Nobody knows the Beatles like Mark Lewisohn. The London-born, self-styled “professional historian of the Beatles,” has written many books about the fab four. I don’t use the quotation marks to denigrate his label or his work, there is no doubting his dedication or the quality of his work. Lewisohn knows his shit.
I first encountered his work when taking “The Music of the Beatles” through Coursera. It’s a class I highly recommend. Lewisohn’s The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions: The Complete Abbey Road Recording Sessions, 1962-70, was suggested reading. It was meticulous with fascinating piles of stuff I didn’t know and hadn’t thought to ask. Very available and worth a look. A used copy is about 15 bucks.
As I plunged into the joyful challenge of mapping out and acquiring my Beatles collection, a friend of mine shared with me Lewisohn’s biography of the Beatles. The first volume, published in 2013 is Tune In: The Beatles: All These Years. The book is available in a variety of formats-electronic, hardcover and paperback. I opted for the hardback at $30, and took it with me on our cruise in August.
This isn’t a book for everybody. It is long, with text and footnotes weighing in at 803 pages. This is only the first volume of what is likely to be three or four, and overs only the years from childhood to 1962. The content chiefly features the evolution of the Beatles early sound and image, engagements in Hamburg and Liverpool, and their struggle to be heard and accepted. If you’re looking for their later success, this isn’t the book for you. The level of detail Lewisohn includes isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea. The author occasionally indulges in Britishisms unknown to me, that go straight over my head. That aside, there is no question this is a labor of love, and for anyone with more than a passing interest in arguably the most important rock band of all time, read this book.
Here are some interesting tidbits:
- Only George Harrison had a traditional childhood. John and Ringo were both deserted by their fathers. Paul’s mother died of cancer. Ringo was also horribly ill as a child, suffering from ricketts and TB and missing a great deal of time from school.
- Liverpool of the late 50’s and early 60’s was the slowest region of England to recover from the war. It suffered from a high crime rate, high poverty, and high unemployment. It was socially isolated from the capital, the perfect breeding ground for a new kind of music. Think Aberdeen, Washington and Nirvana.
- The Beatles played four stints in the bars of Hamburg between 1960-62. In each tour they honed their craft, developed their identity on and off-stage. They went from a five piece band to a four piece, and lived in mostly wretched conditions.
- John Lennon was a terrible driver.
- Most bands didn’t play and sing. There was a singer front man and a back-up band. Manager Brian Epstein had to convince record companies and the music press that the Beatles were viable in their configuration in which everyone played and everyone sang.
- Nearly everybody hated the name “The Beatles.”
- George Martin, after recording several songs by the band, didn’t want to release “Love Me Do,” preferring a very lightweight song, “How Do You Do It,” by Mitch Murray. Lennon and the Beatles went to Martin and begged him not to make “How Do You Do It” the A-side of their first single, fearing they’d be laughed out of Liverpool. They were saved when Murray refused to allow the single’s release.
There is tons more. This is a very enjoyable read by someone who has sucked up everything he possibly can about the Beatles, but is also capable of telling the story. If you have an interest in the band, and also want to learn something about the ferment in the British music scene during this critical time, Tuned In: The Beatles: All these Years in worth your investment in time and money.