4. Avatar Anonymous wrote:

    “Recording the Beatles” by Kevin Ryan & Brian Kehew. Exhaustive chronicle of the equipment and process for making the recordings. $100 book, but if you like details it’s a lot of fun

  5. Avatar CMO#9 wrote:

    “You Never Give Me Your Money” – Doggett

    Really, really good book for us fans/diehards/stalkers/BeatleNerds. Many details I had never heard before, especially regarding the post-breakup years.

    Highly recommended.

  6. Avatar Anonymous wrote:

    Good list. The only book I really don’t like on your list is Tim Riley’s Tell Me Why. There are some sloppy mistakes in that book. For example, Riley says John’s mom was run over by a bus (it was a car), he credits the guitar solo on Taxman to George (everyone knows it was Paul), etc. Those are just embarrassing errors that anyone writing on the Beatles should know.

    Plus Riley is clearly a Lennon fan and it’s irritating to see him repeatedly invest John’s songs with more intellectual meaning and weight than Paul’s songs. Of course John-oriented critics (and too many male music critics are John-oriented; critics tend to be a very insular bunch marching in lockstep) do that ALL the time: They take a nonsense song written by John and pore over it for meaning and clues, but they take a nonsense song written by Paul and just call it a nonsense song. Or they take the detailed imagery of Strawberry Fields Forever and call it “psychedelic” and they take the detailed imagery of Penny Lane and see only “nostalgia.” Very annoying.

    But I agree with you on many of your choices. Besides The Beatles Anthology (the band’s story as they wanted it told), I also constantly turn to Revolution in the Head, Lewisohn’s books, and to Barry Miles’ various books (not just Beatles Diary but his McCartney biography and his most recent book on The British Invasion.)

    It’s too bad the book that was published about George Harrison to coincide with the Scorsese documentary is so thinly researched with so little new information and very little information at all. It’s mostly just a nice photo book. That seemed like a missed opportunity for the Harrison family since that book could have been a good reference about George and his music.

    — Drew

  7. Avatar Anonymous wrote:

    P.S. The best Beatles biography, IMO, is Can’t Buy Me Love, by Jonathan Gould. It’s a great read that manages to combine the sociology of the times (and how the Beatles fit into the era) with analysis of the music and a history of the band. He plays no favorites and doesn’t trade in repeating the same old gossip we’ve read before.

    But I’m looking forward to Mark Lewisohn’s three-part history of the band.

    — Drew

  8. Avatar David wrote:

    Feel fortunate having to lug all those books around: I recently lost my voluminous Beatles book collection in a house fire. Sure, many were old and dog-eared (Recording Sessions, Beatles Forever), but I miss not being able to reach for one of them when I want to.

    Ironically, the one book that did survive was “The Unreleased Beatles” by Unterberger. Ironic since I also lost my huge Beatles bootleg collection!!

    Just a reminder to cherish what you have!

  9. Avatar Nancy Carr wrote:

    David, I’m so sorry you lost your books! I do feel fortunate to have so many, even as it’s clear I need to purge some.

  10. Avatar Anonymous wrote:

    I sent in a couple of posts with my favorite Beatles reference books (and my thoughts on some of the books on your list here and it ever got posted.

    (insert sad face here.)

    Did the posts not go through? Or did I say something inappropriate for publication?

    — Drew

  11. Yes, Drew, I found your use of the word “the” extremely offensive. This site has certain rules, people, and one of them is we don’t use “the.” Anytime you’ve seen it on HD, it has been auto-added by spellchecker.

    Whenever anyone posts or comments, I (usually) get an email. Sometimes I don’t, and if you comment and don’t see it in 24 hours, do what Drew did and comment again. I didn’t get notifications from his earlier comment, but I did get one from this one.

    As soon as I finish production on Downturn Abbey (Kickstart is here, YAY: http://kck.st/TKfmST), I’m going to start moving HD to WordPress. It will look different but work a lot better.

    One addition, perhaps, to the list we’re building: back when I had money to spend on such things, I bought a very nice book called “Beatles: The Complete Scores,” which was reputed to be the most accurate transcription of the music as it was played. Can any musicians out there confirm this?

    Just so everybody knows: I have trashed less than ten comments in the history of the site. One called Yoko the c-word, a few criticized posts here in a disrespectful manner, and the others were obvious spam. Otherwise, it’s all good. Oh, except for all the people who think the White Album is better than Magical Mystery Tour, all those get trashed immediately.

    Kidding, folks, just kidding. 🙂

  12. Avatar matt m wrote:

    the complete scores book is the only one of its kind; once you step off that ledge, you start hitting the fake books and the hal leonard simplified arrangements books (“for piano and vocal”) on your way down. so, in that sense, it’s invaluable for scholarship. I own a copy.

    however, it’s worth pointing out that there are numerous errors in the book. some of them don’t affect the music (“steal guitar”), but others have the potential to lead beginning/intermediate musicians down the wrong path. drive my car is a good example of this: the transcriber misinterpreted the pickup at the beginning as a downbeat and so turned the intro into 9/8 to make it fit in. good luck playing it as written and making it sound like the record–in reality, it’s just 4/4 with a pickup. these kind of careless issues ultimately suggest an unfortunate lack of revision. it’s also possible that the errors were introduced deliberately in order to expose potential copyright violation, an old cartographic trick that sometimes makes its way into the world of music publishing.

    I usually advocate for would-be beatles players to listen and figure out the parts on their own. there really isn’t anything in their music that a transcriptionist could figure out more readily than another musician listening at home, and there aren’t any passages so complex that a transcription would save a great deal of time (as would be the case with, say, a Bird solo). plus, it’s a great way to learn a thing or two from the brilliance of their songwriting and the gestalt effect of their work.

  13. Avatar Anonymous wrote:

    Stew:

    Skywriting By Word Of Mouth: it sits in my bookshelf with the other Lennon books, although it lacks the charm and coherency of his other work. It contains an amusing slap at the author of “Howl” and a brief mention of Hunter Thompson. The rest of it is somewhat tiresome; I doubt Lennon would have approved of its release, it seems more like something that seemed like a good idea to Yoko.

    – Hologram Sam

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