THE BEATLES: ALL THESE YEARS
by Mark Lewisohn
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Mark Lewisohn has made a life out of studying the Beatles. While most people are content to listen to their music and perhaps watch their movies, Lewisohn has written several books on the band, including a day-by-day guide to their activities and a chronology of their studio work. In 2005, he decided it was time to write the history of the group and the result is The Beatles: All These Years: Volume 1: Tune In, or rather, this book is 1/3 of the results as Lewisohn intends to write two additional volumes in the series. This first volume covers the band up until the end of 1962, as their second single for EMI is about to be released and with the six principals, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo Starr, Brian Epstein, and George Martin, all in their positions.
Lewisohn opens with a lengthy discussion of the genealogies of the four primary Beatles, offering footnote summaries for Best and Sutcliffe when appropriate. Describing the Liverpool they grew up in during the forties and fifties clearly paints a different society from the modern one, Lewisohn captures a foreign time period quite well as the background that shaped his heroes, with the threat of service, the dangers of living in the rougher parts of Liverpool, and the school system which will seem strange to most Americans.
Lennon is, perhaps, the Beatle who comes across with the worst reputation. Lewisohn often refers to his charisma (as do the fans he quotes and Paul McCartney), but that charisma doesn't come across on the page. Instead, Lennon is depicted as a bully, with references to striking his girlfriend, and endlessly and cruelly needling Stu Sutcliffe, Pete Best, and Paul McCartney. No real connection is demonstrated between John and the others and when Paul McCartney is forced to play second fiddle to everyone during their Hamburg days, the reader is forced to wonder why McCartney remained with Lennon. George Harrison, on the other hand, comes across as the unsung Beatles, despite being the youngest, also being the best musician and the strongest link between each of the members. Nevertheless all of the Beatles could be cold. While the firing of Pete Best is the best known dismissal from the group, it followed a set pattern of the three Beatles (Lennon, McCartney, and Harrison) of allowing others to do their dirty work for them and not looking back. Before Epstein fired Best, earlier managers, some of whom were only with the group for a few days, were made to fire band members.
Even when the Beatles were very poor musicians prior to their long stints in Hamburg, Lewisohn makes it clear how different they were from the rest of the groups performing in Liverpool. They may have constantly been in search of a drummer and Lennon may have only been slowly learning to play guitar, but Lennon and McCartney put together harmonies while most groups just had a single singer. Harrison sang many songs on his own, rather than just playing lead guitar, and they consistently searched out new materials nobody else was performing. Although Lennon and McCartney were writing songs from a very early point in their careers, they didn't start to perform any of their original compositions until relatively shortly before they began to be noticed outside of Liverpool.
Lewisohn has also done a fantastic job tracking down early fans of the Beatles, the men and women who used to listen to them play the Cavern during lunch hours and even follow them from venue to venue as they played the Liverpool circuit. These interviews are especially interesting since they put faces to the hordes of screaming fans who show up in early footage of the Beatles and also provide an understanding of why they were appealing, another point that set them apart from other groups, and a surprising look at how close the Beatles were to their audience in those days.
If ever a book cried out for a soundtrack, Tune In is the book. While many of the songs the Beatles performed during this period can be found on Anthology, Volume One, Lewisohn makes numerous references to the songs which were instrumental in forging the Beatles identity. Many of these, notably the works of Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, or the Shirelles, are widely known, just as many are still hardly known and little played in the twenty-first century, such as James Ray's "If You Gotta Make a Fool of Somebody" and Bobby Lewis's "One Track Mind."
Extremely detailed, Lewisohn clearly had fun writing the book, occasionally dropping in a phrase from a song into his text, sometimes one of the Beatles, sometimes an unrelated song. Despite the length and details, the book's success is evident and the reader is left wanting more...more pictures, more details, more music, a tremendous achievement for a book more than 800 pages long (more than 925 with the bibliography and index). The end of the book comes with a sense of sadness, not just because volume one has come to its conclusion, but because Lewisohn has estimated that volume two won't be published until 2020.
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