I finally finished reading the de luxe edition of Tune In at the weekend. Here's my final summary:
Opposite the title page of my copy of The Beatles At Abbey Road is the above inscription which its author, Mark Lewisohn, wrote at the book’s launch party in 1988 held, appropriately enough, in Studio Two where the group recorded almost all of their music. This was Mark’s second Beatles book after the almost-as-impressive Live, and when I read it I realised that not only had he become the world’s leading authority on The Beatles but that he’d been recognised as such by the group, or at least Paul McCartney, Apple Records and those at EMI charged with overseeing the distribution of their music. Such recognition was the only possible explanation for the unlimited access he’d had to the Aladdin’s cave that is The Beatles’ Abbey Road archive.
Mark subsequently compiled his two books and additional research into The Complete Beatles Chronicles, a large format diary-style chronology that remains the standard reference book on the group’s career. In the meantime he was employed as a researcher by Apple on the Anthology series and to write liner notes on Beatles reissues, all of which added to his impregnable status as the world’s leading Beatles historian.
Like most observers who take an interest in such matters I first became aware of Mark when I read about him in Philip Norman’s Beatles biography Shout, the first book to seriously peel away the layers of secrecy and deference that seemed to surround the group. Norman acknowledged Mark as a point of reference long before the ‘Beatle world’ at large became aware of him, and to say Mark has realised the promise that Norman recognised in him is to seriously understate the case.
Nevertheless I felt that Mark had since become an ‘insider’ and
this, I mused, was a double–edged sword. ‘Official’ recognition often comes at a price, usually the need to compromise when it comes to revealing matters that the subjects might prefer remain under wraps, controversial issues like inter-group disputes, behaviour that involves sex, drugs and alcohol, financial chicanery, all the things that people want to read about but which are all too often swept under the carpet in the need to present a positive image to the public.
Similarly, I’d imagined that Mark’s obvious devotion to The Beatles, his evident love of their music, would render him unwilling to write a book that was 100% objective; that his mission – as in his previous books – was to present facts, diligently researched and always 100% accurate but facts pure and simple, without comment or critical analysis. In short he could never write about The Beatles as a detached observer.
Well, how wrong I was. Switching from Beatles fact-finder to Beatles biographer seems to have reinvigorated the skills I noted in Funny Peculiar, Mark’s disquieting biography of the comedian Benny Hill which spared few blushes when it came to revealing Hill’s less likeable traits. Tune In, the first volume of Mark’s All These Years trilogy, presents The Beatles in the same way, with all their dirty washing hanging out to dry, all their unseemly behaviour, their vanities and drinking and promiscuity, on view in hitherto unimaginable detail. This is not to say that Mark's book dwells on scandal, nor that it muck-rakes unduly or seeks to expose The Beatles as dislikeable or disreputable in any way; no, this is simply precisely what happened as it happened, researched through over 250 interviews and heaven only knows how many letters, documents and newspaper clippings. Tittle-tattle is dismissed, accepted myths demolished, all leads investigated, and the natural authority of Mark’s writing conveys without question that THIS IS THE TRUTH, good and bad, take it or leave it.
There are insights too numerous to mention, not least a number of bizarre coincidences, as well as the facts you would expect alongside many new ones, and all are laid to rest in ways that suggest Mark has researched his subject so forensically as to render all previous Beatle biographies redundant at a stroke. To recap: John was a force of nature, the indisputable leader of the group, capricious and extreme each and every way, callous one minute, compassionate the next, totally unpredictable, incorrigibly loutish and definitely dangerous to know; Paul was earnest, occasionally vain and scheming, and unusually ambitious, determined to be a pop star with or without the group; George was watchful and shrewd and Ringo was the ultimate survivor, a hero who took all that life could throw at him and hurled it right back; John and, most especially, Paul were naturally gifted, their talents inherited from Irish forebears, but George had to work at it which he did with extraordinary diligence; all four Beatles were unreservedly dedicated to American rock from the moment they first heard it, students and connoisseurs par excellence, probably more knowledgeable of the genre than anyone else in all of Europe; all four necked pretty much everything they were offered and were promiscuous on a level that, for the era, defies belief, terminally incapable of being faithful to their regular partners, a state of affairs that will no doubt escalate as opportunities increase along with their fame; Pete Best was never a Beatle because he was never in a Beatle mind-set; JP&G stuck together like glue, developing a shared sense of unity that simply refused to be extinguished, a resolve that brooked no opposition, be it parental, financial or practical. They somehow knew they were going to be ‘The Beatles’ and the way Mark tells their story you know this was meant to be.
Although not a literary stylist in the manner of a practised novelist, Mark has a pleasing, easy-going style so that despite its length the book rarely sags. His portrayal of the deprivation endured in post-war Liverpool is particularly eye-opening, and in the extensive acknowledgements I was charmed by his evocation of fifties Liverpool observed from Lime Street Station as he imagines the Beatle parents going about their daily business. He also has a whimsical tendency to include the odd Beatle lyric within the text, almost as if by accident but that’s surely not the case. He explains in some detail the sources of the group’s early repertoire and it is a surprise to learn that contrary to widespread belief John and Paul did not write ‘hundreds’ of songs before they became famous and, indeed, wrote very little either individually or together between 1960 and 1962. The genesis of those Lennon and McCartney originals that did emerge is covered in great detail (I especially enjoyed reading about the evolution of ‘I Saw Her Standing There’) which suggests later volumes will be equally perceptive in this regard. Ringo’s life story is told in parallel with those of John, Paul and George until they merge in the summer of 1962, and both Brian Epstein and George Martin receive similar treatment and detail. Those episodes in the story that Mark feels are of paramount importance – J&P meeting at the Woolton Church Fete and the death of Stuart Sutcliffe – are given chapters of their own, much shorter than most, and the huge wealth of footnotes and endnotes is never less than fascinating.
Finally, in writing a biography as substantial as Tune In Mark has conferred upon The Beatles the same status as any great historical figures, be they statesmen, scientists, writers, entertainers, sportsmen, religious figures or royalty. In this regard Tune In positions The Beatles alongside Churchill, Darwin, Shakespeare, Chaplin, Mohammed Ali and any pope or king and queen you care to mention. Quite right too – their influence is as great and the pleasure they gave far outweighs all of them put together.
Mark Lewisohn’s destiny in life seems to have been to write this book, the definitive book, the only one that is truly worthy of its subject. Bring on Book Two.