Rob Sheffield’s tremendous new book, Dreaming the Beatles: The Love Story of One Band and the Whole World, has been repeatedly praised for doing that which seems impossible: forming a whole book about the Fab Four that feels fresh.
Spending time with the Beatles never gets tiring. Spending time reading whosoever wax on about that one time they helped John write what-have-you grows tiring quickly. Even worse, reading a critic demand the Beatles be the topmost of the musical canon inspires in readers the opposite. Books like that, of which there are plenty, contribute in an inversely exponential fashion: the more we’re told “THE BEATLES WERE THE BEST” the less interested we are to hear them, or I should say of them. Hearing the Beatles themselves transcend the conversations around them. The music outweighs the immense pressure closing in to love them. This is one of the main points of Sheffield’s book, and as his example he uses the Beatles’ number one detractors as time went on: the Beatles.
The book moves for the most part chronologically from the band’s formation to cessation, framing each chapter around a single, album, or event. Within each chapter is biography and criticism, and Sheffield provides his insight with brevity and specificity. It’s a joy to read Sheffield take tangents and reveal details he loves about the group. There’s George’s underappreciated wit, which Sheffield cites often. There’s also Wings, Paul’s band after he quit the Beatles, of which Sheffield reveals a love for piece by piece. Sheffield writes with passion about John’s voice, and how it changed his life. He writes profoundly and personally about Yoko Ono (something not done regularly in Beatles books), particularly her single recorded after John’s death, “Silver Horse.” And yes, he spends some time telling us about Ringo, because, as he says, “you can’t forget Ringo.” (Most interesting?: Not long before his death, Lennon didn’t even have as many solo #1 hits as Ringo, who had two.)
Sheffield taps often into what’s growing to be the centermost idea of the Beatles’ fame: the young women who listened. “When I listen to Live at the Hollywood Bowl, I do not imagine being one of the Beatles; I fantasize about being the girl in the upper-balcony cheap seats, ripping my hair out and shrieking, tapping into a ruinous eternal gnosis that not even the boys in the band could ever know.” Just before this specific quote, he writes about Brian Epstein, arguably the most tragic figure in Beatles lore, at a Beatles concert in America. The boys’ manager “gave himself permission to live out his deepest fantasy—he slipped into the back, under cover of darkness, just another anonymous body in the ocean, and let himself go … he went into the crowd and he just screamed like one of those girls.”
Also at the center for the book is the quintessential question the world made out of the Beatles: John or Paul? Most Beatle songs credit the songwriting to Lennon-McCartney, and whichever side of the hyphen you fall on tells you something about yourself, Sheffield tells us. But in a chapter on “You Call My Name,” he writes that for all the lawsuits and fights and digs in their solo songs, John and Paul always run back to each other. “The last time John Lennon set foot on a concert stage, it was Thanksgiving 1974, making a surprise appearance with his friend Elton John at a sold-out Madison Square Garden … John announces ‘We thought we’d do one last number so I can get out of here and be sick. This is a number from an old estranged fiance of mine called Paul.” Sheffield concludes by asking, “Why is he doing a Paul song? Why is he making this moment about him and Paul, when all anybody wants is to cheer and shower John with love? But in the middle of the crowd, he calls Paul’s name.” Sheffield makes clear that you lean towards one or the depending on preference or mood, but that their interdependence made and continues to make the Beatles larger than life.
Sheffield writes about how we love music as a culture, why we do, and most importantly, why we love the Beatles. It’s an extraordinary look at the ways their music and presence will outlast us all, with plenty of wonderful, illuminating stories told fresh or told (to me at least) for the first time.
One part I found myself re-reading is Sheffield’s contention that the Beatles are so big that we all have our own Beatles. We have our own Beatles depending on our country; we have our Beatles as a generation (Sheffield’s talk of the nineties Beatles renaissance is especially revealing); and finally, we all have our personal Beatles. I recommend that you read Sheffield’s book to enjoy it, but also to gain a roadmap in how you can define your own Beatles, or see how to best love any band you call a favorite. I thought for most of the book about who my Beatles are. I came away with some revelations.
The Millennial Beatles
I continue to find it surprising day to day that the most listened to Beatles’ song, certainly (in my unscientific findings) by millennials, isn’t a song by Paul McCartney or John Lennon. Instead, it’s a deceptively simple ditty by one George Harrison, written not just in absence of the other three but in frustration with them. “Here Comes the Sun” is a masterful song, something even the more egoed Lennon-McCartney recognized. (Carl Sagan wanted this to be the Beatles song launched into space on the Voyager, and the band agreed, though legal troubles prohibited it.) In the millennial ethos of the Beatles, it seems like a Lennon song would be the most popular Beatles track, or even a boppy McCartney tune. George Harrison is a fantastic musician (and he made my favorite solo Beatles album), but the nostalgic, perhaps even novel, love for Lennon would seem to suggest it’d be him. Then again, I’ve heard more than a few people say their favorite Beatles song is “Imagine”, a statement that would most likely make Lennon break his glasses.
About once a year, some news item emerges that makes writers wonder whether the Beatles have a place for millennials. Sheffield writes in his book of the time Sir Paul was shut out of Tyga’s 2016 Grammy party because he lacked a VIP wristband (Paul’s reply to his entourage: We need another hit, guys”). There’s also the time people joked “who is this Paul McCartney?” on Rihanna and Kanye West’s “FourFiveSeconds,” and the very unfunny turmoil online when it was taken seriously. There’s also the strange meme from this year attempting to decide whether Migos or the Beatles were a better group (which began, of course, from a clickbait article). (Also, side note, doesn’t it say something about the Beatles that we feel the need to reach back five decades to find a band to take down?)
Truth is, no other band from the sixties, or seventies, or eighties, and barely the nineties, occupy as much cultural space as the Beatles do. Paul McCartney is still a pop music obsessive and will find a way to be relevant there until he dies (and pop music will always find a place for him there). John Lennon, though he’s become somewhat of a novelty figure, especially to those who turn ‘Love’ around in ‘Revolution’ on bumper stickers, continues to be relevant as shorthand for musical spirituality, tragedy, and romance (as Slim Jxmmy of Rae Sremmurd, rather questionably, raps “I’m pimpin’ like I’m Lennon / got a lot of foreign women). George Harrison will always be held in esteem as long as “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” or “Here Comes the Sun” remain top Beatle tracks (or his solo material, as Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 can assure this year). And Ringo will always be Ringo, because you can’t forget Ringo.
“I’ve Just Seen a Face” / “In My Life”
These two tracks are my favorite Beatles. In requisite fashion, one is a McCartney tune, the other a Lennon song, though they’re both credited to Lennon-McCartney partnership. “I’ve Just Seen a Face,” to the American ears pre-90s, was the opener to seminal (and my favorite) Beatle album, Rubber Soul. The British heard “I’ve Just Seen a Face” on the flip side of the Help! soundtrack, but kicking off a version of Rubber Soul makes more sense sonically. It’s a McCartney tune in the best way, about a girl, who he’s falling love with, and whom he fell in love with instantly (see also: “I Saw Her Standing There” and “Got to Get You Into My Life”). But it’s also peppily melancholic in a way that McCartney isn’t often credited for. After all, the song never says he even spoke to her, poor guy, he just knows he’ll dream of her tonight, and that’s enough for him. Primarily, I love it because it’s one of the Beatles best acoustic-based songs, and their harmonies on the chorus get me singing everytime. “In My Life” is much the same, except electric, and a patent Lennon love song.
“With lovers and friends I still can recall
Some are dead and some are living
In my life, I’ve loved them all
But of all these friends and lovers
There is no one compares with you”
Can’t even say I love you without prefacing it with, “though there has been a lot of death, and we all lose our friends and lovers, eventually.” I love Paul, but more of my favorite songs come from John, something I realized while reading Dreaming the Beatles. I had always fancied myself a Paul, distancing myself from the John everyone else seemed to want to be. Still, as much as I want to associate with the freewheeling Paul (warts and all), find myself turning to Lennon’s primary compositions more. And yet I contend that pop music has known few sounds better than Paul McCartney’s voice. As I run down the rest of my favorite Beatles songs, those from Paul often showcase his voice: “Here, There, and Everywhere,” “Martha My Dear,” “Hey Jude.”
John’s voice, not to be undervalued, can be transcendent. This is true on so-framed psychedelic tracks like “Strawberry Fields Forever,” “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,” and “I am the Walrus,” as well as on more straightforward songs (as Sheffield himself notes, if the only song John Lennon ever recorded was “Julia” he should still be remembered as one of the greats). Harrison made “Something,” the best song to shout along with “I don’t know!” As well, there’s Ringo. While none of his frontman songs are my favorites, his playing on “Lucy,” “Rain,” “Drive My Car,” and “Tomorrow Never Knows,” is what makes those so amazing to me.
Favorite Beatles Songs:
1-2. “In My Life” & “I’ve Just Seen a Face”
3. “Strawberry Fields Forever”
5. “Here, There, and Everywhere”
6. “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds”
7. “Ticket to Ride”
8. “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away”
9. “Tomorrow Never Knows”
10. “Baby’s in Black”
11. “Martha My Dear”
13. “I am the Walrus”
14. “Drive My Car”
And, just for kicks, my favorite solo-Beatles tracks:
Favorite Solo Beatles tracks:
1. “What is Life”
2. “Silly Love Songs”
3. “Oh Yoko!”
4. “With a Little Luck”
5. “Be Here Now”
6. “At the Mercy”
7. “Sunday Bloody Sunday”
8. “Working Class Hero”
10. “My Sweet Lord”
Read an excerpt from Sheffield’s book here, at Rolling Stone.