The Beatles: The BBC Archives: 1962-1970
(Harper Design, 2013)
It’s totally fair to greet any new book about the Beatles with the SNL-ish derisive question: really? What could possibly be left to pick at on those ghostbones? Certainly the meat is long gone, but hasn’t even the residue and marrow been stripped away by now, as well? In the world of pop music, there are only a handful of others—Elvis, Dylan, the Stones, maybe Springsteen—who’ve earned (and warranted) as much spilled ink.
Yet here we are with two new Beatles books. Tune In: The Beatles: All These Years is the first of a trilogy and clocks in at more than 900 pages. The author, Mark Lewisohn, seems incapable of getting Beatled out: he also wrote The Complete Beatles Chronicle (1992), a day-by-day tracking of the group’s career; if you ever wondered what they were doing, say, August 17, 1966, that’s your book. The other new release is The Beatles: The BBC Archives: 1962-1970, a book that achieves a weird sort of beauty and grace and offers pleasures I’d argue make it as significant as nearly any other about the Fab Four, though for different reasons than the usual or even expected ones.
The BBC Archives, written by Kevin Howlett (himself with several other Beatles titles, and just a staggering amount of liner notes, under his belt), is essentially a scrapbook compiling extant Beatles documents and photos from the BBC archives along with transcriptions of interviews that were broadcast but have been, until now, mostly or wholly unseen in print. Saying it like that, one could be forgiven for mustering nothing more than a shrug: So the book’s just, like, a hodgepodge of old stuff?
Here’s where things get tricky. If one simply cares about the Beatles’ music, no book’s necessary—the discs are all gloriously listenable, as they were 50 years ago. And the Beatles don’t necessarily offer the endlessness of interpretation that, say, Dylan does. The thickest any debate about their work ever gets seems to be about whether “Blackbird” was written as a civil rights song. They made great pop music; they did not make work that needed analysis or decoding (in fact, they made fun of their transparency, a la John’s admission that “The walrus was Paul” on “Glass Onion”). This, I’d argue, is a good thing. In getting wrapped up in what a band is about, or what its work might mean, it’s awfully easy to lose the band, to forget that, whatever else, there are people at the center of it.
Which, I’ll contend, is why The BBC Archives is so valuable and interesting. Dylan’s tricksterism is fascinating, certainly, and worth certain study and examination, and Greil Marcus has helped us think of Elvis and the Sex Pistols (and Dylan) in contexts larger than their music. And Springsteen means something, as did Lou Reed, and that’s all great. Plenty of musicians have interesting screens of selves through which we listeners have to work, in our own way (or not). But the Beatles, ultimately, had little to none of that: they just made music. They were straightforward guys. They really were. Sure, John did Bed-Ins for Peace, and George wanted to just hang with the Maharishi, but they were hardly gnomic obscure (intentionally or otherwise). Because of that, the Beatles themselves end up acting as a screen onto which listeners and interpreters and critics can graft almost whatever they’d like. Maybe this is an oversimplification. Who knows?
Ultimately, the amazing part of The BBC Archives is the evidence demonstrating how the Beatles helped establish how pop fame is treated. Here’s a game: think of any move a famous person could make—strange religious interest, radical artistic departures, indulgent studio albums, a retreat from touring/the public eye, odd artistic outputs in other arenas (books, movies)—and the Beatles have already done it. They have. This is not some boomeristic claim (I’m 35). Whatever rage Miley Cyrus and her tongue and twerking can stir up is nothing but an update on prior iterations of pop star going back to the Beatles (and/or Elvis, it’s true). Just look at these interviews: the ones from 1965 in which you can almost hear them pulling back from the hectic pace of their lives and touring, knowing they’d cease live shows the next year; or those in 1969, in which they all said they’d always be Beatles, sounding like they still enjoyed being the Beatles, only to have them split anyway soon thereafter.
Sure, okay. What I’m trying to claim here has something to do with innocence, and that’s a dubious and dangerous realm. Were the Beatles totally innocent? Of course not. They were packaged, to a degree. But there was a wild innocence to them, from McCartney admitting drug use to Lennon famously claiming they were bigger than Jesus, the whole thing. It’s not that they didn’t care—they cared tremendously, about the music and their fans and each other, as the interviews make clear. But the stakes were less clear. The game was new. That level of fame, and that sort of music, was all brand new. How could anyone know?
And that, more than anything else, is why The Beatles: The BBC Archives: 1962-1970 is such a fascination: it’s a document of years in which massive shifts happened just like that, in a finger-snap. It’s a document about the first and maybe last pop music group who was ever so deeply involved with those shifts in such a naive, let’s-see-what-happens sort of way. Read and be spellbound.