If you are a regular reader of rock biographies, no adjective gives you more pause than the word “authorized.” Sound the death knell for titillation! All juicy bits will be thoroughly vetted here, and often excised. It’s difficult to sanitize a rocker’s life, but it is easy to make a tepid narrative that reads like the subject has reformed in a number of ways—lest you judge too harshly—all while probably going about some version of what they’ve always done.
The first Beatles biography, entitled, simply, The Beatles: The Authorized Biography, came out 50 years ago in mid-August 1968. It is little read these days, which is a shame, as you could make a strong case for it as the best Beatles bio there is. The author was Hunter Davies, but more important he had the Beatles as active collaborators working on the book’s behalf to dispense with the BS that regularly dogged the official story that the press, their fans, and marketing people had provided for them: that they were lovable mop tops, that they were in any way “safe,” that they were not individuals but rather parts of a personality-collective. Also, that they were blissed out and happy. For, as it turns out, the Beatles were often pissed.
Davies was a Sunday Times columnist. He met McCartney in autumn 1966, having become engrossed with “Eleanor Rigby,” thinking that the Beatle with the strongest gift for melody would be an apt column subject. Via McCartney, Davies was introduced to Beatles manager Brian Epstein, and soon the authorized biography project was underway. Davies researched for half a year. He hit the streets in Hamburg, Liverpool, London, and went to the homes of the Beatles and their significant others for a lot of frank talk.
What we get from all that is a collective feeling of the unburdening of myth—the apocrypha that one totes around as the stand-in for the reality that is their life, at least so far as everyone who is not in their inner circle is concerned. Authorized bios usually want to clean things up; the Beatles wanted to get you down into their mud, the very stuff of their dirty-and-greasy humanity. As such, the book can read as a series of confessionals, written in a style you won’t see in any other Beatles volume, in third person, but with this kind of voice that all of a sudden can wrest quotes from John Lennon and his then-wife, Cynthia, as if they were sitting right next to that third person narrator, which of course, we find out, they were.
No book does a better job with the childhoods of the band’s members. Because it is so huge in size, and because a lot of people who are Beatles fans don’t read this Davies work, the lazy line of thought is that Mark Lewisohn’s Tune In, from a few years back, is the end all and be all of the Beatles’ early days, but that’s nonsense. Lewisohn can research; he can’t write. He can do inventory in prose form. Writing is more than what happens at the level of the sentence. It’s assembling bits together to fit in narratively workable ways that others just wouldn’t see, let alone be able to execute. That’s what Davies does.
John Lennon’s early anger practically explodes from the page, an incursion into your life of extreme young man rage. He hits women after the death of his mother, and an early girlfriend recounts in a matter-of-fact style that that was just how things went with John, and you tolerated it. He uses everyone around him, steals, lies, bullies, but operates with the bully trademark of almost-impossible-to-escape cowardice.
And he just sits there and tells Davies about it. You think of the justice crusading crowd who posts yet another YouTube video of “Imagine” on Facebook, and you wonder if they have a clue about any of this. Lennon was a complicated man, and he managed to cudgel off his demons, while owning that they once owned him, and while nothing excuses such vile behavior, maybe it doesn’t eradicate the good that a person can do, or even the good person that one can become. These Beatles, and Lennon especially, read as complex, but they also read, in this book, like recognizable versions of ourselves. That is why, in large part, it is so brilliant.
There is a feeling of catharsis throughout, the freeing up of an emotional occlusion. George Harrison was totally the bad boy rebel of the band early on. This kid… Jaysus. He got up to some stuff. And his mom mostly let him get away with it, believing that doing as he pleased would help young George find himself as a person. He was absolutely awful at school, even worse than Lennon. An early stint as an electrician gets the Harrison thumbs up only because he could play darts and had a warm room to sit in. Apparently these could be rare.
But just as Beatle emotion leaps from the page, so too is there an irruption of insights that border on the poetic. Davies was writing his book during the heady Sgt. Pepper period, which quickly transitioned into the “Oh-shit-Brian-is-dead” period. The Beatles changed for good during the summer of 1967. The band could best Sir Edmund Hillary as masters of ascendancy once they had their post-Hamburg chance, but Davies was there at the precise moment they began their descent, one that, in typically paradoxical Beatles fashion, was built on different forms of highs.
McCartney comes off as the Beatle who best knew the other Beatles. He provides Davies with a series of thumbnail sketches that read like ace scouting reports. Ringo “has got a great sentimental thing,” which is true, when you think of his persona that’s nicely teased out in that sluice-side stroll he takes in A Hard Day’s Night. Harrison is “very dedicated about things and dedicated when he’s decided.” Lennon has “got movement. He’s a very fast mover.” Right there, in this interview with Davies, McCartney has the genesis of the “The movement you need is on your shoulder” line from “Hey Jude”—just part of his daily observational patois upon being asked to provide insight into his friend and partner in art.
There is a hilarious exchange with Harrison who is all a’twitter because copulation is alluded to in “I Am the Walrus.” He wants the Beatles to start using the word “fuck” in songs. “It’s just a word, made up by people. It’s meaningless in itself. Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck.” To which Davies adds: “This would follow Kenneth Tynan’s theory that the Beatle songs are in direct line from medieval English songs. They were all full of arses, shit, and fucking. So in one way it is true that George, John, and Paul haven’t really done anything yet.”
Funny. What they would be doing next was the White Album, which crams in its share of the above, in various forms, and was being worked upon as this book hit shelves. You wonder if their own words inspired them. The movement on this particular writer’s shoulder would say yes.