It's no mystery that many of us never tire of the Beatles' story. Part of their hold on us is that you can't imagine history going any other way; the alternative is a bizarro universe too terrible to contemplate. We keep going back to their era as if mining for precious cultural ore. No number of albums, remixes, anthologies, bootlegs, books, television shows or movies will ever satisfy. Now there's "The Beatles Anthology" book to feed our addiction, an oral history of the band in their own words. Weighing in at 5 pounds, the book strives to be two things: a lush coffee-table book and an exhaustive narrative. The reader bears the resulting burden, in my case with some serious neck and eyestrain. But audiences have suffered for the Beatles' art before, and they'll do it again. I know I had no complaints by the time I was done.
Some of the earliest material, which is the least well known, may be the most captivating. There are engaging passages about Ringo Starr's hooligan youth: "The gangs didn't have names, but there were leaders. We were the Dingle gang. There were several gangs in the area, and you'd walk en masse to try to cause trouble; 'walking with the lads,' it was called. But all you'd do was walk up and down roads, stand on corners, beat someone up, get beaten up, go to the pictures ... It gets boring after a while." (The other Beatles reveal they were scared of Ringo when he first joined the band.)
The Beatles wound up being like a gang themselves; they stuck together. From their early days, when they were on a constant quest for new chords and new music ("That was how we found things out -- by going on a bus somewhere to see a man with a record," Paul McCartney says), their closeness was part of their ineffable formula. Their influences were nearly identical -- chiefly, Elvis Presley's "Heartbreak Hotel." "We all knew America, all of us ... there was no such thing as an English record," says John Lennon. "America had teenagers and everywhere else just had people." McCartney, for his part, seems almost mystified that he and Lennon were able to make hometown haunts like Strawberry Fields and Penny Lane world famous.
Lennon's presence hovers over the proceedings. He's given the first and last word, which is appropriate, because Lennon started it, Lennon finished it and Lennon's absence seals the Beatles in their moment. "I was a bit of a John fan," McCartney says. "I think we all were."
As the studio came to feel more confining to Lennon than liberating (as had touring before that), it was his abdication of leadership that allowed McCartney to make decisions, a process that began with "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" and became complete with "Magical Mystery Tour" and "Let It Be." In the years before Yoko Ono became Lennon's infatuation, drugs (especially LSD) yielded a distracting introspection, and the resulting bursts of creative energy kept Lennon involved. The book points out -- though we knew this already -- that Lennon was the one who broke up the band. He had begun to leave, in his mind, in 1966. His statements make clear that by the time he found Yoko, John was already poised to jump ship.
"I was too scared to break away from the Beatles, which I'd been looking to do since we stopped touring. I was vaguely looking for somewhere to go, but didn't really have the nerve to really step out by myself, so I hung around," he says. "When I met Yoko is when you meet your first woman and you leave the guys at the bar, and you don't go play football anymore, and you don't go play snooker and billiards. Once I found the woman, the boys became of no interest whatsoever, other than they were like old friends," Lennon recalls in a 1980 Rolling Stone interview.
The story becomes increasingly familiar as it heads to the inevitable ending -- Lennon and Christ, George Harrison and India, McCartney and LSD -- with the odd anecdotal gem or enlightened retrospective take. All four Beatles make equal contributions.
For me the real pleasure in reading the anthology came from the little moments that stirred the imagination: John and Paul in bowler hats, trying to hitchhike across France for John's 21st birthday in 1961; John and Paul circa 1967 in John's Rolls Royce -- which had blacked-out windows, a microphone and an external loudspeaker -- roaring through the streets of suburban London at 2 a.m., in pursuit of George in his Ferrari, broadcasting to the streets, "It is foolish to resist! It is foolish to resist! Pull over!" And then there's the Beatledome, a fort the Beatles talked about building on the Greek island they were going to buy in the summer of 1967.
We learn that Lennon's aversion to crippled people, visible in his humor in candid shots, is a reaction to a truly disturbing phenomenon, if you were a Beatle trying to keep your head: constant backstage visitations by the disabled. "When a mother shrieks, 'Just touch my son and maybe he'll walk again,' we want to run, cry, empty our pockets. We're going to remain normal if it kills us."
There is an archival quality to the book; documentation is scattered throughout the pages, including a statement of the group's 1964 earnings, just over 1 million pounds. Various Beatles were out to set the record straight at times: "There's something I'd like to get straight because it is kind of historical," McCartney says at one point, emphasizing that he didn't push Stu Sutcliffe out of the group back in Hamburg, Germany.
The harnessing of so much of the Beatles' personal effluvia, photographs and anecdotes in one volume is invaluable, if tiring. So much ink has been spilled about the band that maybe the only rational way to approach the era anymore is to just sit back and marvel, and the anthology is conducive to wonderment. As for the social significance of it all, the four of them seem to be just as baffled, and delighted, as the rest of us, emphasizing that it all comes down to good music by "a good, tight band." The Beatles already wrote the only book you truly need to understand their moment -- the songbook that lives and breathes on their singles and albums. The rest is just history.