How the Beatles changed the world in seven years

Craig Brown’s One Two Three Four: The Beatles in Time explores how, in less than a decade, the band redefined not just pop music but fame.

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The Beatles walked into EMI’s studio at Abbey Road via the goods entrance in 1962. They left it through the front door and across the zebra in 1969. That’s a mere seven years, during which time they redefined not just pop music but also fame.

They walked in as nonentities. Two years later they were the most famous people on Earth. Two years after that they were so famous they could no longer function in normal life. Much as Craig Brown’s previous book about Princess Margaret dealt with the impossibility of being royal, One Two Three Four, which follows a similar structure of viewing its subject largely through other people’s eyes, deals with the impact of fame arriving with fearful suddenness.

If you meet one of the two surviving Beatles today he may act as though you’ve met before. This is natural for a Beatle because they seemed to meet everybody in the world. One Two Three Four leans heavily on the fact that everybody who ever met the Beatles wrote about it. Thus it seems that every icon of the age flits across its pages, from Muhammad Ali, who pretended to knock them out in Miami in 1964 despite not knowing who they were, to Christine Keeler, who claimed to have slept with Ringo Starr; from Brigitte Bardot, whose lunch date with John Lennon was spoiled by his having swallowed some acid to calm his nerves, to Elvis Presley, in whose presence even they could only stand and gawp. Some of these meetings, such as the time in 1961 they looked down from the stage of the Top Ten Club in Hamburg and saw Malcolm Muggeridge in the audience, seem more like gags from the parodic Rutles film, but apparently they took place.

Brown writes perceptively on how famous people behave when they’re suddenly in the presence of somebody whose fame outranks theirs. There’s a good section on the Beatles tour with the 16-year-old Helen Shapiro in 1963. As their career takes off hers is to all intents and purposes over. When they meet Bob Dylan it’s to exchange their blithe energy for his calculated cool and vice versa. Then there are the civilians whose lives could never be the same again after they were caught up in the Beatles’ fearful headlights; people such as the girl whose story inspired “She’s Leaving Home”, the man whose car killed Lennon’s mother Julia, and the drummer who replaced Ringo for a week and never recovered.

Brown is as reliable as anyone who’s reliant on already-published sources can be. In recounting the incident in 1963 when Lennon attacked Liverpool DJ Bob Wooler for teasing him about his holiday a deux with Brian Epstein, he lays out the widely differing accounts of even those who were eyewitnesses. As Paul McCartney says, “in an earthquake you get many different versions… and they’re all true”.

Even at 600-plus pages this is a condensed version of a uniquely fascinating story. It’s characterised by a nicely British dryness. Brown refers to Lenny the Lion as “the distinguished glove puppet” and makes the trenchant observation of Yoko Ono that “her own particular talents were more difficult to pinpoint”.

He doesn’t play favourites. Lennon has a vicious streak, George Harrison is a moaner, McCartney a schemer and Ringo wants somebody else to take responsibility. In spite of this he gets their appeal and understands that it can’t be reduced to words and music. Every now and again intellectuals show up to remind us of how bitter they are about the fact that they are suddenly forced to live in the Beatles’ world. It’s a reminder of the pointlessness of all the criticisms aimed at them in their time by everybody from Philip Larkin to Anthony Burgess. That applies equally to Dr David Holbrook, who wrote them off as “a masturbation fantasy” in 1964 in the pages of the New Statesman. If you don’t feel the benign energy coming off the Beatles records then nothing you have to say matters.

If you want a one-volume primer that explains the fuss and what it was all about, this does the job. It hits the appropriate notes of wonder, tragedy and, particularly in the Apple days, farce. I didn’t find it as jaw-dropping or funny as the Princess Margaret book, but that’s because I’ve heard lots of these stories before. Some might find its digressions into the influence of William Brown on Lennon, or the parallels between the Queen’s Christmas message and the Beatles’ Christmas fan club records a bit more detail than they need, and the final chapter – the story of Brian Epstein told backwards – a way of avoiding a conclusion. But Brown’s book is a diverting reminder of seven years that will never be matched and what they did to the people who lived through them.

As he writes, comparing pictures taken at the beginning of the Beatles’ careers with the end, “they aged with an almost macabre rapidity”. Not surprising. The Beatles lived at warp speed on our behalf. As Harrison later observed, “people gave their money and their screams. The Beatles gave their nervous systems.”

One Two Three Four: The Beatles in Time
Craig Brown
Fourth Estate, 656pp, £20

This article appears in the 24 July 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Summer special

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