Upon Further Review

There were two questions I was asked at the Pepper conference which I wish I could have further, and better addressed. The first involved the suitability of applying historical methods to secondary sources which were never intended to be anything but frivolous Beatles books designed to sell copies. The second involved John’s explicit reference to Pepper — “So Sgt. Pepper took you by surprise” in “How do you Sleep?” Having had the luxury of time to think about these questions, I’d like to flesh out those two issues further.

The first question, regarding the fairness of applying historical methods to non-academic works by Norman, Coleman, Flippo, Goldman, etc. is one that, due to the predominantly popular nature of Beatles historiography, is a delicate one to unpack. The question was whether it is fair or legitimate to judge non-academic works by academic standards, and whether a distinction should be made between them. Given that The Beatles and the Historians is a historiography of the Beatles which also applies historical methods analysis to many of these non-academic works, my answer is obviously yes; such application is fair. Evidently there’s a review of The Beatles and the Historians in the new edition of Beatlefan which also presents this exact same question, but disagrees with my answer. (I don’t have a copy of the review with me; but a fellow presenter kindly let me skim his copy, and this application of academic standards to non-academic books was their main sticking point — history is less sexy than biography, as they said — in what was, otherwise, an overall good review. When my publisher sends me the review, I’ll post it here). While I do regard the application of such methods as fair, I also agree that officially distinguishing between various types of works could be helpful. The issue of explicitly distinguishing between popular and historical intrigues me; perhaps, if I ever revise another edition of The Beatles and the Historians, that distinction should be more clearly drawn.

Here I want to stress the distinction between historiography — the story of how an event or individual has been told over time — and historical methods, which use established standards to determine the accuracy or credibility of a source. In my response, I focused on the historiographical aspects, and argued that any accurate analysis of Beatles historiography has to include any number of heavily influential (in some cases, seismic)   popular, non-academic works: Coleman, Norman, Goldman, etc. The reality is, you can’t write about how the Beatles story has been told over time without discussing these absolutely crucial sources, the same way you can’t discuss King John of England’s historiography without acknowledging the impact the Robin Hood legend had on his popular depiction. In addition, the historiography of multiple subjects often display similar patterns: initial narratives tend to be incomplete; many subjects never achieve historiographical orthodoxy but instead find themselves subject to ongoing debate. etc. If we fail to apply historiographical analysis, we run the risk of ignoring these patterns. In addition, applying historiographical analysis solely to those established academic works would provide only a very chronologically limited and ultimately deeply incomplete version of how the band’s story has been told over time. In this scenario, the first secondary work to be analyzed would presumably be Wilfrid Meller’s Twilight of the Gods, from 1972, followed by enormous gaps in the 1970s and 1980s, only picking up again with works by Lewisohn, Riley, Everett, etc. in the late 1980s. This would also be a historiography which is almost exclusively dominated by musicologists and academics steeped in music theory, as they are the disciplines which have published the most on Beatles. Like the larger field of overall Beatles historiography, it would also be completely dominated by a single demographic.

I remain convinced that any such limited historiographical analysis of the band would be incomplete. As a supplement to the greater overall study, perhaps, it could work: focusing exclusively on the role academic/legitimate writing has had on Beatles historiography and its narrative shifts sounds fascinating — at least to me. How and why some such sources wield such influence and others don’t would be a provocative question.

The application of historical methods is, I think, a little more complicated. While its impossible to write Beatles historiography without crucial, non-academic secondary sources, it is easier to make the case that it is almost an anachronism to apply historical methods standards to non-historians who were not even attempting to write legitimate biographies, but rather sell copies of hack works by piggybacking off the Beatles’ popularity.

When the question was offered at the conference, my primary response was that the influence of those non-academic works is so pervasive and has been folded into and influenced so much of the academic work on the band that historical methods analysis is necessary and legitimate. As the conference went on, various presenters inadvertently proved the point; there were several academics who referenced or quoted both Norman and Coleman in their presentations, and various others had used them as sources in earlier publications.

