Questions by Karen Hooper:
- As a self-proclaimed second generation Beatle fan, how did you become interested in the band? Do you consider yourself a fan, or is your interest mainly historiographical?
My parents were first-generation fans – they discussed the band’s breakup on their very first date, when they both predicted, in the early days of 1972, that the band would shortly re-unite – and because I grew up with their music, there was never a time when I wasn’t a casual fan. Luckily, every aspect of their story equally appeals to me: the historiography, which has always fascinated me, the music, and the story itself. When I first stumbled into Beatles historiography, it was purely by accident. I read my first work on the band, got hooked, applied historiography, and immersed myself from there.
- Was there a particular biography that got you thinking about the overall historical legitimacy of the official narrative(s)? If so, which one(s)?
Reading non-fiction through a historical methods lens is reflexive for me, so even though I started my spin through Beatles books as a purely casual reader, I still found myself evaluating them by those standards. Initially, I didn’t have any organization to my reading; I just read whatever Beatles books my library system happened to have on the shelf. One of the “Eureka” moments came after reading Revolution in the Head, followed immediately by the 2005 edition of Shout! The glaring contrast between the two: one of them unabashedly pro-John, the other pro-Paul; one musicological, the other biographical, and the disputes over “who wrote what” as well as the overall Lennon/McCartney schism in Beatles historiography that they exemplified was, in my mind, incredibly similar to the historiography of other subjects with major schisms which I had studied, such as World War I, or the American Civil War. Once I understood the divisions in Beatles historiography, the narratives themselves and the reasons for their creation and/or rejection were very easy to identify, because narratives tend to follow certain patterns, regardless of whether the subject is Reconstruction in the post-bellum American South or The Beatles.
- You state that “some may consider it unfair to judge journalists by historian’s standards. But in a century or two, when people are still reading about the Beatles and studying their music, their artistry, their dynamic and their cultural impact, the historical methods employed in this book now are the same standards that wil be used to judge the sources then.” Can you tell us why you think the official narrative will be judged by historian’s standards in the future, when they are not judged by those standards now? Can you tell us more about why historical standards are important in the evaluation of popular biography?
I believe fans and an increasing amount of Beatles authorities are already judging new works by historian’s standards, even if they don’t specifically identify them or recognize them as such. On various forums, you’ll see fans debating the merits of certain memoirs and/or biographies, and a lot of the standards they use – balance, documentation, objectivity – are fundamental building blocks in historical methods. Thirty years ago, none of the most widely acclaimed books on the band even contained a bibliography; now all the recognized major works – You Never Give Me Your Money, for example – not only include bibliographies but also cite sources, and some Beatles authorities, such as Doggett or Lewisohn, are beginning to apply source analysis. It’s silly to argue that we should judge the primary sources by historical standards – which some fans and authors such as Lewisohn are already doing – but refuse to judge the secondary sources by the same standards simply because they weren’t written by professional historians; if we do that, we’ll never get a complete look at their historiography.
Ultimately Beatles historiography will be judged by historians’ standards because I believe they are a subject worthy of legitimate historical scholarship, and these standards are the ones that historian’s are trained to use. The major disagreements some historians would present over evaluating the Beatles according to these methods isn’t their importance – I don’t think any would dispute their cultural and musical impact – but their relative contemporaneousness. But arguing “Well, the Beatles are a subject worthy of historical study, however; we should wait a few decades or centuries until they’ve been covered with an adequate layer of dusty antiquity before really delving into the subject” is short-sighted. The more we apply these standards now, the clearer a picture we will have in the decades to come, and later Beatles/cultural historians will have in the decades following us. Why should we settle for inferior versions when the tools and standards to determine more accurate versions are available to us? (Let me add that every historian I’ve personally talked to and discussed my book with – and I’ve given several presentations on it — has been extremely interested and engaged in the concept; none of them have dismissed the Beatles as mere pop culture and unfit for historiographical/historical methods analysis).
- You describe in the “Fab Four Narrative” how group attitudes and behaviour antithetical to their clean image went virtually unreported by popular media “in exchange for access to the band and perks provided for that access.” Since contemporary mores and social media would make this a virtual impossibility in this day and age, what impact do you think the 60’s had on shaping/maintaining celebrity image?
It’s impossible to separate the 60’s image of the celebrity – with the Beatles, of course, at the pinnacle of everything that celebrity meant – from the socio/political climate at the time, and the generation that embraced them. The famous and contemporary parallel would be JFK: the press kept both his personal and political secrets, but the Presidency’s easy press ended with Watergate. There will never be another Camelot, and there will never be another Beatles, in part because the press simply would not allow it; today not even Brian would be able to hush up Paul’s paternity suits or John’s beating of Bob Wooler. Also, the public wouldn’t allow it, because we know too much now to believe it. If you trace the arc of Beatles historiography through the decades, you could argue that their story parallels the concept of celebrity image, and everything that involves.
- You devote a chapter to the Philip Norman Shout! narrative. Why do you think Shout! was, and apparently still is, considered the “definitive” biography, particularly when it is so obviously fraught with author bias, specious claims, and absent documentation?
