For D.C. fans, the Beatles’ invasion of America 50 years ago has a special resonance: The Fab Four played their first U.S. concert here at the Washington Coliseum. For publishers, the anniversary offers an opportunity to unleash a slew of new books.
Among the offerings, “All the Songs” presents a stylishly illustrated tour through the U.K. singles and albums, guided by two French authors: Jean-Michel Guesdon, a musician and Beatles obsessive, and Philippe Margotin, a seasoned rock biographer (with Patti Smith contributing a preface). Guesdon and Margotin draw on newer sources to provide a useful grounding in the stories behind the songs. But some inaccuracies appear. For example, who wrote what in “A Day in the Life” is not as simple as the authors (and too many of their predecessors) assert.
“The Beatles: The BBC Archives 1962-1970,” by Kevin Howlett, is a gorgeous box set stuffed with photographs, transcripts and facsimile reproductions of tape sleeves and other archival documents. The perfect book for the serious Beatlemaniac, the “BBC Archives” chronicles the band’s long and fruitful relationship with the stations that gave many Britons their primary electronic link to the four charming Northerners with the strange accents and irresistible melodies.
The great event of the season is Mark Lewisohn’s “Tune In,” the first volume of his planned biographical trilogy. The 55-year-old British journalist has been meticulously annotating the band since the late 1970s. Initially, Lewisohn’s scholarship produced reference volumes. “The Beatles Live!” (1986) detailed every concert. “The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions” (1988), based on unprecedented access to the vaults of the Abbey Road recording studio, stood for many years as the primary resource on the subject. And “The Complete Beatles Chronicle” (1992) was a lavishly illustrated, day-by-day account of the band’s professional activity. Over time, Lewisohn attained informal status as the Beatles’ “official” historian — he wrote the liner notes to the 1990s-era “Anthology” releases — and it seemed inevitable that he would someday tackle a definitive biography.
Ten years in the making, “Tune In” does not disappoint. Some critics have blanched at the sheer weight of the thing — 803 pages of text take us only up through December 1962 — while others have complained that Lewisohn develops no radical new take on the band and its early evolution. Such criticism is myopic. The reader who makes the long march through “Tune In” is amply rewarded.
While the Beatles’ rise from the bombed-out bleakness of postwar Liverpool has been chronicled countless times, virtually every account has been marred by inaccuracy and mythology. Now, for the first time, Lewisohn tells the tale with such authoritative command of the evidence and so intimate a grasp of the Beatles’ daily lives that the reader emerges knowing — with a certainty denied all previous generations — that this is how it really happened. That alone makes “Tune In” a radical event and a joy to read.
And there is much here that is new. We learn, for example, that in audio diaries recorded in the 1970s, John Lennon confessed to uncomfortable feelings of sexual attraction to his mother, who probably encouraged them; that the band for a time called itself, and played gigs as, “Japage 3” (short for John, Paul, George); and that the sacking of original drummer, Pete Best, in favor of Ringo Starr, had been gestating long before the deed was done in August 1962.
Where previous biographies have alluded to the menial jobs the Beatles performed to finance their early acquisitions of guitars, drums and Elvis records, Lewisohn brings all these episodes to life. Unrivaled access to the private papers of Brian Epstein, the closeted and self-loathing homosexual who was the Beatles’ (fourth) manager — and the figure most responsible for catapulting them to fame — brings granular detail to the beatings and extortion schemes Epstein endured in his pursuit of illicit sex.
Indeed, Lewisohn’s Liverpool is more violent than most previous accounts have portrayed. The author emphasizes how the threat of violence loomed over the Beatles, gig after gig, with vicious young “Teds” — the city’s homegrown greaser toughs — rarely missing a chance to pick a fight, their natural instincts aggravated by the adoration their girlfriends lavished on the band. “I got beaten up a few times,” Ringo confided in a 1976 interview. He also saw Liverpool teenagers “being beaten with hammers and stabbed [and] on one occasion saw someone’s eye knifed out.”
Conversely, we learn that many staples of Beatles lore never happened — such as a heartrending scene in which the 5-year-old Lennon was forced to choose between living with his mother or his father. That apocryphal moment formed the emotional core of Tim Riley’s “Lennon: The Man, the Myth, the Music — The Definitive Life” (which I reviewed favorably in The Washington Post in October 2011). And the group’s fabled encounter with Bob Dylan in August 1964, Lewisohn makes clear, was not the Beatles’ first taste of marijuana.
Could “Tune In” have been shorter? Certainly. Even this Beatles obsessive found the trivia excessive. Did we need to know in a footnote that when George Harrison’s first band, the Rebels, performed at the British Legion Social Club, in the Speke area of Liverpool, in mid-1957, records listed the club’s chairman as “G. Harrison”? Nor did we need the address — and floor number! — of the building where the Beatles’ friend and roadie, Neil Aspinall, had earlier toiled as an apprentice accountant.
Methodology sometimes is an issue. Lewisohn at one point doubts the accuracy of the late Ray Coleman, a respected newspaperman who covered the Beatles and published several acclaimed books about them; but he uncritically accepts quotes that appear on an obscure blog about the Beatles’ wives and girlfriends. Lewisohn also compresses quotes, sometimes without ellipses, so that an indented block of text where McCartney recounts a particular incident in depth is typically composed of quotes that have been extracted from several disparate McCartney interviews, conducted over a span of decades and stitched together out of chronological order.
The greatest problem is one of voice. Lewisohn seems torn between his aspiration, on the one hand, to produce a work of proper Churchillian history — thus the tin-eared beginning of the book with a charts-and-tables explanation of the British monetary system dating back to 1850 — and his instinctive understanding, on the other hand, that an authentic biography of a group of louche, sexually ravenous, teenage rock-and-rollers must of necessity be a looser affair. This tension results in the fitful adoption and abandonment of different literary techniques — from oral history and profane inner-voice rumination to bullet points — that occasionally disrupt the admirable British crispness that is Lewisohn’s hallmark.
In totality, Lewisohn’s work stands as a monumental triumph, a challenge not merely to other Beatles biographers but to the discipline of biography itself. Let all practitioners demonstrate the monastic devotion on display here. If only all important subjects had their Lewisohn. But it all comes at a steep price to the author, one suspects. For only he, among the legions of worshippers, has sacrificed his life to Beatles scholarship. We, and Western civilization, are the richer for it, but the author, by virtue of his singular madness and achievement, must surely be the world’s loneliest Beatles fan.
All These Years, Vol. 1
By Mark Lewisohn
Crown Archetype. 932 pp. $40
ALL THE SONGS
The Story Behind Every Beatles Release
By Jean-Michel Guesdon and Philippe Margotin
Black Dog & Leventhal. 671 pp. $50
The BBC Archives 1962-1970
By Kevin Howlett
Harper Design. 336 pp. $60