The Beatles: Tune In by Mark Lewisohn

So it's finally here. A full 10 years after the idea was conceived, and five after the initial deadline was left for dead, the first volume of Mark Lewisohn's epic, definitive Beatles biography has arrived.

Does the world need yet another Beatles biog? For those who feel adequately served by Philip Norman's Shout! or Hunter Davies' 1968 authorised biography, probably not. But just as The Beatles' legacy has grown with every passing year, no book so far has fully given justice to the band's social, cultural and musical importance.

The magisterial Tune In delivers on all counts, fulfilling all expectations and delivering what is shaping up to be the definitive telling of one of the 20th century's greatest stories. This is part one of a three-volume series, collectively known as All These Years (a phrase from Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band). The others volumes, presumably Turn On and Drop Out, will cover the group's imperial phase, from 1963 to their split in 1970, and will follow some time in the next decade.

Lewisohn, whose Complete Beatles Recording Sessions and Complete Beatles Chronicle set the bar for Beatles scholarship in the 1980s and 90s, originally wanted to write about just one year – 1963, The Beatles' breakout year – before deciding to tackle a full biography.

The book begins in the 19th century, with the origins of the four families that would become world famous. Lewisohn's diligent research comes to the fore immediately – the impression is of no electoral register, school record, employment contract or birth, death or marriage certificate being left unscrutinised. It's not all dry history either; the ragtag seafarers and settlers, workers, musicians and chancers that settled in Liverpool provided roots and characteristics that would echo through the ages.

In the 1950s the city was a place of post-war poverty, violence and decaying housing, which nonetheless retained a defiant, optimistic spirit. Liverpudlian teenagers ran with it: Elvis, Lonnie Donegan, Buddy Holly, Ray Charles and Gene Vincent fired the imaginations of countless youths, there and around the country, prompting a frenzy of guitar buying and amateur music making. The sense is of a newly-emboldened generation waking up from decades of sexual, religious, musical, academic, sartorial and tonsorial conservatism, willing to rip it all up and start again.

Academically gifted but lacking discipline, John Lennon and Paul McCartney were dedicated iconoclasts, revelling in every opportunity to defy their superiors and break rules. They wrote songs and dressed differently, spurned the expectation of getting a trade and regular wage – the "brummer strivers" Lennon swore he would never join, following a disastrous and short-lived spell as a labourer – and were single minded in their pursuit of music stardom. They were joined by the younger George Harrison, who simply gave up on his schooling in favour of rock 'n' roll.

Despite being one of the best-trodden tales of the modern era, Lewisohn ignores the myths and fanciful legends that have coloured and clouded the Beatles story, and presents the facts, or as close to them as it's possible to get after all this time. His modus operandi was to only include verifiably correct information, look for little known interviews and factual records, seek out interviewees whose tales were previously unknown, and question each and every aspect of Beatles lore.

One such incident is the fabled ultimatum in which the five-year-old John Lennon was forced to choose between his fun-loving Liverpool mother Julia and his wayward, itinerant father Alf. Lewisohn provides not only a probable date for the event; he also debunks the notion that the alternative to living with Julia was a new start in New Zealand with Alf, and even that John was given a choice in the matter. Lewisohn tracked down and interviewed the only living witness, a merchant navy seaman in whose Blackpool house the conversation took place.

They needed privacy, so we let them go in the front room – which normally no one went into, and which my mother kept spotless. They talked maybe half an hour and then Lennie [Alf] came out and said, 'I'm letting Johnny go back with his mother – she's going to look after him properly.' I remember him saying 'properly' because Lennie felt pleased that he'd fixed it... I really can't remember if Johnny was in there too, maybe he only went in later, but there was definitely no tug-of-love scene.
Billy Hall
Tune In, Mark Lewisohn

Thereafter the revelations come thick and fast. Lewisohn uncovers evidence of a lost recording of One After 909 at Percy Phillips' home studio in Liverpool, round about the time Lennon, McCartney and Harrison were performing as Japage 3 under the tutelage of temporary manager Derek Hodkin. This may be arcane information for most Beatles fans, but none of it has been known until now.

Although it was a time of changing social and sexual values, some conservatism and tradition remained. Lennon and McCartney's respective partners, Cynthia Powell and Dot Rhone, were given rules to follow by their domineering men, made to dress and dye their hair like Brigitte Bardot, and told to not speak while the group discussed music. Contraception seemed to be anathema; both women fell pregnant, and the men did the honourable thing and proposed. Dot lost her baby and notions of marriage were quietly forgotten, while John and Cynthia were later bound in parenthood and matrimony. Had McCartney become a teenage father and husband, this most musically gifted young man would most likely have acceded to his father's wishes and got a stable career, and the likelihood of The Beatles spending weeks playing rock 'n' roll in Hamburg would have evaporated.

