Rock and Roll Book Club: Peter Asher's 'Beatles from A to Zed'


Peter Asher's 'The Beatles from A to Zed.'
Peter Asher's 'The Beatles from A to Zed: An Alphabetical Mystery Tour.' (Jay Gabler/MPR)

Recently, a friend of mine posed a question: if you were booking a cover band for your wedding, which band would they cover? After thinking about it for a few minutes, I said the Beatles.

"Well," he replied, "that's just cheating!"

It's true: the Beatles wrote and recorded so many classic songs, in so many different styles, that any Beatles cover band would almost have to function as more than one band. That leaves plenty of room for books about the Beatles; previously on the Rock and Roll Book Club, we've covered a collection of essays, a book on the Beatles-versus-Stones rivalry, and a graphic history of the band.

The Beatles from A to Zed: An Alphabetical Mystery Tour (buy now) isn't a Beatles dictionary (there's already one of those), a Beatles encyclopedia (there are at least five of those), or a song-by-song guide (there are at least six of those). Author Peter Asher doesn't try too hard to justify his new book's existence, because he doesn't really have to: he's Peter Asher.

If there's not much new to learn about the Beatles in the book's modest 250 pages, there's a lot to learn about Asher and his role in the band's life. He's perhaps best-known to music fans as the Peter in Peter and Gordon: one of the signature bands of the British Invasion, with ten Top 40 hits including the chart-topping "A World Without Love" (1964), a song Paul McCartney wrote and gave away because John Lennon vetoed it as a Beatles number. In the book, Asher remembers pointing out to McCartney that the original version didn't have a bridge; the songwriter whipped one out in eight minutes, and Asher has the handwritten lyrics with chords to prove it.

Asher's also known as a producer who's helmed hit records for James Taylor (Sweet Baby James), Linda Ronstadt (Heart Like a Wheel), 10,000 Maniacs (In My Tribe), Cher (Heart of Stone), and Neil Diamond (Christmas Album). He was the first head of A&R for Apple Records, signing artists like Taylor and Badfinger. As he describes in the book, the Beatles were ironically never actually signed to their own label: they put apples on their records for branding purposes, but contractually they were still signed to EMI.

Asher was also a personal friend of the Beatles, in particular of McCartney, who dated Asher's sister for a few years and spent time living in the family's London home; the author remembers hearing songs like "The Fool on the Hill" for the first time on the house's grand piano, where McCartney would try them out. McCartney literally helped build the shelves when Asher opened a bookstore and gallery that became the site of a 1966 Yoko Ono exhibit where she and John Lennon met for the first time.

So, the man's got cred. He dispenses nuggets of knowledge on his Sirius XM show From Me to You, and "dispenses nuggets of knowledge" is a pretty fair description of what he does in The Beatles from A to Zed. (He asks American readers to bear with him regarding the British pronunciation of the last letter in the alphabet, although "I'm bilingual myself.")

Essentially, here's how the book works. For each letter of the alphabet, Asher spends several pages musing on songs, people, instruments, and anything else vaguely related to the Beatles that begin with that letter. That's it. An essential read? Certainly not, but if you're a Beatles fan you might enjoy keeping it on your nightstand and knocking off a letter a day.

You can start anywhere, but may as well start at A. A is for "All My Loving" (a Paul song, with rhythm guitar by John and lead by George), "Across the Universe" (Peter loves Eddie Izzard's cover of "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!" in the Julie Taymor movie), and Alex — as in Magic Alex, "a close friend of the Beatles and certainly a relevant part of our letter A, but not (I am sorry to say) actually magic!"

A is also for Abbey Road, and here Asher dives a little deeper. He points out that the studio was converted from a townhouse to a studio in 1931, opened by composer Edward Elgar, and wasn't officially known as Abbey Road Studios — it was simply EMI Studios — until 1970. Asher's full of little tidbits about songs like "Something," which shares a title phrase with the earlier James Taylor song "Something in the Way She Moves"; Taylor wasn't sure whether George Harrison deliberately borrowed the phrase, but he told Asher that if Harrison did, it would only be fair since Taylor borrowed the phrase "I feel fine," for that very song, from the earlier Beatles cut.

