“Top Ten Lists” are click bait. “Best of” lists are ultimately subjective, reflecting the author’s personal preferences as well as the current popular fads and trends, and seldom offer new insight. But there’s a reason websites and newspapers continue to use them and fans continue to respond: they almost always spur heated discussion.
In last week’s The Guardian, biographer Philip Norman provided his list of the ten best Beatles books. While the list will undoubtedly prompt discussion and dissension – And I can’t wait to see your own thoughts on Norman’s list, and your particular list, in the comments — one of the compelling issues for me in examining this list is Norman’s continued preference for compelling narrative over facts, of “story” over history. Indeed, many of the greatest structural weaknesses in Norman’s works, from Shout! to Paul McCartney: The Life are found in his refusal to acknowledge well-known contradictory evidence, his dramatization, and his tendency to insert his own opinion onto his historical subjects. In both his list as well as in a recent interview with “Something About the Beatles” Robert Rodriguez, Norman criticized the overall shift in Beatles historiography exemplified by author such as Greil Marcus or Mark Lewisohn, who, in Norman’s words, “churn out leaden paragraphs overstuffed with show-offy facts, yet be unable to create a compelling narrative or convey character or atmosphere.” For Norman (whose admitted pro-Lennon bias is obvious), the writing and story are more important than the facts.
Yet many Beatles fans now disagree: our evaluation of Beatles books has undergone a seismic shift in the past few decades, mirroring the larger transition from regarding the Beatles as pop culture figures to historical ones. This shift in regarding the Beatles as the subject of a “story” to “history” has contributed to the reputational decline of Norman’s own flagship work, Shout!, in which Norman pursued such compelling narratives and evocative character depictions at the expense of accuracy. Shout! influenced over a million readers, while cementing an admittedly biased and incorrect version of Beatles history for approximately the next two decades. We can see the results of favoring the superiority of narrative, atmosphere and compelling characterization over facts in countless Beatles works; it was one of the primary weaknesses of Norman’s group biography, as evidence was sacrificed or ignored in order to present the most exciting version of events possible. In one of the most well-known examples, Norman declared McCartney schemed for months to expel Stuart Sutcliffe from The Beatles in order to claim his position as bass guitarist. Such a depiction was undoubtedly compelling, and conveyed definite negative depths to McCartney’s character, but was wholly the invention of Shout!’s author. The claim reinforced Norman’s desired character depiction of McCartney as manipulative, selfish and egotistical even as it added fuel to Shout’s undoubtedly dramatic, predominant narrative, which depicted Lennon and McCartney as irreconcilable opposites pitted against one another. It created the story Norman wanted to tell, rather than the story the evidence was telling.
My views on viewing the Beatles as history have already been articulated in The Beatles and the Historians, but as a rejoinder, and a conversation starter, I’ve offered my own thoughts on Norman’s list, but narrowed and refined the criteria: The term “best” is too all-encompassing; a list of the best-written Beatles books would be dramatically different from the “best” researched, or “best” musicological evaluations. Instead, my framework concentrates on how essential the book is to understanding Beatles history as accurately as possible.
Love Me Do. Braun’s book has become a bit of a favored Dark Horse ( Rodriguez also included it on his recent list of recommended Beatles books) with good reason. It’s a fly-on-the-wall account from the era before the Beatles legend began to overwhelm their biographers, and includes the exhausted lamentation from Brian —“The Beatles. Always the Beatles. I cried last night”— which is repeated in virtually every biography. While providing an invaluable window into the touring of its era ( 1962-1963 ), using Love Me Do to describe the reality of the latter touring years is a little misleading. If you can find this, I’d definitely suggest it, especially paired with the original The Beatles: The Authorized Biography, which is slightly more censored.
Many Years From Now . This is an interesting choice coming from Norman, an author who ignored the new material revealed in the book specifically and McCartney’s version of events in general in each of the revised editions of Shout! (which were published in 2002 and 2005, respectively, well after the 1997 Many Years From Now). The book’s omissions are glaring: no Japanese pot bust, very little Wings or Jane Asher, and Paul’s agenda behind it — to balance the historical scales— should not be forgotten. Still essential.
Daddy Come Home Pauline Lennon’s memoirs are on my still “to be read” list. I’d substitute The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions in its place; Lewisohn’s publication of the material taken from those transcripts were one of the three primary factors which led to the decline of the Lennon Remembers and Shout! versions of Beatles history.
