“A Fascinating Historiographical Tale”, B. Lee Cooper
Gallons of publishing ink have been spilled on behalf of Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, Madonna, and Bruce Springsteen. Celebrity adulation in print is common. But no popular music figures have been loved and lauded, attacked and criticized, dissected and reconstructed more thoroughly than The Beatles. Separately, as John, Paul, George, and Ringo, they have been subjected to hagiography and psychoanalytic biographies. Together, as The Fab Four, they have witnessed a kaleidoscopic range of commentary. For example, there are endless lists of Lennon-McCartney song lyrics, many tales of the boys from Liverpool performing at the BBC, numerous Beatles memorabilia price guides, full discographies of released recordings as well as studio session tapes, compilations of Beatles myths, reports of concert song selections and bootleg record releases, and all sorts of encyclopedias, anthologies, and compilations on Beatlemania. Over the past six decades, commentators on The Beatles have ranged from Lester Bangs, Pete Best, and Spencer Leigh to Tom Schultheiss, Dave Thompson, and Allen J. Wiener. Kansas-based historian Erin Weber notes, “The story of The Beatles…evokes Campbellian myth, Shakespearean drama,and elements of Greek tragedy along with sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll.” She continues by observing, “[T]he Beatles and many others have attempted to tell their story countless times and in wildly differing ways. They have created and destroyed mythologies and, in a few cases, produced works of enduring history.” (p. 213) In THE BEATLES AND THE HISTORIANS, Weber meticulously and thoughtfully culls through the maze of Beatles-related bibliophilia and defines a fascinating historiographical trail. Her work is lovingly assembled, but amazingly objective. Her analysis of the foremost Beatles observers is clear, concise, and critical. And her conclusions about the historical record of The Fab Four are forthright and enlightening. This book will interest long-time fans and attract new listeners as well. The text not only examines the facts of Beatles existence, but it also explores the phenomena of celebrity marketing and sustaining imagery that are hallmarks of popular culture. Weber simultaneously lionizes a significant artistic group while dissecting the myths surrounding their long-term careers. This is a rare achievement in print.
Weber deconstructs the lengthy Beatles history into a series of distinctive narratives. She maintains that these conflicting and contradictory intellectual constructs have been fabricated by The Beatles, their managers and publicists, fans and journalists, and other professional writers. Few if any of these myth creators had sufficient factual content or followed appropriate historical methodology in their works. Weber outlines her study in four major sections. First, she covers the initial Beatlemania years beginning in 1964. Biographies stressed group unity and boyish pranksterism, with Brian Epstein and The Fab Four offering quotes and carefully modified personal histories. Second, Weber explores the dissolution of The Beatles in 1970 and the end of the official collaborative imagery. Suddenly, John Lennon and Paul McCartney were polarizing, competing figures. Magazines like ROLLING STONE and critics like Robert Christgau happily took sides in this narrative of conflict and egomania. Third, the author cites John Lennon’s assassination in 1980 as a time of major rebooting for The Beatles saga. Players like Yoko Ono became heritage definers and journalists like Phillip Norman drafted SHOUT: THE TRUE STORY OF THE BEATLES (Simon and Schuster, 1981) which emerged as the “true” tale of two decades of life among The Liverpool Lads. Finally, Weber locates a historian equal to the task of critically assessing the Beatles over time and with scholarly attention to detail. The 2013 release of Mark Lewisohn’s THE BEATLES: ALL THESE YEARS — VOLUME ONE — TUNE IN (Crown) marks the point where the three previous narratives are revealed as fraudulent by a more carefully research, more thoroughly documented assessment. But Weber warns that previous orthodoxies about The Beatles die hard. She does not claim that Lewisohn’s work is final, either. But his study is distinctive because of his long-term commitment to unearthing new factual materials to undergird his perceptive interpretations. Weber seems less interested in Lewisohn’s triumph than in championing the persistent application of valid historical principles in assessing all popular culture heroes and heroines. Her model for historiography is drawn from John Lewis Gaddis, the Yale scholar who authored THE LANDSCAPE OF HISTORY: HOW HISTORIANS MAP THE PAST (Oxford University Press, 2002). The processes that Gaddis describes are the same ones that Weber skillfully applies to her exceptional analysis of the shifting Fab Four narratives.
As a matter of full disclosure, I learned of the construction of THE BEATLES AND THE HISTORIANS more than a year prior to its publication. While I have never met Weber in person, she did permit me to read several chapters of her draft manuscript. Her approach was interesting. After re-reading her fully-footnoted, well-indexed final text, I am even more impressed by her superb scholarship. Weber marches from the first Beatles myths along several twisting literary paths of admiration, conflict, conciliation, and eulogy to the current age of historical clarity and accuracy. Her tale is intriguing. Her arguments and evidence are convincing. This 2016 McFarland publication challenges all popular music pundits and popular culture biographers to be more thorough and honest. The lives of Otis Redding, Barbra Streisand, Aretha Franklin, Little Richard, Prince, and others warrant creative revisionism. Fortunately, Weber acknowledges the genius of The Beatles while revealing the unnecessary mythology that misled so many early fans and admirers for so long.
B. Lee Cooper holds a Ph.D in history and is the former provost at Newman University. He frequently reviews for the Routledge journals Rock Music Studies and Popular Music and Society, and has published approximately 10 books on pop music, rockabilly, and American pop culture.
“This Is A Different Kind Of Book…I Recommend It Enthusiastically!”, From Me To You Newsletter, No. 132
In April, 2016, just in time for this edition, a book was printed by McFarland and Company, publisher in Jefferson, North Carolina, USA, the English language book from Erin Torkelson Weber: “The Beatles and the Historians.” It is an analysis of writings about the Fab Four. Erin Torkelson Weber is a Social Science Researcher and teacher of American History at Newman University, Wichita, Kansas.
“The Beatles and the Historians” —what does the reader expect from this title? Hundreds of books have been written about the Beatles. In the course of the last half of the century, her book contains a coverage of the myth, the truth, and the made up statements which were printed by biographers and journalists alike.
Her ongoing examination shows that many of these works can not be established as historical.
Erin Torkelson Weber uses historiography to analyze the Beatles. The book supports itself by the use of influential primary and secondary sources and analysis of writings and evidence about the Fab Four.
This is a different kind of book about the Beatles. In “The Beatles and the Historians”, the author analyzes the Beatles story by used of historical methods. Even though the book title sounds very academic, the author was able to reach out to the reader with a very exciting trip through the history of the Beatles years.
I recommend the book enthusiastically!
This review was published in the German Newsletter “From Me To You” and was translated to English by Raymond Torkelson. Below is the German version.