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!
7 thoughts on “Book Review: The Beatles Forever”
Great review, Erin.
As I read your review I wondered if there were any authors out there who didn’t ego identify with John and feel some sort of strange antipathy toward Paul. It seems that those who knew the Beatles best, didn’t: George Martin, Geoff Emerick, Hunter Davies, maybe a few others. It gets tiring.
Interesting that you identified that, Karen, because you do get moments of that admitted identification from Schaffner: there’s a point where he states that the arty, intellectual, male fans liked John because they reminded him of them. As an arty, intellectual guy, John was, from the very beginning, Schaffner’s Beatle. And you can certainly see that in his writing. I don’t see an antipathy towards Paul or George; more of a willingness to accept common wisdom because it fits his predetermined preference. It might seem like splitting hairs, but I want to give Schaffner his due; he’s head and shoulders above many of his Beatle author contemporaries in that regard. And he acknowledges issues, such as the politics of the rock press, and how that impacted the breakup-era narrative. So he provides context and objectivity on some absolutely crucial issues; in fact, his analysis of the politically infused rock press reaction to the breakup is some of the best I’ve come across.
Too, you can have a favorite Beatle, or even a self-projection onto a favorite Beatle, without it being a methodological error. I think it’s Gaddis, or Garraghan, but one of them bluntly says “Personal preference need not represent gross bigotry.” I mentioned that in TBATH, because favoritism — in no small part due to John’s deliberately engineered breakup-era Lennon or McCartney schism– is such a crucial, impossible to ignore element of the band’s story. It’s when that favoritism/self-projection impacts your methodology that favoritism becomes an issue.
For my money, Schaffner’s primary error wasn’t so much that element of self-projection/favoritism (although it is present, as I said, his work is far, far more balanced than most other’s in that time period) as it was the evidence he didn’t have in the time period of his writing. The amount of primary and secondary sources were so unbalanced — even if it was slowly starting to even out — supporting the John-favored narrative that there was little for him to draw from that didn’t support the commonly accepted “Lennon Remembers” era-wisdom.
For example, Paul hadn’t done his Goodman/Salewicz interviews, and before MYFN, if you wanted Paul’s version of a lot of Beatles breakup-era issues/events, those were your only sources. Consider; we didn’t know until the Goodman interview, in the mid-80’s, that Paul went into this severe depression following the band’s split. So Schaffner’s view was the common view of the time, based on the evidence available to him: Millions of fans around the world were heartbroken, John was vocally shrieking his pain in Plastic Ono Band, and Paul’s actions, more than anyone’s, broke up the world’s greatest band, and he didn’t appear to care about anything other than the legal/financial issues.
We’ve discussed before – theorized, really – on how differently Beatles historiography would have been written had John not been murdered. This post has made me curious how differently Beatles historiography would be written had Paul launched his revisionism campaign in the 1970s rather than the late 80s. There’s no denying that waiting until after John’s death – which, of course, Paul could not have known was going to happen – weakens some of Paul’s statements, because we have no way of having John support them, forever identifying them as unverified eyewitness testimony.
I’ve just begun Rob Sheffield’s new book, Dreaming the Beatles, and his style reminds me of Schaffner’s. Sheffield has so much of the evidence available to him that Scaffner did not, and I think that is what makes such a crucial difference.
“It gets tiring.”
What I find even more tiring, and insulting, is the implicit judgement of female fans coming from those male authors (Schaffner, Coleman, Norman) who bestow intellectual and artistic superiority on John’s (male) fans. It’s a way of patting themselves on the back for being smart enough to prefer the smart, edgy Beatle. I find that insulting to both female fans (you don’t understand/appreciate the band at the same deep level as we men do) and to the fans who don’t have John as a favorite Beatle. I started out as a George girl — (lots of birth order/personality similarities there; how’s that for self-projection) — and the first time I read that observation regarding Beatles fandom, which basically implies male fans+smart=John fans as opposed to female fan+dumb=any other favorite Beatle, I remember feeling insulted.