The Longest Cocktail Party. While not essential, it’s a great window into the chaos at Apple. Crucially, it includes copies of various letters and telegrams, offering documentation — including George’s letter to the office informing them he had invited the Hell’s Angels to stay there — to reinforce many of its claims and was published in 1972, early enough that DiLello’s retrospective accounts are still fresh. In its place, I’d substitute MacDonald’s revised Revolution in the Head, another work that helped push out the previously biased narratives.
Magical Mystery Tours . Although it also includes references to seemingly every single sexual encounter Bramwell had throughout the 1960s and 70s, and the author is not above omitting information which might reflect poorly on his buddies Paul and George (casting sole blame for the tensions in the Harrison/Boyd marriage on Pattie’s flirtatious nature while ignoring George’s frequent and at times flagrant infidelities), Magical Mystery Tours is undoubtedly engaging and entertaining— unless you’re Yoko Ono, whose depiction is markedly less than complimentary. I would substitute two of the better- documented biographies, such as Jonathan Gould’s Can’t Buy Me Love, or Mark Hertsgaard’s A Day in the Life.
Lennon Remembers. I can’t say too much on this, for fear of treading on my own copyrighted material. (Book plug: The second chapter of The Beatles and the Historians is called “The Lennon Remembers Narrative” for a reason; for an in-depth analysis, go there). Is it essential? Absolutely. It is gospel? Absolutely not. Was it regarded as such for decades? Unfortunately.
The Man Who Gave The Beatles Away. William’s book is another on my “To Read” list. I’m going to substitute You Never Give Me Your Money in its place.
All You Need is Ears. Both of Martin’s books are good reads, but better if you have a musical background—and, again, a curious choice for an author who ignored Martin’s 1979 assessment of the crucial importance of the Lennon/McCartney partnership in his own work. And while Martin is a credible source for a number of reasons he’s also a crucial figure in promoting certain aspects of the Beatles mythology.
As Time Goes By. I haven’t been able to get my hands on either of Taylor’s books, particularly the egregiously expensive “Fifty Years Adrift.” So I’ll substitute a dark horse of my own, and suggest The Cambridge Companion to the Beatles, which explores their story and music from various, and sometimes historiographic, angles. It also includes documentation and insightful analysis.
The Lives of John Lennon. Every fundamental, methodological, and interpretive flaw present in Goldman’s work can also be found in every edition of Shout!, even including the author’s failure to “love your monster”: For forty years, Norman only loved one Beatle. Despite its admitted flaws, I agree with The Beatles Bibliography’s assessment that The Lives of John Lennon “cannot be dismissed out of hand.” Regardless, I’d substitute “Tune In.”
32 thoughts on “Thoughts on Philip Norman’s Top Ten”
Out of the 10 books Norman listed, I’ve read six of them (Martin, Miles, Bramwell, Goldman, DiLello, Wenner) and read excerpts from two of them (Braun, Lennon). His choice of books, and his comments about them, are infuriating.
Norman describes MYFN as an effort by McCartney to “[prove] how he, not John, was the first to explore the avant garde.” Many Years From Now , I believe, was actually Paul’s attempt to salvage his reputation and set the record straight, in large measure BECAUSE of Norman, who was relentless in his baseless description of McCartney as a talentless, conventional lightweight. Not only was MYFN long overdue and entirely justified, a commemorative copy should have been mailed to Norman with a fuck-you note.
And if Norman was looking for a book which cast John in a more sympathetic and believable light, he should have put down Pauline Lennon’s “memoirs” and re-wrote John Lennon: The Life with a lot less anecdotal dirt-digging.
Norman’s preference for first person, anecdotal accounts rather than objective research is annoying, but not surprising. For these to be included on a list of “best books about the Beatles”, instead of works by Lewisohn or Doggett, is a head-shaker.
Norman’s preference for first person, anecdotal accounts rather than objective research is annoying, but not surprising.
I’m sure you know this, Karen, but it is worth bearing in mind: Research is hard. It’s incredibly time consuming, and can be exasperating, and involves — particularly in the pre-internet age — lots of hunching over dusty newspapers, squinting at incomprehensible microfiche or microfilm, hunting through stacks and stacks of decades-old magazines only to discover — yay! — the edition you need is from the two year window when your particular library stopped ordering that periodical. I had the internet and the full use of my university’s inter-library loan department behind me, which meant virtually unlimited access to articles and books — even the 1989 McCartney World Tour Program — but I still found myself hunting for hours for the date of a particular article, or weeks for a particular interview for which I had only a partial citation.
