The Beatles Bibliography Review: Part Two
In The Beatles Bibliography, Brocken and Davis contemptuously reject many of the primary and secondary sources which promote either the “Lennon Remembers” or Shout! narratives in Beatles history. Given the longevity of these narratives, this means both authors regard the majority of Beatles historiography as illegitimate, biased, poorly researched, and riddled with errors. While their decision to assess sources in alphabetical, rather than chronological order makes sense – as they note, chronological assessment would result in an enormous amount of sources for 1964 and dramatically less so for 1968 – it also prevents the authors from more clearly mapping out the greater overall picture. Interestingly, The Beatles Bibliography also emphasizes the extensive amount of post-Cold War Polish scholarship on the group: but, unfortunately, is unable to translate or evaluate the articles and books.
This rejection of both narratives continues throughout the book as both authors, and Brocken in particular, insert editorial comments arguing against the cultural transformation of Lennon into a popular saint, the mythologization of his contributions to Beatles music (which often come at McCartney’s expense), and repeatedly assert that McCartney’s solo material should be critically re-assessed.
Books displaying an unquestionable anti-McCartney bias, such as Ray Coleman’s Lennon and Philip Norman’s Shout!, are castigated for their partisanship; so are works whose partisan reputation is less entrenched. Alan Kozinn’s The Beatles: 20th Century Composers, in particular, which Brocken describes as “subjective, hero-worshipping twaddle masquerading as musicology,” draws authorial contempt and searing accusations of bias: “Many of McCartney’s most profound and inventive works receive scant analysis, while some of Lennon’s lesser works have imbalanced praise heaped on them: books such as this still (perhaps willfully?) ignore or underestimate his incalculable contributions to the Beatles canon.”
That McCartney (and, to a less obvious extent, Harrison and Starr) has been unfairly treated by some of Beatles historiography’s primary authors and narratives is, at this point, almost impossible to dispute. Brocken and Davis’s acknowledgement of this partisan imbalance is a crucial and necessary one, and underlies their assessments of numerous works. The primary question in The Beatles Bibliography is whether, in acknowledging this crucial and undeniable pro-Lennon bias, the book attempts to redress the balance by tilting too far in McCartney’s favor; dismissing in totality memoirs, such as Francie Schwartz’s, critical of the musician and seeing excessive partisanship where it might not exist.
Many of the assessments in The Beatles Bibliography conform to the assessments provided in The Beatles and the Historians, my own historical-methods evaluation of Beatles historiography’s most important sources and narratives. Writers such as Norman, Coleman, Wenner and Kane, popularly identified as having profound pro-Lennon biases, find the credibility of their works dismissed. Shout! is described as “the epitome of under-researched value judgment masquerading as Beatles and Liverpool histories,” Kane’s “Lennon Revealed” as “hagiography,” assessments which are difficult to disagree with. Tim Riley’s biography of Lennon draws criticism for both its description of the Beatles as “Lennon’s Beatles” and its soft, unquestioning approach regarding Ono’s behavior: Noting how Riley overlooks any aspects of sexual harassment in the May Pang case by arguing that wives appointing mistresses for their husbands is an old Japanese practice, or Riley’s failure to criticize Ono’s heroin use while pregnant. “The repeated miscarriages bring sadness but apparently no realization that heroin use might not be optimum prenatal care.”
Brocken and Davis demonstrate strength in their assessment of primary sources as well, and in particular “Lennon Remembers:” both authors acknowledge its vital importance to Beatles historiography but also note its questionable context and the fundamental errors in treating it gospel: “Like a spouse or a lover after an especially traumatic split, he demeans his former friends and bandmates, as well as their collective and individual artistic output unmercifully.” While both Brocken and Davis maintain professional objectivity on the subject of Yoko Ono, reading between the lines makes it clear that they regard a great deal of her behavior, and version of Beatles history, as suspect. Davis notes in her evaluation of “Lennon Remembers” that Ono’s presence may have influenced Lennon’s “toxic, yet infantile” criticisms of McCartney: “One wonders to what degree the interview was impacted by Lennon’s deference to her feelings and needs.”
Brocken, however, stumbles by applying personal and not professional judgment when evaluating Pang’s memoir, Loving John. While regarding much of the story as credible, Brocken describes himself as “exasperated” with Pang’s subservient behavior during her relationship with Lennon, and lumps in Cynthia Lennon and Pattie Boyd for similar behavior. “May Pang’s story echoes the usual narrative structure: Doormat, picked up, dropped, cheated, manipulated, used and abused, etc. … were none of these women ever able to stand up for themselves?” By ignoring that “standing up for themselves” may have resulted in a physically violent response from Lennon – at least for Pang and Cynthia Lennon – and the oppressiveness of a patriarchal society and culture which indoctrinated females from childhood with the belief that subservience to males was ideal, natural and required, Brocken, to an extent, blames the victims. (Having said that, I also find myself, like Brocken, exasperated at times with the behavior of Cynthia Lennon and certain other females in Beatles historiography, and their willingness to remain in unhealthy and abusive relationships and situations which negatively impact them and their children. However, as a product of a different generation, mindset, and happily free from any history of abusive relationships of any kind, I refrain from passing judgment on these women for the decisions they made).
The Beatles Bibliography endorses the credibility of works such as Jonathan Gould’s Can’t Buy Me Love, Mark Hertsgaard’s A Day in the Life, and Peter Doggett’s You Never Give Me Your Money. While acknowledging the transformational importance of Mark Lewisohn’s reference works, particularly The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions, Brocken also slips in subtle and not so subtle criticisms of Lewisohn’s colossal stature in Beatles historiography.
The overall question regarding whether The Beatles Bibliography, in an attempt to expose and redress previous partisanship, tilts too far in McCartney’s favor is difficult to ascertain. Certainly, Brocken and Davis demonstrate balance by also noting pro-McCartney biases in such works as Ian MacDonald’s Revolution in the Head and describe parts of Ian Peel’s approach in The Unknown Paul McCartney as “sycophantic.” (Perhaps writers with the first name of Ian are genetically pre-disposed to like McCartney). Given the pervasiveness and depth of the biases, flaws and agendas rampant throughout Beatles historiography, ultimately Brocken and Davis’s work establishes itself as a necessary corrective, using a form of peer review to call certain authors and narratives to account.