When John Lennon released his solo album Plastic Ono Band in 1970, he concluded the record with a tune called “God”. The song laments everything he no longer believed in, including “Beatles” which stutters out at the end of a long list of disenchantment. “The dream is over”, sings Lennon and while that may have been true for him at the time, months after the break-up of his band, it wasn’t the case for the millions of fans who adored The Beatles and believed in them. The current crop of believers can be easily found on YouTube as they compile so-called Beatles albums from the Lennon, McCartney, Harrison, Starr solo years from the early seventies. The notion isn’t without merit as many of the songs on the early solo records were being written in the final months of band’s career. One such compiler, in a nod to the red and blue Beatles compilations issued by Apple in 1975, has created his own “orange” and “green” albums. Another fan by the name of Marc Bridson has created The Beatles fantasy albums featuring the Fab Four’s solo tracks collected in an effort to preserve the band in ways they never expected. Strangely it works...but only for dreamers.
Fifty years after the release of Sgt. Pepper and another forty-plus years after the break-up of the world’s most popular rock band, Rob Sheffield’s timing couldn’t be better. In his recently released memoir, Dreaming The Beatles: The Love Story of One Band and the Whole World (Dey St.) Sheffield turns the story of the Beatles on its cultural head. Rather than write another chronological history of the band, leaving that task to scholars such as Mark Lewisohn, Sheffield tells the story of the group from his unique perspective. He literally begins at the end when Paul McCartney says “Thanks Mo” at the conclusion of “Get Back” on Let It Be. For Sheffield it’s a great place to start because it captures a “quintessential Beatle moment” where the band calls it a day, and the fans get to enjoy the meaning of their musical and cultural impact. Looking back, as a fan, Sheffield says, “The Beatles’ second career has lasted several times longer than the first one…the world keeps dreaming the Beatles, long after the Beatles themselves figured the dream was over.” Clearly, timing is everything.
Rob Sheffield is a music journalist for Rolling Stone magazine. He was born in 1966 the year Revolver was released but the author only discovered the band for himself as a young teenager, the way most of us did. His entry point was The Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl a live album recorded in 1965, which was produced by George Martin, but never released at the height of Beatlemania because the band hated the mix. Capitol Records in the United States released the album in 1977, according to Sheffield, to counter the soundtrack to the Robert Stigwood movie, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band starring The Bee Gees, released the same year. For Sheffield the impact of the live album was “startling…so many screaming girls on that record, buzzing at fever pitch through every song, and not one of them is lying.” Later he writes, “…I fell in love with that noise – one long scream, going full blast…” adding “When I listen to Hollywood Bowl, I do not imagine being one of the Beatles; I fantasize about being the girl in upper-balcony cheap seats, ripping out my hair and shrieking…” At this point in the book, we begin to understand Sheffield’s devotion to the band and the emotional atmosphere they created for him.
This is a book written by a fan for the fans, but what makes Sheffield’s memoir so enjoyable to read is his critical attitude laced with a clever sense of humour. Sure he loves The Beatles, and he doesn’t hold back in the 300-plus pages, but he’s not about to soak his story with sentimentality and over-the-top worship. Dreaming The Beatles is a conversation about a band, its music, its personalities and its character without any musty academic evaluation. For Sheffield it’s like sitting on the back porch and having a good yak about your favourite rock band. And yet the book is loaded with facts and Sheffield’s assessments that surprised me. Consider John Lennon’s movie shoot in Richard Lester’s How I Won The War, when he spent two months on a set in Spain, without his band mates. It was during this isolation after a long and grueling tour, that Lennon, according to Sheffield, “was driven to pick up the guitar and look inside himself”. Lennon wrote “Strawberry Fields Forever” which was about his “difficult childhood”. Says the author of the famous track released in 1967, it’s “an unusually open song for him [Lennon]…it’s hard to imagine he could have written it with the others around”. As Sheffield explains, Lennon was so deeply connected with the Beatles himself that “he felt lost in Spain without them.” He adds, “as far as he was concerned, hanging around the set confirmed he couldn’t relate to people outside the band.” I know a lot about the group [my entry point was A Hard Day’s Night thanks to my older brother] and its history but it never occurred to me, as it clearly occurs to Sheffield, that Lennon’s attachment to the Beatles was as important as oxygen to him and that he had to deal with it. Consider this insight: “The time spent alone in Spain forced him [Lennon] to confront feelings he usually kept at bay, and the song that spilled out was so strong, not even he could make light of it or treat it as a joke.” Sheffield’s book is full of these remarkable observations.
Sheffield’s writing style is a mix of wisdom and wit. He pokes fun at the songs we love to hate such as “All Too Much” or which album is considered The Beatles’s last: Abbey Road or Let It Be? (he makes a solid case for both.) He also asks the biggest question of all, in assessing the famous story of when the band’s dentist slipped LSD into their coffee after an evening meal in 1965. He quips “Do you have dinner with your dentist?” I also loved his great chapter on Starr called “The importance of being Ringo” and his insightful commentary in “Something” vs “My Love” which he describes as the “whole George/Paul dynamic in a nutshell.” Discussions like these are not only refreshing to read they actually enhance our experience with the music. While I grew tired of Sheffield’s steady diet of quoting song lyrics to make a point, Dreaming The Beatles: The Love Story of One Band and the Whole World, is a marvelous examination of why the Beatles are still a “thing”. I highly recommend it.