The first fully-integrated biography and critical examination of the four ex-Beatles during the decade where it was still possible for them to get back together.
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FAB FOUR F.A.Q. 2.0: Life After Beatlemania, From Multiple Angles
Being an ex-Beatle in the 1970’s was both a blessing and a curse. Each former Fab had the advantage of the commercial cachet that came with being part of the most successful and influential group in pop music history. However, each ex-Beatle also had the disadvantage of living under the towering shadow of that past success and trying to reestablish themselves in the eyes of a record-buying public that was disillusioned by their breakup.
Similarly, anyone looking to write a book on the Beatles is in a position almost as tough as the one the ex-Beatles founds themselves in during the 1970’s. The history of the group and each individual member has been combed through, chronicled, analyzed, satirized and reexamined several times over.
Finding a fresh hook for such frequently explored material seems impossible but Robert Rodriguez has managed to pull this tricky feat off with Fab Four FAQ 2.0. This sequel to his earlier exploration of the Beatles’ career succeeds where a lot of Beatles-retrospective books fail because it is actually several books at once: it is a history, a source of trivia and a critical guide to the ex-Beatles music, films and t.v. appearances all in one carefully-assembled tome.
Part of the appeal of this book comes from the way it is organized. Its reams of info are broken down into 33 meticulously organized chapters. Eleven of these chapters devote themselves to a year-by-year survey of the personal and professional events in lives of the ex-Fabs and they act as a sort of narrative anchor for the book. The other twenty-two chapters intersect with these capsule histories in a variety of ways, exploring their music, their ventures into other forms of media, their collaborations and their feuds.
Armchair musicologists will delight in the musically-minded chapters, which break down each man’s respective solo catalogs in a variety of ways: biggest and lowest-charting singles, best and worst albums, the #1 hits, etc. These chapters aren’t mere “listicles,” either: Rodriguez goes into great detail about the stories behind the songs and albums. His penchant for thorough behind-the-scenes detail really yield dividends in the chapters where he explores the group’s collaborations with other artists and their unreleased recordings: highlights include the tale behind an abortive, oft-bootlegged studio jam between Lennon and McCartney in 1974 and the story about “Too Many Cooks,” Lennon’s unreleased collaboration with Mick Jagger.
Rodriguez proves equally adept at sizing up the ex-Fabs work on television and in films: he makes a good case for how That’ll Be The Day shows that Ringo could have had a legit acting career if he’d really wanted one and offers fascinating descriptions/analyses of John Lennon’s controversial early-1970’s t.v. appearances with Yoko Ono. On a similar track, there is a fascinating chapters chronicling shows and events that attempted to explore (or exploit) the public’s nostalgia for the Beatles (yes, it includes a look at the infamous 1978 film-musical stinker Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band — and that entry offers an insightful, well-informed analysis of the circumstances that made it such a fiasco).
However, the most fascinating and valuable chapters might be those that explore the personal interactions between the former bandmates. Chapters on their post-Beatles collaborations and — even more interesting — their feuds over the years are engrossing reads that offer up all the pertinent details behind each incident without devolving into tabloid-style innuendo. A chapter on the romantic involvements of the Fabs is done in a similarly informative yet classy style and the closing chapter about Lennon’s untimely death is handled with a well-judged sensitivity, focusing on Lennon’s schedule that day and the reactions of each of his former bandmates.
And for those wondering why a Beatles book is being covered on a schlock site, well, Rodriguez never shies away from schlock when it pops up. Each of the ex-Beatles made some questionable career choices that came back to haunt them and there is also plenty of coverage on attempts to exploit the Beatles’ mystique. Highlights on the schlock tip include the story behind Ringo’s appearance in the spaghetti western Blindman, the aforementioned exploration of the awful Sgt. Pepper’s movie as well as details about the stage show that spawned it, a look at John Lennon’s awkward radical-chic album Some Time In New York City and the story behindAlpha-Omega, a bootleg Beatles comp that inspired Capitol to begin a series of Beatles repackages.
To sum up, Fab Four FAQ 2.0 is a true work of pop scholarship. It would take tons of collecting and reading to find all the information that is covered so succinctly here. Better yet, this book is as accessible as it is impressive. It’s organization scheme allows to deliver plenty of enlightment whether it is read in a start-to-finish style or just thumbed through in a casual manner. If you want to understand the twisty-turny path that the former Beatles had to navigate to find success in a post-Fabs world, Fab Four FAQ 2.0 is an ideal place to begin.
Fab Four FAQ 2.0 from BackBeat Books
The complete title, Fab Four FAQ 2.0: The Beatles' Solo Years, 1970-1980 by Robert Rodriguez, is a continuation to his and co-author Stuart Shea's highly successful Fab Four FAQ. It frames that decade with the two most significant events in Beatle history: the break up of the band in 1970 and John Lennon's murder in 1980.
