Review: 'The Beatles: The Authorized Biography'

What Hunter Davies' 1968 book about John, Paul, George and Ringo gets right about the band

Rock and roll band 'The Beatles' in circa 1967. Credit: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

The Beatles are the most outstanding phenomena of the McLuhan age: they are the first citizens of the global village, known in every remote part of the world. If you were wandering around in Tibet with long hair, and some hermit crawled out of his cave for the first time in twenty years, he'd look up at your hair and say one word: "Beatle?"

With that in mind, considering the "authorized biography" of the Beatles, in fact, considering the whole question of the Beatles, is a little difficult. One of the main concerns, one to which the book addresses itself but fails to deal with satisfactorily, is where the public life of the Beatles leaves off and where their private lives begin. Indeed, there is a prior question: does the Beatle 'phenomenon' entitles them to private lives at all?

This biography implies a dual answer: on the one hand, the answer is no, because here is a biography, promising revealing fact after fact and insight after penetrating insight and on the other, this book does not deliver fact after fact, but rather deliberately glosses over some of the most fascinating aspects of the Beatles. Having gone this far, both the author and the Beatles are obligated to play the game through to the end. (As John says about accepting the MBE's, "Then it all just seemed part of the game we'd agreed to play.")

Yet with it, the book carries that incredible power of the Beatles. The attraction is hard to explain, yet can be illustrated by recalling that all Paul McCartney has to do is wink or wave, and he'll set the world smiling. It's a great power to have. Thus, no matter what the shortcomings of this book are as a piece of writing, as biographical study, as a book about the Beatles —– it is nonetheless a book to be read. Like everything about the Beatles, even the dumbest picture or even some one square inch of a sheet that came from the same hotel that George stayed in a week before, to be devoured, dug, grokked and enjoyed. It is the Beatles, and whether they like it or not, they are a mirror of ourselves.

Rarely, for instance, do people sit down for a moment and think of the incredible weirdness of it: they are four cats from what would otherwise be a forgotten English port town, who live thousands of miles away from anybody, and and yet for millions of people, they are intimate friends, every little broken hangnail a proper topic of conversation and concern. Where do they get off? Where do we get off?

This biography is one place.

In general, the first half of the book is inordinately dull. Here are John, Paul, George and Ringo growing up. Mostly they are tales we already knew. Finally though, they are presented as "facts" and not "fax." What other stories and details are added (John for instance, was an aggressive, unhappy kid, a child haunted first by the desertion of his father, and then the death of his mother, and he shoplifted, beat up kids at school), are passably interesting for those interested in hangnails, but essentially make only one point: like everybody else, they were kids, did all the things kids did, were cruel like all other kids, were happy like all other kids.

Paul was "sexually precocious" and jealous of anyone who got close to John. Ringo spent most of his early years in the hospital; George looked like and for all intents and purposes was, a juvenile delinquent. They all were.

What strikes one as interesting and relevant is not mentioned here: one easily forgets it today, but rock and roll was a phenomenon of the lower classes. It was dirty, raunchy, unrefined, too physical and tasteless. It was totally declasse. And the Beatles were totally declasse. Things have changed, But not that much.

Rock and roll is still very much a dirty, raunchy, too physical and unrefined music. Those who approach it as something more delicate, artful or fashionable do so at great risk and danger, because they probably miss it altogether. Rock and Roll is not polite. It is rude, and its about time pop critics got hip to that.

There are many incidents and places and attitudes that this biography recalls, most of them with a good lesson about what's happening today. For example, keeping in mind the current scene in San Francisco and the rock and roll record explosion all over the place, here is what Ringo recalls about the early days in Liverpool:

"There were so many groups in Liverpool at one time that we often used to play just for each other, sitting in on each other's sessions, or just listening. It was a community on its own, just made up of groups. All going to the same places, playing for each other. It was all nice. Then when the record companies came up and started signing groups, it wasn't so friendly. Some made it and others didn't."

Today it would be good for the record industry to keep that in mind. It's so easy to kill the goose that laid the golden egg.

