Monday, June 30, 2014

"The Beatles: All These Years: Tune In" by Mark Lewisohn

I love them, yeah, yeah, yeah. ;) 

If you're a longtime reader of my blog, you'll know that I have had an almost lifelong love affair with the Beatles. (I recently did a search of my blog & tagged all the Beatles-related posts I could find with their own "The Beatles" label.) I can't remember a time when they weren't part of my life.

I had just turned 3 when they made their famous North American debut appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show in February 1964;  I think I had just turned 5 when my mother took me to see them in the movie "Help!" in the spring of 1966, thereby setting me up for a lifetime of dreaming about Ringo's ring stuck on my finger and falling through trapdoors into cellars where tigers prowled. I was 9 when they broke up, a teenager as they established their solo careers (my sister & I owned several Wings albums between us), and a university student when John Lennon was murdered outside his Manhattan apartment building.

I've read a number of books about the Fab Four, collectively and individually, including Hunter Davies' 1968 authorized biography, The Beatles;  Shout! by Philip Norman;  and "The Beatles" by Bob Spitz (reviewed here). I am sure there are many Beatles fans who are far more knowledgeable than I -- but at the same time, I think I'm pretty well informed about the group and its history, probably more so than the average Joe or Jane on the street.

You would think there wouldn't be a whole lot more to discover about them that hasn't already been reported. And you might think that, knowing the Beatles story as well as I do, I would find yet another Beatles book a case of "been there, read that."

You would be wrong, on both counts.

"Does the world really need another book on the Beatles?"  their longtime road manager & Apple executive Neil Aspinall asked author Mark Lewisohn, when he was approached about this project. 

Well, yes -- apparently it does. "There's nothing like the Beatles story to legitimately go everywhere and strongly connect everything to everyone,"  Lewisohn says in the book's introduction, explaining why he decided to write the book, and to do so in the way that he has. "It's a blockbuster history with surprises at every turn, many heroes and a few villains, unparalleled triumphs, great joys and genuine tragedies, the ebbs and flows of human lives -- plus an avalanche of fortuitous chances and coincidences that defy probability. From the project's conception, I've seen it as the Beatles in their times -- them in their world and the world right about them."

And the book lives up to Lewisohn's vision for it. Familiar as I was with the contours of the Beatles' story, there was so, so much that I didn't know, or that was presented in a fresh new light, or with new information that questioned or challenged the veracity of old stories. Lewisohn does place the Beatles in the context of their times -- what it was like to grow up in Liverpool in the post-war years, how the British entertainment industry worked, just how unique the Beatles were as a group that was both a vocal group AND an instrumental group. The book is amazingly well researched, drawing on sources new & old, from Aspinall, who ended years of silence by speaking to Lewisohn shortly before his death, to the girls who used to frequent their legendary lunchtime shows at the Cavern Club.  There is much here that's familiar, but also much that's new. So yes, apparently we did need another book about the Beatles. :) 

I loved how Lewisohn pointed out interesting links and coincidences and near-misses of history throughout the book -- that "avalanche of fortuitous chances and coincidences that defy probability." A few examples: 
  • A 1962 photo session to publicize "Love Me Do" took place near the docks of Liverpool -- on the very spot where John Lennon's ancestors had lived when they arrived in Liverpool from Ireland, fleeing the potato famine. 
  • Producer George Martin took oboe lessons from the mother of Jane Asher, who later became Paul's girlfriend.
  • Paul and John's first meeting has long been pegged at a church fete on July 6, 1957 (28 years to the day before my wedding) -- but Lewisohn hints they may have actually met several months earlier, at a newsstand called -- of all things -- Abba (!).
  • And August 17, 1960, the first night the Beatles played in Hamburg, was 20 years to the day from the first Nazi air raids on Liverpool.  “Rock and roll music was taken to Hamburg by the children of the survivors, to be heard in turn by children who’d outlived the Allies’ revenge blitz of 1943,” Lewisohn writes.  
Overall, I think my familiarity with the Beatles story was a plus in reading this book. It took me several months to plow through this book -- but because I was familiar with the overall arc of the story and the main characters, I could pick it up and put it down, dip in & out, without losing the thread of the story. Obviously, I was predisposed to like it, and so it's hard for me to judge how someone new to the Beatles story might receive it. I imagine it could be a tad overwhelming -- but my bet is that you will find it highly entertaining as well as informative.  

This is actually just the first volume in a planned three-volume set, taking us from the Beatles' family origins in Liverpool, up to the end of 1962 -- with "Love Me Do" still hanging in on the charts, "Please Please Me" waiting in the wings for release in the new year, and the group poised on the verge of something very big. And get this -- what I read -- all 803 pages (plus notes) -- is an ABRIDGED version of the book. There is a longer, deluxe "author's cut" edition, running to 1,700+ pages (!!), but available only (for now, at least) in England.  I bought the hardcover when it first came out last fall/winter, but soon realized it was far too heavy to be lugging back & forth on the commuter train in my briefcase every day. So I got an e-version for my Kobo -- much lighter -- and consulted the notes for each chapter in the hardcover version as I read along.  

As I got closer to the end of the book, I found myself torn -- should I keep plowing on through to the close -- or linger on each page and savour it, before there were no more pages to read?? Sadly, Volume 2 is still being written. While Volume 1 took 10 years to research and write, Lewisohn doesn't think Volume 2 will take quite so long to put together. I've heard estimated delivery dates ranging anywhere from 2016 to 2020. (!!) (Presumably if Volume One was "Tune In," Volume Two will be "Turn On" and Volume Three, "Drop Out"??)

I can hardly wait. :) 

This was book #5 that I've read so far this year. (Although I'm thinking that, at 800+ pages, maybe it should count as two or three books, lol.) 


  1. There's been a lot on The Beatles in the news here lately, as it has been the 50 year anniversary of their tour of NZ.

    And yes, 800 pages can count as two books. I'm currently taking a break from an 800 page Man Booker prize winner ... I'm halfway through, so figure I'm one book down!

  2. I loved it too. I understand Lewisohn got tired of waiting for the definitive Beatles biography and so decided to do it himself. And he finally has—er, one third of it so far. It blows away all others I have read.

  3. Paul is playing in Pittsburgh tonight.