The Cambridge Companion to The Beatles, Edited by Kenneth Womack

Essays that don't carry much weight

Reviewed,Liz Thomson
Wednesday 16 December 2009 01:00

There have been innumerable books about the Beatles – in part because, as Anthony DeCurtis writes, their story has "the arc of a fairytale with a heartbreaking ending". For a brief but intense era, the band and its peers represented a vigorous new start, and the kaleidoscope of images endures.

This winter, as we listen again to that mighty handful of albums, now expensively remastered, it's clear just how good the Beatles were, as composers and musicians. The distance between Please Please Me and Sgt Pepper is four years – but a lifetime in terms of musical sophistication. So it's a pity that these 13 essays include just one – "Any time at all: the Beatles' free phrase rhythms" by Walter Everett – which analyses the music per se. And does so in a way far less readable and approachable than the likes of William Mann, Ned Rorem, Joshua Rifkin or even Wilfrid Mellers, whose Twilight of the Gods (1973) still strikes sparks.

Dave Laing, of Liverpool University's Institute of Popular Music and one of only three British writers featured, does a good job of putting the Beatles in their socio-historical context, but much of what follows re-treads old ground. History is rehashed with startlingly little fresh insight. Sheila Whiteley, discussing "The Beatles as zeitgeist", blames at some length the Catholic Church for Eleanor Rigby's "drab and joyless destiny". That's odd, since the grave which "Father Mckenzie" has tended is in a Church of England cemetery (St Peter's, Woolton), where Lennon and McCartney were introduced in 1957 at a garden fete. Aside from being inaccurate, the excursion makes no obvious point.

As John Kimsey notes, the Beatles are now (rightly) the subject of much scholarly enquiry. Too often, though, the scholarship is found wanting, the standards below those which would be applied, one hopes, to Keats or Beethoven. That Cambridge has not seen fit to raise the bar is disappointing.

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