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A fresh look at the Beatles 50 years after they split

With the focus on sardonic John and chirpy Paul, George and Ringo don't get that much of a look-in in this exhaustive (and exhausting) rehash of The Beatles' story, writes JP O'Malley


Undated Handout Photo of The Beatles. PA

Undated Handout Photo of The Beatles. PA


PA File Photo of the Beatles filming a video for their 1965 song 'Help'.

PA File Photo of the Beatles filming a video for their 1965 song 'Help'.


Undated Handout Photo of The Beatles. PA

In his 2008 book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell claimed to have discovered the secret ingredient that made The Beatles the most successful rock band of all time: put the work in early and you reap the rewards.

By 1963, when they released their first album, Please Please Me, the band were tight as hell. They could also read each other's musical tones and touches with unconscious and almost telepathic intuition. That formula worked until they split 50 years ago, in April 1970.

Gladwell's theory believes that all roads lead back to Hamburg: this subscribes to the idea that the work the band put in early on enabled their later success. As the journalist and author Craig Brown points out in One Two Three Four, the band cut their teeth on the Reeperbahn, the notorious red light district in the German city, where dope fiends, hookers, hucksters, gangsters and strippers converged nocturnally in a marketplace with only two commodities for sale: sex and drugs.

The Beatles lived and slept (literally) together in squalid digs behind a sleazy peep show pornographic theatre called Bambi Kino. It's where George lost his virginity at 17, while John and Paul looked on.

Brown quotes a letter here that Paul sent back to a fan in Liverpool at the time. "John ended up with a stunning exotic-looking woman only to discover on closer inspection that she was a he," he wrote.

These carefree hedonistic years meant moral mores were loose. Orgies and the swapping of sexual partners were the norm. But pursuit of pleasure was only allowed once the working hours were put in. And there was many of those.

The 12-hour live circuit, from strip club to strip club, could be exhausting. But both the band and the audiences were usually out of their minds on booze and speed. Over-indulgence lead to cataclysmic disasters on occasion.

One raucous early-morning session from a balcony ended particularly badly - John accidentally urinated over a group of nuns walking to Mass below.

John is clearly Brown's favourite Beatle. Accordingly, the book spends a disproportionate amount of ink dissecting his personality.

It's hardly surprising. He also happens to be my favourite, too. Psychologically and emotionally he was the most troubled of the Fab Four. And so there is just more material in his personal and artistic life to draw upon.

The legendary Lennon-McCartney songwriting tag has always been publicly advertised as a kind of perfect meeting of minds: where egos were momentarily parked to the side for the sake of the great art. But Brown stresses that any fool can spot the drastic difference in their approach, particularly by the mid 1960s.

Hard drugs had entered into the equation then. LSD and heroin brought out darker demons in John's shadow self in ways that Paul had no interest in even remotely exploring.

To state the glaringly obvious, the songs reflected the personalties. Paul: uncomplicated, chirpy, feelgood, go-getting, and positive. John: abstract, painful, absurd, funny, sardonic and fragmented.

George was the sensitive spiritual one. And Ringo liked a drink, played drums on occasion and ate egg and chips for dinner. But neither of the latter two Beatles get much of a look-in here.

Brown believes it was John's broken relationships that provided his greatest source of creative inspiration. It's hard to disagree. His songs may wear a mask of wordplay, puns and catchy, colourful imagery inspired by days of drug binges. But look deep enough and a single recurring theme in his art is hard to ignore: childhood insecurity.

Fred, John's father, skipped town when he was just a boy. He then turned up to sponge off his son once he discovered he was rich and famous.

Julia, John's mother, was killed in a tragic car accident when he was still a teenager. Were there erotic Oedipal feelings between mother and son? Brown believes so.

Filling the role of mother after Julia's death was impossible, regardless. Aunt Mimi tried her best. She could be bossy, brash and didn't suffer fools gladly. So could Yoko. Making friends wasn't exactly her forte.

Cynthia Lennon, John's first wife, became enemy number one. Over time, other band members came to despise the influence Yoko had on the group.

John's sex life is obsessively investigated here, too. Although it's old hat at this stage.


PA File Photo of the Beatles filming a video for their 1965 song 'Help'.

PA File Photo of the Beatles filming a video for their 1965 song 'Help'.


PA File Photo of the Beatles filming a video for their 1965 song 'Help'.

For decades, accusations have surfaced that he slept with the band's manager, Brian Epstein. That flurry of gossip surfaced after a mysterious Spanish holiday both took together.

Strangely, no other Beatle was invited. And it occurred just days after the birth of John's first child, Julian.

But Brown brings no new evidence here to this particular story. Or others. He merely rehashes what's already been written in various Beatles biographies.

Sadly, this is the general tone and theme of this disappointing book.

Much of this material could be found on Wikipedia, or YouTube. One Two Three Four is a sloppy affair.

The writing lacks clarity and direction and wanders down roads it never returns to. At well over 600 pages, it's an exhausting read.

When it was all over, I stuck on the White Album, had a cup of tea and breathed a sigh of relief.

One Two Three Four: The Beatles in Time by Craig Brown, Fourth Estate, £20

Belfast Telegraph