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THE BEATLES
Columns
Opinion articles written in the style of their author. These texts are to be based on verified facts and must be respectful towards people, even though their actions may be criticized. All opinion articles written by individuals from outside the staff of EL PAÍS shall feature, along with the author’s name (regardless of their greater or lesser renown), a footer stating their office, academic title, political affiliation (if any) and main occupation, or the occupation related to the topic being assessed

The Beatles: A kaleidoscopic view

Craig Brown proposes a new type of biography, which leaves out ‘the boring parts’

The Beatles rooftop performance
On January 30, 1969, the Beatles performed a concert on the Apple rooftop in London, which was broken up by the police.Express (Getty Images)
Diego A. Manrique

It’s a gimmick, but it works. English journalist Craig Brown has developed a fresh variation on the biographical genre. Endowed with remarkable erudition and a retriever’s instinct, he can gather multiple versions of the same incident; he often abandons his central characters to dig up revelations from peripheral individuals. He complements the conventional narrative approach with press clippings, lists, documents, personal experiences...

The formula worked for him in Ma’am Darling: Ninety-Nine Glimpses of Princess Margaret, his book about Queen Elizabeth II’s younger sister. Breaking the veil of secrecy that surrounded the British monarchy for most of the 20th century, Brown profiled a capricious creature, who was uncomfortable with obligations that curtailed her freedom but was most willing to invoke her privileges. That work caused consternation among courtly circles.

His book, One Two Three Four: The Beatles in Time, recently published in Spanish, posed different challenges. As Brown acknowledges, everything that can be said about the group appears in the immense bibliography about them and in their overwhelming online presence. The solution? Taking advantage of intersections to get closer to underappreciated witnesses. Thus, the concert on the roof of the Apple building in 1969 is narrated from the perspective of the policemen sent to put an end to that “tremendous noise.” He even tracks down the underage girl who ran away from home in 1967 and inspired Paul McCartney’s She’s Leaving Home.

Brown pays special attention to the most active sector of Beatlemania, their fabulously naive fans: “Please dedicate your next song to me. If you do, it will be a huge success, because I have so many friends and they will all buy the record.” One has to go outside that correspondence to locate confessions of sexual drive or testimonies of the dramatic breakup of friendships when one shifted their passion toward, say, The Rolling Stones.

An attentive reader of diaries and letters, Brown uncovers illustrious figures’ positions on the cultural earthquake that was the Beatles. Allen Ginsberg, Leonard Bernstein, John Updike, Gordon Brown and, of course, the future rock greats of the 1970s, from Bruce Springsteen to Chrissie Hynde, took a sympathetic view. At the other extreme, Noël Coward, Glenn Gould, Kingsley Amis, Margaret Thatcher and Anthony Burgess detested them. So did J. R. R. R. Tolkien, who refused to sell them the film rights to The Lord of the Rings (“Paul as Frodo? Nooo!”).

Beyond detailing his own youthful relationship with The Beatles, the author visits Liverpool and Hamburg, embarking on cutesy guided tours. Brown’s sarcasm shines here, though he resorts to the very British device of mocking the syntax and accent of outsiders. And who are the bad guys in the narrative? Aunt Mimi, who would have been horrified to find that her beloved John is still described as a member of the proletariat; Alexis Mardas, the Greek handyman who played dirty; and Yoko Ono, presented here as a duplicitous social climber (the author does not mention her later redemption as a musical creator). For good measure, he portrays the Beatles themselves as equally astonishing in their ruthlessness and in their credulity: there’s a glorious moment when Lennon proposes that the quartet undergo cranial trepanation to enhance their creativity “like the ancient Romans.” McCartney derails the plan: “Okay, you try it, and if it goes well, we’ll all do it.”

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