An exhaustive and exhausting look at the Fab Four’s impact on the Soviet Union.
British documentarian Woodhead (My Life as a Spy, 2005, etc.) was on the Beatles’ story early: He shot historic footage of the band at Liverpool’s Cavern Club in 1962. Also a minor Cold War–era spy, the author spent more than three decades researching the group’s impact on the Soviet psyche. His early chapters recount the Stalin regime’s ambivalent, ultimately repressive relationship with jazz; saxophones were actually banned by the despot. The rise of the Beatles led to a vast underground market for the Beatles’ music behind the Iron Curtain: Fans etched the quartet’s banned music on X-ray film, traded clandestine reel-to-reel tapes and fashioned electric guitars with parts from gutted pay phones. Woodhead charts the rise of the Soviet Union’s rock underground via interviews with Russian rockers and delineates the people’s mania for the Beatles through conversations with promoters and an obsessive collector, Kolya Vasin. The band became an aboveground presence after the collapse of Communism, as Mikhail Gorbachev’s regime embraced the group; a highlight is a detailed account of an emotionally charged 2008 Paul McCartney concert in Kiev. There’s other fine on-the-ground reporting here, as Woodhead looks in on a show by a Beatles-punk band, a John Lennon birthday salute and a Russian recreation of the Cavern. However, by the later pages, the testimony about the social, cultural and political changes wrought from Moscow to Minsk by the group’s music becomes repetitive. By the midpoint, readers well understand that the Beatles’ tuneful message of life, love and freedom helped engender a liberated mindset that in some ways facilitated the toppling of the communist state. But Woodhead wears out his point by hammering it home relentlessly.
An imperfect but worthwhile addition to the Beatles bookshelf.