I’ve read that more books have been written about Jesus and Abe Lincoln than about any other figures in history. In music history, you might guess that the Beatles top the list. In fact, however, according to Jonathan Gould, author of Can’t Buy Me Love: The Beatles, Britain, and America, there have been only three full-scale biographies of the Beatles as a group: an “authorized biography” by Hunter Davies in 1968, Philip Norman’s Shout in 1981, and The Beatles by Bob Spitz, published in 2005. The bulk of biographical writing about the Beatles has focused on the four individuals rather than the unit, a situation Gould’s book means to correct.
Gould does a fine job of locating the Beatles in the social milieu of postwar Britain, and geographically in Britain’s industrial north, a place with much different cultural sensibilities than London, the country’s cultural capital. There’s a lot of stuff along this line in the early chapters that I knew nothing about. Many of the details regarding the Beatles’ early-60s rise to fame were also new to me. Their climb was a peculiar combination of slow-cooking enthusiasm, which built through much of 1963, and explosive Beatlemania, which erupted after an appearance on Britain’s top-rated TV variety show in October 1963. Gould closely examines American Beatlemania as well. All the way, from the birth of the band to its breakup, he doesn’t rely much on misty reminiscence from people who were there—instead, he digs into primary sources to show how the Beatles were perceived in their time, and how they portrayed themselves.
None of the earlier band biographies dealt with the music in much detail—a strange omission when writing about musicians—but Gould takes a microscope to each Beatles album and nearly every track. This can get pretty technical, with lots of talk about specific chords and time signatures, but it can also be illuminating, especially with extremely well-known songs. His description of the sessions that resulted in the White Album, Let it Be, and Abbey Road, made while the group was imploding, are particularly poignant, portraying musicians who are at their best together and who know it, but who also can barely stand to be in the same room with one another, yet still they manage to produce art that will last forever.
The book isn’t perfect. I rarely complain about the length of a book if I’m enjoying it, but I found this one long even though I was enjoying it. You won’t be able to polish it off in a weekend at the beach, or even a week. Gould’s descriptions of the Beatles’ songs go purple occasionally, and while he’s generally very even-handed, his dislike of Yoko Ono is clear, and he tends to absolve John Lennon of most of the responsibility for the Yoko-related tension surrounding the band from 1968 on. But all that’s minor. The great strength of Can’t Buy Me Love is how it tells a story familiar in its details, from Liverpool to London to Sullivan to the movies to the Maharishi to the breakup, but also in its general shape, from struggle to stardom to the end of the dream, in a way that won’t make you think you’ve heard it all before.
Coming Wednesday: New editions of One Day in Your Life over at Popdose and This Week in Rock History at WNEW.com. And maybe something new here, too, although this week is crazed and I may just run out of time.