Monday 15 September 2014

Book Review: "Tune In" - a bio of The Beatles by Mark Lewisohn

Lewisohn's epic new Beatles book
Do we really need yet another detailed history of The Beatles? A history so detailed and comprehensive that it will run to three volumes - each volume consisting of about 800 pages (400,000 words). You would be forgiven, if you were to think not. After all, there have already been a host of books published about the band, covering virtually every aspect of their career - including a handful of superior efforts, which skillfully tell the full story: books by the likes of Hunter Davies, Philip Norman, Ray Coleman and  Bob Spitz. And, of course, the Fab Four themselves eventually got to provide their own version of the tale - in the exhaustive and lavishly-illustrated book The Beatles Anthology (2000). The full arc of the career is so well-known now - Liverpool, Hamburg, England, Europe, America, and the World - and the catalogue of tours, singles, LPs, and films is so familiar, that it's hard to imagine that another history - especially a tome of this scope and size - could find a place in such a seemingly saturated market. But believe me, for a veritable Fab Four fanatic like me, this is an essential addition to any serious Beatles collection. In fact, it turns out to be the definitive treatment - because the author of this biography is Mark Lewisohn.

If you're not familiar with the man, Mark Lewisohn is responsible for two of the very best resources about The Beatles. The first is The Beatles Recording Sessions (The Official Abbey Road Studio Session Notes, 1962-1970), published in 1988. EMI Records gave Mr. Lewisohn access to the entire archive of Beatles recordings done at Abbey Road Studios in St. John's Wood, London between June 6, 1962 and May 8, 1970. He listened to every single take: not just the final mix of each track released on a single, EP, or LP recording, but the scores of takes that it took to get to the final mix. He listened to hundreds of hours of alternative takes and unreleased tracks. EMI also made available to him all of its unpublished documentation for every recording session The Beatles ever did at Abbey Road. In this book he provides, for each session, the studio number (usually they worked in Studio Two), the times for the session, the names of the songs they were working on (including the number of takes they performed of each song), and the names of the producer and engineers. It is a one-of-a-kind book; and it is indispensable for those interested in how the band set about creating their recordings.

Mark Lewisohn's other master-work about the Fab Four is The Complete Beatles Chronicle (1992). It is sub-titled "The Definitive Day-By-Day Guide to The Beatles Entire Career". It is primarily a chronology of what the band was up to each day: concert performance, recording session, TV show, radio program, film work, etc. But it also includes important appendices - separate lists which document their discography, the peak chart positions for all their recordings, all their radio and TV appearances, every venue they played at in the UK and around the World, and their repertoire - every known song they ever performed live. It is another fascinating treasure-trove - also indispensible to the serious fan.

Mark Lewisohn listening to EMI's complete archive of every Beatles' recording session

You get the idea - Mark Lewisohn is a Beatles expert. He was already one of the most knowledgeable aficionados of the group before he even started work on the current book. And he then put a further ten years of work into its preparation: including exhaustive research and countless interviews with people involved in the Beatles' story. Back in July 2012, when I was doing the National Trust tour of Mendips (where John Lennon grew up with his Aunt Mimi and Uncle George) on Menlove Avenue in Liverpool, I was chatting to the tour guide, Colin Hall - who lives much of each year in the house. He mentioned to me that Lewisohn's book was due out soon and he encouraged me to get it, because it would certainly be the ultimate treatment of its subject. He was correct.

Colin Hall, tour guide at Mendips on Menlove Avenue (left), and Mark Lewisohn

Mark Lewisohn's projected three-volume history is called The Beatles: All Those Years. Volume One - called Tune In (2013)  - was published late last year. I picked it up immediately and raced through it in about a week. I took copious notes at the time but, for one reason or another, I had not got around to reviewing it until now - which is certainly not a reflection on its value or interest. 

The McCartneys (l-r): Mike, Mary, Jim and Paul
Tune In covers the story from the beginning, and leaves off at the end of 1962, with the band all primed and ready to go for the growing hysteria that would morph into Beatlemania in the autumn of 1963. And what is the beginning of the story? Well, Mr. Lewisohn provides some backstory on each of the family groups that would nurture the key members of the band. He also describes the cultural and musical scene in Liverpool and outlines the emergence, first, of the skiffle craze and, then, the birth of the city's thriving rock 'n' roll culture.

