If Ma’am Darling was a royal biography for those who didn’t want to read one, then this intermittently brilliant commonplace book will certainly succeed on that same level for people exhibiting only the mildest symptoms of Beatlemania.
If you want a one-volume primer that explains the fuss and what it was all about, this does the job. It hits the appropriate notes of wonder, tragedy and, particularly in the Apple days, farce. I didn’t find it as jaw-dropping or funny as the Princess Margaret book, but that’s because I’ve heard lots of these stories before. Some might find its digressions into the influence of William Brown on Lennon, or the parallels between the Queen’s Christmas message and the Beatles’ Christmas fan club records a bit more detail than they need, and the final chapter – the story of Brian Epstein told backwards – a way of avoiding a conclusion.
Here he eschews a conventional chronological narrative for an episodic treatment: snapshots, personal reminiscences, alternative histories. At times it feels impossible to get your head round the colossal scale of the Beatles’ achievement: in January 1963, in the NME readers’ survey of favourite bands, they finished in joint 111th place (along with the Clyde Valley Stompers). By that December, they were the most famous pop group in Britain.
That said, the final pages of this book paint a depressing picture of four stoned young millionaires getting leeched to the bone by mystics, hucksters and hangers-on from the Maharishi to Magic Alex (whose harebrained schemes and general incompetence cost the band an estimated £4 million – the waste was mind boggling). Apple became a money-pit, the band grew jaded and increasingly at odds.
Yet despite the dispiriting last act, One Two Three Four: The Beatles In Time is, at 650 pages, a hugely entertaining, gloriously unpretentious, sprawling mosaic of a book.
That said, even if some of the best stretches of the book fall short of being revelatory, they are often so well told that they acquire a new freshness. For example, most students of Beatles history know that Paul McCartney lived for a time with the family of his girlfriend Jane Asher in Marylebone, and was thereby immersed in the world of the progressive London middle class. But what is new is Brown’s own observation: “If I could be any Beatle, at any time, I would be Paul in his Wimpole Street years, living with Jane, cosseted by her family, blessed by luck, happy with life … and with wonderful songs flowing, as if by magic, from my brain and out through the piano.”
Brown is an able memoirist, with an instinct for selection that quite eludes the Beatles’ most exhaustive chronicler, Mark Lewisohn, whose basic principle is to include everything he knows. One Two Three Four hasn’t the authority or the insight of Ian MacDonald’s sacred Revolution in the Head, and lacking an index it isn’t as useful as Philip Norman’s 1981 biography Shout! But it does an intriguing sideline in characters who were tangential to the Beatles’ story – such as Richard and Margaret Asher, who welcomed Paul as one of the family into their Wimpole Street home when he was going out with their daughter, Jane...
A late chapter imagining the Beatles’ story swapped with that of Merseybeat also-rans Gerry and the Pacemakers, and another that tracks back from Epstein’s suicide to his discovery of the band, are the weakest. Otherwise, this kaleidoscopic work makes the familiar story of the world’s most famous band zing with freshness.
The chapters come thin and fast, some 150 in total. Some of the most enjoyable are when Brown breaks the fourth wall and steps into the story himself, as he does when describing a guided Beatles tour he signed up for in Liverpool while researching the book. He turns his officious guide Sylvia into a comic character after he is busted for secretly recording her less than sparkling Beatles insights. He stands at the back of the tour group “slyly holding my phone at a casual angle so as not to excite her attention. It made me feel on edge as though I was pocketing household products within spitting distance of a store detective.”
Brown tells his anecdotes well, with a good choice of quotes and an easy prose style. His book is a useful digest, snapping up trifles from the voluminous Beatles bibliography. But its lack of analysis or original insight is exposed over the course of more than 600 pages. The Fabs are arranged by archetype. Diligent but self-interested Paul; mercurial Lennon; stubborn George; good old Ringo (evidently Brown’s favourite). Yoko Ono is contemptuously mocked as pretentious; Lennon’s embrace of the counterculture disparaged.
Brown applies to the Fabs the snapshot method he used in Ma’am Darling, his polite demolition of Princess Margaret. Collage is perfect for celebrity biography, since modern fame is less ‘the mask that eats the face’, as Updike put it, than the multiplication of personality by repeated exposure. Explaining The Beatles is the West’s last act of theogony. All the episodes of the sacred biography are here, and most are devastated by Brown’s expert shuffling of perspectives.
Too many writers take the Beatles, and themselves, far too seriously. Brown does neither. No other writer would think to juxtapose the Queen’s Christmas broadcasts with the Beatles’ festive messages, or to investigate the fate of Lennon’s tooth, given to his Weybridge housekeeper in the mid-1960s and sold at auction to a Canadian dentist for £19,000 in 2011. But this is what makes Brown’s book sparkle. And at a time when, like everybody else, I was feeling not entirely thrilled about the news, I loved every word of it.
Instead, we’re taken on a magical mystery tour that ends where it began — with Brian Epstein making his way down the 18 steps that led into the Cavern to hear John, Paul, George and — er Pete (yet to be replaced by Ringo) for the first time. Just as in his previous book, Ma’am Darling, about Princess Margaret, the aim isn’t to provide a traditional biography; indeed Brown seems to have invented a wholly new biographical form. In a polychromatic cavalcade of chapters of varying length, the man with kaleidoscope eyes conveys what it was like to live through those extraordinary Beatles years, with the odd glance at what came before and after.