Thursday, January 8, 2009


A book I read over break was Can't Buy Me Love: The Beatles, Britain, and America (2007) by Jonathan Gould, a very good read on the four lads from Liverpool and the major sensation they caused. What Gould does well is set the Beatles' music -- from formation to first singles, touring, and album to album -- in the context with which it interacts. Familiar as stories of the period are, featuring the usual cast of notables, Gould gives very succinct summations that hit the main cultural markers, but also provides useful historical background of pop music and recording. Such material, it kept occurring to me as I read, is important for any readership whose interest in The Beatles might postdate the band itself -- which is now a large percentage of the music-buying population. A kid listening to a Beatles song today might find it, as music, fun or fascinating or even corny, but should know something of how that music was perceived in its time really to evaluate it.

That statement probably defines my own vexed relation to pop culture, and thus one reason I was interested in reading this book in the first place. For, having lived through the reign of The Beatles while I was in grade school, and having come to terms with what their music "meant" in my teens, I can't help feeling that anything I think about rock-pop music comes filtered through The Fab Four and their sense of what a song could be, no matter how much I willingly dropped interest in John, Paul, George, and Ringo subsequent to The Beatles' breakup. Gould's story of the band helped me to remember why: by the end of the story, The Beatles are pretty tedious company -- especially to each other, but to the reader as well.

Gould is also good at doing something that lots of bios don't do: describing in nuanced detail the work the band did. So often, the story of a creative artist tells us lots about how said artist interacted with others, and how success affected the person, but what gets left out of account is what the artist was trying to do, as an artist. Gould puts the music first because, after all, that's the only reason we care about these four guys, and because, as he paints them, The Beatles themselves put the music first. As long as they were united in that drive to make the best music they could, they were a first-rate band. Once the burden of being the creators of the most popular music ever started to take precedence, to say nothing of trying to have lives that were not relentlessly "Beatled," the music started to become something four celebrities had to find time to do -- and, worse, do with each other: the same four guys who were no longer the same four guys.

Gould's description of the songs is usually informative at least. Generally he also goes beyond mere description of what a song does musically to talk about the implications of the song. At times, in that dimension of interpretive evaluation, he's not all he could be, but he's at least always a discerning listener and quite capable at getting down on paper what he's hearing. For that alone, the book is worthwhile. But it's for his engaging sense of what it was like to be alive when The Beatles were rising and peaking and disassembling, that I strongly recommend this book's clear and concise account.

If you really like it you can have the rights
It could make a million for you overnight
--Lennon/McCartney, "Paperback Writer" (1966)

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