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Two Books For The Price Of One

Jonathan Gould's Can't Buy Me Love

by Benjamin Ray

One wouldn't think there would be any books left to write about the Beatles. In addition to the group biographies, there are individual biographies, picture books, countdowns, dissertations and pretty much every conceviable take on the band from anyone remotely connected with them, from Cynthia Lennon to Peter Brown.

So one wonders what Jonathan Gould could possibly say that hasn't been said before in his new book Can't Buy Me Love, which hits the shelves in early October.

The answer is twofold, as it turns out. Subtitled "The Beatles, Britian and America," Gould opts to tell the story of the Beatles in the guise of a history lesson, detailing how their surroundings influenced the band, how they responded, how they influenced culture and what was happening in both Britian and America at the time. 

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This would be enough for one book, but Gould takes it a step further. Not only recalling the salient biographical details, Gould dissects every album, pretty much song by song, offering a commentary and insightful, thorough analysis on each track. He doesn't do this in the way a gushing fan might, though, but rather with a critical eye and a keen knowledge of music -- so one had better understand fifths and sevenths, pentatonic scales and how to keep musical time to understand this part. "A Day In The Life" takes five pages to dissect, for example.

Elegantly written, Can't Buy Me Love took Gould many years to research, and the result of his efforts is compelling. Although it's slow going at first -- because, face it, the main interest lies in the band's formation -- the story quickly picks up with an examination of Liverpool; the personality of the city, the music scene, the speech and more are all explored, with Gould explaining how each influenced the band and how that caused them to act as they did.

For newcomers to the band or even for old-school fans, reading about the boys' childhoods is fascinating. The narrative structures these vignettes with what was happening on both sides of the pond  in pop culture, rock music and working class youth. Much is made of The Angry Young Man, a play popularized in England at the time featuring a working-class boy angry at the world, often dreaming big but settling for little and seeing those around him do the same. The play was quite a success and fueled the rise of the working class as a force, a group that was all too eager to break the tradition and embrace rock music and the Beatles in particular.

To his everlasting credit, Gould doesn't write from a fan's perspective, but more like an objective journalist. He doesn't shy away from criticizing albums and songs (particularly The White Album), but he also doesn't delve into lurid details or stories of the band being jerks. Such things would be beneath a book that straddles the lines of scholarly dissertation, rock criticism and biography.

The sequencing is a little off, which is one of the book's few flaws. Much of the beginning and middle intersperses the Beatles' rise in the world with what was happening in history (JFK, the Profumo affair, the decline of Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard as major musical forces in the early 60s), and it is this central point that is the basis of Gould's book. However, about two-thirds of the way through, the history lesson is all but forgotten in favor of a straight-ahead biography of the band, with many pauses to dissect the lyrics and each song recorded after 1967. Not that this is bad by any means; if anything, Gould is asserting that by the Summer of Love, pop culture and the outside world really had no effect on the Beatles anymore.

As stated above, this is not a book for the Beatle fan who just wants to read the basic biography and fawning reactions to the music. This is instead a way to tell the Beatles story that has not been told -- with the gift of hindsight and through the lens of history, looking at not how the Beatles influenced the world but how the world influenced the Beatles. Reading this, I understand more about Lennon and McCartney's lyrical ideas, musical influences and why the band was embraced so heavily.

It's been said that not only did the world want the Beatles in the 1960s, it needed them. Gould, for the first time, really explains why. Despite being a bit tough to get through here and there, and possessing far more detail in some spots than is needed, Gould has written a book that both fans and rock historians will enjoy.




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