One Two Three Four: The Beatles in Time by Craig Brown

Contrary to popular belief, lots of people have always hated the Beatles. “Musically they are a near disaster,” said Newsweek, calling their lyrics “a catastrophe, a preposterous farrago of Valentine-card romantic sentiments”. Their music was “vapid … twanging nonsense”, wrote the novelist Anthony Burgess. They were “not merely awful”, agreed the conservative writer William F Buckley, but “appallingly unmusical” and “dogmatically insensitive to the magic of the art”.

But at least the Beatles weren’t as awful as their fans. “A mass masturbation orgy” of “squealing young maniacs”, wrote Noël Coward. With their “huge faces, bloated with cheap confectionery and smeared with chain-store make-up”, agreed the New Statesman’s Paul Johnson, they were a “bottomless chasm of vacuity”. The good news, said Johnson, was that “the boys and girls who will be the real leaders and creators of society tomorrow never go near a pop concert. They are, to put it simply, too busy.”

Craig Brown loves all this, which is one reason his book One Two Three Four is such a ridiculously enjoyable treat.

Please Please Me

There is, admittedly, no call for yet another Beatles book. The British Library catalogue lists some 732 Beatles titles; the first volume of Mark Lewisohn’s definitive biography, All These Years, takes 960 pages just to get to 1962, when the band were still largely unknown. Yet Brown — best known for his spoof diaries in Private Eye — is such an infectiously jolly writer that you don’t even need to like the Beatles to enjoy his book. Over 150 short chapters, some barely a page or two, he roams apparently at random through their life and times, endlessly turning up bizarre coincidences and weird juxtapositions.

One moment The Daily Telegraph is comparing Beatlemania to the Nuremberg rallies, the next Billy Graham is watching television on the Sabbath for the first time to see what the youngsters are on about. In 1963 Field Marshal Montgomery says the Beatles should do National Service and get their hair cut. In 1964 he plans to invite them to his country house “to see what kind of fellas they are”. That same year President Sukarno bans Beatles hairstyles in Indonesia, but Earl Mountbatten of Burma buys a set of Beatles wigs for his grandchildren and wears one himself on Christmas Day. This is that sort of book.

One moment The Daily Telegraph is comparing Beatlemania to the Nuremberg rallies, the next Billy Graham is seeing what the youngsters are on about.

Although Brown never pretends to match Lewisohn for minute detail, or Ian MacDonald’s Revolution in the Head for scholarly musical analysis, he can be very wise. He notes, for example, how important it was that John Lennon and Paul McCartney had both lost their mothers in adolescence, which gave them not only an emotional bond, but also a kind of yearning ambition.

From left: Ringo Starr, Paul McCartney, John Lennon, George Harrison, and their manager, Brian Epstein.

He is clever on the way that Beatles anecdotes become distorted over time, laying out, Rashomon-style, the conflicting accounts of incidents such as Lennon’s infamous attack on the Cavern Club’s DJ Bob Wooler. We know it was at McCartney’s birthday party in June 1963, and that Wooler had teased Lennon about his relationship with his manager, Brian Epstein, who was gay. But did Lennon use his fists, a stick or even a shovel? Who knows? For Brown, tongue firmly in cheek, there is no better illustration of “the random, subjective nature of history”.

Starr Quality

He is also brilliant on Ringo Starr, whom he sees as the band’s “Horatio figure, the Dr Watson, the Tommy Atkins … plodding, selfless, reliable”. In one acute passage he juxtaposes the reality of Ringo’s early life — desertion by his father, grinding poverty, long spells in hospital with peritonitis and tuberculosis — with his cheerful, phlegmatic refusal to feel sorry for himself. “I’ve had an easy life … a good life. I wouldn’t change any of it,” the drummer told an interviewer in 1966. You can’t imagine Lennon saying anything like that.

Ringo reacted with similarly admirable stoicism when a group of anti-semites vowed to assassinate him in Montreal three years later. “The one major fault,” he said wryly, “is that I’m not Jewish.” All the same, he agreed to take the stage with a plain-clothes policeman sitting beside him. Many people would have been terrified, but Ringo enjoyed the absurdity of it all. “What is this guy going to do?” he wondered. “Is he going to catch the bullet?”

Brown sees Starr as the band’s “Horatio figure, the Dr Watson, the Tommy Atkins … plodding, selfless, reliable.”

Despite Brown’s reputation as a supremely funny writer, One Two Three Four is often surprisingly poignant. Almost alone among Beatles books, it devotes considerable attention to the people damaged by the band’s success: the losers, the people left behind. The most obvious is their former drummer Pete Best, who saw his musical career dwindle to nothing, tried to kill himself in 1967 and eventually became a civil servant. Brown also tells the story of the teenage sensation Helen Shapiro, who headlined a tour with the Beatles in late 1962, only to find herself relegated to an also-ran. Then there is the drummer Jimmie Nicol, who replaced the sick Ringo on their Australian tour in 1964, only to be declared bankrupt a year later. When the tour was over, he said: “I began dying … No one wanted to know me any more. The future? Nothing. There’s nothing for me now.”

Brown even recounts the story of the comic duo Charlie Brill and Mitzi McCall, whose debut on The Ed Sullivan Show was completely overshadowed by the Beatles’ first American TV appearance. Since the audience was there only to see the band, Charlie and Mitzi’s finely honed sketches were met with deafening silence. It was the biggest moment in their careers, but as they later admitted it was also the “worst three minutes” of their lives.

If It Makes You Feel Alright

Some readers, I imagine, may not enjoy all Brown’s quirks. He loves to play with counterfactuals, kicking off with a scenario in which McCartney’s parents never got together, and later imagining an alternative reality in which Gerry and the Pacemakers became the defining band of the 1960s, Ringo managed a hairdressing chain and Yoko Ono married Gerry Marsden.

He has some hilarious passages on his expeditions to the Beatles’ childhood homes, with unflattering accounts of the unfriendly guides, and mockingly reproduces the National Trust exhibit captions: “Dustbin: Metalwork. Date 1940-1960.” Sometimes he lapses into Molesworthian comic memoir, telling us about his prep school in the 1960s: “Our new history master, Mr Wall, wore pink socks and had a slapdash, bohemian air about him, but he left under a cloud after dropping his trousers.”

He also has a fearless enthusiasm for digressions. No other Beatles writer, I imagine, would include a long passage about the treatment of aunts in Richmal Crompton’s Just William stories, including the glorious scene in which William charges his friends tuppence each to see his snoring Aunt Emily under the sign “Fat Wild Woman Torkin Natif Langwidge”.

Some readers, as I say, will find all this annoying. Not me. Too many writers take the Beatles, and themselves, far too seriously. Brown does neither. No other writer would think to juxtapose the Queen’s Christmas broadcasts with the Beatles’ festive messages, or to investigate the fate of Lennon’s tooth, given to his Weybridge housekeeper in the mid-1960s and sold at auction to a Canadian dentist for $23,600 in 2011. But this is what makes Brown’s book sparkle. And at a time when, like everybody else, I was feeling not entirely thrilled about the news, I loved every word of it.