Friday, 31 July 2020

One Two Three Four: The Beatles In Time

by Craig Brown

reviewed by Stuart Penney
Hardcover, 642 pages
Published April 2, 2020 by Fourth Estate: Harper Collins

“What brings Mr. Epstein here?”  That momentous line, uttered by George Harrison during Brian’s first visit to the Cavern Club on November 9, 1961 to check out the local group he’d heard so much about, tops and tails this remarkable book.  In-between is a kaleidoscopic mixture of history, etymology, diaries, autobiography, fan letters, essays, parallel lives, party lists, interviews, announcements, and fascinating side stories.  Over 150 chapters, One Two Three Four joyfully dissects the frenetic hurly-burly of pop music’s most important decade and the group who defined it  
A journalist and satirist by trade, writing for Private Eye, The Spectator, Tatler and other publications, Brown has achieved the impossible to come up with the most wickedly observed, (not to say exceedingly readable) take on the Fab Four legend I’ve encountered in a very long time – and I’ve read a lot of Beatles’ books. 
How he has accomplished this is both incredibly simple and yet devilishly clever at the same time.  One Two Three Four examines the oh-so familiar Beatles’ story roughly chronologically, but at each important juncture goes off-piste to examine, often at great length, a largely unexplored facet of the tale.  For example, John and Paul’s early, pre-fame, years are discussed via a present-day guided tour of their childhood homes, now owned by the National Trust and open to the public.  Weaving the history in with his own fandom and observing other Beatle tourists in Liverpool and Hamburg, Brown’s description of his encounters with the officials who conduct these tours is at once hilarious and slightly depressing.  Only in Britain could we take a visit to an inspirational pop culture location and turn it into something resembling a school trip where paying customers are singled out for ritual humiliation from the stern-faced tour guides.  “ARE YOU TAKING NOTES?” demands one proprietorial jobsworth indignantly, as Brown jots down a few salient facts for his book.  “The tour guides had ideas above their station”, Brown later mused in an interview.
The Beatles’ early meteoric rise to fame is explored with excursions into the lives of Helen Shapiro, who seems genuinely thrilled to have toured with them in 1963 and Cliff Richard, who still appears miffed to have been toppled as the top UK pop star by the Liverpool upstarts. 
Much conjecture surrounds the Spanish holiday Lennon took with Brian Epstein in April 1963, an event which led John to attack and hospitalise Cavern DJ Bob Wooler following a casual gay joke during Paul’s 21st birthday party.  Instead of adding to the speculation or passing judgement, Brown forensically compares the dozens of wildly varying accounts of the assault as documented in numerous Beatles books.  It’s a novel approach and far more entertaining than the usual “did they, didn’t they?” idle speculation.  
While courting actress Jane Asher in 1964/65 Paul lived in the Asher family home in London’s upmarket Wimpole Street where he was schooled in all manner of cultural pursuits a world away from his working-class Liverpool upbringing.  In a chapter devoted to the Ashers we learn (among many other things) that Jane’s doctor father Richard was the man who first named the factitious disorder Munchausen’s syndrome.  That’s the kind of factual nugget Beatles’ fans will be dining out on for years.  
Their appearance on the February 1964 Ed Sullivan Show receives the same kind of scrupulous examination with possibly the most amusingly detailed account yet written of Ed's wooden delivery and his “lizard smile”.  Coming only weeks after the JFK murder, you really get the impression the Beatles arrived just in time to lift America out of its post-assassination shock and depression. 
The famous tale of someone hacking off a lock of Ringo’s hair at a British Embassy party in Washington is given equally detailed analysis.  Many accounts are examined from dozens of Beatles’ biographies and, more than 50 years later, Brown seems to have discovered the truth.  But you’ll have to read the book to find out what really happened. 
Much space is devoted to the Beatles’ hair in general.  Their mop tops were publicly remarked upon by Field Marshal Montgomery and even discussed in the House of Commons.  Lord Mountbatten went so far as to request a set of Fab Four wigs for his nephews while some countries, Indonesia among them, actually outlawed Beatle haircuts.
During the chapter on Ringo we learn that post-Profumo affair, he had a liaison with Christine Keeler.  Christine’s pugnacious boyfriend apparently turned up unexpectedly the following morning but was so tongue-tied at the sight of Ringo he did nothing about it. 
We are told that temporary drummer Jimmie Nicol went rapidly downhill after his two-week spell as a stand-in Beatle.  His brief brush with fame on such a colossal scale quite probably destroyed his life, resulting in paranoia, divorce and bankruptcy.
The book is packed with odd essays, travelogues and reminiscences by fans, including a beautifully written account by Mary Killen (now famous as half of the comically starchy Giles and Mary from TV's Gogglebox). Like countless other teenage girls, the then-15 year-old doctor’s daughter from Northern Ireland daydreamed of marrying Paul. 
Then there’s the strange story of Eric Clague, the off-duty policeman who ran over and killed John’s mother Julia with his car in July 1958.  After leaving the police Clague became a postman.  With almost unbelievable happenstance, part of his round included Paul’s house in Forthlin Road where he delivered increasingly numerous sacks of fan mail in 1963/64. 
Brown pulls no punches when dealing with the more divisive protagonists of the story and the Maharishi, Magic Alex Mardas and even Yoko Ono feel the full force of the author’s waspish, sardonic wit.  In fact, one of many laugh-out-loud moments in the book comes in the chapter devoted to the avant-garde White Album track "Revolution #9" where Brown observes: "No slave to melody, Yoko regularly emits intermittent high-pitched hums, moans, howls and screeches, as well as the spoken words ‘You become naked’”.  Still with Mrs Lennon, one of many telling stories relates how every time Yoko visited the Apple offices with John, she would demand a staff member go out to buy a £60 jar of caviar for her.  At 1968 prices, that expensive snack equated to roughly five times the average weekly wage of the Apple gofer.  A working class hero is something to be, indeed. 
Lennon was especially in thrall to self-styled electronics guru Magic Alex and, after feeling guilty about forgetting his birthday, gifted him an exotic and expensive Iso Rivolta Fidia, then the fastest four door car in the world and said to be the only one in the UK at the time.  It’s estimated Mardas’s litany of failed “inventions” cost the Beatles three million pounds in today’s money.
A chapter devoted to Detective Sgt Norman Pilcher tells the story of the drug squad groupie and his strange obsession with busting rock stars.  Starting with Donovan, Pilcher worked his way up the pop pecking order to arrest Stones Mick and Keith before finally collecting the prize scalps of George and John.  It all came home to roost when Pilcher was charged with conspiracy to pervert the course of justice and, in 1973, sentenced to four years jail.
The hippie dream finally crumbled to dust at Apple when, in December 1968, the building was invaded by a troupe of American Hells Angels who were (according to an internal memo from George) "on the way to straighten out Czechoslovakia" (as you do). Harrison naively invited the Angels to stay and instructed Apple staff “don't fear them or up-tight them”. To absolutely no one's surprise (except, perhaps, George's) the Angels turned out to be a bunch of violent, belligerent, feral thugs who set up permanent camp at Savile Row, stole Apple property, abused and physically attacked the staff and visitors and generally behaved appallingly.  Eventually Harrison summoned up the courage to ask them to leave, which, to everyone’s astonishment and relief, they did without too much fuss.
*George´s memo to Apple staff re: Hells Angels arrival
There are some interesting “what if” chapters which explore what might have happened in a parallel universe had, for example, John and Paul never met.  It’s a fascinating idea which crops up in the early chapters but is not fully developed until the very end when Brown fantasies in great detail how different our lives might have been had Merseybeat rivals Gerry and the Pacemakers - and not the Beatles - become the biggest band the world has ever seen.  Now, there’s something to think about.  
Only one section smacked of sloppy research, perhaps because I was there at the time as a 12-year old schoolboy.  It concerns an April 1963 Beatles appearance in Sheffield, promoted by up-and-coming club owner Peter Stringfellow, who secured the band for the princely sum of £85.  The canny Stringfellow moved the show from his own Black Cat Club (basically just a church hall) to the larger Azena ballroom after ticket demand exploded.  Brown describes the Azena as “Sheffield’s flashiest dancehall” when in reality it was an insignificant, drab building, stuck way out of town on the fringes of suburbia, then bordered by farmland.  After years of disuse the Azena was eventually redeveloped as a Co-op supermarket and is still there today.
But that's a minor quibble. Overall, this smorgasbord of a book is a delight in every way.  Unlike most Beatles' biographies it doesn’t methodically reappraise their albums or their songs (although there is a sizable chapter dedicated to “Hey Jude”), it’s more about their relationships with the people who were part of their story.  And, as any Beatles' fan worthy of the name will freely tell you, it’s surely the Greatest Story Ever Told. 
I experienced  One Two Three Four as an audiobook via Audible and the highest praise must go to the three narrators, Kate Robbins (Paul’s real life first cousin, once removed!), Mark McGann and the author himself.  All three do a sterling job with actors Kate and Mark handling the full range of Liverpool accents (and more besides) with ease.  Kate’s portrayal of John’s Aunt Mimi is so well-observed it could be straight out of an Alan Bennett play.  She also does a wickedly accurate Yoko, too.

The Azena Ballroom, then and now. Perhaps not "Sheffield’s flashiest dancehall", after all

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