One Two Three Four begins and ends with Paul McCartney counting in the band on stage at the Cavern Club in 1961. In between is a brilliantly executed study of cultural time, social space and the madness of fame. Brown applies to the Fabs the snapshot method he used in Ma’am Darling, his polite demolition of Princess Margaret. Collage is perfect for celebrity biography, since modern fame is less ‘the mask that eats the face’, as Updike put it, than the multiplication of personality by repeated exposure.
Explaining The Beatles is the West’s last act of theogony. All the episodes of the sacred biography are here, and most are devastated by Brown’s expert shuffling of perspectives. The heart of the Beatles mystery is exposed not through the usual catalogue of songwriting sessions and studio techniques, but through alternate histories, passing encounters and the biographies of the massed ranks of Fifth Beatles – the helpers, disciples, witnesses and nearly men whose memories are like apocryphal gospels.
If a German raid had not compelled Jim McCartney and Mary Mohin to get to know each other better, would Paul McCartney have been born? If Paul had passed his Latin O level, he wouldn’t have stayed down a year, befriended George Harrison and introduced him to John Lennon. Would any of us be the same if Ringo had never emerged from a ten-week coma as a child, or if his grandmother hadn’t then forced him to write with his right hand instead of naturally with his left, which gave his drumming ‘the idiosyncratic style that countless Beatles tribute acts still find hard to duplicate’? When Lennon beats up Bob Wooler, MC at the Cavern, for calling him a ‘bloody queer’, Brown provides fourteen differing accounts of what happened, four from Lennon himself. A similar chorus speculates on whether Lennon and Brian Epstein had sex, with Brown again providing differing accounts from Lennon, and Yoko adding that she thought John fancied Paul.
From 1962 to 1963, the band go from the Cavern Club to number one in Britain. Another year on, and they’re movie stars with the top five spots in the Billboard Hot 100. As their fame ascends to divinity, we grasp at them through the experiences of the merely well-known. Malcolm Muggeridge trawls the Reeperbahn in Hamburg and notes the band’s ‘weird feminine faces’, like ‘Renaissance carvings of saints or Blessed Virgins’. Peter Stringfellow makes his first wad after booking the band for £85 to play at the Azena Ballroom in Sheffield. Charles Manson hears ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’ and tells his fellow inmates at McNeil Island Corrections Center that he’s going to be ‘bigger than The Beatles’. When Brian Epstein plays Joe Orton the boys’ new double A-side single, Orton likes ‘Penny Lane’ but not ‘Strawberry something’. Cassius Clay calls the boys ‘little sissies’. They call him a ‘stupid wanker’, but quietly. William Buckley calls them the ‘anti-popes’ of music. Mikhail Gorbachev thinks that ‘the music of the Beatles taught the young people of the Soviet Union that there is another life’.
The bizarre and serendipitous attach themselves to The Beatles like Yoko to John. In 1963, McCartney picks fourteen-year-old Melanie Coe as the winner when four girls mime to Brenda Lee’s ‘Let’s Jump the Broomstick’ on Ready Steady Go!. Four years later, McCartney writes ‘She’s Leaving Home’ after reading a newspaper story about a teenage runaway. She turns out to be Melanie Coe. Her older boyfriend is a croupier but previously worked as a man ‘in the motor trade’, like the man in McCartney’s lyrics. When fifteen-year-old Stephen Bayley writes from Lennon’s old school to tell him that his English teacher is assigning Beatles lyrics for study, Lennon sets out to mock his elevation by writing the gibberish of ‘I Am the Walrus’ – which, Brown points out, isn’t gibberish at all but the higher nonsense of Carroll, Lear and The Goons.
The Beatles begin in four-part harmony, but after a while they no longer know who they are. Brown notes how each of them personifies a different element: John is fire, Paul is water, Ringo is earth, George is air. Paul is the ‘sheer showman’, the lover with a calculating heart. John is the ‘loudmouth’ and bully, self-loathing and self-pitying. Their shared love of music and their ambition produces their trademark ‘tug-of-war’ of ‘bright melodies but dark lyrics, or dark melodies but bright lyrics’. Success gives them too much rope. After Brian Epstein’s death from an overdose of sleeping pills in August 1967, they become easy prey for con artists: Magic Alex, the electrician who can’t wire a plug, the sinister Maharishi, the crooked Allen Klein. Yoko Ono first makes a play for Ringo, but he ‘couldn’t decipher a word she was saying, and exited as fast as his legs could carry him’, so she settles for John, the middle-class Beatle who wrote ‘Working-Class Hero’. Nothing is real.
The worse it gets, the funnier it becomes. Paul and Ringo somehow keep their heads, Ringo taking baked beans to Rishikesh and Paul working up a passable impersonation of normality, but John and George blow their minds with LSD. John tries to convince Paul that they should both elevate their consciousnesses by having their skulls trepanned. ‘You have it done, and if it’s fine we’ll all have it done as well,’ Paul says. When they establish Apple Records as a tax dodge, John proposes setting up Apple Limousines to operate a ‘fleet of psychedelic Rolls-Royces’, but Paul, again demonstrating occult powers, percipiently suggests that Apple should be ‘a store selling only white products’. Meanwhile, according to Pattie Boyd, George says he wants to be a ‘Krishna figure, a spiritual being with lots of concubines’. Karma kicks in and he gets royally cuckolded by Eric Clapton. Ringo works on a song for three hours, presents it to the others, and then learns that it has already been written and recorded by Bob Dylan.
John and Paul fall in love with Yoko and Linda. Each believes his bird can sing, and neither makes sweet music with the other any more. George burbles on about ‘cosmic consciousness’ to David Frost, then takes a walk around Haight-Ashbury after dropping acid. A horde of followers attach themselves to him, like they do to Brian in Monty Python’s Life of Brian, the film he will one day fund. The mob demands that he sing and he tries to escape. When he turns down the offer of some STP, the crowd turns nasty. George and his entourage end up ‘running for our lives’, with George having a bad trip like ‘a scene from a Hieronymus Bosch painting’. The fans rock the limo, their faces flattened against the glass. ‘That’s when I went right off the whole drug cult and stopped taking the dreaded lysergic acid,’ George says.
‘In an earthquake, you get many different versions of what happened by all the people that saw it,’ McCartney said decades later. ‘And they’re all true.’ The exceptional strangeness of The Beatles reflects the ordinary oddity of real life. One Two Three Four, by putting The Beatles in their place as well as their time, is by far the best book anyone has written about them and the closest we can get to the truth.