In a series of loosely related chapters on subjects ranging from Rubber Soul to the Sgt. Pepper’s album cover, the McCartney song “Maybe I’m Amazed,” and the oddball 1976 collection Rock ’n’ Roll Music, the Rolling Stone columnist — who was born the year Revolver was released — looks at the band from his own Gen-X, square-Catholic-bookworm perspective, and makes the result feel like a revelation for all of us.
I corresponded with Sheffield, who lives in Brooklyn, over email.
SCOTT TIMBERG: The Beatles tried to kill off their myth when they broke up, with lawsuits, denunciations, sheepshearing, and John’s “The dream is over.” And now they are, as you say, bigger than they ever were. What the hell happened?
ROB SHEFFIELD: It’s so strange — the Beatles are much more popular now than they were in 1970, when they broke up. Their story has just kept growing, long after the four Beatles figured they were finished telling it. It’s my favorite story in music, and, really, my favorite story anywhere in our culture. So I wanted to look at the Beatles not as some distant magical event that happened in the 1960s, but as something that kept happening in the ’70s and ’80s and beyond. John, Paul, George, and Ringo were more shocked than anyone at how the world went right on loving the Beatles, after they fell drastically out of love with each other. There’s something a little scary about that.
When my sisters and I were little kids growing up in the 1970s, it was comical for our parents and teachers how crazy we were about the Beatles. Now I hear my sister marvel at how crazy her kids are about the Beatles. This isn’t something anybody intended to happen, least of all the four guys who actually played in the band. John Lennon singing “God” is basically him saying, “What do I have to do to convince you people to stop caring about this stupid band I was in? Here, let me make it as blunt as I can: I don’t believe in the Beatles.” Yet a planet full of Beatle fans hear that song and shrug, like Bob Dylan’s Jehovah talking to Abraham, “You can do what you want, John, buuuut …”
I love your suggestion that the Beatles were more interesting, and perhaps more musically influential, in the 1990s than in the ’80s. Tell us what you mean, and why do you think that’s so?
The 1990s were such an exciting decade for music — so much innovation, so many fans spending so much money on so many CDs — and the Beatles felt like an active part of it, from Radiohead to the Wu-Tang Clan. In the 1980s, the Beatles were always shadowed in this kind of maudlin boomer-nostalgia haze; the ’90s are when the music broke free of that. Kurt Cobain always made a point of raving about Meet The Beatles! — in a way, he was one-upping the 1980s Beatles mystique, killing off the myth to set the songs free. I guess every generation and every audience finds a way to say, “The Beatles are our thing, not your thing.”
To what extent was the fabled John-Paul connection — often used as a model for artistic energy — a real collaboration?
The John-Paul bond is such a bizarre story — these nowhere boys, in this nowhere town, a place where nobody expects or wants them to become artists, but they meet up to write songs from the heart together. Kathleen Hanna had a great line in one of the early Bikini Kill fanzines: “Find the biggest bitch in your town and start a band with her.” That’s basically what John and Paul did. They didn’t always write together — but they kept inspiring and challenging each other, like when John brought in “Strawberry Fields Forever” and Paul tried to top him with “Penny Lane.” Even when they weren’t in the same room, they were writing Lennon-McCartney songs.
Even after they broke up, they kept bouncing songwriting ideas off each other, aiming answer records at each other. They gave each other no peace. That friendship followed them around their whole lives. I love the story John’s limo driver tells — it’s 1980, John is in the back of the car, listening to the radio, really enjoying this new hit song called “Coming Up,” wondering who the singer is. Then suddenly he says, “Fuck a pig, it’s Paul.” They couldn’t get away from each other.
The George revival — his reassessment as an important songwriter and overlooked talent during the Beatles years — has always seemed to me a Gen X thing, in part because of the role of Elliott Smith. Does it strike you the same way, or are there other major forces behind it?
The Elliott Smith connection is really brilliant. (You could argue Elliott Smith did for George what Robert Pollard did for Paul.) I hadn’t thought of that, but Gen X definitely allowed the “Underrated Beatle” to build his mystique. George is such a fascinating figure — revered around the world as a guitarist and songwriter, yet always going to be the junior partner in this band. He was never going to catch up to John and Paul. When he walked out of the “Let It Be”/“Get Back” sessions, it was because he was trying to get them to play “All Things Must Pass” and John flat-out refused to play it. John just started playing a Chuck Berry song (“I’m Talking About You”) and George stomped out. I think that has something to do with the acrid side of his music. I love Nina Simone’s version of “Isn’t It a Pity,” from 1972 — she brings all this bitter rage to it, as if she thinks George was pulling his punches. I wish Nina Simone had made a whole album of “Nasty George” songs.
What is your favorite book or books on the Fabs?