And I, by and large, enjoy research; it’s like putting a puzzle together or following a new trail which can take you to unexpected sources or new interpretations. I genuinely enjoyed opening up those 1971 women’s magazines to see how writers and fans viewed Yoko Ono and Linda McCartney (spoiler alert; not so favorably) in that time period, and was particularly interested in how my research led to my realization of how much the “class” issue was emphasized during the breakup period as one of Paul’s primary reasons for his refusal to accept Klein … and how, once the other three canned Klein, and “class” wasn’t the in vogue political issue of the moment, the whole “class” motivation issue got dropped, almost instantly.
Writing a bibliography and citing sources is hard too. It adds another layer of work and care and, again, means that readers can look over your shoulder, distinguish authorial interpretation from evidence and double-check your evidence to see if its being used correctly. Does that process remove pithy and dramatic anecdotes that authors would love to use, to reinforce a point or simply add to the story? It does. Technically, I can understand how, for someone for whom story, not accuracy, is the highest goal, anecdotes and memoirs would be his preferred Beatles books. I simply can’t agree with that view; memoirs have their place, but ultimately they remind me of the ‘colored’ books released by each combatant after World War I, each promoting their own, biased version of the war.
I’m sure you know this, Karen, but it is worth bearing in mind: Research is hard.
Oh, absolutely. And I wouldn’t expect any type of vigorous research, although simple fact-checking and dedication to impartiality would be nice. 🙂
The thing about Norman is that he can go the distance if he thinks it will yield nefarious content. For example, I was struck by how persistently he tried to uncover something tawdry between John Lennon and Helen Shapiro in his Lennon bio, when all available evidence (including Shapiro’s own account) revealed nothing more than a friendly, sibling-type friendship.
HIs confirmation bias rankles, but I know I’m preaching to the choir on that one.
I remember when I first read “Shout” I threw it across the room and couldn’t finish it until years later, that’s how angry it made me. Norman was an ass then and hasn’t changed. And his supposed great prose style is, as the Fabs would say, bollocks.
Hi Gael–welcome aboard. 🙂
I recall having similar feelings when I first started to read Shout! Like you, I put it down and didn’t pick it up again until years later.
Hello, Gael! Nice to have a new voice join in. I too have launched a few books across a room; mainly when my favorite character dies. Do you remember when you first tried to read Shout! and couldn’t stand it? I’m asking because we’ve had some posters talking about how they read it when it was initially published and, for lack of more information, believed it for years, until contradictory sources, such as Many Years From Now or Hertsgaard’s A Day In the Life, emerged.
Shout! actually didn’t make me angry, but that was because I was such a late comer to Beatles historiography, and because I’d done so much research beforehand, that I went in, even as a casual reader, with absolutely no expectations of reading anything worthwhile. I was far more interested in examining it from the angle of “Ok, why did/does this book have such an influence” rather than being excited or interested in what the book might possibly be able to tell me. Later on, when I approached the book in a more analytical fashion, I took the 1981 edition, the 2002 edition, and the 2005 edition, and read Chapter One of each edition, one immediately after the other, taking notes, comparing and contrasting evidence and interpretations, noting what changed and what didn’t, and continued that approach through all three books. What was most startling for me was how very little Norman changed his interpretations from 1981 to 2005; despite all the criticism of the book for being anti-Paul (and it’s just as anti-George, although that doesn’t receive as much attention) and Norman’s own admittance in in the 2005 intro that his depiction of Paul had been “wrong,” the differing editions are almost identical. Which ties in, I suppose, to the whole underlying issue behind the initial post; the preference for a compelling ‘story’ over depicting an accurate version of events.
“When I approached the book in a more analytical fashion, I took the 1981 edition, the 2002 edition, and the 2005 edition, and read Chapter One of each edition, one immediately after the other, taking notes, comparing and contrasting evidence and interpretations, noting what changed and what didn’t, and continued that approach through all three books.”
I love this. I couldn’t have done that without copious amounts of alcohol. 🙂
I found it fascinating; it was one of my favorite research projects for the entire book. Comparing and contrasting what sources say — even the same source, in revised editions — is something that never bores me. And reading material you dislike or disagree with or find personally offensive goes with the territory; For example, I’ve read large sections of U.B. Phillips work on African-American slavery in the ante-bellum South; now that’s something that is guaranteed to make people angry and can be hard to read, unless you support the “Lost Cause” narrative of the Civil War.
