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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."
The book begins brilliantly, Norman's brisk yet literary style resulting in an exhilirating read. As the narrative progesses, however, Norman's opinions and prejudices begin to overwhelm any sense of objectivity. This, combined with his obvious distaste for the Beatles, their music, and their fans, sours the experience of reading what would otherwise be a hugely enjoyable book.
Norman comes across as bitter, curmudgeonly, and class-obsessed. On the subject of the Beatles' debut album, 'Please Please Me', he notes that "the front cover photograph showed four figures in Burgundy-coloured stage suits, grinning cheerfully down from a balcony in what seemed to be a block of council flats. No one seen in the Top Twenty since Tommy Steele had made so overt a declaration of being working class." That this photo in fact shows the Beatles looking down the stairwell inside EMI's London headquarters would at first seem to suggest that Norman has committed an absoute howler of a gaffe here. However, when considered in the light of the fact that Norman is surely too experienced a journalist to have made such a mistake, it seems more likely that this is merely a disingenuous attempt to massage the facts to fit Norman's preconceived notions.
As the Beatles' story unfolds, and the social and cultural changes they were so much a part of take effect, Norman's innate priggishness comes to the fore. Drugs, we are told, "occurred, like everything else, in almost wearisome profusion." The appeal of Sgt. Pepper "was total", crossing social and generational boundaries: "it equally entranced the most avant garde and most cautious", even reaching "the wildest acid freak, listening in his mental garret".
Norman is particularly unenchanted by the White Album. John Lennon's 'Yer Blues' is "one-dimensional and charmless, the playing turgid". Despite this damning appraisal, Lennon seems to be a relative favourite of Norman's, and gets off lightly compared to McCartney. Norman's anti-McCartney bias is unmistakable throughout. Lennon's music, says Norman, was "honest and powerful in a way that Paul's never dared to be." And Norman seems to have a virulent distaste for George Harrison. When Harrison, during an emotinonally fragile period, embarks on a brief, nervous and (apparently) unconsumated affair with a fan, Norman describes this as Harriosn "kerb-crawling for Apple Scruffs".
Brian Epstein, Norman claims, "fiddled and finessed" the Beatles "into the British charts with the weakest of all their A-sides, 'Love Me Do'". This old canard has been subject to decades of debate: to what extent did Epstein pad his record store's order for what was, in any case, bound to be a big-selling single on Mersyside? Norman's other claim in respect of Epstein's manoeuverings, however, is unequivocally wrong: Epstein, he says, "finessed and fiddled them into top billing on the Ed Sullivan Show." There may have been finesse in how Epstein handled Sullivan, but there was no fiddle.
Norman works himself up into his frothiest rage when he turns his attention to the phenomenon of 'the Sixties'. In the 20th Century, he writes, "moments of especially purblind human delusion had been symbolised by summers", none of which - not even "the hot summer of still trusting to Hitler's essential good intentions in 1939" - could compare, "or ever will, to 1967's so-called 'Summer of Love'." Looking back on that era, Norman places himself firmly on the right-wing side of 'the Culture Wars', looking on in dismay as "everything once valued about this country slides deeper into neglect and anarchy." Britain's streets are, he claims, "overrun by muggers and car-jackers, our public transport a homicidal mess, our hospitals uncaring Third World slums, our legal system a joke, our police force in retreat, our Royal Family in ruins."
His most egregious pontifications can be found in his prologue to the current edition, entitled 'September 2001: Across the Universe', where he compares September 11th to the assassinations of both John Lennon and JFK, as well as to the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. All our modern woes, including terrorism, Norman lays squarely at the door of the Sixties, and the Beatles:
"If we are honest, we must accept the extent to which the heady new freedoms of youth in the Sixties paved the way to this frightening ungovernable world we see about us today. From the happy high of pot and pills and the cosy hallucinations of Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band grew the drug menace that now saturates the most respectable, most rural British communities, turns once bright and happy children onto black-and-blue-punctured suicides, litters public thoroughfares and parks with the same foul stew of broken ampoules and needles." "From the great discovery of Sixties youth through the example of the Beatles - that, with a bit of cheek, you could get away with anything - evolved the whole ghastly panolpy of modern contempt for convention and self-restraint that encompasses urban terrorism at one extreme and supermarket 'trolley-rage' at the other."
'Extreme' is right!
"Just as John Lennon realised he could get away with cheeking his blue-blooded audience at the 1963 Royal Command performance, so the IRA ralised they could get away with blowing up innocent women and children; [...] to the point where Bin Laden and his fanatics found they could get away with the vileness of Septembet 11 2001. If you seek to pinpoint the exact place in the twentieth century where civilisation ceased moving steadily forward and began taking quantum leaps backward, there can be no other culprit but the Sixties"
It's worth noting that, although these ravings were published in the introduction to the 2003 edition of 'Shout!', meaning the wounds of September 11th were still very fresh indeed, this cannot entirely explain their unhinged quality. In any case, when invited to contribute to a series of articles for the (London) Times, marking the release of the remastered Beatles catalogue on CD, in 2009, Norman regurgitated whole chunks of this hysterical bile pretty much word for word.
It would be hard to imagine anyone whose sensibilities and views could be more ill-suited to analysing The Beatles. It's puzzling that this aspect of Norman's book is not more widely discussed.