‘Tune In’ (2013) – the best Beatles biography? (part two)

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.

John with mum Julia in the 1940s

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.

Paul and John at The Cavern, 1961. Playing live but, apparently, not writing any songs at this time

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).

George Martin with the Fabs at an early Abbey Road session in 1962. Were they really forced on him?

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.

Lewisohn signing copies of ‘Tune In’. When will he be signing off volume two?

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.

‘Tune In’ (2013) – the best Beatles biography? (part one)

Almost as long as I’ve been a fan of The Beatles, I’ve longed for a big, all-encompassing book covering every facet of their lives and careers. Ideally, this would also include the post-split story, but – as this would have to span more than 80 years and involve two solo careers which are still unfolding – I have begrudgingly accepted that a tome focusing just on their time together, the time when they changed not just music but the world, is more feasible and saleable. Still, for a long time, despite the wealth of biographical and musical material to  work with, no one seemed inclined or able to do it. Sure, there were plenty of books out there – since the early 1980s, the stream of Fab Four publications has turned into a gushing torrent, which shows no sign of drying up – but fully comprehensive, detailed bios? Not so much. The two go-to books when I first got into the band, and which remained so for many years, were Hunter Davies’ Authorised Biography, from 1968, and Shout!, the controversial best-seller by Philip Norman published in 1981. Both are very good and remain, despite criticisms in more recent years, key works on the band. But Davies’ book is authorised, with all the good and bad that entails, and incomplete; it ends in mid-1968, before the group began to fall apart. And, while compellingly written and featuring a lot of new material for the time, Norman’s book has too many prejudices and half-baked theories, and – worst of all – is astonishingly light on the actual music. Neither book brings the factual meat, in-depth insights and level of minutiae the band deserves and which us obsessives demand.

Mark Lewisohn obviously agreed. After being featured in Shout! as a young superfan of the group, he made his own mark in the Fabs literary world in 1986 with the publication of the scholarly The Beatles Live!, with none other than Paul McCartney soon pronouncing it his favourite book on the band. This led to EMI opening up their tape archive to him, resulting in the landmark The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions in 1988, which may still be my favourite Fabs book to this day. Soon afterwards, he went to work for Macca and, subsequently, for Apple as The Beatles Anthology project began to take shape in the first half of the 1990s. Despite playing a key role in that, a strange – and, of the face of it, very unfair – falling out with the Harrison and Ono/Lennon camps curtailed his association with The Beatles’ organisation, and he moved on to other, unrelated work. His love for the band never went away though and, in 2003, he embarked on the mammoth task of researching and writing what he wanted to become the definitive biography, in three parts, under the umbrella title of The Beatles: All These Years. Lewisohn has often said that, while their story has been told many times, it has never been told properly, and it has repeatedly been told inaccurately. His goal was put that right, establishing the facts in a balanced, objective fashion, without fear or favour, and giving their history the weight and attention it deserves. The first volume, Tune In, finally published in 2013, pretty much succeeds on every level – and then some.

The British edition of ‘Tune In’

Where Lewisohn differs from many Beatles authors is that he’s not some hack paid to knock out a book to make some bucks, or someone trying to carve out a niche in the band’s bulging bibliography by shining a light on a specific corner of their lives or work. The Beatles are his passion, and he set out to write the Big One, on his own terms, which meant years of research before he even sat down to write (Tune In took a full decade from start to finish, and it looks like we’re in for a similar wait for volume two). Lewisohn approaches his subject like a historian, and loves getting into the level of deep investigation most writers wouldn’t have the time or the inclination to pursue. He clearly cares about getting it right, and so happily spends months of his life burrowed in libraries or scouring legal documents, contracts, letters and diaries, checking and cross-referencing until he’s exhausted every possible line of enquiry to get as close to The Truth as he possibly can. Likewise – while denied recent access to the Fab Four and their inner circle (more of which later) – he has interviewed scores of people who passed through the band’s orbit, on a major or minor level, and whose voices are rarely or never heard in most bios, to glean every possible perspective on the band’s emergence and development. Thus you get to hear from relatives, school and college friends, workmates and rival musicians, Hamburg associates and Cavern regulars, all providing testimonies which add vivid colour and breathy authenticity, filling in gaps and bringing the story to life. And, as Lewisohn has said, this is really the last time anyone will be able to reap that vital first-hand knowledge and experience.