In addition, I find it curious to argue that we should apply historical methods source analysis to primary sources — I haven’t yet encountered anyone who disagrees with that approach, although the reality that most standards pre-date the rise of mass media and Beatles’ historiography is dominated by mass media must be noted — but not apply those same standards to a certain subgroup of secondary sources. What standards, then, should we apply to them? Journalistic ones? I can understand the rationale there, especially as so many pivotal works were written by journalists. However, many of the issues I noted in various Beatles’ works — such as particularly flagrant, admitted bias, or selective use of evidence — also violate journalistic standards.

Finally, the reality is that millions of fans and readers bought millions of books over the decades, believing they were getting accurate or credible accounts of Beatles history. What they got, instead, were highly inaccurate and in some cases heavily flawed versions of the band’s story. I tend to agree with Paul and Lewisohn on this one; when you spend your own money on something, be it a record or a book, that’s a big deal. You should get your money’s worth.

As for the “How Do You Sleep” question, my answer at the time was that Sgt. Pepper never failed to provoke strong emotion in John, and particularly during the breakup period, by John’s own admission, spurred feelings of resentment, insecurity and envy. (See his statements in the 1980 Playboy interview). Anger, as I’ve noted before, per Marc Bloch, lessens a source’s credibility and accuracy. However, if you combine this with John’s 1973 interview where the downplays the viciousness of “HDYS” by arguing that he really wrote the song about himself, then that puts a whole new spin on Pepper’s inclusion in the song. (Whether John’s 1973 comment was a genuine insight into his own psyche (and all that implies for the lyrics of HDYS as applied to John — “Jump when your Momma tells you anything,” anyone?) or simply a means for John to avoid the consequences of his statements is, of course, impossible to determine). The question at the conference was whether that line “Sgt. Pepper took you by surprise” was true: was Paul surprised at the acclaim that Pepper received? And did John realize that? I don’t think I offered a satisfactory answer to that question. Now, I’d turn the question around: if you go by the premise that John was, at least to an extent, telling the truth in 1973, that puts  a new spin on the line: was it John who was taken aback/surprised at Pepper’s acclaim? Was it John who was “taken by surprise?” at the critical acclaim to what he later labeled “Paul’s album?” Or was it both of them? Thoughts or comments on any of these questions and discussions are welcomed.


I’m going to be on vacation all next week, leaving Sunday, so no new post. But, hopefully, I will have my long-awaited review of “The Beatles Forever” up within two weeks.



13 thoughts on “Upon Further Review

  1. linda a. says:

    I agree Erin that secondary works should definitely be judged using historical methods. Especially works by authors who have the audacity to claim their account is “the definitive biography.” Such claims carry a responsibility to readers for authenticity.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Erin says:

      “Such claims carry a responsibility to readers for authenticity.”

      That’s one of my main sticking points too, Linda. What responsibility does an author owe its readers? If they’re going to subtitle a book with phrases like “the true story” or “the definitive life” or “the definitive biography” (and yes, I realize that often its the publisher, not the author, who chooses that title/subtitle) then isn’t that what the author should attempt to provide? And if they willfully refuse to attempt some of the basic standards which provide definitive and true works, shouldn’t we use the tools available to us to call them out on it?

      I want to stress that I didn’t pick and choose obscure historical methods standards just to nail certain authors and gleefully pick their work apart. And I could have — trust me, there are hundreds of standards, as anyone who has trudged through the 500 plus pages of “A Guide to Historical Method” knows. My main issues were when the problems were so fundamental to the methodology and the writing that they corrupted the entire work.

      I’ve had messages and reviews of “The Beatles and the Historians” from readers who talk about how impossible it was for them to wade through the maze of Beatles books. They didn’t know which ones were accurate and credible, and which ones were not; I had one reviewer saying they pretty much changed their mind with each new book they read, but “The Beatles and the Historians” gave them some tools to analyze as they read and reach their own conclusions. And that review thrilled me, because that’s exactly why I wrote it.


