An e-mail exchange about Mark Shipper's Classic 1978 Fab Four Novel (part 2)
From: Scott Woods
Thanks for sending your review of PW. It makes perfect sense of course that you compare the book to the Rutles. In fact, I've been thinking of PW in relation to a number of other things from the seventies that satirized or criticized the Beatles myth--and maybe in doing so, created a new counter-myth--of which The Rutles is one of the more striking examples. I'd also include Lennon's own Plastic Ono Band LP and Rolling Stone interview from the period, while noting that the skewering he took in "Magical Misery Tour" from the album National Lampoon's Radio Dinner was itself pretty hysterical and dead-on (and much in the spirit of the Shipper book). (National Lampoon also devoted an entire issue in 1977 to the Fab Four.) On the critical side, there was Lester Bangs's great 1975 essay, "Dandelions in Still Air: The Withering Away of the Beatles," which I'm guessing is one of the earliest instances of a rock critic coming down hard not just on the solo Beatles projects but on the group's legacy. Also, there was Lorne Michaels's aborted attempts on "Saturday Night Live" to reunite the Beatles (what was the going price again? $3,000?), and the possibly apocryphal story of Johnny Rotten booting Glen Matlock out of the Sex Pistols because he was a "Beatles fan." My punk friends and I got great mileage out of that last one.
I agree with you that PW is a more effective satire than the Rutles. I've seen All You Need is Cash a couple times--years ago, mind you--and in both instances found it disappointing. I thought the music itself was a convincing collage of Beatle-like gestures, but the jokes were pretty thin. (Granted, it has to be a lot more difficult to satirize the boys on film rather than in a book, so ingrained are their images and personal quirks.) Shipper's book seems much nastier, much sillier, and much smarter than Eric Idle's version. And ultimately, just a lot funnier. It's amusing how, in the Rutles, the George character is portrayed by an east Indian actor, but it pales next to the joke in the book where the group of starving musicians in Bangladesh plan a benefit concert for a beleagured Harrison (releasing albums even he can't make sense of) "to help him cope with his heavy load."
That Blog to Comm article is interesting, and it was great to read the editorial from the 1972 debut issue of Flash. I was happy to see Shipper give a shout-out to Nik Cohn, as there are definite similarities between those two, mainly in their love of the cheapness and thrillingness of pop (in fact, the word "flash" shows up a lot in Cohn's Pop From the Beginning) as well as in their distrust of musical pretension. I don't wholly share their distrust, mind you (hey, I grew up loving certain Yes and Genesis songs--and Elton, too, for that matter), anymore than I profess eternal fealty to the "punk aesthetic" or to "super-pop"--as important as both of those things have been to me. But I can understand the utility and maybe even necessity of these sorts of ideas as they circulated in the early seventies, especially when seen as a reaction to what was no doubt loads of critical gibberish being expounded on some of the more drecky singer-songwriter and post-Pepper "concept" nonsense from the era. (Sorry, I'm straying a bit off topic here, aren't I?)
Bozo that I am, I didn't even realize that I am actually in possession of one of Shipper's "Pipeline" columns, from the October 1973 issue of Phonograph Record Magazine (a super-extravaganza N.Y. Dolls issue). This particular column is full of small gems, like his mentions of the Spencer Davis album entitled My Solo Career Bombed and I'm Just Barely Hanging On and the Allman Brothers track, "We Wanna Boogie With Us Blues" ("Was hoping to see it on the album but no such luck.") Based on this one column, you can almost trace his steps directly to Paperback Writer, with its barrage of made-up facts and fantasy scenarios. Great stuff.
From me to you,
From: Richard Riegel
Not too much more to add at this point, as we've covered many of the highlights of Paperback Writer, but I wanted to comment on your examples of the hostility the Beatles Myth tended to attract by the mid-'70s, with ridicule and hard questions from all sides. That was in the air then, and Mark Shipper's Paperback Writer certainly partakes of that zeitgeist. I began thinking that I'd gotten into the act too, by having written a negative review of John Lennon's Shaved Fish solo-greatest-hits compilation for Creem, but when I looked back at it now (March 1976 issue), I see that I liked the record as such, but created this long conceit as to how John was really "supremely cynical" about peace & love and all that because he always sang with a "beautiful sneer" in his voice, no matter what the lyrics said. Hmm... Would I have been less harsh toward John if I'd somehow known then that he'd be killed by a deranged fan five years hence? I dunno--I think all of us who'd lived the promise of the '60s were really hurt by the subsequent crashes, and that pain came out by the mid-'70s both in John Lennon acting a fool with a Kotex on his head, and in us writers taking potshots at him. Again, Mark Shipper had the "best last word" on that decade's Beatles, as my original review sez--and as we've noted, all of his jokes, no matter how barbed, seem to spring from a genuine love and understanding of the Beatles. Glad he did it.
All you need is luft,