Over the last few decades, the Beatles as a subject have become the focus of increasing academic attention, as evidenced by The Cambridge Companion to the Beatles, various works edited by Kenneth Womack, and niche examinations of the band’s historiography.
Inherent in this transition is not only the recognition that the Beatles are now a cultural, musical and social history topic worthy of academic study, but also a ‘changing of the guard’ in terms of control of the band’s story. Lennon’s death in 1980 marks the moment when that control shifted from primary sources to secondary ones, predominantly group and individual biographies written by journalists. Currently, Beatles historiography is in the midst of another, if less dramatic shift, from popular to academic study. As a result, academic standards are increasingly used to judge the credibility of numerous secondary sources in Beatles historiography, even if in-text source analysis of primary documents remains rare in most Beatles literature.
The very qualities which have ensured Lewisohn’s position at the top of Beatles historiography’s hierarchy – objectivity, documentation, primary sources, discovery of new evidence – are all recognized as requirements in the academic world, and his use of them has pressured many other Beatles writers to adopt or attempt similar methods. (Or to wholly dismiss such standards as unncessary ). Also, secondary works (as well as memoirs) on the band, whether written by journalists or academics, are now informally or formally subjected to a popular form of peer review. The internet has democratized Beatles historiography, allowing for a bottoms-up analysis which, often, is more critically rigorous and knowledgeable than the official reviews offered in the mainstream papers. (Note the surprised reaction of various official reviewers to the ‘revelation’ in Philip Norman’s recent Paul McCartney biography that McCartney had immersed himself, years earlier than Lennon, in the 1960’s avant-garde art world, and the collective yawns this piece of information prompted from any half-way well-read Beatles fan).
Beatles writers now find themselves squeezed from both sides: Between Lewisohn’s application of historical methods at the top, and intense fan-driven critical analysis at the bottom, the old guard of Beatles historians now face far more rigorous standards and expectations than in previous decades. These increased standards have contributed to the decline of the previous, biased and error-ridden “Lennon Remembers” and Shout! narratives which dominated the band’s historiography in the 1970s,1980s, and part of the 90s.
This rejection of the majority of Beatles historiography quickly becomes evident in Michael Brocken and Melissa Davis’s The Beatles Bibliography: A New Guide to the Literature, published in 2012. As academics, Brocken and Davis personify the transition from journalism to academia, and Davis, a rare female voice, hopefully demonstrates an attempt to diversify the “boys club” of Beatles historiography. An annotated bibliography which examines hundreds of primary and secondary sources in alphabetical order by author, Brocken and Davis’s work passes judgment on these sources, asserting, with considerable justification, just how poorly researched, analyzed and interpreted the vast majority of Beatles works are. Previous interviews with Lewisohn and analysis by Mark Hertsgaard have also noted the fundamental structural failures across Beatles literature, but the nature of Brocken and Davis’s work ensures that their examination is considerably more thorough.
The work demonstrates particular strengths in analytical areas which have been overlooked by all but a few select writers. In its introduction, The Beatles Bibliography expands beyond case-by-case evaluations of Beatles works to explore some of the greater patterns and trends of the band’s historiography and fanbase. These include Brocken’s assertion that fans which do not agree with certain official or widely popular doctrines find themselves ostracized and their views summarily rejected without consideration and that, in turn, this represses the introduction of new approaches and interpretations.
Crucially, Brocken and Davis also identify the pervasive pop culture and literary comparisons between the various Beatles, which seek to define Lennon, in part, through contrasting him with McCartney, and vice versa. Both authors criticize the practice, which only “permit(s) generalizations to continue” while serving to promote an unofficial mythology, rather than ascertain historical accuracy. (Full disclosure: my analysis of Beatles historiography, The Beatles and the Historians, also expresses frustration at the ubiquitous trend to compare various Beatles, and in particular Lennon and McCartney, to one another: A practice which is, at best, obscuring; and, at worst, corrosive and partisan).
Authorial efforts in the book to account for the immediate and historical context in which sources were produced is a welcome departure from many secondary Beatles works, which often regurgitate the opinions of rock critics and primary sources without question or analysis. For example: In the introduction, Brocken and Davis agree with the claims by other Beatles scholars, such as Michael Frontani in The Cambridge Companion to the Beatles, that McCartney’s refusal to promote the “genre-based rock” preferred by ‘serious’ rock journalists in the early to mid-70’s contributed to his post-Beatles critical drubbing. This application of context is also demonstrated throughout Brocken and Davis’s evaluations later in the work, and adds considerable value to their overall analysis.
