Book of the week: One Two Three Four by Craig Brown

In this enthralling, impressionistic biography, Craig Brown examines the immense cultural impact of the Beatles 50 years on from their split. Rather than a linear retelling, he reflects and refracts the sometimes disputed legend of the Fab Four through external characters and incidental details, “what if” chapters and personal reminiscences. This method worked a treat in his book on Princess Margaret, Ma’am Darling, and it works even better here because the material is so much richer.

The basic facts alone are mind-boggling. The Beatles story began when John Lennon and Paul McCartney met at a church fête in Liverpool in 1957, but the alchemical combination of John, Paul, George Harrison and Ringo Starr functioned for only eight years from 1962 before combusting. They began 1963 playing small venues and supporting Helen Shapiro on tour and ended it with a residency at the Astoria and their own Christmas message to the nation.

By the following April, they had cracked America, occupying the top five slots of the Billboard 100 chart, plus five other positions (there were also two songs about them by other artists in there). Paul McCartney learned he was a millionaire at 23, while living with his then-girlfriend Jane Asher’s family in Wimpole Street. George Harrison was 27 when the group fell apart. Their youth and humble beginnings make their artistic achievements more extraordinary and their later haplessness — the spectacular mismanagement of their company Apple, the belief in shamans and charlatans — more understandable.

It is Brown’s feeling for the revolutionary time and his beady eye for the quirks of the story that make the material sing. Former Field Marshal Montgomery mentioned the Beatles’ haircuts in the House of Lords in 1964. The group got stoned with Bob Dylan, who then delighted in pushing them over like a row of dominoes. Elvis showed them their first TV remote control and later denounced them to Richard Nixon. Jeffrey Archer, who inveigled them into a charity scheme as a student, was “the kind of bloke who’d bottle your piss and sell it” according to Ringo.

Cynthia Lennon, Yoko Ono, Pattie Boyd and Jane Asher are subsidiary players: Maureen Starkey and Linda Eastman mentioned only in passing. Alongside the usual candidates for “fifth Beatle” — manager Brian Epstein, producer George Martin, original drummer Pete Best — Brown devotes space to background figures like Eric Clague, the postman who ran over and killed Lennon’s mother, Julia, and Jimmie Nicol, who briefly stood in on drums in 1964 while Ringo had his tonsils out. He records the galvanising impact the group had on Bruce Springsteen, Chrissie Hynde and, horrifically, Charles Manson. And on J R R Tolkien, whose dislike of their sound led him to veto their planned 1968 film of The Lord of the Rings, with Paul as Frodo and John as Gollum.

Was any group so fetishised, from the screams of Beatlemania to the ridiculous rumours of Paul’s death to the memorabilia market that sprang up after their split? One of John’s teeth sold for £19,000 in 2011 to a dentist who hoped to identify the DNA of illegitimate Beatle offspring. In contemporary chapters, Brown attends fussy fan tours of Liverpool and listens to British, Norwegian and Hungarian tribute bands — some of whom have been together far longer than the actual Beatles — at conventions.

With a little help from their friends: Craig Brown’s zingy Beatles history has a beady eye for the quirky details, including the band’s encounters with the likes of Bob Dylan, Elvis… and Jeffrey Archer (Getty Images)
With a little help from their friends: Craig Brown’s zingy Beatles history has a beady eye for the quirky details, including the band’s encounters with the likes of Bob Dylan, Elvis… and Jeffrey Archer (Getty Images)

Born in 1957, Brown grew up on the group and devotes most of his musical analysis to later opuses like A Day in the Life, Hey Jude and All You Need is Love. While he clearly admires John Lennon’s punning, absurdist wit, he paints him as a bully and a coward, and lampoons Yoko. Paul is thoughtful, Ringo likeable and normal with his “bus driver’s face”. Under George’s spiritual questing lies steel: it is he who expels the Hell’s Angels who, along with a family of hippies and a host of grifters and hangers-on, occupied the Apple offices.

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.

One Two Three Four: The Beatles in Time by Craig Brown (4th Estate, £20), buy it here.

Read more

Women’s Prize for Fiction launches digital book club