Not splitting hairs at all–you’ve read the book, and I haven’t. 😉 Notwithstanding the paucity of work which challenged LR, however, I do think that anyone with a modicum of common sense could, at the very least, be wary of John’s ravings in that interview and fact-check some of his more egregious comments. I’m not directing my comments at this author in particular, but at Beatle authorship in general. It was crystal clear to me, as both a John fan and as a young teen, that John’s account was more of a cathartic undertaking than a factual accounting. Why wasn’t it evident to grown men who fancy themselves as Beatle aficionados? That’s what gets up my nose a bit.
That’s nice to hear. Such a key feature of Beatle history, and so often missed by other biographers.
You certainly can have a favourite Beatle, but when it enters the realm of projection, psychologically speaking, one tends to lose objectivity. But I get your point–having a favourite Beatle doesn’t necessarily translate into an inability to be factual and objective about the others. And I think just about everyone had a favourite Beatle.
A thousand times this. And it’s funny that they don’t apply the same “special” status to John’s female fans, which were legion. It gets back to that issue we talked about before, and fits in with the projection phenomena: female fans saw themselves as having a Beatle, while male fans saw themselves as being a Beatle. Now those male fans have grown up, written Beatle biographies, and apparently have decided that their particular form of fandom is superior.
“however, I do think that anyone with a modicum of common sense could, at the very least, be wary of John’s ravings in that interview and fact-check some of his more egregious comments.”
Absolutely. Or, if they spent two seconds considering it, anyone with common sense would realize the irony of John identifying Paul as the world’s most persistent, greatest PR man – an identification John gives Paul while in the midst of pushing his own agenda-pushing, narrative defining interview, Lennon Remembers. LR is John’s most important breakup-era interview, but it’s far from his only one; in terms of quality and quantity, John’s PR message was far stronger and ubiquitous than Paul’s in that time period. This was due, in large part, to John’s willingness to court the press, and Paul’s refusal — so who was the world’s greatest PR man?
“It was crystal clear to me, as both a John fan and as a young teen, that John’s account was more of a cathartic undertaking than a factual accounting. Why wasn’t it evident to grown men who fancy themselves as Beatle aficionados? That’s what gets up my nose a bit.”
That is a mystery to me, as well. I can guess that the political climate at the time has a lot to do with it. Schaffner notes how the values Paul promotes in the McCartney press release were/are essentially bourgeoisie, and how, coupled with what they knew (or thought they knew) about the split, the rock press in particular than identified Paul as a traitor of the counter-culture. For some rock critics, questioning John’s statements (or even applying common sense to them, as we’ve done) meant not only questioning him, but also the entire structure that counterculture=good, establishment=bad. It was no longer just about the Beatles, but also about self-identification and politics. You could see that LR was far more psychological catharsis than accurate account because you weren’t involved, so far as I know, with the other issues involved. I’m like you; the first time I read LR, I was gobsmacked that any anyone – anyone with more than two brain cells to rub together – took this interview at face value and accepted it as an accurate, credible version of events. And yet, for decades, many did.
“And it’s funny that they don’t apply the same “special” status to John’s female fans, which were legion.”
No, they don’t. Perhaps other authors, which I’m unfamiliar with, do, but evidently the intellectual superiority that goes hand in hand with being a John fan is a males-only club.
Old comment, again, but Karen: “female fans saw themselves as having a Beatle, while male fans saw themselves as being a Beatle. Now those male fans have grown up, written Beatle biographies, and apparently have decided that their particular form of fandom is superior” Yes, and how interesting that the Beatle they decided they “were” was John…! I’d love to see more digging in to why this was so. My impression is these men aren’t introspective about this, except for Norman’s seeming admission to being jealous of Paul, which is what I suspect this was all about.
LikeLiked by 1 person
That’s such a good point–as well as your point that challenging John’s narrative would be tantamount to challenging the counter-culture to which biographers believed they belonged.
The misogynistic nature of rock `n roll is ever-present even now. The hyper-sexualized female artist we’ve seen over the years, from Donna Summer, to Madonna, to Miley Cyrus, etc– isn’t liberating, it’s imprisoning. It’s simply a different side of the same misogynistic coin.