Apart from a wonderful prologue detailing John and Paul’s first songwriting sessions together, and another chapter mid-way through on the early lives of Brian Epstein and George Martin, Tune In takes a straightforward chronological approach. It even begins by exploring the Lennon/McCartney/Harrison/Starkey family backgrounds in the century before their births, and painting a picture of the economically depressed, war-ravaged Liverpool they were born into. It then tracks their individual childhoods, the seismic repercussions of rock ‘n’ roll on their teenage lives, their coming together as friends and bandmates, their (surprisingly slow) rise up the ladder of the local music scene, and the jaw-dropping moments of good fortune at key points which eventually put them in a position to conquer the civilised world. By the time it finishes at the end of 1962 – ie. before the group had become famous outside of Liverpool – it clocks in at 840 pages (for the really hardcore, there’s an extended edition which runs double that length. I haven’t descended into that layer of obsession…..yet). If that sounds like overkill to you, you’re probably reading the wrong blog, because even if you have just a passing interest in The Beatles, I guarantee you’ll find this a gripping read. And if you love them anywhere near as much as I do, you’ll be positively foaming at the mouth. As well as unearthing a treasure-trove of information and anecdotes, Lewisohn breathes new life into the stuff we already know – or thought we knew – and somehow leaves you wanting even more.

A pre-Ringo Fab Four at The Cavern, 1961

So, what’s so great about it? Well, to begin with, it’s that level of granular detail, that has never really been seen in a Beatles biography before – at least, not one that I’ve read. Pretty much everything you’d want to know is covered here, and more. Every page is peppered with nuggets of information, and none of it ever seems extraneous or irrelevant. From Julia Lennon’s love life to Paul’s ongoing reluctance to cough up cash for a new guitar to Ringo’s experiences as an apprentice engineer, it all serves the story, helps to build up the story piece by piece and shed meaningful light on the main protagonists. Similarly, I really appreciate how Lewisohn has scooped up all the familiar touch points in the story and assembled them in the right order, clearing up all the misconceptions, assumptions and errors which have littered histories of the band since pretty much day one. This not only establishes a coherent, credible narrative but also illustrates how quickly everything happened. It must’ve seemed like an eternity to the Fabs at the time, but within a year of meeting Brian they went from topping the bill in Liverpool dance halls to releasing records on EMI and appearing on national TV and radio – pretty much unheard of for a provincial rock ‘n’ roll band at that time.

The book is also strong on providing vital context. The Beatles didn’t happen in isolation. You get a real sense of the austere, post-war England they grew up in and the meteor-like impact of rock ‘n’ roll which – for them – must’ve smashed it wide open. And Lewisohn guides us expertly through the records which inspired and shaped their sound, not only in the ground-zero explosion led by the likes of Elvis, Little Richard, Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly, but right through their early years as a band – noting, for example, the growing influence of US R&B and soul music on their development in 1961/62. And all this is supported by judiciously chosen quotes from John, Paul, George and Ringo themselves. While Lewisohn was denied access to Apple’s own archive of materials (an insane decision, but sadly typical of its control freakery over all things Fab Four), and Paul and Ringo declined to share their recollections with him for this project, you wouldn’t really notice. There are literally thousands of Beatle interviews out there, and the author seems to have poured over every single one to find the right quote for the right part of the story. Certainly, there are lots of first-hand remembrances from the four that I don’t recall seeing before – like, for example, Paul’s recollection that he and John seriously considered extending the Lennon-McCartney writing credit to include George at one point. Real skill and patience is required for that kind of thing, and thankfully Lewisohn seems to have it in abundance.

