To the Bloomsbury Theatre on London’s Gordon Street to witness Mark Lewisohn’s run-through for his forthcoming UK lecture tour on The Beatles’ Abbey Road album, ingeniously titled Hornsey Road. Why is that, I hear you ask? All will be revealed later.
Having now firmly established himself as the world’s foremost Beatles archivist and historian through his many books and sleeve notes on various historical Beatles product, Mark is taking time out from writing Volume 2 of his humungous All Those Years trilogy (the extended edition of Vol 1 was a staggering 1,698 pages long) to undertake this 25-date UK tour that opens on 18 September in Northampton and closes on 4 December in Manchester.
Addressing an invitation-only audience last night from a stage whose floor was painted like a zebra crossing and flanked by two flashing belisha beacons, Mark began by solemnly instructing us to switch off recording devices and cameras. This was in order to prevent us from revealing too much, but at the same time we were encouraged to be judgmental, to make notes, all in the interest of offering Mark suggestions whereby his talk might be improved.
This is a bit like being asked to improve on the Taj Mahal. All around me were other music writers of similar vintage to my own, persons whose knowledge of The Beatles might not be in Mark’s league but is probably greater than the average fan. That we all clapped during those portions of the show wherein Mark’s research revealed arcane bits of minute trivia, like where Paul might have come across the word ‘pataphysical’ or John discovered a real life Mr Mustard who was, indeed, very mean, indicated a keen awareness of the extremes to which Mark goes when chasing down a lead. Sherlock of Baker Street could do no better.
The show is a multi-media event. Accompanying Mark’s erudite discourse are photographs, video footage, documents and newspaper clippings on a big screen, and the whole caboodle is soundtracked by the songs from Abbey Road, of course, albeit not as you know them. Instead Mark has used 5.1 mixes and The Beatles’ Rockband Playstation game that enable him to utilise isolated individual performances and in this way we get a feel of how the songs developed in the studio and who contributed what. Two things stood out for me: the inimitable three-part choral wash that John, Paul and George were able to conjure up when required, and the sophistication of Paul’s bass playing, those melodic touches, often in a high register, that were too often buried in the mix. The music tracks are sequenced chronologically, ie in the order in which they were recorded, and accompanied by still photographs, mostly black and white, and judged by Mark to have been taken while a particular track was being recorded, or thereabouts. The many different guitars and keyboards, including a Moog, that The Beatles used are therefore clearly in evidence.
This is the meat of the two-hour plus presentation. Interspersed between the songs are sections wherein Mark deals with whatever else was happening in the world of the individual Beatles during 1969, among them John’s Plastic Ono Band, his peace campaigning, bagism and the fateful car journey – in a humble Austin Maxi – to Scotland with Yoko and their children; George’s involvement with the Hare Krishna movement and growing friendship with Eric Clapton; Paul and Linda’s wedding and trip to Scotland; Ringo’s acting debut with Peter Sellers; the transformation of four Beatles into family men; and John and George’s drug busts, both of which seem likely to have been the result of police corruption.
Towards the end of the lecture, after the album has been recorded and is waiting release, we are informed that John, Paul and George met to discuss their future together, and because Ringo was absent – in hospital with an upset stomach – John recorded the meeting so that Ringo would know what was said. Herein lay the most interesting part of Mark’s speech, also judged as such earlier this week in the Guardian when he gave an interview to my former Melody Maker colleague Richard Williams. Somehow or other Mark has obtained a copy of that recording, until now unheard by any of us in the room. Suffice to say that John, for one, envisaged a future for The Beatles, albeit one in which the traditional songwriting credit of Lennon/McCartney would be discontinued in favour of individual credits for each and that George, and to a lesser extent Ringo, would have a greater representation in this area. To say more would be to disclose too much.
The closing sequence is wonderful, tearful almost. “And in the end…” sing John, Paul and George, in perfect harmony in the Abbey Road studio even if business issues were dragging them apart outside. This was the year of their breakup – not that you’d know it from the unity they exhibit on Abbey Road – and, lest we forget, the youngest of them in 1969 was just 26, the eldest 29.
And Hornsey Road? Apparently EMI were in the process of buying up a recording studio there where all of the non-classical artists signed to the label, including The Beatles, would have been obliged to record their music. It doesn’t have the same ring to it somehow does it? And nor would it attract the crowds like Abbey Road does. There’s even an EarthCam set up there 24 hours a day recording the action on the world’s most famous pedestrian crossing point: (). Seems like every moment of the day someone is taking a photograph there.
Full details of Mark Lewisohn’s talk can be found here: