Best Beatles Bio
December 9, 2005 7:49 AM   Subscribe

What is the "best" Beatles biography in publication? Definition of "best" inside.

I've been thinking of buying the new Beatles biography by Bob Spitz, but there is quite a deal of controversy regarding its accuracy. I'll probably read it anyway, but what book is considered the definitive or best bio of The Beatles to date? By "best" I mean not just accurate but also eminently readable, entertaining and comprehensive. I'm sure there are plenty of books revered for their encylopedic knowledge and accuracy of every minute detail but that also read like an accounting ledger. I'm not after that.
posted by spicynuts to Media & Arts (22 answers total)
I can't come up with a best, but I can help you eliminate Philip Norman's Shout: The Beatles in Their Generation. Very badly written book.
posted by PinkStainlessTail at 8:01 AM on December 9, 2005

Revolution in the Head is a good read. Concentrates on the music and not the conventional Liverpool-Hamburg-Ed Sullivan-Rishikesh etc timeline.

Agreed, Norman's book is, like his Stones book, lumpen.
posted by the cuban at 8:09 AM on December 9, 2005

Response by poster: I'm not really looking for something that focuses solely on the music. I don't want a pure cultural criticism/study of the impact of the music. I'm looking for comprehensive, which to me means music, lives, business, conflicts, the breakup, yoko, etc. You know, a balanced overview.
posted by spicynuts at 8:12 AM on December 9, 2005

As someone who's read a few, I really enjoyed "Magical Mystery Tours" by Tony Bramwell, who went to school with the boys, was their manager's personal assistant, and eventually worked at Apple in a pretty major capacity. It mixes biographical content on the group (enough to give someone a sense of what was going on without turning encyclopediac) with entertaining anecdotes and stories that other biographers simply would not know about. It's one thing for this Spitz guy to do lots of research on the Beatles, but Bramwell hung out with them, worked with them, partied with them, and experienced "The Beatles" first-hand. As a bit of a Beatle-nerd, I can tell you I read a lot of things in this book I had never heard before. It's a very good read, and I recommend it to everyone. And as far as I know there were not any glaring errors in it!

I'm looking for comprehensive, which to me means music, lives, business, conflicts, the breakup, yoko, etc.

I would say MMT fits this pretty well.
posted by apple scruff at 8:34 AM on December 9, 2005

hope this isn't a derail, but I'd also be interested in hearing if anyone's read the new Spitz bio and what they thought... I'm considering buying it as a gift for someone who has already read lots of other Beatles books.
posted by scody at 8:46 AM on December 9, 2005

It's probably not the type of book you're looking for currently, but if you ever want to know more about their time in Abbey Roads Studios I found Beatles, The: Recording Sessions to be a surprisingly good book. It's seems to be out of print, I'm not sure how hard it is to find a copy.
posted by beowulf573 at 8:48 AM on December 9, 2005

Seconding Magical Mystery Tours. I enjoy most of the Beatles' music, but I knew only the very basics about their lives -- I was born way too late to get the whole picture.

I have no idea about the book's accuracy, but I found it fascinating throughout. I was worried I wouldn't be interested enough in the Beatles' lives, but Magical Mystery Tours kept me really involved. The whole thing was very readable and interesting, and broken up with a lot of inside anecdotes. It read a lot more like a story than anything else -- I don't think there was much, if any, discussion about technical aspects of the Beatles' music or their effects on later artists.

Although I enjoyed this bio a lot, I don't plan on rereading it. I would call it a book to check out from a library rather than a book to purchase; I think one reading's enough.
posted by booksandlibretti at 8:51 AM on December 9, 2005

Response by poster: derail at all...I'd like to hear opinions on that book as well.
posted by spicynuts at 9:02 AM on December 9, 2005

My favorite "overview" of their lives and careers isn't actually a book at all (well, there is also a book, but its more of a coffee table thing than a bio to read). Its the Anthology Video/DVD set. Its very entertaining, comprehensive, and gives a decent balance of first-hand experiences and more "general" overview.

I've read just about everything out there on the subject ... I got to about Shea Stadium in the Spitz book, and I haven't picked it up since. What I read was fine ... pretty clearly written, but it didn't grab me.
posted by anastasiav at 9:19 AM on December 9, 2005

Response by poster: Anastasiav, thanks for the DVD rec, but if you've read everything out there, what book would you recommend?
posted by spicynuts at 9:59 AM on December 9, 2005

Best answer: *sigh*

There is no single book that I'm comfortable recommending.

"what book is considered the definitive or best bio of The Beatles to date?"

Shout! The Beatles in Their Generation is generally considered "authoritative" but its not very well written - has a kind of breathless, Tiger Beat feel to it. I suspect the Spitz book will supplant it as "authoritative" as more people read it. I found Spitz to be awfully dry, though. (Salon has an excellent -- and dead on -- review of it here)

The Beatles Forever is a good choice -- very detailed and well balanced, great photos. Its more analysis than biography, though, so it might not be what you're looking for.

Revolution in the Head : The Beatles' Records and the Sixties is good, but is more about the place of the music in the culture than a history of the band.

