Sunday, December 22, 2019

Dreaming the Beatles (2017)

Rob Sheffield takes possession of the Beatles in a deceptively effortless way. He's a little defensive on some of his points, forcefully turning his 1966 birthdate into an advantage rather than disadvantage (a little like me arguing for possession of Louis Jordan, but OK). His starting point, much like Greil Marcus's for Elvis Presley in Dead Elvis, is that the Beatles never stopped growing and being important just because the band broke up. His most persuasive argument for me was simply pointing out that the album 1, released in 2000—a collection of the Beatles' 27 #1 hits, which everybody who cared had to own by then—has been the best-selling album for most of this century so far (it's now #2 after Adele's 21, which only overtook it this year). Sheffield covers all the familiar ground here: Ed Sullivan, the movies, Bob Dylan, Rubber Soul and Revolver, Jesus, the White Album, etc. He is particularly good on Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, with one of the best analyses of that album and its place I've seen. Then, without so much as a speed bump, he carries on talking about the solo careers in the '70s and early nostalgia products such as the Red Album and Blue Album. This was the most surprising and even refreshing view for me—every time he casually zigged and zagged between '60s Beatles and '70s Beatles I had to reorient a little. I like many of the solo Beatles albums (and I like Double Fantasy a good deal more than he does) but I have always seen a bright line between the Beatles and what came after. But I'm convinced now he's right. The Beatles were unimaginably huge in their time. We've seen nothing like it since in popular culture. Yet they have become even bigger since. By the one obvious measure, for most of the 21st century, which started 30 years after they broke up and one of them dead, they owned the #1 album. Getting down to cases with this book—which is a pleasure to read—I find myself closer to Sheffield than I would have imagined, but often with strong disagreements too. He's a John Lennon / Rubber Soul partisan whereas I had made him for Paul McCartney / White Album. He actually went down the anti-Paul road with the rest of us, turning it around finally (as the new majority coalition coalesced) in the '90s (I was a little slower). I like George more than he does and he likes Ringo more than I do. He is vastly more versed on the lore, the bootlegs, and YouTube videos. There was a lot for me to learn here. I had already learned, maybe with Ian MacDonald's Revolution in the Head (on which Sheffield sounds a little dubious), that there's always more to learn with the Beatles, and infinitely more variation in taste on specific cases. Ultimately I think Dreaming the Beatles is a bit of an odd duck—I worry that like 1991's Dead Elvis it is actually heralding the beginning of the end—but it definitely belongs in the canon of Beatles literature.

In case it's not at the library.


  1. Kids are still wearing the t-shirts, though, even if they don't know a Rubber Soul from a Magical Mystery Tour. (Ok Boomer! groans a youth chorus.) Wasn't '91 ab the time Chuck D called out Elvis as straight-up racist, so maybe you're onto something w/ Dead Elvis. And so what you're saying is those people who think the Beatles were the "monoculture," the Moby Dick of monocultures, and for that reason alone they should be ignored, if not trashed, slain, and brought low, those people might want to avoid this book? I think the last Beatles records I listened to a lot were those excellent Past Masters collections from the early '90s. Don't know Love or #1s, or the records anyway. My intro records were those '62-'66 and '67-'70 comps, b/c my country music lovin' parents thought the Beatles were what the kids were supposed to listen to, bless their hearts. They certainly didn't listen to them. It was non-stop country hits and the occasional Barbara Streisand album playing on the TV and record player console in the living room at my house growing up. I didn't study the studio albums until I was a young adult but nobody put out more A+ albums in so few years, right? Maybe their music will never die but it has changed, though. Remember when saying the dB's were Beatlesque was a compliment but then calling Oasis, a decade or so later, Beatlesque meant they sounded stuck in the past? At this point the Beatles are a kind of meme for a kind of pop song. Which in a narrow way is what some hate ab them most. Some think the Beatles sound and its progeny (power pop, Britpop, etc) is the worst kind of whitebread classicism. Even the heavy shit. I get that but I remain a sap for the stuff-- for instance, love The La's "There She Goes," phony Beatlemania and all. On my book list, thanks.

  2. " what you're saying is those people who think the Beatles were the 'monoculture,' the Moby Dick of monocultures, and for that reason alone they should be ignored, if not trashed, slain, and brought low, those people might want to avoid this book?" Maybe -- that's putting it a little strong. The two constants I see in the Beatles are that all children seem to love them instinctively, no matter what era, and that no one can agree on specific points of taste. The comps that were your intro are what Sheffield calls the Red and Blue albums. They were released in the '70s and, like the 1 album from 2000, never meant anything to me because I already knew those songs in something like their original contexts (the Past Masters albums did turn up a few tracks missing from albums, like "I'm Down"). Has phony Beatlemania bitten the dust? Even if we have finally reached the end of their popularity, they still managed 50 years after the official demise, compared to the 20 Elvis got -- he had peaked by 1997 whereas it's possible the Beatles have not peaked yet. More children are always on the way. Thanks for your comments as always, and Happy New Year!