Craig Brown’s One Two Three Four, is a history of the Beatles. It’s also an account of someone trying to get to grips with the whole Beatles heritage business, with its religious relics, and pilgrimages to shrines. Craig Brown is like Chaucer reincarnated to write the Beatles story, puncturing pretensions with cheeky wit. By standing back and making this an account not only of the story, but also of trying to understand it, we actually get a more sensitive feel for the indefinite nature of this history, and any history. Paul McCartney is quoted, reflecting on some vexed question of Beatles lore: ‘In an earthquake, you get many different versions of what happened by all the people that saw it. And they’re all true.’
Whatever the particular earthquake an individual might recall, we can generally agree that earthquakes are harrowing events. So it is with this story. The tale that emerges over 640 odd pages, is occasionally exciting, often funny in a Keystone Cops kind of way, but ultimately sad, ridiculous and traumatic. Rarely has a group of people been so successful, creatively and materially – and rarely has success coincided with such farce and disillusion. This tale of dark contradiction is movingly portrayed through all kinds of sources, from the diary entries of fans, to the reminiscences of young policemen called in to shut down roof top performances in the middle of London.
The narrative’s trajectory is really encapsulated by the compelling and tragic final pages, where we work backwards, from band manager Brian Epstein’s death in 1967, through events over the previous five years leading up to it. Usually we assume that we make progress moving forward. In this story things are getting better going backwards, from a dreadful denouement involving depression and drugs, through gathering problems where success leaves someone vulnerable to manipulative individuals, to early excitement and promise. It’s like the Adelphi Hotel in Liverpool, one of the world’s most famous luxury hotels in the 1960s, dated and mouldy by 2019, when Craig Brown visits to explore a tacky fair selling overpriced Beatles memorabilia.
Towards the end of his Beatles career, in his song Across The Universe, John Lennon wrote “nothing’s going to change my world”. This is a line resulting from living through his own earthquake. Earth-shattering fame and fortune did not bring any real change to his life. All that was bad about it remained, and perhaps, as with Brian Epstein, was actually magnified. And yet if life never changes, then you never really lose the good things about it either. All those remembered joys which the Beatles looked back on with such aching nostalgia – inspiring songs like Yesterday, In My Life, or Get Back – were somehow still there.
One Two Three Four is the kind of story that makes you feel better about your lot. To quote a Beatles song title – Baby You’re a Rich Man Too. By the end of the book that is how I felt. It’s fine to try and achieve something, but always be thankful for what you have.