Scrapbook of our madness

Do we still need them? Will we still feed them? Whether aged 16 or 64, the answer is still yes, says
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Almost 40 years now stand between us and the first stirrings of Beatlemania, 30 since Paul McCartney went to court seeking dissolution of the Beatles partnership, 20 since we first learnt the name of Mark David Chapman. On 9 October, John Lennon should have been celebrating his 60th birthday. As he sang on John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, his first post-Beatles album, "the dream is over". Long over.

Almost 40 years now stand between us and the first stirrings of Beatlemania, 30 since Paul McCartney went to court seeking dissolution of the Beatles partnership, 20 since we first learnt the name of Mark David Chapman. On 9 October, John Lennon should have been celebrating his 60th birthday. As he sang on John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, his first post-Beatles album, "the dream is over". Long over.

Yet, even to those of us too young to have experienced the Beatles live, it seems like yesterday. Television and the LP - now the aluminium aspic of CDs - ensure that the past is close behind, but they alone do not account for the obstinate durability of the Beatles legend. Nor does astute marketing. And it's not only the Brits and the Americans: more than a million copies of The Beatles Anthology were distributed worldwide this week because booksellers around the globe knew there would be an unprecedented demand for the first Beatles "autobiography". The project has taken almost a decade and complements the CDs and TV documentary, released in 1995.

Writing in August 1966, as the Beatles were playing their last concert, in San Francisco's Candlestick Park, Jan Morris noted how the group had reinvigorated post-war Britain. "England was an aristocracy gone to seed, exhausted by war and responsibility... It was the Angry Young Men of the Fifties who shocked the old body into self-awareness: the Beatles and their friends... put her into miniskirts." For a brief but intense era, the Beatles and their peers did represent a vigorous new start. The kaleidoscope of images endures: the student revolution, the storming of barricades, social liberalisation, the summer of '67, sex, flowers, idealism. Always rock music orchestrates the themes.

The Anthology itself tells us little new - though McCartney, for the first time, talks about his relationship with Jane Asher. It was while living in her father's attic that he famously wrote "Yesterday", but the impression has always been that theirs was an innocent friendship. In fact, as early as 1963, the pair went on holiday to Greece and, when Paul married Linda in 1969, it took the others by surprise.

"I think we expected Paul and Jane Asher to get married," Ringo recalls. "They were lovers, they were together, and it seemed a natural thing to do." McCartney notes ruefully that he feels uncomfortable talking about their time together, since Asher never has. Linda was not a pushover. "She'd been married before and wasn't keen to get married again. She was unsure but I persuaded her."

The book allows us to hear the Beatles' own version of events, their words for once unmediated. It has been compiled with the full co-operation of the three survivors and Lennon's widow, Yoko Ono. Derek Taylor, the press officer who went on to work for Apple, contributed his memories and oversaw the project to his death in 1997, and we hear from road manager Neil Aspinall. Lennon and manager Brian Epstein, who died in 1967, are represented by extracts from interviews, notably in Lennon's case that done by David Sheff for Playboy in 1980.

The editing leaves it unclear whether Paul, George and Ringo actually got together to reminisce, but each Beatle chats in his own unique way, the events from those crazy, hazy years surprisingly clear. Memories of their Liverpool childhoods cannot fail to engage, and the distance they travelled from them appears remarkable still, even to them. John's childhood was the saddest, but the writer of "Working-Class Hero" was also the most middle-class.

Paul, the most disciplined, thought he might go into teaching. Certainly, his father was none too pleased that he was hanging round with a bunch of greasy rockers and, even at 18, Paul was in thrall to him. John recalled: "I was always saying, face up to your dad, tell him to fuck off... he had to make a decision between me and his dad, and in the end he chose me."

Apprenticeship in Hamburg was tough, ameliorated by easy sex (George: "In the late Fifties in England, it wasn't that easy to get it. The girls would all wear brassiÿres and corsets which seemed like reinforced steel"). Gigging in Britain, with the motorway system still incomplete, was a nightmare. The Beatles went from kipping in the back of the van to a suite in the Plaza almost overnight, yet even then they and their roadies shifted all the gear (one tiny amp each!). They played for royals and jammed with Elvis, who, rightly fearing he would be eclipsed, used his FBI connections to try to get them refused entry to the US. When they finally visited him, Presley left the television on.

After four years and 1,400 performances, the madness was too much. The band retreated to the studio to paint their masterpiece. Epstein did not live to hear Sgt Pepper and, with him gone, the four were rudderless. Apple, their attempt at a business utopia, lost them a pile. One remarkable legacy of those years is Ringo's signing to the label of the composer John Tavener, whose brother was doing building work for him. As Let It Be chronicled, it all became too much. After Abbey Road, the brilliant last studio album (title and visual concept by McCartney), they split. Lennon & McCartney became Lennon and McCartney, their songs revealing the pain of "divorce".

Lennon and his new wife went to New York, where his peace campaigning made him an unwelcome guest. There, in December 1970, he poured his heart out to Jann Wenner, 24-year-old editor of Rolling Stone. No Beatle had ever spoken so frankly and, one by one, Lennon exploded all the myths, revealing his own terrible insecurities and their flipside, an enormous ego. "If there's such a thing as a genius - I am one."

Wenner's cuts "for reasons of discretion" have been restored in Lennon Remembers, a plethora of footnotes added. We hear more from Yoko, but the re-ordering of material makes it hard to see what's new, though criticism of the Rolling Stones is more protracted.

Asked what effect the Beatles had had on Britain, he noted, "Kenneth Tynan's making a fortune out of the word 'fuck' " (a reference to Oh! Calcutta!), but "the same bastards are in control". It's a sobering thought that the "bastards" now in control are almost a generation younger than Lennon.

Lennon hoped that, at 64, he and Yoko would be "living off the coast of Ireland... looking at our scrapbook of madness". With more than 1,300 photos, many from their personal archives, Anthology is a generously filled scrapbook - so generously, in fact, that baby-boomers may well find the small text hard to read. But this is a quality production: of the welter of Beatle books this autumn, it and Lennon Remembers are essential additions to the shelf of any self-respecting Beatlefan.

Liz Thomson is co-editor, with David Gutman, of 'The Lennon Companion' (Schirmer)

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