Nostalgia Still Reigns for Boys in the Band; A Much-Anticipated Beatles Biography Is Just One of This Year's Music Treasures, Says Richard Godwin

The Evening Standard (London, England), December 12, 2013 | Go to article overview

Nostalgia Still Reigns for Boys in the Band; A Much-Anticipated Beatles Biography Is Just One of This Year's Music Treasures, Says Richard Godwin


Byline: Richard Godwin

THE Beatles' I Want to Hold Your Hand came out 50 years ago -- as distant from the present moment as Stravinsky's Rite of Spring was in 1963. Both caused riots; both changed the course of music; and both events had a lot of backstory. Mark Lewisohn spends 932 pages of his projected threepart Beatles biography, Tune In (Little Brown, [pounds sterling]30), taking us up to this moment. There is a 1,700-page deluxe special edition if you're thirsty for more.

The Beatles' early years -- in fact, all their years -- are well documented. It is to Lewisohn's great credit that he has so much that is fresh and worthwhile, including letters between John Lennon and the lost Beatle Stuart Sutcliffe, a rewrite of events portrayed in the film Nowhere Boy, plus plenty of grimy teenage sex in Hamburg, where the Beatles learned their craft, only 15 years after the war. "Scorned by adult society as a force for evil and the work of the devil, black rhythm music out of America -- and, before there, of course, out of Africa -- was bringing harmony where once had been hatred."

In Yeah Yeah Yeah (Faber, [pounds sterling]20), Bob Stanley runs with the theme. It is an ambitious attempt to span half a century of pop music, from Bill Haley to Nicki Minaj, but it is all the better for being personal and partial. Stanley, one third of the beloved indie underdogs St Etienne, is a pubby companion, particularly good on the creative differences between American and British tastes (their failure to appreciate glamrock; our problems with Grand Funk Railroad). Still, he is uneasy at how the story ends. He seems half persuaded by a prophetic 1992 quote from Simon Reynolds: "In the future the artist will not be so much creator as curator: someone who takes historical resources from the archives and arranges them." I don't know. Perhaps, in half a century's time, we will look back on Miley Cyrus's twerk at the MTVs with Robin Thicke with the same disbelieving nostalgia.

Of the year's biographies (Graham Nash, Johnny Cash, Robert Plant ...) the most welcome is Elliott Smith, the American singer-songwriter who died from a self-inflicted stab wound to the heart in 2003. His is one of the saddest stories in modern music and in Torment Saint (Bloomsbury, [pounds sterling]14.99), William Todd-Schultz does not shy from the comparisons to Kurt Cobain and to Nick Drake, tender souls with violent fates. …

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