The Beatles called it quits forty years ago, but books about them are still released at a pace as steady as Ringo’s drumming. No rock band, and few pop icons, have received so much literary attention. The Fab Four continue to inspire new memoirs, revised histories, and critical reassessments. Here are some titles to consider when you feel like getting back to where you once belonged.
Spitz set out to write the definitive Beatles history, and he succeeded—at least for now. Pushing one thousand pages (trimmed, according to Spitz, from a twenty-seven-hundred-page first draft), this volume is a rare example of a rock biography that weds in-the-weeds obsessiveness with storytelling flair.
Lewisohn’s day-by-day chronicle of every recording session, from “Love Me Do” (no Ringo) to “Across the Universe” (only Ringo), may seem like a book for music nerds only—and, OK, maybe it is. But it’s also the truest Beatles book ever written, since it documents exactly how they created their great art. It is, moreover, a fascinating history of 1960s recording practices, showing the band’s evolution from making simple capture-the-performance records to crafting intricate, multitrack studio albums.
This volume is similar to Lewisohn’s book, but organized by songs rather than sessions. MacDonald tackles each tune, in chronological order, and aims to be the last word in Beatles exegesis. He fearlessly mixes musicological analysis, who-played-what historical data, and sophisticated critical explorations of each track’s meaning—both in the context of the band’s oeuvre and within the larger culture.
Emerick was a nineteen-year-old assistant at EMI Studios when producer George Martin picked him to be the Beatles’ chief engineer. Emerick’s promotion coincided with the second phase of the band’s career, when they eschewed live performances and became enamored with recording craft. Their studio (later named Abbey Road) lagged behind others in technological sophistication, so Emerick and his team had to improvise technical solutions to the Beatles’ lofty sonic directives—methods that are still used today.
This eclectic compendium highlights the group’s ability to inspire great writing. Highlights include Philip Glass’s heartfelt George Harrison obituary, Andrew Sarris’s Village Voice review of A Hard Day’s Night, and Allen Ginsburg’s poetic musings about the Beatles’ 1965 US tour. Richard Goldstein’s infamous negative review of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band from the New York Times and Robert Christgau’s thoughtful rebuttal from Esquire stand out as essential period pieces. Goldstein’s review generated hundreds of angry letters, though his main argument—that Revolver has better songs, while “A Day in the Life” from Sgt. Pepper’s is the greater artistic achievement—has become uncontroversial.
The attention-grabbing title is somewhat misleading, since Wald’s book isn’t really about the Beatles. But it does prove how much influence they still have, not only on popular music but also on music history. Wald concentrates on pop music that was actually popular, rather than the usual bands of the music-critical canon. He writes that the most praised Beatles songs, such as the mannered “Yesterday” and the arty epics of Sgt. Pepper’s, were responsible for stripping rock ’n’ roll of its crucially unruly origins.
Greg Milner's new book Perfecting Sound Forever: An Aural History of Recorded Music (Faber and Faber) was published in June.