'Dreaming the Beatles' Author Rob Sheffield On The Fab Four’s Unstoppable Pop
Dreaming the Beatles is one of the best books about the band ever written — and when you consider the volume of verbiage poured out for John, Paul, George, and Ringo over the past half-century, that’s saying a lot. But to understand the approach of author Rob Sheffield, just take a look at his past work, which includes not just book-length portraits of rock icons like David Bowie but heartfelt tributes to music-fandom staples like mixtapes and karaoke. John and George may be gone, and hell, rumor has it Paul is dead too, but what interests Sheffield are the countless ways in which the band is alive. More than 50 years after their debut, they're a pop-culture presence in everything from Rae Sremmurd’s “Black Beatles” to the "Blackbird" riff on Harry Styles's "Sweet Creature" to the copy of The Beatles: Rock Band you still play when you’re feeling fab.
“I wanted to read something about the Beatles that wasn’t about the ’60s,” Sheffield tells MTV News. “I wanted to write about the Beatles as something that also happened in the ’70s, and happened in the ’80s, and keeps happening now. The really weird and miraculous and beautiful thing about it is that it keeps happening.”
Over a long lunch at a New York restaurant — where, coincidentally, Paul McCartney’s first Wings album was playing in the background — I spoke with the best-selling writer and critic about The Beatles' living legacy, the debt they owed to the women in the audience and in their lives, their boundary-shattering approach to rock and pop, and why it’s hard to imagine Zayn Malik starting a band with Gigi Hadid, Plastic Ono Band–style. One, two, three, four!
MTV News: So many arguments about The Beatles, pro and con, center on their place in the rock canon. Dreaming the Beatles sidesteps that argument entirely. How?
Rob Sheffield: I wanted something that wasn’t about The Beatles as something that happened in this golden moment of the past, and all we could do is mourn that it ended and gaze upon it from afar. It makes sense that the Beatles were the most popular band of the ’60s. Somebody was going to be the biggest band of the ’60s, and if they weren’t, somebody else would have been. [But] the biggest band now? That’s strange. Their impact on kids, their impact on musicians in all corners of music — I wanted to get a little deeper into that. I was like, “Wait a minute, why hasn’t this been done?”
I grew up in the ’70s and ’80s and had three little sisters, and already it was comical to our parents that we wanted to listen to The Beatles. They would joke about it: “You know this band broke up, right? This band doesn’t exist.” They were still our favorite band! Now my sisters have kids who are toddlers and tweens, and I see my sisters have that same kind of bewilderment. Trying to get their kids to listen to Bruce Springsteen or R.E.M. is like taking them to church or something. With The Beatles, it’s just different.
Right. My 6-year-old daughter’s favorite music is Katy Perry, the Undertale soundtrack, and The Beatles.
Sheffield: That’s amazing! It’s interesting, what you said about sidestepping canonicity. [The canon] is such an interesting argument, but that wasn’t what I wanted the book to be about. It’s not like this is something beautiful that happened from 1962 to 1970 and ended. The fact that it’s still going on is the part that’s mystifying. And a little scary.
I wonder if that longevity has something to do with another key element of the book — that The Beatles were “a pop group” and “a rock band,” and you talk about them as both.
Sheffield: The fact that they play in both of those leagues is one of the really weird things about them. There’s something utopian about the way they float over that distinction. Their original concept of “rock and roll,” which is what they called it when they were just starting out — it’s amazing how expansive it was. They were really into playing blues, R&B, country, American rockabilly, corny cheesy show tunes, upscale New York professional-songcraft stuff like Goffin and King, girl-group stuff.
It was controversial, even at the time when they were playing in Liverpool. Paul has this funny story in his book about how the other Liverpool bands thought The Beatles were good at playing blues covers, and that it was lame that they wanted to play pop stuff. Mick Jagger was saying, “We were blues purists. We like pop stuff, but we would never do it onstage.” But [Motörhead singer and bassist] Lemmy talked about seeing The Beatles at the Cavern Club, and he was like, “That’s the most ferocious live band I’ve ever seen.” The idea of a 16-year-old Lemmy going to the Cavern for the lunchtime show, and all these office girls who are there with their hair in rollers, dancing around their handbags.
