Saturday, March 8, 2014

The Fifth Beatle: Brian Epstein's Story Gets Its Due

“If anyone was the fifth Beatle, it was Brian.” Paul McCartney

In 1965, the Beatles went to Buckingham Palace to receive their MBEs from Queen Elizabeth II.  That’s Member of the British Empire for those of you who came in late.  It’s the first level of awards, and had traditionally been given to businessfolk and supporters of the monarchy.  But in 1965 it went to John, Paul, George and Ringo.  McCartney and Harrison quipped, “Yeah, MBE stands for Mr. Brian Epstein!”  Eppy was the businessman.  Scion of a well-to-do store owner in Liverpool, he had drifted from school to school and job to job before moving into the family business managing the NEMS (North East Music Stores) record shop on Great Charlotte Street.  He had hopes of a career in design or theatre, having studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts alongside Peter O’Toole and Susannah York.  It was at the record shop, however, that his career was made.

Legend has it that a young fan dropped in one day looking for ‘that new record from The Beatles.’  It wasn’t in stock, so Epstein ordered it thinking the group was from Germany.  It turned out the band was from Liverpool and they were playing not far from the store.  Epstein stopped by for a listen, and ended up managing the biggest group the world had ever seen.

Brian Epstein, in 1966.
The story of that moment has been told time and again, and the details never change.  In the months before Christmas 2013 at least three or four new books came out to tell the tale yet again.  But the story of Brian Epstein, manager, has only been told a couple of times, and never very artfully.  The first biography was Epstein’s own autobiography, ghosted by Promotional assistant Derek Taylor and published under the title A Cellarful of Noise. It’s a thin but not unappealing book based on Brian’s memories and Taylor’s gift for promotion.  It begins with this prologue:
At about three o’clock on Saturday, October 28th, 1961, an eighteen year-old-boy called Raymond Jones, wearing jeans and black leather jacket, walked into a record-store in Whitechapel, Liverpool, and said: ‘There’s a record I want. It’s “My Bonnie” and it was made in Germany. Have you got it?’ Behind the counter was Brian Epstein, twenty-seven, director of the store. He shook his head. ‘Who is the record by?’ he asked. ‘You won’t have heard of them,’ said Jones. ‘It’s by a group called The Beatles…’
And the rest is history as they say, and as we learned from John Ford, "when the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”  

Ray Coleman wrote the next biography in 1989 called Brian Epstein: The Man Who Made the Beatles.  Coleman added detail, and accuracy, but his book was dry.  Coleman was much better at detailing the lives of the stars, than that of the people behind the scenes.  Then in 2000 Deborah Geller published The Brian Epstein Story which fleshed out the details with pages from Epstein’s own ‘secret memoirs’.  The newest, most dramatic attempt at telling Brian’s story arrived just before Christmas in the form of an amazing graphic novel entitled The Fifth Beatle.

Pages from The Fifth Beatle,

This book is available in multiple formats: a standard edition with just the story; a deluxe edition with bonus pages, preliminary drawings, and some explanatory notes; and a super deluxe limited edition signed by author Vivek Tiwary and artists Andrew Robinson and Kyle Baker. I’m reading from the deluxe edition with all the content but no signatures. There are also e-editions for Kobo and Kindle readers.

The book looks extraordinary. It is printed on glossy, heavy paper and shows the brilliance of colour and line that is lost in newsprint comics. The art is superb, with the entire page used to tell the story and draw the reader in. These Beatles look like The Beatles. They are recognizable, but still drawings with a style and feel all their own. The style of drawing ranges from cartoony (based in part on the animated Beatles) to painterly portrayals. Colours are chosen to convey mood as well as to portray the swingin’ 60s era. And the story gives the reader all the details you need to understand the complex person who was Brian Epstein.

Tiwary introduces Epstein’s homosexuality from the first page, as he wanders dockside looking for some rough trade, only to be beaten up by a sailor. Interspersed with the violence are images of the four Beatles playing in the Cavern Club, in glorious black and white. A character named Moxie is introduced; a cute female assistant with a crush on her boss, Moxie is the link between the business world of the store and the happenings in the world outside Brian’s experience.

All the familiar stories are told: The Ed Sullivan Show, Brian’s vacation with John Lennon, and the Maharishi, in the free-flowing art of Messrs Robinson and Baker. As well, Tiwary’s text carefully outlines the thin line a gay man had to walk in 1960s England.

The script is also currently in development as a major motion picture to begin shooting this year under the direction of Peyton Reed. Tiwary will co-produce alongside Academy Award-winning producer Bruce Cohen (American Beauty). I can’t imagine that the film will be any more successful than the graphic novel though. This is an extraordinary piece of work, and one that gives weight to an important time in the lives of so many of us who grew up under the Mersey Beat sound and the influence of John, Paul, George, Ringo and…The Fifth Beatle.

David Kidney has reviewed for Green Man Review and Sleeping Hedgehog. He published the Rylander Quarterly (a Ry Cooder-based newsletter) for 8 years before turning it into a blog, at He works at McMaster University as Director of Learning Space Development and lives in Dundas, Ontario with his wife.    

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