Just when you thought there was nothing new to write about the Beatles, after Ian MacDonald's Revolution in the Head and Mark Lewisohn's epic, All These Years, which, with over 900 pages, has only reached 1962, comes Craig Brown's "exploded biography", One Two Three Four: The Beatles in Time.
It's 50 years since the Beatles broke up, but their music and their cultural significance are as strong as ever. Brown has said, "the Beatles story has got everything ...Theirs is a rags-to-riches human drama. Once they became successful, of course, it didn't make them happier. There's the sociological backdrop, the curious phenomenon of fandom ... It's endlessly fascinating. The book is 600 pages but could've been 10 times the length".
Brown follows the structure of his award-winning Ma'am Darling: 99 Glimpses of Princess Margaret (2017), creating a revealing biographical collage of the Beatles in 150 short chapters, comprising shards of history, anecdotes, lists, concerts, contemporary viewpoints and personal memories.
This is the Beatles seen through kaleidoscope eyes.
While Brown covers the Beatles from childhood to the present day, he essentially focuses on the 13 years from when John and Paul play together at Woolton church fête in 1957 to the breakup of the Beatles in 1970. Brown also places the Beatles "in his time", by revisiting Beatles sites in National Trust (!) tours.
This reviewer, who first remembers seeing the Beatles perform live in 1962 in the smelly, damp warehouse cellar of the Cavern Club in Liverpool, can attest to the accuracy of Brown's account of the early Liverpool days of the Beatles.
The fusion of the four key elements that ultimately constituted the Beatles: fire (John), water (Paul), air (George) and earth (Ringo) was, however, not inevitable. Brown recounts, for example, how Paul McCartney, after returning from Hamburg, nearly gave up the Beatles as he had a paid manual job lined up.
And what if Brian Epstein had not visited the Cavern that lunchtime on November 9, 1961 to see the Beatles? John Lennon is quoted, "We were in a daydream 'til he came along ... We stopped chomping at cheese rolls and jam butties onstage".
Brown has his pecking order of Beatles, favouring Ringo, who, with his "bus driver's face" was "the workhorse among prize ponies", then the diligent and financially aware Paul, the shy, stubborn and spiritual George and finally the witty, mercurial and often bullying, "Lord Snooty", John.
Brown, who read over 100 of the 732 published Beatles books, reveals the differing ways in which the key biographers have covered events, such as the accounts of John Lennon's 1963 physical attack on Cavern DJ Bob Woolley, after Woolley implied that Lennon and Epstein had had a homosexual relationship in Spain.
Brown uses this episode to illustrate "the random, subjective nature of history, a form predicated on objectivity but reliant on shifting sands of memory".
The chaos of management after Epstein's suicide and the Apple office is well documented. New manager, Allen Klein is described as "having the charm of a broken lavatory seat".
In that context comes Jeffrey Archer who, in 1964, tricked the Beatles into an Oxfam event at Oxford University, leading Ringo to say Archer was "the kind of bloke who'd bottle your piss and sell it".
Brown documents a number of sad figures. Pete Best, after being replaced by Ringo in 1962, later attempted suicide in 1967. Another drummer, Jimmy Nicol, the temporary replacement of Ringo on the 1964 Australian tour, is now "too forgotten a figure even to feature in roundups of forgotten figures".
Brown covers all the major events in the Beatles' life but what stands out are often the little-known details. Did you know that Earl Mountbatten of Burma bought a set of Beatles wigs for his grandchildren and wore one on Christmas Day in 1964? J R R Tolkien hated their music so he vetoed their planned 1968 film of The Lord of the Rings, with Paul as Frodo, Ringo as Sam, George as Gandalf and John as Gollum. Lennon's absentee father turned up, "reeking of garbage" at a Beatles fancy-dress party as 'My Old Man's a Dustman', in clothes he had bought from a real dustman for £5.
Meanwhile, anti-Semites attempted to assassinate Ringo in Montreal with Ringo proclaiming "I'm not Jewish". Bob Dylan introduced them to marijuana, while Brigitte Bardot told Lennon, severely affected by LSD, to leave her bedroom and, finally one of Lennon's teeth sold for £19,000 in 2011 to a dentist who hoped to use its DNA to identify illegitimate Lennon children.
Brown believes the Beatles came to an end as a group just at the right time. Memory-wise, they finished on a high, as does Brown's book, which is as much an effervescent and illuminating social history as a magical mystery tour.
- One Two Three Four: The Beatles in Time. By Craig Brown. Fourth Estate. $32.99.