It’s irresistible to start this review of Vineyard author Tom Dresser’s new book about the Beatles, It Was 40 Years Ago Today, by saying it’s a Magical Mystery Tour of the Fab Four who Please Pleased [Us] through a Hard Day’s Night lasting six years, spanning the spectrum of I Feel Fine, to wanting to give each other A Ticket to Ride, all of them — and us —– trailing apart in a mood of benediction, Let It Be.
Mr. Dresser contends that for many of us, if not for most of us, growing up in the sixties, the Beatles defined us and we defined them as together we struggled from adolescence to adulthood, through the changes of early cutie-pie love songs like I Want to Hold Your Hand and She Loves You, Yeah, Yeah, Yeah; to the unease building in such songs as Yesterday and Norwegian Wood, when the protagonist is left to sleep in his date’s bathtub. Next came existential angst and raucous revolutionary years with songs such as Eleanor Rigby and Taxman.
And then in the final supernova years of the 1960s, as our own minds imploded with the help of Eastern metaphysics and, possibly, certain unmentionable substances, both chemical and organic, so too did the Beatles, under the spell of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and substances of their own choosing, unfurl upon a recklessly searching fan base such songs as Strawberry Fields Forever, A Day in the Life, Lucy in The Sky with Diamonds and, indeed, an almost infinite number of mind-blowing, soul-transforming recordings that unleashed the iconoclasm, creative juices, and peace-seeking impulses of an entire generation.
Mr. Dresser was seventeen in 1964 in a small town in central Massachusetts, when Ed Sullivan was drowned out by pandemonium from the audience as he tried to introduce John, Paul, George and Ringo to a television audience of tens of millions. The seventeen-year-old Dresser was instantly enthralled, and his continuing fascination and identification with the Beatles through every last instrumental and lyric, be they sweet, soaring, sardonic or, sometimes, corny or mediocre, pursued him through his young life the way birds and butterflies fluttered around Snow White and kept her constant company.
Now in 40 Years Ago Today, Tom Dresser opens up his fellow travelers’ minds to the rich nuances we may have missed consciously — but somehow knew all along — which formed the soundtrack of our past few decades.
And who wouldn’t want to know the personal histories of these four astonishing artists, their staggering differences that produced both infamous fights and spellbinding recordings, the loves, losses, victories and failures, and the synergy of the music that was bigger than the battles they waged, and that kept them together when they would have otherwise split up, like any fledgling garage band back in their teen Liverpool days.
Mr. Dresser’s research follows the Beatles, from their (now) flabbergasting rejection from Decca records to their early albums, all the way through their belated dissolution in August of 1969 as they recorded their final masterpiece, Abbey Road.
As you read Mr. Dresser’s book, you find yourself longing to set it down after each chapter to play the album (or now most likely the compact disc) under discussion that would take you down the memory lane of all the numbers. There are a few that the reader may have forgotten entirely, and others — most of them, in fact — that you’d love to hear again because, quite simply, you adore those tunes. You find yourself realizing that you’ve thrilled to the Beatles every bit as much as Tom Dresser has, but for whatever reason — inattention, lack of a deeper consciousness, a tendency to take the great pleasures of life for granted — you took less time to appreciate this music as one of the most satisfying elements of your life.
Mr. Dresser incorporates quotes from scores of Islanders, many of whom the reader will know; one might even come across oneself cited on the subject of Beatles, Growing Up With and Continuing Influence on Self.
The author sums it up when he writes, “What they wrote for public consumption is open for discussion. Marijuana busts, comparisons with Jesus, marriages and movies are tabloid fodder. What the Beatles said in their songs, their communication to a generation, is their lasting legacy. That their songs still receive airplay, decades after their last album, is testimony to the enduring appreciation of their music.
“The Beatles were a phenomenon not only in music, but in the social fabric of our society. One becomes acquainted with them, not merely through biography, but in understanding the culture that encouraged them, the generation that adopted them and the established order that balanced them between praise in their prowess while criticizing their avant-guarde message.”
Mr. Dresser explains it all, his writing style deft, his critiques and insights fair and impartial, and his admiration for this rock and roll band advancing our culture another furlong towards anointing them as the greatest pop music group of the last century.
And possibly of the century we’re now living through as well.