Last time out I waxed lyrical about Tune In, the first volume of Mark Lewisohn’s mammoth Beatles biography, which was published in 2013. It richly deserves all the bouquets and plaudits which have come its way, and I have no doubt it will come to be seen as the ‘Bible’ on the band (not that I am comparing The Beatles to Jesus Christ as a person or God as a thing in any way whatsoever, you understand). But is it perfect? It comes staggeringly close but, no, I do have a handful of gripes with it. It may be that some of them are addressed in the extended (double-length) ‘author’s cut’ of the book. And, as it is, they don’t cast any real blemish over the regular, 840-page version. But Lewisohn sets such high standards, you can’t help but notice if he falls short once in a while or leaves some questions unanswered. It’s a little like Revolver having ‘Yellow Submarine’ on it – it’s still a majestic album, but not quite a flawless one (in my opinion). So here are a few nits I couldn’t help picking while reading Tune In.
In the course of his unparalleled research and forensic analysis for the book, Lewisohn came to question and, ultimately, revise some aspects of the band’s story which had been routinely accepted as fact down the years. And when the book came to be published, it’s ‘myth-busting’ credentials formed a key part of its marketing strategy, with its author credited as setting the record straight and correcting falsehoods. But, while there is no doubt it brings us closer to the truth and has thrown up a wealth of important information people didn’t even know existed, I can’t subscribe to the same feeling of certainty Lewisohn attributes to his re-telling of some events. For example, the moment in 1946 when the infant John Lennon was forced to choose between his warring parents, the heart-breaking tug of love which – legend has it – scarred him forever. As told in numerous bios, magazines and documentaries, it plays like a scene from a Hollywood weepie. Spirited away to Blackpool by this errant father Freddie, John was set for emigration and a new life in New Zealand, until his mother Julia turned up and begged him to stay with her. John initially chooses his dad but, at the last moment, bursts into tears and runs back down the street into his mum’s arms. Cue some of the lifelong inner torment and anguish which eventually erupted 24 years later on the John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band album.
But, according to Lewisohn, this never happened. Instead, after speaking to Billy Hall, the merchant navy pal Freddie was staying with, he paints a likely more realistic picture of both parents sitting down – with Julia’s new partner – in the house in Blackpool to calmly discuss what was best for John’s future, and coming to an agreement that he would stay with Julia in Liverpool. John may not even have been in the room. As I say, this sounds a more credible version of events, but how can we be sure? In interviews, Lewisohn likes to make a point that people’s memories – particularly of events decades ago – are not always reliable, and that he puts much greater emphasis on written documents made at the time. That being the case, he places an awful lot of weight on the veracity of Billy’s recollections, some 60 years after the fact. Yes, he may be the only living witness to the proceedings, but his memory seems unusually vivid about something which didn’t even concern his own family. This could well be how it went down, but how do we know what John’s reaction may have been? Or whether his parents – both volatile, mercurial people – might have been less composed when the moment came to finally part and, in Freddie’s case, leave John behind for good? Many myths contain a sliver of truth, after all.
Then there is the matter of John and Paul’s songwriting output from 1960 until late 1962 – or, rather, the lack of it. According to Tune In, they wrote virtually no songs during this period, together or separately. This despite the many numbers the pair came up with during sessions in each other’s homes during their early days together from 1957-59. Well, apparently, they just stopped. For two whole years. And then suddenly turned the tap back on when they landed a record deal. I’m sure Lewisohn would have based this claim on something – like I said in my last post, he’s not one to speculate, guess or assume – but it’s not clear what. After all, no-one outside of Lennon-McCartney would’ve cared what they were doing at that time, much less been slavishly keeping notes. How does he know that no material was started and finished later, or just scrapped altogether? It may have been a fallow period for them, but I just find it very hard to believe they would’ve lost interest in writing altogether. Paul, in particular, was a compulsive composer since the age of 14, and remains so to this day. But he just downed tools for two years, when he had a band he (and John) could write material for? It doesn’t quite ring true to me. And if it is, I’d like to know why.
The revelation I have the biggest issue with, however, is how The Beatles got their record deal with EMI. The accepted story has always been that, after the group was rejected by pretty much every record label in the land, George Martin at Parlophone spotted something all the others had missed and decided to take a punt. And we all lived happily ever after. Not so, according to Tune In. It claims (spoiler alert) that Martin had also turned them down sight unseen, and that EMI’s hand was eventually forced by persistent pressure from a record ‘plugger’ called Kim Bennett on behalf of the company’s music publishing arm Ardmore and Beechwood. Bosses there had apparently taken a liking to the three Lennon-McCartney originals performed at the band’s failed audition for Decca Records in January 1962, which were featured on the acetate disc Brian Epstein was hawking around London in a vain attempt to impress record company executives. Ardmore and Beechwood was apparently so keen to secure publishing copyrights to these songs that it kept chipping away at EMI management until they caved in and agreed to sign the unknown Liverpool beat group. And they then decided to foist the band on Parlophone as a way of “punishing” George Martin over his long-running extra-marital affair with his secretary Judy Lockhart Smith (who later became his second wife).
