Jonathan Gould,
Can't Buy Me Love: The Beatles, Britain & America
(Harmony, 2007)

Do we need a new collective biography about the Beatles? Aren't we already intimately familiar with all the twists and turns of that long and winding road? Well, yes and no, respectively.

I was just 6 years old when Ed Sullivan introduced us to the Beatles. I remember watching the TV show with my parents and asking, "Why are all those girls screaming?" They didn't have a good answer; and we could barely hear the music above the adolescent din. That was a personally defining moment for me: the beginning of my choice to be a brave young nonconformist, disdaining the fads that everyone else embraced. So while I did not choose "my" Beatle like every other prepubescent female did (though my heart soon enough would belong to Micky Dolenz of the Monkees), on the sly I watched Beatletoons on TV every Saturday morning. I sang along with all the songs and enjoyed watching the four main characters get into and out of the kinds of scrapes that Scoopy-Doo often mastered. Thanks to author Jonathan Gould, I am reminded that I could still consider myself a non-fan, since those cartoon voices were supplied by professional actors and not by the Fab Four themselves.

Gould chronicles the history of the group from the time that young John Lennon's path crossed first with that of Paul McCartney and then with George Harrison ("two protons and a neutron") in the late 1950s, to that horrific New York City night that ended all reunion possibilities in early December 1980. His three-pronged approach covers the detailed biographies of each of the major and minor players in this real-life drama; an analysis of both the lyrics and the music of every song recorded; and what he calls "the real outside story," which includes the reception of fans, critics, and music and film industry executives in America and Britain, and their reactions to each step these four men took.

This daunting task required the accumulation of thousands of pieces of information, so readers should not be surprised that the book contains 606 pages of text, supplemented by occasional b&w photos and nearly 60 additional pages of notes and index. It takes days to read and absorb it all. But no need to groan! Can't Buy Me Love is never boring and is never a chore to trudge through. I'm sure that even the most devoted Beatlemaniac will find something new here.

The story is about as complete, as concise and as honest an account as we can realistically expect. We are there when the young musicians join forces and when they feel the influence of the musical styles of American blues, Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan. The new production techniques used on the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds album have a ripple effect on the industry that the Beatles are not immune to. Their own recording sessions result in standards they unknowingly set for popular musicians of the future -- though the idea of releasing multiple singles and multiple albums each year has certainly come and gone. Brian Epstein, George Martin and Allen Klein make their singular marks on the group. Don't forget the feature films, either! And when it comes to spiritual guidance, we see the four men progress from personal relationships to pot and LSD and even to the teachings of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.

While the private lives of the main characters are covered as neutrally as possible, Yoko Ono still comes off looking like an uninvited intruder and the off-key instrument in the orchestra. There's not much of a remedy for that situation, I'm afraid.

More than 30 years later, we still cannot escape the music. If you are out and about in contemporary American society today, you can hear a Beatles song at least once a day -- sometimes as often as once an hour. Grocery stores, elevators, classic rock stations, television commercials -- all weave Beatles songs into the musical background of our lives as frequently as Shakespearean phrases find their way into casual conversations. Here the author helps us interpret those oh-so-familiar tunes. With the release of each Beatles single and album, Gould provides analysis of the lyrics and the music. Readers may have to scan their memory banks or run to their private music collections to see if they agree with GouldŐs assessment. At times I was prompted to slip a greatest hits cassette into my boom box to listen to what the author was hearing. I think he does a mild disservice to the explanation of "Lady Madonna" by not noting the great irony of matching such a perky melody with a quite serious, social-problem narrative. Maybe he thought it too obvious to mention.

My other minor complaint with the book is the compiler of the index missed an important beat. The "Paul is dead" rumor is not to be found anywhere in the index. This was a disturbing fact for me, since that was the first tidbit I wanted to find in the book, and I had to wait until page 593 to have that part of history clarified. I guess I should have remembered that Abbey Road had to be released first. The famous street scene on that album cover played a vital role in confirming the truth of the rumor.

Yes, I found myself screaming when I saw Sir Paul McCartney in concert in Boston in 2005 -- but not continuously throughout the length of the concert, and quite properly only as he took the stage and at the conclusion of some of the songs. And when he ended the show with "Hey Jude" and "Let It Be" (saying "This is for Linda and John and George"), I got misty-eyed hearing thousands of voices joining his, echoing through the Garden, as lighters and cell phones ignited every section. I may not be the most devoted fan, but I can appreciate greatness when it's performing right in front of me.

I heartily recommend Can't Buy Me Love to all Baby Boomers, for it will take them back in time, both historically and musically. Fans will savor each new-to-them morsel Gould tosses in their direction. This book should also be required reading for anyone involved in any aspect of the music industry, especially those who were born after 1970. Not having lived through that age -- well, you missed a lot. You can experience some of it in retrospect with the help of Jonathan Gould.

review by
Corinne H. Smith

24 November 2007

what's new