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First published in 1981, Philip Norman's 'Shout!' is without question one of the best-known, best-regarded, best-selling Beatles biographies ever written. Although the Beatles had already been the subject of dozens of books by the time Norman began his research in 1978, he soon realised that much of the received wisdom surroundng the band consisted of muddled myths and overblown misconceptions. "Over time, the story had become like some ancient Norse myth, reduced to a string of worn-smooth legends and half-truths by endless fireside telling and retelling. Yet the whole truth had been out there for anyone who wanted to find it: more unbelievable than the myth; more exciting, more charming, more hilarious, more tragic."
In his introduction to the 2003 edition, Norman recalls having set out, in 1978, to write a book which would not only explode the many Beatles myths, but would also go some way towards bridging the gap between 'frivolous' pop and 'serious' literary sensibilities. "Pop fans were supposed incapable of reading 'real' books", says Norman, "I wanted to have a shot at changing that." There's no doubting the fact that Norman achieved his aim. Utilising his skills as both a novelist and a journalist, he produced a thoroughly engaging, consistently well-written, serious-minded study of a seemingly frivolous and worn-out subject. Having been in print now for well over a quarter of a Century, Norman's book has been around long enough, and garnered sufficient plaudits, to become enshrined as one of - if not the - definitive sources for anyone interested in the story of popular music's brightest burning stars.
In fact, it would not be pushing the point too far to say that 'Shout!' has itself become the subject of a certain degree of media mythologising. The idea that the Beatles might be 'overrated' may be absurd, but one of the factors which can contribute to such a view is the way in which the group are someties held in almost religious awe: nobody dare criticise or make distinctions between good or bad (or maybe that should be good or great) songs, albums, etc. Similarly, Norman's book has, over the years, begun to gather an unimpeachable aura, its (many) good points threatening to obscure its weaker aspects. In his introduction, Norman discusses his reasons for choosing the Beatles as the subject of his next book, offering the persuasive argument that the subject itself demanded to be written about, being one of the most compelling stories of the 20th Century: "which non-fiction story exetred the greatest fascination over the human race? It came down to Jesus, the Kennedy assassination, and them".
This is the problem. Ironically, Norman's greatest strength is also his fatal flaw: he approached the writing of his book as "an investgative journalist", and the result is, above all else, a work of journalism. As such, it's very successful, both in terms of unearthing facts and bringing Norman's considerable descriptive skills to bear on the phenomenon of Beatlemania. But the sense of journalistic detatchment hovers over the narrative, and becomes more and more of a distracton as the book unfolds. Norman calls himself a 'fan' of the Beatles, but supporting evidence for this claim is far from easy to find. Norman's focus is on getting the story, getting it into print, then moving on to his next job. Never once does he stop to offer any hint of effusiion or enjoyment of the Beatles' music, which he regards as merely a catalyst for the phenomenon he is studying.
If anything, Norman - a plummy-voiced Englishman, with an unmistakably Conservative sensibility - frequently appears rather sniffy about the Beatles, the Sixties, and much of the core subject matter of his book. We get the distinct feeling that, while we perhaps could not claim Norman has come to bury the Beatles, he certainly han't come to praise them either. Norman may have 'got the story', but some of his mistakes can be telling: what Beatles fan, for instance, would misquote key lyrics from Sgt. Pepper? Norman seems to think that Lennon sang, in 'Being For The Benefit of Mr. Kite!', "Tonight Henry the Horse dances the waltz", rather than "And of course Henry the Horse dances the waltz", and that the subject of 'She's Leaving Home' is meeting a man "in", rather than "from", the motor trade. A diligent journalist (or editor) could have checked these details, but that is irrelevant; anybody who likes the Beatles will have those words hard-wired into his psyche. Norman clearly doesn't.
Norman's focus is very much on the phenomenon of The Beatles, the story of their rise to unprecedented levels of fame and acclaim, and their descent from those dizzy heights at the end of the Sixties. The group's longevity, Norman believes, reflects "the residual power of the generation that grew up with them: the Chelsea-booted boys and Biba-frocked girls who would one day metamorphose into presidents, prime ministers, captains of industry, television bosses and newspaper editors." This view, like Norman's book, ignores the most important aspect of the phenomenon: the music. Very little is written here about the Beatles' records. 'Revolver', for example, is first mentioned when it arrives in the record shops, and each song on that pivotal album is accorded no more than a brief, often dismissive mention. 'Taxman', for instance, is described as "a bitter satire", sung by "the chronically bitter George Harrison".
Instead, Norman focuses on cultural contexts, which would be a perfectly valid line of enquiry, were it not for the fact that Norman's own political and social prejudices keep intruding. Norman never passes up an opportunity to sneer at (then Prime Minister) Harold Wilson, or his 'Socialist' Britain. Equally, he feels no nostalgia for the 'hallucination' of 'Swinging London': "brilliant at first, but in quickly fading, tawdry colours." Neither does Norman have much empathy for the Beatles' fans, lamenting George Harrison's song 'I Want to Tell You', "with its wonderful message to pampered, unharrassed and fully-employed 1966 teenagers that it was still OK to feel flat and unsatisfied (or 'hung up') the way George did". As a misreading of a Beatles song, it's hillarious; as an indication of the extent to which the author is out of sympathy with his subject, it's profoundly depressing.
The book is divided into 5 symbolically titled parts: WISHING, GETTING, HAVING, WASTING, and LASTING. These give a farily accurate impression of how Norman views his narrative of rise and fall, with the exception of 'Lasting', which might be better titled 'Unravelling'. The conventional wisdom holds that 'Shout!' is particularly strong on the opening and closing chapters of the Beatles's story. It would be closer to the truth to say that the book's early sections are by far the most compelling, whereas the book drags in the middle then peters out towards the end. Individual chapters within each part are headed up by a relevant quote, such as 'Elvis's manager calling Brian Epstein in Birkenhead', 'Even the jelly babies are symbolic', or 'We've got to spend two million or the taxman will get it'.
Norman is a highly skilled writer, capable of consistently producing concise, elegant prose. His novelistic descriptive powers are well-honed, and he has a keen journalistic eye for detail and atmosphere. These skills are used to best effect in the early chapters of his book, which make for essential reading. A classic example is his description of the Beatles' early performacnes in the famous Cavern Club in Liverpool:
"Ray McFall paid the Beatles 25s (£1.25) each per day. For this they did two 45-minute spots at the end of teh central tunnel, on the tiny stage with dead rats under it, and positively no acoustics. The low-arched brick, and the wall of impacted faces and bodies, so squeezed out al empty air that Pete Bests drumbeats rebounded an inch in front of him, making teh sticks jump like pistols in his hand. A single Chuck Berry number. in that heat, caused even tidy Paul to look as if his head had been plunged into a water butt. The bricks sweated with the music glistening like the streams that coursed from their temples, and sending a steady drip of moisture over equipment in which there were many naked wires. Each breath they took filled their lungs with each other's hot scent, mingling uniquely with an aroma of cheese rinds, damp mould, disinfectant and teh scent of frantic girls."