Ringo and his fellow Hurricanes (plus lady friend) enjoy some r&r while touring US air bases in France, 1962. The call from Brian Epstein is just a few months away

Perhaps the thing I like most about the book, though, is that Lewisohn really gets what The Beatles were about. The group dynamic, the personalities, the interactions and rivalries, the hierarchy, the similarities and differences, their astonishing closeness. I believe that one of the key factors behind the group’s enduring popularity, aside from the music, is that they formed an impossibly tight-knit gang that everyone would’ve loved to be part of. The way they meshed together so perfectly, complementing each other’s talents and shoring up any individual weaknesses, the way they struck sparks off one another, the endless in-jokes and the joy they so evidently had being in each other’s company. All so different, and yet joined at the hip – a “four-headed monster”, as Mick Jagger once memorably described them. As a fan, it’s something I can never get enough of, and Tune In explores this at length, with real flair. So you get to see how John came to admire the (relatively) much younger George because he wasn’t afraid to stand up to him; how Paul resented John’s close friendship with Stuart Sutcliffe because it temporarily returned him to the “back seat of the bus” alongside George, and how George was usually the one who buoyed the other two’s spirits whenever the band hit a dead end. And it shows, beyond a shadow of a doubt, how Pete Best’s tenure in the group was doomed from the start. People still wonder today why their first drummer got the boot but, really, there’s no great mystery. He wasn’t on the others’ wavelength, didn’t see the world the way they did, wasn’t ever truly part of the gang. And he wasn’t a good drummer. Ringo, on the other hand, most definitely was and – crucially – fitted right in from the get-go. And, by the point he joins the band late in the book, you’ll understand why.

While there is an ocean of material here (one can only wonder what fills out the extended version), Lewisohn it all pieces altogether in an extremely well written, readable style. There are no sneak-peaks into the future (an “on this day five years later they would be playing Shea Stadium in New York” type of thing) or even hints about what is to come, it all unfolds in real time, as it were, and has the feel of a novel. There is the occasional knowing wink – for example, after surmising how the four most likely spent New Year’s Eve 1959, he ends the chapter with: “And when they all woke up the following morning, it was the Sixties.” Almost everyone reading the book will know what happens next, so it kind of works as a prequel, an origin story, in which the superheroes acquire their powers. Except, in a way which is scarcely believable, it all actually happened. The author also deserves huge kudos for scrupulously sticking to the facts and preserving the objective impartiality which so often goes astray in works of this kind as their writers succumb to favouritism, speculation and their own tastes or interpretation. For the most part it has a very balanced view of its four subjects, and – while it doesn’t gloss over any of their less attractive character traits or behaviours – you’ll probably end up loving them all even more by the end. You’ll certainly feel like you know them better. So many fascinating things emerge, like Paul’s endearing pose as a wannabe young intellectual, riding around Liverpool on the top deck of buses while smoking a pipe and reading Waiting for Godot; George’s dry charm, bluntness and dogged implacability; John’s cocktail of insecurities washing up against his cast-iron sense of self, and Ringo’s single-minded focus on making a career in showbiz and aiming for the ultimate pinnacle, an appearance at the London Palladium.

Ready to emerge from the ruins of post-war Britain – Liverpool, September 1962

Did his meticulous research uncover any big revelations? Well, yes, there are a few, but I’ll go into them in my next post. Because, for me, the highlights are the little things, the smaller details, where Lewisohn takes events which usually merit no more than a couple of paragraphs or even a footnote in other tellings, and expands them with delicious specifics. How each Beatle had one solid, close friend before joining the band. Their early romances – we even learn how Ringo lost his virginity, and I had no idea he was engaged to a girl while with Rory Storm and the Hurricanes. The chapter on the day John met Paul is mesmerising, as is the section on the band’s first semi-professional tour, of Scotland, backing singer Johnny Gentle. The Hamburg trips are brought to life like never before, as are the Cavern gigs and John and Paul’s pivotal trip to Paris for Lennon’s 21st birthday. You realise the importance of Brian Epstein’s intervention in their career, and how selfless and devoted he was to them. Their early recording sessions with George Martin at Abbey Road are brilliantly recreated, and convey the instant synergy between artists and producer. You learn how ‘I Saw Her Standing There’ was inspired by a flying visit to London Paul enjoyed with a beautiful redhead (shades of the future, there). I could go on and on.