It’s funny that the definitions of rock and pop became more exclusive and narrow-minded since then. The Beatles were beyond that from the beginning. Their conception of rock and roll was so wide-ranging and so imaginative that there was something revolutionary about it. They would try playing anything new: Motown, Carl Perkins, The Music Man, all on the same record or in the same set. They were very self-consciously provocative about that. Even [girl groups like] the Marvelettes or the Shirelles or the Chiffons. [The Beatles] liked singing in that girl-group style of vocals together. Like, no, The Rolling Stones did not do that.
You make that point repeatedly in the book: Young women were an enormous influence on The Beatles, from the intense and ecstatic sound of the girl groups they covered and modeled themselves after, to the subjects of their songs, to the overwhelming energy of their live audiences. They loved dating girls, writing about girls, listening to girls sing, but they also loved that feedback from the audience that you could only get from these massive crowds of extremely excited young women.
Sheffield: That footage is amazing. Any footage of The Beatles performing, you're like, “No, let’s look at the audience again.” Paul has a great quote that he said to [Beatles historian] Mark Lewisohn in the ’80s where he explains, “When we started, we’re boys who are 19, and everybody in the crowd is girls who are 16, 17, so it’s really direct communication. That’s why a lot of our songs have she, her, you in the titles. We wanted it to be really clear to these girls that we were speaking to them, that we were noticing them.” He mentions “From Me to You,” which is one of my least favorite Beatles songs, but you can see why it meant something to them to have that as their statement in that kind of environment.
So much of their musical conception comes out of their awareness of being a small group of boys in a roomful of girls and addressing them and, to my ears anyway, talking about things that boys don’t ordinarily talk to each other about. A song like “She Loves You,” which I’ve been obsessed with since I was a little kid, fucked me up as a little kid. It fucks me up now! You would not hear two teenage boys having that conversation. If you did, it would be the weirdest thing, and you would say to people, “I heard these two boys on the train today, and one was saying, ‘Wow, you were really mean to that girl, you should apologize.’”
It goes back to John and Paul meeting each other as teenage boys who had this heartbreak [of losing their mothers at a young age] in common. They were both songwriters who brought these tremendously complex and powerful emotional statements out of each other. In those early songs, it’s really fun. I mentioned “She Loves You,” but also “If I Fell” is so musically, vocally, and verbally complex. The layers of confession in that song … and it’s not one boy singing alone. It’s a song that only exists as a harmony ballad; it requires the harmony for the story to be told, even though it’s an incredibly personal, intimate, vulnerable confession. It’s weird how many Beatles songs are like that. They’re built on the harmony, and it’s almost like the harmony gives them permission to go into scarier emotional areas.
In the outtakes for “Don’t Let Me Down,” they’re doing the session, and John’s telling Ringo, “Give me a big krrrsssshhhhh [cymbal hit]. Give me the courage to come screaming in.” That’s such a beautiful thing to say. So much of the whole band’s story is there in that line: “Give me the courage to come screaming in.” They were able to go to such intense emotional places because they gave each other that courage.
You also note that when they broke up, John and Paul both formed bands with their wives that they stayed in more or less for the rest of their lives. What other band of The Beatles’ magnitude would break up and do that?
Sheffield: That’s one of the things about The Beatles that, when you notice it, it’s really striking, but it’s easy not to notice it. They invented so much that became normal things that bands do, but no other band would do this, or could do this. Trying to imagine it happening now — Zayn’s not like, “Now I’m gonna marry Gigi Hadid and we’re going to have a band.”
I think a lot about ’60s rock in terms of gender, and in terms of how, in addition to the millions of other things it was, it was young men trying to come to terms with new ways of being men in response to women. The Beatles, being very independent and stubborn, were a lot more aggressive about going into those questions than other rock stars their age were.
