Let’s face it: Almost everybody loves reading about celebrities at their worst (if only because most of us will never get the chance to misbehave with such impunity). Except, of course, in the case of the Beatles. Sure, everyone knows John Lennon could be a bit of a bastard, and that Ringo Starr had a rep as a dim bulb. But no one really wants to hear that the lads from Liverpool were guilty of anything but endearing peccadilloes and a little recreational drug use.
Tony Bramwell, who grew up with the Beatles in Liverpool and worked closely with them throughout their short, dizzying lifetime as a band, had a ring-side seat for the entirety of the Beatlemaniacal ’60s. In Magical Mystery Tours, he rolls their tale out in a leisurely, conversational manner that brings the era to vivid life. The mythic moments are all here, from original drummer Pete Best’s ouster to manager Brian Epstein’s drug-related death in 1967, from the recording of Sgt. Pepper’s to the band’s fractious final days.
Though it doesn’t drop any bombshells, Tours is a tour de force of amusing details (like the suitcase of baked beans a curry-shy Starr took with him when the Beatles jetted to India in 1968 to sit at the Maharishi’s feet). What comes across most strongly is the utter innocence and naïveté of all concerned, as well as the goofy serendipity that seemed to reign over the Fabs’ ascendancy. Especially early on, John Lennon and Paul McCartney didn’t think their songwriting was all that remarkable, ”probably because it came so easily to them,” reveals Bramwell. For his part, Epstein was so clueless about business that he blithely signed off on a deal that awarded an outside company 90 percent of the money from Beatles merchandise, thus losing millions.
One caveat: Bramwell is brutal on Yoko Ono. He paints her as equal parts harpy, shrew, and bitch, reinforcing the old saw (less than universal in recent years) that her relationship with Lennon effectively led to the Beatles’ premature breakup. He builds his case so convincingly, one wonders how Ono’s version of the same events would read. For now, we can only imagine.