Living the Beatles Legend: The Untold Story of Mal Evans
- By Kenneth Womack
- Dey Street Books
- 592 pp.
- Reviewed by Randy Cepuch
- November 16, 2023
Dear Sir or Madam, will you read my book?
Sometimes it seems like everybody who ever had (or imagined having) anything to do with the Beatles has taken the first line of “Paperback Writer” to heart. By this point, 53 years since the band broke up, many don’t have a lot to say that we haven’t read before.
But that’s most definitely not the case with Kenneth Womack’s Living the Beatles Legend: The Untold Story of Mal Evans. It’s packed with behind-the-scenes stories spanning the band’s career and beyond, and it’s illustrated with rarely seen photographs and pages from the diaries of Malcolm Evans, their road manager and right-hand man, whose tragic story is itself fascinating.
At 592 pages, it’s not a short book, nor, at a list price of nearly $50, an inexpensive one. But Beatles fans will find it worth every penny.
Mal was there from the Cavern Club days — when he made himself indispensable as the group’s driver — through the tumultuous years after the world’s most famous band broke up. He never seems to turn up on “Fifth Beatle” lists, yet he played on or suggested lyrics for a surprising number of their classic songs.
It’s Mal’s voice you hear, increasingly distorted, counting out measures during the orgasmic orchestral crescendo in the middle of “A Day in the Life,” and he (in sync with John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, and producer George Martin) pounded a keyboard to create that song’s seemingly infinite final note.
That was far from his only appearance in the band’s recordings, however. Mal also banged on a tambourine in “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Hey Bulldog,” a cowbell in “With a Little Help from My Friends,” and an anvil in “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer.” He played trumpet on “Helter Skelter,” organ at the end of “You Won’t See Me,” and bass harmonica on “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!” He even sang background vocals in “Dear Prudence” and the Sgt. Pepper chorus.
Mal’s words occasionally filled in blanks for the famed songwriters, too. In “Here, There and Everywhere,” for instance, he said he contributed the line “watching her eyes, and hoping I’m always there.” He even, inadvertently, gave Paul the idea for the “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” alter ego, Billy Shears.
In many ways, Mal was as much of a Beatles insider as it was possible to be. But that didn’t translate to making a lot of money or shield him from cruelty from the four real insiders, the band John later recalled as “the biggest bastards on Earth” during their heyday.
Mal’s particularly fraught relationship with Paul ranged from the Beatle fondly name-checking Mal during a rehearsal of “Let It Be” to reportedly reneging on a promise to share royalties for certain songs with him. Meanwhile, Mal’s total devotion to the Beatles meant that he effectively (and later, definitively) abandoned his wife and kids to travel the world with them; his stories about mistakes made while trying to maintain family ties are among the book’s saddest.
When the Beatles stopped touring in 1966, they no longer needed a road manager. But they still relied on Mal for any number of services. Indeed, it was Mal who stalled the cops shutting down the band’s remarkable final show, played on their Savile Row office rooftop at lunchtime on a chilly January day in 1969.
They named him managing director of their record label, Apple Corps, and in that talent-scouting role, he brought in the band that became Badfinger (and produced its hit “No Matter What”). It wasn’t long, though, before the controversial Allen Klein was running Apple and Mal was demoted to something of a promotions assistant responsible for tossing foam apples to passing Londoners.
When the greatest show on Earth came to an end and the four principals pursued solo ventures, Mal was somehow still there for all of them. He helped John put together the original Plastic Ono Band more or less overnight for a Toronto concert. He helped George Harrison organize the historic Concert for Bangladesh. He helped Ringo on the drummer’s 1973 album — the first since the breakup to include contributions by all four Beatles — and a song he wrote with George, “You and Me Babe,” made the final cut.
But depression took a toll, and by the mid-1970s, Mal told the girlfriend he was living with in L.A. that he wanted to go out with a bang. A lifelong gun lover and fan of the TV show “Gunsmoke,” he said, “That’s how I want to die, going out in a hail of bullets.”
Unfortunately, it happened just that way in January 1976, shortly after his long-suffering wife back in Liverpool finally met with a divorce attorney. As his son Gary observes in the book’s introduction, “my father orchestrated his own demise” in a bizarre encounter with police.
The Beatles sometimes ended songs with codas (the “Na na na nananana” chorus of “Hey Jude” is a classic example), so it’s fitting that this book concludes with a detailed explanation of the long and winding road the story traveled since Mal first tried to produce a memoir in 1965. There were several more attempts later, and he’d nearly completed a manuscript when he died.
In 2020, Mal’s family gave the source materials to the eminently qualified Womack, a scholar who’s written or edited more than a dozen books about the Beatles, including two about producer Martin and one about Abbey Road Studios. He’s done a remarkable job creating this long overdue addition to any Beatles fan’s library, with one nitpick: Too often, Mal is described here as a “bigger than life roadie.” Clearly, he was much more.
Randy Cepuch has written for Beatlefan magazine and has reviewed more than three dozen books for the Independent. During a 2019 visit to Abbey Road Studio 2, he was allowed to touch the piano keys used for the finale of “A Day in the Life.” He has since reluctantly washed his hands.