The work also explores the shamefully neglected element of how differing countries have promoted differing versions of Beatles history. It offers an unusually international view of the band’s literature and is one of the few to discuss how the agendas and cultures of varying nations have impacted their interpretations and depictions of the Beatles. Using the posthumous mythologization of John Lennon as his primary example, Brocken discusses how “Lennon studies” have “evolved, somewhat separately, from Beatles studies.”
Brocken attributes this partly to Lennon’s early and tragic death, but also to the predominantly American obsession with transforming individuals, including Lennon, into cultural symbols of post-war Baby-Boomer Americana. He emphasizes how Lennon’s post-1971 years (and therefore post-Beatles life) were assigned greater significance by a predominance of American writers, who, for political and cultural reasons, wished to display a sort of ownership of Lennon’s image. Lennon’s American residency and direct, if relatively brief, involvement in American politics allowed American journalists to adopt him as their own in a way that was impossible with any of the other Beatles. This proprietorship only increased following Lennon’s death. “Even the most cursory exam … will reveal dominance by America and American-based writers post December, 1980.” This American predominance, fueled by journalists such as Jann Wenner, promoted the message that Lennon’s American, post-Beatles life, mattered more than his British, Beatles life, which led to greater coverage of and praise for Lennon’s post-Beatles work than it may have merited. These cultural differences also fueled numerous misconceptions and flawed theses, such as Jon Wiener’s work, which argued that Lennon’s political activism was primarily motivated by his “working class” background. As Brocken and any number of researchers have since noted, while the British class system is heavily nuanced, Lennon was, according to virtually every measuring stick, the most solidly middle-class of all the Beatles; therefore his working class background could not have inspired his political activism.
Brocken and Davis’s introduction concludes by recognizing and decrying the highly insular and homogenous oligarchy of white, male, British and American journalists which have dominated Beatles historiography from its inception. “Consider within these pages the vast number of texts written by such a limited number of writers: such writing is not heterogeneous, it is not plural, and it not, essentially, historical.” Brocken and Davis’s assertion that this “self-appointed aristocracy” of Beatles writers undermines greater objectivity or diversity is impossible to dispute.
However, while their identification of overall patterns and the majority of their source assessment is objective and correct, a primary error permeates much of Brocken and Davis’s evaluations. This involves their failure to identify the standards they use to judge the hundreds of sources they evaluate and pass judgment on. Works such as Coleman’s or Norman’s are identified as ‘biased’ – often correctly – but whether Brocken and Davis are using journalistic, historical methods, or other standards –and what, specifically, those standards are — to reach that conclusion is never specified. By failing to provide such a rubric, The Beatles Bibliography leaves itself open to accusations of subjectivity.
In next week’s review: more details on The Beatles Bibliography’s evaluations of particular Beatles works and its evaluation of larger patterns.
8 thoughts on “Reviewing the Reviewers: The Beatles Bibliography: A New Guide to the Literature”
Great review, Erin. So much to consider. Take this, for example:
I wonder, if on a broader scale, it’s American Exceptionalism at work here–that sense of ownership.
If you’re going by the traditional textbook example of American Exceptionalism, I’d argue the American adoption of Lennon had more to do with the political and cultural environment of the time, both during the breakup period and surrounding his death.
From a personal perspective, as someone who literally grew up with the Beatles, knowing their music and, also, to an extent, their reputation — I can say that, it wasn’t until I was 7 or 8 when I understood the Beatles were not, in fact, American; they were English. And I remember feeling disappointed that they weren’t American, and that my country didn’t have more of a claim on the best band ever. You see that proprietorship to this day regarding the band — there was a squabble between London and Liverpool a few years ago, when the London mayor said that London “made the Beatles,” or something to that effect, which prompted a stinging rebuke from Liverpool’s mayor.
More to say, but I’ll finish later.
Agreed. I tend to think that most countries with famous expats claim them their own–often, for good reason, given the cultural and political influences of a given country on a given artist or political figure. I had a chuckle when you said that your younger self was disappointed that John wasn’t American. Had John emigrated to Canada, I’m sure young Canadian fans everywhere would have felt the same way. As a matter of fact, it’s a running joke in Canada that once a Canadian, always a Canadian–which is why we’re very quick to point out that William Shatner, Michael J. Fox, etc are all Canadians. (We don’t like to take ownership for Justin Beiber; we have our limits, you know.)
My musing about American Exceptionalism wasn’t a criticism, btw; it had more to do with John’s fit to that ideal: members who are viewed as unique and individualistic, and whose actions are inherently transformative. Once America “owned” John, he was naturally viewed as embodying those ideals.
