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When They Were Boys: The True Story of the Beatles’ Rise to the Top by Larry Kane

When They Were Boys: The True Story of the Beatles’ Rise to the Top by Larry Kane

ARC received from NetGalley.

Purchase the book from Amazon.com.

Some of you may be groaning to see yet another Beatles book reviewed on this blog. What can one possibly learn from a new title, and how can we be sure this is the true story of the Fab’s early years? Having read so many books over the decades, one would think I could recite the story by heart. So many Beatle “insiders” and witnesses to the early days of Hamburg and Liverpool – it’s nice to know so many are still kicking after fifty-plus years – and it appears that journalist/writer Kane has attempted to include as many as possible in When They Were Boys. This book doesn’t cover the whole of the Beatles’ career, but concentrates on the beginnings of the Quarrymen through the mid-1960s at the stirrings of the takeover of America.

Beatle die-hards know Kane’s name – he traveled with the Beatles as a reporter during their 64-65 American tours, and he’s authored other books on the band. Personal encounters with the boys are represented here in conversations peppered throughout, but you won’t find current cooperation from the surviving members. When They Were Boys instead calls on the memories of those present before the record deals, names already familiar to die-hards: Astrid Kircherr, Pete Best, John’s sister Julia Baird, Bill Harry (who published Mersey Beat), and Horst Fascher (performer and club owner in Hamburg). Voices of the departed – Neil Aspinall, Mal Evans, Mona Best, etc. – are also present, as is input from Yoko Ono, speaking from memories of conversations with John.

With all of this participation, and the author’s personal experience, one could argue this is a thorough account of early Beatles history. Some stories are familiar, others appear revealed as Kane charges that some biographers may have attempted to rewrite the story by omitting certain points. As much as I’ve read of Mona Best’s involvement, I don’t often hear of her reaction to her son’s dismissal/resignation from the band, or of exactly how popular Pete was during these years. Kane also takes the time to point out how some biographers want to minimize May Pang or erase her entirely, but it’s not something I’ve seen in Lennon biographies.

The narratives aren’t the most compelling as compared to other Beatles biographies and histories, and some may bristle at mentions of Paul and Ringo’s lack of cooperation/interest in the this project. To note that neither attended a funeral of an insider, for example, seemed almost chiding. Nonetheless, Boys is informative, and a book new students will appreciate.

Rating: B-

Kathryn Lively is the author of the Rock and Roll Mysteries featuring Lerxst Johnston: Rock Deadly and Rock Til You Drop, and of the collection of short stories, The Girl With the Monkee Tattoo.

How the Beatles Rocked the Kremlin by Leslie Woodhead

How the Beatles Rocked the Kremlin by Leslie Woodhead

Buy now from Amazon.

I will confess when it comes pop culture and music, I often take an American-centric point of view. If a band suddenly drops of the radar, I might assume they broke up or fell out of favor with their label, forever relegated to sixth-billing at state fairs. It may not occur to us that certain musical acts sell well in other countries. I know somebody who co-wrote a song that became a number one hit in South America. The US market is important, surely, but it’s not the only game in town.

One can imagine what kids in the USSR did for entertainment, and if they even heard of The Beatles during the band’s prime. As it turns out, the Fabs managed to breach the Communist bloc, serving as unofficial ambassadors of the West. Filmmaker Woodhead, responsible early in his career for one of the first clips of the Beatles in action (which you can view on the author’s website), would discover the group’s impact on Soviet youth as he filmed documentaries. His interactions with fans and stories of government-approved (and illegal) acts influenced by the Beatles are compiled in How the Beatles Rocked the Kremlin.

If there’s one appealing thing I found about this book, aside from the Russian perspective of The Beatles, is the author’s honesty from the beginning – many Beatle books I’ve read are authored by fans…die-hards. Woodhead doesn’t claim a high level of fanaticism, and I like that it lends an objective voice to this first-person narrative. Woodhead takes us through the Soviet Union, then later Gorbachev’s post-glasnost Russia, to meet some of the more avid Beatlemaniacs of the East. Where my aunts could easily buy the Capitol-released albums at any store in South Florida, these comrades waited for contraband records to come in via various sources (sometimes first through port towns, though the children of the privileged class were able to get their hands on the music). Many learned English via the Beatles, and took up instruments in an attempt to keep the music alive behind the Iron Curtain. Then there’s the guy with the Beatles shrine (the pictures included in the book likely don’t do it justice) whose admiration of the band certainly rivals that of the most fervent comrade’s devotion to the Party.

