Jan 19, 2014
All These Years: The Beatles Tune In
The story of the Beatles is one I have known most of my life, though it has had many different tellings. The first version I ever read was in a 16-page newsprint bulletin, half text and half pictures. As I recall, my mother brought home this freebee from a record store, where she had gone to buy me Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band for my ninth birthday. It was 1967 and I had already been a fan since my teenage cousins had played me ‘Twist and Shout’ on Boxing Day four years earlier. Now I learned that the Beatles started out as The Quarrymen and that Ringo had a predecessor named Pete Best. This inky giveaway turned me into an educated fan.
For Christmas the following year I received a weightier tome: Hunter Davies’ just-published biography, simply titled The Beatles (just like the so-called ‘white album’, which I was lucky enough to be given at the same time). That’s where I first read about important behind-the-scenes characters, like Stuart Sutcliffe, their brilliant and influential friend who had died before they had even made a record and Astrid Kirchherr, who inspired their look.
Over the years there have been numerous other tellings, some of which I have read in depth, others I skimmed, all of which added details or perspectives without departing markedly from Davies’ blueprint.
Inspired by Henry-Louis de la Grange’s humungous four-volume biography of Mahler, Mark Lewisohn has set out to write what he expects to be the definitive history of the Beatles. He began the groundwork decades ago, with his exhaustively researched chronicles The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions and The Beatles: 25 Years In The Life.
Fascinating as those data-heavy publications are, I wondered how compelling a storyteller Lewisohn would be. As it turns out, his prose reads easily and is informed by a very English kind of humour. He peppers his text with Liverpool slang. He also makes liberal, if perhaps excessive, use of Beatles’ lyrics. The phrase ‘twenty years ago today…’ crops up more than once, as does ‘with a little help’. And he has a penchant for bad puns, sometimes repeating Beatle witticisms, sometimes treating us to his own. (He painfully refers to Lennon’s brief spell as a blistered builder’s labourer as his ‘summer of glove’.)
It’s long. 200 pages in, the band – at this point going by the unprepossessing name Japage 3 – seems so hapless it is hard to imagine how they will reach Hamburg, let alone world domination.
It’s full of vivid if inconsequential details, like his description of Ringo’s stepfather struggling back to Liverpool from London by train, car and foot, lugging young Richie’s first drum kit. (At one point, successful British bandleader Joe Loss passes him in the street, but looks away.)
Yet it is never so dense that one loses sight of the story. I found myself happily consuming Lewisohn’s close-readings of contracts and budgets, knowing the next career-changing showdown would be just around the next page.
As a researcher he is scrupulous. He has not just obtained and studied documents – letters, diaries, contracts, transcripts – denied to, or overlooked by, previous historians, but he extracts significance from these that lesser scholars might miss, and this is often how his account comes to differ so radically from all others.
To give one example: it has been told repeatedly that it was George Martin who recognised the Beatles’ potential and took a chance on recording them for EMI’s Parlophone label. But Lewisohn reveals that, in fact, Martin had - until well after the release of their first single - little confidence or interest in the group at all. His hand was forced into working with the Beatles by a complicated set of circumstances that involved the company’s publishing arrangements, Martin’s strained relations with his employer and an ongoing affair with his secretary.
That said, the bones of the story remain fundamentally the same as those of Davies’ book. But it is as though each familiar tale has an untold backstory, which Lewisohn reveals in these pages.
With the massive fame they achieved during their career, and the almost sainted status theycommand today, it is easy to lose sight of how revolutionary the Beatles were. Records like Revolver, Sgt. Pepper’s and The Beatles brought notions of sound collage, musique concrete, songs about drugs, violence and broken homes into the forefront of popular culture, where they had never been before. I expect this is something Lewishon will highlight in the second and third parts of his trilogy (which he expects to complete over the next decade and a half). But even in this first volume – which ends in 1962 – he makes it clear that the Beatles’ were modernists, experimentalists, compelled to be different. Just one example is the friendship they struck up with poet Royston Ellis, who they once accompanied in a performance of what Ellis called ‘rocketry’ – poetry read to a live rock soundtrack. And there are plenty more examples, from their clothes and haircuts to the way they shunned the typical ‘Cliff Richard and The Shadows’-type presentation, instead sharing the spotlight between all four members.
Lewisohn is a self-described fan. He has also, at different times, been an employee of EMI and Paul McCartney, though he emphasises that this latest project is independent and unauthorised. Does his fandom get in the way? Certainly his musicology doesn’t have the depth of some earlier Beatle writers, such as Ian McDonald whose Revolution In The Head is unmatched when it comes to identifying the musical forces that helped shape the Beatles’ music, or distinguishing their brilliant ideas from their more prosaic ones. Yet ultimately it has to be Lewisohn’s passion for the Beatles’ music that has sustained him through such an epic project, and that is something that anyone interested in the popular culture of the 20th century should be grateful for.