Mr. Lewisohn, as you can tell, is a walking encyclopedia of Beatles lore and information. And his book is cram-full of exquisite detail on every aspect of the band's development. If you are a true Fab Four fanatic, like me, then the layering-on of the detail never becomes tedious. After all, most serious fans know exactly how the history goes - it's the wallowing in the details that is the delight of tomes like this. And it is in the details that we get a more nuanced understanding of the familiar narrative - things, after all, are never so simple and black-and-white as we are often led to believe.

John and Cynthia Powell (first wife)

But it's not just the incredible detail that makes this book so compelling; it is also the even-handed and insightful judgments he makes throughout the book. Mark Lewisohn has no axes to grind, it seems to me. Unlike many of the other books I've read about The Beatles, Lewisohn doesn't inflate the reputation of one individual, in order to downgrade the reputation of another. He carefully considers much of the received opinion about the band, and comes to his own conclusions - based both on the facts and on balancing the opinions of the many witnesses he has interviewed or read.

And it's the many interesting insights that make Tune In so valuable. For example, as you wade through this comprehensive account, it becomes evident what it is about The Beatles that was so special. Let me itemize some of the key points that Lewisohn makes. The band was a tight group. It wasn't, like most of their contemporaries, a leader-singer fronting a backing group - what Lewisohn characterizes several times as Harry and The Somethings. In the late fifties and early 60s, the UK pop scene - centred, of course, in London - was dominated by individual singing stars. It was different in Liverpool, where things were all about groups. The Crickets - Buddy Holly's band - was taken as the model: a tight four-piece, with two guitars, bass and drums. It was the universal adoption of the electric bass guitar which marked a definitive break with the immediate past; no more stand-up bass (like the jazz groups), and no more skiffle-styled tea-chest bass.  

Early days: Paul playing with John in The Quarrymen

As part of their own tight-group ethos, The Beatles invariably used a three-part harmony attack. And in these early days, they would employ a strict rotation in lead-singing duties amongst John, Paul and George. Unlike the slick, "professional" approach that other bands brought to their performances, The Beatles insisted on being themselves. No choreographed dance-steps (à la Shadows). They would eat sandwiches on stage. And smoke during their sets. They wore leathers and cowboy boots. They preferred black and dark colours for their stage clothes.  And after their first visit to Hamburg, they adopted the long-haired look of the "exis" (existentialists) - the so-called Parisian look. They didn't have any prepared banter - no script. They carried on as they pleased. Their natural charisma allowed them to command the stage. John and Paul would engage in constant repartee and would get up to some strange shenanigans. Added to the driving rock 'n' roll sound, the unique and casual stage presence made them mesmerizing to watch. They did compromise later with Brian Epstein about some elements of their stage presentation, but when they made it big, they still insisted on making it on their own terms. 

The Beatles also had a unique repertoire. They were already writing their own material. And added to the usual warhorses of the Liverpool bands (Little Richard, Chuck Berry, et. al.) were more obscure songs - A and B sides from the many American R&B singles they would check out in local record shops. These shops had individual listening booths, dubbed "browseries". The Beatles were constantly searching for interesting and off-beat material to put into their repertoire. They spent a lot of time in record shops - including the three NEMS shops run by the Epstein family. The Beatles amassed a large repertoire: rock 'n' roll, country, R&B, novelty songs and pop. They could do a 45-minute matinee show, and then follow that - at the same venue - in the evening with another 45-minute show, and not repeat a single song. In the days of two to two-and-a-half minute songs, that would mean about 40 different songs.

Brian Epstein - Beatles' Manager

Tune In focuses its attention on all the key individuals in The Beatles early history. There are long sections that tell us all about the early lives of Brian Epstein and George Martin. We learn a lot about Alan Williams, Tony Sheridan, Astrid Kirchherr, Jürgen Vollmer, Klaus Voorman, Stuart Sutcliffe, Pete  and Mona Best, Neil Aspinall, Bob Wooler and Bill Harry.

