So who can keep up with all the books about The Beatles? Not me, obviously. I’ve been a fan since Beatlemania first broke on these American shores in early 1964, and in my life probably the only thing I’ve done more than read about The Beatles is listen to The Beatles. I’ve been a fan of Mark Lewisohn since I stumbled upon a copy of his first (of many) Beatles reference books, 1988’s The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions in a used book shop sometime in the ’90s. He’s been writing about the Fabs since the 1970s, and has actually worked for EMI and Apple Corps. Of course he’s not the only one writing about them, thus my opening rhetorical question, who can keep up?
I’m not sure anyone can, but the gentlemen behind the podcast “Nothing Is Real” make a gallant effort. The fourth episode of the very first season [https://www.nothingisrealpod.com/season-one] was titled “Paperback Writers – Books About The Beatles,” and it covered a lot of ground. But even better, they did a two-part episode featuring an interview with Lewisohn that is fabulous, insightful, and often quite hilarious. So well done, podcasters Jason Carty and Steven Cockcroft! (See below for embedded links to those episodes.)
That was when I became aware that Lewisohn was in the midst of a three-volume biography of The Beatles, and that the first volume was in print. Had been since 2013, in fact. So OK, my Beatles obsession waxes and wanes over time, which I think is healthy. I’ve been on a bit of an on-and-off cycle since 2017 when the 50th Anniversary remix of Sgt. Pepper came out, and it’s definitely been at a higher level since I started listening to a certain podcast about the time the pandemic got underway.
So after listening to the two podcast episodes with Lewisohn I sprang for an e-book edition of Tune In and plowed through it over the past few months (all the while also reading and reviewing a lot of science fiction and listening to and reviewing a lot of music, etc., etc.). And it took a sizable plow. The paper version is 944 pages and weighs in at 2 lbs. My iBooks version comes in at just under 3,500 digital pages. And mind you, this is the first of a planned three volume set.
Some of the very early chapters felt like a bit of a slog. But once you get to the parts where their musical career is picking up, I found it hard to put down. I must confess I burned the midnight oil a few times with this one.
Tune In takes you from the very early days of the 20th century, as the family members – parents and in some cases grandparents – of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Richard “Richy” Starkey arrive in Liverpool, mostly emigrating from Ireland. Lewisohn also paints a durable portrait of this seaport in Northwestern England, dirty, poverty-stricken, gritty, hard-working and proud. From the beginning, Lewisohn shows his mettle as a researcher, never credulously repeating any of the well-worn stories that have been told about The Beatles and their families. And he also gives a lot of ink to the biographies of the two other men who were so instrumental in the band’s evolution and success, Brien Epstein and George Martin.
Every important point is documented, and where he can’t unravel the twisted ends of a certain tale, he says so. John’s biological father “Alf” Lennon, for instance, is a very shady and shadowy figure, fading into and out of his son’s life many times over the years, and Lewisohn documents what he can and says “we’ll never know” about what he can’t. The upshot is, he comes up with stories never told before, or lays to rest old versions in favor of what he found to be more reliable new ones. Through official documents, personal papers, letters, newspaper clippings, and what must have been hundreds of hours of his own interviews with people who were there. And where possible, he confirms every story through more than one source.
Lewisohn truly digs into the band’s trips to Hamburg, where they developed from a ragged bunch of half-assed teenaged rockers to a full-fledged rocking juggernaut that won over just about everybody who heard them, from the Queen of England to the lowliest street urchin, on the strengths of their personalities, their mastery of the music, and their impeccable showmanship. He closely documents the number of hours they probably spent on the stage, which by the time they finished their fifth stay in Hamburg at the very end of 1962, totaled at least 1,100 hours over 38 weeks of playing – it was, he points out in a footnote, the equivalent of playing three hours every single night for a year.
The book also delves deeply into some of the more controversial episodes in The Beatles’ story, especially those around the band members who were left behind: Stuart Sutcliffe and Pete Best. Lewisohn establishes pretty clearly that neither of them had the talent or drive that characterized the core members John, Paul and George, nor did their personalities mesh. Stu was a phenomenally talented visual artist who was a serviceable bassist at best and always viewed his stint in the band as temporary. (He quit the band to be with his Hamburg-based girlfriend, the photographer Astrid Kirchherr and to return to making visual art, before dying of a brain hemorrhage.) Pete was a less than top-notch drummer with a sulky personality, a loner who never hung out with the others when they weren’t playing. The other three knew, liked, and had played with Ringo, and planned to ask him to take Pete’s place for several months before it finally happened. Producer George Martin independently came to the same conclusion about Pete, but it was The Beatles’ decision, although they had Epstein do the deed.
Oh, and Lewisohn also finally tells the full story of how their first single came to have two Lennon-McCartney sides, rather than having “How Do You Do It” on the A side. And it didn’t have anything to do with John telling him that the band wouldn’t have it: [spoiler alert] it was purely a business decision, dictated by the Parlophone publishing office. And in fact, it was this same office that more or less forced Martin to record The Beatles, after another young producer there had given them a test and felt they’d failed. The bean-counters wanted The Beatles to record for Parlophone because they wrote their own songs instead of just covering American rockers, and that meant more money for the label.
There’s a lot more along those lines, and Lewisohn tells the story in a brisk but thorough and entertaining manner. He’s not a novelist, thank goodness, he’s an excellent researcher who turned into a journalist who turned into a superb long-form nonfiction author. Tune In stands as one of the longest books I’ve ever read, and I am absolutely bereft until the next volume is published. The story is set to pick up with the release of what everyone knows will be their first No. 1 single, “Please Please Me.” Stay tuned.
(Random House, 2013)
Nothing Is Real: The Mark Lewisohn Interview – Part 1:
Nothing Is Real: The Mark Lewisohn Interview – Part 2: