Author Mark Lewisohn knows more about the Beatles than John, Paul, George and Ringo themselves. Blasphemy? Perhaps. But he has the footnotes to prove it! Lewisohn’s immaculately researched books have been hailed as Beatle Bibles, and now there’s a new gospel according to Mark. The long-awaited All These Years: Tune In is available at last, presenting the band’s story in a way it’s never been seen before: truthfully and completely.
It’s safe to say that most people are Beatles fans, yet Mark Lewisohn is not like most people. Limitless passion and diligence have driven him far past mere fandom to become the world’s undisputed expert on all things Fab. Over the last four decades he has written multiple best sellers on the group, become the only journalist granted exclusive access to their tape archive, and assisted on the groundbreaking Beatles Anthology archival project. Even the Beatles themselves are impressed with Lewisohn’s work, with Sir Paul McCartney tapping him to pen the liner notes for several solo albums and reissues, including 2000’s chart-busting 1.
All told, the man has lived a life Beatlemaniacs can only dream about, and now he’s sharing the wealth. The historian has channeled a lifetime of experience and knowledge into All These Years: Tune In, the first volume of a planned trilogy documenting the life of the Beatles as never before. Ten years in the making, the exhaustive 932-page tome takes us from the arrival of John Lennon’s ancestors in Liverpool through December of 1962, when the savage young Beatles first taste the stardom that would define their lives. Breathtakingly detailed, the work would be a remarkable achievement even if it contained no new information whatsoever. Never before has every shred of information pertaining to the band’s career been scanned under Lewisohn’s ruthless investigative eye and assembled in one place. But that’s only half the story. Lewisohn spoils us with never-published interviews and newly unearthed documents which rewrite the history of the world’s favorite group. Myths are debunked, and in their place are fascinating revelations. The end result is a herculean effort, a fast-moving page-turner overflowing with warm humor, passion, and (of course) music.
The All These Years series represents the culmination of Lewisohn’s 30-year career studying the subject, but his journey goes back much further. It was 1963 when an 8-year-old Lewisohn first heard the band that would change his life. “It was the original feel good music,” he tells us, “and it’s been making me feel good ever since.” He’s hardly the first young person enamored by the early Mersey Beat stomp, but his inquisitive mind soon set him apart from your run-of-the-mill superfans. His big break came at the age of twenty-one when he became an assistant to Phillip Norman, the renowned Beatles scholar. Lewisohn helped research Norman’s 1979 book, Shout!, widely considered the first great unauthorized biography of the band.
The job began, appropriately enough, at the Beatles’ Big Bang. “The first bit of research I did was to establish the date that John met Paul.” Surprisingly, many people had this crucial date incorrect…including the Beatles themselves! According to Lewisohn, few books at the time seriously attempted to tell the band’s complete tale, and fewer still that did it with much veracity. “That was interesting for me, and it made me realize that the Beatles story had not been very well researched.” The role of Chief Beatle-ologist was his for the taking.
After assisting with the radio documentary The Beatles at the Beeb, Lewisohn moved on to writing intricate works of his own which cataloged distinct aspects of the group’s legacy. First came Beatles Live! in 1986, a diary of every performance they ever made. From there, he was rewarded with unprecedented rights to the EMI tape vaults, delivering The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions in 1987. Finally, he put it all together with 1992’s The Complete Beatles Chronicle, a daily history of their entire working career.
With Tune In, Lewisohn vowed to apply his unrelenting research skills not simply to dates and venues, but every aspect of the Beatles’ lives and career. “I was interested for the first time in the whole of the story and not just their professional endeavors. Not just what they were doing on the stage or in the studio, but what they were doing in between times and what they brought to those sessions in terms of characters and personality.” With that, he set out to write what some have called a rock ‘n’ roll War and Peace, a pop music saga unparalleled in scope. His aims were clear-eyed and pure: “I wanted the story to be told comprehensively. I wanted it to be told accurately or as accurately as anyone can ever get something. And I wanted it to be told even evenhandedly, without any agenda.”
But where does one even begin such a mammoth undertaking? “There’s just so much to be done!” he sighs. Like most great literature, Lewisohn’s book is decidedly character-driven, and he made it top priority to investigate the human players. In addition to the usual suspects, regulars on the Beatle circuit, Lewisohn added depth and color to the history by seeking out those who have never before told their tales in print. Considering that half a century has already gone by, it’s likely their last opportunity. “I always knew there were loads of other people that had never been interviewed at all and I was determined to track them down.” The myriad of new voices include early managers, loves, friends and fellow musicians. Among his personal favorites are Lindy and Lou, two young women who sat with John Lennon and Paul McCartney as they wrote their first number one hit, “Please Please Me”, in 1962. “There are all these witnesses to this history that have never been interviewed before, and they all made this book really fresh. And they are people that are now going to be quoted forevermore, but until now you’ve probably never heard of them.”