John and Paul were both like, “We are going to be total partners with these women — who have no experience whatsoever in the field of pop music, let alone expertise — and even credit our songs jointly.” To go from singing about girls to forming creative partnerships with adult women. … When you look at Yoko Ono and Linda McCartney, they are both artists in a field other than music. They both had been married and divorced and had kids. And they were very tough-minded adults who were not at all intimidated or dazzled by the idea of dating a rock star.
Contrasting The Beatles with other male rock stars of their generation is baffling. John Lennon particularly talked a lot in the ’70s about how misogynistic he was in his youth, and talked about it publicly, in a way that was really weird for the time. It would still be really weird! For an adult male musician to treat his thirties as an ongoing struggle to purge himself of the sexism that he internalized and acted out in his teens and twenties — that’s something that still sets John Lennon apart: the ongoing struggle to look for a way to be an adult male that wasn’t tied in with the sexism that he felt beholden to as a youth. John and Paul were very interested in these questions, in looking for new ways to be men. “What are the freedoms that we’re going to pursue, in terms of ways to have relationships with women that are not repeating patterns of the past?”
You mentioned how they created the templates for so many things future artists do as a matter of course — like the sprawling double album.
Sheffield: Yeah. Everybody has their White Album. Something like The Life of Pablo, where Kanye was trying just way too hard to make it a White Album, and ended up making it not like The White Album at all.
A point you raise in the book is that even after mp3s and streaming services led everyone to believe the album was an endangered species, it’s now a bigger deal than ever. Artists like Kanye and Beyoncé and Drake and Taylor Swift pattern their careers after that Beatles mode of demonstrating a new statement of artistic and personal growth with every album.
Sheffield: It was just the one-year anniversary of Lemonade, which everybody was hearing at the same time, like we would in the past. That is something Beyoncé designed so we would have that listening experience. It’s like something to decode. The fact that Jay Z became very hard to find in photographs for the next few months? That’s the “Paul is dead” aspect of it. If you know how to listen right, you are going to get these clues. “Becky with the good hair” is like “the Walrus was Paul” — wait, all right, we’re supposed to know who this is, it should be really easy to figure out!
It’s funny: When I saw Paul McCartney live last summer, he was still doing “FourFiveSeconds.” I’m like, “Wow, I bet Kanye isn’t doing this song these days.” But he’s so proud of having a song with [Kanye and Rihanna]. That’s an aspect of being a musician — the really contagious enthusiasm he brings to it. It cracks me up that he’s someone who, with all the different changes that he’s gone through in his time as a pop star, has never been the guy who’s like, “Yeah, things were better in the ’60s,” or “Kids today don’t know what they’re missing.” He’s never had that phase.
There was that hilarious story that everybody heard a couple years ago about Tyga’s Grammys after-party: Paul couldn’t get in because he didn’t have a wristband, and security didn’t recognize him. That was funny in itself, but also, part of me was like, “He really wanted to go to that after-party!” He’s Paul McCartney. He’s really excited about the right-now-ness of pop music, and that’s something that he’s never faked.
Whether it’s little kids rocking out to their parents’ Beatles records, or Paul working with modern-day pop superstars, I’m reminded of my favorite line in the book: “Interesting as the inside story is, I’m always more fascinated by the outside story — not where the songs came from, but where they went, and how they live on in the world they helped create.”
Sheffield: I do feel that way. The journey that the songs have taken from where they started out — that’s the really interesting part to me. All the roads they’ve traveled since they were released, in ways The Beatles certainly couldn’t have predicted. Even if fall-of-1975-Bowie levels of cocaine-induced egomania had descended upon them, they still would not have been able to delude themselves that these songs would travel through time the way that they have. You can empathize with how humbling that must have been for them, even for John, who died so young. They all lived to see the songs get away from them, to the point where they just had to surrender. They weren’t capable of commanding these songs.