Ringo Starr, too, almost married as a teenager, but rock 'n' roll stardom and a three-month residency playing with The Hurricanes at Butlin's holiday camp ultimately proved more appealing than his girlfriend Gerry McGovern. Only poor young George was barely getting any action, retaining his virginity until The Beatles' second trip to Hamburg.

Liverpudlian businessman Allan Williams emerges as the primary catalyst for The Beatles' early success. At a time when they were barely a group, with three unmotivated guitarists and a bassist who could hardly play, Williams recruited a stand-in drummer, arranged for them to audition before impresario Larry Parnes, and got them a Scottish tour with singer Johnny Gentle. He then set up a residency in Hamburg's Indra club and drove them to Germany. The Beatles learnt how to play rock for hours to drunken Hamburg sailors, prostitutes and gangsters, and when they returned to Liverpool at the end of 1960 they were untouchable. Williams, meanwhile, was cast aside, like so many others who helped the group along the way but who could provide no further benefit.

We learn that Brian Epstein, on a 1961 business trip to Hamburg, called in at the Top Ten Club and came within a whisper of catching the resident band The Beatles. McCartney, meanwhile, was the least content during the first German excursion, forced to share a room with the hapless Pete Best and clashing with his bandmates. And Lewisohn finally lays to rest the reason for Best's sacking: as the three other Beatles and George Martin consistently maintained when asked, he simply wasn't talented enough.

Best of all, perhaps, is the true reason why The Beatles were signed to EMI. The company's publishers, Ardmore & Beechwood, took a shine to McCartney's composition Like Dreamers Do, but Epstein boldly held out for a full recording contract.

George Martin, meanwhile, was one of EMI's star producers, but had caused ructions within the company for attempting a bold salary renegotiation, and for his colourful private life. Knowing that Martin's talents were too great to let him go, EMI's managing director LG Wood decided, as punishment, to make him sign and record those four scruffs from Liverpool.

It's a convoluted story, one apparently previously unknown to any of The Beatles, and perfectly encapsulates the sort of diligence and tenacity that has become a hallmark of Lewisohn's work.

Flaws are few, but Lewisohn's evident love of Liverpool slang and wordplay, and tendency to drop colloquialisms and profanities into the narrative, can becomes trying in the book's early stages. Thankfully his happiness in a worn pun fades as the story progresses, and the rest of the book is told as a straight history. He writes eloquently with warmth and wit, learned but not overly scholarly – more trusted guide than fusty historian.

Tune In is a triumphant achievement that breathes new life into a familiar tale. A deluxe, two-book expanded version containing even more material will be published in the UK, although the price (£120) and sheer amount of Beatles information (1,728 pages) may prove daunting to non-obsessive fans. The rest of us will be in clover.

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11 responses on “The Beatles: Tune In by Mark Lewisohn

  1. Bill

    Currently reading this. As of this writing, I’m at the point where Pete gets the axe.

    For many years, Philip Norman’s Shout! was the “definitive” Beatles biography. While it’s still well worth reading today, since then many more facts have come to light that makes Norman’s book somewhat obsolete. Mark Lewisohn has done an excellent job with his research. I always considered myself to be pretty knowledgeable about The Beatles, but this book has plenty of facts that I never knew about before.

    One think I like about Mark’s writing is that when a fact can’t be verified for certain, he states it, but then he also supplies us with as much a paper trail or eyewitness account as possible to draw our own conclusions.

    When all is said and done, I believe that when finished, Mark’s 3-volume set will be to The Beatles as what Peter Guaralnick’s 2-volume set on Elvis Presley is to him… As close to definitive as we’re ever going to get.

  2. Paul

    Quite possibly the best book I have ever read. I can not wait for the next two editions. However, there is a small factual error. The Hunter River, is located in the Australian city of Newcastle – not Sydney.

  3. Cindi Gold

    I haven’t read this book yet,but I have read all of the over 200 mostly great reviews for it on US and now the reviews on amazon.UK And quite a few people have said as you did, that Mark dispels the ”myth” that when John was only 5 years old his parents forced him to choose which parent he was going to live with.Johh even dealt with this trauma in his primal scream therapy with psychologist Arthur Janov.

    And in Ray Coleman’s excellent up dated John Lennon biography,Lennon(Ray was an award wining music journalist and former editor of The Melody Maker Magazine and a good friend of John’s from 1962-1980) in his 1992 introduction on page 40 he quotes John’s father’s then much younger wife Pauline Lennon from her book,Daddy Come Home:The True Story of John Lennon and His Father who came to see John with his father on John’s 30th birthday.She says that John confronted his father in a rage and this is part of what he said,”Look at me! I’m bloody insane.I’m due for an early death like Hendrix or Joplin and it’s all your fault.John then said,”Do you know what it does to a child to be asked to choose between his parents? Do you know how it tears him apart,blows his bloody mind?”

