One of the strangest things about The Beatles’ story, I think, is how few books were published about them during the 1960s. Countless forests were no doubt torn down to feed the constant demand for newspaper and magazine content about them, sure. But the biggest entertainment phenomenon of the 20th century barely merited a handful of books at the time, even during the latter half of the decade when even hardened naysayers must have realised it wasn’t all just a flash in the pan. If the Fabs had come along in the 1980s or later, book store shelves would surely have been groaning under the weight of volumes keeping track of their lives and art. But at the time they were actually together, as Beatlemania raged around the world, not so much. There was 1964’s The True Story of The Beatles, a hastily cobbled-together, teen-friendly account of their origins published by the people behind their official monthly magazine. And a much more grown-up, in-depth telling of their story came four years later, of course, with Hunter Davies’ authorised biography. But the only contemporary book which took an objective, unfiltered look at the band and the madness swirling around them was Love Me Do! The Beatles’ Progress, by Michael Braun.
An American journalist living in the UK, Braun was intrigued by the growing national obsession of Beatlemania in the late months of 1963 (which was challenging the weather as country’s favourite topic of conversation, as he drily recounts in the opening chapter), and managed to secure a place among the band’s entourage during their UK tour that autumn. His timing was exquisite. Their appearance at the Royal Variety Performance, together with the dual release of ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’ and With The Beatles, confirmed their ascent to unprecedented levels of fame and popularity in their homeland. Even better, Braun was invited to accompany the group on their trips to France and the USA early the following year, when the mayhem went global. The writer had a front-row seat for it all, and the resulting 144-page book published later in 1964 mixes fly-on-the-wall reportage with vignettes of fan adoration, bemused media coverage and off-the-cuff chats with the band members. While it was out of print for many years and tended to be forgotten as the trickle of printed Fab Four scholarship which emerged in the 1970s became a flood in the 1980s, John Lennon always liked its honesty and leading Beatles historians Mark Lewisohn and Philip Norman later heralded it as perhaps the best book ever written about the band. In 2020 Rolling Stone magazine agreed, putting it first in a top ten list of Beatles books.
So why does it garner such praise? Well, firstly, it gives a unique and priceless close-up look at The Beatles when their star was truly on the rise – from the awakening of teen hysteria in places like York to the global stage afforded by New York and beyond. There is no other contemporaneous book, written without the benefit of hindsight or the fog of memory coming into play, which provides such a glimpse into the eye of the hurricane. This was written and published while the band was in the first flush of fame, when everything was fresh and new, and the world was still struggling to grasp what on earth was happening. The early chapters are full of great observational stuff as the Fabs whiz through provincial UK outposts like Cambridge, Lincoln and Leicester, interacting with press and fans, relaxing in the sanctuary of their dressing rooms and dashing on and off stage to perform before a barrage of ever-louder screams. In a rare break in the touring schedule, Braun then visits them at their (temporary) homes in London – John and Cynthia in their apartment, George and Ringo at their Mayfair flat, and Paul at the Asher family home – before joining them on a brief trip ‘home’ to Liverpool, where they taped an episode of the BBC-TV show Jukebox Jury. By year’s end (the book’s midpoint) Braun is noting how the UK press corps are already turning on their newfound idols, predicting they are about to be crushed by the Dave Clark Five’s “Tottenham sound” – at the exact same time ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’ is starting to climb the US charts.
And, barring a detour to play before initially unimpressed French audiences in Paris, the latter half of the book largely deals with their triumphant debut American visit in February 1964. Braun is there for the chaotic arrival at New York’s JFK Airport, the fans’ siege of the Plaza Hotel, the Ed Sullivan Show, the Carnegie Hall concert, the trip to Washington and the ill-fated reception at the British Embassy. All the while, he records the full gamut of reactions they stir, from harassed policemen to star-struck aristocrats to bewildered psychologists, and The Beatles’ own relaxed, almost nonchalant responses to the craziness they have unwittingly created.
