Another Beatles book? You’d be forgiven for thinking there couldn’t possibly be anything left to be written about the Fab Four. Every aspect of their career has been excavated and explored in print so many times. With the exception of Bob Dylan, surely no popular musicians have been subject to such extensive investigation.
However, this latest addition to the canon offers perspective on the band that is as interesting as it is infuriating. Interesting because it considers some of the major legal spats involving the band in their lifetime; infuriating because time after time in Stan Soocher’s obsessively detailed book, one is left with the feeling that as songwriters the Beatles may have had rare talent, but as businessmen they were naive to the point of stupidity.
The book’s strength lies in the ability of its author, an academic and entertainment business attorney, to apply his knowledge of the law to existing files and recently released documentation. Winnowing out irrelevances, he draws some of the remaining threads together into a clearly constructed narrative, which can be read as three simple sub-narratives: the business chaos during the Brian Epstein era; the rise in legal wrangling during Allen Klein’s time; and then the manifold problems arising during the Beatles’ entanglement with Morris Levy. Add to these three maverick businessmen the problems created by governments and law enforcement agencies, and you’re left with a tale that reveals a rarely seen aspect of the band.
Via information on lawsuits, including the plagiarism case brought against George Harrison for his song My Sweet Lord and the dissolution of the Beatles’ company Apple Corp, Baby You’re a Rich Man foregrounds lost or little-known detail to provide a kind of alternative biography. From today’s vantage point, the opening chapters are immediately alarming, as they deal with Epstein’s seemingly hapless approach to the economic potential of merchandise as he sold off rights in complicated, contradictory deals. As revenue grew for everything from T-shirts to dolls, the band members earned almost nothing. This established a pattern that would persist, as numerous developments were challenged by Paul McCartney, but seemingly encouraged by John Lennon.
Following Epstein’s death, the management of Lennon, Harrison and Ringo Starr was taken on by Klein, resulting in deal after deal that only added to the confusion left by Epstein. Arguably, the only thing that was clear was that the deals were always weighted in Klein’s favour. Indeed, Soocher notes, he got a better royalty rate on their recordings than they did.
True, this subject has been covered before. John Blaney’s book Beatles For Sale: How Everything They Touched Turned To Gold went into forensic detail on the band’s financial dealings and the impact of various litigations. It is also true that Soocher does not cover legal events such as McCartney’s loss of rights to Michael Jackson, and Harrison’s problems with Warner Brothers and A&M. But his achievement is to present detailed analysis of dry legal material in a manner that is as enjoyable as a thriller. In daily newspaper-ese, Baby You’re a Rich Man is unputdownable.
Martin James is professor of music industries, Southampton Solent University.
Baby You’re a Rich Man: Suing The Beatles for Fun and Profit
By Stan Soocher
University Press of New England, 314pp, £20.00
ISBN 9781611683806 and 88139 (e-book)
Published 31 December 2015