I find the first part uninteresting, because it is the tale of young boys growing up in any town anywhere. I suppose that this is the necessary prerequisite in setting the mood required to sense the incredible development of whatever it is to be a BEATLE. But Davies does it with little art and less interest. The book in general is handled that way. It is neither Mark Schorer's exhaustive Sinclair Lewis biography nor is it Hotchner's affectionate reminiscence of Fitzgerald. In fact it has the faults of both without the strength of either.

But the book is worth considerable attention and discussion, because it is the first major literary work on rock and roll at the beginning of a publishing season which is going to be marked by the publishing industry's rush to get on the hip rock and roll bandwagon, with a dozens of anthologies, essays, collections and quickies commissioned, ready and planned for release. In fact, The Beatles is accompanied in its release by a competitive quickie to cash in on the largesse of the public interest in a book on the Beatles. Although I have not read the "Real Story" written by Julian Fast, I understand from all those who have that it is little more than quickie rewrite of the Time Magazine clippings file.

I have serious reservations about what will come in the spate of rock and roll books. Several will no doubt be vastly welcome, some informative, some erudite and some long overdue, but unfortunately those in touch with the publishing industry are much too polite. These books will be handled and collected by those who do not understand that rock and roll is about fucking. And that has to be understood.

The Hunter Davies biography here, is an excellent start, because it is a good book. As a writer, he has handled his subject with good taste; as a biographer, he has been conscientiously accurate; as a friend, he has been severely loving. That is almost too tall an order to be expected from anyone who has chosen to do a book about such a delicate and intangible a subject as the Beatles. A writer must have sympathy and understanding, and Hunter Davies has shown that he has these.

The biography picks up interest as the boys begin to become Beatles, almost at the moment that John, Paul, George and who ever was with them at the time as drummer, decided that for their first professional gig they needed a new name and came up with the "Silver Beatles." They were hanging around Liverpool, for the first time seeing the bizarre variations they were about to create in term of fan affection, go to Hamburg, meet Astrid Kirschner, the girl who first persuaded Stu Sutcliffe (the very first and most authentic of a line of dozens known as "the fifth beatle") to comb his hair in the style that soon, to be known not by it first nom de coiffure "French style," but as "beatle hair. ("Arthur," one of them called his hair style in A Hard Day's Night.) And Astrid also put them in black leather —– a sign of bohemia –— instead of the affected Presley cowboy style, so foreign to Britain. Astrid first showed them their beauty; photographed them, dressed and loved them.

It was there that they apparently had their first experience with drugs; pep pills, dextroamphetamine, speed. Davies is quite explicit about the point, although I think he errs in trying to justify it as simply a hardworking man's prerogative and deny the inevitable discovery of being high and digging it.

Anyway, they get back to Liverpool, and then back to Hamburg. Then a kid comes in and asks record clerk Brian Epstein if he has any records by a new group called the Beatles ... etc., etc., changes, well known anecdotes (and little new at all, apparently a monument to the throughness of the Beatlemania fondness for "fax," not Davies inability to search).

The first questions I begin to ask about the "public nature" (almost res publica, really) of the Beatles and this "authorized biography with the events surrounding the replacement of Pete Best on drums with Ringo Starr (who emerges as a totally charming and kind person in this book.) And thus, also, enters Brian Epstein, that fabled man of mystery "behind" the Beatles. The man whom everyone had a sneaking feeling wasn't really happy, a man who showed an unhappy path of childhood, and who died of a perhaps not accidental overuse of the drugs of unhappiness and unfulfillment: alcohol, tranquillizers and barbituates. And all this on the weekend of the Maharishi.

(Incidentally that time jump scans the period between Rubber Soul and Sgt. Peppers, and the bizarre scenes of our time which developed as the Beatles went on their round the world tours.)

These incidents — –the Beatles' relationship to Brian Epstein, which includes the matter of Pete Best — raise a central question that this book presents implicitly, and a question about the whole spiritual and social implications of "The Beatles." There is obviously something missing in the Pete Best incident and a great deal not said about Brian Epstein, that is well known to friends of the Beatles, but is deliberately not told in the book.

