One, Two, Three, Four: The Beatles in Time
By Craig Brown Fourth Estate, 656pp, £20
The Beatles generated something close to a religion of their own. When John Lennon claimed to be more famous than Jesus, he didn’t endear himself to many Christians but was drawing a comparison that others half-conceded – even sceptics like the venerable Malcolm Muggeridge, who thought the Beatles came with faces like Renaissance saints “or Blessed Virgins”.
Their performances were marked by ritual hysteria. Countless millions scrutinised their music in a search for socio-spiritual significance and secret messages. The commonplace detritus of their lives turned into relics, realising sums at auction like the $2.1m paid not so long ago for one of Ringo’s drum-skins. And through time, the various Beatles stories metamorphosed into myth and legend – with what Craig Brown calls doctrinal differences and schisms among hagiographers “as fierce as those that beset the early Christian Church”.
Brown knows this because the research he’s undertaken for One Two Three Four is considerable: it’s a 630-page tome with another seven pages of bibliography. But what he’s written here is not straightforward history. It’s a wry, discursive, entertaining voyage around the Beatles as exemplars of the folly that attaches to celebrity and wealth, and qualifies whatever genius underpins it.
Brown adores the Beatles: they supplied the soundtrack to his childhood (as they did for many of us), and his personal memories are cut-and-pasted into the narrative with scrapbook randomness. But it’s the scrapbook of a satirist, taking a sharp delight in the absurd minutiae that build into a story so fantastic it inevitably loses touch with reason.
At its heart are four young Liverpudlians from modest backgrounds who discover everything they touch turns into gold, with the assorted pleasure, pain and lunacy this generates – from buying up mock-Tudor mansions with more rooms than they know how to live in, to creating companies that serve no purpose, which they run like infants in a playground.
Brown especially enjoys the motley crew of hangers-on who became bit-players in the Beatles story, ranging from the Maharishi (who became their temporary spiritual guide until it ended badly) to Detective Sgt Norman Pilcher (whose obsessive drugs raids on their houses staggered on until he found himself in prison, serving four years for corruption) and a youthful Jeffrey Archer. And then, of course, there’s Yoko Ono who, as Brown puts it, “embraced a form of art centred around self-assertion bound to a single idea, no matter how pedestrian that idea might be”.
Brown’s special gift for withering humour is no less entertainingly applied to his experience of latterday Beatles conventions (where most of the audience are over 70 and look like Bernard Manning) and visits to the Beatles’ birthplace houses, now owned by the National Trust. One of Brown’s most cherishable revelations is the NT’s catalogue description of an item, not even original, in Paul’s house. It’s a spoon “date 1960/2, 260mm, materials wood”, recorded as “Historic services/Food and drink preparation, summary: wooden spoon, kept in mixing bowl on dresser”. It competes with “Dustbin: metalwork, date 1940-60, summary: metal dustbin with separate lid (plus spare lid in coal shed)”.
Brown himself is also an accomplished gatherer of wonderfully obscure statistics – like the fact that on a single day in February 1964 some 20,000 Beatles wigs were sold in New York at $2.98 each. A bargain, given that in 1996 a single, auctioned lock of Lennon’s hair made £35,000.
If you like engaging trivia, this is a book to read. But more than that, it’s an examination of how cults develop, and the power they exercise. The Beatles didn’t just unseat a singing nun from chart-topping supremacy. As Iris Murdoch observed in her 1975 novel A Word Child, they upturned the English class system. And according to Mikhail Gorbachev they “taught the young of the USSR that there’s another life”. In retrospect, a worthwhile lesson.