*Dreaming the Beatles*

The author is Rob Sheffield and the subtitle is The Love Story of One Band and the Whole World.  So far this year this is my favorite book, in part because it stretches genres in a creative way.  In addition to being a study of fandom, celebrity, 1960s history, “how boys think about girls,” and of course the music itself, it is most of all a splendid take on small group cooperation, management, and the dynamic between John and Paul.  I enjoyed every page of this book, and learned a great deal, despite having read many other books on the Beatles.  Here is a typical passage”

The Beatles invented most of what rock stars do…They invented breaking up. They invented drugs. They invented long hair, going to India, having a guru, round glasses, solo careers, beards, press conferences, divisive girlfriends, writing your own songs, funny drummers. They invented the idea of assembling a global mass audience and then challenging, disappointing, confusing this audience. As far as the rest of the planet is concerned, they invented England.

A few of the more specific things I learned were:

1. For a while Stanley Kubrick was planning on making a movie version of Lord of the Rings with Paul as Frodo, Ringo as Sam, and John as Gollum.  George was to be Gandalf.

2. When the cops raided Keith Richards’s mansion in 1967 and found cocaine, they threw it away because they had never seen it before and didn’t know what it was.

3. When Paul McCartney played an acetate of “Tomorrow Never Knows” for Bob Dylan, Dylan’s response was “Oh, I get it.  You don’t want to be cute anymore.”

4. The French title for “A Hard Day’s Night” was Quatre Garcons Dans Le Vent, which translates roughly as “Four Boys in the Wind.”

The book is funny too:

I always loved this sentence in Our Bodies, Ourselves, the Eighties edition I had in college: “The previous edition of Our Bodies, Ourselves included a brief section on astrological birth control, which just doesn’t work.”  So much going on in that sentence, dispatched with no drama.  Maybe a shade of irony, but no hand-wringing — just a change of mind announced as efficiently and discreetly and decisively as possible.


Paul has a compulsive need to feed his enemies all the ammunition they could want.  The software of “don’t take the bait” was never installed in his system.  No celebrity has ever been easier to goad into gaffes.  I love that.


As Lennon snapped in 1980, after getting asked one too many times if they [he and Paul] still spoke, “He’s got 25 kids and about 20,000,000 records out.  How can he spend time talking?  He’s always working.”

On the revisionist upswing in this book are Rubber Soul, “I’m so Tired,” “It Won’t Be Long,” and John Lennon’s “God.”  On the revisionist downswing is Let It Be and Paul McCartney’s “My Love.”

Not for the unconverted, but I’m glad to see people writing books with me as the intended audience.  Here is a quite insightful review, in which Chris Taylor writes: “…it may be the first book to encompass the entire Beatlegeist. If aliens land tomorrow, and demand to know why we keep on pumping this particular brand of music into space, this is the first book you would hand them.”


And for those who cannot resist mash-ups of the Beatles and Star Wars, let me introduce you to
Princess Leia's Stolen Death Star Plans - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NYD3QtyEGGM&list=PL8s6sSjUyaxUk3mCUqiNuJiMNxs9QdthO

Good luck - someone worse than Vader will be looking to take these down as quickly as possible.

I wonder if Tyler has ever read "Revolution in the Head," by British music critic Ian MacDonald.

It offers reviews of every single song the Beatles ever recorded in chronological order. The reviews include unusually specific comments about the song structure and instrument use as well as detailed comparisons to previous and future songs by the Beatles and related explanations of what was happening in the music world and among the Beatles as the song was written. Pretty amazing.

The part about Paul McCartney going on a Motown crash course because he wanted to write a rhythm and blues song is astounding. The song he came up with in less than two months is "Got to Get You Into My Life." Wow.

One of the few Beatles songs where a cover version was perhaps even better than the original.



I'd always assumed you were an intellectual not a trainee nerd.

Why the hell would you assume that?

Even intellectuals were young once.

I also saw the band Chicago do a fantastic cover at a Los Angeles concert in the 1970s. (I believe it was on of their encores. The crowd went wild when they realized what song it was.)

If McCartney took "a crash course" in Motown & the results were "Got to Get You Into My Life," he should have asked for his money back.

It's a good song and all, but there's very little in it that draws on Motown or rhythm & blues more generally.

They also invented the 'British Invasion'

btw, The Beatles were a big influence on Miles Davis in the sixties, by way of Tony Williams. Even Duke Ellington got in on the act: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8oCnFvz8YKc

'Beatlegeist': love it!

No. The media invented "the British invasion," and part of the reason was the Dave Clark Five.

