Saturday, September 28, 2013

The view from the end of Mark Lewisohn's massive Beatles book

It was always in the same order: John, Paul, George and then the drummer, first Pete and then Ringo. That order didn't only sound right. It also reflected the way the power structure worked. It was John's group. He brought in Paul, who brought in George, who later on argued for Ringo. And they never forgot it. They all sought John's approval, partly because he could be a bully if he didn't approve. Then again, so could all of them.

Not long after their first record came out Brian Epstein took John and Paul aside and made them register as a songwriting partnership, despite the fact that they hadn't written many songs. The first royalty payment for "Love Me Do", which was obviously more of a hit than I remember, had the people who played on the record earning £27 each while the people who got the composing credit made £157 each. Very quickly this must have begun to rankle with George, particularly because he would know that in most cases only one of those names had actually written the song.

Lewisohn's very good on the puzzled reaction of the British music business to that first record. The Beatles were almost unique in already having a fan following when they put out their first record so they couldn't be completely ignored. "Love Me Do" sold well in the North West, even with literally no radio play and minimal publicity.  Brian Epstein ordered a lot of copies because his shop could sell them, not in order to hype the chart. Everyone else they met thought the name was risible and wanted to know who was the leader. Publicists would have to explain that this was a different animal, a group that played its own instruments and did its own singing. Even George Martin, who recognised that they had a special chemistry as people, wanted to know who was the leader. When they did auditions they would do three songs, each featuring a different lead singer.

The most perceptive single line about the Beatles comes in Michael Braun's early book about them "Love Me Do! The Beatles' Progress", in which he said that when they arrived in America they were representatives of "a new kind of people". In Lewisohn's book some of the adults that they come into contact with like them but only the teenagers got them and responded to the way they dressed and carried themselves. Pete Waterman was a young DJ when they played Coventry and remembers John Lennon wearing the first pair of Levi's he'd ever seen. Norman Jopling, the 18 year old writer on Record Mirror, wrote at the time about their "long flat hair" and remembers that in those days "music hadn't caught up with fashion and film. When I saw The Beatles I knew things were changing."

I can remember that feeling. I'm bound to love The Beatles - All These Years: Volume One: Tune In because it's not just the story of their lives. It's a little bit the story of anyone who lived through it. I write all this about it and still people get in touch and say "should I read it?" as if it's a major life decision. Look. If you haven't read all the other books about the Beatles then bully for you because here's the definitive one. If you have read all the other ones then it would be silly not to read this one as well. And don't forget, I'm talking to Mark Lewisohn about the book as well as Bob Stanley, the author of Yeah Yeah Yeah: The Story of Modern Pop on October 9th at the Old Queen's Head. Full details here.


  1. It must be something to scramble up the loose scree of the index and then stand in the rarefied air of the final page, looking back where you have come, knowing that an even greater peak, in the form of volume two, looms indistinctly above your head, its summit lost in thick fog.

    To the west, if low cloud cover isn't too dense, you may be able to spy a peculiar chain of low rock formations know as Herman's Hermits.

    The barren, interminable peak far-off in the distance is known as Mount Oasis. An optical illusion caused by sunsheeeiiiinne reflecting off the mountain upon which you now stand, makes it look far more impressive than it actually is.

  2. Everest metaphors aside, David has whetted my appetite for this mighty read. I'm afraid I can't be at the Lewisohn Q&A, but I'm sure it'll be a good one.

  3. Oasis - an odd bit of greenery in a large desert. I can't attend the next WIYE as I'm in India, but David's snippets are sufficient inspiration for me to read this book. As he says, many of us have , in some measure, lived through it. The other book I've read that caught the period perfectly was Tony Fletcher's 'Dear Boy: The Life of Keith Moon'.

  4. My mother told me that when she and her friends first heard Love Me Do (when they were 14) they were mostly struck by how strange and different it sounded. The same with my dad who used to sit with his friend playing Twist and Shout over and over again, lost in the sheer excitement of it all and marvelling at how a British group could sound (particularly with Lennon's vocal) that good.

  5. I was 16 when Love Me Do came out; you only heard the first minute or so of the record on Luxembourg, and the first couple of times I heard it I didn't catch who it was. It had the same use of space (and harmonica) as Orbison's "Candy Man" and Channel's "Hey Baby", and was up there with them. But the vocal harmonies were English folk, weren't they? Watersons? An astonishing record, and I didn't like any other Beatles (I thought it was a stupid name, too) record until "Things We Said Today".

  6. This all sounds great, but having read your thoughts as you made your way through it, I can't help thinking two things:

    1. Who says one version of someone else's life story is more definitive than another's; it's accepted that Lewisohn is the key Beatles anorak of this or any other generation, but how do we really know?
    2. Is an appreciation of the incredible music they made reliant on knowing if John had one or two boiled eggs on the morning of January 5 1961?

    I'm fascinated by the whole thing and love the band, but a three-volume week-by-week dissection of their lives by someone who wasn't in the band feels a little like a vanity project for the writer rather than a credible attempt to put their impact in context?

    Just saying.

  7. The 'accepted' timeline is how John had the band, paul joined, etc.

    Another perspective, from the book "True Beginnings of The Beatles" by Roag Best (and family), has George Harrison and Ken Browne skipping rehearsals for the band they were in "The Les Stewart Quartet" to help decorate the Casbah Club, with an aim to becoming the resident band. When they were done, they went back to Les and the girl member of the band (whose name does not seem to be on the internet, funny that.. it is in the book though), but they both had the hump and refused the gig and kicked them both out of the band.

    So, George suggested to Ken that they ask John and Paul of the (recently broken up) Quarrymen to join up with them and take it on. Obviously, they kept the name Quarrymen as John owned that name, and George didn't own his band's name (and wouldn't have wanted it anyway)..

    The rest is a multifaceted history, of course, as was the past.