When the Beatles’ first authorised biographer, Hunter Davies, clinched the deal in 1967, his publisher remarked that ‘we know everything we could possibly know about the Beatles and they’ll disappear soon’. In that same year, the philosopher Bryan Magee adopted an incredulous tone in the Listener: ‘Does anyone seriously believe that Beatles music will be … part of daily life all over the world in the 2000s?’
But here in the recently released statistics for the Top Ten global recording artists of 2019, among the Taylor Swifts and the Ed Sheerans, 50 years after they broke up — let me introduce you to the band you’ve known for all these years. As for Davies’s publisher, the seven pages of ‘sources’ at the back of this book list around 100 volumes about the Fab Four written since 1967 — and they’re just the good ones.
Craig Brown isn’t trying to emulate those biographers. He’s not attempting to compete with Mark Lewisohn, who is doing for the Beatles biographically what Robert Caro is still doing for Lyndon B. Johnson. Neither is he seeking to rival the encyclopaedic wealth of musical detail contained in Ian Macdonald’s superlative Revolution in the Head. Instead, we’re taken on a magical mystery tour that ends where it began — with Brian Epstein making his way down the 18 steps that led into the Cavern to hear John, Paul, George and — er Pete (yet to be replaced by Ringo) for the first time.
Just as in his previous book, Ma’am Darling, about Princess Margaret, the aim isn’t to provide a traditional biography; indeed Brown seems to have invented a wholly new biographical form. In a polychromatic cavalcade of chapters of varying length, the man with kaleidoscope eyes conveys what it was like to live through those extraordinary Beatles years, with the odd glance at what came before and after.