But Rodriguez' writing style prevents these tragedies from overshadowing the story and making this a morose read. Fab Four FAQ 2.0 is a celebration of the careers of all the Beatles as separate, solo artists.
A book that ties up a myriad of loose-ends, threads, false rumors and erroneous press writings, FFF 2.0 digs deep into post Beatle band lore with stories, quotes, stats, trivia, arcane photos, and hard information covering the background, reasons, and career arc for each of the former Beatle members.
As a collector and reader of most all the worthwhile Beatle books out there, I found that Rodriguez scores again with his chapters specifically written to inform and answer big questions for me such as: the breakup's effect on each Beatle; memorable and not so memorable solo appearances; each Beatles' forays into film making; and the working circumstances the large cadre of songwriters, artists, musicians and business people orbited each of the Beatles.
I found the Fab Four FAQ 2.0: The Beatles' Solo Years, 1970-1980 a fascinating book that filled in more blank spaces than I could ever cover here and makes a tremendous addition to my collection. It and Rodriguez' and Shea's first FFF book combine to make one of the most comprehensive studies of the Beatles written in a scrutinizing yet respectful way--without the filtering effect of "a hidden agenda" I've found in so many of the newer books.
Robert Rodriguez - "Fab Four FAQ 2.0"
Every holiday season I play All Things Must Pass because hearing ‘My Sweet Lord’ or ‘Isn’t It A Pity’ (George Harrison’s double A side hit single) somewhat ironically brings back that Christmas day in 1970 when I received the triple solo album as a gift from my mother. That same Christmas also found me unwrapping John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band (an album I play year round). Receiving those two albums completed the square: I now owned each ex-Beatle’s debut solo album, even Ringo Starr’s Sentimental Journey.
All of which is my long and winding way of saying that if anybody is qualified to evaluate Robert Rodriguez’s Fab Four FAQ 2.0 it is me. His sequel to Fab Four FAQ 1.0 - co-written with Stuart Shea - covers The Beatles’ solo years from Paul McCartney’s “self-interview” disbanding the band to John Lennon’s murder in December 1980 (a night I remember quite well as I found out about the shooting from a distraught acquaintance while walking home from a cancelled Cramps concert); years I remember quite well; years when I owned probably 80% of the solo albums that John, Paul, George and Ringo released.
When it comes to publishing, however, The Beatles are to rock literature what Abraham Lincoln is to the American Presidency: no other band has as many books written about them. I myself have read dozens beginning with Hunter Davies’ The Beatles: The Authorized Biography (1968). Is there anything original left to say? Apparently, because insofar as I can tell, no one has ever attempted to chronicle and collectively appraise the 1970s solo work and so it’s a fascinating read discovering who helped whom out, how the ex-Beatles reacted to their former bandmates’ solo recordings, and finally fell out of one another’s orbits.
I find the format of Backbeat Books’ FAQ series positively post-modern. Dispensing with the birthdates and childhoods that bog down biographies, each book in the FAQ series features 30-40 chapters of roughly 2,500-3,500 words that can be read linearly or randomly. This structure allows the author to selectively center chapters on the aspects of a recording artist’s career that engross and engage them and hopefully enlighten the reader. By presenting chapters on live performances, sidemen, guest appearances, unreleased recordings, and latter day Beatlemania to name a few subjects, Rodriguez creates a mosaic that is only fully appreciated after closing Fab Four FAQ 2.0. He has also recaptured an era as it moves from long haired hippies to glam rock, funk, disco, and finally punk and new wave, which Yoko Ono may or may not have influenced.
I found Fab Four FAQ 2.0 to be full of original observations, provocative positions, and humor (for example, Rodriguez notes that McCartney, while incarcerated in a Japanese jail cell in January 1980 for marijuana possession, led his cellmates through a sing-along and wonders if they sang ‘Band On The Run’). Despite his obvious fondness for the subject matter, however, Rodriguez is not an apple polisher (pun intended) as he acknowledges McCartney’s penchant for “stringing together a series of phrases,” Lennon’s sometimes “hectoring tone,” Harrison’s grumpiness, and the fact that sessions for Ringo’s solo albums in the latter half of the decade were often little more than excuses for hanging out with friends.
Interestingly, one does not come away from Fab Four FAQ 2.0 sensing a preference for any ex-Beatle. Rodriguez is to be complimented for being even-handed. I’m sure that if I had tried to write Fab Four FAQ 2.0 it would have been hard not to praise Lennon’s solo work over that of the others or to stress repeatedly that Lennon’s best guitar playing and production can be found on Yoko Ono’s albums (a point Rodriguez rarely acknowledges). Instead Rodriguez presents his wealth of knowledge and research and makes his case that each ex-Beatle can be proud of their solo output.
