What’s the most destructive movement in pop history? There’s punk, of course, but the further that falls into history, the more it seems like a brief, bratty spasm. It sanded down some of the excesses of prog and glam, but life before it and life after were recognisably the same, just with slightly less ridiculous shoes and fewer eight-minute solos. So try something less campily nihilistic as your horsemen of the musical apocalypse: four clean-cut boys in suits, singing about love, to a fan base that consisted not of bondage-trousered thugs but of skirt-wearing schoolgirls. Try the Beatles.
“When success finally came,” writes Craig Brown in his brilliantly entertaining new book One Two Tree Four: The Beatles in Time, “it came as a landslide, flattening those ahead.” Their triumph obliterated what came before. When the Beatles got their big US break on The Ed Sullivan Show, the corollary was onstage death for the rest of the bill, who played to silence between the screams. The comedy double act who went on before them thought this would be the making of their careers; instead, it turned out to be “the worst three minutes of their lives”. They were there at the birth of the new, and they weren’t part of it.
Reading the book, it sometimes feels like the Beatles left nothing but a tide of wrecked hopes and resentment behind them. Cliff Richard, who still seems to be unable to forgive them for making his once dangerously sexy hipshaking look sad and outdated: the swerve into Christian rock saved his career, but it can’t have been how a young rock’n’roll idol imagined things working out. The young singer Helen Shapiro, who was headlining a tour with the Beatles as support in 1963, and found herself eclipsed by them before it ended: a music paper cruelly headlined an article “Is Helen Shapiro a ‘Has-Been’ at 16?”
And the nearer people came to the Beatles’ orbit, the more catastrophic the effect seems to have been. Sometimes, that seems to be because proximity to the Beatles’ success made everything after seem hollow and pointless. In 1964, the drummer Jimmie Nicol sat in on an Australian tour, while Ringo was having his tonsils removed. For a few weeks, he got the adulation and the payday due to a part-time Beatle — and then, in a monkey’s paw manoeuvre, it all went away just as suddenly. (Want to be famous? Well you can be, for a moment.) His life since looks like a doomed effort to recapture what was never really his, spending his way to bankruptcy in pursuit of stardom.
It sometimes feels like the Beatles left nothing but a tide of wrecked hopes and resentment behind them
Or the saddest story in the book, which is their manager Brian Epstein’s. The Beatles seemed to tear everything in the 1960s’ order loose. The writer James Morris called them “minstrels of … emancipation”. They were the working-class insurgents, tumbling the posh from their pedestals, playing up their accents. They were long-haired infringers on the certainties of sex, with the “Beatle haircut” treated as an affront to masculinity. Later, Morris transitioned to become Jan and wrote about the experience in the memoir Conundrum, so the comment was probably made with some depth of feeling.
Yet the liberation they trailed could not come fast enough for Epstein, who was gay. He had all the freedom that fame and money bought, and could still be shaken down by a grifting lover. He died by overdose (ruled accidental) in 1967. His psychiatrist told the inquest that Epstein had been “unable to come to terms” with the “problem” of his homosexuality, though in retrospect what’s harder to come to terms with is that he would have lived to see it become no problem at all had he just made his natural span.
Everything with The Beatles seems to have happened at double time, which could be as draining as it was thrilling. Even the Beatles themselves aged “at a rate of knots”, points out Brown, jumping from gleaming youth to tired middle age. As if trying to hold their bearings in a cyclone of their own creation, their music became threaded with nostalgia: the Edwardian whimsy of Sergeant Pepper, the interpolation of “She Loves You” at the end of “All You Need Is Love” which “breaks through the hippy fog like a hymn to lost youth”. (Only four years separate the songs, though they sound a universe apart.)
By the end of One Two Three Four, it’s hard to know whether the Beatles happened to the world or the world happened to the Beatles. Towards the end, Brown proposes an alternative history where Gerry and the Pacemakers, not the Beatles, become the Sixties’ defining band.
It sounds absurd, but why not? Talent, luck and personality made the Beatles, but some force beyond them demanded a band that was more than successful: a cataclysm was required, to rip up everything to the sound of teenage shrieks. Only pop music could do this, precisely because it is popular, and so implicates everyone. Class, sex, convention, all unmoored by the verse-chorus-verse.
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