The Beatles phenomenon has required the nearly complete sacrifice of the individual personas of George, Ringo, Paul and John. The world at large is privy to nearly every last moment of a Beatle's life. Is this really requisite of what went down? Or was it just an aberration of an hysteria taken to its wildest extreme?

Must it continue (as this biography by its existence implies it must) or are the boys, despite their continuing public and musical activity, finally entitled to a little respite from the most incredible invasion of privacy since God was watching Adam and Eve (the latter being the world's first act of sexual intercourse, and the former's (the Beatles) being — –a billion years later, two hundred billion people on the earth, and in the age of McLuhan — –the world's penultimate act of sexual intercourse.)

Man's circumstances have certainly changed. It is almost as if mankind, with its war in Vietnam and hydrogen bombs is about to sow the last seed of destruction, his final reward for that first sin.

The questions this book has to reckon with are almost anthropomorphically mythic in their nature.

Anyway, a lot hasn't been told, and it is apparently a matter of privacy (much like taking LSD, or views on religion) which would, upon its official revelation, put John, Paul, Ringo through that whole "global controversy" scene that arises on their public indiscretions, all over again.

By not bringing these matters forward, matters which have as much general relevance to the meaning and understanding of rock and roll as they have to John or Paul as private human beings, we are left hanging not knowing which answer has been selected as the "right" one.

On the one hand this book says that the res republica aspect of the Beatles is essential (by the postulation of the necessity for such a work in the first place) and on the other hand, by disregarding certain significant, albeit controversial, aspects of the Beatles, says "no, complete public knowledge (almost in a confessional fashion) is not essential." The question is left completely unresolved, and it is a nearly insoluble one to all those involved with the Beatles, and by that one can understand some several million people.

And this is precisely why this book is so important. Because understanding the Beatles —– or Bob Dylan or the Stones —– is more important to understanding rock and roll than any other book, anthology writer or critic, could ever come close to explaining.

The question just sits there. Before getting on to the best parts of the biography, those about the Beatles today, one should consider three other 'departments' in this book: the photos, the finances and recordings. The summary of the Beatles' records is totally inadequate and uninteresting, being merely a list. The estimate of the Beatles' financial activities is pablum where something solid and definite was required. The photos are interesting —– an unfortunately small selection for a phenomenon so dependent on the visual aspects– — especially the beautiful and sensitive portraits of the four Beatles and lady companions photographed by Ringo Starr, again a tribute to his warmth and understanding. ("I learned gentleness from Harry," Ringo is quoted by Davies about his stepfather. "There's never any need for violence.") They are very haunting pictures, very revealing, and in the case of the portrait of John and Cynthia Lennon, particularly poignant and, like a Paul McCartney love song, sadly beautiful.

The two years of the Beatles' lives dominated by touring are treated fairly quickly, and wisely so, as the scenes and anecdotes are particularly well known.

George recalls it this way:

"It was like the end of a cycle. In Hamburg we had played for up to eight hours at a stretch, loving it all, getting to know each other and what we could do. It was a real freak-out in those days; the things we did were really wild.

"Back in Liverpool we were doing shorter hours, but it was still as enjoyable. We were part of the audience. We lived our lives with them. We never rehearsed an act. We had to get more polished eventually, but the Cavern was fantastic. It was so spontaneous, all jokes and laughs. It was so intimate.

"Then came touring, which was great at first, doing an even shorter, more polished act and working out new songs. But it got played out. We got in a rut, going 'round the world. It was a different audience each day, but we were doing the same things. There was no satisfaction in it. Nobody could hear. It was just a bloody big row. We got worse as musicians, playing the same old junk every day. There was no satisfaction at all."

Ringo, in summary of those years, says it all: "There were good nights and bad nights on the tours. But they were really all the same. The only fun part was hotels in the evening, smoking pot and that."

The author wisely leaves aside the consideration of the Beatles as composers and musicians — –although he does describe carefully how the average song is gestated and recorded– — preferring to concentrate on the Beatles as people more than as artists. Davies does this by acknowledging the vast body of writing on subject, accurately noting that most of it is irrelevant and worthless.

