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BOOK REVIEW — BEATLES BOOK: Can’t Buy Me Love

In celebrity, literature, music on August 1, 2009 at 12:54 am

Can’t Buy Me Love by Jonathan Gould (Piatkus, 2007) is one of those religious books about the Beatles that starts from a standpoint of unquestioning admiration for the Liverpool pop group and ends in total devotion, as in devout worship of a single entity, monotheism. And they were a single entity, as proven by their desultory solo careers in the post-Beatle era, when none of them could foot it for creativity and cohesive output without Brian Epstein to push them along and producer/arranger George Martin to fill in the many gaps in their songs and make each one into a finished product.

In this 400-page love letter to an act, nay, an industry easy to endorse — Didn’t they sell the most records? — Gould doesn’t let tweaking of facts and half-truths stand in the way of a good myth that rates in commercial potency with Harrypottermania and Lord of the Rings, and matches them too in fictional blarney. My question is, Why even bother to write such a book when the Beatle legend has already been so insidiously planted and firmly cemented in people’s minds over the past forty years as the be-all-and-end-all of the Sixties?

The Beatles, mid 1964: The Beach Boys had already proven themselves far and away ahead of The Fab Four by self-producing the single 'I Get Around'/'Don't Worry Baby', released in May.

The Beatles, mid 1964: The Beach Boys had already proven themselves far and away ahead of The Fab Four by self-producing the single 'I Get Around'/'Don't Worry Baby', released in May.

Gould’s total lack of imagination or enterprise in even choosing a relevant title — after all, he doesn’t spend much time covering the Beatles’ Hamburg sojourn when the Beatles did buy themselves ‘love’ from the Reeperbahn prostitutes — reminds me of the pathetic titles chosen by Television New Zealand whenever it wanted to screen a retrospective on the Sixties in general: All You Need is Love, Hello — Goodbye … All done because everyone knows a Beatle title will sell more product.

Among the many fictitious assertions made by Gould in a superficial book are several I have selected in relation to the Beach Boys, the acknowledged Sixties mainstream rivals to the Beatles. I explore these since the American group is one I have studied in depth: see my book Beach Boys vs Beatlemania: Rediscovering Sixties Music.

Assertion 1) — “Brian Wilson accounted for nine tenths of the talent of the Beach Boys”–Gould contrasting them with the supposedly uniformly, mega-talented Beatles.

This is bizarre. Has Gould heard nothing of the immense composing, producing and blues-singing talent of Dennis Wilson? The singing, composing and producing of Carl Wilson? The culturally-relevant lyric-writing and universally-admired bass voice of Mike Love? Al Jardine had measurably more creative and performing talent than Ringo, whose ‘singing’ of lead vocals has been a politely overlooked though glaring debit in the Beatles column.

Assertion 2) — Brian Wilson’s voice wasn’t in the same class as Paul McCartney’s.

McCartney was adept at imitating a rock’n’roll screech — as taught to him by Little Richard. He had a sweet but bland voice on ballads. As for expressiveness and purity, and genuine versatility in turning his voice to any mood, Wilson takes the nod hands down.

Assertion 3) — Brian Wilson’s songs were characterised by “cloying sentimentality.”

Gould doesn’t know the difference between pure emotion expressed in music, in which Brian Wilson is surpassed by no one in mainstream music, and the Beatles’ cloyingly sentimental ‘luv’ cliches regurgitated from Music Hall. McCartney cites his father, a music hall musician, as his major formative influence.

and maybe the most ludicrous statement of all:

Assertion 4) — By 1966 the Beach Boys’ level of production, arrangements and group singing had almost caught up with “the innovations of the Beatles.”

This one sentence contains at least five blatant untruths that I can name and refute:

a) The Beach Boys produced their own recordings from early 1962 on — therefore were ahead of the Beatles in production from the start. This was readily apparent by the time of Surfin’ USA, Surfer Girl and Be True to Your School/In My Room in 1963 and became bleedin’ obvious the following year with I Get Around/Don’t Worry Baby and Little Honda/Wendy. According to the people who recorded the Beatles, including George Martin and Norman Smith, the Beatles continually clamored for the recording technicians to get more of an American sound, i.e. similar to the Beach Boys, Motown, etc–not the other way round. b) The Beatles didn’t produce their records — George Martin did. According to Parlophone/EMI recording engineer Norman “Hurricane” Smith the Beatles barely listened to their own recordings — didn’t even wear earphones in the recording booth. c) The Beatles didn’t arrange their songs — George Martin did, and according to Martin they knew almost nothing about non-rock’n’roll instruments. d) This is laughable. When did the Beatles ever dare to expose their ‘group singing’ via a-cappella? — as the Beach Boys did on occasions from the start. e) What innovations did the Beatles themselves introduce, except watering down rock’n’roll, country music, Eurocafe ballads, etc, etc, and turning around the rock direction of Motown, Atlantic, Vee-Jay, Philles, the Beach Boys, to bring back songs from musicals like ‘Til There Was You’, ‘A Taste of Honey’.? By the end of 1966 their music was more and more electronic, deserted by George Martin to leave a novice electronics wiz in charge of their recording.

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