Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Tony Bramwell: The Fifth Beatle?

In the pantheon of my cultural heroes, no person or group is greater than the Beatles. To the child that I was in the ’60s, they didn’t even seem human—they were like gods. The great accomplishment of Magical Mystery Tours: My Life with the Beatles, by Tony Bramwell, is that it humanizes them.
That’s not necessarily a good thing.
Bramwell grew up in Liverpool, England where his childhood friends were neighborhood kids like George Harrison, Paul McCartney, John Lennon and future Beatles manager Brian Epstein. Liverpool in the late ’50s and early ’60s comes across as an old-fashioned, close-knit community where everyone knew each other’s business and chance encounters with future stars were not uncommon. Thus it was, for example, that a young Bramwell found himself on a bus with Harrison, going to his first gig in Liverpool with the Beatles.
Geography is, indeed, destiny.
Bramwell had been planning on becoming a draftsman but, through a chance encounter with Epstein at his record store, wound up working for him and ultimately running a number of the Beatles’ companies. (Similarly, Epstein had no intention of becoming a manager, but basically fell into it after seeing the Beatles perform at Liverpool’s Cavern Club.)
As flesh-and-blood human beings, not everything we learn about the Beatles and their circle is flattering.
Epstein is a closeted homosexual who eventually dies of an accidental drug overdose (whether due to his being in the closet, the pressures of managing the Beatles, or both, isn’t clear).
John Lennon comes across as a bit of a jerk, having abandoned his first wife, Cynthia, and son, Julian, almost immediately after getting married. To be fair, even if the customs of the time didn’t dictate that he had to marry Cynthia after getting her pregnant, Epstein probably would have forced his hand in order to maintain the Beatles’ squeaky-clean image.
Speaking of which, the Beatles were hardly the “boys next door” their publicity led us to believe (nor were they an overnight success). They spent years performing all over England and Europe (most famously in Hamburg, Germany), enjoying the company of lots of women along the way, before making their American debut and, eventually, “settling down.”
But the person who comes off the worst in this book (no surprise) is Yoko Ono. She’s portrayed as a stalker who insinuates herself into Lennon’s life--while both of them are still married, no less. (The “stalker” designation is particularly disturbing when you consider how Lennon was murdered a few years later.)
After the Beatles break up, Bramwell works with a number of other record labels and artists, including record producer Phil Spector, a character as steely in his resolve to get his own way as Yoko (and who produced—some would argue ruined—the Beatles album Let It Be.)
There’s much vicarious enjoyment to be had in these pages from Bramwell’s tales of record industry excess, at a time when record sales actually meant something. Bramwell emerges as a potential “fifth Beatle,” perhaps as significant in his own way as Brian Epstein.
But the breakup of the Beatles near the end of this book is a loss for the book, for Tony Bramwell and, ultimately, for us.

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