This bibliographic essay first appeared in the May 2016 issue of Choice (volume 53 | number 9).
The Beatles redefined popular music. Between 1962 and 1970, they released thirteen albums and twenty singles. They are the most popular, critically respected, and influential band to ever enter the recording studio. Forty-five years after their breakup, millions of Beatles albums and tracks are sold via iTunes. Though the Beatles built on the output of their heroes (notably Elvis, Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, the Everly Brothers, and Carl Perkins), creating music that had elements of rock, pop, blues, folk, jazz, and Motown, the sound the Beatles created was entirely original. Their influence on musicians who have recorded after them is staggering.
If the Beatles were an extraordinary group, they also lived and recorded during extraordinary times. Nearly every discussion of the quartet touches in some way on the 1960s, the turbulent decade with which they have become so closely associated. As Aaron Copland (among others) is reported to have written, “If you want to understand the sixties, play the music of the Beatles.” At the heart of much of the literature on the Beatles lies an interest in what made their times so special.
Before the Beatles, rock scholarship was in its infancy. But the impact of the Beatles was such that journalists and musicologists—not to mention sociologists and psychologists—began examining the lives and music of the Beatles, both as individuals and as a group, attention theretofore rarely granted to popular musicians. Even today rock scholarship remains an immature field, and its skillful practitioners are few. This is hardly surprising. One need only consider the quip that “writing about music is like dancing about architecture” (variously attributed to Elvis Costello, Frank Zappa, and Michael Mull, among others). But this has not stopped many from trying to write about music, and books about the Beatles number in the thousands. Not surprisingly, the vast majority of these are directed at fans, not scholars. Such works are often entertaining and sometimes well crafted, but most of them lie outside the scope of this essay. Titles discussed here are the best and most useful resources—books, DVDs, films, websites—on the Beatles. The writers and creators of these works represent a range of disciplines, and their approaches to analyzing the group vary greatly.
Courses on the history of rock ‘n’ roll are now part of most every undergraduate curriculum, and over the last twenty years faculty at dozens of colleges and universities in the United States and Europe have created entire courses devoted to the Fab Four. This essay evaluates materials instructors and students may find beneficial in their study of all things John, Paul, George, and Ringo. It further serves as a guide to collection development librarians looking to identify relevant materials on the Beatles.
The essay is divided into seven main sections. The first, and longest, covers biographies of the band, the individual Beatles, and their inner circle. The remaining sections discuss works on the group’s music and lyrics; their recordings, albums, and business; the Beatles as phenomenon; the solo Beatles; reference works and general collections; and films, DVDs, and websites.
Paul Jenkins is director of library services at Mount St. Joseph University, Cincinnati, Ohio, where he also teaches a course on the Beatles