For most Americans the story of the Beatles begins fifty years ago today when a plane carrying the four longhairs from Liverpool landed at John F. Kennedy Airport, and kicks into gear two nights later when the band played on The Ed Sullivan Show to what was then the largest television audience of all time.
Of course, that is not where the story begins. The Beatles didn’t spring forth fully formed, like Athena popping out of Zeus’s head. In one incarnation or another they’d been playing and singing for almost six years by the time Sullivan introduced them. These six years are probably the least known but, in many ways, the most fascinating and important period in the band’s history. Now author Mark Lewisohn has finally released the first volume of his projected trilogy about the band, and the work more than lives up to the expectations.
Lewisohn has long been known to Beatles fans as the world’s leading expert on the subject, the author of the essential The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions that details almost every minute the band spent in the studio. He’s as close to an “official” expert the band has; with their permission he was given access to every note they’ve recorded (including all the unreleased stuff), he’s written liner notes and books, and he wrote the biographical prefaces to The Beatles Anthology (the officially sanctioned story of the band, in their own words). With Tune In, he’s outdone himself.
This is not simply a biography of The Beatles. This is the Moby Dick of rock and roll biographies. It is so richly detailed, so deep, and so complex, that it’s like seeing the Beatles for the first time in high-definition Technicolor after years of viewing them in grainy black and white. Lewisohn leaves no stone unturned here. True, it’s not really that important for even obsessive fans (guilty!) to know how much George Harrison paid for an amplifier in 1962, but those nitpicky details are deftly woven into a narrative arc that emphasizes the story over the minutiae. It’s a story told with cheek and humor, completely appropriate for the subject, and is bathed in loving detail. Lewisohn is clearly a huge fan, but he’s not worshipping at the altar here. Paul McCartney could be petty, narcissistic, and jealous. John Lennon was often cruel and cutting. Pete Best, it is clear, was a lousy drummer who couldn’t keep time if the lives of millions were at stake. None of the Beatles practiced monogamy, though both Lennon and McCartney demanded their girlfriends be subservient in almost all ways.
The early years of the band contain stories that all hardcore Beatle fans know:
- When John was five he was forced to tearfully choose between his mother and father;
- the head of Decca records refused to sign the Beatles, telling their manager Brian Epstein “Guitar groups are on the way out”;
- George Martin heard the Beatles demo and liked it enough to bring them in, agreeing to sign them when he met them and was impressed by their humor and spirit;
- when Pete Best was fired it was because the Beatles were jealous that their “mean, moody, and magnificent” drummer got all the girls;
- bassist Stuart Sutcliffe died a sudden, shocking death;
- after he was sacked, Pete Best told his best friend, Beatles roadie Neil Aspinall, to continue working for the band because “they’re going places”;
- the Beatles never tried marijuana until they met Bob Dylan;
- Lennon and McCartney spent the early years feverishly writing songs together.
The stories are so well-known, why do we need another Beatles biography? Well for starters, this is the first biography that states with complete authority that not a single one of these stories is true. Lewisohn has talked extensively not just with the people closest to the band, but their neighbors, schoolmates, employers, and everyone else with whom they had contact. His command of the facts and of the story is so overwhelming that the reader is left in awe of both his basic knowledge and the years of research he put into the book. When the facts are unclear, Lewisohn acknowledges it. When he cannot speak authoritatively, he presents all known sides of the story. Still, the number of myths he dispels is astounding.
Lewisohn wisely avoids foreshadowing for the most part. There are a handful of references to what will come later, but Tune In is set in the time it covers. This gives the book a sense of immediacy that too many biographies lack. The story builds gradually, sprawling over 800 pages (not including the end notes!), and covers only the time period ending on January 1, 1963. At book’s end, the Beatles are still over a year away from landing at Kennedy Airport. At book’s end, the airport was still called Idlewild because Kennedy himself was nearly a year away from Oswald’s bullets. Ed Sullivan, Shea Stadium, Sgt. Pepper, the Maharishi, Apple Records…these are stories for future books. Tune In ends with “Love Me Do”.
But this is the story of The Beatles. It’s all there. The guys that charmed the hardened and cynical New York press and won over the hearts of America are present and accounted for. The irreverence, humor, and restless creativity that later made Revolver are here in their early stages. Too many Beatles books think the story begins where this book ends; the early years are dismissed as a time when an amateurish act went to Hamburg and learned how to be a good band.