    Ray says that her book is unnervingly and surprisingly strong with verbatim reports of electrifying conversations and he says there is even the precise exchange when John called his father from New York called when his father was on his death bed in a hospital in Brighton in 1976 and that John said to him,”I’m sorry to have treated you the way I did Dad. I should never have gone to the head shrink.It was a big mistake.And his father Freddy said to him,forget it John it’s just bloody marvelous to talk to you again.

    1. Cindi Gold

      In January 1972 when John and Yoko co-hosted the Mike Douglas show for a week,in one of the shows Mike said to John and Yoko,You’re both so different,you had such different childhoods. John said,it’s incredible isn’t it? Yoko said,Yes! Mike asked,What do you think has attracted you to each other? Yoko said,We’re very similar.John then said,She came from a Japanese upper-middle class family.Her parents were bankers and all that jazz,very straight.He said they were trying to get her off with an ambassador when she was 18.You know,now is the time you marry the ambassador and we get all settled. I come from a an upper-working class family in Liverpool,the other end of the world. John then said,we met but our minds are so similar,our ideas are so similar.It was incredible that we could be so alike from different enviornments,and I don’t know what it is,but we’re very similar in our heads.And we look alike too!

      Mike also asked John about his painful childhood,and how his father left him when he was 5,and John said how he only came back into his life when he was successful and famous(20 years later!),and John said he knew that I was living all those years in the same house with my auntie,but he never visited him.He said when he came back into his life all those years later,he looked after his father for the same amount of time he looked after him,about 4 years.

      He also talked about how his beloved mother Julia,who encouraged his music by teaching him to play the banjo,got hit and killed by a car driven by an off duty drunk cop when John was only 17 and just getting to have a realtionship with her after she had given him away to be raised by her older sister Mimi when he was 5.

      And John also said,And in spite of all that,I still don’t have a hate-the-pigs attitude or hate-cops attitude.He then said, I think everybody’s human you know,but it was very hard for me at that time,and I really had a chip on my shoulder,and it still comes out now and then,because it’s a strange life to lead .He then said,But in general ah,I’ve got my own family now …I got Yoko and she made up for all that pain.

      John’s psychologist Dr. Arthur Janov told Mojo Magazine in 2000( parts of this interview is on a great UK John Lennon fan site,You Are The Plastic Ono Band) that John had as much pain as he had ever seen in his life,and he was a psychologist for at least 18 years when John and Yoko saw him in 1970! He said John was a very dedicated patient. He also said that John left therapy too early though and that they opened him up,but didn’t get a chance to put him back together again and Dr. Janov told John he need to finish the therapy,he said because of the immigration services and he thought Nixon was after him,he said we have to get out of the country.John asked if he could send a therapist to Mexico with him,and Dr. Janov told him we can’t do that because they had too many patients to take care of,and he said they cut the therapy off just as it started really,and we were just getting going.

  4. Martyn Miles

    I have almost finished, and it’s the details of the actual events at EMI that have been a revelation to me. I thought I knew the story inside out.
    Now I know the truth…

  5. jd

    look closer at ML’s telling of ’62. For all the documentation offered, and the principle person still around to be able to verify, there’s not a single footnote regarding the (alleged )phone call from Brian to the EMI secretary about the “change”. Also. For all brian’s concern about his contractual obligation to drummer, he should also have a similar concern about making a material change to the band AFTER he has signed the contract with EMI. If I was EMI, id be a tad disturbed that this epstein fella changed a bandmember without asking our advice or getting prior approval. Brian had no recording experience, was in no role to provide studio advice to “not bring in a session drummer” on sept 4. Just food for thought. Challenge what you read.

  6. Patrick Turner

    I just finished the book.,Tune In. The book was absolutely fascinating even if I did read some of the material that came from other Beatle books. This book is different from those books, though. The way the chapters kept the time period made it easier to understand the progress of the early Beatle lifes. The people who gave out the information for the book seem to remember it like it was yesterday and a bit more authentic.

    To everybody there is a influence. That is what I got from this book.. Music fromt the Roarin’ 20’s, Bing Crosby, Elvis, Buddy Holly, The Everly Brothers, Julia, Jim Mac, Carl Perkins, and the understanding of their personality’s from Brian Epstein and George Martin which made them the toppermost of the poppermost.

    I recommend the book, In My Life by Pete Shotton. A fun read.

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