It is almost 40 years since Beatlemania hit the United Kingdom. The Beatles Anthology, published this month, is a follow-up publication, ten years in the making, designed to complement the million-selling Anthology CDs and video documentaries released in 1995. Pre-orders for the book were around the 1 million mark: proof, if proof is needed, that the Beatles legend and their music refuse to die down. Few, if any, bands can boast as many worldwide fans from a more varied age group, a good 30 years after they split up. I and most of my music-loving friends were not even born before The Beatles split in 1970, and yet we think of ourselves as fans.
The Anthology is "the history of The Beatles by The Beatles. This is their story in their own words and pictures. Created by the band." It is a weighty tome that chronicles, supposedly for the first time, each of the band's own takes on the events that led to their unprecedented rise to fame and their subsequent split. The project was conducted with the full cooperation of the three surviving members and Yoko Ono. The recollections of The Beatles's press officer, Derek Taylor, producer George Martin and road manager Neil Aspinall are spliced into those of the band. Contributions from both Lennon and manager Brian Epstein are taken from a wealth of existing interviews in print and broadcast media and public and private archives researched over several years specifically for this book.
Any book published to such excitement and hype is, to some extent, setting itself up for a fall. Although the interviews featured here are new and were conducted specifically for the book, most of its content has been given a thorough airing many times before. Most fans are more than aware of the general order of events and incidents during The Beatles's seven-year reign as the kings of pop music: how they met in Liverpool, took drugs, went to Hamburg with Pete Best and Stuart Sutcliffe, took lots of drugs, came back, got signed, made albums, became famous while touring, took drugs, became even more famous while not touring, made more albums, took more drugs, made films, got spiritual, grew beards, took more drugs, argued, fell out, split up.
Most Beatles fans will have read the anecdotes time and again. The problem here is that each member of the band has been asked so many times about the same things (both McCartney and Harrison have had biographies published), that they do not really have anything new to add. While most people would be happy to have this lavishly, often exquisitely produced volume adorning their coffee table, it has to be said that The Beatles Anthology looks much more exciting than it actually is.
While the interviews themselves are new, they contain no startling revelations. We learn that Paul's relationship with Jane Asher was not the innocent friendship it was thought to be, but titbits such as these add very little to colour their already well-established story. Previously unseen photographs from the Fab Four's family collections give us a glimpse of the days when George, John, Paul and Ringo were boys growing up in Liverpool, and the book also features a largely unseen collection of photographs from the band's Revolver album sessions. Each Beatle tells the story in his own charming and inimitable style, which helps bring the book to life, but the editing makes it difficult to work out whether George, Paul and Ringo were ever actually in the same room together during the interviews for the book - sadly, one suspects, probably not.
The real triumph here is the design, which coordinates with the CD and video artwork, and is particularly effective. The book is stylish without being pretentious and the graphics do not distract the eye from the text. The photographs are reproduced to a very high standard and the text, on the whole, is easy to read, although some of the smaller fonts for notes, index and discography are a bit too small for comfort.
There have certainly been more interesting books about The Beatles, but this is the most comprehensive and exhaustive biography of them. For anyone young enough not to have encountered previous biographies, The Beatles Anthology is a fascinating insight into one of pop music's most enduring legends. But for those of us who have watched the television documentaries and read even a handful of the hundreds of books on the band, it is merely a very pretty scrapbook.
Lennon Remembers takes up Lennon's story from where the Anthology leaves us in 1971. It is an uncensored version of an interview between Lennon and Jann S. Wenner, founder and editor of Rolling Stone magazine, given in December of that year. Only now, some 30 years on, does the full content of the interview - which was deemed "too sensitive" even for a magazine dubbed by some as "the radical voice of the American underground" - appear here in its entirety.
The discretionary cuts have been restored along with a new introduction by Wenner and foreword by Yoko Ono. The new, as-taped, transcription order of the book makes it hard to work out exactly what is new and what is not, although the original version certainly contained none of the references to Brian Epstein or to back-stage sex and drug-taking that appears now. Lennon also talks bitterly about his relationship with McCartney and expresses his resentment at George and Paul's not "exactly welcoming" attitude towards Yoko Ono.
Lennon's widow, who was present at the interview, writes in the foreword:
"People with weak stomachs should close the window before reading. You might just feel like jumping out." She certainly has a point. If I considered jumping, this was not out of admiration for Lennon's radical opinions and deadpan wit, but more out of sheer boredom. Lennon comes across here as a tedious, self-obsessed, confused, drug-taking egomaniac (or "rock star", to use the technical term). He talks incessantly about his "insecurities" and his "pain", but ultimately these are nothing more than an excuse to talk about himself. "If there's such a thing as a genius - I am one," he says at one point, and then, later: "Either I'm a genius or I'm mad - which is it?" Much of the time neither Wenner nor Ono seems to be in the room and Lennon just spews forth whatever comes into his head.
While there can be no doubt that Lennon, with McCartney, was responsible for some of the world's finest pop songs, in this book John the human being comes across as the kind of stoned berk you try desperately to avoid at parties. It seems a shame that, through his early death, Lennon has achieved iconic status while the rest of the band have been left to grow old in public. Ono says in her foreword that if Lennon were around today he would "have joined the rappers, while plunging into the internet at the same time". In other words, he would have become another embarrassing, ageing rock star a la Bowie and people would probably be raising their eyebrows to heaven at his latest projects, while nodding at his indisputable role in the shaping of popular music today.
Ronita Dutta writes music reviews for amazon.co.uk and is music editor, Independent Digital.
Author - Jann S. Wenner
ISBN - 1 8598 4600 9
Publisher - Verso
Price - £13.00
Pages - 240