Almost Famous

Beatles enthusiasts, like Dylan fans, seem especially susceptible to what could be called Mystical Completism—the belief that each newly discovered document, each unpublished photo, each additional outtake, represents another step along the path to ultimate enlightenment. As a pursuit, it acknowledges the forest—the variety of approaches from which the band’s chroniclers have come at their boundless subject—but much prefers the trees, those excavated documents and outtakes, over the critical or purely metaphysical.

Mark Lewisohn is the most rigorous practitioner of that literal-minded pursuit, which he attempts to take to its outer limits with his new biography, Tune In. Holder of the unofficial (and amusingly Irwin Corey–esque) title of “world’s foremost authority” on the group, Lewisohn has written such catalogues of fine-grained detail as 1989’s The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions (essential) and 1996’s The Complete Beatles Chronicle (less so), and is esteemed for his meticulous, shoe-leather methodology. It’s not surprising that his totalizing approach has found its natural consummation in biography. Tune In is just the first of three volumes, but the reader is already awed by the magnitude of Lewisohn’s efforts. Only eight years ago Bob Spitz published The Beatles, seemingly stout enough at nearly a thousand pages to span the entirety of the band’s career; in 2007 Jonathan Gould’s Can’t Buy Me Love clocked in at a relatively modest 672. But Tune In, itself 944 heavily annotated pages long (although curiously lacking a bibliography), carries us only to the threshold of 1963, when the Beatles, awaiting the release of their breakout forty-five, “Please Please Me,” are still largely a local phenomenon. Clearly, the book is operating in its own universe of microscopic detail.

Lewisohn’s history starts in the mid-nineteenth century, when Beatle ancestors first begin dotting Liverpool’s official records. More sturdy than transcendent, his prose is designed to support the bus routes, street-name etymologies, installment-plan terms, payroll deductions, and other factoids that fascinate even as they overwhelm. He measures the porch to which John Lennon’s Aunt Mimi exiled him when he wanted to practice guitar (5'5" x 3'10"). He interviews the Beatles’ first tailor (“Their swearing was appalling”). He discloses that in 1961 the Beatles earned enough to require the services of an accountant. This stupefying attention to detail sometimes seems less an elucidation of than an incrustation upon a well-known story, but Lewisohn manages to keep up a brisk pace, particularly once we enter the well-trodden territory that begins when Lennon and Paul McCartney come together in 1957 to form the nucleus of the band.

It doesn’t hurt that, despite its familiarity, the saga remains mind-boggling. “I came out of the fucking sticks to take over the fucking world,” Lennon reflected in 1970; the statement remains the quintessential encapsulation of the Beatles’ unlikely journey. Necessarily, this initial volume isn’t about how four plebeian boys based in a depressed provincial city managed first to take a class-bound and London-centric Britain, and then the world, by storm, provoking the most demented outbreak of mass adulation in modern history, but about how they very nearly didn’t. As Lewisohn points out, “the impossibilities were piled high,” and his singular accomplishment is to impart, through sheer volume and depth of detail, the grueling nature of their years-long slog to the top, and the full extent of the historical forces arrayed against their chances of arriving.

For young men with their eyes fixed on the main chance, Lewisohn relates, the Beatles were willfully peculiar. At a time when pop stars were discovered, groomed, given new names, and then trotted around the theater circuit to perform saccharine hits that had been selected for them by their A&R men, the Beatles created themselves wholly in their own image: Trading places at the microphone to sing, they lacked the front man deemed essential to marketability. Their gigantic repertoire spanned genres and eras, with no particular emphasis on any one. They wore black leather and smoked, ate, and cursed onstage. The kinetic, aggressive, yet curiously intimate performance style that electrified backwater British teenagers had been developed in Hamburg nightclubs, under the influence of stimulants, to placate and outlast the band’s audience of debauched German adults. If these details were insufficient to kill the interest of the patriarchal businessmen responsible for making national careers, there was the group’s perverse insistence on working out of Liverpool, light-years from Britain’s showbiz world.

And yet, they made it. Lewisohn reshapes a myth that has always emphasized breaks that came at crucial junctures—e.g., the opportunity to perform in Hamburg for four months in 1960, where within weeks the Beatles transformed themselves from a strictly amateur outfit into resourceful professionals; the arrival in their lives of Brian Epstein, their future manager, at the precise moment when the group needed skillful guidance to advance to the next level; the willingness of Parlophone A&R chief George Martin to take a chance, when no one else would, on recording this odd band—enlarging it into a scrupulously documented narrative that clearly shows how things easily could have gone the other way at any time. The Beatles were, for example, the fourth choice for the Hamburg gig: “The order of approach isn’t known,” Lewisohn writes, “but [early Beatles manager Allan] Williams went to Rory Storm and the Hurricanes, Cass and the Cassanovas, and Gerry and the Pacemakers before turning to the Beatles.”

