Tune In

tuneinThe Beatles: All These Years, Vol. 1
Mark Lewisohn
Crown Archetype ($40)

by Britt Aamodt

There has never been another band like the Beatles. There have been other phenoms: Shakespeare, Mozart, Bob Dylan. But no one ever captured the buoyancy, irreverence, ambition, and group chemistry tied to a creative big bang the way the Beatles did. Not surprisingly, the public has a special relationship to the Fab Four. Perhaps that's because many still living remember when John, Paul, George, and Pete thumped the boards at the Cavern Club, or when a rejiggered Beatles—John, Paul, George, and Ringo—conquered America on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Mark Lewisohn must have an audaciousness to rival that of his legendary subjects. When the historian announced in 2003 that he was writing a Beatles biography, there must have been a collective groan. Another Beatles book? It makes you wonder how many Beatles books it takes to fill the Albert Hall. Surely, it's been filled many times over.

But here's the thing: Lewisohn's book, Tune In, is the tell-all book every Beatles fan has been waiting for. Detailed in the extreme yet extremely readable, Tune In is the first of a proposed trilogy collectively titled All These Years. The narrative begins with a genealogy of the Lennon, McCartney, Harrison and Starkey clans—mostly Irish, mostly poor—and their beginnings in Liverpool, which would have been struck off tourist itineraries of the day as a rough, industrial backwater.

Yet it was in this smoking seaside somewhere that four boys emerged under the cloud of war: Richard Starkey, 1940; John Lennon, 1940; Paul McCartney, 1942; George Harrison, 1943. Haley's Comet did not sear the heavens to announce their arrival; wise men bearing guitars and drums did not parachute into Liverpool. But somehow these boys from the back of beyond became the musical culmination of the 20th century. As Lewisohn points out, they were both cutting-edge groundbreakers and a commercial success.

So how did they do it? Lewisohn spends 803 pages (not counting the index) detailing the Beatles' formative years, a subject that has been covered before (in the same year even, in Larry Kane's When They Were Boys), but never quite so exhaustively or entertainingly. He also wants to set the record straight, as straight as anyone who wasn't there can. He explains in the introduction:

I've wanted a history of deep-level inquiry where the information is tested accurate, and free of airbrushing, embellishment and guesswork, written with an open mind and even hands, one that unfolds lives and events in context and without hindsight, the way they occurred, and sets the Beatles fully among their contemporaries—they never existed in isolation and were always part of musical scenes with friends and rivals, young turks together in clubs and nightclubs.

What unfolds is a cast of characters worthy of a great novel. First off, there was lusty, red-haired Julia Stanley, who was impulsive enough to marry merchant seaman Alf Lennon, bear a son, then carry on with her life and romances as if marriage and motherhood were no impediment to fun. (It helped that her husband was often gone.)

Enter Aunt Mimi, Julia's captivating, iron-fisted older sister. Mimi is often cast as the domineering woman in Lennon's early life, but she’s given a balanced treatment here. After all, as her nephew's guardian, she provided the stable, book-loving environment and middle-class upbringing Julia could not. (She was also the one who famously told Lennon he would never make a living with his guitar.)

One of the magical moments of Beatles lore is the first meeting of Lennon and McCartney at Woolton's church fete. It was June 1957, a year and one month after Paul McCartney lost his mother to cancer. He stood at the lip of the stage and listened in wonder to the lead singer of the Quarry Men as he blazed through the Del-Vikings’ "Come Go with Me," a song McCartney knew but didn't think anyone else did. If that were not enough, the Teddy Boy in the red and white shirt was ad-libbing the lyrics.

A mutual friend, Ivan Vaughan, introduced the two afterwards. The moment was ordinary but for McCartney playing Eddie Cochran’s "Twenty Flight Rock" on Lennon's guitar. Already displaying the musical prowess and versatility that would be instrumental to the Beatles' success, McCartney played his way into the Quarry Men. And it was McCartney who brought George Harrison to the group.

Harrison was the son of a homemaker and a bus driver, good solid people. Hearing "Heartbreak Hotel" in 1956 was his life-changing moment; he became the kid who would rather fantasize about guitars than pay attention in class. So it was a good thing the Beatles came along, and a better thing that they were booked into the Hamburg nightclubs, which offered steady work, beer, Preludin, and sex. Hamburg, where they played night after night for hours at a stretch, was the Beatles' finishing school. They arrived amateur musicians and left seasoned professionals.

The latecomer to the group, Ringo Starr weaves in and out of the narrative, but his story, in many ways, is the most compelling. He was the only child of Elsie Starkey, abandoned by her husband and doing what she could to support a son who spent months in and out of hospitals. As the drummer for Rory Storm and the Hurricanes, Starr ran into the Beatles often. They liked him. He liked them. But he didn't join the group until 1962, when he was brought in to replace Pete Best at the EMI recording sessions.

Brian Epstein, George Martin, Stuart Sutcliffe, Astrid Kirchherr, and Klaus Voormann play significant roles in a history that shows that the Beatles' success was anything but inevitable. Still, once the pieces were in place—once the Nerk Twins were writing their own songs—they were on their way to becoming “the Toppermost of the Poppermost.”

Lewisohn pauses the story at the close of 1962, with the first single ("Love Me Do") in the British charts and fame knocking at the door. Sadly, readers will have to wait six years for the sequel, but if it is this dense and rich, it will be worth every second.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2014 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2014