Essentially, that summary is true. The Beatles were a band with limited skills and a small repertoire who went to Hamburg, Germany to be the house band at the Indra Club, the sleaziest bar in town, before making their way up the musical ladder to the Kaiserkeller, the second sleaziest bar in town. Hamburg was such a high pressure situation that it turned the rough coal of the band into a brilliant diamond. It was in Hamburg that their repertoire expanded enormously because they refused to repeat any songs on the same night, and they had to play for four and half hours a night, six hours on the weekend. They learned songs on the fly, essentially rehearsing in front of crowds of drunken and often violent locals and sailors. In Hamburg they learned to put on a show, pressured by the Indra’s manager who would bellow “Mach schau! Mach schau!” (“make a show”). The show they put on, had it been seen in 1977, would have been called “punk rock”. Stomping, jumping, screaming, joking with and at the audience…the young band developed a visceral, exciting act to go with the music. They went to Hamburg as Liverpool’s also-rans. Nobody thought of them as being anything special. The best band in Liverpool was widely acknowledged as Rory Storm and the Hurricanes, featuring drummer Ringo Starr. When they came back from Hamburg, they were the best, tightest, band in Liverpool, probably the best band in England, and possibly the best rock ‘n’ roll band in the world. As such, they became stars in their hometown, attracting a rabid, fanatical following.
They would return to Hamburg four more times, the last two times being brief contractual obligations around the time of “Love Me Do”. Each time they appeared in a higher class of low-class bars. By the time they came back from Hamburg for the third time, they had played the equivalent of almost four and a half hours every night for eight months. That’s just Hamburg, and doesn’t include their countless sets in Liverpool’s Cavern Club. When you consider that type of pace, sustainable only by the young (and full of amphetamines), it’s nearly impossible to imagine a band becoming more tempered. Even when Stuart Sutcliffe quit the band in order to stay with the woman he loved, they carried on as if nothing had happened by forcing McCartney to (reluctantly) play bass. But Lewisohn also takes great pains to point out how unusual the Beatles were. It wasn’t simply that they were the best band in Liverpool, something that almost everyone in the city acknowledged in 1961. They were different. At a time when nearly every band in England was modeled after Cliff Richard and the Shadows (a singer and backing group), the Beatles all sang (even Pete Best would sing once or twice a night), and they sang harmonies, something no other band in Liverpool was doing. They were very funny, bringing their boundless love of The Goons and John’s Lewis Carroll-esque wordplay into their act. They were more than a rock ‘n’ roll band; they were the first rock group, comprised of inseparable friends (and Pete Best on drums). Lennon was clearly the leader at this time, but McCartney and Harrison were near equals. There was no star; they were all stars.
The entire history of the early years of the Beatles is laid out here and, despite the millions of words previously written about the band, there are a wealth of revelations. John, Paul, and George played as a trio named Japage 3? Brian Epstein was not their first manager? George Martin was forced into producing the Beatles as punishment for having an affair with his secretary? A recording contract was offered only because EMI wanted the publishing rights to “Like Dreamers Do”? Beatles roadie and right-hand-man Neil Aspinall, a teenager himself, was having an affair with Pete Best’s mother…and is the father of Best’s half-brother? Aside from a few very early attempts when they were still known as The Quarrymen, John and Paul didn’t start writing in earnest until after they got a recording contract? Brian Epstein became the manager of so many Liverpool acts not because he liked them, but because it enabled him to hold a near monopoly on the Liverpool music scene (and thus promote the Beatles even more heavily)? The Beatles introduced the fledgling Detroit music scene to England, by being the first band to do a Motown song on the BBC?
This is the complete story of the early years. Many myths are destroyed; many are confirmed. The true story is better than the myth. The drugs and drink are here; the rampaging, insatiable sexual appetites of young men away from home and living in squalor on Hamburg’s naughtiest street are here; the German art crowd of “Exis” is here, teaching the young band through their example that there are no rules to art; Brian Epstein’s tawdry, dangerous taste for rough trade sex is here; the violent streets of post-war Liverpool are here; most of all, the music is here. Large sections are devoted to who the young band was listening to, who they liked, and who they didn’t like. Barrels of ink are spilled detailing their love for Elvis, Buddy Holly, Gene Vincent, Little Richard, Eddie Cochran, and Carl Perkins among many others. It brings them alive in a way that is not just “the Beatles as pop music icons” but, rather, young men in love with rock ‘n’ roll. They were music obsessives, scouring the record shop at NEMS (managed by the young Brian Epstein), for the latest and greatest singles from America. They were The Beatles as the world knows them and loves them, at a time before anyone outside of Liverpool and Hamburg had heard of them.
The book is not without flaws, but most of them are frustrating and not serious. Lewisohn often describes interesting photographs, but doesn’t include them with the photos in the book. Sometimes the level of detail is all too much. There are several dog whistles to Beatles fanatics (even including some Rutles references) that would sail over the heads of non-fanatics. The next volume is not due out for another five years, and the finale five years after that…and that is the most frustrating thing of all. Regardless of these picayune flaws, All These Years, Volume 1: Tune In is the definitive biography of the savage young Beatles, and Mark Lewisohn is their Boswell. It is difficult to imagine anyone else even bothering to tell the story after this. Any future books about the band will more likely be narrowly focused to an event, an album, or even a song. There is simply no further need for another biography. Tune In sits along Peter Guralnick’s two-volume biography of Elvis Presley at the pinnacle of books about rock and roll music.