Larry Kane's 'When They Were Boys': Meet the Beatles

His latest book on The Beatles probes their roots in Liverpool and Germany in the late 1950s

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Larry Kane, the future dean of Philadelphia news anchors, was the 21-year-old news director of Miami's WFUN radio in 1964, when he became an embedded reporter on tour with the Beatles. His reports of their 1964-65 U.S. tours were syndicated to more than 40 stations, an experience that gave him a close-up perspective on Beatlemania's peak years.

Mr. Kane's connections with all four and their inner circle continued long after the 1970 breakup. He chronicled those two years in the excellent 2003 memoir "Ticket to Ride," which offered great insights into the Beatles' individual talents, foibles and humanity. He followed it with 2005's "Lennon Revealed," exploring John Lennon's life.


By Larry Kane
Running Press ($24.95).

Over time, the Beatles' stature as a musical, cultural and historical phenomenon has only grown. For years, most books about the group were superficial and fan-oriented until serious historians such as Allan Kozinn, Mark Lewisohn and others raised the bar for Beatles scholarship.

In that context, "When They Were Boys" makes perfect sense, probing the group's roots in Liverpool and Germany in the late 1950s. It ends as they explode on the American pop scene in 1964.

Mr. Kane interviews and profiles individuals, most in Britain and Germany, involved with the band in the early days. He allows all to have their say, letting the reader judge their veracity. Some are well-known to Beatles fans and historians.

Bill Harry, founder of the Liverpool fan tabloid Mersey Beat, covered the group when they were a local attraction. Sam Leach promoted their early gigs. Freda Kelly was Beatles manager Brian Epstein's secretary; Derek Taylor and Tony Barrow were the group's early publicists.

Mr. Kane interweaves these newer accounts with quotes from his '60s interviews and post-breakup chats with ex-Beatles and those in their entourage. He correctly notes that many he spoke with are "mere footnotes in the [Beatles'] own history." That, however, may be changing.

Ms. Kelly is the subject of the new Kickstarter-funded documentary "Good Ol' Freda." The book's strengths include fascinating discussions of the band's beginnings as a skiffle group, the Quarrymen, and their time playing sleazy dives in Hamburg.

George Harrison's sister Louise, a St. Louis resident in 1963, recalls her zeal to help the boys establish an American foothold, doggedly funneling data on the U.S. market to Epstein in Britain before they ever set foot here.

Unfortunately, Mr. Kane's egalitarian interview approach sometimes trips him up. Allowing individuals to expound without perspective or context sometimes results in a rambling narrative, hobbled by quickly shifting perspectives and occasional editorial glitches. Individuals identified in previous chapters are often totally re-introduced.

He discusses Epstein's homosexuality with great sensitivity and Lennon's drunken, brutal 1963 assault on his friend, Cavern Club disc jockey Bob Wooler, at Paul McCartney's 20th birthday party. Unfortunately, he never mentions what sparked Lennon's rage: Wooler's mocking, homophobic remarks about a recent Lennon-Epstein vacation trip.

This lack of critical scrutiny results in occasional accuracy issues. Of her first meeting with Mimi Smith, Lennon's "Aunt Mimi," at her Liverpool home in the late '60s, Yoko Ono noted Smith's husband George "was in a corner like no one could see him." Indeed. George Smith died in 1955; his wife never remarried.

The author digs into the band's controversial, poorly managed 1962 firing of original drummer Pete Best in favor of Ringo Starr. Relying largely on the Best family's perspective, he offers hints that Mr. Best's band mates resented his onstage charisma and quotes others -- including Mr. McCartney -- lauding Mr. Best's percussion skills.

While showing respect and affection for Mr. Starr, Mr. Kane overlooks a pivotal, established fact: the three who knew best, Lennon, Harrison and Mr. McCartney, considered Mr. Starr a far better musical and personal fit. History has vindicated that judgment many times over. Mr. Best's drumming rocked; Mr. Starr could rock and roll, and that made all the difference.

Mr. Kane has journalistic skills beyond debate. "Ticket to Ride" remains an essential first-person memoir. Historiography, however, requires a vastly different approach. "When They Were Boys" contains few stunning revelations, many of them synthesized elsewhere with greater panache. He can be proud of his Beatles connections and scholarship, but the results here don't always measure up.


Rich Kienzle blogs about music for the Post-Gazette at "Get Rhythm." First Published October 12, 2013 8:00 PM


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