First off, this is not a review of the 960-page standard edition of this book, which I haven’t read.
Oh no. This is a review of the boxed, two-volume ‘Extended Special Edition’. I got my copy on 14 November 2013 and finished it a month later, and given that it’s 1728 pages, at an average of c. 58 pages/day, that’s the fastest I’ve read any book in my life.
I had serious doubts about Mark Lewisohn’s qualifications to write this book. I know that he’s the most dedicated and conscientious Beatles scholar ever, with a rock-solid grasp of the chronology of what happened when and a talent for, and love of, delving in archives and finding out stuff nobody else had found out. However, biography is an art form and Lewisohn’s earlier books about the Beatles had struck me as triumphs of research but, given that they were in chronicle form, hardly works of art. I found it very hard to believe that Lewisohn was going to come up with something that might rival the great cultural biographies of our time, which for me are books like Richard Ellmann‘s James Joyce, Ray Monk’s Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius or David Bellos’ Georges Perec: A Life in Words.
My doubt, especially when it came to this extended edition, was that Lewisohn would drown in research and produce an inert, baggy chronicle of the Beatles’ day-to-day lives. Now, the thing about the Beatles that marks them out from every other band ever is the apparently inextinguishable fascination that fans have for yet more detail of the band’s day-to-day life. It’s what fuels the constant flow of books and articles about them — even in the 80s, their bibliography had thousands of entries — and is the reason why people are still compelled to write about them. But how could anyone ever knock all that into shape?
Apparently the short version is a great read. I have bad news for anyone who thinks so, because I can’t imagine how it could be better than the long version. I was wrong to doubt Lewisohn; this is a masterpiece, certainly the most ambitious and wide-ranging rock biography ever written and possibly the greatest. What Lewisohn has produced is, to paraphrase the title of Greil Marcus’ great essay on Elvis in Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ‘n’ Roll, a Beatliad: nothing short of part one of an epic about the birth of British rock and roll, as told through the story of the Beatles. He does this by skilfully threading together the stories of the many, many players in this huge tale, so that we begin by tracing the ancestry of the Beatles and we proceed by means of lists of their grandparents’ dead siblings (chilling) and page-long digressions of the history of anti-semitism in early 20th century Liverpool (by way of explaining the Epstein family’s status in the city). Such is the richness of detail that Lennon and McCartney’s famous first encounter at Woolton Fete in 1957 doesn’t take place until almost 200 pages in, and even then, Lewisohn raises the possibility that they may have already run into each other on a separate and less mythologised occasion.
Along the way, Lewisohn’s passion for going to the sources and not just relying on press material distinguishes him from basically every other Beatle biographer. One thing that emerges strongly is the thoroughly crappy nature of much of Richard Starkey’s early life, given that he spent so much of his childhood in hospital. When he finally emerged as a teenager, he’d missed so much of his education that he had no prospects as a low-level clerical worker and he was so physically puny that he had no chance of getting a decent manual job. The only thing that he could do, and liked doing, was play the drums, thanks to music lessons in the hospital. It would seem that Richard Starkey was literally born to be a drummer.
Elsewhere, the vast literature of memoirs and recollections by people who knew the band is under Lewisohn’s critical scrutiny, and if a source isn’t supported by further evidence, he’s sceptical; so Alistair Taylor’s claim that McCartney wanted to sign a separate management contract with Epstein just in case the Beatles broke up is found wanting, seeing as there’s no other evidence for it. Not that this is a happy-clappy view of the band, either. Philip Norman’s Shout!: The True Story Of The Beatles, once considered the best single book about the band, painted them as John Lennon and his backing band and at the nadir of the band’s critical fortunes, during the late 70s and early 80s, that’s how everyone saw them. Nowadays, Shout! comes across as superficial, partisan and skimpily researched; Norman wasn’t the first writer to seriously underestimate the collegial nature of the band, but his contempt for McCartney in particular is clear on every page. After Lewisohn, it has to be consigned to the enormous heap of not-very-good books about the Beatles.
While Lewisohn is clear that Lennon was the leader throughout this part of the band’s career, he sensitively traces the central creative relationship of the band, that between Lennon and McCartney. The initial spark came from McCartney’s recognition of Lennon’s creativity, and Lennon’s recognition of McCartney’s talent; without Lennon, McCartney might never have been bold enough to become a great songwriter but without McCartney, Lennon might never have become disciplined enough to write songs at all. Another aspect that comes out strongly is the extent to which Lennon, McCartney and Harrison’s friendship, which had formed because they were the only three members of the Quarry Men to exhibit genuine dedication to music, persisted even when they had no bookings and were hardly a band at all, just three restless and arrogant teenagers kicking around Liverpool stealing other people’s rock & roll records. Hundreds of pages go by as this central trio’s friendship mysteriously persists, based on a shared pleasure in each other’s company, a common but entirely irrational self-belief, and a feeling that opportunity was waiting for them. None of the Beatles come across as especially lovely characters, especially in terms of their relationship with women, but they clearly believed that they had charisma long before anybody else did.
