By Ken Sharp
Author Jonathan Gould has pulled off the near impossible.
With hundreds of books published about The Beatles, his new tome, “Can’t Buy Me Love: The Beatles, Britain and America” offers a compelling slant at the group’s by-now all-too-familiar story, applying rigorous parallels between the band’s rise explained via the filter of social, political and cultural movements.
There have been so many Beatle books published. What makes yours different?
Jonathan Gould: I would say two things. The first thing is, my general impression of the comprehensive biographies I’ve read about them is there’s a pretty strong tendency to take the music for granted.There’s a tendency to approach the music on the level of “We all know these songs.”
Therefore, most of the biographies tend to reference the records and the response to the records, but very, very few have really tried to put the music at the center of the story.
My own background is in music. I’m a drummer. I’ve spent a lot of time playing music in bands and in studios. I wanted to try and present The Beatles themselves as the way they saw themselves, which is as musicians. After all they didn’t set out to be world-famous celebrities. I wanted to focus on them in that way. Their presence in the book is very largely as musicians. But the other dimension that has not been dealt with to the degree that I’ve dealt with it is what I think of “the real outside story,” examining the influences on them in the world, in culture and society in Britain and then the world that they encountered when they became world famous. I wanted to be this whole social context deeply into the story.
That brings up the question: Did The Beatles enact social and cultural change on their own, or were they riding along with the changes in the world?
Jonathan Gould: The answer is both. We’re actors in the world. We’re people who, by living our lives, are having an effect on what happens in the world, even in a minuscule way that maybe you and I are, or the rather profound way they did.
But at the same time they’re also enormously influenced by what was happening in the world, too. The Beatles didn’t cause the ’60s. But they did have a great influence on shaping what that upsurge of feeling took. It’s almost sort of geological, like there was an eruption of youthful feeling. I describe it in the book as “charismatic” feeling. But then you have people who are riding on top of that wave who are in a position to shape it, and The Beatles were certainly among the prime figures in that regard.
What were the major insights you learned about The Beatles?
JG: There were many, many small insights. I was endlessly impressed by their confidence as songwriters, musicians and performers in allowing ideas that they had set in motion to play out in interesting ways.
One of the big mistakes that people make when they listen to The Beatles music and when they talk about the Beatles music is this belief that there’s all this intentionality in it. For instance, when John Lennon wrote “I Am The Walrus” and identified himself with this character the “Walrus,” which he’d made very clear that he was referring to the “Walrus” in Lewis Carroll’s book, “Through the Looking Glass.” That was his idea of the “Walrus,” and the “Eggman” is Humpty Dumpty, who is two chapters later.
So, he’s talking about these characters there. Lennon seized on that image and created that song. He didn’t have to think about the fact that “The Walrus” is a character who mystifies the bed of young oysters so he and the carpenters can go and eat these little creatures. The “Walrus” is a character who mystifies young people with high-sounding rhetoric, with wordplay, even though that’s exactly what Lennon is doing in that song (laughs).
That it’s actually a very sinister image, because ‘Why is he mystifying these young oysters with wordplay?’ He’s mystifying them with wordplay so he can devour them.
I don’t think Lennon conceptualized that connection in any way. That doesn’t make it any less real. One of the mistakes people make when they fail to appreciate how good The Beatles’ music really is and how confident they were as artists is they didn’t have to make those connections consciously. They had enough faith in what they were doing to allow those connections to just be there.
In song after song, I was impressed by that. Also, Lennon had a relatively unsophisticated idea about what making art was all about; it had to do with his big experience at the Liverpool College of Art, where he felt completely out of his depth. He developed a lot of prejudices against artiness and intellectuality, even though he was a man of a very strong intellect himself.
So, he was always kind of fighting himself on these things. That, too, was kind of interesting to see. I’d like to emphasize this is the virtue of focusing on their lives as musicians, because to bring all of that stuff out about John Lennon, there’s only one place that came out, and that was in his role as a musician. It didn’t come out in his public personality. There is a way you can establish a great intimacy if you’re writing about an artist by focusing very closely on how they go about making art. That is what I hope is the intimate dimension of this book.
Discuss how the Beatles and Bob Dylan influenced one another other.
JG: The influence of Dylan was most strong on John Lennon. It percolated through to the other members of the band through Lennon.
But one aside: It was Harrison who became pretty good friends with Dylan later on. He had an enormous admiration for Dylan. But I think Lennon was very intimidated by Dylan. Dylan was the great rock poet of the 1960s. I think he’s a genius as a lyric writer. Particularly in that period, this great stuff just seemed to be pouring out of him. I think he was as amazed by it as anybody else.
Lennon was not that kind of a lyric writer. Lennon wrote very well, but things did not come easily to him in that way. [He] labored over the songs that he really cared about. I think there was an enormous intimidation in that direction.
On the other hand, Dylan was enormously intimidated by The Beatles’ fame, by The Beatles’ style, by their charisma. That’s probably not talked about enough, and I’m not even sure if I talked about it enough in the book, because I was focused on The Beatles themselves.
Obviously, his contact with them emboldened him to become a rock star, to get himself a band and to really commit himself to the idea of playing electric music. I think there’s no question about the fact that if it hadn’t been The Beatles he wouldn’t have done that. There’s some who suggest that’s what he always wanted to do, and maybe that’s true. But The Beatles created a world and created a record market to be blunt about it that could allow Dylan to make that transition.
One of the great secrets of 1960’s popular music has to do with the fact that Dylan really didn’t sell a lot of records compared to groups like The Beatles of The Stones. I once had a conversation with a friend of mine who worked for Columbia Records who said Dylan would sell about 300,000, 400,000 copies of a record. Not that that’s not good but it’s no on the level of a band like The Beatles who sold two or three million copies of an LP in the American market. That’s a very interesting thing. No matter what, I’m experiencing it in a very sort of silly way now. If you have an artistic product out there and it’s in the marketplace you can’t help but be affected by the idea that somebody else’s work is more popular (laughs). I think Dylan was very affected by that. But in his defense, Dylan really created the entire context in which all of the good rock lyricists of the 1960’s—with a couple of exceptions—all operated. He was the one saying ‘you could do this or you could do that’ much in the same way The Beatles were saying that musically in the studio. The Beatles were saying “you can do this on a record.” “You want to use a French horn on a record? Go ahead, there it is.” Dylan was expanding the parameters lyrically in much the same way that they were. I do think if I had a different musical creation probably could have tried to write a book like this and put Dylan at the center of the story. Of course it wouldn’t have had the British and American things, which is one of the things that interested me the most about all of this. But certainly he’s the other figure if you were trying to get at some of he things that I’d been trying to get at in this book you could put him at the center of the story.