Tune In is not without its flaws, which I will look more closely at in my next post, but – considering the scope and breadth of the book – there are precious few, they are minor ones, and they don’t really detract from its overall brilliance. If the remaining volumes reach the same standard, Lewisohn will effectively make most other straight biographies of The Beatles redundant. For, despite Apple’s disinterest and downright obstruction, this is the book which finally does the group justice.

Lewisohn promoting his book in 2013

Zooming in to Ringo’s new EP

Remember the sleeve notes of 1964’s Beatles for Sale LP, written by their press officer Derek Taylor? He predicted that the “kids of AD 2000” would still be grooving to Beatles music, and – as that  year saw the release of the multi-zillion selling 1 compilation – he wasn’t wrong (though his vision of said “kids” being radioactive and picnicking on Saturn were slightly less accurate). I assume his claim was probably greeted by mockery by wide sections of society at the time, but I wonder if even he – or anyone else – would’ve given much credence to the idea that Ringo would still be recording and releasing new pop music in AD 2021, at the age of 80. It would probably have been pushing it to say Paul would still be active (never mind topping the album charts), but at least he was a front man and a songwriter with a few big hits already behind him. But Ringo? The drummer, with “limited” vocal range, who was allowed to sing one track per album? At the time, even the Fabs thought anyone over the age of 30 was past it, and could never have dreamed any of them would be making music in a far-flung future when we would presumably be using flying cars, rocket ships and teleportation as our preferred means of transport.

Okay, not many people are actually still buying Ringo’s releases, but that’s kind of beside the point. What matters is, are they still any good? Well, I guess it depends on what yardstick you choose to measure them by. There are those who don’t bother with any of his solo stuff because, well, it’s “only” Ringo. Those of us who have continued to follow his career have been rewarded with some genuinely good stuff, particularly during the 1990s and early 2000s, when he hooked up with some well-suited collaborators and enjoyed a real hot streak. Over the past decade or so, it’s been more of a mixed bag. Eschewing outside producers, Ringo has opted to take sole charge of his records and downsized somewhat, making them all at home with a roster of familiar rock star pals. His usual approach has been to come up with a song idea, lay down a rough backing track, and then invite people over to help build the tune on top of it. His first stab at this, 2010’s Y Not, was solid enough, but the follow-up Ringo 2012 was hugely disappointing, a lazy effort which marked a real low point. 2015’s Postcards from Paradise offered only a modest improvement, but he then came back with his most consistent album in years, Give More Love (2017).  His last release, 2019’s What’s My Name, was decent too but, generally speaking, he’s been playing it safe in recent times – the same way of working, in the same place, with the same people, producing samey results (even the album covers are barely distinguishable from each other). I guess at his time of life he’s entitled to do whatever he likes, and it’s not as if anyone expects Sgt Pepper any more. Still, he is a Beatle, and I want to see him step outside his comfort zone from time to time.

The first Beatle release of 2021

Which brings us to his latest offering, Zoom In. For some reason, Ringo has decided that What’s My Name is to be his last album, and he will make only EPs from now on. Not quite sure what the thinking is behind that – especially when you consider he’s planning to release a second EP later this year, so he’s effectively putting out two halves of an album a few months apart. Go figure. Anyway, Zoom In features five tracks recorded last year which, on the face of it, follow the usual Ringo modern-day pattern: made in his home studio, with a little help from famous friends, with a cover trumpeting his peace-and-love credentials (though the bouffant lockdown hair cut is new – where does an octogenarian get all that hair?). However, while not radically different, he does ring a couple of changes this time out, to good effect. First, he’s given full sway to outside writers – in fact, he co-wrote just one number – which gives the material a different feel. And while he is still co-producing with regular crony Bruce Sugar (apart from on one song), he’s gone for fresh approach here. There were hints of it on What’s My Name, but the generous helpings of horns, organ, female backing vocals and the like help to create a fuller, richer ambience than usual; a throwback to the 1970s, in some cases. He hasn’t sounded this good for quite a while. And some of the songs are pretty strong, too.