Many people also speak very highly of Hunter Davies' The Beatles, but its "authorized" and first published in 1968, so it has its shortfalls (it completely ignores the fact that Brian Epstein was gay, for example). However, Davies did spend a significant amount of time actually living and traveling with the band, so it has a "first person" feel that none of the other comprehensive bios really have.

The Love You Make (Peter Brown), Here, There and Everywhere (recording engineer Geoff Emerick), The Longest Cocktail Party (Richard DiLello), With the Beatles (Alistair Taylor), It Was Twenty Years Ago Today (Derek Taylor), All You Need Is Ears (Sir George Martin), and the aforementioned Magical Mystery Tours (Tony Bramwell) are all entertaining insider viewpoints, but each author only tells his own part of the story, so its not as complete as you might like. Of these, the Bramwell book is clearly the best -- best content and also best written. Bramwell is very much "Paul's Mate" however, which puts a certain spin on things.... I'll be interested to read Tony Barrow's John, Paul, George, Ringo and Me when it comes out in the spring.

I'm a fan of Mark Lewisohn's The Complete Beatles Chronicle, but its kind of a specialized subject matter.

I like the Anthology DVDs because I actually learned things from them that I a) trusted to be basically true and b) didn't know before, which is tough to do. The book is good, and repeats much virtually all of the info on the DVD, plus more, but its a huge tome, and it is presented in more of an "art book" style than biography.

I will also tell you the two books that are not out there that I wish were ... first, I wish Mal Evans (Beatles Roadie, with them from the earliest days) had lived to leave us his experiences ... he, more than anyone, knew the true story (he was shot to death by an LA Police Officer in 1976). Publication of an annotated version of his diaries would be a historical treasure trove.

Second, there is no really well researched and comprehensive work on the Hamburg years, which are, for my money, the most important part of the whole story.

I hope that's helpful.
posted by anastasiav at 11:26 AM on December 9, 2005 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Yeah I was kinda hoping to get some real detail on who each of them were before they got together, how and why they all came together, what the appeal between John and Paul was, how they went from people who merely played along with records in John's bedroom to Hamburg darlings, etc.

Anway, Anastasiav, thanks for the effort. Much appreciated
posted by spicynuts at 12:44 PM on December 9, 2005

Yeah I was kinda hoping to get some real detail on who each of them were before they got together, how and why they all came together

Spitz has the best early life stuff -- massive interviews with obscure family members for example. Davies bio is good for this too. Anthology has some wonderful early recordings -- its facinating to listen to the Quarry Men on a 78 from Liverpool and know what they will become. You could also look for some stuff by Louise Harrison, George's (much older) sister who moved to America when he was still quite young. There is a lot of stuff out on the web by and about her, but I don't think there is a book other than the not-very-useful Before He Was Fab.

Look around, too, for anything by or about Astrid Kirchherr (what a crappy wikipedia article) and/or Klaus Voormann, who are basically the two go to people for the Hamburg years. Each of them have published a variety of art books (being that they're artists), but not so much in the "memories" line.

As I said before, the early years (pre Hamburg) are documented in great detail in a number of places, as is Life After The Cavern, but Hamburg itself seems to have a set number of myths and legends that are repeated again and again. I'm of two minds about that -- partly I think its good that the people who were involved at that time still have some private memories left, but on the other hand it is really the formative period for the band. Its a shame its not better documented.

Pete Best has done some publication on this topic, but its always skewed by the fact he's "the one who got fired". Look for The Beatles : The True Beginnings, The Best Years of The Beatles, Beatle!: The Pete Best Story -- the first one is probably the best, but be sure to salt to taste.

posted by anastasiav at 1:18 PM on December 9, 2005

and then I forgot to close my italics tag. Crap. Oh well.
posted by anastasiav at 1:18 PM on December 9, 2005

the beatles anthology
Written by the boys themselves, including a huge compilation of John Lennon interviews.
posted by martinX's bellbottoms at 2:10 PM on December 9, 2005

Bramwell is very much "Paul's Mate" however, which puts a certain spin on things

He was the driving force after all!
posted by notcostello at 4:26 PM on December 9, 2005

Ian MacDonald - Revolution in the Head

now that's a book.
posted by Substrata at 5:06 PM on December 9, 2005

I loved Shout! (despite its awkwardness) and am very much looking forward to the Spitz book. I totally agree with this:

the Hamburg years, which are, for my money, the most important part of the whole story

That period has always fascinated me, and there must be a lot of stories out there to be collected. I'll never forget first hearing those Hamburg bootlegs—talk about your punk rock! What I woudn't give for well-balanced professional recordings...

He was the driving force after all!

Oh, look, a Paul fan, how cute.
/John fan
posted by languagehat at 5:20 PM on December 9, 2005

oh look, Paul and John fans squaring off, how cute.
/George fan ;-)

posted by scody at 6:16 PM on December 9, 2005

Let it be.
posted by notcostello at 6:32 PM on December 9, 2005

I always liked "the Man who sold the beatles" or something like that--by Alan Williams. Pretty much seemed to cover the early years.
posted by lester at 8:08 PM on December 9, 2005

geez, I bet no one reads this because I'm a day late. Day in the Life: The Music and Artistry of the Beatles, by Mark Hertsgaard.
posted by furvyn at 2:00 AM on December 10, 2005

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