Before they were wielding more control over pop culture than any four men before or after them, The Beatles were sleeping in arm’s length of filthy toilets in Hamburg and playing shockingly raw rhythm and blues with a dude named Pete Best on the backbeat. They were rejecting the formidable entertainment impresario Larry Parnes and getting the thumbs down from Decca Records. Every Beatles biography begins with these familiar tales. When They Were Boys distinguishes itself from most of these books by focusing exclusively on these rough and tumble early years and doing so from a uniquely personal point of view. Author Larry Kane travelled with the band on their American tours of 1964 and 1965, where he developed a rapport with John, Paul, George, and Ringo and their associates. Consequently, Kane does not have to rely on a wealth of outside sources to bring his book to life. The vast majority of quotes, whether they come from the Fabs or Yoko Ono or Mal Evans or Pete Best, were spoken to the author directly. Kane also sat down with a number of lesser-known figures in Beatles history to flesh out his narrative and give due credit to how folks such as Bill Harry, Freda Kelly, Tony Bramwell, and George’s sister Louise, who pushed American DJs to give her brother’s band a listen, helped steer the boys to success.
Kane also veers down side roads during his journey to spend some time profiling Lonnie Donegan, the skiffle star who allegedly had a greater influence on The Beatles than any other artist, the Jacaranda coffee house where they hung out and played and chased girls, the other popular Mersey Beat groups that never made it out of Liverpool, etc. He’s also intent on putting certain misconceptions—particularly the belief that Best was canned because he was a lousy drummer—to rest.
Kane’s tone throughout is highly admiring, often reverential, whether discussing The Beatles or the other players in their drama, though he seems to slightly begrudge McCartney’s aversion to spilling his guts to the press. He also seems to want to make it very clear that he knew all these people, and the tendency of all his interviewees to refer to him by name (“It was after the show, Larry…”; “And let me tell you, Larry…”; “Remember, Larry, we were just boys then…” etc.) made me wonder if the writer forced his name into a lot of these quotes. But considering how few people have actually sat down and picked the brains of the legends who populate his lively, entertaining, and warm-hearted book, you can’t really fault the guy.
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