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Is it possible to write anything fresh and interesting about the Beatles in 2020? Improbably, Craig Brown has managed to pull off this feat in One Two Three Four: The Beatles In Time.
It helps enormously that Brown departs from the marching-in-strict-chronological order structure used, understandably enough, in many accounts of the band. Brown is the author of 99 Glimpses of Princess Margaret, as well as multiple parodies, and he brings a light (but not lightweight) touch to the proceedings. He’s willing to go down rabbit holes after interesting tidbits, to summarize long-drawn-out situations simply, and to share his own investment in what he’s discussing.
Brown’s writing and organizational style stands in particular contrast to that of Mark Lewisohn’s Tune In: The Beatles All These Years. God knows I’m grateful to Mr. Lewisohn for his indefatigable research and his readiness to detail pretty well everything that can be known about the band. But I also have to confess that I glazed over and found myself skimming through parts of his book. Lewisohn is not a sparkling stylist, and there is a dogged stateliness to his progress through “all these years.” In fairness to him, I have to admit that I’m at a point where the Beatles story is far from new to me, and that may well color my perception of any new book about them.
So I was skeptical when I picked up Brown’s book. He won me over on page 1, with his brief account of Brian Epstein and Alistair Taylor going to see the Beatles at the Cavern for the first time. The scene concludes:
“After the show, Taylor says, ‘They’re just AWFUL.’
They ARE awful,’ agrees Brian. ‘But I also think they’re fabulous. Let’s just go and say hello.’
George is the first of the Beatles to spot the man from the record shop approaching.
‘Hello there,’ he says. ‘What brings Mr. Epstein here?'”
And we’re off — we seem to be there with the people described (note the use of the present tense in that excerpt), waiting to see what will come of this encounter.
It’s that sense of openness, that recognition of multiple possibilities and the great unlikeliness of the Beatles’ success, that I found especially refreshing. At a few points Brown uses side-by-side narratives to emphasize what might have happened instead. Here he does it as part of an account of one evening in “Late November 1940”:
The greatest use of this split-screen effect in the book is Brown’s three-column breakdown of how the myriad people who have gone on record about Lennon’s assault on Bob Wooler at McCartney’s 21st birthday party have described it. (He also includes three statements by Lennon himself, given at separate times.) Seeing how differently everyone from Tony Bramwell to Philip Norman has detailed the assault and the extent of the injuries Wooler suffered illustrates more powerfully than a lengthy account could the reality that all history is interpretation.
Brown possesses an almost Wildean way with trenchant characterizations, for example: “Those of [Alex] Mardas’s ideas that worked were not his own, and those that were his own failed to work” and “Albert Goldman, the most merciless and hyperbolic of all John’s biographers.” Brown unerringly picks the best quotes too, as when he notes Alistair Taylor’s remark that Allen Klein had “the charm of a broken lavatory seat.”
Brown’s great with lists and footnotes as well. Here’s an itemization that reveals much about the chaos of the Apple Corps offices: “Visitors and employees alike walked off with all sorts of stuff: televisions, electric typewriters, speakers, cases of wine, fan heaters. One employee removed the lead from the roof on a daily basis, soon creating leaks that caused thousands of pounds’ worth of damage.”
And here’s Brown’s footnote to Peter Brown’s “unfeasibly vivid picture” of Lennon’s supposed sexual encounter with Epstein in Spain: “The memoirs of former Beatles office staff share this strange quality of divine omniscience with the memoirs of royal housekeepers and valets.”
Brown’s humor is in line with the Beatles’ own, a big reason why this book is so enjoyable. One Two Three Four includes the best account of Lennon’s punning sensibility I’ve read, and Brown’s descriptions of some of the contemporary Beatles-themed tours he’s gone on are not only revealing but intermittently hilarious. But he also captures the darkness of the story. Juxtaposing an early publicity photo of the Beatles with a candid snapshot taken during the late studio period, Brown notes: “The Beatles had aged with an almost macabre rapidity. In the five years from 1964 to 1969 they matured at a rate of knots, not only in the range and depth of their music, but also physically.”
One last note: Brown’s explorations of people on the edges of the Beatles story are extraordinarily revealing; some achieve a kind of “Eleanor Rigby” quality, as they recount what happened to those left in the Beatles’ wake. There’s Pete Best, of course. But who thinks of Jimmy Nichol, the drummer who subbed briefly for Ringo during the 1964 tour of Australia? His experience with fame seems to have blighted his life: though his former band held his position open, he came back from the tour determined to become a star and started his own band, which failed and marked the beginning of a long, sour decline. Then there is Detective Sergeant Norman “Nobby” Pilcher, the tireless enforcer of drug laws against 1960s musicians, eventually imprisoned for perjury and conspiracy to pervert the course of justice. However, the most moving portrait in the book is that of Brian Epstein; fittingly, the book both begins and ends with him. His centrality to the Beatles’ story has never, to my mind, been presented so clearly or compassionately.
In short: One Two Three Four is well worth your time, even if the stack of Beatles-related books you’ve read would reach to your head or higher if stacked up on the floor.