Book Review: When They Were Boys by Larry Kane

Larry Kane’s newest book about The Beatles, When They Were Boys, boasts that it tells the “true” story of the group’s rise to the top. At one point in the narrative, however, Kane notes that “foggy memories and omission” make the “real truth elusive.”

Kane, a reporter who accompanied the Beatles on their North American tours in 1964, 1965, and part of 1966, has previously published two books about The Beatles and his experiences with them, Ticket to Ride and Lennon Revealed. I remember these books as being insightful and informative; When They Were Boys sadly is not.

There are two main problems with When They Were Boys: style and content. The writing style is grating and infuriating. The content is primarily superficial, full of empty and unfounded statements, and even some glaring inaccuracies.

First and foremost, it should be noted that this book is not so much about The Beatles as it is about the people who helped The Beatles rise to the top. Having read countless books about the band, there are many stories of many people I had not heard before found in this book. It is the manner in which these stories are told, however, that I find difficult to swallow.

For example, when Kane is discussing the real reason John, Paul, and George decided to eject Pete Best from the band, Kane states that, as with the rest of the Beatles’ story, the truth is dependent upon whom you speak with. And yet, Kane’s entire book seems to be based on constructing the “truth” around one person’s (who has been underrepresented or completely ignored by Beatles historians and biographers in the past) versions of events.

An example of this is when Kane details how The Beatles’ famous hairstyle was born and brings a new source to light: a childhood friend of Brian Epstein’s, Joe Flannery, claims the source of their hairstyle was found in a 1920s photograph of his mother and that John Lennon picked up this photograph of his mother and declared, “That’s the way I want my hair to look.” Furthermore, according to Flannery, Epstein took the Beatles to a barber shop and had the cut created, using the photograph as a reference and inspiration.



I repeat: REALLY?

Because let’s look at a picture of The Beatles, reported to be taken at The Cavern in November 1961 by the great and reliable Mark Lewisohn (who has a new Beatles book out in a few weeks!!):


Epstein reportedly saw The Beatles at The Cavern for the first time on 9 November 1961. They would have been sporting this haircut. So…how did the Beatles visit the home of Brian Epstein’s friend and get this haircut weeks later? THEY DIDN’T. It’s one thing to listen to the guy’s story, but why bother printing it?

This is not the only inaccuracy found in the book. Kane cites Klaus Voorman as designing the album cover for Rubber Soul. He reports Yoko Ono as saying that when she met Lennon’s Aunt Mimi for the first time his Uncle George was sitting in the corner, not saying much. He wouldn’t have been saying much because he would have been dead for about two decades by the time Ono could have possibly met Aunt Mimi. At one point he describes Ringo as having a “sullen demeanor” throughout the Beatles’ career.

The most frustrating aspect of the book is Kane’s writing style and organization, or lack thereof. There is a lack of a flowing, coherent narrative. Each chapter of the book focuses on an individual or event of the Beatles story–Stuart Sutcliffe or their first trip to Hamburg or The Beatles’ topping the poll as most popular group in Mersey Beat. It would have been a smoother read if Kane had organized the story chronologically, inserting characters as they became relevant. Instead, we only get part of the story part of the time.

Kane also feels the need to insert his name into the story as often as possible. When quoting an interview, Kane is careful to not remove a single mention of his name. “Let me tell you, Larry…” “The truth is, Larry…” “Larry, you know…” This is unnecessary and annoying, as is his penchant for bestowing dumb nicknames upon key players in the story. For example, he calls Lennon “The Milkman” and Sam Leach, a promoter instrumental in the Beatles’ early career, “The Prince of Matthew Street.” He repeats these nicknames frequently, as if they are so memorable and true that they should automatically be ingrained into our brains, just as he repeats pieces of information. I lost count of how many times Kane told us about The Chants, a black group from Liverpool, and how The Beatles helped them in breaking racial barriers. He reminds of his every time he mentions The Chants or any member of The Chants. Got it the first time, dude.