In addition to his own extensive research both in the library and in the field, Lewisohn continually wades through a sea of documents, photographs, tapes, memorabilia, and other items that arrive daily on his door step. “I feel like a drowning man asking for more water because it’s completely swamping me sometimes. It’s coming like a deluge, more than ever before. It’s extraordinary.” He could easily just keep zooming in further and further, uncovering more details to write about endlessly, but knowing when to quit is an acquired skill. “My publishers do expect a book at the end of the day. But I won’t cut any corners. There came a point where I said I’m now going to write it, but you can keep going forever, if you want to.”
And he does. He plans to press onward immediately, full-speed-ahead-Mister-Boatswain to Volume Two. Does he get bored, exhausted, or Beatle-d out after nearly ten continuous years? Never! “My enthusiasm for this knows no bounds. I’m just totally consumed with it. I have a normal life in the sense that I have a wife and children. I have friends and we go out and we don’t talk about The Beatles. But I do love my job with a passion. My desire to find out more is endless and infinite, and it gives me great joy to do so.”
But now comes the great question: What is this all for? Is this obsession for details just a form of nitpicking, obscuring the music at the heart of it all? Are we missing the point? Even Sir Paul himself, Lewisohn’s one-time employer and champion, seems to have changed his tune in recent years. His latest album New features a song called “Early Days,” in which he takes aim at Beatles experts who “seem to have their own opinion of who did this and who did that.” Clearly the legend is no longer interested in those who challenge his version of events. But Lewisohn is sympathetic to this; he has no desire to meddle with Macca’s memories. To borrow a familiar phrase, all he wants is some truth. “I’m just reporting the history as faithfully and honestly as I can, with the most concentrated research that’s ever been done. And beyond all that, if he still has a problem, I would ask him to look at the book, because no one has tried harder to be as faithful to the story or to be as understanding of all this extraordinary stuff that happened in those years. But if I got anything wrong they’re honest mistakes and I’m still going to be doing it.”
One could be forgiven for wondering why anyone would want to read (let alone write) over 900 pages -or 2,000, if you count the unabridged “author’s cut”- covering a rock group before they’ve even recorded their first full length record! But the reality is, it’s not just the story of a bunch of lads from Liverpool and the electronic noise they produced. From the beginning, Lewisohn was wary of writing a “rock book”, filled with salacious showbiz tales. “It’s about a rock and roll band, but it’s actually about more. It’s a kind of contextual cultural history, with them in the middle of it.” There’s no argument that the Beatles’ influence on music, fashion, politics and even technology is still being felt today.”Their impact on society was so great that it’s hard to imagine what the world would be like without them. You couldn’t just remove them from everything we know and expect life to be the same.”
You can’t say the same thing about many individuals, and this is precisely why Tune In is immensely important. If the Beatles were buildings, they would have been certified landmarks, restored, loaded with structural supports, and covered in Plexiglas for safe-keeping. Sadly, human beings aren’t quite as durable. Two of these four artistic treasures are gone now, having already passed on before their time. Like it or not, we must face the fact that all too soon the remaining Beatles and company will fade from contemporaries and into untouchable Historical Figures, taking their rightful place along great men and women of the past who shaped our world. Before they become fixed in time and made into demigods, it’s crucial to learn all we can about them as humans while we still have the chance, before we’re at the mercy of faded second hand sources.
He may be looking backward, but Lewisohn’s work is surprisingly forward thinking. The All These Years series will likely become a principle text in 20th-century studies, a sort of Complete Shakespeare with a much better soundtrack. It’s an invaluable gift, and it should be celebrated as such. Lewisohn’s quest for facts isn’t the egotistical obsession of an academic, but the effort of a supremely generous man who wants to leave a lasting record for the future. It’s a big vision, and yet he’s charmingly humble. “It’s not so much about me going out there and grabbing something great for my book. I’m just like the conduit on this. I want to learn it and then in turn share it. I don’t want to hang onto it. It’s not for me to hang on possessively to this thing that only I know and nobody else. It’s my job to share it and to spread it.” Whether you’re interested in the beginnings of youth culture, the economic development of the post-war first world, a history of recorded sound, or the year Ringo Starr got his first television set, it’s all here in these pages.
Lewisohn offers a fitting epitaph for the Beatles in the first line of the book’s introduction. “Every once in a while, life conjures up the genuine ultimate.” For anyone who loves music, this book is the genuine ultimate.
[Photo: Piet Schreuders]