Rob Sheffield seemed to have promised a whale of an original tale but delivered only a few goldfish.
Dreaming the Beatles: The Love Story of One Band and the Whole Worldby Rob Sheffield. Dey Street Books, 362 pp., $15.99 (paperback)
By Blake Maddux
I was unmoved when I first learned that Rolling Stone’s Rob Sheffield (click for my 2016 Arts Fuse interview) was writing a book about The Beatles. Great, I thought, another book about the Fab Four by a prominent rock journalist. What’s next, a book by an eminent historian about George Washington, the Civil War, or the New Deal? However, a few sentences in the prelude and first chapter of Dreaming the Beatles: The Love Story of One Band and the Whole World temporarily quelled my skepticism. The moment that must have seemed at the time to have been the end of The Beatles is, as Sheffield writes on the sixth page of the book, “really where the story begins.”
Evaluating the band’s post-break-up legacy, Sheffield avers, “The Beatles’ second career has lasted several times longer than the first one,” “Our [the subsequent generations’] Beatles have outlasted theirs [the original generation’s],” and “the Beatles matter because of what they mean to our moment.”
Phew, I thought to myself. This is not just another book about The Beatles when they were a unit. It is about how they are more significant in the post-April 1970 world than they were in the 1962-1970 one. Damn I’m glad I started reading this!
Alas, what followed went in the opposite direction: two-thirds of the book was devoted to the band before it broke up all those years ago, making Dreaming the Beatles a beaut of a missed opportunity.
Not that those 200 pages, give or take a few, made up of two dozen mostly bite-sized chapters aren’t frequently informative and insightful. Sheffield writes from the perspective of the intoxicated Beatlemaniac that he is. Granted, he may sacrifice a any claims to objectivity, but his style is so engaging that it feels like a conversation in which interlocutors wouldn’t want to get a word in edgewise even if they could.
Still, I felt baited and switched. Sheffield seemed to have promised a whale of an original tale but delivered only a few goldfish. My initial skepticism, it seemed, was justified, as was my certainty that this book would come nowhere near being about “the whole world.” (#subtitlefail)
“They live on in a world they helped create,” the Boston native writes. It that is true, why is Dreaming the Beatles mostly about the world in which they were living rather than the one in which they live on?
To the author’s credit, he discusses the post-disbandment Beatles from page 229/chapter 28 onward. That comes in to around 90 pages and nine chapters (out of thirty-five, not counting the prelude or postlude).
However, this truncated coverage—and occasional passages earlier in the book—only added to disappointment given my expectations of Dreaming the Beatles.
Allow me to examine in a decade-by-decade fashion how this could have been the book that the author bewitched me into believing it would be.
Sheffield writes that in the ’70s, the four individual Beatles “had to invent the ‘solo career’ as they went along.” As a result of their efforts, former Beatles and their new bands continuously occupied spots among Billboard’s top 10 albums from 1970 through 1979. Frequently, the former bandmates duked it out for the higher position among a given week’s top 10.
Frequently, the former bandmates duked it out for the higher position among a given week’s top 10. For example, Sheffield writes, “Paul could boast that that he was the only artist big enough to block the Beatles from the Number One spot—Rock ‘n’ Roll Music spent weeks at Number Two, stuck behind Wings at the Speed of Sound.”
In addition to Rock ‘n’ Roll Music, Beatles compilations such as Hey Jude, 1962-1966, and 1967-1970 regularly popped up alongside solo and new-band projects. In fact, there were several weeks in the summer of 1973 in which albums by Harrison, McCartney/Wings, and The Beatles were all in the top 10.
Also interesting is the fact, which Sheffield does not mention, that George Harrison’s first three solo efforts spent more weeks at #1 and #2 than the four that McCartney released in the same 38-month stretch.
It was these triumphs that prompted David Hepworth to write in his book Never a Dull Moment (click for my Arts Fuse review), “All Thing Must Pass was the biggest success any former member of the Beatles would ever put his name to … When George Harrison stood there at the end of the Concert for Bangladesh at 10:55 p.m. on August 1, 1971…he was the biggest solo start in music … He had, temporarily at least, eclipsed the Beatles.”
Also surprising is that in late 1973, Starr’s album Ringo was higher than Lennon’s Mind Games in each of the four weeks—including the ones in which each peaked—that they were both in the top 10. Sheffield doesn’t note this fact either, but he points out the even more confounding fact that “John Lennon didn’t score his first Number One [song] until 1974, the fourth Beatle to reach this milestone (Ringo beat him twice).…”
More fully developed discussions—or mere mentions—of these topics could have added several chapters to the ones about the ’70s Dreaming the Beatles contains.
In short, Sheffield should have examined more fully how “the solo music remains a vast and mangy mess” and how “The Beatles couldn’t cut it as Seventies celebrities.”
How about the ’80s, during which “grief curdled into an elegiac torpor” with the events of December 8, 1980?
Well, despite the solo career abominations that were Paul’s 1985 theme to Spies Like Us (“worse than the movie could have been”) and George’s 1987 chart-topper “Got My Mind Set on You” (“words cannot describe its wretchedness”), The Beatles reemerged with a vengeance in the latter half of the decade.
On August 10, 1985, Michael Jackson, the biggest pop star on the planet, purchased the Beatles catalog for $47.5 million. McCartney had schooled Jackson on the value of owning publishing rights when the two were working on their 1982 duet, “Say, Say, Say.”
Jackson and McCartney were born 16 years apart from one another, so with this transaction of the ownership of The Beatles changed generational hands. And who better to be on the receiving end of this property than the man who advertised a soft drink that had dubbed itself “the choice of a new generation”?
