Writer Steve Turner must have one of the best jobs in the world.
He gets to be creative every day, writing about things and people that interest him. He has the platform to put out his view of the world in poetry. He has had a film made about him. He gets to work with musicians he holds in high regard (and vice versa – in a Guardian article in 2006, his daughter wrote that Bono once gave her a hug and said, “I’m a big fan of your Dad”).
That gives a clue to one of Turner’s greatest attributes: he is respected by the best, because he tries to be the best. And he tries to be first class in the public arena, because he wants to write christianly.
His latest book Beatles ’66: The Revolutionary Year continues that approach. Having already written two books about the band’s lyrics and spirituality, is the fiftieth anniversary handle just a marketing tool that gives him an excuse to write more about them?
Turner explains that his reasons go deeper than that.
“1966 was a crucial year between Beatlemania and the more artistic, studio-based Beatles. You get both sides represented in that year, because it’s their final tour; it’s the year that John met Yoko; the ‘more-popular-than-Jesus’ controversy; George meeting Ravi Shankar and going to India. I thought, if you slowed the action down – a chapter per month – you’d really get an insight into who the Beatles were.”
But writing about it to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the events, could he be writing with memory honeyed by nostalgia and accuracy misted by time?
No. Turner considers this an ideal time, because, via the internet we can, “for example, access huge libraries of American Newspapers; university archives are online. Stuff that would have taken me a long, long time to do, you can now do at the touch of a button. A lot more books come out, so different people tell their stories. Even minor people who are in minor groups suddenly write their book and you get one good detail in there.”
“If I were to sit down and talk to Paul McCartney, I don’t think I’d get more out of him than I’ve got from talking to about fifty other people, because he’s told the stories so many times. He often gets things confused: he dates things wrongly and attributes things wrongly – which is to be expected really, because he’s been in that high pressure space for most of his life. As a writer, I’ve got time to reflect and digest stuff.
“I try talking to people who were around; for example, a woman called Erica, whose father was the Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago.
“Ringo and John went out there for a holiday and she met them. They went on a tour and had a meal. For her, that was a significant event, because she was young, at school, and they were the Beatles. But John and Ringo probably wouldn’t have remembered that in such detail because it was just another day in their mad life.
“It’s often the people standing at the back of the room with their eyes and ears open that you get the best stories from, rather than the person who’s in the centre of the action.”
As a teenager, Turner would travel by train from Northamptonshire to London to buy shirts in the boutiques where the Beatles bought theirs and to buy the books that they were reading. He knew the smell of the joss sticks and the clothes. “I was kind of imbibing this stuff,” he recalls, “and when Revolver came out it was like the aural equivalent of all this stuff that I was experiencing, all these changes.”
You have to wonder what he would have thought at the time, had someone told him that he would one day interview both John Lennon and Paul McCartney. (He has never interviewed George Harrison, “regrettably, because with my interests, he would have been an interesting person to do.”)
Although he found Lennon to be, “What you would expect,” the conversation was more surprising.
“We talked about Christianity specifically when I interviewed him. The conversation just turned in that direction, because he picked up a Jesus People newspaper, which had an open letter to John in the centre pages. He read it out to me and said, ‘What do you think of that?’ I presume he expected me to say, ‘Oh, what a load of rubbish.’ I picked up on it and said, ‘What do you think?’”
While Turner did not say whether the conversation happened after the famous 1966 comment about The Beatles being more famous than Jesus, Lennon explained his way of thinking to the writer.
Referring to the attention that he band received, with hysteria following them wherever they went in public, Lennon wondered whether (in Turner’s paraphrase), “There was all this kind of mythology around him, which built up over the years, just as this mythology about The Beatles built up over the years.”
Writing about an iconic band doesn’t just come from nowhere. It is a right to be earned, and he began that journey in the ‘sixties with his book Conversations with Eric Clapton. At the time, the guitarist was reclusive and did not give interviews. Although their original meeting was accidental, Clapton felt he could trust Turner, who was friends with the doctor who was treating his heroin addiction, Dr. Meg Patterson, and her husband George.
Turner popped round to their flat, to find Clapton sitting there. They chatted and Clapton opened up about his addiction and the state of his band Cream, and Turner was amazed at how candid he was being.
“I couldn’t believe what I was hearing really! I think he was in the early stages of euphoria after coming off the drug. His whole life changed. The girlfriend he was with then left and he linked up with Patti. He told me all this stuff and then he said, ‘If you want to quote me on any of this stuff, then feel free.’ I said, ‘Rather than quoting you from memory, wouldn’t it be better that we do a question-and-answer thing for Rolling Stone.’ He said, ‘Fine.’
“So a couple of days later, I started to interview him. We sat on George and Meg’s bed, then he came round to my flat in the West End and then I went down to his home in Surrey, and probably got half of what ended up as the book. But primarily, it became a front cover Rolling Stone interview.”
The interview eventually expanded to become a book. It was a huge coup, and one that set up his career, but not necessarily the most rewarding of his books to write.
“They were all satisfying in their own way. My biography of Cliff Richard was, because I’d never written anything that long. I interviewed over 300 people. I’d never done anything on that scale before. It was satisfying a) to do it and b) that it was a best-seller. It went into the Sunday Times top ten, sold 60-70,000 as hardback.
