Late to the Party — The Beatles: The Authorized Biography by Hunter Davies (1968)

There are enough books about the Beatles that they essentially constitute a distinct genre of their own in the bookstore—and a lucrative one even after more than 50 years. Like any genre, there are canonized texts that we devoted readers analyze and compare and argue about with each other. I’ve read many of the big entries in the canon—not all, but many—for about 20 years now, and a fair few of the less celebrated books as well. I will undoubtedly read more over the next 20 years. But there’s one I had never been in a particular hurry to engage with, and that’s Hunter Davies’ The Beatles, their only authorized biography by an outside source and one of the earliest “serious” books on the group.

It’s been in the canon for such a long time that opinion goes back and forth on it, and perhaps when I was in my prime Beatles-book-reading years, it was in fashion to be a bit sniffy about it, which might have contributed to my “I’ll get to it when I get to it” attitude. But probably the foremost reason it didn’t seem essential was because it was published in 1968.

It was incomplete.

When the Beatles broke up in 1970—and with John Lennon’s death in 1980 finally ending the possibility of reunion—it ensured their career as a group constituted a completed narrative story with a beginning, middle, and end. Act I: Youth in Liverpool, forming the group, Hamburg, discovery at the Cavern by Brian Epstein, hitting it big; Act II: Beatlemania, touring, movies, the transition to studio work and experimentation, climaxing in their psychedelic Summer of Love releases and the tragedy of Epstein’s death; Act III: India, Apple, back to their roots, squabbling in the studio, growing apart, rooftop concert, Allen Klein, everybody hates Paul, “The End” and the end; Epilogue: Solo years and the Lennon murder. These are well-known plot beats in the narrative known as The Beatles, and almost every book on their career follows and anticipates them.

Davies’ The Beatles, however, does not. Because this is a book that was written in the middle of Act III, but nobody realized yet that they were living through The Decline of the Beatles.

It’s a unique perspective, when viewed from that lens, because every book written after 1970 spends Act III discussing how each and everything thing the Beatles did in those years led to their inevitable and messy breakup. Of course George Harrison’s increased confidence in his own songwriting would eventually push him to strike out on his own. Of course Paul McCartney preferring John Eastman to Allen Klein would widen a growing division between “Paul” and “everyone else.” Of course an increasingly bored John Lennon would find in Yoko Ono new ideas and a new direction. Of course the Beatles wouldn’t be around forever. But in 1968, no one knew what was coming or what it meant. Reading this book, it still seems like the Beatles could break up next week or keep going for another decade or two.

I decided to buy this book after hearing a discussion about it on Joe Wisbey’s podcast Beatles Books, discussing it with author Andy Miller, who reframed the way I thought about this book in the abstract: a well-written look at the Beatles story as it existed when the end was not yet in sight. All Beatles books, Miller argues, are reflective of their time, of what people want out of a Beatles book in that exact moment.

The insight of Miller’s I found most interesting, and which bears out on my reading of the book, is that all things considered, very little of it is spent on what I’ve defined above as Act II. This is a deliberate minimization on Davies’ part: the 1968 reader did not need to learn this material because they had just lived it. Growing up, I needed that material as a reader born four years after Lennon’s murder trying to understand the context in which their music was made. But if you were reading a book on the Beatles in 1968—and as the podcast makes clear in citing contemporary reviews, many critics thought reading a book on the Beatles was a ludicrously silly endeavor—then you saw the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, you bought tickets to see A Hard Day’s Night and Help! in theaters, you picked up each new album and single at the record store. You would have been there for that part of the story already.

Instead, what you would want to know was what happened in their lives before you knew to pay attention—the origins of the Beatles, that first act—and what the Beatles were up to now.