In many ways, Love Me Do! is like the print equivalent of The Beatles’ First US Visit film, giving us a raw, as-it-happened snapshot of this pivotal period in the band’s career. And while this is one person’s take on it all, if anything it brings us even closer to their true feelings and personalities, because they were probably less guarded when the cameras weren’t around. Indeed, Braun’s reproduction of their earthy language, off-colour jokes and forthright comments shocked some readers in 1964. Paul and George describe various things as “fucking soft”, while John and Paul refer to masturbation at one point. Elsewhere, John says “women should be obscene and not heard” and, when it’s suggested the head of Decca Records Dick Rowe must now be kicking himself for passing up the chance to sign The Beatles in early 1962, he says: “I hope he kicks himself to death.” Such dialogue did not accord with the ‘lovable Moptops’ image and was decried in the NME as “coarse”, but it’s one of the things which makes the book such a great read. Many quotes you will have seen littered through biographies over the past 50 years or so first appeared here.
Their individual personas also come through loud and clear – at least in terms of Lennon and McCartney, who do most of the talking. Paul is very much the PR man, as always, but there’s a underlying intelligence and self-awareness to what he says, and you can almost visualise the twinkle in his eye at certain points. There’s a great moment when he announces to the Asher family: “Well, I’ve had a very tiring day making lots of people happy. I’m going to bed.” His interest in artistic and intellectual pursuits are also very apparent, something John pokes gentle fun at: “I don’t go in for those culture things, like Paul. Just drop a name and Paul will go; I’d rather stay at home.” Throughout the book, John’s keen wit leaps off the page, knocking people off guard and puncturing pretentiousness with an endless stream of quips and deadpan asides. But the pair do slip into serious mode when quizzed about issues such as class, fame and money. Ringo gets his chance to hold forth on a few subjects, too, but George really does play up to the ‘quiet one’ stereotype here. Or maybe Braun didn’t think he had as many interesting things to say.
Overall, though, the author wisely lets the almost surreal story tell itself, and supports it with an elegant, economical writing style. He judiciously weaves in newspaper reports, fan letters, press conference interplay and musical critiques, all propelling the book with a breathless pace which mirrors the events it documents. It conveys the feeling of the world falling in love with the band, and you can see why: their charm, cheek and freshness is evident at every turn. You also get a sense of the impenetrable camaraderie which carried them through it – as Braun points out, in one of perceptive lines which pepper his prose, they were a little island unto themselves. And it’s full of telling, captivating scenes – for example, Jane Asher talking about her romance with Paul; John’s obvious intimacy with journalist Maureen Cleeve; Brian Epstein admitting the band bring him to tears, and Paul writing ‘One and One is Two’ (a tune they later gave away) in their Paris hotel suite. “Billy J. [Kramer] is finished when he gets this song,” remarks John.
The big problem with the book is that there just isn’t enough of it. Considering the time he spent with the band and the many private moments he had access to, Braun could surely have written more. It seems to be treated as just another assignment, even though he undoubtedly realised something special was going on. And sometimes the rapid pacing does the story no favours – the chapter where he visits the individual Fabs at home, in particular, is frustratingly brief. And it’s worth noting that John gets the lion’s share of it. When there is so little first-hand, unauthorised material from this period, it’s a real pity that so much of it must have been left in the author’s notepad. In addition, the 16 pages of photographs are a mixed bag. There are some nice backstage shots and striking images of fan frenzy, but also some well-worn press hand-out snaps, as well as one of Astrid Kirrcherr’s 1960 Hamburg pictures which has no relevance to the story told here. A bit of a missed opportunity.
For all its faults, though, Love Me Do! remains an essential part of The Beatles’ bibliography – partly because of the invaluable insights it provides, and partly because there’s really nothing else like it. I picked up my copy in 1995, when it was finally reprinted just ahead of the Anthology project being unveiled, and it provides a nice counterbalance to such retrospective reassessments. I’m not sure it’s been published again since, but you can still find second-hand copies online for a reasonable price. I’d definitely recommend it; it’s too short, yes, but what there is is like gold dust. John Lennon said he rated the book because it showed The Beatles as they were, “which was bastards.” If only we had more bastards like that. I’d give this one a 7.