Rock and Roll Book Club: Rob Sheffield's 'Dreaming the Beatles'

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'Dreaming the Beatles' by Rob Sheffield.
'Dreaming the Beatles' by Rob Sheffield. (Jay Gabler/MPR)

Near the beginning of Dreaming the Beatles, Rob Sheffield gets right to the point: how can the world possibly need another book about the Beatles?

If you tell people you're writing a book about the Beatles, at first they smile and ask, "Another one? What's left to say?" So I mention "Baby's in Black," or "It's All Too Much," or Lil Wayne's version of "Help" or the Kendrick Lamar battle rhyme where he says "blessings to Paul McCartney," or Hollywood Bowl, or Rock 'n' Roll Music, or the Beastie Boys' "I'm Down" — but I rarely get that far, because they're already jumping in with their favorite overlooked Beatle song, the artifact nobody else prizes properly, they nuances nobody else notices. Within thirty seconds they're assigning me a new chapter I must write.

There's a sense of indulgence about reading yet another Beatles book. There are so many important stories that remain untold, so many underrated artists who don't have their due, even so many arguably overrated artists that, for whatever reason, you've never bothered to learn much about. (Hi, Radiohead.) So spending another 350 pages with the Fab Four is a bit of a vacation for the music fan's brain, even when the pages turn on relatively obscure topics as Beatles topics go.

Dreaming the Beatles may not be a book we need, but it's a book that plenty of us want. Rob Sheffield is a great rock writer, instinctively striking a balance between the subjective and the objective, between the popular and the arcane. So, if you're a Beatles fan at all, you're not going to be sad about this book.

It's unassuming in its very structure: while its three dozen short chapters follow the band's career in loosely chronological order, they don't try to hit every base or to tell a conventional narrative. Instead, Sheffield's written a series of essays on various Beatles-related topics that you may or may not ever have been curious about, but that Sheffield argues you should (or at least could) be.

What was the real story behind "Dear Prudence"? (It was inspired by Prudence Farrow, Mia's sister, who holed up during a meditation retreat in India; but contrary to what Farrow later said, John Lennon didn't actually play the song to her during the retreat.) What was especially poignant about the cover of Abbey Road? (It centered the recording studio, the last shred of common ground left among the Beatles.) Was Ringo a good drummer? (Sheffield, very much Team Starr, says emphatically yes.)

Sheffield's freshest angle on the Beatles saga comes from how he considers the band's career to have effectively continued on, nearly half a century since they broke up. The members' solo releases will always be part of the Beatles story (Paul's solo debut gets a chapter), and so will the Beatles compilations. Sheffield is particularly fascinated with the uptempo 1976 collection Rock 'n' Roll Music, which he argues reflected the Beatles as seen from the Me Decade; and he's incisive about the Jeff-Lynne-produced "Beatles" songs from a documentary series 20 years later. "It's ironic," Sheffield notes, "that when you watch Anthology, the only music that sounds dated is from 1995."

Of course there are a few good nuggets, my favorites being the zingers from a band whose quick wits were legendary. Paul's money quotes range from 1966 (asked about the ostensibly shady characters on Rubber Soul, McCartney replied, "We were just trying to write songs about prostitutes and lesbians, that's all") to 2016 (after being refused VIP admission to a Grammys afterparty because he didn't have the right wristband, Paul turned to his posse and said, "We need another hit, guys"). The best line, though, is from Yoko. Asked about a little-seen short film directed by her husband and starring his own penis, she shrugged. "The critics wouldn't touch it."

Dreaming the Beatles is subtitled The Love Story of One Band and the Whole World. As Sheffield notes, every fan knows about the public Beatles moments, but if you're a fan, you also have your own private Beatles moments: that time a song changed your life, or lifted your spirits, or sparked your imagination. Paul's not dead, and neither are the Beatles: in a sense, they never will be. Long live the Beatles.

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