Writing about the Beatles in the Observer on 9 October 1983, Philip Larkin observed that "the decade from their break-up in 1970 until the murder of Lennon in 1980 makes a sorry, fragmentary story... All four Beatles continued to make records, but never has a whole been greater than its parts."
Forty years on from the release of their magnificent final album, Abbey Road (Let It Be was released later but recorded earlier), the Beatles are once again atop the charts, a demonstration of the correctness of Larkin's judgment. Recession or not, the lavish EMI boxed set of remasters, price £169.99, sold 2.25m copies in five days. The Beatles: Rock Band computer game was beaten to the top spot by Guitar Hero 5 but sales of 650,000 have "thrilled" Viacom. That cost £29.99. Beatles Week came free, courtesy of BBC TV. Beatlemania lives - though in Japan, it never died: there some of the many soundalike bands have their own imitators.
You Never Give Me Your Money, Peter Doggett's forensic examination of "the battle for the soul of the Beatles", demonstrates that it wasn't just the solo albums of John, Paul, George and Ringo that were "sorry and fragmentary". So too the band's history, as the Utopian ideal of Apple collapsed – dreamed up as a way for the Beatles to shelter from tax while enabling musicians, artists, inventors (and, inevitably, hangers-on) to fulfil potential without resort to grubby bankers.
Much of the story is known, not least because Lennon and McCartney traded insults in songs and interviews. But the extent of the legal and financial nightmare that followed "irretrievable breakdown" and led McCartney, on New Year's Eve 1970, to issue a writ seeking the dissolution of the Beatles and the appointment of an official receiver to safeguard the band's collective earnings, is sad beyond belief.
Doggett's book is essentially a sequel to Richard DiLello's account of "the wild rise and fall" of the Apple empire, The Longest Cocktail Party, published in 1972 when the Beatles were already providing a job-creation scheme for lawyers. "You serve me/And I'll serve you/Swing your partners, all get screwed/Bring your lawyer/And I'll bring mine/Get together, and we could have a bad time" was how Harrison summed it up in "Sue Me, Sue You Blues". Ironically, given his disparagement by both Lennon and McCartney, Harrison quickly became the most successful solo Beatle, and while Lennon dallied with radical chic, he organised the Concert for Bangla Desh initiative, "one of rock's most spectacular displays of altruism".
Doggett's arcane detail will be too much for all but diehard fans, but what's most striking is the naiveté of the four men at the heart of the story. "A lucky band who made the grade", they knew nothing of business and cared less.
Brian Epstein brought them success beyond their wildest imaginings. He was soon overwhelmed but kept them out of trouble – until his sudden death left them rudderless and open to exploitation. The Beatles had travelled the world - but in a bubble, so they had no experience of the dirty realities to which they were exposed, and no Praetorian Guard like today's "stars".
They were easy prey for Allen Klein, whom all but Paul wanted as manager. Lee Eastman had been McCartney's choice but the bass player was reviled as bossy, his attempt to "impose" his father-in-law a move too far. Jealousy and suspicion, heightened in Lennon's case by drugs and fanned by the omnipresent Yoko Ono, rendered rational discussion impossible. Then there was the need for cash, to which they had little access. Lennon owed builders £20,000 for work on Tittenhurst Park but was short of the readies!
The Beatles spent millions untangling their affairs but what no one realised was just how valuable a commodity they had become. EMI (which recently paid out £30m in royalties owed from the 1960s) got rich on the Beatles, but shamefully squandered their legacy. Surprisingly, it took Liverpool years to capitalise on its most famous sons but, in 2002, the city's airport was renamed in Lennon's honour, "above us only sky" re-Imagined as a marketing concept. Tourists can now stay at the Hard Day's Night Hotel, close by the Cavern Quarter. There are exhibitions, museums and tours, the latter including the Lennon and McCartney childhood homes, both National Trust properties. Among those who bought a ticket to ride this year: Bob Dylan. This month, Liverpool Hope University launched the first MA in Beatles studies, for which applications have poured in from around the world.
Forty years ago, William Mann, Deryck Cooke, Wilfrid Mellers and Joshua Rifkin were ridiculed for subjecting Beatles music to academic scrutiny, comparing Lennon-McCartney songs to Schubert and finding in their musical vocabulary elements of Orlando Gibbons and Gustav Mahler, as well as Buddy Holly and the blues.
Now entire industries have grown up around the Beatles, with many of those involved banking more cash than did the Moptops in their fabulous heyday. There have been thousands of books, of which Hunter Davies's authorised biography (originally published in the mid-1960s and since regularly revised) was the first of any significance. Last year, Philip Norman, author of Shout!, produced a gargantuan life of Lennon, from which the capricious Ono had withdrawn support. Mark Lewisohn's three-volume biography begins publication in 2011.
As with the original 1987 CD release only more so, the latest Beatles restoration discloses the vibrant colours and broad brush-strokes of some familiar old masters. Really listening once again is a reminder that "the Beatles' music was so much more profoundly interesting than it need have been" (Russell Davies). The alchemy, between John, Paul, George and Ringo as performers and between Lennon and McCartney as songwriters (and all of them with George Martin), was unique.
First Lennon, with Yoko, and then McCartney, with Linda, tried to persuade themselves and the public that their new partnerships were at least its equal - but did they believe it? To be sure, the four artists formerly known as Beatles had their moments (Harrison's "My Sweet Lord", McCartney's "Band on the Run", Lennon''s "Imagine") but nothing they produced as individuals came close to matching the sheer exuberance of "Please Please Me" or inventiveness of Sgt Pepper.
"When you get to the top, there is nowhere to go but down, but the Beatles could not get down," observed Larkin. "There they remain, unreachable, frozen, fabulous." The question now is what happens in 2013, when EMI's copyright begins to run out... Or is the remaster an attempt to establish a new copyright? Utopia this ain't.
Liz Thomson is co-editor, with David Gutman, of 'The Lennon Companion' (Da Capo)
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