For a now-decreasing segment of the population, the Beatles are a cultural reference point we share. We grew up learning to twist to “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” or teaching ourselves to play instruments by mastering the licks and leads on their records. Our parents hated their innovation (My mom snapped off the car radio in the middle of “Hey Jude” when I was 9 moaning, “What will they be playing when you’re in high school?”) but couldn’t deny the brilliance of the words and music. We didn’t care what they thought and we didn’t understand the source of the brilliance; we just accepted the Beatles when the band existed and missed them after the group broke up.
Almost eleven years after the breakup came Shout, the first book that put the band and the phenomenon they created into a kind of historical/sociological context. The book would have sold well if it had been published six months earlier: it’s an interesting, well-crafted book and there was a ready audience of hard-core Beatle fans. Instead it came out in the aftermath of John Lennon’s murder, when much of the world seemed to be grieving and it sold like hot-cakes. Shout didn’t assuage the emotional pain but it gave the world more information about the group we had loved (and now irrevocably lost) and put that information into historical context.
In a way, Shout became almost a code-breaker for mid-level fans of the Beatles. (I mean those who loved and played their records but not so obsessed they hunted down the musicians and their family members.) The references to Penny Lane and Strawberry Fields became clear. What also became clear were the incredible runs of good and bad luck the band members faced during their chaotic ride into pop-music history. On the plus side they lucked into a manager who cared about them and a record producer with the skills and imagination to create a lab space for genius. They also met death and grief long before they knew success and at least some of their initial popularity probably came from two nations needing emotional relief from political scandal and assassination.
Shout‘s best work comes in showing how the world changed with the Beatles if not because of them and how those changes were reflected back in their music. From the conservative post-war years when adolescence was viewed as phase of being “junior adults” to the late 1960’s when it almost seemed to be the tail wagging the dog of the Western Hemisphere, the Beatles were there, either experiencing it first-hand or writing about it in their music. Like the rest of us, they were creatures of their upbringing and like most people (I think) they spent their time trying to cope with whatever life brought them. It’s just that a combination of their talent and circumstances meant they had to cope with problems many of us manage to avoid and they had to do this in the world’s spotlight.
Sometime, long after I have gone, that spotlight will finally dim on the band from Liverpool and Philip Norman’s book will become just another collection of words filed away on some digital shelf. But until then, people who want to know about the Sixties will take Aaron Copland’s advice and listen to the Beatles. And people who want to know about the Beatles and the impact they made will read Philip Norman’s Shout. And that’s all right with me.