“I’m very satisfied with The Gospel According to the Beatles, because it really says everything I wanted to say about what The Beatles represented, but also about what rock and roll represents and what ‘60s culture was all about.
“And Beatles ’66, I’ve got a copy of it at my desk and I keep picking it up, looking at it, and feeling it.
“One guy, Steve Stockman, said, ‘I’ve always looked at The Beatles vertically, looking down with binoculars, if you like, but Steve’s given me a horizontal view.’ So I think he means, ‘He’s put me in the midst of what was going on’ – the midst of the period, the group, the culture – and that is one of the things I wanted to do. He put it in a way that I hadn’t thought about.”
Thinking partly of his kids, who often select music track-by-track, rather than buying whole albums, he adds, “There comes a point when they want to get a perspective on it and say, ‘Was “She Loves You” before “Let It Be” or after?’ They want to get it chronologically right, then look at the albums and the cohesion of the albums.
“With the book, I keep trying to bring in ‘This was on the cover of Time Magazine that week’ or ‘This was a law just being passed’. People forget that we only had a few motorways in 1966. Mostly when bands travelled, it was along A roads and you stopped at ‘greasy spoon’ transport cafes. I’m trying to evoke the period for a lot of people who didn’t live through it.
“I grew up with people, who, when we talk about Revolver, all know what we’re talking about, because we all had the same experience in the same year. But as you get older, you realise that there are generations who didn’t go through the same things and you’ve got to put it in perspective and give them a flavour, like when I used to ask my parents about the war.
“You can tell the story of the war by saying, ‘1943 this happened, 1944…’ but from your parents, you get the smells, the fears and the old letters, and all that stuff, which gives you more of the feel of the era.”
Turner is clearly hungry for detail, and he slips so much detail into his answers. It is as if he is offering me what he hopes his interviewees give him when researching. It is harder to guess whether the accuracy he strives for are an intrinsic part of him, or from the culture of excellence that he caught when a part of the same Arts Centre Group (ACG) that fed Cliff Richard in his early days of reconciling faith and arts.
It was the same group that led to him being filmed. A mentor there suggested sharing a flat with film director Norman Stone, who was then a student at the Royal College of Art. Stone’s idea of doing a film about Turner became his end-of-course project. Called Support your Local Poet, it was shown on TV.
To display his talent, Stone mixed film and cartoons, as well as using actors to voice some of the poems.
Turner recalls, “We had Vivian Stansall from the Bonzo Dog Band read one of them and Caroline Munro, who was a Bond girl, she acted one of the sequences. We had Deryck Guyler, who was an actor, read one. I think we approached Laurence Olivier, or somebody of that stature, who was up for it, but he wasn’t around. Because Norman was a student, a lot of people helped him out, who would not have helped him out if he was working for the Beeb or had some obvious money behind him.”
Turner began writing poetry in 1965, four years before his first article, but there were points where the two connect.
“I identified more with songwriters than poets at the time,” he says, “So I was more interested to talk to John Lennon, Pete Townshend 0r David Bowie about how they wrote their songs. I could identify with their method of writing, because it was so similar to the way I’d write my poems. I would perform my poems and I could relate that to how they performed on stage and the decisions they made.”
While his adult performance poetry gave way somewhat to children’s poetry as his family grew, that in turn took second place to his books.
Maybe reflecting a Lennon influence, Imagine (used in American colleges and just updated for America in January) is his vision for Christians in the arts. Readers of this book have written to Turner, telling him how the book articulates their own feelings or has affected their choice of career.
Of the more recent Popcultured, which encourages ordinary Christians to treat the culture around them with discernment, Turner says, “again, a lot of people found it helpful. But also, writing the book helps me think it through myself, because often life’s coming at you so fast you don’t have the time to think where something’s coming from. It can be a bit of a hard job, but you don’t want to just turn the TV on and let programme after programme wash over you and not think, ‘Where’s this coming from? Who’s involved? Who’s talking to me?’
“David Porter, who was a Christian who was good at writing about the media said, ‘Having a TV in your room is like having some partially-reformed alcoholic from up the street come in and sit in your living room every night. Sometimes they can be entertaining and another night, they might vomit on your carpet and swear.’ I think TV is a bit like that.”
Porter was another ACG member, and the group was highly influenced by the writings of work of Christian thinkers like Francis Schaeffer and Hans Rookmaaker. Much of their approach to working as a Christian in the arts is clearly seen in Popcultured, which includes chapters on cinema, TV, games, celebrity culture, fashion, comedy and journalism, and how to critique them biblically.
But in summing up his approach to writing as a Christian, Turner paraphrases C.S. Lewis: “We don’t need more Christians to write more tracts, we need more Christians to write about Philosophy or Geology or Medieval History, or whatever. I’m looking forward to the day when the best book on Physics is by a Christian, the best book on Medievalism is by a Christian.”
So it is as a comment on outworking his faith, rather than immodesty, when he adds, “Hopefully, some of the best books about the Beatles have been written by me.”
Beatles ’66: The Revolutionary Years is published in Hardback by Ecco.
PopCultured is published in paperback by IVP.
This is the Director’s Cut of separate interviews that appeared in The Church of England Newspaper in December 2016 and The Phantom Tollbooth e-zine in February 2017.