I was 10 years old when the film Ferris Bueller’s Day Off hit theaters in 1986. I was among the last of my classmates to see it, as it was not until I did that I got the references people made to it (e.g., “Person X is my hero”). The title character, a high school senior portrayed by Matthew Broderick, quotes John Lennon’s song “God”—which is given a chapter in Dreaming the Beatles—early in the film. Later, and more importantly, he mounts a parade float in the heart of downtown Chicago. Everyone on the street ends up singing along to “Twist and Shout,” the last track on The Beatles’ debut album, Please Please Me.
This may have been the first time many people my age heard a Beatles song. At the very least, it was probably the first time they saw someone who they didn’t think was old and square singing one.
In his chapter on Please Please Me, Sheffield insists that “I Saw Her Standing There,” is “the best first song on a debut album, ever.” Whether it is or isn’t, it contributed mightily to The Beatles’ late-’80s presence.
In 1987, a 16-year-old who recorded under only her first name, Tiffany, became the toast of the mall-going teenager crowd with a debut album that went on to sell four million copies in less than a year. One of its singles was a top 10 cover called “I Saw Him Standing There.” This also may have been a gateway Beatles song for millions of tweens who were probably shocked and possibly embarrassed to hear their parents singing along to it.
The following year, the reconnection of the characters portrayed by Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman in the movie Rain Man after decades apart was cemented when the former asked the latter, “You were the one that sang to me? What was that song?” After pausing briefly, Hoffman answers, “She was just 17, and you know what I mean….”
Cruise—and presumably his character—was seven years old when The Beatles disbanded. Hoffman—ditto—was 32. Hordes of baby boomers and their children (e.g., my mother, me, and my two brothers) saw the 1988 Best Picture Oscar-winning film at least once.
Furthermore, Beatles albums were issued on CD for the first time in 1987 and the band was inducted the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988.
Each of these moments linked the pre- and post-break-up generations. And they occurred at a time that the Beatles’ story desperately needed a shot in the arm. Thus the age of Reagan was as fertile as the “Me” decade for what should have been the ‘love story’ at the center of Sheffield’s Dreaming the Beatles.
On to the ’90s.The first paragraph of the book’s penultimate chapter begins, “In a way, the Nineties were the best thing that ever happened to the Beatles. They sounded cooler and mattered more than ever. It was the Nineties that invented the Beatles as we know them today, and the Nineties Beatles we’ve listened to ever since.” The same graph ends with a Sheffield swoon: “I’m sure the Sixties Beatles were great. But I bet not as great as the Nineties Beatles.”
If all of this is true, then the book that he should have written would have included as many chapters devoted to the ’90s Beatles as the one that he did write devotes to the ’60s version.
Instead, all that the volume specifically devotes to the ’90s is a portion of the previously mentioned next-to-last chapter, “The Ballad of Eighties Beatles vs. Nineties Beatles.”
That is not, however, the only part of the book that alludes—albeit in passing—to The Beatles’ presence in the 90s.
In his twelfth chapter, Sheffield declares Fiona Apple’s 1999 song “Paper Bag” to be “the perfect summary of the Beatles’ Nineties ascendance—really the triumph of their music over nostalgia.” A few pages later, he proclaims “Setting Sun” (1996) by The Chemical Brothers “the ultimate Nineties statement of the Beatles as a right-now thing as opposed to a good-old-days thing.”
Two chapters later, he asserts that the “Britpop explosion of the Nineties (see Oasis, Pulp, Blur, Radiohead, The Verve, and countless others) can be traced to the revisionary experience that went with the 1987 [release of] Revolver [for the first time on] CD.”
All of these observations are provocative. Why didn’t Sheffield regale us with the complete story of this “Nineties ascendance,” which included Britpop, “culminated in the 1995 Anthology,” and was eventually topped off by the November 2000 release of 1, “the fastest-selling album of all time” and “the biggest-selling album of 2001” as well as “the top-selling album of the twenty-first century so far”? (1 recently—too much so for Sheffield to mention it—reentered the US and UK top 40 thanks to McCartney’s June 21 appearance on “Carpool Karaoke” with James Corden.)
In the postlude to the recently released (June 19) paperback edition of this wildly overpraised book, Sheffield writes, “I wrote Dreaming the Beatles because I wanted to celebrate them not as some distant magical event that happened in the 1960s but something that just goes right on happening.” More than a year after I read the hardcover, I am again wondering, “Why didn’t he write a book that would have done just that?”
Now, if you will indulge me, a few words on the subtitle. As stated previously, Dreaming the Beatles says practically nothing about The Beatles’ popularity with “the whole world.”
However, a book called Visualizing the Beatles (also Dey Street) by John Pring and John Thomas—and with a foreword by Rob Sheffield—does. This Complete Graphic History of the World’s Favorite Band features, among myriad other things, chart positions of various albums in countries such as France, Germany, Australia, Norway, Sweden, Spain, the Netherlands, and Japan and an indication of the countries the band performed in outside of the US and UK, including Denmark, Australia, Canada, and Sweden.
While this may not be an in-depth analysis of The Beatles’ relationship vis-à-vis the whole world, it is infinitely more far-ranging than Dreaming the Beatles.
Blake Maddux is a freelance journalist who also contributes to The Somerville Times, DigBoston, Lynn Happens, and various Wicked Local publications on the North Shore. In 2013, he received an MLA from Harvard Extension School, which awarded him the Dean’s Prize for Outstanding Thesis in Journalism. A native Ohioan, he moved to Boston in 2002 and currently lives with his wife in Salem, Massachusetts.