Thursday, November 22, 2007

Steven Stark's "Meet the Beatles": Book Review

I realize I cannot begin to read Jonathan Gould's Beatles social history unless I dash off my review of Stark's similar if shorter study. So, posted to Amazon US today...

As a child of the 60s, the Beatles' music can be recalled in my mind more easily and indelibly than any other tunes. This both hinders my objectivity as a listener and heightens my pleasure at reading about them. This book, a sort of condensation of the detail that can be found within such newer studies as the weighty Bob Spitz biography (also reviewed by me) and Jonathan Gould's 2007 social history "Can't Buy Me Love," (which will be reviewed by me, and which does not mention Stark!), efficiently retells the familiar story. Where, as the author admits right away, it differs remains in the stress given the cultural factors.

Not a professional scholar of the group, and not a hagiographer of the band, Stark writes with less passion than Spitz and less range than Gould. The book does move over the later years too rapidly, and while it lists many sources consulted, the references within the text are less easily cross-referenced. This does ease readibility but may frustrate those wishing for more exactitude. The music, likewise, appears but cursorily covered compared to the social impact. Songs remain understated. You will not find the day-by-day chronicle or the musical cut-by-cut analyses; Stark cautions us early on that other books have done this already. So, any reader needs to understand that this book offers instead an overview, if chronologically ordered, of the wider implications of the Beatles upon their decade. John and Paul gain the most notice; relatively little to Ringo and George has been given. There is very little attention paid to the songs. Artistic trends and packaging of the band and its records receive little direct interpretation. For instance, the discussion of "Revolver" ignores totally its cover art!

But, for a relatively brisk read, Stark does add nuances that pleased me. For instance, reminding us of the power of the limited range of TV and radio, the single-sex enrollment of English schools that encouraged students to imitate in drama the (absent) opposite sex, nostalgia and romanticism as literary forces in Britain, the gender-bending tradition of British humor and fashion, Liverpool's ties to the American South but not the African American diaspora, the ambiance of the art school, or the influence of drugs of various types on the band. The Hamburg years and the fact the Beatles played a thousand gigs before coming to America make clearer their musical and psychological development before 1964.

Also, rarely noticed points to those of us less than totally obsessed, such as that Ed Sullivan did not even learn of the band's fame prior to the show until he had been delayed on a plane due to the band's landing ahead of him causing congestion, make this a worthwhile version of another explanation for the band's prominence. He explains why they made it when Elvis, the Stones, or earlier musicians did not. He emphasizes the group dynamic that changed how audiences regarded collective endeavor in the arts. Most of all, Stark shows why in regard to the counterculture, gender roles, intellectual currents, and their quasi-religious allure, the four young men were able to lead the boomers into a revolution after all-- not the one Yoko might have expected, but one that changed hairstyles, demeanors, LPs, and the process of how artists relate to and are in turn changed by their fans.

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