Wednesday 15 July 2015

The Beatles In Fiction

“I was in '78 recently," he announced. "I brought you this." He handed me a single by the Beatles. I didn't recognize the title.
"Didn't they split in '70?"
"Not always. How are things?” 

 -(Jasper Fforde, The Eyre Affair)
I don't think there's a Beatle fan alive who has never wondered what The Beatles would have been like if they hadn't broken up in 1970. We imagine how the album after Let It Be would have sounded. We wonder whether they would have been as successful or developed so quickly had Decca signed them rather than rejected them in early 1962. We speculate what their history would have been like had Pete Best not been fired.

During the past twenty years, I've read several novels and short stories that relate alternate Beatles histories. Here I will touch on six, although there are a few more available that involve the lads as passing characters, secondary to the main narrative.

Paperback Writer - The Life and Times of the Beatles: The Spurious Chronicle of Their Rise to Stardom, their triumphs and Disasters, Plus the Amazing Story of Their Ultimate Reunion
by Mark Shipper

More than twenty years ago in Japan, I was given this by the Doc. I have a feeling we'd been discussing The Rutles, and he'd mentioned this book in passing. I'd never heard of it, and so the next time he was home on a vacation he bought this for me.

The comparison to The Rutles is apt. Shipper twists the real history just enough to put a Pythonesque spin on the tale. I recently saw a note from the author protesting his novel was published before The Rutles movie, although he neglects to mention the earliest Rutles appearances were on the BBC in 1975 (repeated on Saturday Night Live in 1976) which is at least two years before Paperback Writer was published. And while I have no reason to believe Shipper based his novel on The Rutles, the approach to the subject is similar.

Although I'm a huge Monty Python fan, I found this novel wasn't as funny as the premise. (or, for that matter, as funny as The Rutles) Perhaps it's simply my sense of humour. Being Australian/Scottish, I generally find my comedy tastes leaning towards British rather than American sitcoms. Many of the jokes seemed lame, the writer reaching to make the punchline. Having said that, I found parts quite funny. I particularly liked the scene where The Beatles secretly reunite and jam.
"Let's do an oldie," Harrison suggested.
"Sure, George," Lennon said snidely. "You know the chords to 'He's So Fine' by any chance?"
"I'd tell him to go to hell," Harrison said to Spector, ignoring Lennon, "but he's going anyway."
Many others seem to love it more than I do. I promise to give it another read shortly.

Goodreads rating: 4.01 out of 5.00

Paul is Undead 
by Alan Goldsheer

I bought this shortly after its release in 2010, right at the height of the zombie craze that seemed to sweep the film and publishing world at that time. I remember laughing at the title, thinking it was such a clever idea. The cover, with a zombified Abbey Road, caught my attention as well.

Goldsheer tells the story of The Beatles as three zombies and Ringo, the Ninja Lord. Written in a series of interviews, much like The Beatles Anthology book, the pages flick back and forth between characters and different points of view. Unfortunately I found this rather distracting. The character's voices, too, and the language they used didn't ring true; it wasn't authentic. Although I finished the book, I struggled to do so. The basic idea is far better and far funnier than the actual book.
Right before we played our closing number, I gave them what I thought was my scariest look, then said, "Those of you in the cheaper seats, tear your neighbour from limb to limb. And those of you in the more expensive seats ... do the same fookin' thing."In retrospect, I dunno why everybody made such a huge to-do about it. Only one person actually followed my instructions, and from what I was told, his victim had it coming anyhow.
I may revisit this one in a couple of years to see whether it's grown on me. Maybe my expectations were too high the first time around.

Goodreads rating: 3.21 out of 5.00

Liverpool Fantasy
by Larry Kirwan

Late 1962. The Beatles had released Love Me Do and had just recorded Please Please Me, having turned down How Do You Do It. So far, so good. So far, so true. This is where the narrative veers from fact. The suits at EMI won't release Please Please Me, desiring something less rock 'n' roll, and are instead pushing for the next single to be Till There Was You. John, sticking to his guns, walks out of Abbey Road never to return. The Beatles, of course, disband. Twenty five years later, Ringo is playing drums around Liverpool, most frequently with Gerry and the Pacemakers, George, parallel to his real life spiritual quest, has become a Jesuit priest, while Paul is a famous lounge singer, known as Paul Montana. Lennon, of course, is unemployed, still living in Liverpool, and generally down and out.