By way of assessment, it is a fact of the known world that the impact and influence of the Beatles has been absolutely universal. And that is just one aspect of it; what of the work itself? From the beginning, the Beatles were revolutionary in terms of the impact of their lyricism, song writing, performance, the synthesis of their style, and in recording ability. Their musical ability and acumen was apparent long before anyone discovered that Paul McCartney frequently used dominant 12ths after I-IV-V progression in a minor key.

They are not the only good song-writers and musicians around, there are a lot of others, some of them better than the Beatles. It has just been that the Beatles have been totally consistent and "getting better" where many others have not, and thus their influence on nearly everyone in the field has been enormous. This tied in with the global impact of "The Beatles" in conjunction with a style of life and thought, not unique to John or Paul or George or Ringo but unique in their position, has overblown the matter immensely.

This book becomes truly fascinating in that old Beatle way when it gets to the Beatles today, their lives and views. Davies has faithfully reported these, on all levels. On one level, we find out where and how the Beatles live, in what kind of houses, decorated how, how they are used, how much they cost (and this all includes the same details for their parents, hitherto undisclosed), and when they are lived in.

John Lennon doesn't drink; accountants pay the bills, they spend $400 a month on food and get £50 a week allowance from their accounts, in five pound notes. All of this comes down to an interesting, and pertinent detail: the Beatles, like the Queen, do not carry around money personally. The detail is often incredibly pedantic. "Cyn was making the evening meal. It was served at six-thirty. They started with a slice of melon followed by a plate of cold meat with mashed potatoes and cauliflower, John didn't have meat. He'd decided to be a vegetarian. They all drank cold milk with it."

Davies shows what the Beatles do with their days and hours, when they see each other, how, why and where. Paul's house on Cavendish Avenue, John's (until recently) small mansion in Weybridge with its living room, garden and where the stash is kept.

One cannot fault Davies for reporting on the food; he reports on much deeper matters with as much accuracy. About the four of them, Paul says this:

"The thing is, we're all really the same person. We're just four parts of the one. We're individuals, but we make up together The Mates, which is one person. If one of us, one side of The Mates, leans over one way, we all go with him or we pull him back. We all add something different to the whole."

And Pattie Harrison says this:

"I know now that they are all together. I didn't realize it when I was first married. They all belong to each other.... George has a lot with the others that I can never know about. Nobody, not even the wives, can break through it or even comprehend it."

John is quoted thusly:

"We do need each other a lot. When we used to meet again after an interval, we always used to be embarrassed about touching each other. We'd do an elaborate handshake just to hide embarrassment. Or we did mad dances. Then we got to hugging each other."

And he also says:

"We talk in code to each other as Beatles. We always did that, when we had so many strangers 'round us on tours. We never really communicated with other people. Now that we don't meet strangers at all, there is no need for any communication. We understand each other. It doesn't matter about the rest."

We find out what their lives are like today, because it is an essential part of understanding where they are today. And this is the beauty of this book: it recalls that phenomenal curiosity, call it being a "fan"– — cause I sure am– — that has characterized this era's relationship to the Beatles (and that is one of them important questions over-looked).

The tearing, raging sexuality of the Beatlemania days fans was always so strange to behold. But it was real because those girls were the first to know that the Beatles were "The Beatles." The book bears witness: the very first time the boys began wondering about what was happening was upon returning to Liverpool from Hamburg, they started noticing this phenomenon in the young girl fans.

"The men don't know what the little girls understand," said Willie Dixon.

The girls saw the Beatles were for real. And driven by the mania of that understanding, they clutched and clawed because the Beatles were the source of energy. And that source attracts everyone.

During the past five years, "The Beatles" have been an influential part of everyone's lives. It has been incredible. Think of all the changes in the world that have occurred in the last five years, and so many of them, especially for the young of my age, are attributable directly to the Beatles. They have become the focus of the world's attention, more than any other single event, of recent history since World War II.

John Lennon in particular thinks about this question. And this is a question this biography fails to address itself too. A vital once, but left out nonetheless (because this book is more of an extensive newspaper report than it is a self-contained biography. Here are some of John's thoughts on the matter:

"I never felt any responsibility, being a so-called idol. It's wrong of people to expect it."

