Read this in a comment this morning: “I am 59 years old, and a brand new Beatles fan as of two months ago, so basically a blank slate with no preconceived thoughts on the band.” Which got me to thinking, what sources would I recommend to a person who was new to The Beatles?
Of course I’d start with the music. I’d probably recommend the mono box set, but I actually think which version is a bit less important than going chronologically, spending a little time with each album in order. As you enjoy yourself and get to know the song canon, you’ll establish the relationship between one and the next. You’ll see the changes, and the growth. But the music has to be the bedrock of any understanding; though J/P/G/R are all uncommonly articulate people, the music’s how they chose to communicate, and how they communicated best.
Then, I’d recommend watching, and then reading, Anthology. Though there’s an element of PR, Anthology is how they saw themselves and what was going on around them. Also, it gestures a bit towards the world they inhabited. The Beatles phenomenon was fundamentally about the time and place of the Sixties; Anthology shows that. There are a lot of commonplaces about the Sixties, which makes it particularly important to know some detail: The Beatles where engaged in a complex feedback loop with macro trends like youth culture, meritocracy and social mobility, a large stable and prosperous middle class, birth control as well as individuals. The Beatles’ story makes less sense if you don’t know about Harold Wilson, Vietnam, Mary Quant and Vidal Sassoon, the Cold War, and so forth.
Then, I’d recommend a quick reading of Davies; though flawed (because of what he couldn’t say) it’s a fluid retelling of the story as it was seen in 1967, and shows the band at its creative high point, before Brian’s death and India changed everything.
For a general history, I’d probably recommend a book I never see mentioned: Mark Hertsgaard’s A Day in the Life. Once again: fluid, and anything Hertsgaard missed, you’ll pick up after. After Hertsgaard, Lewisohn, if you’re obsessed. Then, if you’re still obsessed, Devin McKinney’s Magic Circles.
There are lots of blogs and podcasts around, but these — Dullblog very much included — are what I’d call tertiary sources. There are primary sources, which are testimonies or direct evidence (interviews, photographs, recordings, etc.); then there are secondary sources, which use primary sources, but cover them with a layer of analysis and opinion. Good secondary sources play by well-known rules, so the reader/viewer can see possible bias. Then finally there are tertiary sources, where the job is to repackage or summarize information.
The great advantage of blogs and podcasts, their informality and conversational nature—which leads to an ease of assimilation and genuine entertainment—reveals them as fundamentally tertiary sources. They’re great if you’ve done the work with the primary/secondary stuff, but if not, can be misleading. Some of what I’ve been complaining about lately has been the internet-led dominance of tertiary sources, e.g., “Paul was a workaholic,” rather than “On September 12, 1967, two weeks after Brian funeral, the Beatles had their first day of shooting on Magical Mystery Tour.” The profusion of tertiary-source stuff on the net is because the people making the content are not getting paid. It’s easy to say or type the first thing that comes out of your head; secondary or primary stuff requires more time and money to create. There is more and more Beatle-data on the net, however, and this is a great thing. Someday I hope all the paper yellowing in people’s basements is scanned and put online!
So, welcome newbie! Do the listening and the reading first, and the tertiary sources will be much richer experience. To me, listening to podcasts/reading Dullblog would be like listening to bootlegs before you’d heard the released version.
What would you suggest for someone just getting into The Beatles?