If you’re a Beatles fan, you’ve probably heard of Tune In, or been waiting for it for years and snapped it up the second it hit the shelf. It’s the first installment of a long-promised three-part biography that may well be the most ambitious work ever written about any popular musicians. It’s author, Mark Lewisohn, has ostensibly been researching the book for the past decade, but anyone familiar with him knows he’s been building up to this work for his whole life. Known from his early twenties as “Beatles Brain of Britain,” he’s already written at least two essential works of Fabs scholarship (The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions and The Complete Beatles Chronicle), and All These Years, as the complete biography is titled, seems destined to be the definitive word on its subject — and when you consider how oft-trammelled this subject has been, that’s saying something.
Lewisohn’s approach is to leave no stone unturned and no incident unexplored. Everything is dated and catalogued and nothing is regarded as trivial; where previous biographers might mention an incident in a brief aside (say, Paul and George heading off on a hitchhiking holiday) or, far more likely, omit it entirely, Lewisohn tells you when they went, where they went, who they met and what they probably did. If that level of detail is too much for you, well, content yourself with a one-volume telling and move on. (Tune In takes the story through 1962, just before the group cuts their first LP. Lewisohn plans to release the next volume in 2020, and the third by his 70th birthday, eight years after that, which makes me want to never complain about a tackling a big project ever again.)
So out of this vast mound of details — the book runs 944 pages, and an expanded edition only available in the UK runs nearly twice that — how much new is there to learn about the Beatles? I was pleasantly surprised by what Lewisohn was able to unearth, and rather than go on with a conventional review, I thought it might be more illuminating to point out a few of the things that I either didn’t know, had wrong or read somewhere years ago and forgot. If you plan to read the book and want to be surprised, consider the following to be spoilers and proceed accordingly.
1) John’s father never tried to take him to New Zealand, and never made him choose between himself and Julia.
It’s one of the most traumatic incidents of John Lennon’s life, a wound he tore open with masochistic relish again and again in his adulthood. When John was only four years old, his father, a down-on-his-luck merchant seaman, hatched a scheme to take his son away to start a new life in New Zealand, only to be interrupted at nearly the last minute by John’s mother, Julia. Seeing young John’s divided loyalties, Alf Lennon cruelly told the boy to choose: either go off with him or return to Liverpool with his mum. There’s good reason to think it never happened this way.
Billy Hall was a young friend of Alf Lennon (whom he called Lenny) and the only witness apart from the three principals to that crucial episode between Alf, Julia and John Lennon. Billy claims that while the prospect of emigration came up casually in conversation, “Lenny” had no thought of actually doing so and made no plans in that direction. What Alf did want was to have little Johnny stay with Hall’s parents while he, Alf, sorted out more permanent living arrangements. Instead, Julia and boyfriend Bobby Dykins came to Hall’s place in Blackpool, had a quiet conversation with Alf in the Halls’ living room, and went their separate ways, Alf announcing, “I’m letting Johnny go back with his mother — she’s going to look after him properly.” From that point on, Alf was effectively gone from his son’s life, and John was quickly deposited with his mother’s sister, Mimi Smith — essentially abandoned by both parents in one fell swoop. Given that result, John was not altogether wrong to remember the incident as he did, but Lewisohn makes a pretty convincing case that in at least one particular, John’s resentment for his father was misplaced.
2) Pete Best really was a bad drummer, so stop saying he wasn’t.
Ok, this isn’t really news — Pete’s lousy drumming and his subsequent firing from the band are a well-known part of the story. But a prevailing counter-narrative, fostered first by Best himself and later by writers sympathetic to him, maintains that he was as good as any drummer on the Liverpool scene (certainly a match for that big-nosed fellow from the Dingle who played with Rory Storm) and that his brutal sacking was motivated purely by jealousy over his popularity with the girls. (This is commonly ascribed to Paul, though it was actually George who pushed the hardest to oust Pete in favor of Ringo.) To address this, Lewisohn pulls together testimony from everyone from Tony Sheridan to EMI assistant producer Ron Richards to many of the Beatles’ earliest fans, all of whom affirm that Best’s shortcomings were chronic, profound and obvious to anyone with at least one working ear. So unimpressed was Bert Kaempfert with Best that when he produced the Beatles’ Hamburg recording session, he pulled the floor tom out of the drummer’s kit entirely, forcing Best to rely solely on his snare (a choice I ascribed to the drummer himself in a review of those sessions. Sorry, Pete, if it helps.). So while this may not count as a revelation, thanks to Detective-Inspector Lewisohn we can consider the case officially — finally — closed.
3) John smoked pot years before meeting Bob Dylan.
