Beatles Book Club: A Recommended Reading List of Paperback (and Hardback) Writers

Chris Willman
Writer

It’s a good thing John Lennon’s round spectacles made eyeglasses suddenly cool 50 years ago, because you’ll definitely want to keep your reading glasses handy for all the Beatles-related books hitting stores to roughly coincide with the 50th anniversary of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Settle into your favorite reading chair and re-meet the band that spawned a thousand paperback (and hardback) writers!

In Their Lives: Great Writers on Great Beatles Songs

Edited by Andrew Blauner
Beatles biographies? We’ve probably had enough for a lifetime. But personal essays that dive into how the band’s music helps filter the way we experience the world? Those will always be as welcome as they are inexhaustible, especially when they’re as beautifully written as most of the entries commissioned for In Their Lives, which has 29 mostly well-known writers taking on a single song that meant something particularly special to them. For singer Rosanne Cash, it’s connecting the sense of betrayal in “No Reply” to overhearing her parents talking about splitting up. Similarly, novelist Rick Moody associates the final suite on “Abbey Road” with his parents’ divorce. But don’t worry, there’s a lot of joy here, too, whether it’s in actor David Duchovny exploring his love for “Dear Prudence” or Chuck Klosterman trying to decide whether “Helter Skelter” is silly or brilliant. An extra hat tip to the great musical biographer David Hadju for having the courage to pick, as the object of his devotional zeal, “You Know My Name (Look Up the Number).”

(Photo: Blue Rider Press)

Sgt. Pepper at Fifty: The Mood, the Look, the Sound, the Legacy of the Beatles’ Great Masterpiece

By Mike McInnerney, Bill DeMain, and Gillian G. Gaar
At least three books are arriving this year that deal solely with Sgt. Pepper. Foremost among these is Sgt. Pepper at Fifty, a coffee table book encompassing enough to merit its unwieldy subtitle. (Was there ever a masterpiece that wasn’t great?) Alongside the larger historical essays on the recording process, album cover art, and overall ‘60s context, you get entertaining sidebars on everything from the history of the concept album to the Paul-Is-Dead clues supposedly embedded in “Pepper,” not to mention the Beatles’ sudden facial hair (“Pepper Sprouts: How the Beatles’ Mustaches Set Them Free in the Summer of Love”). A chapter on “The Eternal Debate: Mono vs. Stereo” serves as a nice, detail-filled primer on the differences between the two 1967 mixes, for anyone who’s about to dive into the 2017 remix that combines different elements of the two. Also fun: some retrospective critical quotes, like the New York Times on the disastrous, Bee Gees-led Sgt. Pepper film (“This isn’t a movie, it’s a business deal set to music”) or some elder rock critics knocking the Beatles’ album itself — Greil Marcus called it “a Day-Glo tombstone for its time,” and Lester Bangs compared their magnum opus unfavorably to “Louie Louie.”
(Photo: Sterling Press)

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band: The Album, the Beatles, and the World in 1967

By Brian Southall
Like Sgt. Pepper at Fifty, Southall’s own book breaks down into separate sections on the album itself and the cultural context into which it arrived — with the author labeling these distinct sections as his book’s “A side” and “B side.” (The coffee table tome is even made to look like a used LP, weathered from the inside by a slab of vinyl.) Southall, a former Melody Maker journalist and EMI publicist, has written a host of other Beatles books, mostly on more obscure subjects, like histories of the Abbey Road studios and the Northern Songs music publishing company. How does he do with the bigger picture of the most celebrated album of all time and 1967 in general? The Wall Street Journal wrote that “Mr. Southall’s book will be a handy primer for children and an aide-memoire for boomers who have entered senescence without ever leaving their adolescence.”
(Photo: Imagine)

The Beatles and Sgt. Pepper: A Fans’ Perspective

Compiled by Bruce Spizer
Spizer is well-known in the Beatles’ collectors’ market for a series of expensive and mostly out-of-print books exhaustively detailing every album, EP, and 45 the Beatles ever released collectively or as solo artist. Who else has published an entire book just about the Beatles’ very short-lived stint on Vee-Jay Records? Chances are this about-to-be-released tome will not have the literary qualities of, say, Rob Sheffield’s new book. But it’ll undoubtedly document plenty of the obscure artifacts that continue to make Spizer a welcome guest at Beatles conventions.
(Photo: 498 Productions)