But this is precisely what the "press" has come to expect, and in a large way, this media conception has distorted the picture of being a Beatlepeople.

"What they are doing is putting their responsibilities on us, as Paul said to the newspapers when he admitted taking LSD. If they were worried about him being responsible, they should have been responsible enough and not printed it, if they were genuinely worried about people copying."

That is how corrupt the press, magazines, newspapers, television and media in general has become. And everyone suspects it. The Beatles know it, and thus are contemptuous of the press and not piously grateful. This contempt spills over to the pop critics and reviewers. And this has been deserved. So much ineptness, it's incredible.

John says, about his music and its reviewers, "I don't think our old songs are all that different from our new ones, as people are saying. The words are different, but that's because they're done up differently. The tunes are much the same.

"I suppose I'm so indifferent about our music because other people take it so seriously. It can be pleasing in a way, but most of it gets my back up."

In considering the Beatles, or this book, we are actually considering several much bigger things: we are, of course, considering the Beatles as individuals; we are considering their impact on the world; we are considering the whole question of "rock and roll"; we are considering the world we live in and we are considering ourselves.

The "Beatle phenomenon" is of the first importance in understanding these matters. Not that the Beatles themselves created it (they just "did" it). But for better or for worse, they are the symbol of it. Thus, the Beatles are res publica. And this aspect of it is for them an unwanted and unasked public sacrifice. For the public, it has become a ritual and for the phenomenon, the general public must know everything there is to know about them.

For the past five years, the Beatles have been held up as a mirror. In part this accounts for the term "the boys"; like everyone else, they are young. Their lives are so devoured, because we are in the desperate search for data about ourselves. And like Narcissus, who fell in love with his own image reflected in the lake, there is a certain amount of edification involved and it is revealing if nothing else, but there is also a great danger about it. With this biography perhaps everyone ought to get off their haunches, get their face out of the lake and attend to real, not reflected, problems. And John, Paul, George and Ringo can get on with making some more music.

People used to ask "What will happen when the bubble bursts?"

Now, they ask– — and especially Bob Dylan is asked –— "What does it mean?"

"People want to know what the inner meaning of 'Mr. Kite' was," says John. "There wasn't any. I just did it. I shoved a lot of words together then shoved some noise on. I just did it. I didn't dig that song when I wrote it. I didn't believe in it when I was doing it. But nobody will believe it. They don't want to. They want it to be important. People think the Beatles know what's going on. We don't. We're just doing it." (Italics mine.)

Throughout the history of the Beatles, people have either been asking "what does it mean?" or else they have been digging it. Part of digging it is understanding it. You can't be told: Either you "believe in the magic of rock and roll" or you don't.

Throughout this review, we have been– — not saying what it means– — we have been giving out some questions to ask if you want to find out. Like Bob Dylan once described himself, they are also song-and-dance men. "No, but I can't retire," Lennon is quoted as saying, "I've got these bloody songs to write."

They are John, Paul, George and Ringo. They make music. Here's what John says:

"It's nice when people like it, but when they start 'appreciating' it, getting great deep things out of it, making a thing of it, then it's a lot of shit. It proves what we've always thought about most sorts of so-called art. It's all a lot of shit. We hated all the shit they wrote and talked about Beethoven and ballet, all kidding themselves it was important. Now it's happening to us. None of it is important. It just takes a few people to get going, and they con themselves into thinking it's important. It all becomes a big con."

I have come to be passionately angry at the people who have got going and have put so much jive between us and the Beatles. Thankfully, Hunter Davies has not done that here. Although he is to be rightly faulted for a number of failings within the context of the "art of autobiography" ("so-called art," John says above, "It's all a lot of shit"), he has handled his subject as appropriately as it is to be handled, with respect, affection, understanding, somewhat in awe, but nonetheless catching the idea that life is to be enjoyed.

"We're a con as well," Lennon continues, "We know we're conning them, because we know people want to be conned. They've given us the freedom to con them. Let's stick that in there, we say, that'll start them puzzling. I'm sure all the artists do, when they realize it's a con. I bet Picasso sticks things in. I bet he's been laughing his balls off for the last eighty years."

That's as good an answer as any.