The Beatles on Saltney Street in Liverpool, 1962.
The Beatles on Saltney Street in Liverpool, 1962.

Similarly, Epstein’s appearance on the scene at the end of 1961 was a fantastic stroke of luck, since the often-unreliable group had by then systematically alienated the promoters booking the larger, more lucrative venues around Liverpool. When Epstein’s management offer materialized, the Beatles were so discouraged by their limited prospects that they had come perilously close to disbanding, and even so, at the crucial moment—when the group was to meet with Epstein to discuss terms—McCartney blew off the appointment, offending the fastidiously punctual Epstein. The most startling of the book’s revelations concerns George Martin’s decision to sign the group. Lewisohn relates how, far from being keen to take them on, Martin disliked their sound and rejected them for Parlophone, an EMI subsidiary, only to be outmaneuvered in a neat bit of internecine corporate intrigue: Having aroused the ire of EMI’s managing director, Len Wood, by haggling over the terms of his contract and then carrying on less than discreetly with his secretary, Martin was ordered by Wood to sign the Beatles as a way of putting him in his place. Killing another bird, Wood thus accommodated Sid Colman, head of EMI’s music-publishing arm, who liked the Lennon-McCartney originals he’d heard and had been pressing Wood to record them so that he could secure their copyright. Martin’s interest was piqued only when “Love Me Do,” the group’s first release, sold well despite negligible promotional effort on his part.

In return for Colman’s support and prescient sense of their worth, Lennon and McCartney took their music-publishing business elsewhere—granted, for a better deal, but the move is representative of the calculating, even antisocial, behavior of which the band’s members were capable. The Beatles shafted Williams, their first manager, left promoters high and dry, engaged in brutal power struggles within the group, serially cheated on their girlfriends, manipulated and deceived friends and family. Here, Lewisohn, his exactitude notwithstanding, is more comfortably placed among Beatles hagiographers, not merely reporting the flaws of his subjects but brushing them off as by-products of Beatle exceptionalism, repurposing the wreckage they left behind as mileposts on the long road to triumph. Bob Wooler, an early intimate, is quoted comparing Lennon and McCartney to Leopold and Loeb; Lewisohn gives no indication that he grasps the sinisterness of the implication (Lennon would, in 1963, send Wooler to the hospital for a perceived homosexual innuendo, lending the reference sardonic bite). One might best take Lennon at his word: “The Beatles were the biggest bastards on earth.”

The bastards’ greatest betrayal was of Pete Best. Recruited as drummer before the band’s departure for Germany, he was a Beatle for two years until being abruptly dismissed, after Parlophone’s grudging yes, in favor of Ringo Starr. Epstein was tasked with performing a job no Beatle was willing to face. Explaining away this dark and unsavory episode, Lewisohn mounts a gratuitous case against Best, repeatedly harping on his shortcomings as a musician and bandmate without making clear how the Beatles managed to become the biggest, and by all accounts the best, group in Liverpool with so inept a drummer.

Maybe it’s just as well he doesn’t, because Lewisohn stumbles whenever he attempts to write about music. An early Tamla recording is “the first spark from a new musical expressway.” Transposing “Love Me Do” to the key of G “instantly made it bluesy—even though . . . the song remained acoustic,” whatever that’s supposed to mean. “Ask Me Why” concludes with an “unusual and appealing minor seventh chord” (it doesn’t), and is questionably described as “a milestone in the development of twentieth-century song.” “I Saw Her Standing There,” after a lengthy exegesis, is judged “dynamic, catchy, appealing, clever,” which one hardly needs to be told. Lewisohn is better at conveying the dynamic and the catchy when it emerges from an archive or the transcript of an interview.

Lewisohn never claims to be a critic, though, which makes it difficult for him to deliver on his promise to show the Beatles in a new light. One is hard-pressed to relate Tune In’s tinny-sounding fledglings to the creators of, say, Revolver. If by 1962 they were the “best fucking group in the goddamn world,” as Lennon put it, it was only as measured by standards that they themselves would soon overwrite. Still, Greil Marcus is correct in his observation that the Beatles were “not merely in touch with their roots; in a significant and probably unique sense, they were their roots. . . . The Beatles had absorbed [rock history] because . . . they had, albeit invisibly, made it.” Tune In’s important accomplishment is to make that history visible, even if, for the purposes of the larger story, it is only prehistory.

Christopher Sorrentino has just finished a new novel.