One Two Three Four: The Beatles in Time by Craig Brown

Ah, the index. What would we do without it?

First of all, I have to say, there are too many people involved with the Beatles with similar names. I can sort out Brian and Clive Epstein, sure, but Alistair Taylor and Derek Taylor? It’s not so long ago that I read Peter Brown’s (terrible) book and now here’s another Brown with another book about the Beatles. Craig Brown is a Private Eye satirist and, ulp, Daily Mail columnist.

(I might not have bought this if I’d known that last bit in advance.)

So what is this book? Having not read anything else by this particular Brown, and having only read an extract in the Graun, I wasn’t sure. And I have to admit that it took me about 40% of this to work out what it was.

One Two Three Four: The Beatles in Time is saltatorial, in that it jumps about (in time) to an extent. It’s roughly chronological, except when it’s not. Sometimes, it even repeats itself. There’s some fanciful stuff here, brief excepts of alternate history, and there’s a kind of backwards-episode section all about Brian Epstein. So some of the repetition makes sense because we’re clearly meant to take these passages separately. But there are other bits of repetition I’m less sure about. Copy-pasted from a database of bits? Or meant to be reused and seen differently because of a different context?

Who knows. So what is this book? It’s not just another Beatles biography. It’s not an assessment of their musical impact or a blow-by-blow breakdown of their recording sessions, or a forensic examination of their financial problems, or a zoom in to a few crucial weeks.

Brown’s previous book was Ma’am Darling, which consisted (so I understand) of 99 anecdotes about Princess Margaret. That ought to help you understand One Two Three Four, which is a lot more than 99 anecdotes (150?) about the Beatles.

What Brown seems to have done is mine the indexes of a multitude of biographies, memoirs, diaries, etc. and picked out all the mentions of the Beatles. He’s also done some legwork and some interviews, and even includes snippets of his own life. The result is a kaleidoscopic jigsaw puzzle, providing a compound eye version of the Beatles as they oscillate through people’s lives.

It’s great actually, though it is a bit much when you read it quickly, during a pandemic lockdown.

And reading it, you realise – if you hadn’t already independently come to that conclusion – that the Beatles are everything. They permeated every nook and cranny of society and they changed everything.

Oh, how I’d love to have added forever to the end of that last sentence. But reactionary forces fought back, didn’t they? That’s what the trouble and strife of the 70s was all about. But in a way, it was forever, because we can forever look back and marvel at what happened.

Craig Brown’s book gives us a warts and all view, from every nasty establishment sneer to the ridiculous teenage gushing of fans. From Noel Coward to Kenneth Williams. Then there are the sublime moments of joy and genius, reminders of what made them special. Brown reserves special contempt for Yoko Ono, a section I confess I enjoyed because I’ve always seen her through jaundiced eyes. Not because she “split up” the Beatles but because she was derivative and twee and, sometimes, gross.

There’ll be a lot here you know already, and there are occasional Lewisohn-level delves into what really happened at some point or other, but mostly this is a book about the Beatles’ Zelig-like passage through the 20th Century and all the lives they touched. As I said, Brown occasionally indulges in flights of fancy, but as one of my more popular entries on this site is the alternate history of the Velvet Underground, we’ll pass swiftly on.

This is quite good fun, even if you do know a lot of it already, and achieves the remarkable feat of doing something different with our Great National Myth.

One day, I expect, there’ll be a high school comedy version of the Beatles.

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