Dreaming The Beatles by Rob Sheffield, Harper Collins, 2017
In 1970, the Rolling Stones broke up amid personal and professional differences. Mick Jagger taught his fiancée, Bianca, to play keyboards and went on tour. Keith formed the Plastic Pallenberg Band with Anita and undertook a radical form of psychotherapy…
John Lennon once suggested that the Stones were always two months behind the Beatles. It’s a comment that will drive Stones fans nuts but the truth is that during the sixties everyone was two months behind the Beatles. Bob Dylan might have been working on his own schedule but he still couldn’t resist parody/homages like I Wanna Be Your Lover and Fourth Time Around. Even when he was reacting to them, as some have suggested was the case with the stripped down John Wesley Harding in the wake of Pepper, he was still in their orbit.
There’s an old saw about The Velvet Underground suggesting that very few people saw them but those that did all formed bands. The same thing applies to The Beatles except that thousands and thousands of kids saw them and millions more heard them. As Rob Sheffield points out in this fascinating new book, Dreaming The Beatles, they were the most influential band in rock and roll history except when they weren’t. The Plastic Pallenberg Band line appears early in the book and made me laugh out loud, as the kids say. Folk Rock, yes; concept albums, yes; wives in bands, no. Of course Yoko squealing in a bag and Linda’s startling lack of musical talent probably weren’t a good starting point. If either had taken up with, say, Sandy Denny, things might have been different.
Another book about The Beatles? I hear your collective sigh. Most of us of a certain age – those who were starting kindergarten when The Beatles were hammering out Maxwell’s Silver at Abbey Road – started with a tattered library copy of Hunter Davies’, 1968 book The Beatles before moving onto Philip Norman’s Shout. Some of us secretly read Albert Goldman’s demolition of John or waded through George’s strange I Me Mine. The best thing I read in those days, and this is mentioned in the acknowledgements of this book, was Greil Marcus’s essay about them in the Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll. I lost count after that but I suspect that I have read at least two dozen books about The Beatles as a band and a whole bunch of others about the individual members. Most recently, I devoured Tom Doyle’s Man on the Run in about two sittings. Paul in the 70s. Cool!
There are standouts, of course. Ian McDonald’s 1994 Revolution in the Head is a masterpiece. I love Barry Miles’ biography of Paul, Many Years From Now, but if you’re a John person, you might not like it. Mark Lewisohn’s In Tune from 2013 is so comprehensive that it is hard to imagine that anyone will ever top it. So then why would Rob Sheffield, a Rolling Stone writer and the author of a moving memoir, Love Is A Mix Tape, bother? Surely, it has all been said.
Yes and no. One of the interesting things about The Beatles is that they have been reinvented in every decade. The baby boomers were the first fans and have always assumed that they, and only they, experienced The Beatles. They had a joke in the seventies about a kid in a record store saying ‘I didn’t know Paul McCartney was in a band before Wings’. This was hilarious but Generation X did learn about The Beatles through Wings. There was also the spectacularly awful Sgt Pepper movie in 1978 starring the Bee Gees (and Peter Frampton) as the band. We got the music on long forgotten compilations like Rock and Roll Music, Reel Music, and songs released as singles for the first time in the 70s. My first Beatles purchase was a 45 of Got To Get You Into My Life that turned up in 1976. Helter Skelter was on the flip side, presumably to cash in on the TV movie of that same year about the Manson murders. There is a scene in the film where a reporter comes into the office and pulls out the White Album. I watched the movie and I wanted to hear that record!
Dreaming The Beatles picks up on this generational aspect. Gen X had to contend with a lot of baggage when they discovered the band. Sheffield says that listening to The Beatles in the 80s was like eating ice cream while weird older men lectured you about the history of ice cream. In the 90s, however, The Beatles seemed to find a new audience among the post grunge kids. The Anthologies appeared, and Backbeat, a so so film with an incredible soundtrack established the fabs as protopunk warriors. In the 2000s, the baby boomers retired and abandoned the band for that Elvis Costello/Burt Bacharach album. Just joking, of course. The internet became a means to collate the enormous amount of Beatles information and the albums were finally remastered properly for release on CD. Just recently, Ron Howard’s intoxicating documentary, Eight Days A Week, put the early Beatles into a visual frame for a generation raised on YouTube and social media posts.
But Dreaming The Beatles is more than simply a retrospective of The Beatles’ continuing legacy. This is also a free floating, deeply personal discussion of the band and their music. There are a whole series of standard Beatles arguments. John or Paul? Rubber Soul or Revolver? Beatles or Stones? Beatles or Dylan? Is the White Album a masterpiece or a mess? Did Yoko break up the band? Which album is actually their last? Is their solo stuff any good? The remarkable thing is that kids are still having them. In another life, though not so long ago, I was a high school English teacher and spent more than a few double periods moderating these debates. This is a band that their grandparents revered! Try to picture a group of kids in the late 70s arguing about Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw. It’s the same time frame but it didn’t happen. We were talking about, well, The Beatles.
All of these discussions are covered here in chapters with intriguing titles like ‘The Importance of Being Ringo?’ and ‘The Mystery Inside of George’. He dedicates a whole chapter to the song Ticket To Ride where he contends that Dylan didn’t get anywhere near it until at least Blood on the Tracks. How’s that for an argument starter? Girl is apparently better than Just Like A Woman. Yeah? Bring me another Guinness. Let’s get into it!
Of course, there are lots of versions of The Beatles to argue about too. Everyone has a favourite Beatles stage. The author, Rob Sheffield, is a mid period Rubber Soul/Revolver guy. I’m partial to the later Abbey Road/Let It Be/early solo stuff epoch. Others love the Mop Top years. If the band’s actual story has been covered ad nauseum, the nature and variety of Beatles’ fanhood is still a open topic.
One of the threads holding the book together is a series of reflections on the relationship between John and Paul. The chapter with the best title, Paul Is A Concept By Which We Measure Our Pain, is a heartfelt essay on the John/Paul dynamic and its wider implications. “Every drama queen John needs a Paul to sweep up after him. It’s tough for two Johns to be friends, which is why Johns find themselves entangled with Pauls who disappoint them.” Wow. The Beatles as a model for Transactional Analysis. Sheffield says, movingly: “For John, Paul was the boy who came to stay; for Paul, John was the sad song he couldn’t make better.” They couldn’t escape each other. In 1975, John said, “If I took up ballet dancing, my ballet dancing would be compared with Paul’s bowling.” The obvious Fred Flintstone reference aside, he was spot on and Paul’s bowling is still being compared to John’s dancing.
This might be chiefly a book for fans. Unless you are the sort of person who actually owns ‘A Toot and A Snore in ’74’, you might find Sheffield’s level of devotion to this band slightly worrying. On the other hand, it is an enviably well written book padded out with humourous asides and fascinating trivia. Even casual fans of the band will find much of interest here. The chapter on the Paul is Dead phenomenon will appeal to students of popular culture. I suppose I liked reading a book written from the perspective of another ‘I didn’t know he was in a band before Wings’ GenXer. His own tales of becoming a fan in the late 70s brought back a lot of memories. This is a book about The Beatles but it is also a meditation on fanhood, friendship, and the role of music in our lives. Highly recommended.
Teaser: A fascinating intermission devoted to cover versions and tributes. Ready your streaming service! If you like this book, his recent book on Bowie is also worth reading.
You’ve seen it before but you should watch it again: