The Gospel According to The Beatles

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The Gospel According to The Beatles, by Steve Turner

Description (from the cover leaf): “…. In this provocative new book, Steve Turner, who first wrote about The Beatles in 1969, examines the lives, songs, and impact of the Beatles in order to discover exactly what it was that turned a group of rock ‘n’ roll musicians into guiding lights for spiritually disenchanted young people around the world. Turner details the events, ideas, and experiences that profoundly affected John, Paul, George, and Ringo and helped to shape their collective outlook….”

Description (from the back cover): “…. The Gospel according to the Beatles looks in depth at the development of the group’s philosophy and at how it affected their lives, their music, and their audience. Through rare interviews, never-before-published archive material, and newly discovered photographs, acclaimed music journalist and author Steve Turner traces the Beatles odyssey from the churches of Liverpool to the temples of India and Japan via the vision-inducing sacraments of marijuana and LSD. In doing so he defines what the Beatles were all about and distills the message of love, peace, freedom, and transcendence that was at the heart of their gospel.”

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I bought this book at the Chicago Beatles fest in 2006. There was a Q-and-A session with the author, Steve Turner, that weekend. I remember getting to ask a question, but I don’t remember what the question was. I do remember that I tried again to ask another question based on a question asked by a different attendee, alluding to Paul being possibly racist, but I didn’t get called on a second time.

Turner also the author of A Hard Day’s Write, which explains the influences and meanings of each of The Beatles songs. I’d enjoyed that book, one of the first I’d bought when I started collecting Beatle books, but I didn’t have it any longer by the time I got to meet Turner; I’d lent my copy of A Hard Day’s Write to a friend, never received it back, and am no longer in touch with that friend. I need to buy myself another copy of that book.

This is the third time I’ve read The Gospel According to The Beatles, and I’ve enjoyed it each time. I’ve never been able to do any kind of successful analysis of music … or of anything really. So, I’m impressed when others are able to make interesting analyses, especially when it makes sense to me, when I can understand what’s being said. Turner’s done so, in my opinion, in this book. I can’t say that I agree 100% with all his conclusions, but it’s very interesting to hear what he has to say.

In the Preface of the book, Turner lists many of his sources, and in the back of the book are more detailed lists of the sources he used, divided by chapters of his book in which he used them. His sources include many books, articles (from newspapers, magazines, and journals), manuscripts (some unpublished), and interviews (conducted by Turner as far back as 1971). As I’ve mentioned in other reviews, I appreciate knowing the sources of information presented in books like these, so I’m very impressed with all the resources Turner was able to use in writing his book. Being nitpicky, though, I would have liked to know which sources provided which information. For example, each chapter begins with quotations from individual Beatles related to the main focus of that chapter. But, while each quote mentions which Beatle is being quoted and in what year he spoke, I’m also interested in knowing where the quotes were made, what was being discussed, and to whom the quotes were being made. I know I’m asking for much; if all that information was always given, the book would be much larger.

One point that Turner referred to a few times throughout the book was the fact that The Beatles had musical talent despite their not having received any formal musical training. Turner points out that their talent was enough that trained musical experts were impressed enough, even early in The Beatles’ fame, to spend time analyzing their work. Although I barely understand what they’re saying, I like reading the comments the experts use in discussing The Beatles songs, using musical terms like “flat-submediant key-switches,” “chains of pandiatonic clusters,” and ‘balancing the modality with descending chromatics’.

What I didn’t care for being done throughout the book was referring to The Beatles as shamans, representatives of their ‘tribe’ of followers in spiritual matters and dealings, especially from 1966 to 1970. I know that The Beatles didn’t start out as trying to be any kind of spiritual leader, and I can’t say that they didn’t deliberately try to be once they got a following. But I think the comparison to shamans is just a making more of the situation than really existed, like referring to instances where it seems to be so and then contriving to emphasize it more than it actually was. But what I found very interesting were the references Turner made to specifics in The Beatles’ songs and career that seem to support what he’s saying.

For example, in Chapter One, Tell Me What You See, Turner compared The Beatles’ journey to that of a shaman traveling to the lower and higher spiritual worlds before returning to this middle world to report on what was experienced. Turner’s references to The Beatles’ journey in their work include lyrics such as “let me take you down”, “head in the clouds”, and “I can show you”; songs such as “I’m Down“, “Across the Universe“, and “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds“; music such as the build-up in “A Day in the Life“, and events such as early public performances in cellar clubs in Liverpool and Hamburg and their last one on the Apple rooftop. Again, I’m not saying that any of this is significant or any more than a stretching to make them fit, but I do find it interesting how all these points about The Beatles can be made to support Turner’s idea.

The book’s strength is in sharing facts that haven’t been widely publicized. For example, it seems to be common in Beatle books to report that the Maureen Cleave, ‘bigger than Jesus’ article was just accepted in England and didn’t stir up controversy until it was reported on in the US in Datebook. But Turner shows in Chapter Two, You Can’t Do That, that there was some controversy in England from Cleave’s article. He also shows that Datebook‘s wasn’t the first article to cause reaction in the US and also that Datebook‘s involvement was due to Brian Epstein‘s employees. Turner also provides interesting details about the first disc jockeys to ban The Beatles’ music and to organize Beatle bonfires.

Some comments Turner made about Beatles songs I hadn’t heard before. For example, in Chapter Three, In My Life, he describes how “Tell Me What You See” is based on a poem that hung on the wall at John‘s childhood home, Mendips. Turner also says in Chapter Nine, Let it Be, that “Something” isn’t about Pattie but about Krishna. George supposedly told friends that he changed the word ‘he’ to ‘she’ in the line “Something in the way she moves” to avoid being thought of as a “poof”. The book doesn’t say who exactly gave this explanation of the song. Isn’t it in the interview with David Wigg that George specifically says that Pattie inspired the song?

Chapter Six, Nowhere Man, and Chapter Seven, All You Need is Love, seem to focus on how drugs, specifically marijuana and LSD, affected The Beatles, especially as to their music. Some of the points Turner made were that drug use ‘altered the way musicians heard music and thus the way they created it’, that more attention was given to “details that otherwise would have been overlooked” and they’d be “imbued with extraordinary significance”, and that ‘the sensual aspects of music was enhanced’ and ‘a heightened sensitivity’ was given ‘to the quality of sound’. I’ve never been an advocate of drug use, but these points that Turner made support how I feel: music composed under the influence of drugs is the coolest music.

Chapter Nine, Let it Be, discusses the darkest period of The Beatles’ career, from post-Epstein’s death to their break-up. The darkest parts in the chapter are the Paul is Dead theory and the Manson murders. I normally don’t care for dark and weird situations, but both these accounts have always interested me. Turner’s comments on PID don’t really add anything new to what’s commonly known about the theory, in my opinion. But his comments on the Manson murders are pretty interesting, especially how Manson supposedly interpreted certain Beatle songs. Despite the gruesomeness of the tragedy, I have to admit that the details, especially as they relate to The Beatles, are kind of fascinating.

Chapter Eleven, What Goes On, is the most interesting, in my opinion. Turner describes how The Beatles mattered to him throughout his own life. He describes his nondenominational upbringing and later devotion to Christianity alongside major Beatle events and situations in his life. He details what was going on in his life in 1980 when he learned of John’s murder (a topic which also fascinates me). Turner’s analysis of two scenes of A Hard Day’s Night are really interesting and will kind of change how I’ll watch those scenes the next time I watch the movie. And a highlight of the chapter is an interview Turner conducted with John and Yoko; although intended to promote Yoko’s Grapefruit book, it turned into a discussion of John’s views on spirituality and the meaning of life … John, of course, didn’t mince words.

Overall, I find this a very interesting Beatle book. I thought Turner did a great job in presenting his analysis of The Beatles’ influence on society and of what influenced that. While I don’t personally agree with all the ideas Turner explained, or even those held by each Beatle, I still enjoy this book and recommend it for Beatles fans.

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