Dreaming the Beatles: The Love Story of One Band and the Whole World

By Rob Sheffield
No Beatles book in years has been as well-reviewed as this epic-length personal essay by Rolling Stone columnist Sheffield… and it completely lives up to the hype. That is, as long as you’re not the type of fan who gets easily offended by someone devoting an entire chapter to how “My Love” is the worst song ever recorded by one of the Beatles. Sheffield has his snarky asides, but there’s no doubting that it’s all rooted in deep love and obsession. He engages in trivia — another chapter is devoted to the great debate over whether Abbey Road or Let It Be should really count as the group’s last album — but rest assured that, amid all the arcana and levity, Sheffield embraces the big picture: “At this point, rock ‘n’ roll is famous mostly because it’s what the Beatles did, just as the theater is famous because plays are what Shakespeare happened to write.” Others have written as profoundly about the Beatles as Sheffield, but no one has ever written about them more entertainingly, at least at book length.
(Photo: Dey Street Books)

Beatles ’66: The Revolutionary Year

By Steve Turner
If you had to pick one year that was most critical or pivotal for the Beatles, which would you choose? From the 50th anniversary hoopla now occurring, it’s clear that most people would pick 1967. But Turner makes the excellent case that the real turning point was the run-up — a year that found the Beatles quitting touring, recording and releasing Revolver, truly tripping out artistically for the first time with “Tomorrow Never Knows,” and taking a little time off for the first time in their stardom… time spent acting in or scoring movies, taking acid (mostly John), and engaging with the avant-garde side of other mediums (mostly Paul, surprisingly… at least till John met Yoko). And they just happened to finish out 1966 by working on their 1967 classic, so you could consider this book a sort of prequel to all the Pepper books hitting the market. As a researcher, Turner leaves few stones unturned, and you may find yourself wishing he’d write this scholarly a book about every Beatles year, just as he previously wrote a celebrated book (Every Little Thing) that detailed every single Beatles song.
(Photo: Ecco)

I Me Mine: The Extended Edition

By George Harrison
Harrison’s book has had a couple of previous iterations, but as the title suggests, the augmentation was significant in this edition, published in the spring. I Me Mine first appeared in 1980 as a limited edition of 2,000 signed and obviously highly expensive copies, before it finally got a more public release in 2002. This 570-page update devotes its front section to a mixture of transcribed recollections from Harrison and interspersed thoughts from Beatles press agent Derek Taylor, followed by handwritten lyrics and brief notes about a whopping 141 songs Harrison wrote during his Beatles and solo years. The annotated “Piggies”? Yes, that’s here, along with Harrison’s thoughts on “Something,” “When We Was Fab”… and, of course, the Harrisong of the 50th anniversary moment, “Within You Without You.” It’s not really a replacement for the autobiography we’re never going to get, but it’s still an essential part of any Beatles bibliophile collection.

(Photo: Genesis Publications)

Nothing Is Real: When the Beatles Met the East

By Luca Beatrice
Here’s a book you could consider a sequel to all the Sgt. Pepper books hitting the market in this 50th anniversary year: a look at how they got even more far out — by Western standards — in the wake of their landmark release, traveling to India in 1968 to study with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. It was a move toward mysticism that obviously lasted more with some members than others (see: the difference between “My Sweet Lord” and “Sexy Sadie”). But their well-publicized journey clearly had almost as much impact on American and European trends in spirituality as their music had on pop. Nothing is Real isn’t a New Age textbook, mind you, but an art book that uses archival photos, magazine reproductions, and even paintings to recreate the signal-change moment when rock ‘n’ roll checked into the ashram.
(Photo: Silvana Editoriale)

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band: Super Deluxe Edition… The Companion Book

By various authors
It’s not being sold separately, but it could be, if they so chose — because the 146-page hardback book that comes with the new Sgt. Pepper boxed set is very nearly worth the price of admission all by itself. Even a speed reader will spend hours pouring over its contents, which include not just the lyrics and historical photos you’d expect but lengthy essays on what was happening in the Beatles’ world and in the culture at large before, during, and after the album’s making. If you buy just one book about Sgt. Pepper this year, make it this one… and there happens to be a pretty nifty six-disc set that comes with it.
(Photo: Capitol)