What interests me just as much as the compare/contrast between the 1981/2002/2005 editions is the inclusion of or omission of essential evidence that was available to Norman by the time of his revised editions. The most staggering omission was the absence of virtually any information from “Many Years From Now.” I have seen posters on other forums criticize Ian MacDonald for too readily accepting Paul’s version of events in the revised edition of “Revolution in the Head,” but going by the hierarchy of sources, MacDonald got it right: Paul was there. He was/is a primary source, and he had memories of how and why and who wrote what. MacDonald could not ignore that. And he didn’t swallow everything Paul said as gospel; instead, he gave us an excellent version of source analysis regarding John and Paul: “John’s version was this, Paul’s version was this; and here (A, B, and C) are the reason’s I find Paul’s version more credible.” When you are in that sort of bind where your two primary sources are equally matched in terms of credibility, that’s frankly all you can do. But (as I was saying before I interrupted myself) Norman omitted well-established evidence in the latter editions of Shout! which had disproven his interpretations, and some of his facts… something he also does in his other works. I attributed these omissions to Norman’s biases, but am finding the “compelling narrative” justification an interesting, if flawed, reason.
….and doing that kind of painstaking comparative analysis—in addition to being a great piece of research—tamps down the urge to just “react” to the material, something that was hard to resist when we only had the first edition book so many years ago. For the first time I’m actually glad Norman reissued later editions. 🙂
Precisely. I can’t imagine what it was like, for anyone who wasn’t a massive “John” fan, to pick up Shout! and read it in 1981. And believe it. Or hate it. Or turn around and hate other members of the band: like Richard Buskin said, after reading Shout!, he hated Paul.
For me, discussions like this bring up the generational contrast in how people of different ages experienced the Beatles and their historiography.
Wow so much to think about here. Phillip Norman is definitely an author who puts more value on entertaining, stylish, writing over historical fact. I’m sure the fact that he is also a novelist has a lot to do with that. My question though is, why can’t an author present an historically accurate account that is also written in an engaging, entertaining style? Why are the two considered to be so mutually exclusive? Regarding his choices whether or not to bypass the facts in favor of an entertaining story, I personally feel that Norman’s book on Paul is at least an improvement over his earlier works like Shout. To me Shout practically reads like a novel or a piece of Lennon fan fiction, about a Beatles type rock group, while Paul McCartney the Life, for the most part sticks to the facts while still managing to be engaging and entertaining….diarrhea similes not withstanding, that is.
As for his best of list, it’s extremely odd. Why on earth would he include Paula Sutcliffe’s book? First of all it’s my understanding that Ms. Sutcliffe was a small child when the alleged events featured in her book took place, so right there there’s a credibility problem for me. Anyone who has read it please correct me, but doesn’t she state that Stu and John had an affair? And doesn’t she also state that John beat Stu and caused his death 10 months later? Where is the evidence for any of that?? Wow I guess Phillip Norman just loves a good fanfic. Never mind evidence, never mind facts, as long as it’s a good, juicy story with plenty of drama. Does he realize at all that these were real people and not fictional characters?? Other odd choices are The Lives of John Lennon (really Mr. Norman?) and Magical Mystery Tours. The later is merely a fun memoir of dubious honesty, but again credibility is lost at the beginning when he claims Paul and George knew each other and played together as small children. Again where is the evidence of that? If that is true why isn’t it common knowledge? Why would such mundane information be kept a secret? And Goldman’s book is a disaster area. It’s filled with arm chair psychiatric “diagnoses” and questionable anecdotes. It reads like an extremely long National Enquire article.
My best of list in no particular order is,
1) Tune In
2) Can’t Buy Me Love
3) A Day in the Life: the Music and Artistry of the Beatles
4) Many Years From Now
5) The Beatles Anthology
6) Revolution in the Head
7) The Beatles an Authorized Biography
8) The Beatles Recording Sessions
9) You Never Give Me Your Money
10) All You Need is Ears
I think these are the most informative books without being sensationalist. A lot of people may dispute numbers 5 and 7, but I think they belong there because 5 has a lot of information right from the group itself and I think it’s well put together. Seven is on my list because although it’s obviously flawed (like 5) it’s a valuable, contemporary account.