Upswing for me: Blue Jay Way. Maybe my favorite George.

Yes, these guys helped to popularize the idea of "drugs are fun". They were no angels, but at least no one overdosed, killed a partner, suicide or any other outcomes of rockstar + drugs.

As someone completely removed from Beatlemania this book looks fairly interesting for that reason. Their music strikes me as simple and boring but I am not their target demographic. But maybe this book will allow me to see what it is that keeps them popular with baby boomer Americans.

"Simple and boring"? Do you like polyphonic madrigals or something? FYI the Beatles are played by classical orchestras.

As for modern, I saw this N SYNC video yesterday "It's Gonna Be Me (May)" from 1999 and was struck how 'modern' it looked, with the synchronized dancing, Auto-Tune voices, blonde hair highlights and cartoon video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GQMlWwIXg3M Great stagnation in pop, nothing has changed in 18 years.

Yes i do how did you know?

Anyways pops orchestras will play anything.

Does this mean that in 20 years there will be books about how great and genius the backstreet boys were?

"Does this mean that in 20 years there will be books about how great and genius the backstreet boys were?"
Yes, or at least Youtube rants. The point is, the Beatles were somewhat special. They influenced much of Brazil's modern popular music. They influenced Belchior, who died recently, the group 14-Bis and the people from the Clube da Esquina movement. Without the Beatles, Brazilian music would sound a lot difference.

"simple and boring" goes too far, but the Beatles are, IMHO, the most overrated band in R&R history (with the possible exception of the Rolling Stones).

please note that "overrated" does not equal "bad"

Exactly. I think Michael Jordan is overrated as a basketball player. He's the greatest ever, but he's rated as literally a god among men who never lost and single handedly defeated all other greats.

The Beatles are one of the greatest pop/rock groups ever, but are rated even higher. It is understandable though, things really did change significantly (in pop culture) when they came around. It's worthy of the discussion, they weren't just a great band.

Exciting msgkings we finally agree on something. Yes MJ is the greatest no the gap isn't that big. It would be strange for it to since it would be the only vector of human achievement that wasn't closely bunched at the very top.

I'll say this for the Beatles 70 percent of the raw material for the gradual development of rock music was there in unfinished form in their body of work.

I think we've agreed on musical topics before....

But are you sure it's 70 percent? Not 65, or 75? :-)

I rounded up from 68.37.

Take this with the proverbial grain of salt, but I never ever think to myself: "hmmm, I will play a Beatles song or album next." And yet I frequently play some Stones.

Both bands may indeed be overrated, and neither is bad, but the Stones are R&R legends while the Beatles were a cultural phenomenon.

This isn't quite fair to the Beatles they were great rock and rollers but yes the separation between them and the Beatles re: critical reputation is almost entirely cultural phenomenon related.

I like the say that The Rolling Stones top five songs are as infinitely better than than the Beatles top five songs and The Rolling Stones worst five songs are infinitely worse than the Beatles worst five songs. If you have to pick a song at random go Beatles every time.

The Stones are far more overrated. The diversity of the Beatles' catalog is astonishing.

I'm a sucker for Beatles' books, so I looked at the inside of the book on Amazon and found an error. He claims that the last words spoken on a Beatles record were by Paul, thanking Maureen Cox for clapping during their rooftop performance of Get Back. Anybody who writes a book on the Beatles should know that the last recording was Abbey Road, later in 1969. That was released in September of 1969. The recordings for Let it Be sat around because nobody had much enthusiasm for it until Phil Spector was given the tapes and he made an album out of it, which was released in 1970. I know that it is impossible to write a long, factual book without errors, but he made a larger point of it.

I'm waiting for Mark Lewisohn to finish his second book in a Beatles trilogy. The first was long and exhaustive, but very good (Tune in, IIRC). I think you have to like their music to enjoy these books. Their story is fascinating for many reasons, one of which is how many different plot turns were necessary to make them what they were and are: finding each other, the apprenticeship in the Hamburg red light district, the appearance of Brian Epstein, the introduction to George Martin. Fortunate, all of them, but it took talent and drive to turn luck into the Beatles.

He does discuss the Abbey Road point, at some length, and I don't think it is an error.

Sheffield is often wrong. As I said, he knows a lot, but he also has a tendency to be lazy in both his writing and his research.

He's just a kid. I just finished "All You Need is Ears", by George Martin (with somebody else). No Kindle edition, so I had to read the paperback, which was an odd experience. Not as much Beatles as I expected, but a lot of very interesting stuff about the recording process, including a discussion of the well-tempered scale, acoustics and the placement of microphones.

