This article is taken from the February 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.
The Beatles’ history is riddled with what ifs. What if Ringo had actually been able to sing? What if George had decided after a weekend’s flirtation to put Indian classical music on the back-burner? And what if, in July 1963, a big, bear-like 28-year-old Elvis addict called Mal Evans hadn’t jacked in his day job as a telephone engineer, with an evening sideline as a nightclub bouncer, to become the Fab Four’s roadie and general factotum?
Readers are invited to ponder this question throughout the 580 pages of Living the Beatles Legend: The Mal Evans Story. If nothing else, its American author Kenneth Womack (billed by his publishers as “one of the world’s foremost writers and thinkers about the Beatles”) makes an unanswerable case that Mal spared the Boys from having to pay very much attention at all to the vexatious demands of everyday life.
He made the tea, he rolled the joints, he forged the autographs, and only once did he run out of plectrums. He also “auditioned” dizzying numbers of young women for cameo roles in the beds of his masters.
That last word isn’t idly chosen. “You are my servant,” he was once told by Paul, presumably getting into character for the day when he would feel the tap of Her Majesty’s sword on his shoulder. “You do as you are told.” And Paul was the one to whom Mal felt closest.
Auditioning aside, there were perks aplenty. Whether on tour or on jollies, Mal got to travel the world. He appeared in the film Help! as “Channel swimmer”, in Magical Mystery Tour as “Fifth magician”, in Let It Be as “Rooftop negotiator with police”. He also partied with just about every celebrity he’d ever swooned over, including Elvis. (On one jaunt he was lent Burt Lancaster’s “own personal swimming trunks” before taking a dip in his pool — which certainly trumped cleaning out his children’s rabbit hutch on his ever-fewer, ever-shorter trips home.)
When the band split, Mal went on servicing each ex-Beatle individually. Having put in all manner of assists on the recorded canon, he’d learned enough to talent-spot — in the face of some odds — the band we now fondly remember as Badfinger. But his plan to become their producer didn’t come off, his marriage failed to take the strain and his drug use got out of hand: whilst attempting to intervene in what may have been a clumsy bid to kill himself, LAPD officers shot him dead, aged 40, at the home of his new girlfriend.
So this isn’t — for all Beatlemania’s fun and frolics — the most feel-good of tales. And Womack doesn’t tell it pithily. “Love Me Do” didn’t simply get to 17 in the charts of 1962; it “reached maximum altitude” there. His England meanwhile can seem almost as alien as Pepperland, with people living in “row houses”, “writing” eleven-plus exams, and “headbutting” footballs in their gardens alongside others “supping on sausages”.
Even so, his lovingly-presented biography — drawing on exclusive interviews with key players, and with full access to Mal’s own intriguing unpublished archive of diaries and manuscripts — is in the end affecting.
The book spills over with forgiveness. However vile they were to him, the Boys could do no wrong in Mal’s eyes. (“Whilst they were laughing at you, they couldn’t be shouting at you.”) His own boy, in the book’s foreword, largely lets him off the hook for having been an inveterate absent father (even after receiving from him a birthday greeting on a cassette from which he’d neglected to wipe a prior recording of himself being fellated).
Womack, the least judgemental of authors, cuts Mal any amount of slack, too. At a purely economic level, one can see why. Whilst John had a cricket pitch in the grounds of one of his houses, after five years on the job Mal was taking home £38 a week. Factor that up with modern-day prices any way you like, but as late as 1973 both his kids were eligible for free school meals.
Living the Beatles Legend was Mal Evans’s own title for a never-published memoir. (A less magnanimous man might have gone for You Never Give Me Your Money.) Whatever he was to the Beatles, they were his raison d’être. As Womack shows in this lengthy chronicle, the “four-headed monster” was the only thing Mal ever meaningfully loved.
As soon as the band blew up, he seemed to be on borrowed time. Whilst the Beatles just lived their lives, sadly their fifth magician lived the legend — an altogether more perilous undertaking.
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10Subscribe