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Book News

Refreshing memories of the Fab Four

'The Beatles: An Oral History'
by David Pritchard and Alan Lysaght

Hyperion, $24.95

Review by L.D. Meagher

Web posted on: Friday, November 13, 1998 4:28:11 PM EST

(CNN) -- It's been 30 years since "The White Album" reached the record stores. It's been 35 years since Mr. and Mrs. Ed Sullivan were bewildered by a mob of teen-agers who had gathered at London's Heathrow Airport. It's been 40 years since the 15-year-old son of a bus driver was asked to join a group called "The Quarry Men." All these years later, The Beatles continue to fascinate us.

Part of it is nostalgia for the lost youth of the Baby Boom. Part of it is the recognition that once those four outlandish-looking young men strode into the spotlight, things changed, to quote one of their songs, "some forever, not for better."

Documentarians David Pritchard and Alan Lysaght have spent years compiling interviews with and about The Beatles. They have distilled the recollections of 105 people into "The Beatles: An Oral History." By arranging the reminiscences to match the chronology of the band's career, they offer some fresh perspectives on the phenomenon that held the world in thrall during the 1960s.

'Fifth Beatle' George Martin going out in style

The story they tell is relatively complete, though far from comprehensive. It is episodic rather than exhaustive. Some of it is second-hand. Much is refreshingly personal.

Take Dick Rowe, for example. He's the Decca Records executive who had a chance to sign The Beatles to their first real recording contract. He turned them down, and has been vilified ever since. Here, he gets to tell his side of the story. Rowe admits he blundered, but at the time he was making a business decision. The Beatles weren't the only band auditioning for Decca on New Year's Day 1962. So were Brian Poole and the Tremeloes. Rowe assigned a fellow named Mike Smith to oversee the auditions. Smith liked both, but Rowe said the company could only sign one. "So he chose Brian Poole ... The auditions by Brian Poole were better than The Beatles' auditions. Another reason why Mike made that decision was that The Beatles were resident in Liverpool. Brian Poole lived only a mile away from Mike Smith, so he knew he could spend night and day with Brian Poole at no cost to the company, whereas Liverpool is a long way away."

The book is replete with stories like that one. Louise Harrison remembers how security guards kept her from seeing her brother George during an early U.S. tour. Promoter Sid Bernstein recalls the circumstances that led to the original Shea Stadium concert. Cynthia Lennon recounts the dissolution of her first marriage.

John, Paul, George and Ringo are all here, too. Their cheeky early news conferences, their trip to meet the queen, interviews about tours and recording sessions. And Pete Best is not left out. If he still resents being bounced from The Beatles just as they achieved stardom, he doesn't betray it. Well, not much. There are also bittersweet remembrances of the other member who left the band before it became big. Stu Sutcliffe stayed in Hamburg to pursue his art career, and died of a cerebral hemorrhage before The Beatles made their final trip to that city.

Some of the myths surrounding The Beatles are dispelled in the book. It turns out Brian Epstein was well aware of the group, and might even have seen them perform, before his legendary visit to the Cavern Club in November of 1961. There was never a "feud" with The Rolling Stones. Indeed, Keith Richards credits The Beatles with opening doors for them that had been resolutely slammed in their faces. Incidentally, the Stones were signed to Decca Records by Dick Rowe. He wasn't about to make the same mistake twice.

"The Beatles: An Oral History" is brimming over with memories. Just the list of interviewees evokes knowing smiles from Beatles fans: Jane Asher, her brother Peter, Billy J. Kramer, Richard Lester, Murray "the K" Kaufman, Klaus Voorman, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. All of them came into contact with, and were forever changed by, The Beatles. Not all of the memories are pleasant -- especially for veterans of the disastrous Apple Corps -- but they are all vivid. And how could it be otherwise? To insiders and casual observers alike, The Beatles were, and are, unforgettable.

L.D. Meagher is a senior writer at CNN Headline News. He has worked in broadcasting for nearly 30 years.

Other reviews by L.D. Meagher:

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