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.
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.