It was Pauline Lennon’s book, Linda. Pauline married Freddie Lennon. Lord, if Norman had included Pauline Sutcliffe’s book I really would have had a cow. 🙂
Writing an entertaining but historically sound book isn’t an impossibility — they aren’t mutually exclusive – but in my experience can be pretty rare. I genuinely enjoyed “Tune In,” but at times found it plodding, because the more information you have to include, the more it directs your writing style; your word count is only allowed to be so big. Then there’s the whole issue of authorial insertion; speculating or declaring what historical figures thought or felt at a certain event. That’s the sort of writing that can portray the most vivid imagery, but its wholly an invention of the author’s mind or interpretation, which means it has to be distinguished from evidence, which means citations, which is something a lot of writers don’t want to do.
I found Norman’s Paul bio an improvement regarding his revised interpretations of certain events, and of course, his overall revised interpretation of Paul, period. The post-Beatles section was, for me, the strength of the book; I enjoyed how in-depth he went into things such as Linda’s vegetarian meal empire and gave the most comprehensive account of her cancer experience. But again, his refusal to cite sources was immensely frustrating for me; there’s a point where he declares that Paul personally called Pete Best to smooth out things for Anthology, but there’s no source for it, and we have no evidence proving that. I also noticed that he incorporated quite a lot from another Miles book, “The Sixties.”
I like and agree with a lot of the ones on your list. I avoided “The Authorized Biography”
for a very long time because I have an instinctive suspicion of official versions of history, but I enjoyed it much more than I thought I would. One of my favorite parts of “All You Need is Ears” was Martin’s occasional references and hints to how much he loathed punk rock — which when he wrote the book in 1979, was very in vogue.
“But again, his refusal to cite sources was immensely frustrating for me.”
Yes I find it odd that he never sources his work….ever. To me it seems like an act of defiance on his part. Almost as if he wants his books to be all fun and he wants a complete departure from serious historical narrative. Unfortunately like someone else mentioned, this gives him more identification with a Kitty Kelly type biographer. That’s why he seems to have almost a sour grapes attitude toward Mark Lewisohn. As if he’s rolling his eyes at Mark Lewisohn and saying, “Awww c’mon lighten up”.
“There’s a point where he declares that Paul personally called Pete Best to smooth out things for Anthology, but there’s no source for it, and we have no evidence proving that.”
I’m pretty certain Paul said it to Barry Miles in Many Years From Now. In fact I recognize a lot of the material in Paul McCartney the Life seems to come from Many Years From Now. If he had bothered with a source section Many Years From Now would have definitely been listed.
..”Avoided “The Authorized Biography” for a very long time because I have an instinctive suspicion of official versions of history,”
Understandable. I think most historians would. The Beatles Anthology is considered an ‘official’ version as well, which is why I questioned myself whether or not to even include either book. I decided to because they are so enjoyable and well put together. I think both books have a lot to offer as long as the reader understands the inherent idiosyncrasies of each book and takes that into perspective. To be honest I had a hard time finding 10 books to complete the list. Most Beatles books are so flawed, out of the 10 I included, only Lewisohn, Hertsgaard and Gould can be considered flawless. And even of those three, I remember Hertsgaard making the assumption that Paul’s Fixing a Hole is literally about fixing a Hole in the roof of his Scottish farmhouse. Pure speculation that passed for fact and that Norman duly copied into Paul McCartney the Life, even though McCartney disputed Hertsgaard in Many Years From Now. Why Norman chose to use Hertsgaard’s speculation and ignore McCartney’s explanation is odd, especially when you consider that Barry Miles was a fact checker for Norman’s book and Many Years From Now is used heavily as a source. Why Hertsgaard chose to speculate in the first place is interesting. Did he assume that because it was a McCartney song it had to be literal and therefore less creative than a Lennon song? I wonder if the song had been a Lennon song, if Hertsgaard would have made this assumption, even if Lennon was the one who had purchased a fixer upper with a leaky roof. Even more ironic is the fact that McCartney’s lyrics have always been more metaphorical and ambiguous than Lennon’s more literal, biographical lyrics. So it’s all very interesting. Anyway my point is that even Hertsgaard’s book as good as it was, had at least one flaw.
“Yes I find it odd that he never sources his work….ever. To me it seems like an act of defiance on his part.”
I didn’t find it odd with Shout!, (Although I did consider it a serious flaw) because no one was providing bibs or citations in that period; the first bio I discovered with those was Hertsgaard’s, 14 years later. But the lack of even a bibliography for his 2008 John bio frankly shocked me. By then, you’d had numerous writers — Lewisohn, Hertsgaard, Gould, Rodriguez, etc. — all at least providing bibs, and some providing citations. Not including a bib in the Paul bio did almost seem like an act of defiance — “well, everyone else is too saturated with facts, but not me.”