In  1987, they reunite, just to give it one last bash and to sort out a few personal issues.

Of the three books, this is the one I enjoyed the most. The voices and characters were accurate, the comedy dark, the situations authentic.
Lennon's guitar had begun sliding off his amp. Without taking his eyes off Epstein, he kicked back and shoved it in place. As he lit another cigarette, his upper lip quivered with rage.  "When are you going to get it into your thick skull that you;re managing The Beatles, not bloody Acker Bilk! We're a rock & roll group; or, at least, we used to be until you came round and tried to deball us, you --"
"John, please be reasonable." Epstein dabbed at his damp brow with a royal blue handkerchief.
"Reasonable! You know how you spell that word?" He jabbed his Players at Eppy's face. "S-E-L-L-O-U-bloody-T!"
This is one I plan to read again shortly.
Goodreads rating: 3.12 out of 5.00

by Ian R. MacLeod

A similar premise to Liverpool Fantasy, Lennon leaves The Beatles when they accede to recording How Do You Do It. Many years later, living in Birmingham, unemployed and sitting a job interview with a supermarket, he ponders what could have been.

This short story was adapted into a television show, as part of Playhouse Presents on the SKY Arts network. Still unavailable elsewhere, I have yet to see it, although I have heard good things about the adaptation in which Ian Hart once more reprises his role as John Lennon. (I believe it's the third time he has done so)
"Come on, John. Climb down off the bloody wall. It didn't happen, you're not rich and famous. It's not like winning the pools, happens to everyone you meet. After all, The Beatles were just another rock band. It's not like they were The Stones."
"Oh, no. The Stones weren't bloody crap for a start. Bang bang Maxwell's Silver bloody Hammer. Give me Cliff any day."
A moving, thoughtful short story that deserves wider recognition. MacLeod captures John perfectly. The words, the wisecracks, the insecurity and the smugness.

Goodreads rating: 4.29 out of 5.00

Can't Buy Me Faded Love
by Josh Rountree

I'd never heard of Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys before reading this short story. Part of a collection of twisted Rock and Roll stories, Can't Buy Me Faded Love tells of a young John Lennon who emigrates to the US, and becomes a fine country guitar player and songwriter. Bob Wills, one of the greats of swing country (and writer of the song Faded Love), takes the young Lennon under his wing.

Told through a series of excerpts from interviews, articles, biographies and postcards, we witness Lennon and Will's relationship develop, their fame and fortune soar, and their falling out. Finally, in one last reunion just before Wills slips into a coma which ends his life, they speak privately.

It's not necessary to know the history of Bob Wills, although I discovered new depths to this story after reading his biography.
"I heard about the Playboys going on tour that summer and I had to be there," said Lennon in a 1978 interview with biographer, Lon Haines.  "Much of Bob's original success came before I was born, but I was a fan.  More than a fan, really.  That music was my life when I was a kid.  My aunt used to play those 78's all the time, all the old Western Swing bands, but especially the Playboys.  I never knew my father, but I remember listening to those songs and wondering if he might have gone to America to become a singer.  Maybe Bob Wills was my dad, you know?  I was a kid then.  I reckoned Bob was the singer since the band was named after him.  Later on I understood that it was his fiddle playing that really inspired me.  It made me sad.  It made me long for something.  A father, maybe, but something else too.  I wanted to be in America, and I wanted to make that kind of music."
Goodreads rating: 4.50 out of 5.00 

Yeah, I'll mention this one briefly. One half of the team here at The Rowboat Syndicate wrote this. Eric Guignard, the editor, won a Bram Stoker Award for the anthology, a collection of short stories considering what the afterlife might be like. I Was The Walrus is a John Lennon reincarnation story, with a twist.
There  is  no  way  I  could  have  known  about  The  Beatles’  rooftop session, or even who John Lennon was. I was paraded before a stream of past-life experts and child psychologists, Buddhists monks, and psychics,but none of them retrieved any further memories. As an adult I’ve watched the rooftop session on Let It Be many times, looking for clues as to who I might have been. I’ve scoured the faces of the friends, the families, the assistants and employees; all those who were there on that cold January morning. I’ve recently come to suspect that I was probably their roadie, Mal Evans.
 Goodreads rating: 4.40 out of 5.00

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