The Beatles Book an exhilarating guide to the Fab Four

Article content

The Beatles Book

Hunter Davies

Penguin Random House

Jamie Portman

LONDON — The black-and-white photograph is a haunting remembrance of times past. It shows a youthful Paul McCartney and actress Jane Asher, to whom he was once engaged. There’s also a dog in the picture.

Ringo Starr was the photographer and it’s one of several images he captured of the four Beatles — Paul, Ringo, George Harrison and John Lennon — and the women in their lives at a particular moment in time. Because Ringo later mislaid the negatives, the prints are now priceless. They occupy a place of honour along a staircase in the North London home of Hunter Davies, the veteran British journalist whose life has been intertwined with The Beatles for half a century.

Halfway up the stairs, Davies pauses in front of the McCartney photo. “What’s the name of the dog?” he asks mischievously.

It turns out the dog’s name was Martha and she is part of the Beatles story. To find out more, you turn to page 336 of The Beatles Book, Davies’s exhilarating guide to the lives and times of the Fab Four.


Story continues below

Article content

You learn that on Oct. 4 and 5, 1968, Paul recorded a new song of his called Martha My Dear. And here is what Davies writes about it:

“Eleanor Rigby did not exist. Lovely Rita was imagined. Sexy Sadie was not a woman — but Martha, oh yes, she did exist. And she was a dog, Paul’s old English sheepdog. But of course, when the words came to be finalized, the sentiments expanded and so could refer to the end of an affair with a human female, such as, er, Jane? It is a sweet song, with a jaunty rhythm, almost like a set of musical exercises, well enunciated and sung by Paul with the help of a small brass band and a string ensemble. Apart from that he did everything on his own — no other Beatle took part.”

The Beatles sign documents for music publisher Dick James, in Studio 2 at Abbey Road in London while recording the single She Loves You in 1963
The Beatles sign documents for music publisher Dick James, in Studio 2 at Abbey Road in London while recording the single She Loves You in 1963 Photo by Terry O’Neill/Getty Images/Penguin Random House

There’s a human dimension to this entry, one that digs beneath the gloss of celebrity, and it’s a quality that surfaces regularly in the 1,000-page treasure house that constitutes The Beatles Book. Originally published in hardcover in 2017, Penguin Random House has now reissued it in a sturdy, more affordable paperback edition.

Davies was a young British journalist when he wrote the only authorized biography of The Beatles, a book that has remained in print for more than half a century. The new volume complements its famous predecessor — offering a multi-faceted look at a remarkable decade of creativity further enlivened by what Davies calls “odd facts and information, cuttings, tidbits and quotes.…”

It all happened long ago. The surviving Beatles, Paul and Ringo, are well into their 70s. Davies is 83 and lives very much in today. He has just published his 100th book, and continues to write five regular columns for major outlets, including one on soccer, a lifelong passion. But the past remains a palpable presence in his home.


Story continues below

Article content

There’s the top-floor study used by his late wife, Margaret Forster, a distinguished novelist who died in 2016. As for his own workplace, its towering cases and cabinets reflect the zeal of a collector.

“I have every British prime minister’s autograph back to Walpole,” he says with a boyish relish. “I have London tube maps going back to the first one with the original artwork. I have a big collection of suffragette material. I collect corkscrews. And over here are my own books, in chronological order.”

He moves to another set of shelves. “That’s all (soccer) … and over here it’s all Beatles.” He owns at least a thousand Beatles books, but that’s only a fraction of the total number written about them.

The Beatles Book
The Beatles Book

There are also old reporter’s notebooks and other irreplaceable memorabilia, all eventually destined for the British Library, to which he has already donated nine original scripts of Beatles lyrics. “They’re there in the manuscript room next to the Magna Carta and Shakespeare,” Davies says proudly.

“Do you want to see Paul McCartney’s bathing costume?” he suddenly asks, sliding open a drawer and producing the bathing suit, protected in a cellophane wrapper. There’s a story to tell about this item.

Davies and his wife were staying in Portugal more than half a century ago when McCartney paid them a visit.

“He had a beard and a girlfriend, a blonde American girl we’d never seen before,” Davies says. “We assumed she was a one-night stand.” She turned out to be the future Linda McCartney, Paul’s first wife, who died in 1998.


Story continues below

Article content

“When he went home two weeks later, I found he’d left his swimming costume behind. So I wrote him — do you want me to post it to you? Paul said — no just get rid of it. But I didn’t. So here it is. Maybe they’ll be able to pick up Paul’s DNA from it sometime in the future and create a new Paul McCartney!”

At the time, Davies was midway through writing his Beatles biography, never expecting it would still be read today.

“I would go on to another 40 books on totally different topics. I wouldn’t realize until all these years later that the further we got from The Beatles, the bigger they became.”

They lasted as a group for less than a decade. “Yet they were responsible for roughly 200 songs that the world will remember forever. I thought they would be replaced, that they would no longer be the standard for pop music, that they’d become a period piece. But they didn’t.”

Davies came to know The Beatles intimately back in the late 1960s. The memories of this vanished world and its inhabitants, many of them long gone, burn brightly for him and provide a foundation for the encyclopedic volume now in bookstores.

