January 16th, 2008
So I’m at a get-together the other day, and someone mentions The Beatles, and someone else asks, “When did ‘The Beatles’ really start to exist? Is it when Ringo joined the group? When John, Paul, and George got together? When John and Paul met?”
And I said, “Really, The Beatles, as an entity, consisted of five people, and would be ‘The Beatles’ in name alone without any one of them. Those five people were John, Paul, George, Ringo, and George Martin, who produced most of their albums, as well as scoring the orchestral backups and often playing instruments on individual songs. Martin enters the equation in 1962, and The Beatles’ first recording session with him was in November of that year. One month later the “Love Me Do” single was released. So, in my opinion, The Beatles, as we now know them, began in late 1962.”
Whoa! Check out the big brain on Baldwin!
It helped, I suppose, that I’d just finished reading the book A Day in the Life: The Music and Artistry of the Beatles the day prior to this conversation. Truth be told, a month ago I knew pretty much nothing about The Beatles. I was born a year after McCartney announced the dissolution of the group, and although I owned the White Album while attending college (as required by law), never really listened to it much.
In fact, it was the commission of a mortifying Beatles-related faux pas on my part that inspired me to read the book in the first place. I casually mentioned that I thought “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” was pretty catchy and received a fusillade of derision, with comments ranging from “you know, that’s pretty much universally acknowledged as the worst Beatles song” to “I really like McCartney, but that one makes me want to beat him with a tire iron.”
Humiliated, I resolved to listen to hundreds of hours of The Beatles compositions until I, too,developed a highly refined appreciation of their discography and legacy. Or, read a book about them. One of the two.
Fortunately, in opting for the latter option, I picked a book that served as a passable substitute for the former. Author Mark Hertsgaard bills A Day In the Life as the only book that focuses foremost on the music, rather than the celebrity, of the Fab Four. He does this by alternating between chapters devoted to specific albums and chapters covering some other aspect of Beatology. For example, chapter 13 covers the Rubber Soul album, chapter 14 discusses the role George Martin played behind the scenes, chapter 15 looks at the 1966 release Revolver, 16 investigates their drug use, and so on.
Though the topics are arranged semi-chronologically (their experimentations with mind-altering drugs really did began between their Rubber Soul and Revolve LPs, for instance), each chapter is largely self-contained. Thus, the book reads like a collection of essays rather than as a single narrative, a format I preferred. It’s unlikely I could have pulled off that “let me tell you a little something about George Martin” stunt if all of the information pertinent to my argument has been strewn over 400 pages instead of confined to chapter 14.
Hertsgaard sometimes gets a little carried away in his enthusiasm for the band–reading some of his fervent descriptions of their early pop singles and then listening to the songs in questions is like a summer of overhyped blockbuster movies that fail to meet you wildly unrealistic expectations. And his “album-chapters” occasionally got a little too in-depth for my liking, sometimes going so far as to rhapsodize about a single note or passage in a song. And yet the non-album chapters were uniformly riveting. In fact, A Day In The Life was a compulsive read for me. When the fractures between The Beatles began to appear, I was less sad that the band was going to break up than I was that the book was going to end.
In conclusion: YOU SHUT UP OB-LA-DI OB-LA-DA IS A GREAT SONG!!