Thank you Amy McGrath Hughes for taking the time to write another fine book review…
This book is available to pre-order and will be released April 29, 2021.
Right off the top, let me remind everyone that the Beatles were British. From the north of England. With a very different sense of humor.
Plunging into the long-awaited Fab Fools (Candy Jar Books, 2020), I was immediately struck with what can only be described as a ‘new’ take on The Beatles. The term ‘comedians’ doesn’t pop up with regularity when describing their contribution to entertainment, but that is precisely what author Jem Roberts intends to rectify. And I must say, he’s done a very convincing job.
But let me backtrack a bit here: there is a lot of story to cover when going thru the history of The Beatles (hello, Mark Lewisohn). What Roberts has undertaken is an entirely different approach: within the context of their lives, he has placed the band in line with numerous examples (in studious detail) of how their wit and witticisms served them not only during the early years of moptop giddiness and awkward ‘comic’ appearances but gave them a voice – collective and solo – in shaping their character, their travels and their ability to find the silliness in almost every conceivable situation.
(I want to briefly interject that what is referenced in this granular study is heavily reliant on understanding British humor and British comic ancestry. While a casual Beatle fan may know names such as Peter Sellers and Dudley Moore, a more thoroughly invested fan will no doubt appreciate the intricacies of English show biz as Roberts gives over to the voices that shaped ‘Beyond The Fringe,’ the Temperance Seven and the very early noises of members of Monty Python.)
Roberts’ right reading of their producer George Martin (who had his pulse on British comedy long before he began his tenure with The Beatles) is another eye-opener for those only familiar with his steadfast, laidback approach and laconic observations. His ability to not only see the group from a musical perspective but be able to stand back and appreciate their shared humor (see numerous outtakes from any session at EMI Studios), was of course solidified for history when George Harrison responded with the legendary “Well for a start, I don’t like your tie,” in answer to Martin asking if there was anything they didn’t like at their very first recording session.
One must also recall from this far in the future that The Beatles were breaking new ground. As has been said many times, they were making it up as they went along and for the most part, their in-jokes become part of their DNA repartee. One of the first large scale exhibitions (and here we’re treading into the quicksand of 21st century PC-ness) was John Lennon’s ‘cripple’ impersonations. I’m fairly certain that anyone who has seen his claw-hands, tongue-pushing-out-bottom-lip, flailing foot-stomping renditions from the stage (and a few skewered passages from ‘In His Own Write’) knows exactly what I’m talking about. While there is no fair excuse today, suffice to say this was what humor was about back then and farther back to his childhood. And it did indeed become shouted shorthand when they wanted any loathsome individual out of their dressing rooms during the height of Beatlemania: “Crips, Mal!”
If you’re asking how deep can Roberts go and in what direction did comedy take them: the answers are numerous. He ruminates on everything from the band’s early Morecambe & Wise UK appearances, to winning over ‘serious’ journalists in the burgeoning London newspaper scene known as ‘music reporting,’ to ‘Big Night Out,’ ‘Juke Box Jury’ and of course (for those in the know) the king of Scouse humor, Ken Dodd.
As The Beatles moved on to the world at large, so did their witty style in winning over… everybody outside Britain. The JFK press conference, the multi-year Christmas flexi-disc for fan club members, more press conferences and then – ultimately – the highest tribute: a Saturday morning cartoon. Detested (and protested), this indignation to their respective images actually helped launch one of the best-known pieces of (apparent) Liverpool humor: 1968’s ‘Yellow Submarine.’
While not an outright obvious, ‘Yellow Submarine’’s dialogue was brought more into the forefront of in-jokes and Scouse dialect by The Scaffold’s Roger McGough. Being a native Liverpudlian (and 1/3 of the heralded comedy troop with John Gorman and Paul’s brother Mike), the film – with its tale of The Beatles thwarting Blue Meanies in their travels to Pepperland – was filled with the uncredited contributions of McGough, including the oft-used rhyme-y “de do doe don’t de doe?” The Beatles themselves however only appeared in a slightly stilted live epilogue, though none the worse for wear.
While there are several avenues that branch off into the solo years, a large portion of the book has Roberts espousing on the birth of Monty Python – via ‘Magical Mystery Tour’ – and into the 70s with the ultimate tribute/pastiche – The Rutles.
The brainchild of Python’s Eric Idle, the real and long-lasting prankster was ad hoc Python Neil Innes. Innes supplied the music to Idle’s first scripted shorts for the faux group known as the ‘Pre-Fab Four.’ What began as a rudimentary trip down memory lane with a few ‘laffs’ and spot-on impersonations, grew once Idle expanded his vision and Innes formed a band to make the mockumentary what it has become today: a not-serious/hysterical/musical/legendarily quotable/believable/alternate world known as The Rutles. After the 1978 film ‘All You Need Is Cash’ (which tanked in the US despite the inclusion of several ‘Saturday Night Live’ cast members and the heavily disguised cameo of George Harrison), The Rutles took on a life of its’ own. Suffice to say, if you believed in a Beatles afterlife, Innes was your crossing guard into that world. Sadly, he passed in December 2019.
As the book moves to its conclusion (with fascinating passages ranging from Starr’s Mr. Conductor persona in ‘Shining Time Station’ to McCartney’s ill-advised foray into film via ‘Give My Regards To Broad Street,’ Harrison’s work in HandMade Films and Lennon’s last few interviews talking up ‘Fawlty Towers’), The Beatles and the people and industry they inspired along the way is nothing short of fascinating. The education one can absorb from Roberts’ tome and lyrical style of writing is reader-worthy.
For everything above and more, I give this book 4 out of 4 beetles!