He always tried to stay out of Beatles photographs — “I didn’t want to be a groupie!” — but this didn’t always happen. “Here’s one of me in the Abbey Road studio listening to Sergeant Pepper being recorded. I sat there for hours and hours wearing headphones while they went over the same couple of phrases. They worked so hard to get it right.”

“I sat there for hours and hours wearing headphones while they went over the same couple of phrases. They worked so hard to get it right.”

Another photo, taken through the window of a railway carriage in 1967, recalls a more sombre day. Davies was accompanying The Beatles to Wales and a meeting with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the controversial apostle of the so-called Summer of Love. Mick Jagger and singer Marianne Faithfull were also along for the ride. The photo records a happy moment — a moment that hours later would dissolve into tragedy when they arrived at their destination and discovered that Brian Epstein, the group’s indispensable manager and an integral part of The Beatles legend, had died of a suspected overdose. “The Beatles were over when Brian died,” a grieving John Lennon said in words enshrined in the present book. “If anyone was the fifth Beatle, it was Brian.”


Story continues below

Article content

The affection Davies has for The Beatles is unwavering. But he is also clear-sighted. For example, Lennon was not an easy person.

“If you got him on a good day, it was OK,” Davies says. “But there were days when he said nothing and wouldn’t speak. We would have lunch together in silence. We would watch television in silence. On other days he was brilliant and funny and amusing.”

Davies was genuinely fond of Lennon’s first wife, Cynthia. “The marriage was on the rocks. We could all sense it … and Cynthia was a very nice woman. John was horrible to her and beat her up. We never knew that at the time.

“People were scared of John. They didn’t know what he might say or how he would react. Whereas nobody was scared of Paul because Paul always appeared charming and affable and friendly — even though he could be as bad-tempered as anybody. But it was John who was ready to tell you to f— off or piss off. He was bored by the limelight.”

In preparing The Beatles Book, Davies enlisted the help of “three of today’s best-known Beatles experts” — Spencer Leigh, David Bedford and Keith Badman. He insists they’re the ones who did the hard work. “I have done the easy stuff like the songs.”

There are four main sections. The first deals with people connected with The Beatles and their lives. The expected names are there — the Maharashi, The Stones, the assorted wives and girlfriends — but also nearly forgotten figures from the past including Richard Lester, who directed A Hard Day’s Night, and such unexpected wild cards as Frank Sinatra and German bandleader Bert Kaempfert. The second section assesses the songs. The third deals comprehensively with Beatles “places” — so if you want to know the significance of the Scarisbrick Water Works or the Royal Liverpool Children’s Hospital, this book has the answers. The final section on broadcast and cinema offers moments of high drama — for example, details of an explosive 1969 recording session that signalled the group’s approaching breakup when George Harrison lost his cool and stormed out.


Story continues below

Article content

There is also a “ratings” system with Davies and colleagues awarding up to 10 “mop top” symbols for everything to do with The Beatles. Hence, John’s I am The Walrus gets a nine (“a masterpiece of nonsense,” Davies writes) whereas I Don’t Want to Spoil The Part gets only three (“Falls flat — just like the title,” Davies says).

“Just to annoy the fans, almost everything in the book has a rating,” Davies says. He knows this has caused endless disagreements among readers. “In fact we had endless disagreements among ourselves — me and my three colleagues.”

John Lennon, Yoko Ono and Pierre Trudeau, 1969.
John Lennon, Yoko Ono and Pierre Trudeau, 1969. Photo by UPI Telephoto

“On 23 December 1969, during their visit to Canada, John and Yoko met with Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau at his Ottawa offices. The planned interview should have been only 15 minutes but they talked for 50 minutes. John described Trudeau as a ‘beautiful person’ and was obviously impressed. ‘We spent about 50 minutes together, which was longer than he had spent with any head of state. If all politicians were like Mr. Trudeau there would be world peace.’”

How A Hard Day’s Night was written:
“Written by John on the back of a birthday card given to Julian, his son, on his first birthday, It shows a little boy driving a little toy steam engine…. The manuscript is now in the Manuscript Room of the British Library in London.”

The Beatles give a press conference:
“Ringo, why do you wear all those rings on your fingers?”
“Because I can’t get them through my nose.”
When Ringo Starr joined The Beatles he had a ring through his nose, but it had to be removed because he kept catching his drumsticks in it.


Story continues below

Article content

“In June, 1985, John’s psychedelic Rolls Royce was sold at auction in Sotheby’s for a whopping £1,768,000 and his white piano was bought by George Michael for £1,500,000 in 2000.”

A 1964 letter to the magazine, Record Mirror:
“How can people suggest the Beatles get to Number One because of their sex appeal? I ask you — what is sexy about a record, a round disc of plastic? The Beatles do not do, or sing, anything sexy, The Stones are more in that category.”

News report, Oct. 12, 1963:
“Because of the semi-savage conduct of the audience at the show given by The Beatles at the weekend, Glasgow is likely to ban any future Beat shows from its concert hall. City treasurer Richard Buchanan said it took 40 policemen and 50 attendants to keep the fans under control.”

The London Daily Mirror gives a vote of approval in 1963:
“The Beatles are whacky. They wear their hair like a mop — but it’s WASHED. It’s super clean. So is their fr£esh young act. They don’t have to rely on off-colour jokes …”

News Near Tillsonburg

This Week in Flyers