This iconic British band had more than their fair share of stories, and these are the nine best books that tell them
The Beatle publishing industry is alive and well, yet the sheer plethora of books also means that it can be hard to know which are most worth your precious reading time. There are books from everyone from their chauffeur to John Lennon’s wife Cynthia, and volumes covering everything from their musicianship to their time in connection with Scotland. So which are the very best of all the books written about the fab four?
For books about their lives:
The Man Who Gave The Beatles Away by Allan Williams
Allan Williams was the Beatles' first manager, though he was basically a booking agent: he got the fledgling group some gigs, rather than involving himself in any A&R decisions or plugging them into a larger network beyond his Liverpool contacts.
As such, his story only covers the group's earliest days, up until 1961. But he has written a small gem of a book, filled with characterful stories and effective pen-portraits of the group. The inside track on what really happened in Hamburg and how the lads landed up there is invaluable.
Shout!: The Story Of The Beatles by Philip Norman
Norman is terrific on the early years of the Beatles, with great portrayals of the desperation of their early years (playing in Allan Williams’ strip club and of the death of Brian Epstein, for example). His sources seem to fade after about 1967, but for a gripping account of Hamburg, the Cavern and Beatlemania, Norman’s book is hard to beat.
John Lennon In My Life by Pete Shotton
Pete Shotton was John Lennon's childhood friend, and his book is particularly useful on two periods in John's life. First, as a schoolboy, when both attended Quarry Primary School then the Liverpool Institute, during which time they egged each other on to ever greater displays of insubordination.
Later on, after Beatlemania, they seem to reconnect, and Shotton is highly revealing about Lennon's mental state, his budding relationship with Yoko Ono, and how the Fabs worked, rested and played in 1966-1968. He is devastatingly frank about his friend and pleasingly cynical about the group.
Tune In by Mark Lewisohn
If you want to know from which shop George Harrison bought a guitar, and how much the weekly payments were, and what Paul wrote in a letter to a Cavern fan, and when John first heard a particular record, this is the book for you. It is astonishingly detailed, its 900 pages covering only up to the release of "Love Me Do" in 1962. As an accumulator of facts and sources, Lewisohn is incomparable.
Lennon: The Definitive Biography by Ray Coleman
Coleman’s is the best biography of an individual Beatle. It is particularly good on John’s college days (when he could be a less than appealing individual) and on the Beatles’ music (Coleman having been a journalist for the Melody Maker during this period). He is sometimes a little too in love with John, however.
For books about their music:
The Beatles Recording Sessions by Mark Lewisohn
This is a day-by-day analysis of every recording session by The Beatles, and as such it is utterly invaluable. It shows how hard they worked, how swiftly many songs were dispatched, and how they gradually took over Abbey Road (with sessions running to 3am by the time of Revolver). Lewisohn’s precise annotation of every studio session shows how lightning was captured in a bottle—but on a near-daily basis for seven unprecedented years.
All You Need Is Ears by George Martin
Martin’s place in the story of The Beatles is, of course, universally recognised. Witty, urbane, exceptionally imaginative and unflappably competent, Martin was a delight of a man and his book conveys that well.
It also features his other recording and A&R work, and his breaking away from EMI (on learning what his annual bonus would be after producing songs that had been #1 in the UK for around 40 weeks in 1964). He is of course most acute on The Beatles’ music, its radical creativity, and on the incredible recording innovations they inspired.
Revolution In The Head by Iain MacDonald
Far and away the best book on the music of The Beatles. It chronologically lists every single recorded song, with full information on recording dates and instrumentation. For each MacDonald then adds a description of the song—varying from a couple of lines (for "All Together Now") to full authoritative essays. MacDonald is a musicologist and so his discussions can be slightly technical, but his explication is often stellar.
If you find the musicological analysis of Revolution In The Head a bit much, Tell Me Why might be the book for you: it's also a song by song reading of every Beatle track, but with the emphasis on the feeling and overall meaning. Riley does very well to draw out the shape and emotion of the songs, without requiring any musical knowledge, though he does put them all into overall context.
Emerick was a 15-year-old Abbey Road recording engineer when an unknown group from Liverpool arrived to record “Love Me Do” in 1962. He writes wonderfully on the recording techniques and discoveries from throughout the Beatles’ career, from the invention of automatic double tracking to Lennon’s idea of swinging on a rope around a microphone for “Tomorrow Never Knows”. He is also frank on how the Beatles’ final years saw a sharp decline in their behaviour.
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