Lewisohn deserves massive credit for uncovering these extra, significant layers to the story, which undoubtedly add more complexity to the sequence of events and bring us closer to the truth of what actually happened. But I think he overplays his hand in claiming as undisputed fact that The Beatles’ big break was solely due to these factors. Why? Well, if the main aim of Ardmore and Beechwood was to get their hands on the potentially lucrative ‘Love of the Loved’, ‘Like Dreamers Do’ and ‘Hello Little Girl’, why wasn’t the group compelled to record them when they finally got to Abbey Road? None of theses songs were ever performed for Martin at their early recording sessions or, by all accounts, even considered. The Fabs may have preferred ‘Love Me Do’, but that would surely have been less appealing to a music publisher and, in any case, they weren’t in a position to call the shots at that stage. Martin even made them record a different song (‘How Do You Do It?’) from an entirely different music publisher, which doesn’t fit Lewisohn’s narrative at all. I may be missing something, but it just doesn’t add up in my mind. And as for Martin being forced to take on the band because his bosses took a dim view of his love life, well, I know strict moral values played more of a part in early-1960s British life, but is that really how a major corporation would make its business decisions? For once, there’s no explicit evidence offered in the book about this, we just know the hierarchy didn’t approve of the relationship. I think it’s a bit of a leap.
I wrote last time how well the book understands the individual characters of The Beatles and brings you closer to them. That said, I don’t think Lewisohn gets under the skin of Paul quite as well as the others. Which is curious, considering he never met Lennon and worked for McCartney over several years, interviewing him many times. To be fair, Paul has always been the most guarded and (I think) difficult to fathom of the four but, even so, there are a couple of points in the book where you just need to know more. For example, close school pal Ian James says he couldn’t understand what (aside from music) drew Paul to George, who was younger and decidedly more abrasive than Macca. Lewisohn doesn’t really explore or try to explain that. Indeed, while John and George had quite similar temperaments and world views, Paul was different in many ways, and I’d have liked the book to dig a little deeper into what attracted – and ultimately bound – them to each other. Likewise, while Lewisohn is generally very fair and balanced in the way he portrays each member of the band, he does seem a trifle more forgiving of John’s foibles than Paul’s. For example, if Macca (who was raised in a frugal household where money was scarce) is reluctant to stand his round at the pub, he’s portrayed as tight-fisted; whereas if John (from a much more affluent background) actively steals from other people, well, that’s just that the rascally, cheeky Lennon of lore.
I also regret that some characters so prominent earlier in the story fade into the background after Brian Epstein comes onto the scene and the band’s career begins to take off. I guess it’s inevitable, but it would’ve nice to learn more about how John’s Aunt Mimi, Paul’s dad Jim and Cynthia Lennon reacted to the group’s growing momentum during 1962, though that may be covered in the extended version of the book. Similarly, I would’ve thought the author might have made use of some great stories about this period revealed in Cynthia’s book John, as well as in the memoir of John’s childhood friend Pete Shotton. But, as they’re available elsewhere, it doesn’t really matter that much.
In fact, none of my quibbles really detract from what is a remarkable achievement by Lewisohn. Most critics and fans felt the same when Tune In was published, eight long years ago, to rave reviews – so much so that it has become a victim of its own success, with the author fending off constant (and increasingly impatient) questions about when volume two will appear (it looks like 2023, at the very earliest). It’s become as fervently awaited as the next deluxe anniversary Beatles album reissue from Apple. I can understand the frustrations, particularly among older fans. Some people have literally waited all their lives for a biography like this, and are worried they may not live to read the concluding parts (you also have to wonder about Lewisohn’s own mortality – he’ll be in his mid-60s by the time the next part comes out, and if he allows 12-15 years for volume three, he might be pusing his luck). That said, I completely see his point: it’s a huge undertaking, and if you’re going to devote a big chunk of your life to something like this, you want to do it properly. The Beatles deserve no less.
So, what have we got to look forward to? Lewisohn did say at one fan convention that he planned to take the story up to 1974, presumably the point when the (ex) Fabs signed the papers which formally dissolved their legal partnership. I would love to see the books go deep into the solo years, but at other times he has intimated they will finish at the end of 1970, when the collective group story effectively ends. That being the case, volume two will feature the prime Beatlemania years of 1963-66, with the final book covering the grand studio era of 1967-70. Even though these are shorter time frames than that of Tune In, there is such a mountain of information to sift through, unravel, analyse and contextualise. The group crammed more into those years than most of us would managed in a couple of lifetimes; whereas Lewisohn probably had a real job on to find and validate information from their pre-fame years for volume one, I would imagine the polar opposite has been true for his subsequent research. After all, these were four lives lived under the glare of an public spotlight which has rarely shone so intensely, before or since.
Nonetheless, as the author likes to point out, many things about The Beatles have been misreported or misinterpreted down the years, or just missed out altogether. And I’ve no doubt we’ll get to learn oodles of new stuff about the band when the later volumes eventually do see the light of day. Personally, I’m most intrigued about the final years, and the events leading up to the split, which remain shrouded in distortion, conflicting accounts, wilful revisionism and just plain mystery – especially the period spanning late-1969 through to early-1970. I’m sure Lewisohn will delve deep into all this, and shed fresh light on a disintegration that many people still can’t seem to get their heads around to this day. But we’ve probably got a long wait on our hands until we found out. Luckily, there are plenty of other Beatles books to read in the meantime. But if the later volumes of All These Years are as good as the first one, you probably won’t need any other biographies on the band ever again. If you haven’t read Tune In already, don’t delay. Unless someone invents a time machine, I reckon this will be the best, most definitive account of their story we’re ever likely to get. I feel quite stingy just giving it a 9.5.