A few months ago I posted a fairly sniffy review of Peter Doggett’s The Man Who Sold The World, a minutely researched blow-by-blow account of David Bowie’s 1970s recordings that provided much detail but precious little critical insight about the actual music. I felt a bit bad about this at the time so I’m happy to report that I had a much better time with his earlier book on the gradual break-up, estrangement and afterlife of The Beatles, You Never Give Me Your Money. While this may seem like a pretty depressing subject, what with the greatest pop group the world has ever seen eventually being reduced to suing each other, issuing public slapdowns and in a couple of cases descending into alcohol and substance fuelled torpor for extended periods, it does make for a gripping and dramatic narrative – there was simply no precedent for a band this popular, containing individual members this talented and strong-willed, and when their complicated business arrangements started to get tangled up with personal loyalties and attachments the fall-out started to take on the dimensions of high tragedy, occasionally undercut by moments of absurd farce. John gets distracted into well-meaning but inevitably self-indulgent avant-garde projects when he meets his muse Yoko, Paul’s efforts to stabilise the group by bringing in his father-in-law as a prospective manager are greeted with disdain, and George gets increasingly disillusioned with the material world and withdraws into meditation and non-Western musical forms. It’s actually fairly astonishing how long the group managed to continue recording and releasing singles and albums, and their quality control was never compromised, even when they were barely speaking to each other: the joyless and frustrating January 1969 sessions for the documentary Let It Be still managed to provide enough material for a brisk and characterful soundtrack album, and the sleek, polished and musically highly accomplished Abbey Road has nothing of a death rattle about it, despite the group effectively ceasing to exist only weeks after finishing it.
Doggett charts a clear course through all the complications, reversals and backstabbings, from the start of the group’s studio years in 1967 right up to the present day, taking in such notable episodes as the fiasco of the launch of Apple records and the free-loading that went with it, the appointment of the formidable Allen Klein to look after the business affairs of three of the four Beatles, McCartney’s legal action to dissolve the group, and the deaths of many of the key players, Lennon’s being the most prominent and shocking by some way. The book is written in a measured, accessible style with no-one being painted as either hero or villain, although Lennon does seem to come off worse of all the band members, being variously capricious, hypocritical, cruel and surprisingly naive. There’s lots of fascinating detail I’d never heard before, not least the degree of rapprochement between Lennon and McCartney in the years before the former’s murder – it seems that on a couple of occasions a Beatles reunion was not as much of a hopeless fantasy as I’d previously imagined. The best Beatles book I’ve come across remains Ian MacDonald’s Revolution In The Head for its startingly incisive analysis of their music, but this is probably the best thing I’ve read about their lives after the break-up of the group, and if you’re a fan you ought to give it a look.