Rodriguez effectively debunks the myth that Lennon’s screaming began with Arthur Janov, persuasively makes the argument that Walls and Bridges is “thoroughly cohesive and a fully realized collection,” points out how the year Lennon was separated from Yoko and with May Pang wasn’t the Lost Weekend of legend but actually a productive period that resulted in two solo albums as well as session work with Harry Nilsson, Mick Jagger, Elton John, and David Bowie. (However, I do like Sometime In New York City more than Rodriguez does: he classifies it as one of Lennon’s worst. But then again that’s one of his provocative positions that makes reading Fab Four FAQ 2.0 so much fun. You often find yourself debating his conclusions or wanting to reassess records long traded away.)
I came to appreciate McCartney’s willingness to put his actions where his mouth was and to tour unannounced and play universities with the original Wings line-up just as he had urged The Beatles to do. I never knew that Wings went through so many line-ups, that ‘Dear Friend’ was not a response to Lennon’s ‘How Do You Sleep’ or that McCartney only laid down basslines after most of the other backing tracks were recorded.
George’s generosity to other musicians was an eye-opener. Sure, I knew he produced Ravi Shankar, but the many session hours put in producing or paying slide guitar with Billy Preston, Badfinger, Ron Wood, and even Cheech and Chong came as a total surprise. Who knew he was a “devotee of madcap absurdist humor” or that his relationship with McCartney never warmed up? (This is worthy of note since it is McCartney who recommended Harrison for Lennon’s band.)
Reading about Ringo’s Beaucoup of Blues, you do wish the underrated drummer had recorded more country rock, a genre that’s his natural fit. I enjoyed reading about the thunder and lightning drumming duo of Ringo and Jim Keltner (and wondered if that prepped me for Adam And The Ants, The Fall, The Butthole Surfers: all bands with more than one drummer at times). I didn’t know that the single version of ‘Goodnight Vienna’ fused the album’s “opening track and its reprise” or that the title is Liverpudlian slang. My criticisms are minor. One relates to Rodriguez’s habit of referring to ex-Beatles by nicknames associated with them. Ringo becomes Ritchie Snare or The Ringed One, George Harrison is Hari Georgeson, McCartney is called Macca so often that I began to think it was his real name and that McCartney was as much a stage name as Ringo’s Starr. The only Beatle that escapes this is Lennon. I don’t think he’s ever called Dr. Winston O’Boogie except when appropriate.
The other criticism is a built-in fault of the FAQ format. Since chapters can be read linearly or randomly, repetitiveness is unavoidable. This is especially true of the chapters summarizing a year’s events, which, while arguably necessary, reduces the impact of what is written elsewhere.
Still, I highly recommend Fab Four FAQ 2.0; even more so if you are looking for reading material while traveling this summer. Less disposable than a newspaper or magazine and more easily read in spurts than fiction, this is an ideal book to read while waiting for a flight or riding on a bus or train. For this reason and all the stray facts you’ll learn about the ex-Beatles and other recording artists I give this 8.8 Hellbombs.
By the way, since we’re posting this review on 7/7/10 - Ringo Starr’s 70th birthday - I’ll leave you with seven additional facts I gleaned while reading Fab Four FAQ 2.0 (and that might make you interested in reading Rodriguez’s book yourself):
1. George Harrison wrote ‘It Don’t Come Easy’, Ringo’s first solo hit, and even “took a crack at singing lead.”
2. Jimi Hendrix Experience drummer Mitch Mitchell auditioned for Wings.
3. Frank Zappa was playing ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’ when “a crazed attendee” pushed him off of a London stage, breaking Zappa’s leg.
4. John Lennon thought his ‘Nobody Loves You (When You’re Down and Out)’ was ideal material for Frank Sinatra.
5. Pete Townshend “often expressed his counterintuitive view that Linda (McCartney) was (Wings’) secret weapon.”
6. The “if we ever get out of here” line in Wings’ ‘Band On The Run’ was a George Harrison remark from “an interminable meeting.”
7. The original backing tracks for Lennon’s ‘I’m Losing You’ were laid down by members of Cheap Trick.
(And wanting to be entirely above board with this review, I feel I should disclose that the reason I know so much about the ins and outs of the FAQ series – the number of chapters, words per chapter, etc. – is that I’ve been invited by Backbeat Books to submit a sample chapter and sample Table of Contents for an FAQ book on Jimi Hendrix, an experience I am eagerly engaged in. If anything, this arrangement made me determined to read Fab Four FAQ 2.0 overly critically. When I boarded a recent flight for Copenhagen, I dared Rodriguez to tell me facts I did not know or remind me of music I’d forgotten. I tried to find errors, but - other than a Yoko Ono-related contradiction about John Lennon’s critical comments on George Harrison’s book I Me Mine – I did not find any. Yes, I found printing errors such as “Worth” being omitted in a header on page 62 but that’s not the author’s fault. The highest compliment you can give a book on a recording artist is if it makes you want to acquire more of available recorded material. On that score Fab Four FAQ 2.0 succeeds. That’s how I found out that McCartney is out of print. I bought RAM instead. I think it’s Macca’s last great album.)
Reviewed by Gary Bombardier
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