In its broad strokes, much of the material in the Act I section (called “Part One: Liverpool”) is well-trod stuff today. Everyone who knows the history would mostly tell the story the same way and hit the same beats: tempestuous rebel John, Paul the charmer, little-brother George, art school Stu, Pete’s got a drum kit, bitten by the skiffle bug and galvanized by harder rock ‘n’ roll, talents honed to a razor’s edge by countless hours on the Reeperbahn, lose Stu and Pete, pick up Ringo, stuck into suits by Epstein. But, you have to acknowledge, the reason you would tell the story this way is because everybody tells the story this way; and at least part of the reason everybody tells the story this way is because that’s how Hunter Davies did it in the first place. Would it have been possible, working from the same facts and interviews available in 1968, that a different writer might have have assembled an alternative but equally valid narrative with different beats, emphasizing or de-emphasizing certain events or reading them with a different twist? It’s difficult to imagine it any other way at this point.

Still, this section had some new things for me. For one thing, the Beatles’ families come alive here in a way they often don’t in later books. In many books, John’s Aunt Mimi is a character who we hear about secondhand from John or the others, but here she is a primary source—and an opinionated one at that, still very skeptical about this entire “rock group” enterprise. George’s parents also speak directly to us, lively and warm, father Harry always going, “Ooh, I don’t know, son,” and mother Louise responding, “Oh, let him, he’ll be fine.”

There are also things in this book that, products of their time, tend to be more absent from later books as attitudes have progressed. For all that John later claimed Davies had sanitized or downplayed certain details, some of the things that make it are pretty unguarded. Sometimes the Beatles in reflection are callous and cruel, about the handicapped, about the elderly, about the overweight. Paul understandably doesn’t tell the story much these days of being 15 years old and losing his virginity to a girl who was “older and bigger than me.” If George were alive today, he might or might not be so dismissive of public education, but he would hopefully be less gleeful in describing how they used to call a teacher “Cissy” because he wore silk shirts. The book acknowledges that John would “clout” Cynthia, and while it’s certainly portrayed as a negative character trait, the book is far less damning about the behavior than it would be today; the stories are meant to suggest “Boy, that John sounds like a difficult guy to live with!” rather than a harrowing account of abuse and neglect. “Man, I was mean” is about it.

On the subject of what’s been left out, at no point does Davies explicitly say that Brian Epstein was gay, apparently at the request of Epstein’s family. As a modern reader, however, it’s almost comical how hit-you-over-the-head obvious it is by implication. Davies tells you that Brian was not quite cut out for the army for some reason, that his affairs with women never really seemed to go anywhere, that he valued his male friendships and loved to meet new people. Davies describes him at one point as “hardworking, cheerful and gay,” presumably with a wink to the savvy. But these hints and intimations apparently passed the Epstein family’s approval, and his sexuality remained a guarded secret outside the Beatles’ inner circle for years after his death, so perhaps I am merely congratulating myself for living in the present.

The book starts with accounts of the childhoods of John, Paul, and George. Ringo Starr is not portrayed as growing up with them concurrently; his early life is only discussed after Ringo permanently enters the Beatles’ orbit. I imagine the fan who, in 1968, wasn’t already familiar with story wondering, “Where is Ringo and why are they acting like this Pete Best guy is the drummer of the group?”

I bought a beat-up and coffee-stained old 1968 first edition to help me into the mindset of the time, and there are errors in the text that I assume later editions correct: the song George played to audition for the Quarrymen is cited as “Ranchee” instead of “Raunchy,” for example. It’s a reminder that all this stuff was harder to look up in 1968; Davies is under the impression that Rory Storm’s name is spelled “Rory Storme,” and it’s easy to imagine this comes from working off some old poster or magazine story and couldn’t just pull out his phone to google the correct spelling like I did when spotting it.

As alluded to earlier, the 1963-1967 years are breezed through pretty quickly, partly because the reader is expected to already know much of what went on, and partly because the Beatles themselves are not yet far enough from events to have much interest in revisiting them. Some of the major career highlights that later books will spend whole chapters on are mentioned in passing, as though Davies included them just to remind you what order they happened in. The releases of Rubber Soul and Revolver aren’t mentioned until after the fact. If you had no other knowledge of the Beatles’ career other than reading this book, it would be more than 200 pages until you had any idea that George Harrison also wrote songs. By the end of ‘67, we are told the Beatles no longer drink except for the occasional glass of wine with a meal, and while the book casually concedes that the Beatles have taken pot and LSD, Davies assures us that their newfound interest in spirituality has made drug-taking unnecessary.

