Wednesday, September 19

Yeah Yeah Yeah

The Beatles, Beatlemania and the Music That Changed the World
by Bob Spitz
Little Brown 2007

I'm wondering of, when I was a middle school aged grunt, if I even knew about music and musicians that were popular 40 years earlier. That would have been the music between the wars, music of a country climbing out of the Great Depression. The biggest hit songs would have been Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers singing "Cheek to Cheek," Cole Porter's "You're the Top," and Shirley Temple pouting her way through "On the Good Ship Lollipop." In 1975 would I have wanted to read about Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra or Ella Fitzgerald?

Not on your life. I was mooning over the sensitive lyrics of Cat Stevens, rocking to Elton John (he still had a band and rocked in those days), and beginning to discover the free-format FM radio waves and all they had to offer.

I'm thinking all this as I read Bob Spitz's biography of The Beatles because it occurs to me that with very few exceptions (damn few) there isn't much music history or biography out there for middle readers, and even then I'm wondering how many of those kids even know what they're missing.

My girls know and love The Beatles, they have their favorite songs and as they get older I've no doubt they'll delve into the catalog and rediscover things they never noticed or appreciated before. But will it send them to the library to hunt down their biographies? Will they understand the scope of what music was like before and after Sgt. Pepper was released 40 years earlier? One thing is sure, they won't get their answers from this book.

Is that fair, to pin all that on a single book? Given that the book's subtitle that The Beatles music "changed the world" you would think it would delve into exactly how that change took place. That would require not only a biography of The Beatles as a group and as individuals but also a sense of musical history before, during and after. To that end Spitz gives us a snapshot of the musical scene in Liverpool when the lads were coming up and a bit of gloss on the influences of their time. If it cannot be tied to The Beatles then it isn't included so there's no mention of the folk era in Britain (earlier than in the States), no real mention of the blues of jazz scene (equally important for the effects The Beatles have in that arena after they become popular), and little on their peers and rivals (scant mention of Dylan and The Stones, no mention of The Who, and so on). If their music changed the world there's little proof of it here.

For those of us who lived through the Beatlemania, remember the band's break-up and rumor of reunion, obsessed over magazine articles and books chronicling their lives as the moved uneasily through their solo careers, we each carry with us a cobbled together resource file of tidbits, trivia and stories. Imagine how strange it is to be reading, as an adult, a book about The Beatles and their use of LSD when these things were barely spoken of in our days. It isn't horror or the sudden feeling of age but the matter-of-factness in which the information is presented. Stranger still, reading about the death of their early manager Brian Epstein and discovering in the build-up that he had been depressed, taken a lot of medication, and was found dead in his room while The Beatles were off in India.

I'd always heard that Epstein had died of a brain hemorrhage. Had the facts changed since my teenage years, or was the truth originally covered up to protect his family from the shame of the overdose, accidental or otherwise? If the truth is that Epstein died of a brain hemorrhage from an overdose of medication for his depression it changes the way the story has been told in the past and ought to be acknowledged as a change. When presenting book report material (especially biographical material) I would hope that were there are divergent facts in a story that they be referenced; how else is a kid going to know what to write if one book says the cause of death was a brain hemorrhage and another implies (another problem in Spitz's version) that he did not wake up after taking his medication?

Spitz goes to great length to explain how The Beatles put together key songs that show how their ideas were down the road. For the first time anywhere that I can recall (and I worked in radio and allegedly studied these things) I got the origin of the engineering term flanging which John named off-the-cuff for explaining a special recording effect. Good stuff, but nothing about how other artists used this effect (specific bands and songs would help bolster the subtitle's claim here). George Martin, their producer, is named for all his work and efforts while various "engineers" involved are mentioned often enough but never by name. It's a shame because two of them -- Geoff Emerick and Alan Parsons -- would take their experiences with them when the recorded artists like Pink Floyd, Elvis Costello, Supertramp, Jeff Beck among others, further proof of The Beatles indirect (if not direct) influence.

In the end, I find the book itself harmless. It's rich in detail and research but I'm left feeling like it's a Boomer nostalgia relic, a book intended for sale to Baby Boomer (grand)parents to foist onto their (grand)kids who may like The Beatles music but don't see it as the be-all-end-all.

I've thought about this (haven't I ranted about this before?) that there needs to be a rock and roll biography/history series that gives middle grade and YA readers a chance to understand explore the music of the last half of the 20th century. There needs to be biographies on Neil Young, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin; there needs to be a sub-series on the guitar gods like Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, and Stevie Ray Vaughn; kids ought to know the classic rock bands but they also should know about the punk movement (UK and US), disco, new wave, prog rock, grunge as well as they know (or think they do) rap and hip hop.

Open question, feel free to clog my comments with your reply: What musicians or groups or eras do you think would make for compelling reading to our under-served youth?

It would be a massive undertaking but I'm sure there are dozens of music scholars and critics out there who would rise to the occasion. Attention editors: I am willing to discuss the position of supervising series editor. Serious inquiries, please.

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