I don’t have a copy of MYFN: I get virtually all my stuff from libraries, take copious notes, and then return the books, but I honestly don’t recall Paul discussing calling Pete around the Anthology era. You are right; I noted a lot of MYFN in the Paul bio and, as I said, a lot of Miles’s other book, “The Sixties,” in there too. One of the things I really enjoy about those books is the inclusion of Marianne Faithfull; she doesn’t mince words. (Paul viewed the greek island idea as a “fucking nightmare.”) I’m surprised Norman didn’t include more from her in his Paul bio. But I did like the new material from Maggie McGivern and the interviews with Paul’s stepmother and stepsister, even if they came across, in their own telling, as selfless angels.
“I think both books have a lot to offer as long as the reader understands the inherent idiosyncrasies of each book and takes that into perspective.”
Absolutely. I also enjoyed Anthology, so long as I didn’t expect it to offer me the whole, unvarnished truth.
I think Norman truly believes he’s a “New Journalist” in the manner of Capote or Mailer or even Gay Talese, so he doesn’t need to bother with things like historical context or sourcing or even looking at his material with any kind of analytical objectivity. As your book makes clear, Norman isn’t even aware that he’s perpetuating a specific mythic narrative. Hey! Isn’t it all self-evident?
Actually he has a lot more in common with Kitty Kelley (face palm).
I’m pleased to see that you read the book, Gael. I’m looking forward to Karen’s review and seeing everyone’s thoughts on it.
I’ve seen the Kitty Kelly comparison before, but I’m completely unfamiliar with her work. Actually, my knowledge of journalistic standards — “New Journalists” or otherwise — is fairly sparse. I know balancing sources is supposed to be part of the formula; if you get a quote from side A on a controversial issue, you are also supposed to get a quote from side B. If you or anyone here has more knowledge of journalistic standards, it would be very interesting to do a compare/contrast between journalistic and historical standards, and how and why they should or shouldn’t apply to the Beatles.
I teach Creative Nonfiction, so one of the issues we deal with in class is the difference between Journalism, Creative Nonfiction, and History! It’s an often dicey proposition to define those differences! Capote and Mailer are self-proclaimed “novelists” and Capote called “In Cold Blood” a “Nonfiction Novel” — Capote and Mailer, et al, never provided sources let alone citations and that has been controversial, especially since Capote also never took notes during his interviews (although his assistant, Nelle Harper Lee, did write things down after the fact). I guess if you consider yourself a “novelist” or “creative writer” rather than a journalist or historian, you feel you don’t have to make those connections.
Thank you, Gael. That was very interesting; I can certainly see how the lines could easily blur between Journalism, Creative NonFiction, and History. If you don’t mind, would you be interested in telling us more about the primary distinctions between the three of them?
Didn’t Capote also wholly invent scenes that never happened, such as the final few pages of “In Cold Blood” when he “happens” to meet Nancy Clutter’s friend at the cemetery? I have read “In Cold Blood,” (I am from Kansas, after all) but it’s been years. Bit of a tangent, but: Your mention of Nelle Lee reminds me; they were doing retrospective coverage here of “In Cold Blood” recently, and the contemporaneous accounts from the Kansans who initially met Capote is that they did not like him at first; he was too “eccentric,” descending on a small farm town like Holcomb in a fancy car and a fur coat, peppering a grieving community with questions. It was Nelle who got people to open up, and after they began to talk to her, Capote’s charm began to work, and they talked with him as well.
“I guess if you consider yourself a “novelist” or “creative writer” rather than a journalist or historian, you feel you don’t have to make those connections.”
In the foreword to the original edition of “Shout!,” Norman declares that he approached the book as a journalist and a novelist (never minding that there’s a pretty big distinction between the two); but in the same introduction, he also argues that his book disproves many of the myths and inaccuracies in Beatles history. Personally, I would argue that when you are dealing with real (and in many cases, living) people, and you are claiming (as Norman did) to be providing an accurate version of their story, then you are obligated to provide as much objectivity and sourcing as possible.