When They Were Boys is dedicated to highlighting individuals not as well-known in the history of The Beatles, and Kane seems to take pleasure in criticizing every other book about The Beatles that does not do the same. He describes The Beatles Anthology as being biased. Well…how many interview subjects are 1000% objective? Interview subjects–including those interviewed for When They Were Boys–tell their remembrances, their perceptions, their opinions. That doesn’t make it completely true or accurate. The Beatles Anthology is The Beatles telling their story in their words. And shame on them for not remembering every single person in Liverpool who helped them in some way! Give me a break.

And why does Kane feel the need to repeatedly bring up May Pang and how she is underrepresented in Beatles history? May Pang is not even a player in the early history of The Beatles, so why mention it? Nobody knows. While Kane laments the lack of attention paid to May Pang and her relationship with John Lennon in Beatles history, he fails to make the characters actually relevant in the early history of the Beatles full and real. He describes Lennon’s Uncle George as an “unsung hero” in Lennon’s life, yet he tells us absolutely nothing about him. Forget telling us anything new about Uncle George, his relationship with Lennon, and the importance of his presence in young Lennon’s life–he simply tells us NOTHING. Except that he sat in the corner, silent, when Yoko Ono met Aunt Mimi for the first time, of course. He continually tells us how important Pete Best was to the Beatles, but he doesn’t show us. He informs us that Best was an adequate drummer, popular with the girls, and his mother owned The Casbah Club, but that’s about it.

I could go on and on, but the point is When They Were Boys is a disappointing book, and I expected so much better from Larry Kane.

Can’t wait for Mark Lewisohn’s Tune In, the first in a new trilogy about the Fab Four, to be released on October 29!

Five Favorites I Would Induct into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

In 2006, it was announced that the Sex Pistols would be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In response, John Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten) faxed a handwritten letter to the institution, politely declining the honor. He described the hall of fame as a “piss stain” and “urine in wine”, and he also raised some legitimate criticisms of the institution–the fact that it is a non-profit organization lacking transparency as to where exactly its funds go (you have to exit the actual museum via the gift shop, y’know), the anonymity of the nominating committee, and the vagueness of their criteria. It is a great letter, full of sneering Rotten-isms and grammatical errors, and it addresses many of the things I dislike about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

But most of the time I don’t care about the Rock and Roll of Fame, whom it inducts and whom it snubs. Except last night the 2013 induction ceremony was on television. It was vapid and tasteless, and it reminded me of all the things I hate about the Hall of Fame–its elitism, its inconsistency, its unpredictability. Why are some genres (er, prog rock) so underrepresented? Why is a performer’s induction so dependent upon commercial success in the United States? And why oh why is Randy Newman an inductee but not the Zombies? Odessey and Oracle, hello! It’s not rocket science, people.

The value and meaning of an artist’s music isn’t found for me in recognition from a board of anonymous weenies. A band or artist is going to mean the same to me whether they’re in the Hall of Fame or not. But because I’m in a contradictory sort of mood, let’s discuss five (out of many) of my favorite artists currently eligible for induction that I think deserve a spot in the Hall of the Fame.

 5. Pulp


Eligible Since: 2008
Nominated In: Never
Essential Albums: His ‘n’ Hers (1994), Different Class (1995), This Is Hardcore (1998)

Pulp was a band that was always slightly out of step with the rest of the world. Fifteen-year-old Jarvis Cocker formed the band in 1978, they released their first record in 1983, and, after many lineup changes but with Cocker still at the forefront, they finally achieved mainstream success with 1995’s Different Class–in the UK, at least. And that, more than anything, is what is  going to bar their entrance into the Hall of Fame. Because, you see, a band has to have HUGE SUCCESS in the United States to have any credibility for the Hall of Fame. It’s ridiculous. It’s especially ridiculous in the case of Pulp because Jarvis Cocker is one of the greatest songwriters and lyricists. He writes about the mundane, the seedy, and the misfits with warmth and disgust and humor and the keenest details. There is no one in the world like him, and I was intent on marrying him all through college.

Actually, I still would.

Britpop is one of those genres and musical movements that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is probably going to ignore as long as possible. Which is stupid as it produced some of the best music of the 1990s.

4. The Monkees


“I got a chandelier!”

