The Beatles' story has become something like a classic children's fairy-tale


Peter Doggett

Peter Doggett

You Never Give Me Your Money: The Beatles After the Breakup

Peter Doggett has been writing about popular music, the entertainment industry and social and cultural history since 1980, and is a regular contributor to Mojo, Q and GQ.

The book begins with the death of John Lennon, although at that time the Beatles had not been recording together for years. Do you think that this tragic event rose the band to the rank of a myth, or were they already a myth?

I think that John Lennon’s death transformed them from a legend into a myth. They were already destined to go into the history books as the most influential pop group of the 1960s; but the tragic circumstances of his murder, and the reaction it provoked around the world, carried them beyond the realms of history and music into something more romantic and enduring. In fact, the Beatles’ story has become something like a classic children’s fairy-tale – a story that can be told over and over again, with tiny variations, without ever growing stale. And all of those qualities – the legend, the myth, the fairy tale – are what made it so difficult for the individual Beatles to find a distinctive place in the world after the group had broken up. Once you’re a character in a fairy-tale, you’re stuck there for eternity.

During the last recording sessions, you quote George Harrisson who, addressing the three other Beatles, says “Maybe we should get a divorce”. Do you think the relationship between the Beatles was that of a couple?

I don’t think the ‘couple’ idea applies to the Beatles as a whole – my book is very much a study in group dynamics, and it is the ever-changing shifts in the group’s balance, with three of them often ending up opposing the fourth one, that makes the story so fascinating. But I certainly think that the Lennon/McCartney split was like a divorce, because (like a married couple) they started out as a really solid team, two people adding up to one powerful force, and then grew slowly apart. As with any divorced couple, the split hit the two men in different ways. Paul was heartbroken, and I’m not sure that he’s ever fully recovered; while John moved on to his new relationship without a backward glance.

You wrote that you liked every one of them at different moments of your life. That being said, is there one of the Beatles whose personal career you prefer, an all-time favourite?

My favourite was always John when I was a kid: I loved his passion, his rebellious nature, his humour and his emotional honesty. But the older I get, the more I appreciate George Harrison’s solo work, which is very subtle, quietly beautiful and sometimes touched with a delicious sense of irony. That’s not to undervalue Paul, either, who is arguably the most melodic songwriter of the 20th century.

In France, the title of your book is “Come Together…”. What do you think of this change?

It came as a surprise to me, as I wasn’t involved in the decision. But I am sure that the French publisher knows the French market better than I do! In many ways, the new title is ironic, as the whole book is about the Beatles’ relationships falling apart. So maybe the French title should have been ‘Come Together?’.

During their active years as a band, you describe the Beatles as quite selfish and not willing, except for John, to let their wives or girlfriends enter the “circle” of the band. Do you think that it’s a facet of them that was underexposed to preserve the myth?

No, I think it was normal behaviour in the 1960s, unfortunately. Cynthia Lennon, John’s first wife, told me that all of the Beatles were traditional male chauvinist pigs. That’s why meeting Yoko Ono, who was both a strong feminist and a very strong woman, came as such a shock to John. But I don’t think the Beatles were any different from all the other stars of their time. I ‘m sure you don’t need me to tell you that feminism is still a shocking idea to lots of men.

You wrote in the acknowledgements that you did not speak with Paul McCartney because you did not want to ruin his afternoon. Is he one of your personal gods? (if you have any, musically speaking)

Well, he was one of the Beatles, so he will also have a magic about him as far as I was concerned. But having interviewed hundreds of rock and pop stars in my time, I have learned that they are all just people – very talented people, it’s true, but not gods. Is he a musical genius? Yes, undoubtedly, because his talent is so instinctive and natural. And I love his work, in the same way that I also love Bob Dylan, Crosby, Stills & Nash, the Beach Boys, the Kinks, Smokey Robinson, Rufus Wainwright, Laura Nyro, Frank Sinatra, Joni Mitchell – hundreds of people.

Although there is nowadays a big comeback of nostalgia in music and a massive praise for the music of the 60’s and the 70’s, do you think there is any other band of that time whose music is still as “timeless” as theirs?

I think that the Beatles’ myth has become so huge that it’s almost impossible to regard their music as anything but “timeless”. Although it’s a central part of the history of the 1960s, it exists today in a world of its own, which is why it still appeals to everyone, regardless of age or nationality. And strangely, the same seems to apply to much of the music that came out of that decade. I find it hard to imagine a time when people won’t look back on the Sixties as a golden age. I can imagine (if I’m still alive!) walking into a restaurant in 300 years’ time, and still hearing ‘Good Vibrations’ or ‘Satisfaction’ coming out of the speakers. Artistically, though, I think the only other figure whose entire 1960s catalogue is going to survive in the same way as the Beatles is Bob Dylan – though he hates the idea of being linked to that decade. The difference between them is that while it’s Dylan’s songs that stay alive for each new generation, it’s the entire package of the Beatles – music, words, image, characters – that captures people’s imagination, year after year. You almost don’t need the music: just a single photograph would be enough to keep the myth alive forever.