It’s pure speculation, of course, but I have always wondered what the reaction to Shout! would have been had John not been murdered. Would he have liked it, and promoted it, since it unilaterally championed him, and Yoko? Would Paul and George have been more publicly vehement about its numerous errors and biases? Would Beatles fans have accepted it so readily without the trauma of John’s death, or would their have been a backlash against its devaluation of 3/4 of the Beatles? Would it have even sold half as many copies without the tragic but inadvertently beneficial timing of John’s murder?
Or would Norman have written a different book, had John not been killed? I wonder how much John’s death shaped the book that Norman eventually wrote.
John’s murder certainly shaped the introduction, and the afterword, of the original edition of Shout! — there’s a very emotional moment where Norman describes a fan outside the Dakota, mourning John; “All the times he saved me, man.”
But John’s murder could not have influenced the bulk of the text, its overall tone and pro-John bias, or even many smaller sections, such as Norman’s interpretations of particular events, simply because of publishing schedules.
Now, I’m only going off of the vast amount of experience in having published a single book, but “Shout!” was published in March 1981 — and John, of course, was murdered three months earlier. When I had to submit my manuscript copy of “The Beatles and the Historians,” that was in October of 2015; the book was published in April 2016. The final opportunity for edits within the text I was offered — when I received my “proofs — occurred in February 2016, but it was very clear that only minimal changes were allowed, primarily correcting factual or other errors, and nothing that altered the page count of the manuscript copy; for every line I deleted, I had to add another in order to make sure the proofs remained the same. The manuscript copy I submitted seven months in advance of publication was, for all intents and purposes, the published copy, in terms of content, tone, evidence, etc. And this was with the advantage of computerization, which makes it easier, if still difficult, to alter a manuscript text. Changing pages and content would have undoubtedly been far more difficult (and expensive) in 1981.
Now I’m not saying that my experience is identical to Norman’s, but I don’t believe the publishing process has changed that much. I would argue that 99% of Shout’s text — pro-John, anti-Paul, anti-George bias and all — was written prior to December 1981. Shout! wasn’t a biased pro-John book because of John’s death; it was a biased, pro-John book because … Philip Norman still harbored some bizarre feelings of envy and betrayal regarding Paul, or because Norman was a “John-person,” or because he didn’t like Paul’s late 70’s music and personae, depending on which of Norman’s justifications you believe. But John’s death had almost nothing to do with it.
Three months isn’t a lot of time to revise a manuscript in the pre-computer age, and I imagine even a writer of Norman’s stature wouldn’t have a lot of wiggle room to change anything, even if he wanted to.
Which brings us back to your original question: how would the book have been received— by fans and by J &Y— if the terrible events of December 8th never happened?
Hear tell that John felt very protective of Paul, in spite of his rantings. HE could criticize Paul, but didn’t like anyone else to. Maybe John would have recoiled against such a biased representation of his former best friend and partner (although Yoko would have been very accepting of it, I’m certain.)
I think there are so many variables going on in John’s life at that time that, without knowing the situation, it would be impossible to predict. The state of his marriage to Yoko, the viability of those Beatles reunion rumors, his drug use, his reaction to Double Fantasy’s middling reviews and sales, his competitive obsession with Paul … any of those could have influenced his reaction to Shout! Given John’s habit of contradicting himself, he could lavished praise on it in one interview and then turned around the next day and denounced it.
My guess is that the backlash from Paul and George against Shout! would have been far louder and more public than it was; after John’s death, disputing the book seemed petty. Without John’s death, I can easily see Paul — who was already recording “Tug of War,” with George Martin — inviting a familiar reporter, a Ray Connolly or a Hunter Davies — into the studio for an interview and disputing Norman’s interpretation of Shout! with Martin as backup, helping him dispute its claims.
George was already miffed at John at that time — and, while it tends to be overlooked, George’s portrayal in Shout! is just as negative, if not more, than Paul’s is. Paul at least is acknowledged as having above average musical talent, but Norman doesn’t even grant George that basic level of respect. That variety of accusations Norman’s makes against Paul are more varied, but almost every single reference to George is negative. We know George was sensitive to feeling slighted about his contributions to the Beatles being overlooked which Shout! absolutely does; if John had endorsed the book implicitly or explicitly, I predict we would have had a very angry George and, perhaps, his own public denunciation of the book.
Since you mentioned it, what WAS George’s reaction to the book? Did he ever denounce it? Did Ringo? All I remember is Paul’s denunciation in later years, calling it “Shite.”
George crossed out the word “true” in the subtitle “The True Story of the Beatles,” and replaced it with “false” There are pictures of the page on tumblr, I’m sure.