Which brings us to the section called “Today,” the part of the book I was most intrigued to read in a period mindset. What would we think about where the Beatles were headed, reading this in 1968?

Yoko Ono does not exist. John was probably at least thinking about her for at least some of the time Davies was compiling material for the book—and if there were more concrete dates in the book, we’d know for sure—but their relationship is still either yet to develop or still a secret. Cynthia is the only woman for John, as far as the book is concerned, and it’s absolutely heartbreaking hearing her describe their marriage. Even if you didn’t know about Yoko, he’s clearly absolutely uninterested in anything to do with his family. They rather bluntly admit that if she had never gotten pregnant with Julian, they probably would not be married today, but she seems to take this in stride; this is the life they ended up with, and she gives the outward appearance of having accepted this. Her husband is an absolute zombie; that’s just the way it is.

Paul is the leader of the group now, or at least he’s the boss; Davies is pretty clear about this. He’s the one who comes up with the ideas for projects and gets everyone moving, and he’s the one running Apple. Like Yoko, Linda Eastman does not exist yet; he and Jane Asher are still a going concern, and they are less obviously doomed than the Lennons. In hindsight it seems like a foregone conclusion; there is something that makes Paul uncomfortable about Jane having her own career and corner of her life that doesn’t involve him, and in 2021 it seems obvious that he was looking for someone like Linda to raise a family with and do absolutely everything together. In 1968, this seems like a functioning relationship with some bumps.

George is just a drag. I love the man, but Hunter Davies captures 1967 George at his grumpiest and most standoffish. He has a healthy sense of perspective about how good he’s got it, but he’s also pretty transparently tired of the whole Beatles thing. We characterize him today as frustrated by how he was being creatively stifled by the Lennon-McCartney partnership, but he’ s surprisingly dismissive of himself and his efforts here. He claims he’s not a good songwriter or a singer; it’s nice that people like the music, but he at least projects the image of not caring. You wonder if this is a function him prioritizing his spiritual development and considering writing pop songs trivial by comparison, or if he’s internalized some of the dismissiveness John and Paul had toward his writing.

Ringo, too, is much more disaffected and honest than the cheerful cartoon version of himself he acknowledges he often chooses to play. He’s very aware of who he is and his limitations; he says he’s not creative but says he’s okay with it, and he concedes that acting is fun but that he skates by on charisma and is not a guy who can carry a movie with any skill. He knows people think he’s a bit of a clown and that his “sentimental guy” persona is a hit with the slightly older ladies. He knows he’s got a big nose. He’s not knocked out anymore by the Beatles’ fame and could do without it, but he also knows it’s not exactly a hardship to live the life of Ringo Starr.

Maybe the highlight of the entire book is a fly-on-the-wall chapter titled “The Beatles and Their Music,” which sits in on some writing and recording sessions from Sgt. Pepper and Magical Mystery Tour. The writing is portrayed as being a lot more collaborative between John and Paul than we usually think of regarding this era of Beatles song, but it’s partially just the luck of the draw that Davies is there for “With a Little Help from My Friends” and “Getting Better.” The latter, in particular, is presented as almost the music biopic cliché of drawing from life: “Did you just say, ‘I have to admit, it’s getting better’?”

In all, I think Hunter Davies’ The Beatles: The Authorized Biography holds up as valuable Beatles scholarship. There’s nothing earth-shattering in here for the Beatles fan, and it obviously can’t be the definitive history, but the book is an insightful snapshot of its time. Davies risked some degree of professional ridicule when he decided it would be worth his while to sit down and really get to know the Beatles as individuals beyond the “smart one, cute one, quiet one, funny one” personas, and he happened to be at the right place at the right time to capture a particular transition point.