In Hamburg (l-r): Pete Best, George, John, Paul, and Stuart Sutcliffe (photo by Astrid Kirchherr)

Lewisohn brings his critical judgment to bear on some long-standing controversies in The Beatles history. He documents fully why Pete Best was pushed from the band: it was primarily a musical issue, but it was also a personality problem. Put bluntly, Pete Best was  a crummy drummer. This kept being pointed out to the band at key moments. When Tony Sheridan, for example, would step onto the stage in Hamburg to sing a couple of songs with the band, he would invariably turn around and yell off-mic to Pete to keep the beat. When the German producer Bert Kaempfert used The Beatles as a backing group for Sheridan during a recording session (they were dubbed The Beat Brothers), he was so dissatisfied with Best's drumming that he removed his bass drum and tom-tom, leaving only the snare drum and cymbal. George Martin was also critical of Best's work. After the first Beatles session at Abbey Road, Martin planned to bring in a session drummer for their next recording date. Best just wasn't good enough.

Just arrived at The Indra in Hamburg - shoddy equipment and poor instruments

But it was also apparent that Pete Best did not fit in with the others. He was a moody loner. He could not relate much to the others in the band. After a show, the group would usually hang out together - but not with Pete. Pete would take off immediately and do his own thing. The reason he lasted so long, really, was because they had always had trouble finding a drummer; Pete had a good set of drums of his own; and his mother, Mona, had been a big help to the group - giving them gigs at The Casbah, the social club she established in the basement of her home.

George, Stuart Sutcliffe and John in Hamburg
(photo by Astrid Kirchherr)

Lewisohn marks each key turning point in the band's development - making its particular significance clear. The group's tour of Scotland in early 1960, for example. The Liverpool promoter Alan Williams became an associate of the London based entrepreneur Larry Parnes. Parnes had established a stable of teen idols - handsome young men, whose names were changed to fit a preconceived image. He began with Tommy Steele and Marty Wilde; and moved on to sign the likes of Billy Fury, Vince Eager, Duffy Power and Johnny Gentle. In May 1960 Parnes had booked a tour of Scotland for Gentle, and he asked Alan Williams if he could find a Liverpool band to work as a backing group for his singer. Williams offered the gig to The Beatles. It was a moment of decision. Paul would miss a written paper he was required to do for his A-Levels. Stuart Sutcliffe was also close to his A Level exams. And George would have to quit his job at Blackler's department store - ending his apprenticeship as an electrician. They took the job on May 18th., rehearsed all day on May 19th., and then they were off. They were now the first Liverpool rock group to go on tour. 

(photo by Astrid Kirchherr)

The Beatles' first visit to Hamburg was an even more important turning point. It was there that they were transformed into a dynamic, tight rock band. When they first arrived at the Indra Club, they would play standing still. Their boss, Bruno Koschmider would yell at them to "Mach shau!" ("Put on a show!). Eventually, they learned to let loose on stage - engaging in all manner of silly antics and outlandish behaviour. They played long, long hours. Lewisohn lists the incredible statistics: in their first two Hamburg visits (over 27 weeks) they played for 918 hours - that's the equivalent of 612 ninety-minute shows! During their second visit to Hamburg they played 92 nights in a row. They returned to Liverpool as an incredibly tight outfit, and they blew every other band off the stage.

In the Abbey Road cafeteria with producer George Martin

Another fascinating turning point that Lewisohn covers was George Martin's eventual capitulation to the band's artistic freedom. When The Beatles had their first recording session at Abbey Road - it was an audition of sorts - Martin had it already in mind that he would do the typical producer thing and provide them with a catchy tune to record for their first single. He was also looking to pick one of the band as prime vocalist (Lennon would have been the obvious choice) in order to rename them - in the current fashion - as Paul McCartney and The Beatles, or John Lennon and The Beatles. [Oh, how Paul would have loved to be chosen as "leader" of the band. But, no chance!] The Beatles had their own plans. They already had it in their minds that they would only record their own songs for their 45 r.p.m. singles. George Martin was dubious, but he agreed to work with them on what he thought was the best song they presented to him - "Love Me Do". Even after it was released as their first single in November 1962, Martin wasn't convinced that it would be successful. But when it got into the Top Twenty chart, he changed his mind - and his attitude. He met with the group and announced that he would no longer attempt to foist other material on them; that they would now work together in the studio primarily on the group's own songs; and, oh, by the way, they would now set about recording their first LP. The band was floored, but they were up to the challenge. And after their very first session George realized that it was best to leave the group as a "leaderless" unit. 

