Tim Riley’s Lennon Biography – A Critique

In preparation for writing about John Lennon, I have been reading the latest biography, by one Tim Riley. Our Tim previously wrote Tell Me Why, which takes the reader through every Beatles song – like Revolution In The Head but more emphasis on simply describing the songs. I thought then that he had a tin ear and not much understanding of The Beatles’ music. (Ian MacDonald and Alan Pollack  are masterly writers about the tunes). But reading his biog of Lennon, it has exasperated me so often that I literally wanted to PUNCH THE FECKING BOOK. It is littered with so many misunderstandings, so much inane waffling, so many misreadings of the Beatles that it makes me wonder how it ever got published.

To be fair, it is well researched, and (highly unusually for a rock biog) actually references its sources. (I have literally never seen this before). However, this is a lesser achievement when you realise that Riley is often referencing secondary sources. To take one example: he tells the story of Lennon and Yoko briefly staying in a flat of McCartney’s after Lennon broke up with his first wife, Cynthia, and says that Lennon found a note in Macca’s handwriting saying “You and your Jap tart think you’re hot shit”. Riley cites a biography of McCartney as the source. In fact, the actual source is Francie Schwartz, briefly a girlfriend of McCartney’s in 1968 (between Jane Asher and Linda Eastman). But the worst things are the combination of misreadings and knuckle-chewingly bad writing. To take the basic errors – “Gaitskellite” and “Bevanite” were sects in the 1950s Labour party, not Scottish dialects (!!), England not Britain won the World Cup in 1966, and grammar schools were not the equivalent of American prep schools. But these pale into comparison in Riley’s discussion of the music, where the writing falls apart under the slightest scrutiny.

The book hails itself as “the definitive biography” and it is a solid 800 pages. Lennon’s life deserves no less. The unfortunate thing is that there are so many absurd discussions of the music, with such self-regarding criticism, that Riley seems to have forgotten that the role of the critic is to elucidate, not try to dazzle the reader with his verbosity. Rarely does he simply describe or evoke the songs. To take an example, “Twist And Shout” is of course the magnificent climactic closer of Please Please Me, a song of such energy and intensity and sexual charge that it took perhaps until “Smells Like Teen Spirit” to make something as powerful AND catchy. Riley’s discussion of the roots of “The Twist” and “Shout” is in-depth (though almost comically so – do we need to know that Chubby Checker married a Miss World in 1962?) and trowels on facts without much insight (a sure symptom of a weak biographer, mistaking fact-excavation for elucidation). It’s when he starts trying to describe The Beatles’ version that the prose becomes laughable. Here are some lowlights:

The Beatles attack alone carried symbolic force: as a garage band, they filtered the Isley’s high-tone horns and handclaps down into guitars and vocals alone, which turned the entire project into an ideal of self-sufficiency, a sound that said, “This thing that will cut water if we trim its sails.”

In both songs, the racial politics in the music didn’t disappear so much as turn metaphorical – the Brits pouncing on this style escaped cynicism and landed on the far side of beatific.

Only a Brit could have pulled the thread from this song’s distracting racial knots…

After goading the others steadily for the song’s first half, Lennon rode this bronco of a band while lashing it from above for one last victory-lap verse…

It’s the same but even worse for Sgt. Pepper. Here’s a paragraph which is utterly laughable in getting so much wrong:

While ominous, Beatles politics served the music, making Sgt. Pepper at once a glow-in-the-dark bauble and a message about the messengers. For a lark, the Beatles decisively* renounced their teen image once and for all adapting fictive characters to announce a new phase. The splashy Victorian band costumes, the epitome of “square”†, only sharpened their hip new looks the way suits and ties had once put quotes‡ around their Hamburg leather expressions. The album’s tour through celebrity, its trick mirrors and death curves, became an all-consuming¶ metaphor for life itself:ß as hippies and psychedelic hard rock entered the scene, the Beatles had a grip on it all before the Summer of Love party even begun. And the music transcends its era well enough to serve as a defining statement. Sgt. Pepper recreates its era while commenting on our own. Addressing their audience from the mists of their own fame, the Beatles put quotes around the very idea of their previous “act” as moptops, of all rock acts posing for their fans, of all show-biz  acts of all time and all audiences hungry for myth. Like fame, its strategy is seduction, but the punch line is abrupt§. Without “A Day In The Life”, the whole fantastical world might just float away¤.

*A lark? Decisively? Which is it? Surely not a lark to dispense with their teen heartthrob image.
† Square? Not when there was a revival of Victoriana, by shops like I Was Lord Kitchener’s Valet, and by bands like The Bonzo Dog Do-Dah band. Their outfits are sa dazzling starburst of colour.
‡ This is a clever-clever reading of it. The suits were simply to broaden their appeal.
¶ It’s hardly all-consuming – especially if you’re about the first person to point it out.
ß Is there a connection between the two halves of the sentence either side of the colon?
§ If “A Day In The Life” is what he means by this, I’ve never seen it described as funny.
¤ It might do, if you forget songs like “Good Morning Good Morning” and “She’s Leaving Home”.

It’s just vague, half-spun, unthought-out verbosity. This is not to say that there’s no room for a broader discussion of The Beatles. There is undoubtedly a place for critical analysis and a more academic approach to Beatle music – in fact, there’s a great need for it, if we are acknowledging that the Fabs are the Beethoven or Shakespeare of pop and rock. Alan Pollack’s song-by-song musicological analysis is a magnificent achievement: not being a trained musician myself, much of it goes over my head, but he undoubtedly knows what he’s talking about, and he writes with clarity and rigour. See by counterpoint his reading of “She Said She Said“:

  • Although the most conspicuous feature of “She Said She Said” is the metrical high jinks of the bridge, this song also provides us with object lessons about two other general compositional topics: how to experiment without things falling apart, and the special characteristics of modal harmony.
  • Experimentation! Among other things, this song teaches us yet another of the composer’s trade secrets: whenever you are pushing one parameter of your musical grammar to the max, hold at least some if not all of the other parameters steady lest your meaning become obscured by sensory overload, or your composition come apart as though from centrifugal force. This principle potentially operates on many different levels to the extent that the “parameters” involved may include as diverse elements as form, rhythm, texture, harmony, even lyrics…

Bridge

  • If the gory details are too daunting at first sight, here’s a high-level view of this bridge:
  • The f-minor chord is introduced for the first time in the song at what is possibly the moment of climax, and is used to help make a pivot modulation to E-flat, the key of the IV.
  • The meter may be erratic but it’s not without its own pattern. This little chart indicates the succession of measures and the number of beats in each:
  • She said "you don't understand what I said".  I said    [ 4 + 4 ]
    "No, no, no, you're wrong. When I was a boy,        [ 3 + 3 + 3 ]
    Everything was right.                                   [ 6 + 3 ]
    Everything was right."                                  [ 6 + 3 ]

That is in-depth, detailed and analytical (I really have no idea what an IV chord is), but it’s comprehensible and sheds new light on the song. It’s worth reading just for the “Some Final Thoughts” section, which doesn’t contain (much) musicological jargon and summarises his thought on the tune. Riley, on the other hand, waffles on in a ridiculous fashion, making ridiculous statements (Ringo’s drumming in “Ticket to Ride” he calls “white hot” – yes, the pausing, hesitant, doubtful drumming). The book has a few good things about it, but to call it “The Definitive Life” is an absurd , unsustainable hype. It is simply badly written and shows a chronic lack of insight in Lennon, the Beatles and their music.

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