The first track, ‘Here’s to the Nights’, released as a single (or what passes for one these days) just before Christmas, is the one you may have heard. Penned by veteran songsmith Diane Warren (who’s provided a bewildering array of hits for everyone from Aerosmith to Lady Gaga), it’s a big, bombastic anthem about breaking rules, having fun and, er, getting blind drunk. Okay, there’s nothing subtle about it and the lyrics could’ve been lifted from a greetings card, but it’s an uplifting, instantly memorable tune with a slick, stylish arrangement. It’s the kind of track Ringo hasn’t attempted for some time (it’s particularly nice to hear a big string section on one of his records again), and it fits him like a glove. For the booming chorus, he enlists a, ahem, starry list of guest vocalists, including Dave Grohl, Sheryl Crow, Lenny Kravitz and our very own Paul McCartney, though the end result is so megalithic you may struggle to tell the individual contributions apart without the video to help you. Ringo’s own voice is, probably for the first time, showing signs of age on this, but even that adds to the wistful, nostalgic glow of the song. And he still manages to hold an impressively long note at the end (seemingly much to his own amusement, judging by closing chuckle).

The video for ‘Here’s to the Nights’, with some nice clips of Macca alongside Ringo

I didn’t care much for ‘Zoom In Zoom Out’ to begin with, but it’s a real grower. It starts off a little like Davie Bowie’s ‘Jean Genie’ but then settles into a shuffling, relaxed groove behind another surprisingly catchy melody. While repeating the standard ‘love is what it’s all about’ message, the lyric is actually quite clever, managing to be cosmic and commonplace at the same time (who’d have thought we’d get to hear him sing a line like ‘Shift your paradigm’?). Laced with some nice bluesy guitar from The Doors’ Robbie Krieger and featuring a crafty false ending, it’s a good track, full of Ringo’s characteristic bonhomie and optimism. His grandad dancing in the accompanying video is best forgotten, though.

Next up is ‘Teach Me To Tango’. As with ‘Better Days’, one of the stand-out tracks on What’s My Name, it was written by Sam Hollander, who’s provided hits for Katy Perry, One Direction, Panic! At The Disco and many more. And Ringo should definitely keep him on speed dial, because this is another winner. After a rumbling, drum-heavy intro, it powers into a hook-laden tune which rocks along for a rollicking, invigorating three minutes. The chorus will lodge in your brain and the tasty arrangement – topped off with a sizzling guitar break – is enough to get anyone on their feet. A perfect party tune, this is exactly the kind of thing Ringo should be doing these days, and it’s possibly the best number here.

One Starr that’s still shinging bright

The remaining two songs are not quite so good, but still far from write-offs. Co-written by Ringo, ‘Waiting for the Tide to Turn’ is one of his occasional ventures into reggae, and – alongside the obligatory reference to Bob Marley – he makes some big claims for the music’s healing power in these troubled times. “Just play some reggae music and it will be a better day”, apparently. Be that as it may, there’s not much of song here, but it does have a definite Caribbean vibe to it and a certain hazy charm. Again, the meaty production really gives it some heft. I think ‘King of the Kingdom’, the reggae work-out on Give More Love, was a stronger composition, but it’s not bad.