(photo by Astrid Kirchherr)

As I said earlier, Lewisohn's insights often counter received wisdom. For example, Paul McCartney has always been recognized as the most "musical" of the group - a natural, who could pick up things so quickly. His shift to bass guitar, after Stuart Sutcliffe left the group, is a good illustration of his innate musicality - he learned bass with great facility, and became proficient in no time at all. But Lewisohn points out that in the early days, when he was still on guitar, Paul always had the shoddiest instrument. And Paul was always the most nervous of the group when they faced an audition - blowing it several times. During the recording of "Love Me Do", for example, John was doing the lead vocal, but also had to play the harmonica. To ease into the crossover, George Martin asked Paul to sing the final line of each verse - before John came in on the harmonica. Paul was very nervous about this and folded under the pressure. It was like the Decca audition in January, 1962. Although Lennon, arguably, was the best all-round vocalist - able to cover the most varied of styles - he only sang four of the 15 songs they recorded at the audition; George sang four; and Paul handled seven. Paul had succumbed to nerves then, too. And it happened again at the group's first audition for BBC Radio.

Lewisohn also takes things we already knew, but refocuses our attention on their importance by his particular emphasis. The phrase "John, Paul, George and Ringo", for example, as Neil Aspinall points out to Lewisohn, indicated the chain of seniority, as well as the pecking order, in the band. John was the original member; it was he who accepted Paul into the band; George was introduced to John by Paul; and it was primarily George who lobbied to bring Ringo in to replace Pete Best. The dynamics in the group were interesting. Paul, George and Ringo each had their own close bond with John, whom they recognized as the leader. But then the group often split into two pairs: John and Paul; George and Ringo - although George often served as a buffer and catalyst between John and Paul. There was some ambivalence between Ringo and Paul, and between George and Paul - and this would become manifest later in their career. And the publishing contract signed by John and Paul meant that the band's primary songwriters would earn significantly more than the other two - something they couldn't help but resent a little. All things considered, though, the real binding strength in the band was the John-Paul-George musical triad.

Brian Epstein and George Martin at Abbey Road

Another conclusion of Lewisohn is how lucky The Beatles were to have three such honest men running key aspects of their career: Brian Epstein, their manager; George Martin, their record producer; and Dick James, their music publisher. In those days, many people in the music business were dishonest shysters - only in the business to make as much money as they could. They thought nothing about ripping off their naive clients. The Beatles seemed able - perhaps because of their unique talent and charisma - to earn respect and to attract loyal people. In some ways, it was their own open and honest attitudes which encouraged the honesty of people around them. Other notably honest and loyal members of the band's entourage: Neil Aspinall, Mal Evans and Tony Barrow.

Mark Lewisohn demonstrates clearly that The Beatles slow, but inexorable, growth was a natural and authentic progression. It was based on ambition, experience, ability and creative drive. They remained untainted by hype and commercial dilution. At nearly every stage of their development they insisted on doing things their way. They hated the inauthentic "star image" of the show-biz scene. They wanted to be themselves. They fought against, and defeated, the condescending attitude that just about everybody had in the London entertainment and media industry for people from the "provinces" - cities like Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle and Birmingham. 

Mark Lewisohn - author of Tune In

Tune In is a wonderful achievement. I have read many different versions of The Beatles' early history. Mark Lewisohn's book is the definitive account. How long will it take him to produce the next two volumes? They cannot come soon enough, in my opinion. Meanwhile, I highly recommend this first volume. All serious fans of the Fab Four should get this book. It is fully footnoted; it has a comprehensive index; and it includes 24 pages of interesting photographs. Kudos to Mr. Lewisohn - he has done it again!

Rare colour photograph from Hamburg - Pete Best on the left


  1. Sounds very interesting Clive. Is it a page turner? I am wondering whether the minutiae of the detail might be too much for the ordinary fan. I might be wrong. I hope I am.

    1. Well, I found it to be a real page-turner. But I'm a regular reader and an ardent fan. It is probably too detailed for the casual fan, but then I don't think a casual fan would be interested in a non-fiction book that is three-inches thick! I found the minutiae to be particularly interesting in certain areas. For example, Lewisohn continually updates us on the latest R&B and rock 'n' roll singles they've been listening to. Some of these they incorporate into their vast repertoire. It's the first time that I can recall a bio of the group listing so many of the records that were influencing them, week-by-week, month-by-month. Let's face it - as far as the Fab Four goes, I can never get enough!

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