John the bolshie one. Paul the cute one. George the quiet one. Ringo the happy one. These are the descriptions used by veteran rock critic Paolo Hewitt - but there can’t be many people in the world who couldn’t attach these adjectives to the names, or the names to the photographs.
The Beatles’ fame transcends nations and generations.
And the books keep on coming. The excuse this time, as if we needed one, is the 50th anniversary of the release of their first single, Love Me Do, in October 1962. A full half-century! Harold Macmillan was Prime Minister. And not just television but the whole of life was in black and white.
In the subsequent eight years, which is all they lasted, the Beatles turned pop music upside down and inside out. The speed of their artistic development was dizzying, and their influence remains potent. And the tunes, of course, are terrific. I think I’ll scream if I ever hear Yesterday again, but a huge proportion of their work is as fresh as it ever was.
Here, then, are those 50 Great Beatles Moments, starting in July 1957 with ‘John Lennon Meets Paul McCartney’ and ending with ‘The Death of George Harrison’ in November 2001.
As so often in showbiz biographies, the early chapters whizz past in a blur, and everything slows down markedly towards the end.
Most Beatles biogs try to give an overview of this amazingly familiar tale but Hewitt’s format means he doesn’t have to.
Instead, we can look on their lives as a series of turning points, rather as we would look on our own lives after a glass or two of wine in the evening.
The Beatles, of course, had rather more turning points than most of us. Hewitt reckons each of them has lived at least three lifetimes, although in Paul’s case it may be more.
If we had been through what he had been through, maybe our hair would turn a strange shade of purple as well.
Moment five: The Beatles go to Hamburg. They play and play and play and hone their craft. When they start recording, they are more than ready.
Moment eight: The Beatles meet Brian Epstein. ‘Ditch the leather,’ says Epstein, ‘and more doors will open up for you.’
Moment ten: Ringo Starr joins the band as drummer. Hewitt is not of the journalistic school that wilfully underestimates Ringo, either as musician or as personality, and that’s to his credit.
Moment twelve: Beatlemania sweeps Britain. What we forget is how quickly it all happened. After Love Me Do - a modest No.17 hit - Please Please Me came out in February 1963 and swiftly reached No.2.
By autumn, girls were screaming at airports, and the band were playing in front of royalty. In December I Want To Hold Your Hand came out in the US and sold a quarter of a million copies in three days.
In February 1964 they played the Ed Sullivan Show, and 70 million Americans tuned in.
In March and April they shot their first film, A Hard Day’s Night, and it was in cinemas by June. As Hewitt points out, the more pressure was piled upon them, the better they responded to it.
You see here the mental strength of the gang that enabled them to move and act as one person. Once, when asked about the Maharishi, George said: ‘We haven’t decided yet.’
After the precipitous rise came the long and agonising fall. The Beatles’ story has an element of classical tragedy about it, and maybe a bit of fairytale as well.
Future generations will tell of these four extravagantly talented young men who did so much in such a short time, then collapsed in a ghastly mess that took decades to mop up.
Moment 22: John says The Beatles are bigger than Jesus. Moment 26: John Lennon meets Yoko Ono. Moment 30: The Beatles try to buy an island. Moment 32: Brian Epstein dies. Moment 35: The Beatles go to India. Moment 38: Ringo leaves The Beatles. Moment 40: George leaves The Beatles. Moment 46: Paul sues The Beatles.
Presented in this way, it all seems inevitable, almost preordained. The big surprise is that even if you know the story backwards, it makes for enthralling reading.
Paolo Hewitt has written a lot about Paul Weller and Oasis over the years, often with almost slavish devotion.
Like a few rock critics, he is inexorably drawn to articulate, aggressive, working-class rebel types, and it’s no great surprise that John Lennon is his hero here.
Paul McCartney, by contrast, repeatedly attracts words like ‘timid’, ‘sentimental’ and ‘showbiz’, and Hewitt seems reluctant to give him credit for anything.
This blatant Lennon preference becomes especially marked in the later, solo years. Hewitt can find nothing good to say about Wings but genuinely seems to believe Lennon was making great music when he died, which verges on the delusional.
Nonetheless, if you can screen this little prejudice out of your reading - it doesn’t really get in the way of the story - there’s much to enjoy in this pleasingly produced book.
Hewitt has read and digested everything and marshals his information with some skill. The photos, too, are well chosen and tell the tale in a different way, showing us just how young these people were - younger, in a sense, than anyone will ever be again.
And certainly much younger than most of us who will read this book…
Buy this book: http://www.maillife.co.uk/view/product/maillife_catalog/1027,362/BER11691