Shout! The True Story of the Beatles

During the period from 1980 to 1985 I was a die-hard Beatlemaniac. My high school years were spent discovering the music of a band that had broken up a decade ago. Not only did I buy a new album every two weeks after I got paid from my paper route, but I could also afford to buy Beatle books. I had lots of time while in high school to read these books, yet oddly I never read Shout! The True Story of the Beatles by Philip Norman until now–thirty years after I bought it. I do not know why I never read Shout! when I first got it; I’m glancing at all the other books I bought thirty years ago and I remember reading them. It must have slipped through the hole I was fixing. To make the situation sound even worse, I acquired two other editions of the same book. This was during a time when I would buy a reprint or an American or British edition merely if it had a different cover. You’d think that having three copies of the same book sitting on my shelf would have given me some inducement to read it.


My Corgi edition is a British printing. What is it about British paperbacks: they all seem to be printed in the most minuscule font. At 426 pages, this was a solid work which had pages with a hair’s width between lines and very narrow margins. It took me two and a half weeks to read Shout! That length of time is not a reflection on the quality of writing, however. Norman spent the first half of the book writing about the Beatles just prior to their American invasion in 1964. Within those first two hundred pages, he talked about the early lives of John Lennon and Paul McCartney from the times of their birth. George Harrison is introduced when he joins John and Paul in the Quarrymen. We meet Ringo Starr as a twenty-year-old, just before he joins the group by then known as the Beatles.  

Once I got into Shout!, I had a sense of déjà vu because I was certain I had come across these same passages somewhere else. I had: in other authors’ citations. It seems that many an author used this 1982 work as source material for their own projects. Shout! has been called one of the best Beatle biographies and it deserves this reputation: Norman interviewed the Beatles several times from 1965 on, but admits at the end of Shout! that he was not able to interview any of the Beatles in the two years he spent researching the book starting in 1978. Thus his quotes from the Beatles themselves are from the times of Beatlemania and not from the perspective of a man in his late thirties looking back. 

I enjoyed the stories about the Beatles’ times in Hamburg and the interviews Norman conducted with their club managers and close friends. Norman spent as much time writing about the Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein as he did with each individual Beatle. It was a fascinating story how Epstein learned about this Liverpool group apparently causing a commotion right under his nose, then finally how he won them over in spite of their doubts about all his promises of worldwide success. 

Norman writes that Epstein was hopelessly in love with John [1] and was attracted to him at first because of his rough, leather-clad appearance, mouthing off to the audience. Epstein was a refined, stereotypically gentle and dainty gay man who was attracted to rough sorts who would take great pleasure in bashing him around (as what happened a few times in his nocturnal sojourns around gay Liverpool). John knew of Epstein’s infatuation yet was not bothered by it. He even agreed to go on holiday with him to Spain. The only time I was annoyed while reading this book was that Norman did not follow up on this trip. He wrote about Epstein’s unrequited love for John over and over, and built it up to the point where the two go off on holiday together where Epstein would finally tell John his true feelings for him, yet Norman never referred to this holiday, or Epstein’s one-sided love affair with John Lennon ever again. 

Misspellings were an embarrassment in Shout! Aside from some words, proper names were misspelled: Adelai Stevenson, Roman Polansky (more than once) and, unbelievably, Linda MaCartney. This book may have been written before spell-checking programs but surely an editor would have caught a misspelling of McCartney.

The second two hundred pages were devoted to the Beatles’ invasion of the United States, the unbearable international tours they all dreaded, the Summer of Love and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the death of their manager Brian Epstein, the formation of Apple Records and the breakup of the band. A chapter for each but since Norman had access to the Beatles and their inner circle, the content was rich and can’t-put-down. When I first heard Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in its entirety I was fourteen years old and could not believe what I had just heard. This is no 20/20 hindsight reinterpretation; I fell in love with the Beatles at that moment. On that day, 16 May 1980, I wrote about it in my diary and that entry was reproduced in my blog post for 16 May 2011. Norman had me nodding with approval as I read the following paragraph: 

“Each decade brings but one or two authentically memorable moments. As a rule, only war, or some fearful tragedy, can penetrate the preoccupations of millions in the same moment to produce a single, concerted emotion. And yet, in June 1967, such an emotion arose, not from death or trepidation but from the playing of a gramophone record. There are, to this day, thousands of Britons and Americans who can describe exactly where they were and what they were doing at the moment they first listened to Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. That music, as powerfully as Kennedy’s assassination or the first moon landing, summons up an exact time and place, an emotion undimmed by time or ageing. The memory is the same to all–how they first drew the shining disc from its gaudy sleeve; how they could not believe it at first and had to play it all through again, over and over.” 

How true that first listen to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was to me. Norman wrote the Beatles’ song and album titles without quotation marks and not in italics, so it was hard to read them at times, not separated from the other text. Titles blended in with the other words. It was just plain annoying to see the Beatles’ album title written as Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, always with “Sergeant” spelled out in full. It is only used in abbreviated form on the actual sleeve and label.

Of the hundreds of Beatles biographies out there, only a handful deserve to be called must-reads. Shout! is strongest however when describing the Beatles’ earliest days in Liverpool and Hamburg. 

[1] I refer to each of the Beatles by his first name, but everyone else by surname, probably a holdover from my teen years when I would make frequent references to each of the Beatles in conversations with my friends.

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