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Review: Beatles myth, Beatles facts

By Todd Leopold
CNN

cover.beatles.jpg

'The Beatles'

  • By Bob Spitz
  • Little, Brown and Co.
  • Biography
  • 992 pages
  • 'Magical Mystery Tours'

  • By Tony Bramwell
  • Thomas Dunne/St. Martin's Press
  • Memoir
  • 448 pages
  • YOUR E-MAIL ALERTS

    Review

    (CNN) -- In the notes to his biography "The Beatles," author Bob Spitz quotes Napoleon: "History is a set of lies agreed upon."

    The Beatles' history, he could add, is beyond lies -- it's practically myth, something from which Joseph Campbell could extrapolate.

    Consider: There are the sacrifices -- the best friend who dies young (Stu Sutcliffe), the drummer kicked out, essentially, in exchange for a record contract (Pete Best).

    There's Beatlemania, an otherworldly frenzy that begins in rapture (the Royal Command Variety Performance, "The Ed Sullivan Show," "A Hard Day's Night") and ends in darkness (record burnings, death threats). There are the attempts to reach a higher spiritual plane (drugs, the Maharishi).

    There is the burgeoning musical creativity and the equal determination to "Get Back." There is waste, and lawsuits, and "The End." (Cue "Her Majesty.")

    It's gotten so you can't tell the myth from the facts.

    No wonder two of the best works on the Beatles are parodies -- Mark Shipper's wonderful novel "Paperback Writer" and the Eric Idle-created TV movie and album "The Rutles" -- that have the myth and eat it, too. The former features an album called "We're Gonna Change the Face of Pop Music Forever"; the latter offers a scene in which George Harrison, as an earnest interviewer, chats with a Rutles press officer as a Rutles-owned shop is pillaged. The alpha and omega, right there, all set to a wonderful soundtrack.

    None of this, of course, has stopped authors from trying to piece together what really happened. Philip Norman probably did the best job, with 1981's "Shout!: The Beatles in Their Generation," a humane and scrupulous book that revealed the tangle of manager Brian Epstein's business dealings as well as delved into the group's personal chemistry.

    Spitz tries to go Norman one better with "The Beatles: The Biography" (Little, Brown). Spitz looked at David McCullough's huge biographies as a model, and he's tried to give the Beatles' story the same kind of loving, painstaking detail.

    For the most part, he's succeeded.

    Sweat and desperation

    Spitz takes his time. He offers as complete a portrait of the Beatles' Liverpool as is available to nonresidents. He walks the reader through the Beatles' parents, their childhoods, their first pluck of musical instruments. He doesn't get to "Love Me Do" until Page 350 of his 992-page book; the group doesn't arrive in America until Page 457.

    In the process, he goes through the famous and mundane with equal respect. One can practically smell the sweat and cigarette smoke of the band's woodshedding days, feel the slippery danger of the Cavern steps and the desperation of Epstein peddling the band's demo tape around London. Why did Lennon write "Dear Prudence" for Prudence Farrow? How did the "Abbey Road" cover come together? It's in "The Beatles."

    Spitz also captures the excitement of a Lennon-McCartney songwriting session. Though the two generally wrote separately, as has often been acknowledged, "The Beatles" observes they were often there to tighten up each other's compositions. "Lennon-McCartney" wasn't just an empty credit.

    If the book tends to get wearying toward the end, that's not Spitz's fault. Harrison once wrote a song named "Sue Me, Sue You Blues," and the Beatles' acrimonious final months, laden with bad business decisions and bitter rivalries, make for depressing reading.

    Spitz can overwrite -- his final paragraphs, striving for poetry, fall flat -- and the book's photos are poorly arranged and sometimes incorrectly captioned (one notes Harrison met his wife, Pattie Boyd, on the set of "Help!" -- it was "A Hard Day's Night" -- and others refer to the Beatles playing the Star-Club in 1960, instead of 1962).

    In general, though, "The Beatles" lives up to Spitz's hopes. It's now the Beatles biography to beat.

    'Magical Mystery Tours'

    Those who are interested in a different angle could try Tony Bramwell's "Magical Mystery Tours: My Life With the Beatles" (Thomas Dunne/St. Martin's).

    Bramwell, a Liverpool confidant of the band, remembers riding the bus of Harrison's father and driving with Lennon -- the latter always a dangerous risk, as Lennon was a poor, vision-impaired but enthusiastic driver who nearly got himself killed more than once.

    Bramwell has lots of stories -- he made the rounds of the British music scene and knew many of the principals -- but if there's a particular reason to read his book, it's for the gleeful bitterness he maintains toward Yoko Ono, something few people feel anymore.

    Bramwell, however, will have none of it; to him, Ono was a con artist who cast a spell over Lennon, and 40 years after Lennon's first meeting with his now-widow, Bramwell still can't figure out what the attraction was.

    "John panicked at the accumulating threats from the Princess of Darkness," goes one sentence.

    "Did Yoko do her hypnotism thing, as some of John's friends thought she had, or did she have a powerful new drug in her arsenal?" he writes of the night John and Yoko recorded "Two Virgins" and became inseparable.

    "Magical Mystery Tours" isn't essential for Beatles fans. But if you're still convinced Yoko broke up the Beatles -- which Spitz determinedly shows, for the most part, was not the case -- it's just your bag.

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