Thunder's Mouth Press, New York, 2003
To Sir Charles Comer, late of Liverpool and New York City, and Ita Kirwin, late of Wexford
dedication: To Sir Charles Comer, late of Liverpool and New York City, and Ita Kirwin, late of Wexford
The blurb on the back:
What would have happened if the Beatles had broken up in 1962?
1962 and Parlophone decide that the sales of ‘Love Me Do’, while encouraging, are too regional – it’s time to do something more mainstream, and their choice is ‘Till There Was You’. At which point John Lennon explodes in fury, demanding that the follow-up should instead be ‘Please Please Me’. Parlophone stand firm, Lennon storms out the studio and the Beatles split up. We flash forward 25 years…
It’s a fabulous proposition, and there are some very fine aspects of this book, but let me do the negative stuff first, before the praise. And very first of all, let me bemoan the sloppy standard of proof-reading. In the first few pages of this novel, the lead connecting a guitar to its amp is referred to as a ‘chord’ rather a ‘cord’; the old English unit of measurement, the rod, is given as rood; and a female sheep is called a yew. That gets us to page 13, at which stage I stopped counting. What the hell’s wrong with these people? Have they never seen the English language before? Do editors and proof-readers no longer exist in American publishing? Tsk.
(I know I said I’d stopped counting, but really I can’t let the misspelling of Eddie Cochran’s name as Eddy go without mention; that truly is disgraceful.)
A more serious problem is that this doesn’t work as alternate history. The whole point of these things should be to change one fact and then see what the chain of consequences is, but here there is no chain, simply the first and last links: the depiction of 1987 England has no obvious connexion with the fact that the Beatles didn’t happen. We see a country in which the National Front have won 10% of the vote, and have been drawn in as the junior members of a coalition government with Tories (who, it is implausibly suggested, are led by Enoch Powell). Is that what would have happened if the Beatles hadn’t changed pop music? Possibly, but you’d have to put up some convincing arguments. Similarly, what have the Beatles got to do with Prince Charles having now become King, or the Americans being involved in a protracted war in Iran?
To be fair, there is a brief moment when Lennon attempts to explain what’s happened to Paul McCartney (now known as Paul Montana):
But he never spells any of it out and the argument peters out with Lennon shaking his head sadly: ‘This is all over your head, mate.’ I’m afraid to say that it’s over mine as well.
The mistake seems to me to be the over-estimation of the significance of the Beatles. There was a whole raft of forces that shaped the new Britain that emerged in the Sixties. Here are just a few off the top of my head: the rise of the meritocracy, the move of women into the workforce on a big scale, the arrival of young fashion with Mary Quant and Carnaby Street, the invention of Hire Purchase, the growing dominance of ITV, the flexing of trade union muscles, the loss of Empire, the publication of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, the birth of pirate radio (Radio Veronica). And, as K-Tel used to say, there were many, many more. All of these pre-dated the Beatles’ first single. Hard to believe that the transformation to which they were contributing would have been stopped dead in its tracks just because a single wasn’t released.
One final problem is that there are too many characters about whom no reader can honestly be expected to give a toss. McCartney’s new fiancée (following his divorces from Nancy Sinatra and Cher) is obviously worth having around, but his manager? His bodyguard? Who cares? And who would want to read their interior monologues?
Having said all which… This may be profoundly flawed, but it’s still a damn good book. Above all, it’s genuinely gripping – it really did keep me up late wanting to finish it.
There are, as I said, too many peripheral characters, but the central tension is the relationship between Lennon and McCartney, and it’s beautifully depicted. Lennon is the street-fighting defender of the pure faith of rock & roll, while McCartney has sold out to Vegas (where, ironically, the fight for survival is even more cut-throat); they stand on opposite sides of the great split in pop music – rock vs cabaret – but they need each other; incomplete as individuals, they are essentially two facets of a single entity. It’s really quite moving.
Now, I don’t share Kirwan’s belief that the Beatles were ‘England’s greatest ever rock & roll group’ (has he never heard the Spiders From Mars?), and I tend to think that Lennon was, and is, vastly overrated, but I have to say that I did care about him in the context of this novel, which is quite a tribute to the writing. He emerges as an embittered, broken man still desperately trying to cling to the tattered remnants of his pride while pretending that he couldn’t care less. Still a figure of some standing in Liverpool, he is nonetheless more to be pitied than admired, consumed by a self-destructive streak so strong that it also damages everyone who comes close.
Even more impressive is that for moments, I actually believed this nonsense that ‘Please Please Me’ was a great rock & roll record. It wasn’t, of course. There’d been much better British rock & roll before it even turned up (‘Brand New Cadillac’, ‘Move It’, ‘Please Don’t Touch’, the whole of The Sound of Fury), compared to which ‘Please Please Me’ was a fairly wet piece of Buddy Holly-lite. But, and I really mean this as a compliment, Kirwan imbues it with a mythical status. This is supposed to be the Holy Graal of British rock, the sacred relic that would have changed everything. I do think he’s wrong, and that the world would have been a better place without the horrors of Merseybeat, but – as I say – he had me believing whilst I was reading, and for that alone, I have to say I’m impressed.
Because there is a passion for rock & roll here that is thoroughly engrossing. The man clearly loves the stuff, and it burns throughout with enormous enthusiasm. The reason I’ve spent so long on it, is because I think this is actually one of the best rock novels ever written, and one of the few that feels as though it comes from the very heart of the music. I’d recommend it whole-heartedly.
ENTERTAINMENT VALUE: 5/5
HIPNESS QUOTIENT: 2/5
James Robert Baker
Fuel Injected Dreams