Nicholas Schaffner’s The Beatles Forever is such a gem — it was my childhood Beatle tutelage, published in 1977, yet when I go back to it now as an adult, I’m still blown away by how fresh it is, how full of humor and mischief and insight. The Ballad of John and Yoko from 1982 (edited by Jonathan Cott and Christine Doudna) is weirdly overlooked these days; on the surface it might look like a quickie Lennon hagiography, but it’s full of amazing things, like Robert Christgau and John Piccarella’s “Portrait of the Artist as a Rock and Roll Star,” the sharpest critical-biographical sketch of Lennon ever. Ian MacDonald’s Revolution in the Head deserves every bit of its legend. Peter Doggett’s You Never Give Me Your Money is a startlingly fun tour of the breakup years. Geoff Emerick’s Here, There and Everywhere and Mark Lewisohn’s The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions are my favorite making-of books. And, of course, there’s Lewisohn’s Tune In, the first volume of his All These Years trilogy — I sure hope we all live long enough to see the next two installments come out.
I can’t quantify it, but my hunch is that Ringo’s esteem has been rising lately among both musicians and our journalistic colleagues. Does that strike you as right? And if so, what might have inspired it?
I think you’re totally right. It’s always been easy to sleep on Ringo’s musicianship because he’s so many other things — so charming, so funny, such a friend to octopuses. But he was the only Beatle hired for his chops, and you can hear it from their earliest studio recordings — listen to how hard he drives them through “There’s a Place” or “I Saw Her Standing There.” And those were just the first songs they cut that morning, the day they banged out the album. Ringo could have retired at lunch and he’d still have given the world a brand new beat.
My favorite Ringo moment is the “Don’t Let Me Down” outtake where John asks him to cue the vocal with a cymbal crash: “Give me a big ksssshhhh. Give me the courage to come screaming in.” It’s such a raw and open John song, totally baring his soul, but he can’t sing it unless he knows Ringo’s got his back. That happens in so many of John’s most honest songs, from “In My Life” to “God” to “Ticket to Ride” — those songs don’t happen without that Ringo groove as the emotional anchor. He gave them all the courage to come screaming in.
How important was Brian Epstein to the band and the larger phenomenon? The whole thing seemed to fall apart when he died.
Brian Epstein is so crucial. Right up to the weekend he died, the four Beatles were closer than ever. Even when they weren’t working, they still wanted to spend all their time together. (Like John said in 1967, in Hunter Davies’s The Beatles: “We have met some new people since we’ve become famous, but we’ve never been able to stand them for more than two days.”) Yet as soon as Epstein died — only 32, while all four lads were away, spending their holiday weekend together in Wales with the Maharishi — they couldn’t figure out how to get along anymore. Nobody could replace him emotionally. So strange to think how young he’d still be today, in a world that is completely different because he made everybody else fall in love with his Beatles fantasy.
Sgt. Pepper’s, which just marked a fairly public anniversary, polarizes opinion, especially among younger people who did not live through it. How does it seem to you?
I love that record, after not caring a thing about it for years. I decided in my teens it was a case of you-had-to-be-there, with half the songs as filler. Then a few years ago “Fixing a Hole” came up randomly on my iPod, flipped me upside down, and sent me back to the rest of the album. So I’ve been listening to it a lot the last few years. I just went to Abbey Road to hear the fantastic outtakes on the new anniversary edition. There’s an instrumental “Within You Without You” that really hit me — it’s like “Venus in Furs” or something. So I’ve just started to love “Within You Without You” in the past few weeks, after detesting it since childhood. How bizarre is that? I was always put off by the preachy vocal, but now I notice how close the lyrics are to “I Think We’re Alone Now” (a song I’ve always loved as sincerely as I’ve hated “Within You Without You,” a song that feels real in all the ways “Within You Without You” feels phony). So now I feel waves of empathy and even affection for this song, which is more than I’ve ever felt for it. I guess that’s the thing with the Beatles — you never run out of surprises.
The biggest shock for me about your book was that there was anything left to say about these guys, half a century later. Did that surprise you too, that there was this vast space left to explore?
Half a century ago, the Beatles story was just beginning. So many moments come and go when people think it’s the finale — the breakup in 1970, John’s murder in 1980, the 1 (One) compilation in 2000, The Beatles: Rock Band video game in 2009. All those moments looked like proper Hollywood endings. Then the story goes on. And all over again, we act surprised when the Beatles refuse to die on us. That might be the most baffling mystery in the Beatles story — we still keep underestimating them. So as far as I’m concerned, the arguments are just starting and my favorite Beatles books have yet to be written. As a great man once sang, “It’s a love that lasts forever, it’s a love that has no past.”
Scott Timberg is the editor of The Misread City: New Literary Los Angeles and author of Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class.