Tune In: The Beatles: All These Years
“With exacting research and a respect for minutiae and detail, Lewisohn has rebuilt the world of the Beatles.”
The accomplishments of The Beatles has given rise to a near deification of them as both people and myth. This is where the first part of Mark Lewisohn’s projected three volume biography of The Beatles succeeds the best. His writing brings that story back down into the world of real people.
Tune In: The Beatles: All These Years clears the air of myth and legend leaving as much reality as a biography can offer. Over the course of 800 plus pages the book makes clear that The Beatles were part of an ugly, violent, nearly destroyed world that had barely survived a war. They grew up in a city filled with alcoholism, adultery, misogyny, violence, fear, drug abuse, and double standards.
With exacting research and a respect for minutiae and detail, Lewisohn has rebuilt the world of the Beatles. Brick by brick we see the Liverpool where they were born and raised. Starting with their family history going as far back as 1845, every single page brings The Beatles back into focus and moves them away from legend.
There is Lennon’s intellectual curiosity, his bullying charisma, anger, insecurity, and the stunningly quick and merciless wit. The story makes it clear that he was the leader whether it was the band or in life.
That said, those who followed him and those he chose to work with weren’t pushovers by any means. The confidence shown by Paul and George in themselves is innate, given to them at birth as are their varying musical skills.
McCartney is a natural musician and may have succeeded as a pro without the other three. Still, he needs Lennon to open his mind and challenge him. The story brings his own selfishness and small episodes of petulance or jealousy and pettiness to the light. But in the long run those qualities prove him to be often helpful in what he works toward.
Harrison stands nearly as gifted, but in public lacks the outgoing nature of John and Paul’s charm. Much more obsessive in the way he attacks learning the guitar, he outworks the others. George is driven and skeptical but never considers himself anything less than an equal with them.
The story of Ringo moves in a parallel line to the other three. While his father abandons him (as did Lennon’s), Starkey finds a more normal family structure with his mother and stepfather. But his childhood is marred by illness and long stays in the hospital.
Lewisohn’s focus on their youth takes up hundreds of pages and every story told points towards what they would become. There is an odd harmony in the way that the universe seems to have the right people show up to help the Beatles at the right time. Events seem to almost unfold in their favor in a deliberate manner.
An agent shows up, the art student friend of John wins an unheard of amount of money enabling him to buy a bass. The result of which is the group, already on the verge of breaking up, stays together. A member of upper management at the record company takes issue with George Martin and tells him to deal with the Beatles.
Common myths about their growth and career fall apart under Mr. Lewisohn’s research. The often told story of John having to decide between his father and mother is proven inaccurate. The idea that The Beatles benefited from sailors bringing American rock and roll records over on ships gives way to the reality that their local record stores were actually pretty well informed about new music.
The firing of their drummer Pete Best is not only foreshadowed in an earlier instance, but proves to be absolutely needed to continue to the next level.
The legendary songwriting of Lennon and McCartney seems to have occurred in stages, most of it happening when they slipped into the world of professional recording artists. Under the gun they came up with classic after classic. This didn’t happen by accident, they were well versed in what worked on the charts. Their skill evolved from their own long-time obsession with both popular and obscure music.
If they were thrilled by a song written by Goffin and King, they looked for more examples of the duo’s craft. When they discovered Buddy Holly or Motown (Tamla in England), they tore apart the songwriting as a mechanic would take apart a ’57 Chevy for restoration.
Each component was analyzed, discussed, and rearranged for their own liking. An organ solo on the record became a guitar solo in George’s hands. As McCartney became more proficient on bass he learned to take the bass line form one song and incorporate it in a Lennon-McCartney original. For years they had been doing their homework so it is no wonder that, when called, they produced classics.
They were punks two decades before The Ramones even started rehearsal. Clad in leather they lived together in apartments that had more filth than the restroom at CBGB’s. They gobbled speed with abandon and none of them doubted their mission.
On stage in Hamburg and later at the Cavern and other clubs, their voices rose together on stage in three-part harmony pulled from The Everley Brothers and R&B. Each song fueled by Little Richard’s scream and pre-induction Elvis with it all being driven by Chuck Berry’s guitar. Well over a thousand hours on stage were about to pay off.
The first part of this story closes at the end of 1962. The Beatles have their much valued record contract, a hit on the charts, and a drummer who could keep an immaculate beat. It’s hard to imagine a Beatle biography ever equaling what Lewisohn has done in writing of the first two decades of their lives.