The mid-to-late 1970s period in Beatles historiography is most notably marked by aimless drifting; for the first time since 1962, the band’s story lacked a clear sense of direction. None of the four former Beatles were seemingly interested in directing their defunct band’s narrative. The flurry of breakup-era sources (“Lennon Remembers,” Apple to the Core) which had destroyed the official narrative had tapered off, and the outpouring of pivotal, if heavily flawed, secondary sources/biographies (Coleman, Norman, etc.) which followed Lennon’s 1980 murder had not yet occurred.
By the mid-70s Allen Klein had been sacked and sued by the Fab Three; a reality which gradually eroded the break-up era narrative perception that McCartney was the singular, mustache-twirling villain behind the band’s split. Lennon, whose interviews, and particularly “Lennon Remembers,” had served as the foundation for the breakup-era narrative, had, in his “Lost Weekend” era interviews, either implicitly or explicitly distanced himself from many of his earlier statements.
Just as importantly, his glut of media interviews tapered off as he chose, from 1975-1980, to remove himself from the public eye. (This meant that the number of Lennon-oriented primary sources no longer dramatically outnumbered the McCartney-oriented primary sources by a 5:1 ratio, as they had during the breakup-era. This return to a more balanced amount of sources from each side of the Lennon/McCartney split helped rein in some more partisan interpretations). McCartney’s reputation had rebounded from its critical McCartney/Ram era-depths with “Band on the Run” and his 1976 Wings tour. Harrison’s star had fallen from its “All Things Must Pass” peak, following his Dark Horse tour and subsequent critical drubbing. All three, along with Starr, had reportedly pondered the idea of a potential reunion. In retrospect, the last best chance had evidently passed them by in 1974/1975, when Lennon changed his plans from meeting with McCartney in New Orleans; choosing instead to move back into the Dakota. With the advent of Punk, the Beatles were viewed by some members of the younger generation as musical has-beens, even if millions still hoped and anticipated for some kind of eventual reunion as the four ex-Beatles moved closer to middle-age.
Beatles scholarship was similarly adrift. Following the early 70’s output, which included works including Wilfrid Mellers Twilight of the Gods or Richard DiLello’s crazy but true memoir, the band’s historiography seemed in the doldrums, gradually shifting away from key aspects of the “Lennon Remembers” narrative, especially its pro-Klein elements, but without a new, prevailing narrative to provide coherent direction.
While Mark Shipper’s Paperback Writer (a humorous, fictionalized account of what the author referred to, in 1977, as the inevitable Beatles reunion) may be the most popular work of this particular period in Beatles historiography, Nicholas Schaffner’s The Beatles Forever is a close second. One of the most engaging works in all Beatles historiography, Schaffner’s work provides a fascinating, if heavily flawed bridge, between the “Lennon Remembers” narrative and its successor, the Shout! narrative. It also provides glimpses of a potential “what-if” scenario: how Beatles historiography might have been written in the 1980s had the tragedy of December 1980 not occurred.
Published in 1977, Schaffner (who would later corroborate with Lennon’s boyhood friend, Pete Shotton, on Shotton’s memoirs, post-Lennon’s death) provides in The Beatles Forever part record-collectors guide, part Beatles biography, and part musical analysis of the band’s collective and solo output. Irreverent, snarky and, in the pre-internet era, bursting with difficult to find, obscure information, The Beatles Forever quickly gained a reputation as a gem. For dedicated Beatles fans of the time period, it was nothing less than essential. Tim Riley praised Schaffner’s evaluations of their solo work in particular, and some of Schaffner’s analysis – especially his less than gushing views on Sgt. Pepper’s artistry, for example – are now regarded as common wisdom.
Schaffner’s work looms large in the context of its time, and its influence is undeniable. As a look at the Beatles up to 1977, it provides a strong, if still somewhat flawed, analysis. When the book is retrospectively analyzed, however, Schaffner’s work is irreparably handicapped by the timing of its publication, and the sources he did not have. Consider, briefly, just some of the absolutely essential primary sources unavailable upon the work’s publication: David Sheff’s 1980 Playboy Interviews with John and Yoko. George Martin’s All you Need is Ears. Lewisohn’s The Beatles Live. George’s I Me Mine. The seismic The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions. Paul’s 1986 interviews with Chris Salewicz. The Nagra tapes of the “Let it Be” sessions. Even the absence of the reviled Goldman is key, when viewed through the lens of Schaffner’s failure to account for Lennon’s drug use and how his struggles with jealousy and insecurity impacted his statements and behavior. This list is just the tip of the missing historiographical iceberg.
This is not to condemn Schaffner for failing to utilize material he did not have access to and, in many cases, did not yet exist. But any current reader who picks up Schaffner expecting an accurate, more nuanced version of the band’s story and the individuals in it must approach the work with the understanding that the inadvertent gaps left by the absence of these sources fundamentally weakens the accuracy and balance of Schaffner’s evidence and interpretations.
Another issue which fundamentally weakens Schaffner’s work is his failure to apply basic source analysis to even his most widely utilized sources. As with so many post-breakup secondary sources, particularly those published in the 1970s and 1980s, “Lennon Remembers” is both ubiquitous – it’s probably the most commonly used source in The Beatles Forever— and treated as gospel. Schaffner relays the quotes and information from John’s breakup-era, Wenner-encouraged, agenda-saturated, heroin and cocaine-addled, ex-post-facto partially disavowed rant without applying a single grain of salt. The author also repeatedly emphasizes John’s honesty as a source; contrasting him, favorably, with the more P.R. driven McCartney. These factors — his unquestioning acceptance of Lennon’s statements in “Lennon Remembers” and his firm belief in the musician’s accuracy — mean that Schaffner repeatedly relates as truth what we now know to be inaccurate information on any number of events: why the Beatles didn’t put out “Cold Turkey,” for example, or the tired nugget of blaming Paul, and Paul alone, for George’s departure during the “Let it Be” sessions.
The combination of this lack of source analysis, coupled with the absence of those pivotal but unavailable primary sources, results in Schaffner’s occasional but still disappointing embrace of the popular stereotypes which predominated in the Lennon Remembers narrative. Such stereotypes are not pervasive or seemingly intentionally vindictive: Schaffner is no Coleman, or Goldman, and does attempt to view certain events and individuals from more than one angle. Every Beatle is praised and criticized, although to varying and subjective degrees. However, those fans who long ago tired of the weak, simplistic caricatures of George as cheap, grumpy and “preachy,” or Paul as cloyingly sweet and musically “mundane,” are forced to grit their teeth in parts of Schaffner’s otherwise intelligent analysis. For this female reader, Schaffner’s repeated descriptions of McCartney’s appearance – he identifies the musician as “pretty” or “cute” on seemingly every other page – quickly grew tiresome. So too did his deliberate comparison between Yoko Ono and Linda McCartney, and also Linda McCartney and Jane Asher. Unfortunately, Schaffner is another male Beatles author whose work displays the common pattern of “pitting” the key females in Beatles historiography against one another and bestowing his preference on one or another.
Ultimately, Schaffner’s work is a lost opportunity, and an excellent, textbook case of how essential historical distance is for secondary sources. Given access to today’s essential primary sources, Schaffner could presumably have produced one of the most entertaining, intelligent, and essential works on the band. Forever trapped in the context of its time, however, today The Beatles Forever ultimately proves less than essential, and more a fascinating snapshot of the state of Beatles historiography in the period when the more extreme parts of the “Lennon Remembers” narrative were slowly eroding; before Lennon’s tragic death and the fundamental historiographical shift from primary to secondary sources brought them roaring back.
Thoughts and comments are welcomed. Let me know what you think!