Ringo was persuaded to record ‘Not Enough Love in the World’ by the sentiment of the title alone, which makes you wish he’d be a bit more stringent when choosing his material. Written by former Toto guitarist and long-time All-Starr Band member Steve Lukather, it’s a bouncy, bright bit of mid-tempo pop, with a 1960s/70s feel. The lyrics are as hippie-ish and as daffy as the title suggests, sung with the carefree attitude you’d expect of a multi-millionnaire living in Los Angeles, though there’s a nice nod to our current situation in the middle eight (“I’ve lived a pretty crazy life/And I now I have to stay inside, oh my”). There’s nothing wrong with it – it’s pretty catchy, and Lukather supplies some fine guitar in it – it’s just the kind of thing we’ve heard many times before.

All in all, though, Zoom In is a pleasant surprise and rewards repeat listens. Ringo sounds spry, vital, and full of intent. It has no real clunkers, no heavy-handed references to The Beatles, and none of the air of going through the motions which has marred a few of his tracks in recent years. It shows the benefits of using outside writers and material tailored specially for him – like John, Paul and George used to do, in the old days – and of a bigger, more punchy production ethos. It certainly whets the appetite for the follow-up EP later this year which, considering Ringo will be 81 when that comes out, is surely more than we have any reasonable right to expect. I doubt not even Derek Taylor, with his radioactive kids picnicking on Saturn, would’ve predicted that.

A little featurette on the making of the EP

John in 1965 – the best ever?

Imagine, if you will, that in 1965 Paul McCartney hit a writer’s block and George Harrison hadn’t yet found his feet as a songwriter. The Beatles were dependent on John Lennon compositions, plus the occasional cover. Brian Epstein kept a rabid EMI and, in the US, Capitol at bay by insisting the group would issue only one LP that year, as well as a couple of spin-off singles. Yes, I know Paul, George and Ringo massively enhanced John’s songs with their ideas and instrumental contributions. And I know that Macca played a key role in creating many Lennon originals during this period (though it cut both ways – for every McCartney-burnished ‘In My Life’, there was a Lennon-bolstered ‘Michelle’ or ‘We Can Work It Out’). Of course, collaboration was fundamental to achieving what they did, especially in this most glorious of Beatles years. I’m just urging you to focus on John’s creativity that year. Because I think there’s a case to be made that 1965 was Lennon’s artistic apex in the band, and captured him as the greatest rock star we’ve ever had.

A classic shot by Robert Whittaker

That’s not to say John wasn’t brilliant throughout his career. He dominated The Beatles’ 1964 output, for example, and had several other songwriting hotspots – the epic, mind-bending compositions of 1967, for example, 1971’s inspired Imagine  album and the array of great numbers he either created from scratch or polished off for his 1980 comeback recordings. In fact, he continued to evolve and develop throughout his life, refining his style and often reinventing it, and even his lesser years – say, 1969 or 1972 – are studded with great tunes. But there’s something about his songs for Help! and Rubber Soul, and their accompanying singles, which find a really sweet spot and capture him at the very peak of his considerable powers. Don’t believe me? Okay, let’s have a look at the track list for The Beatles’ 1965 Lennon-led album:

Help!

You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away

You’re Gonna Lose That Girl

Yes It Is

Ticket to Ride

It’s Only Love

Norwegian Wood

Nowhere Man

The Word

Girl

In My Life

Run for Your Life

(*Day Tripper, a co-write, could be the non-album single)