But I’m not the Historian. 😉
“In next week’s review: more details on The Beatles Bibliography’s evaluations of particular Beatles works and its evaluation of larger patterns.”
This is all so interesting Erin. I’m looking forward to reading their thoughts on individual works.
“Had John emigrated to Canada, I’m sure young Canadian fans everywhere would have felt the same way.”
Absolutely. That would have been something worth witnessing, in the early 70’s, had John and Yoko wanted to live in Canada, rather than New York. It certainly would probably have saved them a great deal of legal trouble.
Ahh, Michael J. Fox. I had the biggest crush on him when I was a kid.
“My musing about American Exceptionalism wasn’t a criticism, btw; it had more to do with John’s fit to that ideal:”
No worries: I was reverting back to the traditional definition of American Exceptionalism, as presented by Frederick Jackson Turner and Tocqueville, which really didn’t seem to apply. For all John’s embrace of the artistic and political establishment of the early 1970’s, and his cultivated relationships with various U.S. magazines, he also evidently was extremely interested in and delving deeper into his Celtic and English heritage in his Dakota years.
“Once America “owned” John, he was naturally viewed as embodying those ideals.”
Yes; it was convenient for both sides to “Americanize” John, to an extent. I don’t know how John’s Americanization is regarded in England — either at the time, or today — but I’ve seen repeated criticisms of Ringo as a tax exile and arguments that, after John’s departure for America, he lost something vital in his artistry — but that could be the sour grapes of English journalists and fans. One thing Paul’s British fans are very quick to point out is that he never left England for sunnier shores and lower tax rates.
On other topics, I am cheered that Brocken and Davis acknowledge the highly insular boys club that dominates Beatles historiography. I still find myself astonished that a topic which has a fan base which is at least 50% female has a historiography that is 95% male. I’d love to get my hands on the subscription details of the Beatles book during the 60’s, for example, or the Beatles fan club membership, and see what the breakdown was, by gender, at the time.
It’s funny, isn’t it? When Canadian artists (and, god forbid, hockey players) relocate to the States we tend to get slightly apoplectic. 🙂
What is up with that? You would think that among the hordes of Beatle fans there would have emerged a few rock journalists. Any theories?
“You would think that among the hordes of Beatle fans there would have emerged a few rock journalists. Any theories?”
Nothing extraordinary. Many of the most important works in Beatles historiography — particularly in the breakup era — were written by rock journalists, and rock journalism at the time seems to have been an almost exclusively male-dominated job. I’m guessing that they’ve achieved greater gender-parity now, but except for Cleave, its difficult to come up with the name of a prominent female journalist who seriously impacted the official narrative, and any of the later ones. Those millions of female fans were regarded as a market, not as an important voice.
What the overall gender breakdown was in journalism overall in the sixties and seventies I don’t know, but my educated guess is that female journalists were steered towards more ‘female’ associated, softer topics. Norman makes it clear just how difficult it was to get a Beatles assignment in the sixties; those went to the topmost echelon of journalists. Just going through the bibliography for my book, it was impossible to escape that Beatles historiography has been written almost exclusively by men, many of the same men, for the past forty years. They review each other’s books, provide blurbs, interview one another on radio shows, and count one another as friends. They work for and with the same people and publications. There’s nothing wrong with that — I freely admit that academia does the same thing — but there is an exclusivity to it.
What’s interesting to me is, in addition to the overall lack of diversity, how this exclusively male-interpretation has influenced how Beatles historiography has been written. It’s undoubtedly impacted the versions we’ve been provided of Mary and Julia Lennon, who are pigeonholed into “Madonna and Whore” stereotypes; its impacted the defense of/castigation of Yoko and Linda, as male writers either implicitly or explicitly deride them or cast themselves, the authors, as defenders of these women against sexist, chauvinist Beatles and journalists. Its influenced the predominantly male rock press’s evaluation of Paul’s ‘feminine’ looks and characteristics, as numerous journalists cast him in the “mother,” “sister,” “wife” role in the Beatles quartet, and diminish his music by using heavily gender-coded language to associate it with predominantly feminine traits. That’s a topic I’d like to delve into deeper, but I need to do additional research first.
But when you consider that the 60’s produced countless important female voices in literature and journalism, one has to wonder why rock journalism is so bereft. By the 70’s and 80’s, we had female guitarists, rock bands, etc., but still no journalists. As you eluded to, there must be a strong and impenetrable old boys network going on.