I think Ringo had bigger issues to deal with at that time and wasn’t overly concerned; didn’t he say once that there are entire years of his life he doesn’t remember almost at all, due to his drinking?
Oh right, I remember that now.
But George didn’t publicly denounce it beyond that, did he? Perhaps he didn’t, for the same reason Paul more or less kept mum–it would be have been hard to, without in some way challenging John’s preeminence, which would have been verboten in the immediate aftermath of John’s murder.
Yes, I guess that was the “novel” part! It was a more “dramatic” ending, which is what he was looking for. Also, the idea that Capote refused to help Smith and Hickock in their final appeals because he needed them to be executed to bring a conclusion to the book is up for speculation, but if you look at both movies about him, “Capote” and “Infamous,” both push that theory.
Re Norman as a writer — he’s also a “failed” novelist (if by failed you mean unsuccessful). But I think I’m the only person who has actually read his novel, “Everyone’s Gone To the Moon.” I got it at a Half-Price bookstore years ago for a couple of bucks and it’s so telling of how Norman sees himself. It takes place around 1966 and the protagonist is a naive and talented young journalist in “Swinging London.” It’s such a fantasy about how Norman wanted to be pals with all the Beautiful People, including, of course, The Beatles.
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Gael — Wow. Thanks for that information. Out of curiosity; what did you think of Norman’s fiction writing style? I do like his writing on the John bio; he can write an evocative sentence, but his writing in the Paul bio seemed sloppier (Diarrhea similes, really?) and there were phrases in it he lifted, verbatim, from his earlier work. (In both the John and Paul bios, he describes John’s statements regarding Paul in “Lennon Remembers” as “strangely muted,” which I profoundly disagree with).
Your description of the book does seem to add a lot of insight into Norman’s perception of himself and the Swinging Sixties, and reinforce the whole “I was jealous and wanted to be Paul” reasoning for his bias.
But here’s the thing no one mentioned in any of the reviews which applauded Norman for his reversal on McCartney and his mea culpa in the intro to the Paul bio: Norman’s personal feelings, whatever motivated them and however strong they were, on Paul, or George, or John, should not have mattered at all. When he decided to write a book on the Beatles — before he interviewed anyone — he should have checked his ego at the door and said: “I’m still personally angry/upset/jealous of Paul and I still personally think George was a massive jerk, but I’m going to attempt to be impartial, objective and balanced regardless of my personal feelings.” Otherwise, you’re not reading a biography of the Beatles; you are reading Philip Norman’s projections onto Beatles history, and that’s not the same thing at all. Impartiality is possible, even if you have personal preferences; he just allowed his ego to take precedence.
I found another “best of” list, this time by Rolling Stone magazine. There are some good selections, but others are truly and predictably cringe-worthy. (http://www.rollingstone.com/music/lists/10-best-beatles-books-20160504)
Any list that praises Shout! for its “honesty” simply because Norman goes around bashing 3/4 of the Beatles has serious credibility issues. As I said in my earlier post to Gael, there’s a difference between honesty and authorial ego-projection. Unsurprisingly, Rolling Stone is incapable of discerning that distinction.
“Ironically, for all of the bashing, the book presents McCartney as the Beatles’ most talented member, reflecting a respect that Lennon clearly feels.”
I agree that “Lennon Remembers” is essential; it founded a new narrative. But I can’t conceive of how you can read LR and come away with that interpretation, unless you are viewing it through the forty-years retrospective knowledge of John’s massive insecurities and jealousies prompting a lot of his Paul/Beatles bashing, which is not how readers at the time viewed it.
In that interview, John 1. praises his own authenticity and criticizes Paul’s commerciality 2. Denounces almost all of his previous Beatles work as “inauthentic” 3. Denies the existence of the Lennon/McCartney songwriting partnership 4. Takes credit for songs he didn’t write 5. Argues that Paul preferred the Eastman’s over Klein because of Paul’s bourgeois preferences 6. Declares that, following Brian’s death, Paul led the band in circles. ‘Obsession,’ rather than ‘respect,’ might have been a better word choice regarding John’s view of Paul in LR.
What Erin said. 🙂
Clearly, the argument that Shout! has no contemporary impact upon Beatle history—something we’ve heard in other circles— is completely contradicted by articles like this one. Declaring that Shout! should “make you think” makes me think that Fleming shouldn’t be writing book reviews in the first place.
Fleming’s take on LR is almost laughable. Not even Wenner has engaged in that bit of spin doctoring.