Author interview: John Higgs on Love and Let Die

Love and Let Die is quite an undertaking, not only telling two concurrent and interconnected stories that span 60 years, but also putting those stories in their wider historical context and mentioning Freud, Putin, Vonnegut, Desmond Dekker and the Queen (to take just a small random sample) along the way. How did you decide what to put in and what to leave out? Was the book meticulously planned out or did it evolve as you wrote it?

The book is about seeing very familiar things in a new light, so the choice of what to put in and what to leave out was largely dependent on that. Most of the things that made it into the book are things that, I hope, help to show a new perspective or give new insights into a subject that we thought we already knew and understood. There is something very exciting in realising that there is more to the thing right under your nose than you realised. It is a reminder that even the most commonplace thing has its secrets to reveal.

And yes, the book absolutely evolved during writing, as they all do. I think if you knew what a book was going to be beforehand, there would be no point in writing it.

The Beatles must be the most written about band of all time, were you daunted by the weight of words already dedicated to them when you decided to write your own book about them?

Yes, definitely! I didn’t write about the Beatles for many years for that very reason. It wasn’t until I mentally put them alongside Bond and viewed them in that context that I felt I had a way to offer up something new. The great library of Beatle books has pretty much nailed down what happened, but there is still room to explore what it all means.

It helps that, because of the nature of the publishing industry, the perspective of the establishment subculture is massively overrepresented in what has previously been written. There’s still a great deal to talk about from outside that bubble.

The coincidental release of the first Beatles record and first Bond film on the same day is quite extraordinary. Do you have a personal favourite among the many surprising connections between Bond and The Beatles you unearthed in your research?

It’s obviously great that it was Ringo of all the people who ended up marrying a Bond Girl. I also like that Ian Fleming’s wife used to refer to him as ThunderBeatle. At the time of writing, rumours in the press claim Aaron Taylor-Johnson is the favourite to become the next Bond. If that came true that would be very pleasing, given his portrayal of John Lennon in Nowhere Boy.

The Beatles are endlessly fascinating, why do you think that is?

That’s a really good question – because they really are endlessly fascinating. With most subjects, there comes a time when you decide you know enough about it, and can move on. But with the Beatles, you never really reach that point – the more you know about them, the more interested you become. I suspect that it might have something to do with just how implausible it is that they could be that good, that popular, and have that big an impact. It doesn’t seem believable, sometimes, that all that actually happened.

Can you remember the first time you heard a Beatles song?

I can’t, and I don’t think many people can either. Their music is so prevalent in our culture that it’s always present – you’re absorbing it as a nipper. In that way it’s become the folk music of our age.

What’s your favourite Beatle song and why?

My favourite album is the White Album, but naming a favourite song is trickier. Part of the appeal of the Beatles is that there is so much good stuff, and it is so varied, that narrowing it down just seems wrong. If you were to force me to just say one, however, I think it would have to be A Day In The Life. That does feel like the pinnacle of their craft.

Who is the best Beatle?

It’s the chemistry between the four of them that matters, to me anyway. Focusing on any one takes away from that. It’s like asking which is your best limb.

Who is the best Bond?

I’m increasingly of the opinion that it is Daniel Craig. But with luck, the best will be the next guy!

What will be the subject of your next book?

I’m working on four different books at the moment, so my head is far too mangled and confused to try to answer that! I don’t advise anyone try this – one book at a time is more than enough.

Love and Let Die by John Higgs

LOVE AND LET DIE by John Higgs published by W&N available in Hardback, eBook and audio £22

Buy this book: Love and Let Die by John Higgs

Read an extract from Love and Let Die: 1965: Greater Than the Sum of Their Parts 

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Book extract: Love and Let Die by John Higgs

Love and Let Die by John Higgs

`1965: Greater Than the Sum of Their Parts 

For all their distinct personalities, the four Beatles were effectively a gestalt entity. This was one of the reasons why they so perfectly represented Eros, or the Freudian drive to lose your limited self and become part of something larger.

In the decades after the band split, much debate occurred about why they were so special, with the assumption being that the answer must lie with one of the four. In the seventies and eighties, many rock critics took the view that John Lennon was the special ingredient which explained the extraordinary impact of the Beatles. Thinking like this was entirely in keeping with the individualism of the second half of the twentieth century. But as a framework, individualism was always too limited a perspective to understand something as interesting as the Beatles. It was the combination of those four personalities which made the Beatles greater than the sum of their parts. They were, in occult terms, a combination of the four alchemical elements. Ringo was earth, John was fire, Paul was air and George was water. Combined, they produced the fifth, transcendent element: spirit. Or alternatively, Ringo had a big nose, George had big ears, Paul had big eyes and John was always a big mouth. As individuals these attributes may be unfortunate, but when they are combined you get the face of a giant.

And then Paul McCartney wrote ‘Yesterday’.

This is, of course, one of the most covered songs in history. The melody famously came to Cartney fully formed during a dream, a gift from his subconscious that would change his life forever. It elevated him from being part of his ‘good little rock ‘n’ roll band’ to becoming the author of the front page of the twentieth century’s songbook. Even half a century after it was written, it’s impossible to grow up in the West and not know this song. It hinted at the scale of the new territory that the Beatles would now occupy. But it also hinted at the cost.

Before ‘Yesterday’, the Beatles were a unit. Lennon and McCartney had previously written songs alone, without the insights and finishing touches of their partner. But this was the first solo song that didn’t need the other three Beatles. Instead, it was recorded in two takes with Paul alone, playing acoustic guitar and singing, and George Martin added a string quartet three days later. On the same day that McCartney recorded Yesterday’, the full band also recorded two more of Paul’s songs, the larynx shredding rocker ‘I’m Down’ and the acoustic folk rock ‘I’ve Just Seen a Face’ – an example not just of the phenomenal work rate that the band operated at, but the variety of styles of both singing and songwriting that McCartney was capable of.

The solo nature of the song clearly troubled the band; here was a situation that they had never had to deal with before. It is striking that, uncomfortable with such a solo effort being credited to the Beatles, they didn’t release the song as a single in the UK. It’s hard to imagine any other band writing a song as strong and commercial as ‘Yesterday’, then only using it as filler on the second side of a film soundtrack album.

What ‘Yesterday’ showed was that new horizons for the band’s music were imaginable. It was not that they had plateaued and were on the way down, it was more that they had barely started. If they were to reach those new artistic peaks it would require the four Beatles to grow and evolve as individuals. They could not remain loveable mop-tops forever. But if the four of them were to change in unexpected and unpredictable ways, then how could they be expected to fit together so neatly into the perfect unit that won the hearts of the world? The future was unparalleled creative growth, yet as the melancholic mood of ‘Yesterday’ realised, it would come at a cost.

‘Yesterday’ is a song about realising that something special has changed and wishing to go back in time to how things used to be. The Beatles were going to mature into four extraordinary individuals who would offer the world so much more than the pre-‘Yesterday’ Fab Four. For all four musicians, their greatest work was ahead of them. But there is a reason why many children fear growing up. The arrival of the future, after all, must mean the death of the past. To evolve and fulfil their potential would mean allowing fractures to grow in the best gang imaginable.

LOVE AND LET DIE by John Higgs published by W&N available in Hardback, eBook and audio £22

Buy this book: Love and Let Die by John Higgs

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