  2. linda a. says:

    As for John’s later claim that How Do You Sleep is really more about himself than Paul, I tend to believe him. The lyrics such as the “momma” line are very obviously about John rather than Paul. However only parts of the song are about John. The rest are about Paul. I remember John saying once, that he saw himself and Paul as the same person, so keeping that in mind it was probably natural for a song about Paul to also be about John. Although I think the parts John wrote about himself were more subconscious and inadvertent. However if John thought that saying the song was really about him, would conveniently absolve him of wrongdoing, he’s mistaken. Anyway the line about Pepper taking “you” by surprise, I personally think John wrote that line about both of them. I think in general the Beatles were often surprised at the impact they made. I can see Paul being surprised by Pepper’s acclaim just as John was. I think the “you” in this song is both John and Paul.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Erin says:

      I like the theory of certain aspects/lines of the song being about Paul, and others about John. The Momma line, in particular — if that was John’s subconscious speaking, what does that tell us about he viewed his own relationship with Yoko? Or the “you must have learned something over all those years” — this to the person who taught John how to play guitar chords.

      “I think in general the Beatles were often surprised at the impact they made. I can see Paul being surprised by Pepper’s acclaim just as John was.”

      I think so as well. Alan Moore notes in his book about how the rollout for Pepper really wasn’t exceptional for a Beatles album; they didn’t really push it any more than they had Revolver; but momentum quickly took on a life of its own as the accolades rushed in. Given that you have John arguing that he was “going through murder” during the album’s creation, and that he was referring to it as “Paul’s album” by 1969, I think you could see Paul being surprised and pleased at the album’s critical acclaim, (augmenting his own self-confidence) and John feeling surprised and insecure (this is our most acclaimed album, and Paul, not me, was its major architect). Cue John’s desperate insecurity and envy. They’d both be surprised, but for very different reasons and very different results.


      • linda a. says:

        “the “you must have learned something over all those years” — this to the person who taught John how to play guitar chords.”

        I just googled the lyrics so I’d have something to reference. And wow….it never ceases to amaze me even after all these years and decades, how venomous, malicious, and just absolutely awful these lyrics are. Every time I revisit this mess of a “song” I’m sickened all over again. The first time I saw and heard the lyrics I was simply bewildered, but as I gained more and more knowledge about the Beatles as a group and John and Paul as people and partners/friends, I realized how nasty and uncalled for this was. And I’m still bewildered. I read in Many Years From Now that Allen Klein had considerable input into the writing of this….thing. Come to think of it I can see that very clearly. It almost seems to me that most of the finished lyrics…maybe more than half sound like they might have come from Klein. It looks like John started it with the “Sgt. Pepper…by surprise…see right through that mother’s” etc. Then suddenly in the next verse it looks like John strayed away from the Paul topic and drifted into writing about himself. Then from the line about Yesterday, all the way to the end of the song, I’m getting this feeling that those lyrics originated with Klein. So perhaps John only wrote a couple lines that were even about Paul and those weren’t even that bad. From the middle of the second verse the song takes a chilling turn for the worst, as if a different person had taken over. Someone who had a lot more hatred for Paul than John could have mustered. I don’t know. Sorry for the digression. Any thoughts?


        • Erin says:

          Sorry for the late reply, Linda: we just got back from vacation.

          Interesting that you mark the “Yesterday” line as the point where Klein takes over, because according to Klein’s own 1971 Playboy interview, he declares that he comes up with the following line “And Now You’re just Another Day” because John’s original line would have given Paul grounds to sue, given that it accused Paul of stealing “Yesterday.” (Cue John’s obsession with “Yesterday”). I don’t know much after that about what lines specifically Klein (and Yoko) added, but you’re right: Paul attempts, in MYFN, to mitigate John’s participation by citing eyewitness accounts that at least half the song’s lyrics were written by Ono and/or Klein.

          I think it serves as an example of the patterns that all four men had developed over time. According to a number of sources– Yoko would be one, and yes, her account is self-serving and self-excusing, but also Eric Clapton and George Martin — the Beatles could be just vicious and cruel to each other as a matter of course. Clapton discusses it in the George/Scorsese documentary, and Martin mentions it, specifically John and Paul saying vicious things to one another regarding the other’s songwriting, in one of his interview statements that I quote in my book. I don’t say that to excuse HDYS’s viciousness — in fact, I think it demonstrates how things had spiraled out of control, because rather than keeping the battle amongst themselves, Too Many People/HDYS brought it into the public — but see it as part of an overall pattern. And you actually have John dragging out that justification numerous times throughout the 70s. It’s an adolescent, hypocritical, self-serving justification on John’s part, but its one he kept returning to and evidently believed in to a certain extent. I’m of the camp that believes that HDYS reveals far more about John than it does about Paul, and that is no coincidence that John names checks “Yesterday” and “Sgt. Pepper” — two “Paul” achievements — in the song.


