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The Beatles: All These Years, Volume One: Tune In, by Mark Lewisohn, Little, Brown, RRP£30, 960 pages
The first part of Mark Lewisohn’s projected three-volume biography of The Beatles has already, in the course of its long gestation, prompted incredulity. Yes, it really is 960 pages long, and, yes, it finishes at the end of 1962. That’s one hell of a tease. We have not, by the end, even arrived at “From Me to You”. I found myself rushing through the final chapters, willing the story to explode, as we all know it does. But we are left suspended, a little frustrated, and mightily impressed by the author’s self-control. John Lennon’s profanity ends the volume: “We were the best fucking group in the goddamn world ... It was just a matter of time before everybody else caught on.” It wouldn’t take them very long.
The Beatles never lacked for confidence. It was always evident in Lennon’s acerbic bullying of less keen intellects, and hilariously present in Paul McCartney’s jousting when he first met his mucker-to-be in July 1957. The younger boy, just turned 15, grabbed Lennon’s guitar, helpfully adjusted its unfamiliar banjo tuning, and burst into song. The normally scathing Lennon was rocked by McCartney’s precocious abilities. Paul switched to piano, and into his Little Richard routine. “[He] couldn’t have known it,” writes Lewisohn, “but by slipping into Long Tall Sally he was sliding into John’s main artery.” The addiction was mutual, and would be cured, in time to come, with a great deal of pain.
The first 250 pages of Lewisohn’s book escort us out of the 1950s with a historian’s eye for detail and a measured prose style that serves its frequently overcooked subject well. The profiles of the group’s families are the best we have yet read, and Lewisohn’s scrupulous research – he has already devoted a large part of his life to writing definitive books on The Beatles’ recordings – adds real depth to his portrait of postwar Liverpool. It was a place of hardship, but also somewhere that understood the excesses of boyhood passion. Paul tells the story of how he and George once travelled to the city’s suburbs because they had heard of a stranger who knew how to play a B7 chord on the guitar. They used it, of course, on their next composition. This was not a city that tolerated waste.
Previous Beatles historians have understandably concentrated on the alchemical reaction between the group’s four members, and particularly Lennon and McCartney, to explain its phenomenal rise to prominence. But Lewisohn adds a dash of determinism to the mix, studiously putting the socio-cultural building blocks in place: here was the first generation since pre-1939 not to be forced into army duty; over there, across the sea, was the birth of American rock-and-roll. Here was the loose-lipped zaniness of the Goon Show; there was the loose-hipped sensuality of Brigitte Bardot. The boys travelled to Germany to discover the style of French existentialism, learning at the same time how to make drunken crowds stomp in appreciation and how to carry off black polo-necks. It was a lot for a teenager to take in, even one (or two) touched by genius.
The story’s supporting cast, too, is fleshed out better than ever before. The deaths of John and Paul’s mothers are heart-rending. The group’s first drummer Pete Best receives more attention than perhaps he deserves. And there is more miraculous personal chemistry: could the boys have been better served than by George Martin, patrician and elegant, and Brian Epstein, driven by turbulent erotic impulses, but ever open-hearted and trusting? Martin has been endlessly quoted on his initial reactions to the group, but he cuts to the chase here: “It wasn’t their music, it was their charisma, the fact that when I was with them, they gave me a sense of well-being, of being happy.” Epstein described “this ... terrible, vague term – ‘star quality’” when talking about the group. You can sense his embarrassment at using the cliché, and feel embarrassed on the 21st century’s behalf that we have so cravenly fetishised the limp phrase.
This is also nothing if not a story of social mobility. Lewisohn well describes the disappointment of parents who expected better of their grammar school-educated children than to buy guitars and run off in pursuit of improbable outcomes. But even while awaiting his A-level results, McCartney was offered £18 a week to play in the damp clubs of Hamburg. It was, says the author dispassionately, 80 per cent more than Paul’s father was earning at the Cotton Exchange. The grounds of Jim McCartney’s understandable objections were swept away from him. The Beatles were irresistible, at first, because they made economic sense.
The Beatles came back from Hamburg having played music together for 415 hours in the space of just 14 weeks. Their trials would become a key illustration of Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000 hours” thesis in his book Outliers (2008) on the importance of serious and substantial practice. Part one of The Beatles’ story is as much about grit and drive as about effortless inspiration. As they moved through the beginning of the 1960s, their homework began to yield results. They always remained ahead of the game. When Lennon sang “Please Mr Postman” on the BBC’s Here We Go programme, it was not only a debut for the song but also the first time that any Tamla Motown song had been played on BBC radio.
More synchronicity: The Beatles’ breakthrough single “Love Me Do”, Lewisohn discovers, was first played on the BBC just 24 hours after the same programme, Twelve O’Clock Spin, had given Bob Dylan his first British airplay. Lewisohn revels in these portentous connections, in his understated way: “The Sixties was rapping on the door of the BBC Light Programme.” The Beatles may have knocked the door down, but Motown and Dylan were not bad allies-in-combat. What happened in Liverpool was both unique and part of an extraordinary pattern that would lavishly adorn the western world.
I can think of no greater praise for Tune In than to say that it gives The Beatles the beginnings of the biography they deserve. It is hard to imagine the subsequent volumes, covering more familiar ground, matching the gripping quality of this constantly surprising work. But Lewisohn’s clear head and good humour augur well. The main feature may not have even started yet, but this is the classiest of prequels.
Peter Aspden is the FT’s arts writer