Shout! benefited from a number of circumstances which allowed it to cement its place as the “definitive” biography, appearing in the Beatles historiographical pattern with absolutely impeccable timing. First, In terms of Norman’s version of events, it’s crucial to remember that much of the groundwork for Shout!’s thesis wasn’t new; John and Yoko (as well as George and Allen Klein) promoted aspects of it during the breakup era. It’s not hard to trace a connection from John’s dismissal of Paul’s contributions to the Beatles in “How Do You Sleep” — “All you done was ‘Yesterday’” — to Norman’s promoting Shout by declaring “John Lennon was three-quarters of the Beatles.” In many ways, as I discuss in The Beatles and the Historians, Shout! was not a “new” narrative, but a concretization of all the most inaccurate and unbalanced aspects of its predecessor, the “Lennon Remembers” narrative; the major difference is that this time it was coming from secondary, rather than primary, sources.
Second, it’s impossible to separate the timing of Shout!’s publication – March of 1981 – from the aftermath of John’s murder. Some fans excuse the book’s blatant biases by arguing that it was part of the adulation that followed, and in that climate, Norman couldn’t have published anything that wasn’t favorable to John, but that ignores that the vast majority of the book was written well before John’s death – and anyone with a knowledge of publishing schedules would realize that, with a publishing date of March, the edits Norman would have been allowed following December 1980 would have been very few. Norman didn’t write a biased, pro-John, anti/Paul/anti/George book in response to the climate surrounding John’s death; he happened to write a biography of the Beatles that was overwhelmingly pro-John, and it happened to appear a few months after John was murdered, when Beatles fans were angry, hurting, and in mourning over everything they and John had been cheated of. Also, popular and press adulation of the recently deceased — particularly those who die unexpectedly and tragically – is another common historiographical pattern that we see in Beatles historiography. There’s an excellent exhibit at the Lincoln Presidential Museum in Springfield, Illinois, which shows the enormous amount of vicious, negative press Lincoln received, in Northern, Southern and European newspapers throughout most of his presidency … and how all that evaporated the moment John Wilkes Booth murdered him and he became a martyr.
Third, timing is crucial; at a time when Beatles fans were looking for answers and revisiting Beatles history, it was the first biography of the group published since Davies work in 1968. That time gap, as well as Norman’s perceived independence (unlike Davies, he wasn’t an official biographer), gave it an aura of legitimacy … and its reviews were excellent.
Shout’s star has certainly fallen somewhat – Norman himself recently described it in an interview as “an incomplete sketch” rather than a complete portrait – but its influence lingers in part because it was so pervasive and unassailable for so long. It was a biased, inaccurate version of Beatles history, but it had primary sources, especially breakup era interviews with John and Yoko, to stake some of its interpretations on. It was then reinforced by writers during the 80’s like Robert Christgau and Ray Coleman and publications like Rolling Stone. Orthodoxies feed themselves in popular culture, by spawning imitations and influencing subsequent scholarship. What’s crucial to remember is that, in addition to the hundreds of thousands of fans who read it, other Beatles writers and authorities all read Shout!; you can check the bibliographies of virtually every Beatles book published throughout the 80’s or 90’s, and Shout! is in there. Journalists or reporters writing on the band or students studying the Beatles all read it, because it was the “definitive” work, and presumably accepted some of its interpretations and included them in their own articles and works. In historiographical terms, Shout! “cemented an Orthodoxy”; in more modern terms, it solidified a trope. And Orthodoxies are the devil to dislodge, particularly when they become – as the Lennon Remembers/Shout! version of the Beatles did throughout the 1970s/1980s – enmeshed with popular culture and common wisdom.
Finally, Shout! is well written; flowery, but dramatic and evocative. Choosing such black and white interpretations of events is part of what makes it so memorable, even as it undermines authorial impartiality.
- Norman’s new book, Paul McCartney: The Life is being lauded as that author’s attempt to correct authorial bias in his previous works. Have you read this new book, and do you think Norman has corrected the errors in his previous works?
I hope to provide a review of Paul McCartney: The Life in a few weeks, so I don’t want to go too in depth here. Ultimately, his Paul biography reminded me of Fred Goodman’s recent biography Allen Klein; an attempt to redress a one-sided view that overcorrects in the other direction, but can only do so by ignoring some basic journalistic and historical standards . While there are certain specific examples of correcting previous interpretive errors, many of the structural problems that existed in Shout! and John Lennon: The Life – such as lack of documentation, or failure to distinguish evidence from authorial interpretation – still weaken the work’s ultimate credibility. However, both the John and Paul biographies become notably stronger if you regard them as a set, rather than individual works; when taken together, their interpretations balance each other.
- What is the continued effect of the ‘Lennon Remembers’ narrative upon contemporary thinking regarding the Beatles’ breakup, particularly in light of the fact that Yoko Ono persists in supporting that narrative? Do you have an opinion as to why author Doug Sulpy’s documentation of the Let It Be sessions, which contradicted not only Lennon Remembers and Shout!, didn’t get traction in the press?