          • Lynda says:

            I think that’s why John says the song is about him. In hindsight it says far more about him and his state of mind at the time than it does about Paul.

            I’m curious about John “going through murder” during Pepper’s creation…


            • Erin says:

              Hello, Lynda. Welcome.

              How much of John’s “going through murder” is his usual flair for hyperbole and how much is accurate is an interesting question. The “going through murder” phrase comes from a 1969 interview with Barry Miles; I believe it’s the same interview where John pegs Sgt. Pepper as “Paul’s album.” IIRC, John declares in this 1969 interview that Paul’s musical productivity in this time period was overwhelming, and that he, John, was feeling desperately insecure and inadequate, in part to his LSD use. I can’t remember whether John explicitly blames Paul’s productivity/creativity for John’s own feelings of inadequacy
              and wretchedness, but the implication is there, especially as John rounds out the quote by adding “I was going through murder, and I know Paul wasn’t.”

              In the Playboy interview, where he further discusses his resentment of the album, he adds his frustration/resentment of Paul’s bachelor/artistic/lifestyle freedoms, (living in London, going to clubs, not being married) whilst John was mired in suburbia with Cynthia, heavily using LSD, and feeling unproductive. How much of this was inspired by John’s LSD use, his apathy, his undiagnosed depression, etc. is really impossible to quantify. Interestingly, this is around the same time period that Davies is writing the Authorized biography, and, according to Davies, while John was apathetic and uncommunicative at home, once he got into the studio and specifically around Paul, he would come alive again.


  3. Karen Hooper says:

    Interesting piece, Erin.

    The question was whether it is fair or legitimate to judge non-academic works by academic standards, and whether a distinction should be made between them.

    I agree with your take, Erin, that the application of historical methods makes sense.

    I’ve heard the argument before about the unfairness of the application, and it’s often been made when glaring mistakes are identified in the narrative. 🙂 If you operationalize “historical methods”–examining how a story is constructed, by whom, using which data sources and with what objectives (to quote myself in the About This Blog)–it isn’t an esoteric undertaking for the chosen few; it’s good reporting.

    So Sgt. Pepper took you by surprise; you better see right through that mother’s eyes.

    I interpret this to be a statement about John’s jealousy regarding the success of Pepper, and his wish that he could get past Paul’s overwhelming influence and power over him.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Erin says:

      “I’ve heard the argument before about the unfairness of the application, and it’s often been made when glaring mistakes are identified in the narrative.”

      Could you talk about this a bit more, Karen? Was it an actual Beatles or other type of author who made this complaint? Or was it a partisan fan who didn’t like having their confirmation biases exposed to information which might force the to revise their fixed interpretations?


      • Karen Hooper says:

        I was recalling several long discussions on HD, actually. We all were discussing the error of commerical writers (esp Norman) at length, and the counter argument was that non-academics have different standards and pressures from the public and their publishers, and it was unfair and unrealistic to apply more rigorous standards to their work.


        • Erin says:

          I remember those discussions now, Karen.

          I think its fair, like some people at the conference discussed, to distinguish between those works expressly written for popular consumption, and those written for more academic purposes. And if I ever do a new edition of TBATH, I might stress that distinction more. (I just finished editing errors for the book’s second run, but it was more of a fixing the wrong name/album issue, instead of an expansion). But once that distinction has been made I think its fair to apply those standards.

          Again, not the really obscure, esoteric ones that no one who hasn’t studied historiography for five years would even know existed. But the basics: C’mon. Tell us your sources, either with a bib or citations. Apply basic source analysis to them. (Yes, it matters that every Beatle had their own agenda during the breakup period — and hey, so did George Martin). Don’t go in with a pre-conceived thesis, and don’t go in with an uncontrollable bias for or against a particular Beatle. I don’t think that’s too much to ask, or that it’s unreasonable for fans who bought millions of copies of books believing they were getting accurate to semi-accurate versions of the band’s story to expect that bare minimum of standards. I really wish we could have an experienced journalist on here, to offer their thoughts on the issue, since I tend to get locked into historian mode.


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