What you won’t find in this book (aside from personal experiences relayed by the author) are stories of interactions with actual Beatles. McCartney’s historic concert is covered, and serves as a bittersweet coda for those denied the opportunity to see the entire band and follow them as the rest of the world did. The true stars of Kremlin, however, are the fans who closely guarded their admiration for the Beatles in an unaccepting atmosphere. When I recall reading stories of “Beatle burnings” in certain American communities in reaction to John Lennon’s “more popular than Jesus” remark, I find it interesting how people in the Soviet Union probably would not have had the opportunity to choose to burn a record – the government would make that decision. Yet, despite an ever-present government and rules, the Beatles managed to sneak through, proving nothing short of immortal (or divine) is impenetrable.

How the Beatles Rocked the Kremlin is for the serious Beatles scholar, a fascinating history lesson about the power of music gradually chipping away at oppression. When you begin to read, you may get the impression you’re in for some dry reading, but it is the enthusiasm of the Russian fans with whom Woodhead interacts that helps the book come alive. Fifty years after those four young men rocked the Cavern, they continue to rock the Kremlin, the British Isles, the States, the Internet…and that enthusiasm keeps the music alive. Sometimes, all you do need is love, and I know one place to find it.

An advanced review copy was provided by the publisher.

Rating: B

Kathryn Lively is the author of the Rock and Roll Mysteries featuring Lerxst Johnston: Rock Deadly and Rock Til You Drop, and of the collection of short stories, The Girl With the Monkee Tattoo.

Shoulda Been There by Jude Southerland Kessler

Shoulda Been There by Jude Southerland Kessler

After finishing a work of magic realism that focuses on the return of John Lennon to the world stage (John Lennon and the Mercy Street Cafe) I set my sights and my Kindle to another fictionalized Lennon story, this one quite ambitious in scope. Author Kessler spent more than twenty years researching the life of Lennon – interviewing people once close to the man and the band he help form, visiting landmarks and poring over countless Beatles archives – in order to take on the monumental task of telling Lennon’s life story. There are plenty of biographies already, another one came out last year, but Kessler’s take is unique in that her version of Lennon’s life is novelized and thoroughly detailed, with practically every move made documented.

As I’ve gathered from the author’s website and other sources, Kessler has intended to write three books to span Lennon’s forty years. Shoulda Been There (AMZ) and Shivering Inside are currently available, and She Loves You is forthcoming. I’ve neither read nor investigated the second book, but I would argue that Shoulda Been There is probably the most ambitious of the three projects. This book alone chronicles half of Lennon’s life, beginning with the day of his birth and taking the reader up to the “birth” of the Beatles’ relationship with Brian Epstein. These two events bookend just over twenty years of history that include Lennon’s childhood at Mendips, tensions between his mother Julia and Aunt Mimi, the evolution of the Quarry Men into the Beatles as they conquered the Hamburg music scene. Each chapter ends with an author’s note that dissects fact from conjecture, and in some instances serves to correct myths that have surrounded the Beatles legend. Some readers may be put off by these notes appearing throughout the book, as though they might pull people out of the story. I didn’t feel that happened to me, but the notes are rather short and not disruptive.

Having read several Beatles books and biographies over the years, I went into Shoulda Been There knowing the story. As a novel, Lennon’s story makes for provocative prose, and Kessler is to be commended for undertaking such a project. Where the writing is concerned, Kessler does well in evoking a sense of place, though there were times I wondered if she relied on reader familiarity with the characters in play. Instances of point of view shifting, or head-hopping, proved distracting. One thing I would suggest if you are unfamiliar with the slang of time is to browse the helpful glossary Kessler offers at the end first before reading the book.

I found Shoulda Been There enjoyable and true to the Lennon history as I have known it. It’s obvious Kessler takes great care in presenting her subject and is devoted to authenticity. With more than half of Lennon’s life covered here, it will be interesting to see how the pace of the other books differ.

Rating – B+


Kathryn Lively is the author of Rock Deadly, a Mystery (Book One of the Rock and Roll Mysteries) .