MEET THE BEATLES
A Cultural History of the Band
That Shook Youth, Gender, and the World
By Steven D. Stark
HarperCollins. 344 pp. $26.95
"It was really just pushing frontiers, that's all we were doing," Paul McCartney told an interviewer in 1988. But exactly which frontiers did McCartney and his band mates in the Beatles -- founder John Lennon, George Harrison and Ringo Starr -- push during the eight years they recorded together, beginning in 1962? What was it about the brilliant lads from Liverpool, their backgrounds, personalities, appearance and outlook, that enabled them to succeed so wildly? And what effects did their challenge to the established order unleash across the universe, both in their own time and over the three decades that have passed since their acrimonious breakup in 1970?
These and other inherently elusive questions about modern history's most influential entertainers preoccupy Meet the Beatles, by Steven D. Stark. An acclaimed pop culture commentator for NPR and CNN, Stark has produced a volume worthy of his subjects, treating the band with the seriousness that a phenomenon of its magnitude warrants. Thus highbrow literary allusions (Keats, Wordsworth, Paglia) find easy companionship alongside quotations from rock periodicals such as Mersey Beat and Crawdaddy. Stark also spent considerable time in Liverpool and conducted more than 100 interviews with figures ranging from Yoko Ono to screaming fans relegated to the upper tiers of Shea Stadium (both surviving Beatles declined to be interviewed).
The result is a highly readable, though by no means exhaustive, recapitulation of the band's improbable rise from the bleak, bombed-out streets of postwar Liverpool to the pinnacle of all media -- "entry into the modern mind," as writer Mikal Gilmore put it. What makes Stark's book new and noteworthy is his emphasis on gender issues. This was not a wholly unpredictable development. With the passage of time and the deaths of Lennon and Harrison, the Beatles inevitably became the stuff of academic literature, both detached and politicized. Someday (when we're dreaming), the boys' complete rehearsal sessions will be available for scholarly review and Beatles Studies Departments will flourish accordingly, all as prelude to an even deeper Beatlification, wherein all four -- yes, Ringo, too -- will be regarded not merely as supremely gifted performance geniuses, but also as singularly foresighted evangelists, Thinkers on a par with Christ -- as Lennon so audaciously observed in 1966, when he pronounced his band more popular than Jesus -- Marx and Freud.
"The Beatles helped feminize the culture," Stark writes, in part because they usually "displayed a more sympathetic attitude to women in their songs than most other rock writers." In addition, the band "not only sounded and looked feminine because of their style and their hair; they were more feminine in their group dynamic." Key to this inadvertent revolution were the deaths of Lennon's and McCartney's mothers when each Beatle was still in his teens (the "Julia" and "Mother Mary" immortalized on the "White" and "Let It Be" albums, respectively). These deeply traumatic events had the effect, Stark argues, of repeatedly driving both composers toward strong women who shaped them at every turn: Mona Best, mother of early drummer Pete and provider of the band's first regular gigs, at the Casbah Club she founded in her basement; Astrid Kirchherr, the German ingenue who gave the boys their distinctive haircuts and pushed them in the direction of her own black-leather art house sophistication; and later, Yoko Ono and Linda Eastman, indomitable personalities who, at the close of the '60s, with Lennon and McCartney already drifting apart, "tended to spur their partners in opposite directions from one another, almost acting like lawyers in an ongoing dispute."
Then there was the Beatles' most seminal influence: Brian Epstein, the upper-class closet homosexual who became their manager and catapulted them from the proto-punk mayhem of their Hamburg and Cavern Club performances to the more lucrative realm of recording studios, "The Ed Sullivan Show," world tours and "matching, somewhat unisex, collarless suits" -- costumes Stark suggests "tended to gloss over, rather than emphasize, any traditionally masculine elements of male appearance." The Beatles, we read, were uniquely tolerant, even embracing, of homosexuality, because they hailed, first, from England, where a long tradition of same-sex education encouraged cross-dressing in school plays and boarding school buggery, and more specifically from Liverpool, a port city whose "booming gay subculture" adopted the codes of life at sea, "where the repressive English laws against sodomy were rarely enforced" and sailors propagated "the notion that a man can be both macho and effeminate."
Surely Stark is on to something that other appraisers of the group's appeal have either overlooked or ignored; in writing that the Beatles "challenged the definition that existed during their time of what it meant to be a man," the author rightly draws attention to the unmistakable difference between the laid-back way in which the four Englishmen became the world's most desperately desired men and the exaggerated simulations of sexual potency to which Elvis Presley resorted, a decade earlier, to achieve the same effect. In fact, the Beatles' throngs of female fans were larger, louder and lustier than those who greeted Presley.
But was this the key to the Beatles' success? To accord such insights the prominence they enjoy in Meet the Beatles is like arguing that Michael Jordan's success derived not from his athletic prowess, but from his baldness -- unique, to be sure, integral, perhaps, but not central. It was, in the end, the Beatles' singularly exciting sound -- their reinvention of rock-and-roll, their fusion of disparate influences and styles, their blend of mordancy and humor, their entrancing voices and peerless craftsmanship -- yes, Ringo, too -- that explained their unprecedented success and enduring legend. The bottom line: Nobody did it better.
Stark's impressive command of his material leads to fresh insights into every phase of the Beatles' career, but his fixation on gender issues undermines his work. He also presents highly questionable criticism of individual songs and albums. Of the "Please Please Me" single, released in 1963, Stark writes that it was the vocals and "utterly uncommon harmonies," and not the "rather simple instrumentation," that made the song a hit. Fans who have long thrilled to Ringo's machine-gun attack on that cut, unlike anything heard in rock-and-roll drumming to that point, might beg to differ. Likewise with Stark's claim that in the group's final three albums the "rage and disillusionment of the [late-'60s] era . . . were almost absent." "Helter Skelter" and "I, Me, Mine" are hardly lullabies.
Finally, despite a lengthy bibliographical appendix, Stark seldom provides a specific citation for the thousands of factual assertions and quotes that form the corpus of his book. More times than a patient reader can stand, we are told that a Beatle "once said" something, or that, even more vaguely, "one observer" did. If Stark believes the Beatles deserve serious academic treatment, then their remarks, and remarks about them, deserve rigorous attribution in the form of traceable footnotes or endnotes. While we have no reason to doubt the author's claim that he worked diligently to "separate fact from fiction" -- an almost impossible task in the case of the Beatles -- his cavalier way with facts and quotes engenders suspicion as to whether Paul or George really "once said" all the things Stark attributes to them. When did Paul say, for example, "We're all really the same person. We're just four parts of the one"? Was it in 1964 -- or 1969? And wouldn't that context be crucial?
What Stark lacks in methodology, he makes up in seriousness of purpose. Meet the Beatles is a thoughtful, provocative and ultimately valuable contribution to the literature of the Beatles, if only because it points the way to its future. As the likelihood of developing new factual information about the Liverpudlians grows ever fainter -- a trend with which biographers of Jesus, Marx and Freud are painfully familiar -- the field will increasingly consist of interpretive studies like Stark's, examining specific subjects and themes, some heretofore hidden from view and ripe for reconsideration, that recur in the Beatles' entwined lives and canon. And you know that can't be bad. *
James Rosen is a Fox News Washington correspondent; his book "The Strong Man: John Mitchell, Nixon, and Watergate" will be published next year.