THE BOOKSHELF 004.
The Beatles: All These Years Volume 1 – Tune In by Mark Lewisohn
Crown Archetype (U.S.), 2013, 932 pages
This is the big bang.
There have been a blue million other biographies of the Beatles, some of which are self-generated, all far from complete. Many have been good, several have been well-researched, but none have quite captured the story as diligently or as elegantly as this new series.
Mark Lewisohn comes at the job in a way that few other scribes have, and he comes by the job honestly. He’s been involved in the Beatles universe for well over two decades now, with his amazingly detailed book about the Beatles studio work from 1987 leading the way. That book, The Beatles Recording Sessions: The Official Abbey Road Studio Session Notes 1962-1970, was significant for Beatles obsessives, in that Lewisohn had access to something most other authors did not. Where many writers had interviews with the principals, often without the best recall, or had run with conjecture, Lewisohn used the studio logs and session tapes to explore the Beatles in the studio, as they were creating those albums and singles, to build a story about the ACTUAL WORK, with not much in the way of scandal or gossip clogging the process.
Lewisohn’s talent, evidenced in that book, was to take something as relatively dry and potentially uninteresting as the minutiae of making a song in the studio and giving it breath and life, making it sing. To pull all these facts together and giving them readability is no small feat; I’ve reread that book countless times, invariably accompanied by the music. Lewisohn’s abilities gave him an entrée into the Beatles’ sphere, as he then went on to write liner notes for the first John Lennon box set, the CD of Paul McCartney’s Unplugged performance, the Anthology collections and countless others.
This, then, is the net result of all that work, as he is writing the epic biography of one of the greatest cultural institutions to hit the planet since the advent of recorded sound. Out of the box, I will say that it is a LONG read, but not a HARD read. The fact that this is a 932-page opening third of a biography, with the subsequent volumes following over the next few years, should tell you exactly HOW huge of an undertaking this really is.
Having said that, this is the book that many fans will be less likely to buy of the three, as it only covers the opening five years of the band’s existence in various forms. In fact, the book stops (SPOILER ALERT) not long after the release of “Love Me Do” in fall, 1962, effectively not covering what some would consider the band’s greatest achievements. But to blow this book off is a big mistake, not just because it gives you the beginning of a long and winding road and provides some nice backstory…it also shows, in microcosm, what tools the band brought to the table and where those tools would take them.
No element of the story is given short shrift. Where many authors gloss over massive amounts of history to get to what they perceive as the meat of things, Lewisohn realizes that this backstory IS the meat. We see the dawning of the Lennon-McCartney friendship and songwriting partnership, the band’s time slumming in the clubs in Hamburg, Germany, and the fateful meeting with eventual manager Brian Epstein that would spin all of them into a grander scheme that they might have anticipated.
Sprinkled throughout the book are also inklings of what would potentially lead to the band’s undoing, explained in straightforward English, as certain contractual procedures would begin to lift Lennon and McCartney away from their brethren, as songwriters and not just performers – to borrow from the author William Manchester, winds that will eventually reap whirlwinds. However, there are also little hints of how the Beatles crossed paths with others that would later have substantial fame, or help others in it, graceful little asides that sometimes, when you flip to the notes in the back, reveal parts of the larger story. A quick example: there is a promoter named Don Arden who is mentioned as being involved with another act during one of the Beatles’ first theater shows, and it mentions that Don had brought his 10-year-old daughter Sharon along to see the show. You know her now in the present age as…Sharon Osbourne.
Sometimes, these asides are planted, but not explained fully, but for a music geek like me, they’re gold. Lewisohn mentions in passing the names of a couple of people involved in plugging “Love Me Do” in dancehalls in the early days, Jeff Dexter and Ian Samwell. For those who scan liner notes and production credits in albums: go break out your copy of History: America’s Greatest Hits, and take a look at who America’s coproducers were in the first three songs on that album. That’s right – Jeff Dexter and Ian Samwell. In Tune In, we see them mentioned briefly, with no clue at what else lies in their future. (Lewisohn does acknowledge in the back-of-book notes that Samwell was part of Cliff Richard’s backing band at one point, and that he was a successful producer, but doesn’t mention the America connection…something longtime Beatles producer George Martin also shares.)
Without giving away some of the big revelations, I will say that the backstory of how “Love Me Do” and the Beatles recording contract came into being includes a few surprising details, including the debunking of the story of how that first single might not have been a legitimate success on its own. And that’s ONE of MANY.
Mark Lewisohn, in short, has done his homework, and has done it with such precision and attention to detail that you would be well advised to pick up all three volumes of his Beatles biography as they come available. If you own other books about the band, this is a great addition, and a much more accurate one. If you own NO books about this band, this series will be the only one you will ever need. And that’s a promise.
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