Many writers have remarked on how unlikely it was that the Beatles had never tried marijuana on that infamous night when Dylan rolled them their first joint. As it happens, those writers were on to something. John first smoked marijuana in 1960 with Royston Ellis, a poet and hipster bon vivant who turned heads in the Liverpool art scene with his free-spirited lifestyle. Already drunk, the herb made little impression on him. A couple of years later, John smoked up again backstage at a gig, probably with Harrison, and again was drunk and again came away unimpressed, paving the way for Bob Dylan to fully and properly blow their minds in August of 1964.
4) Speaking of drugs, the Beatles didn’t try Preludin until their second trip to Hamburg.
In Hamburg, the Beatles learned to mach schau, and what fueled their increasingly outrageous stage behavior, as everyone knows, were the little diet pills sold by the clubs’ waitresses and toilet attendants. Except it turns out that on that critical first journey, when the Beatles went from being perennial runners-up to the one of the most exciting bands on the Continent, ran “on alcohol and momentum,” as Lewisohn puts it.
5) Astrid and her friends never liked Paul.
Paul McCartney’s blend of easygoing, all-smiles exterior and thinly veiled underlying ruthlessness has been setting some observers’ teeth on edge for half a century, and the first people to find something glib and conniving behind those puppy-dog brown eyes were probably Astrid Kircherr and her friends. “In order,” she explains, “I liked Stuart, John, George, Pete and Paul. … Paul was so ‘nice’ you couldn’t get close. He was like a diplomat: everything had to be nice and calm.” To Astrid and her friends — German middle-class intellectuals who loved the Beatles for their unselfconscious authenticity — the McCartney charm was virtually guaranteed to rub them the wrong way, and it didn’t help that Paul was constantly at odds with Astrid’s favorite (and eventual fiancee), Stuart Sutcliffe. The first Hamburg trip proved a major bummer for Paul. “Paul has turned out the real black sheep of the trip,” Stu wrote home in a letter. “Everyone hates him and I only feel sorry for him.” Things never improved much, and when Stuart died, all chance of a real rapport between McCartney and German Exis went right out the fenster.
6) It’s not Brian Epstein’s fault the Beatles tanked their Decca audition.
A myth has grown around the Beatles’ famously botched audition with Decca on New Year’s Day, 1962, stating that the seemingly bizarre selection of songs — which supposedly passed over the group’s rock n’ roll repertoire for jokey numbers like “Besame Mucho” and “Sheikh of Araby” — was dictated by Epstein in a misguided attempt to pass the group off as well-rounded, mainstream entertainers. In fact, every one of the 15 songs the group played that morning were regular features of their stage act, and if Epstein had any influence, it was likely in insisting that the Beatles include a few Lennon-McCartney numbers in the set, which their self-conscious composers still rarely played in public. The fault here lies solely with the Beatles themselves, who were intimidated and ill at ease in the studio and simply couldn’t overcome it. (It didn’t help that Pete was still in the drummer’s seat; see #2 above.)
There’s more to the story of the Beatles at Decca — how, for example, the label counter-proposed recording the Beatles and releasing a single if Brian Epstein paid the recording costs himself — but the result, as Decca contract producer Tony Meehan (who would have recorded the group for this proposed arrangement) puts it, was “just a complete mess, as things generally are — a dreadful corporate blunder.”
7) The real reason the Beatles were signed to Parlophone is nothing like what you think it is.
Every casual fan knows the story: having struck out with every other record company in Britain, Brian Epstein goes into a shop to have his tape of the Decca audition cut to disk. The engineer thinks George Martin over at Parlophone might find it interesting; Martin gives the group an audition, and despite being only mildly enthused by their music, he takes a chance after the group charms the socks off him in the control room in Abbey Road Studio 2, and the rest is history.
The truth is nothing like that, and is so peculiar I actually had to reread certain passages to make sure I properly understood just what Lewisohn has uncovered. To simplify it greatly, the Beatles were acquired by EMI not because George Martin was won over by them — he wasn’t, being unimpressed with the demo disk Brian Epstein played for him — but because the company’s music publishing arm, Ardmore and Beechwood, wanted the publishing rights to the original Lennon-McCartney songs, particularly “Like Dreamers Do,” which they thought a potential hit. EMI managing director L. G. Wood agreed to sign the group more or less as a favor to his friend Sid Colman, head of Ardmore and Beechwood, but had no personal stake in the Beatles’ success and fobbed the job of recording them off onto the least favorite of his staff producers. This happened to be none other than George Martin, who had earned his boss’s ire by appearing in public with his (Martin’s) secretary, with whom he had been carrying on an otherwise discreet affair for many years. When Martin ended up meeting the group at that first session, he wasn’t deciding whether to sign them — the Beatles were already official EMI artists, and they never knew the strange circumstances under which it happened.