‘One Two Three Four: The Beatles in Time’ by Craig Brown is not a biography which claims to reveal vast amounts of new information or insight about the most famous rock band of all time. As with his 2017 biography of Princess Margaret, Ma’am Darling, Brown favours an anecdotal format, tackling the band’s history from John Lennon and Paul McCartney’s early childhoods in 1940s Liverpool to the band’s split in 1970 across 150 short chapters rather than a straightforward linear narrative.
This fragmented approach works well for huge subjects like the Royal Family and the Beatles where there is virtually nothing new left to say about them, yet they remain endless sources of fascination. Despite the absence of big revelations, Brown still manages to find some original angles from which to explore the familiar story of the Beatles’ success. He recounts certain events from the more obscure perspectives of those on the sidelines such as Jimmie Nicol, the drummer who briefly stood in for Ringo Starr when he was ill with tonsillitis on tour in 1964, and is now “too forgotten a figure to even feature in roundups of forgotten figures”.
Brown views his chosen subjects with a keen satirical eye as well as fondness (he clearly has a soft spot for Ringo) without taking it all too seriously. An early chapter recounting Brown’s stand-off with officious National Trust tour guides at the childhood homes of John Lennon and Paul McCartney is extremely funny, as is his scathing depiction of Yoko Ono as someone who “seemed unable to spot a cloud without drawing a moral from it”. There is relatively little musical analysis relating to the more technical aspects of Lennon and McCartney’s songwriting skills. Instead, Brown focuses on the huge cultural impact of the Beatles, particularly for teenagers in Britain and the United States at the peak of the band’s fame. The influence of the Beatles remains hugely important today too. The Liverpudlian economy is heavily dependent on tourism brought to the city by Beatles fans, and as Brown notes drily: “With the benefit of hindsight, it might have been less time-consuming to place plaques on the handful of buildings in Liverpool with no Beatles associations.”
While the frivolous tone may annoy some hardcore Beatles fans, I found ‘One Two Three Four’ to be a very engaging book written in a highly original and very effective format.