"They invented the idea of the self-contained rock band, writing their own hits and playing their own instruments. They invented the idea that the world's biggest pop group could grow up into arty, innovative musicians. For that matter, they invented the idea that there was any such thing as the world's biggest pop group. They also invented drugs, beards, bed-ins, India, concept albums, round glasses, the Queen, breaking up, and vegetarians."

Rob Sheffield in the Rolling Stone Album Guide, 4th Ed (2004).

"The Beatles invented most of what rock stars do…They invented breaking up. They invented drugs. They invented long hair, going to India, having a guru, round glasses, solo careers, beards, press conferences, divisive girlfriends, writing your own songs, funny drummers. They invented the idea of assembling a global mass audience and then challenging, disappointing, confusing this audience. As far as the rest of the planet is concerned, they invented England."

About 150 on the international hyperbole scale.

The drugs part is not hyperbole. They enjoyed drugs without becoming part of this list ;) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_pop_musicians_who_died_of_drug_overdose

"About 150 on the international hyperbole scale."

Yep. They didn't invent writing their own songs (Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Bo Diddley) or breaking and subsequent solo careers (the Yardbirds and Eric Clapton). Drugs? How many jazz, blues, R&B, and country musicians in the 50's were known to be drug users?

Anita O'Day took heroin from 1954 to 1970. Rosemary Clooney was addicted to seconal at one point. I think Billie Holliday took heroin.

It was a rhetorical question -- there were a lot of them. The 1950s were not a innocent decade where drug problems were unknown or outside the public consciousness. The Man with the Golden Arm (Frank Sinatra plays a heroin addict) was released in 1955, for example. And On the Road was published in 1957. The eastern religion influence wasn't a Beatles innovation either. John Lennon was a fan of Alan Ginsberg, named the 'Beatles' after the 'beat generation' and Ginsberg went to India for enlightenment years before the Beatles did:


Yep. Many of the items on that list are things that simply happened to them, not innovations they designed.

this list is just another indication of how wildly overrated they are

One wonders how the stars could be aligned so perfectly as to produce a phenomenon like the Beatles. Or Jesus Christ. When John said that the Beatles were more popular (or bigger) than Jesus, I think that's likely what he had in mind. Talented musicians come and go, as do apocalyptic preachers. Timing is essential. As is the alignment of the stars.

All that, plus maybe 9 good songs. Written over 10 years.

Oooo so EDGY!

But basically on the mark. How many Beatles songs have you listened to this month.

A fair point, if you don't include in movies or commercials. I would say I've heard a couple of their songs on my internet streams though.

And no 9 good songs is not on the mark, it's very low. Pretty much every song on Rubber Soul and Revolver are good to great, and then each album after has at least 4-5 good ones.

That's a fair point I was thinking great not good. They wrote a ton of good songs. I'd say nine great songs is close to the mark maybe even a little high.

"despite having read many other books on the Beatles" You poor, sad bastard, Mr Cowen. Have you considered collecting baseball cards?

How rude! I for one am exponentially more interested in, say, the textual variations in the surviving fragments of Sophocles and Shakespeare's favorite writer Ovid than I will ever be in the ways and byways of baseball cards, but even I have to admit there is a lot of interest in the baseball card arena. Even limiting oneself to the Topps official products, there are - in the backgrounds - dozens of different species of trees, more than a thousand different cloud formations over the Floridas and Arizonas of yesteryear (many more clouds than you will find in even the most inspired meteorology textbook), more than 200 different rock outcrops (thanks to the Arizona locations of so many spring-training West Coast team photo-shoots), and literally dozens of decent portraits among the - I won't argue with the negatives here - literally (yes, also literally) tens of thousands of workmanlike photos - (but among the inspired portraits there are the Conigliaro and Berra ones with the brown dirt third base line sadly stretching to infinity behind them in the greenery - Berra, who was fated to live almost forever, and Conigliaro, who would have made Housman himself taken aback at the evanescence of youth and happiness) - and if you enjoy Vermeer and Rembrandt check out what the now-forgotten photographers did with the aging Dimaggios and Mantles and Mayses and Musials and their ilk - and even just a few years ago some genius of photography photographed Seattle Mariners manager Don Wakematsu, not a guy with a very interesting face, in a weird fog ( the black edged limited edition brings out the artist's view of an old and unattractive but healthy athletic face in a way you don't often see - that black edged limited edition is hard to find and goes for a hefty premium on E-bay, I think)

Do you get the Beetles without the Baby Boom?


The LP, stereo, improved studio technology - there were a number of elements that combined around that time. Somebody was likely to put them together in a way that would be overwhelmingly appealing.