Eligible Since: 1991
Nominated In: NEVER!!
Essential Albums: The Monkees (1966), More of the Monkees (1967), Headquarters (1967), Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn, & Jones Ltd. (1967). Also you have to watch both seasons of their television show because it is fun, funny, zany, and did I mention FUN? Also John Lennon watched it and loved it.

The Monkees are a tricky one. There’s still some confusion as to whether they were a real band because apparently all those albums they made without Don Kirshner playing puppet master isn’t enough proof. Yes, they were initially a manufactured band, but they went on to write and perform their own material. And even when they weren’t writing and playing ALL the instruments on those first two albums, they were still, you know, singing. Other groups used session musicians and performed the work of other songwriters. Other groups who are currently in the Hall of Fame. So, what’s the deal, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? Oh yeah, I forgot, y’all are elitist wieners. The Monkees had some great songs, written for them and by them, and they are a unique cultural phenomenon.

3. The Smiths


Eligible Since: 2008
Nominated In: Never
Essential Albums: The Smiths (1984), Meat Is Murder (1985), The Queen Is Dead (1986), Strangeways, Here We Come (1987)

Johnny Marr’s guitar playing. Morrissey’s morose, biting, hilarious lyrics, sung somberly and gloomily as only Morrissey can. Does a more perfect musical marriage exist? Nope. Their influence is palpable, and the fact that all of their studio albums (and you also have to listen to the singles compilations, of course!) are essential listening speaks volumes.

But in order for Morrissey to attend the ceremony (which would be a major long shot anyway), there would probably have to be no meat within 50 miles of the venue because, you know, meat is murder, and he does not tolerate your alternate views.

2. T. Rex


Eligible Since: 1993
Nominated In: NEVER!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Essential Albums: Electric Warrior (1971), The Slider (1972). I also really love Futuristic Dragon (1976), but, y’know, it ain’t for everyone.

I had forgotten that T. Rex has never been inducted–or even nominated!–into the Hall of Fame, and I suddenly got very, very, very mad because that is absolutely ridiculous. Bolan (the man I wanted to marry before Jarvis, sigh) and T. Rex may have not had been able to sustain the same level of commercial success as their contemporary David Bowie but their influence is incredible. My suspicion is that the Hall of Fame is wary of inducting them because they are so closely linked with “glam” rock, although Bolan did experiment with other genres (soul and R&B, notably), and that’s embarrassing for some reason. Fact is, Bolan wrote some great rock ‘n’ roll songs. Some of the best. Summer is heaven in ’77! 

“I can’t cleverly theorize about Marc,” Morrissey once wrote. “I just loved him.” Me too, Mozzer. Me too.

1. The Jam 

Photo of Rick BUCKLER and JAM and Bruce FOXTON and Paul WELLER

Eligible Since: 2002
Nominated In: Never, because, once again, the nominating committee are actually shareholders in Oscar Mayer. (Translation: They’re WEENIES!!)
Essential Albums: In the City (1977), All Mod Cons (1978), Setting Sons (1979), Sound Affects (1980), The Gift (1982). I just listed all of their studio albums, save one. OOPS!!

In case I haven’t made it clear here before…I worship Paul Weller. I mean, I really have it bad for this guy. I think he is the world’s most wonderful human being and a stunning lyricist and songwriter with unquenchable passion for and belief in what he does. And wham bam, long live The Jam! I would induct Weller into the Hall of Fame in all of his incarnations–with The Jam, The Style Council, and as a solo artist, but The Jam probably holds the most value as far as influence and a solid, cohesive body of work. It still blows my mind that the group produced six albums in five years, with so many great songs, and they broke up at their commercial and critical peak. What guts 24-year-old Paul Weller had! Love that guy. But The Jam never really achieved any kind of success in the United States, which is commonly explained by their being “too British.” (And the Kinks were…?) Yes, because the stream of images painted in “That’s Entertainment” are only relatable and vivid if you are British: “Two lovers kissing amongst the scream of midnight/Two lovers missing the tranquillity of solitude/Getting a cab and travelling on buses/Reading the graffiti about slashed seat affairs/I say that’s entertainment, that’s entertainment.”

Name me a songwriter in the hall of fame who can write lyrics like THAT. I can probably count ’em on one hand.