It was only after a shambolic Scottish tour backing Johnny Gentle that the Beatles finally managed to persuade the lumpen Pete Best to come with them to Hamburg, where hundreds of Preludin-fuelled hours of gigging to drunken Germans forged them into the manic rock monster that they became. Lewisohn has done some revealing maths, here. Thanks to the Beatles’ insane performance schedule in Hamburg, by the time they returned to play an explosive comeback show at Litherland Town Hall, they had become the most experienced band in Liverpool, but there was only one musician on the scene whose sheer dedication to playing live meant that he actually had more performance hours than them. It was Ringo Starr. Before the Beatles’ ultimate lineup ever made a record, they’d played more shows than some bands manage in their entire careers.
Poor Pete Best; he emerges from this story as a man who never grasped what was going on, never understood how he was coming across to his bandmates, never lived up to the historical moment. Neil Aspinall, the Beatles’ road manager and eventual factotum, was living with the Best family because he was in a relationship with the hapless drummer’s mother, and the book’s most chilling moment is when Pete and Neil are summoned to Brian Epstein’s office only to be told that the others don’t want Pete anymore and have decided that Ringo’s the new drummer. They retire to a pub, Pete reeling with shock and his friend sympathetic, but when he suggests to Aspinall that they just get drunk, Aspinall has to decline on the grounds that he has to drive the band to the gig that night.
‘But I’ve been fired,’ says Pete.
‘You’ve been fired,’ says Aspinall, ‘I haven’t.’ And Best wanders off into ex-Beatledom, while Aspinall hitches his fortunes to the rocket.
Another myth dispelled; that Brian Epstein ‘tamed’ the Beatles. The portrait of Epstein is one of the most convincing and sympathetic ever drawn. Lewisohn suggests that what Epstein did was show the Beatles how they came across, and persuade them that if they really wanted to make it as big as they wanted to make it, to the ‘toppermost of the poppermost’, then they had to smarten up — but, and this was the realisation that made Epstein their perfect manager — without losing their intensity. And so, over time, the leather-clad post-Hamburg Beatles gradually realise that going on stage in suits, and standing still during songs instead of jumping up and down and pulling faces, didn’t make them lose fans, but actually helped them to gain more. (You could compare it, if you like, to Philip Larkin‘s realisation that he didn’t have to ‘pump himself up into poetry’ but could make great poems out of something like his own voice, except that in Larkin’s case it was part of a realisation that his own human weaknesses were an essential part of his greatness as a writer, whereas with the Beatles it was just about being honest that they wanted to rule the world more than they wanted to dress like their heroes.) If you watch the Beatles in their Royal Variety Performance rendition of ‘Twist and Shout’ with the sound turned down, they look studiedly cool; turn the sound up and close your eyes, and they sound insane. Thanks to Epstein’s gift for presentation, the Beatles grasped that their appeal lay in a tension between rock & roll abandon, inscrutable cool and friendly approachableness. It was much stranger and more seductive hearing raucous beat music from four guys in sharp suits than it was hearing it from four guys dressed like Johnny Ray.
The story of how George Martin came to sign the Beatles to Parlophone emerges here as far more complex than the previously-told tale of somebody hearing a demo and saying to Epstein ‘Hey, that sounds good.’ Assuming that Lewisohn is accurate, it turns out to hinge on devious intra-EMI rivalries, partly based on the fact that Martin’s marriage was dissolving because of an affair with his secretary Judy Lockhart-Smith, which other EMI staffers disapproved of. (Lockhart-Smith soon became Martin’s second wife, and Martin went on to be the Beatles’ producer, effectively silencing criticism.) It now appears that Martin was even less impressed with the band than was previously apparent, and that it wasn’t until they went in for the session that would yield ‘Please Please Me’ that he finally became convinced that they were more than merely adequate. This, too, has been lost in the legend, which likes to pretend that everyone involved immediately spotted that the Beatles were going places.
Volume one ends at the end of December 1962, with the second single in the can and the year of reckoning about to dawn. I assume that Lewisohn has been working on volumes of the book concurrently and is not, so to speak, shooting in sequence; hopefully we won’t have to wait eight years for the next volume. In the meantime, this extended edition must now be the standard against which other Beatles biographies will be measured. There will always be room for more critical writing about the band, but from now on, critics will need to have thoroughly absorbed Lewisohn (2013) before we start pontificating about the Beatles’ early years.