“In terms of social resonance, lasting global popularity, and artistic excellence, no other contemporary artist, or group of artists, has achieved anything like what the Beatles did. (And) in terms of influence, impact, originality, popularity, relevance, and excellence, their work is without modern peer.”
“A Day in the Life: The Music and Artistry of the Beatles” by Mark Hertsgaard (1995)
I have been enjoying the Beatles for the last thirty years. When I first became somewhat obsessed with learning about them, I obtained two books dedicated to their story. One was Peter Brown’s book The Love You Make (1983), a book that I enjoyed as a teenager before I became more discerning. Brown was an executive at Apple Corps and therefore had much first-hand knowledge of the goings-on inside the Beatles’ fold. A clue, though, comes from his co-writer. I know the name Steven Gaines from his authoring of the Beach Boys book Heroes & Villains, a book known today for its “tell-all” nature. The Love You Make suffers the same reputation.
The other was the authorized biography by Hunter Davies. This book is fascinating in that it was written with the cooperation of the band and published during the group’s existence. That it was published in 1968, though, becomes its major drawback as it is the only biography of the Beatles to not tell the whole story. It obviously does not comment on the final two years of the band and on their celebrated break-up. I always felt owning these two books was good enough for me and it was over 25 years later that I decided it was time to dive back into their story.
I stumbled on two Beatle books at a thrift store and something made me take the $2-each plunge. The first was Philip Norman’s Shout! and the other is the one we are talking about today. Mark Hertsgaard’s book A Day in the Life intrigued me in that it was less a biography about the band and more a detailed discussion of their music and the creation of it. American Hertsgaard was researching an article on the Beatles for The New Yorker in 1993 when he broke the news that the remaining group members were reuniting to work on the documentary series Anthology. The article grew into this book which has been called “the best single book on the music of the Beatles”.
What you get with this book is thorough analysis, well corroborated and avoiding hyperbole. From the outset, Hertsgaard notes that the book’s origins come partly from the access he was given to Abbey Road studios’ vault of Beatles recordings including rehearsals and alternate takes of songs. Hearing the lads at work in the studio has afforded him much insight into their creative process.
“The single most important influence was black music. ‘If the Beatles ever wanted a sound it was R&B,’ McCartney said…’Whenever we were asked who our favourite (artists) were, we’d say, “Black, R&B, Motown”.'”
A Day in the Life is made up of tight and focused chapters, each that tackle a specific topic like manager Brian Epstein, producer George Martin, the Lennon-McCartney songwriting collaboration and specific albums like Revolver and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
“It displayed every quality that made them the premier musical artists of their time: creativity, intelligence, humor, daring, inventiveness, relevance, versatility, accessibility, and, of course, brilliant songwriting and inspired performing. Nothing in popular music was the same after Sgt. Pepper; it ranks as one of the cultural landmarks of the twentieth century.”
In this book – next level analysis of the band’s music – the reader gets details on the Beatles’ “evolving creative mastery” through discussions of the “Hard Day’s Night” chord and even through talk of the proposed “nadir” of the boys’ recording career, Beatles For Sale. I gained much insight into the competitive nature of the songwriting of John and Paul, the way they collaborated and the desire of each man to have “his” song chosen as the A side of a single. Also, differences in the approaches adopted by Paul and John are discussed. McCartney, the songbird with a gift for melody who wrote about other people. Lennon, odd rhythms, absurdist perspectives and songs about himself. Different enough to bring out the best in the other.
“As much as fans and critics liked to speculate over who wrote what and who was the greater genius, it was the Lennon-McCartney partnership that was the point. As talented as each man was, it was their coming together, their influencing and challenging and complimenting of one another, that elevated them to another dimension, producing music superior to what either man could consistently create on his own.”
Aside from analysis of John and Paul’s ability to “write a swimming pool”, you’ll also get praise for guitarist George Harrison. When discussing the recording of John’s pivotal song “Help!”, Harrison’s guitar flourishes are described as having saved the song as Lennon could not have played his instrument with the same dexterity. As for Ringo Starr, the reader gets the “truth”. Ringo is described by John as “simply the heart of the Beatles”. Starr was also essential to the dynamic as he was the member that audiences could relate to. If listeners felt they could never reach the talent levels of Lennon or McCartney, then they could indeed aspire to be as warm, funny and clever as the former Richard Starkey.
The author makes it clear that the Beatles was considered John’s band, he was “idolized” by the others who considered him “our own little Elvis in the group”. It’s also made clear, though, how essential to the recording process George Martin was. The Beatles were unschooled and needed a man of Martin’s talent and vision to bring to life their musical ideas. But it was also precisely because the boys were untrained musicians that they could see over the horizon; they weren’t hemmed in by rules and assumed that nothing couldn’t be done. It is described though how this lead to Martin seemingly getting more credit than Lennon thought he deserved causing John at one point to lash out – and to ask for forgiveness later. Funny, too, that the book discusses how George Martin was “square” on the surface and yet he helped create the swirling landscape of “Tomorrow Never Knows” and the trippy score for “Strawberry Fields Forever”.
“For a man who had never done, and indeed seemed to frown upon, hallucinogenic drugs, Martin did an amazing job of reproducing the elongated, liquidy sense of time and space one experiences on LSD.”
One of the major takeaways from this book for me is an appreciation for the Beatles’ lyrics. I think I had always assumed that their lyrics were clever and perhaps were veiled references to certain things. But Hertsgaard also made me aware of the fact that actual comments on their lives as Beatles were featured in songs especially by John Lennon. This book may make you think of the Beatles’ lyrics in a fresh light.
“One or both of them (Lennon and McCartney) was always doing something extraordinary, which meant that the Beatles as a group rarely did anything less than special. Indeed, this may be what set the Beatles apart from their musical contemporaries; they very rarely lapsed into mediocrity.”
Additionally, Hertsgaard makes a good point about the music the lads made during the sessions for Let It Be. The author suggests that people today attach much historical significance to the break-up that was going on at the time and dismiss the quality of the music being made then. This is something to consider particularly in the light of the The Beatles: Get Back documentary so many of us watched. Historically significant footage – but don’t forget the music.
There are a couple other things that this book made me think of in a different light. We all know that the Beatles ceased to exist in 1970 – at the end of the Sixties. Hertsgaard makes a point that the emergence of the Beatles near the dawn of the 1960s signalled the beginning of that pivotal decade – just as their demise heralded the end of it.
I also had Elvis Presley brought to my mind – as I often do. The author discusses the “intensity and relentlessness” of the fans that drove the Beatles first into seclusion and then contributed to their desire to break up and go separate ways.
Also, I learned from this book that it may have been possible at one point for the Beatles to splinter and make their own music by themselves – but also to come together every now and then to record as the Beatles. This idea totally blew my mind when I thought of what that may have looked like as the Seventies rolled on. I guess this is one area of music that the band did not call into being; the idea that a band could record separately but also reconvene in the studio and release music as a unit. Interesting to imagine what might have been.
“The minute the four of them are there, that is when the inexplicable charismatic thing happens, the special magic no one has been able to explain.”George Martin trying to verbalize what happened when the four lads were in the studio together
A Day in the Life is edifying reading. Mark Hertsgaard paints a picture of a group made up of four parts of the same person. Four lads who worked telepathically and were in sync like perhaps no other unit before or since; “We’re individuals, but we make up together The Mates, which is one person”. Once you know the story of the Beatles, be sure to seek out and read this book that provides clear analysis of their music, some of the finest ever made.
“The Beatles, in short, brought out the best in people, which is a large part of why so many people cared, and still care, so passionately about them.”