There are a ton of Beatles books in the world, and I know too few — I’ve read more John Lennons, to make a meaningful distinction. So before I began writing this I paged through Ian MacDonald’s canonical Revolution in the Head and Devin McKinney’s renowned The Beatles in Dream and History, both of which rocketed up my to-do list. But neither has a chance of topping Rob Sheffield’s Dreaming the Beatles.
Sheffield is the rare popular culture critic who is popular himself, and for his criticism at that — not bios or profiles or interviews or dumbed-down thumbs-ups, but the literate if colloquial and indecorously jocular analysis of an apostate English professor. True, especially in his books this criticism is interwoven with more autobiography than most. In fact, his 2007 Love Is a Mix Tape is really a memoir with lots of music in it — a love story obliterated when Sheffield’s wife, Renée Crist, dies in his arms of an embolism on Mother’s Day of 1997. Yet the mixtapes that head each brief chapter of this extraordinary portrait of a romantic marriage comprise some five hundred songs, dozens of which inform the narrative and every one of which Sheffield could tell you something new about right now, because among his many gifts is some version of an eidetic memory. I know him fairly well. More than once he’s salted our conversation with a laugh line I forgot I cracked decades ago, sometimes verbatim.
Love Is a Mix Tape sold, and over the intervening decade four more books have followed. In 2010 Talking to Girls About Duran Duran celebrated the music of the Eighties, a decade Sheffield has internalized as only someone who turned fourteen in 1980 could. But note that while the laff-a-minute Prince chapter is mostly about life as an ice cream man and the pained Madonna chapter is long on Roman Catholicism, the Paul McCartney chapter stays on topic, slagging as much as pumping the genius who wasn’t called Macca until he righted himself in the Nineties. In 2013’s Turn Around Bright Eyes, the musical focus is karaoke, a passion he shares with Ally Sheffield, the goth-pop astrophysicist who became his second wife. Its fulcrum, however, is a chapter entitled “She Loves You,” Sheffield’s favorite Beatles song and mine, only he noticed as I had not the complexity and mutability of its lyric and yeah-yeah-yeahs on his way to figuring out what I also had not: that John and Paul are the only rock stars ever to leave their band in order to form new ones with their wives. Then in 2016 came the speed-written On Bowie, which while Beatles-free says of the Starman’s love for Iman: “This marriage changed everything about his story. It gave him new confidence and enthusiasm about his life; it gave him something to sing about.”
So when page twenty of Dreaming the Beatles turns on the sentence “John and Paul both quit the Beatles to start new bands with their wives,” the repetition is no surprise, just as it almost makes sense when the author of Talking to Girls About Duran Duran disports the word “girl” thirty-four times in his Beatles book’s first sixteen pages — as well as devoting a full chapter to “the scream” that made girls “the star of the show” for all of live Beatlemania. This organic feminism is inextricable from another of Sheffield’s critical gifts: He feels “pop,” stereotypically the feminine pole of masculine “rock,” more deeply than any other male heterosexual critic. These days most quality rock critics get pop, to the point that in recent years the ill-advised neologism “poptimism” became a tic (which has now, wonder why, vanished from the discourse). But pop has always been Sheffield’s wheelhouse, which hardly means he doesn’t get “rock” — he’s long been a punk and indie champion, though his disinterest in rootsier stuff is a lacuna. And so one preoccupation of Dreaming the Beatles is how articulately and variously these Liverpool rude boys map in song the evolution of romance in an era when, he observes, all the women addressed on Rubber Soul “have jobs.”
But central as this achievement may be, it’s a subset of a grander thesis exceptionally well suited to someone born the same year as Revolver: “The world keeps dreaming the Beatles, long after the Beatles themselves figured the dream was over. Our Beatles have outlasted theirs.” He goes further, too, not just claiming, as Greil Marcus demonstrated definitively forty years ago, that the “Beatles invented the self-contained rock and roll band, playing their own instruments and writing their own hits,” but postulating with tongue barely in cheek that in our era “rock and roll is famous mostly because it’s what the Beatles did.” That I don’t buy; there’d have been rock and roll without Elvis and rock groups without the Beatles, and both would have retained their portion of aesthetic vitality as they faded into history. But as a Sixties person by birthdate but not conviction, I’m down with Sheffield’s determination to cry bullshit on the micro-acute Ian MacDonald’s macro claim that pop music suffered a “catastrophic decline” in 1970 (which means after the you-know-whos broke up) (and also means when Ian MacD was in the full flower of his 21 years). To the scornful “Where were the Beatles of the Eighties?” Sheffield parries, “Yeah, well, where were the Beatles of the Sixties? Because there weren’t any, except the Beatles.” And if he wanted to be snarkier he could also mention Prince.
Don’t get the wrong idea. Almost three quarters of Dreaming the Beatles sticks to the Sixties because that’s when the group recorded. No special respecter of their solo work, which he knows intimately enough to be quite choosy about (too much so in John’s case, I think, as is fine with him, because he sees such arguments as part of loving the Beatles), Sheffield devotes detail- and idea-chocked chapters to most of the major albums including the debut Please Please Me, cut in one thirteen-hour day with John and Paul unimpeded by colds you can hear adding a winning grit if you listen for it. But a surprising swatch of the remaining 28 percent sticks to the compilations critics invariably ignore when it comes to endlessly recyclable cash cows like The Beatles: 1962–1966 and 1967–1970 (1973), Rock ‘n’ Roll Music (1976), Love Songs (1977), Anthology 1 (1995), Anthology 2 (1996), Anthology 3 (1996), and 1 (2000).
This product, Sheffield holds, proves the Beatles’ indomitable and continuing vitality like nothing else. He bears down on the “forgotten” Rock ‘n’ Roll Music, which “makes a sophisticated argument about the Beatles’ expansive revisionist concept of rock and roll” even though it looks “tauntingly ‘cheap’ ” and, crucially, gave ten-year-olds like Rob their own Beatles, with no older-brother lectures about how to hold a vinyl album without smudging it. He also pinpoints 1, an all–No. 1’s selection “which had no reason at all to exist,” became a monster bestseller, and tendered yet another cohort their own Beatles, among them one of Sheffield’s nieces. So I’ll conclude by mentioning that, without trying, Sheffield convinced me to finally purchase the outtake-heavy Anthology series. Sheffield is right — the Beatles are rock and roll. And as someone whose life was shaped and if you insist saved by rock and roll, I want it all.
Dreaming the Beatles
By Rob Sheffield