It’s all a matter of opinion, of course, but I think ‘Help!’, ‘Girl’ and ‘You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away’ are the best songs he wrote with The Beatles. And ‘Ticket To Ride’ and ‘In My Life’ are pretty close behind. And ‘It’s Only Love’ is one of the most underrated of all Fabs tunes. And ‘Norwegian Wood’ and ‘Nowhere Man’ aren’t bad, either. See what I mean? The power and consistency of his writing (and singing) here is phenomenal. And, like a supremely confident boxer, he’ll take you down any which way want – dazzling you with his technique, battering you with a barrage of body blows or leaving you breathless with his speed, dexterity and audacity. So you have angst-ridden introspection (‘Help!’, ‘Nowhere Man’); wounded, flailing romanticism (‘Ticket’, ‘It’s Only Love’, ‘Hide Your Love Away’); dreamy, conflicted meditations on the past (‘Yes It Is’, ‘Norwegian Wood’, ‘In My Life’), and impatient, frustrated relationship demands (‘Lose That Girl’, ‘Run For Your Life’). And, in the miraculous ‘Girl’, he somehow covers all four of these themes at once. And it’s not just the subject matter he plays around with. Stylistically, he switches from power pop to folk to jangly rock, all the while adding instrumental flourishes (flutes, sitar, harmonium, guitar volume pedals) which took rock music in to new areas. Looking for a more harder-edged Lennon? Well, he outdoes the Rolling Stones at their own game on ‘Run For Your Life’, and also leads the band through two ferocious covers of Larry Williams songs, ‘Bad Boy’ and ‘Dizzy Miss Lizzy’.

Recording ‘Rubber Soul’, autumn 1965

Why was he so good in this year? I think there are lots of factors behind it. Firstly, while still tied to an insanely busy work schedule, The Beatles had a little more time to breathe in 1965 and enjoy the fruits of their labours. At this point,  the mania whirlwind hadn’t yet begun take its toll; there was still an element of freshness and excitement, of new frontiers to conquer and undiscovered worlds to explore. For John, I think it was the first time he had the chance to take stock and reflect on what had happened to him, to savour his stardom and success, before the madness of it all became oppressive and the incessant attention began to chafe. From being an art school drop-out and Scouse ne’er do well, he was now a globally fêted multi-millionaire, heading up the biggest entertainment and cultural phenomenon of the century, hailed as a genius (which he had always thought he was, anyway) and mixing with the UK’s Swinging ‘60s cultural elite, some of whom he had loved and admired while growing up. As the memoirs of wife Cynthia and childhood pal Pete Shotton attest, he loved it – and, as with the other Fabs, it fuelled rather than stifled his creativity.

At the same time, while the previous year’s ‘I’m A Loser’ had hinted at his insecurities, the endless chart triumphs must’ve made him feel supremely confident. Rather than play it safe and stick to a winning formula, John’s character was such that it would have encouraged him to take more risks and see what he could get away with, to challenge his audience and test their adoration. The success in 1964 of his ‘In His Own Write’, his first book of sketches and language-mangling poetry, doggerel and short stories, had proven he could enjoy artistic success on his own terms. This not only resulted in a slightly darker, more twisted second book, ‘A Spaniard in the Works’, in 1965, but also encouraged him to take a more literate, personal approach to his songwriting. Contrary to what he later said, his early lyrics had often revealed a lot about the inner workings of his psyche (going back to ‘There’s A Place’ on Please Please Me), but this undoubtedly became more overt and sophisticated in 1965. Bob Dylan is often cited as a key influence here, but I suspect Lennon saw him as someone he wanted to put in his place, a rival, rather than an artist he aspired to be like. John never wanted to be anyone other than himself, and he always wanted to be top dog.

From teddy boy to teddy bear

But the insecurities remained. Much has been made, not least by John himself, of the pain and tragedy of his early life, and how it provided the engine for his artistic expression. It undoubtedly found more of an outlet in his work after hooking up with Yoko in 1968, culminating in the tortured ‘primal screams’ of John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band in 1970, and echoing through much of his solo work in the decade that followed. Those feelings were obviously buried during the prime Beatlemania years, but they were still there, bubbling away from day one. In 1965, we can see now they were starting to come to the surface, ripping through the carefully composed moptop canvas in the most forceful of ways – none more so than in the song ‘Help!’, nominally a catchy toe-tapper but also a shard of self-realisation. His 1965 songs are not only more mature and eloquent, they showcase the aching sensitivity hidden beneath his mocking, sometimes caustic public persona. Nonetheless, his internalised hurt was balanced out by the positive influences in his life. His pain may have been a driving force, but it didn’t overwhelm or define him. While he was just beginning to explore and articulate past traumas, and coming to understand that success, his marriage to Cynthia and even Beatlehood would not ultimately satisfy his innermost cravings,  he was smart enough to know he was living out a life most people could not even dream of.