The last major push I found by Yoko Ono and Jann Wenner to promote the “Lennon Remembers” version of the breakup was in 2000, when they re-issued “Lennon Remembers” and sponsored a John Lennon exhibit at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame exhibit that played fast and loose with certain facts. Since then, we’ve seen many Beatles authorities – such as Ray Coleman, Philip Norman, and Jann Wenner’s Rolling Stone – distancing themselves from their previous support for the “Lennon Remembers” narrative; some, like Norman, by explicitly disavowing them; others, like Coleman or Wenner, by revising their earlier interpretations.
While vestiges of it remain, The “Lennon Remembers” version of the breakup has been disproved, and I think we can see that in virtually all current works of Beatles scholarship, all of which either implicitly or explicitly reject it. Aspects of it remain in popular culture, but they are starting to decline as well. When even a self-described “Lennonista” like “Something About the Beatles” Richard Buskin argues that one of the ‘points of no return’ regarding the breakup was John, George, and Ringo violating the previous unbroken precedent of unanimity and ignoring Paul’s veto on hiring Klein, that, to me, demonstrates a sea change. Such an interpretation would have been heretical in most of the 70s and 80s.
Sulpy’s work suffers greatly from its format, and inability to directly quote the source material. To be blunt, it’s dry, and tedious, and disheartening, and nowhere near as memorable as, say, Shout!. His work didn’t receive too much press coverage, but it does provide a good example of the hierarchy of sources. Often times, in historical narratives, revisions “trickle down” from new and meticulously researched but stuffy and dry studies which only a few specialized scholars on a subject read, then become popularized when a better-written or more generalized secondary work references the same “revelations.” You can see Sulpy’s influence on something like Peter Doggett’s You Never Give Me Your Money, or parts of Paul du Noyer’s Conversations with McCartney.
8. In your opinion, is Lewisohn signalling a change in the way in which future authors will tell the Beatles’ story? Is there an aspect of the Beatles’ story which has yet to be written?
Post-Lewisohn, documentation is going to become a requirement; any secondary Beatles book which wants to be regarded as legitimate will have to provide a bibliography, and probably cite sources. That shift alone is huge, because it distinguishes evidence from authorial interpretation. Also, once Lewisohn has established an Orthodoxy, other writers will be able to use his evidence to provide new interpretations and speculation. For example, Lewisohn’s evidence in Tune In said Ringo felt indebted to George because George was the driving force behind his inclusion in the band. Did that sense of indebtedness help influence Ringo’s later decision to follow George and John in supporting their choice of Klein?
There are countless aspects of the Beatles story which have not been written, and need to be. An in-depth, non-judgmental but clear-sighted analysis of the impact drugs had on their music and the inter-band dynamic is a fundamental puzzle piece we are still missing. A group psycho-biography (while obviously speculative) by a trained psychiatrist, such as those already done on Martin Luther or Abraham Lincoln, could be very valuable. An in-depth look at Brian Epstein, or George Martin’s relationships with the various Beatles, could also add insight. (Has anyone ever interviewed Judy Martin, George’s secretary/wife? I’m sure there’s a great deal of information she would know, not only about his relationships with the Beatles, but about the band).
Goodman’s Klein biography was a crushing disappointment, because in order to get the most accurate version of the breakup, we need a less caricaturized version of Klein, but Goodman failed by providing a one-sided version, omitting known evidence and failing to ask essential questions. The issue of gender in Beatles historiography –the depiction of women, including female fans, and figures such as Maureen Starkey, Linda Eastman, and Yoko Ono – also deserves attention. You have a fan base that is, at least, fifty percent female, but a subject whose historiography has been chronicled, and its music critiqued, almost solely by males.
Also, authors are going to have to start asking “why?” regarding many of the now accepted tenets of the overall narrative – John Lewis Gaddis discusses the importance of asking “why” in his study, “The Landscape of History.” We know, for example, that from the very beginning Klein’s relationship with Paul was acrimonious, with Klein deliberately being confrontational, bullying and provocative; one of the greatest weaknesses of Goodman’s work was failing to acknowledge this failed approach with Paul; the second was the failure to ask why, after years of obsessing over the Beatles, Klein so quickly decided to effectively antagonize half of the invaluable Lennon/McCartney partnership, deliberately widening pre-existing divisions and creating new ones. In a lot of ways, we’ve only begun to scratch the surface.
Hopefully, one result of Lewisohn’s work will be less focus on the insoluble Lennon vs. McCartney debate. Some Beatles authorities, fans and biographers have wasted a tremendous amount of energy and time pitting them against one another, overlooking crucial aspects of their partnership and the inter-band dynamics, instead re-hashing old debates and playing favorites. This endless debate is ultimately corrosive, in that Beatles historiography has spent so much time dwelling on it that certain works and fans have missed the bigger picture of the partnership — and have missed opportunities to discuss some of the aforementioned issues surrounding the band’s story.
These are Karen’s questions, but if anyone else would like to leave any comments/questions, we’d love to hear from you! Don’t worry: You don’t have to have read The Beatles and the Historians to participate.