Sheffield is so hit and miss for me. He knows a lot about music, but he also has a tendency to be a complete ass and that can lead to some extreme inaccuracies in his work.

According to his Amazon bio, he has been a music journalist for "over 20 years". I think I'll read the Jimmy Webb autobiography. Or maybe his book about songwriting.

Suit yourself.

Cocaine features in the plots of Golden Age British mysteries, so it's odd that the cops "didn't recognize" it in 1967. Maybe they thought it was tooth powder.

Or maybe "I didn't recognize it" serves the same purpose in law enforcement as "I feared for my life."

"Dans le vent" doesn't literally means "in the wind", it means "hip" or "fashionable".

No, it literally means 'in the wind'. What it means figuratively is another thing.

"The Beatles invented most of what rock stars do…They invented breaking up. They invented drugs. They invented long hair, going to India, having a guru, round glasses, solo careers, beards, press conferences, divisive girlfriends, writing your own songs, funny drummers. They invented the idea of assembling a global mass audience and then challenging, disappointing, confusing this audience. As far as the rest of the planet is concerned, they invented England."

Great post. I can't wait to read the book. I don't completely disagree with the above quote but it's worth pointing out that nearly everything on this list was done by Bob Dylan first. In fact the Beatles, in many cases, were directly following his example. The Beatles scaled it further but Dylan was hardly an unknown.

Dylan was, I think, the most important cultural-musical figure of the 20th century, even though his influence has more to do with how much other artists imitated him than his direct influence on fans.

I think this is a hundred percent wrong. For me Dylan is the guy you can remove from history and it basically has no impact on the development of rock. Except maybe rock would have been less prone to preachiness which Dylan is his typical douchy way then came to resent as a trend having introduced it himself. Merging folk and rock frankly was a mistake and the past twenty years of rock and roll have been a slow unwinding of that merger.

I take back the hundred percent wrong way to definitive of a statement on that.

Cocaine was an upper-class drug in the UK prior to WWI. Sherlock Holmes famously was a user. The UK signed a treaty in 1912 committing to stamping out the international trade in cocaine (and opium), and it ramped up enforcement in earnest in the 1920s after the deaths of some attractive young actresses were attributed to cocaine. I suspect that it probably was not common in the UK in the 1960s, but the idea that the police were ingenues who were ignorant of drug use seems hard to swallow. Or snort.

Any time I hear someone say that the Beatles invented something or were the first to do something, I just make a mental note that I'm interacting with someone who hasn't heard a lot of music before.

A species of dung beetle (the African Scarabaeus zambesianus) navigates by polarization patterns in moonlight, the first animal known to do so.[10][11][12][13] Dung beetles can also navigate when only the Milky Way or clusters of bright stars are visible,[14] making them the only insects known to orient themselves by the galaxy

CC Kafka

"I’m glad to see people writing books with me as the intended audience."

Umm Tyler: Do you get messages just for you from your television?

Hopefully Paul will die soon and we can get all this Beatles crap over and done with.

Sadly for you, that's not how it works.

About the Beatles, I'm old enough to be able to say this, and I mean it:

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very heaven!-

What I find most remarkable about them is that it all happened in 7 years.... 7 years... Beatlemania, 12 albums, the huge evolution of their music, amazing quality of the songs despite that output level. Yes, there are some stinkers, but so very rare compared to the quantity of material they produced. And like all great champions they called it quits before they stayed passed their due date.

Today, you'd be lucky if your favorite artist managed to put out 20% as much material as The Beatles did over the same period. And the evolution of the music would not almost be near as pronounced, or certainly not maintaining consistent quality level

I find the idea of writing a cultural biography of the Beatles without having ever tried psychedelics kind of absurd. Forget about the silly, clinically edgy sounds—"Strawberry Fields Forever", "A Day in the Life", and "Across the Universe" could never have existed without LSD.

The Beatles invented most of what rock stars do...

1) People forget how much older generation fuckin' hated Rock 'n Roll. It was backwards race and Hill-Billy music in the 1950s. Clink on this Youtube link (NSFW!!!!!!!!!!!) The Beatles music loved 1950s American Rock 'n Roll and brought a generation down. I always loved Greil Marcus argument that the Beatles were playing some version of R&R since 1956 and deserved to be thought as one of original Rock 'N Roll stars of the 1950s.


Take away from all of this:

"3. When Paul McCartney played an acetate of “Tomorrow Never Knows” for Bob Dylan, Dylan’s response was “Oh, I get it. You don’t want to be cute anymore.” "

That's why he won the Nobel. Pretty good. Cute.

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