‘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

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