And this is reflected in the Lennon we see interviewed during that period. He never whines or preaches or over-intellectualises, or plays the showbiz game. The burning intelligence and biting wit is there, but he seems comfortable in his own skin and with his status, unfazed by adoration or criticism. He’s a shade more grown-up than before, but as playful as he ever was and, possibly, ever would be again. He was already a spokesman for his generation, but didn’t see himself as that (though ‘The Word’, on Rubber Soul – in particular, the line ‘I’m here to show everybody the light’ – betrays the first flickerings of a messiah complex). He was cheeky, cocksure and irreverent, absolutely, but utterly charming, funny and irresistible. Watch him at the Shea Stadium concert. The world is literally a puddle of hysteria at his feet, and he thinks it’s hilarious. Look at the cover of Rubber Soul – while the others are scanning far horizons, he staring directly at you, challenging, engaging you, with an enigmatic, Mona Lisa-style smile. Maybe he knows something more than you do. Or maybe he doesn’t. But you instinctively know it will be fun finding out. Oh, and he looks so cool (though arguable even more so in 1966).

Never one for a typical showbiz pose

Drugs also started to seriously come into play in 1965,  notably LSD. While The Beatles almost never wrote or recorded under the influence – by all accounts, it was pretty much impossible to produce anything worthwhile in such a state – the experience began to find its way into their music, and John’s in particular. LSD represented another way of tearing down social restrictions and conventions, feeding his insatiable desire for something new and novel while also connecting with the surreal view of the world he had nurtured since childhood. Crucially, though, the heavy use, the thousands of ‘trips’, the days of “eating acid for breakfast” (as he later described it), didn’t come until later. In 1965, it was just another stimulant, alongside music, sex, booze, pot, fame. He was still very much in command of his faculties, still razor sharp, still in full control, and still very much the leader of the biggest band in the world. The drug-induced ego disintegration of 1966-67, when Paul became ascendant, was still a way off.

Which brings us back to the nonsensical fantasy I painted at the beginning about John dominating The Beatles in 1965. What makes his output that year all the more astonishing – and perhaps also partially explains it – is that Paul was just a hair’s breadth behind him in his stratospheric development. Indeed, you could argue in that in 1966, in pure songwriting terms, he overtook him (and I could make an equally strong case for Macca being the ultimate rock star from mid-1965 to mid-1966). In fact, if you see him as the junior parter in the 1964 Lennon-McCartney team, Paul’s progress during this period is even more startling – he recorded ‘I’m Down’, ‘I’ve Just Seen A Face’ and ‘Yesterday’ in just one day, for heaven’s sake – and it undoubtedly impacted on John. The intense rivalry and collaboration between them would’ve push John further, faster and more fervently into new realms of accomplishment. Add in the input from George (whose own writing was starting to blossom at this point), Ringo and George Martin, and his wonderful tunes were able to reach fantastical fruition. The John Lennon of 1965 could never have existed without the support and impetus provided by his best friends.

His talents were in full flower during 1965

Despite all that, I still think John was a remarkable creative force that year. As I said earlier, he was always great, and one of the things that made him so was his quest to keep moving and changing. The critic David Hepworth, in an article written last year to mark what would’ve been John’s 80th birthday, said Lennon remains the gold standard for anyone who picks up a guitar. And I think his work in 1965 raised the bar to an almost impossibly high level. If music truly is a universal language, and an advanced alien race with time travelling capabilities arrived and invited the Earth to enter a single person into an intergalactic musical contest, I’d say send for John during the Rubber Soul sessions. He’d probably think it was a right laugh, and the extra-terrestrials would be disarmed, wooed, amused, jolted and ever-so-slightly intimidated. I’d fancy our chances to win.