Go ahead, pick another letter. M? That's for Magical Mystery Tour, with Asher informing us that "mystery tours" were vacation town excursions where you paid your fare and then let the bus drive you wherever the guide wanted to go. It also stands for "Michelle" (Asher's French-educated mother helped McCartney with his pronunciation), "Martha My Dear" (not about a woman, but a sheepdog), and "My Sweet Lord," the George Harrison solo hit that sounded infamously similar to the Chiffons' "He's So Fine." Asher agrees that Harrison certainly knew the earlier song, but whatever. "In the final analysis George's is the better song for sure."

The author's breezy tone is generally appealing, although sometimes he could stand to let the cold winds of reality blow a little more bracingly. Phil Spector pops up in the P chapter (why not S? don't ask), where Asher recalls that the sometime Beatles collaborator showed up with an armed posse backstage at a Linda Ronstadt concert while Asher was managing her, forcing the singer to hide in her dressing room. "But anyway, apart from that (and the fact that he eventually did murder someone), he was a nice enough chap, I guess."

Asher has to stretch a bit when he gets to the more obscure regions of the alphabet, but even for Q he fills eight pages writing about the Quarrymen (the proto-Beatles skiffle group), "Queenie Eye" (the 2013 McCartney tune that's the only song by the Beatles or any solo Beatle to start with Q), and the concept of a quartet — which describes the Beatles but does not, contrary to Asher's assertion, describe the number of players in a performance of Vivaldi's Four Seasons. It does describe the string accompaniment on "Yesterday," a song McCartney apparently wrote at the Asher family home and had to ask the author's mother whether she recognized the tune, since it was so compelling that McCartney thought he must be remembering it from somewhere.

I found Harrison's "Got My Mind Set On You" ("written by Rudy Clark and first recorded by James Ray") under G, and there I also learned that "Got to Get You Into My Life" is most definitely about marijuana. "Helter Skelter" is under H, with no mention of Charles Manson but a nice photo of a helter-skelter fairground ride, which looks like a lighthouse with a slide spiraling around the exterior. Turn to O, and you can read about "Octopus's Garden," complete with a paragraph-long description of what an actual octopus's garden is ("a little fence" made of shells and bits of glass) and then a full paragraph on the octopus's once-in-a-lifetime but "frenzied and violent" sex life.

"I didn't mean to get you too worked up with all this octopus sex talk," writes Asher. "But now you know what really goes on in the garden!" See, this is why we needed another Beatles book.

The Current's The Beatles from A to Zed giveaway

Use this form to enter The Current's The Beatles from A to Zed giveaway between 7:45 a.m. Central on Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2020 and 11:59 p.m. Central on Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2020.

One (1) winner will receive one (1) hardcover copy of the book The Beatles from A to Zed: An Alphabetical Mystery Tour. Three (3) back up names will be drawn.

Prize retail value: $27.00

Winners will be notified via e-mail on Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2020. Winner must accept by 10 a.m. Central on Thursday, Feb. 13, 2020.

This giveaway is subject to Minnesota Public Radio's 2020 Official Giveaway Rules.

You must be 13 or older to submit any information to American Public Media. The personally identifying information you provide will not be sold, shared, or used for purposes other than to communicate with you about American Public Media programs. See Minnesota Public Radio Terms of Use and Privacy policy.

Upcoming Rock and Roll Book Club picks

Tune in to The Current at 8:30 a.m. (Central) every Wednesday morning to hear Jay Gabler and Jill Riley talk about a new book. Also, find Jay's reviews online.

Feb. 12: Time is Tight: My Life, Note by Note by Booker T. Jones (buy now)

Feb. 19: London, Reign Over Me: How England's Capital Built Classic Rock by Stephen Tow (buy now)

Feb. 26: God Save the Queens: The Essential History of Women in Hip-Hop by Kathy Iandoli (buy now)

March 4: Closing Time: Saloons, Taverns, Dives, and Watering Holes of the Twin Cities by Bill Lindeke and Andy Sturdevant (buy now)

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