The Beatles A-Z (1980)

In these post-Anthology, post-Lewisohn, post-internet days, where detailed information about what The Beatles had for lunch on any given day (and what the waiter thought about it) is available at the touch of a button, it’s interesting to look back on those books which used to be the key sources of information about the band back in the day.

As a fan growing up in the 1980s (I don’t know whether that makes me second- or third-generation, or even if that really matters), one such valued tome was The Beatles A-Z, a US publication which came out in 1980. I borrowed this from a school friend just as my new musical obsession was beginning to gather momentum, and it rapidly became something of a Beatles bible for me as I pored over every word. As the title indicates, it’s an encyclopedia of sorts, with information arranged in alphabetical order, from Apple to Zapple. Put together by journalist Sue Wenner with photographers Goldie Friede and Robin Titone, it also features 100 photographs — all in black and white, but many of which are very interesting indeed (more on that later). And, crucially, the book doesn’t stop in 1970 but includes just as many entries about the solo careers in the decade that followed (it stops short of McCartney II and John’s death, but does cover Paul’s Japan pot bust). Even in my early fandom days, I wanted everything.

It’s basically a cut-and-paste job, but a pretty accomplished and judiciously chosen one. And it’s fairly comprehensive for the time, covering all aspects of their collective and individual stories, output, performances, business decisions, fall-outs and unfinished projects, as well as many of the people who fluttered in and out of their orbit, from biographers to tour promoters. One thing I particularly salivated over (and still like) was the listing of every official song in their catalogue(s) from 1962-80 — who wrote and sang it, which albums(s)/single it appeared on and whether it was performed live or on film. Sometimes they are also accompanied by titbits of information, about their inspiration, recording or popularity (though chart performances are completely absent, which seems a strange oversight). It was here, for example, I first learned George was a big fan of ‘I’m Carrying’, from Wings’ London Town album

Information like this was gold dust to my sixteen-year-old self, and there are still snippets of trivia in it which catch the attention now. For example, the lovely telegram sent by John, Paul and George to Ringo just before he made his solo television debut on Cilla Black’s Cilla show in 1968, which said: “Big Brothers are watching and wishing you well. Love from all your Big Brothers”. Or that John reviewed a book of The Goon Show scripts for the New York Times in 1973, and Paul did likewise for a collection of Paul Simon sheet music in Punch magazine later that year. Or that the George V Hotel in Paris, where The Beatles stayed during their two-week residency in the city during January 1964, barred Paul 12 years later when one of his kids redecorated the wallpaper in their room with felt tip marker pens. Or that Peter Frampton’s wife Mary compiled a cookbook of Rock & Roll Recipes in 1980 which included contributions from George, Ringo, Linda McCartney and Pattie Clapton.

The book also highlights the dizzying array of musicians George and Ringo (and, to a lesser extent, Paul) provided musical backing and/or production duties for during the 1970s — many of which I’m pretty sure you will never have heard of. Considering they were rock aristocracy by this stage (and pretty busy with their own careers), it’s interesting that they were still prepared to support any number of unknown or minor musicians. These are just brief entries, however. Far more attention is obviously given to the main players in the story, and there are lengthy, well-written sections on the life (and character) of each Beatle, though Ringo gets a scandalously shorter portrait than the others. These parts of the book are where many of the photos are, and the authors deserve kudos for using some rarely-seen images. There’s a ‘68 shot of George, for instance, sporting huge sideburns which I don’t recall seeing anywhere else.

Even better, there are several exclusive images, taken by Friede and Titone, of the solo Fabs on the streets of New York in the mid-late 70s. And they’re really good — glorified pap snaps, perhaps, but they do make candid portraits of each man on the cusp of middle age, just a few short years since the crazed excesses of Beatlemania. There’s also a lovely shot of Paul and Ringo together in Manhattan circa 1977, though I think I have seen that one elsewhere.

John, with Sean, outside the Dakota Building, NYC, 1976
Paul circa 1978
George in his BMW.
Ringo with girlfriend Nancy Andrews in the late ’70s

On the minus side, while the back cover boasts more than 3,000 entries in the book, many of them are pretty pointless. For example, “Bobby — a character in Paul’s song ‘C Moon’” doesn’t really add much to our Fab Four knowledge (and, in case you’re wondering, Patty from the same song also gets a mention). Likewise, there is precious little background information about some of the inclusions. We’re told that The Undertakers supported The Beatles on one of their 1963 British tours, for instance, but absolutely nothing else about them. And if you want to know more about, say, studio engineer Tony Vigars or any other of the many people listed here who worked on various solo albums, you’ll have to look elsewhere. Ringo’s co-writes with Lulu’s brother Billy Lawrie? Well, you get the titles, but that’s all. And so on. There’s an awful lot of filler like this which leaves you with more questions than answers. And I do think it’s a bit cheeky for the authors to include themselves in the roll-call of the Beatles story.

The book is largely accurate, though a few silly errors creep in here and there — there’s a mention early on, for example, of Magical Mystery Tour being filmed in 1968. What’s most eye-catching from today’s perspective, however, is how the authors take as fact rumours and hearsay that were subsequently shown to be nonsense. According to this, the group recorded scores of unreleased songs in the 1960s, including ‘Keep Looking That Way’ in 1962 and several Harrison compositions for Sgt Pepper, one called ‘India’ among them. The book also recycles media myths such as the one which claimed John, George and Ringo planned to continue the band without Paul after 1970, only with Klaus Voorman on bass and re-naming themselves as The Ladders. It wasn’t the only book from that period to feature stuff like this, but it would have added credibility if the authors had used the word ‘allegedly’ here and there.

There is a nice selection of album cover images at the back, though some of the US releases, many of the solo albums and all of the 70s compilations are inexplicably missing. On the plus side, though, there are reliable lists of all their group and solo tours, special one-off performances and noteworthy TV appearances up to 1980. Even though whole books have been written on these subjects since, offering acres of detail, it’s still nice to have at-a-glance lists all in one place.

Like many books from the 1970s and ‘80s, The Beatles A-Z has been rendered largely obsolete by the deluge of more informed publications in the years since, as facts have been clarified and hitherto unknown seams of detail tapped. But it stands up better than most efforts from those days, and still holds a special, nostalgic place in my library. At a time when reliable information on the band was still fairly hard to come by, this was something of a goldmine. It listed every song and where to find it; it included those ‘70s compilation albums which were the vital entry point for many of my generation, as well as those strange (for British readers) US albums; it provided a different, geeky approach to the standard biographies; it gave the ‘70s as much importance as the ‘60s, and told me all manner of things I didn’t know. And it still stands as a pretty decent shorthand encyclopedia on the first two decades of the Beatles story. It would’ve scored higher in the past, but I’d still give this book a nostalgic 6.