When I heard that Mark Lewisohn was writing a book about The Beatles, I was immediately keen to know the details. Since the band split there have been dozens of attempts to describe just what happened between 1962 and 1970, and all have been disappointing. Different authors, journalists and historians have encountered unwillingness on the part of the participants, lack of access to information or have just been sloppy with the facts. There is a whole industry in Beatles myths that people are happy to recycle, few of which are even based in fact.
What Lewisohn has done is to return to as many original documents and eyewitnesses as possible, and he has not been scared to be as comprehensive as he can be. The resulting book is volume one of a proposed three-volume opus and tells the story only as far as December 1962. It is eight hundred and forty pages long, not including footnotes and references… and it is a startling work of scholarship.
It is also timely, as more than fifty years have now passed since the events he is describing. For all of my childhood I thought of The Beatles as a band that had only recently split and it is quite a shock to actually do the mental arithmetic and realise that’s now a very long time ago. Part of this deception is reinforced by the ‘Just For Men’ still used by some ex-Beatles. The surviving Beatles and the widows of the others are now old people and their story needs to be told. It seems unlikely that McCartney or Starr will now spend the time doing it themselves. McCartney, I think, is happy to have some episodes of his long career remain ambiguous. Ringo probably isn’t bothered. The time is right for Mark Lewisohn to step up and fill in the gaps. If he lives long enough to complete his magnum opus, I think that in future years it will become known as definitive.
The story of The Beatles does not begin in 1962 when Ringo joined the band. It does not even begin with the meeting of John and Paul at Woolton Village Fair or the birth of the oldest Beatle (Ringo) in July 1940. Lewisohn begins his framing of the events in 1829, with the birth of James Lennon somewhere in Ireland, probably County Down. There is a whole chapter of careful explanation as to how the families of Lennon, McCartney, Harrison, Starr and Best arrived in Liverpool. This may seem like overkill, but there is a reason for taking the long view. It emerges that three of The Beatles (Ringo being the exception) have deep roots in Ireland and proposes that their links to the spirit of their home city run very deeply indeed. As a port it is a well-spun theory that much of the wit and wisdom of Liverpool is the result of the great mix of immigrants, especially from Scotland and Ireland, and this is thoroughly un-picked by Lewisohn. He considers the old theories and searches for evidence to support them. He even makes reference to the cultural heritage of all the early Beatles and assesses if common history had a role to play in uniting them (and excluding Pete Best) so conclusively. Where he finds no evidence to support the old ideas, he is not scared to say so.
The emergence of The Beatles as a world-changing cultural phenomenon is linked to two cities. Lewisohn is precise and careful in his description of the events of the five tours of duty to Hamburg. He has done his research well and understands what a place Hamburg must have been in 1961. He does not shrink from the seedier aspects of the time that the young men spent there. A theory central to the Hamburg story is that the massive amount of stage time accumulated was a major part in the subsequent success. Lewisohn is mathematical in his approach and the number-crunching seems to bear out his ideas.
As well as volume one being the story of Lennon, McCartney and Harrison, there is also great emphasis on Pete Best, Stuart Sutcliffe and Brian Epstein. If there is a criticism of Lewisohn’s writing it is that the tragedy of Sutcliffe’s life is explored in a scientific way. There is space and a need to consider in more depth the emotional fall-out that his passing caused among his young friends. For the most part he tells the story of these three men with care and attention to all sides. By presenting all the facts, if somewhat dispassionately, he gives the reader the opportunity to decide who was really to blame in the turbulence from which John, Paul, George and Ringo neatly emerged.
Volume one is all about back-story… and it is quite a story. It may be too long for most readers – even some ardent fans of The Fabs may wilt under the sheer size of this work – but it is necessary, fascinating and vital. John invited Paul, who invited George, who after a long time then invited Ringo. The eight hundred and forty pages that describe these simple links in a chain are quite an event in music and biography.
My mouth is watering for volume two. Lewisohn proposes that it will include the years 1963 until 1966 or 67. I cannot wait.