At long last, the first volume (of three) that all serious Beatles fans, including me, have been eagerly awaiting for years...
First, some clarification: the edition I reviewed is the UK "standard" version, which runs about 1000 pages. There is a US edition (published by Crown) that will be roughly the same length. Coming in November is the Deluxe edition, available only in the UK, that will run 2000 pages, with ALL of the information Lewisohn wrote, as well as more pictures (this is the one I am hoping to get around Christmastime).
Second, a word about Mark Lewisohn: he's long been known as the preeminent Beatles-scholar in the world, and his prior books back this up. I've had copies of his Complete Recording Sessions and Complete Beatles Chronicle books for going on twenty years now and they are still Beatles bibles when it comes to information and reference. With that being said, I initially had a tiny amount of trepidation when I heard he was writing these books, only because his previous books are more like reference books, while this was to be a biography; I wasn't sure how his style would translate to the more narrative flow of a biography. As you'll see from the forthcoming review, I needn't have worried at all...
Before I get into the review itself, the obvious question must be asked: why a new Beatles biography? Surely they are the most written-about and analyzed (some may say overanalyzed) band in the history of recorded music, and perhaps all music. Does the world need another biography? The answer to this, I say, is absolutely. Previously, the consensus choices for the best Beatles biographies would be Hunter Davies' authorized biography published in 1968, "The Beatles," and Philip Norman's 1982 biography "Shout!" The former, while thoroughly enjoyable, suffers from being released during 1968 and misses what came after, although for later editions, Davies has updated this information in a series of prefaces. Also, Davies himself states in the introduction that he had much juicier stuff in the manuscript, but was asked by the band at the last moment to heavily edit it (it seems mainly that John was afraid of offending his Aunt Mimi!). Norman's book suffers because of his dry writing style, his almost clinical analysis of the band, their music, and the entire phenomenon, and his very blatant bias in favor of John, his virulent dislike of Paul, and his dismissal of George and Ringo as untalented simpletons who were just lucky to be along for the ride. That being said, I have had copies of both books for many years because they are by far the best of the bunch, as far as biographical books on The Beatles go, that is, until now.
When these three volumes were announced by Lewisohn back in 2005, the first volume was slated to be released in 2011. However, the monumental amount of research he did pushed this back to the present day. Overall, Lewisohn claims ten years of research and writing went into just this first book, and after reading it, I believe it. Before I get into detail, one thing I really want to stress is that those looking for huge new revelations and insight into The Beatles' story will be disappointed. There are not many of those, and honestly, that is entirely expected as they've been written about so much over the past fifty years that there can't be many, if any, of those still remaining to be uncovered. What this book is rife with are little new bits of information that fill in gaps, clarify episodes, or shatter myths that we all thought we knew (or didn't know). For me, this is eminently more satisfying, especially since Lewisohn has extensively annotated all of them with footnotes to references. Obscure documents, people, and recordings have all been examined, reexamined, or unearthed in order to present these new pieces of information. One who is reading this book is likely to be a diehard Beatles fan, and as such will not have many "OH MY GOODNESS!" moments when reading this new information, but rather will have numerous "wow, I never knew that...interesting!" moments when coming across these new scraps of information; I know that's how I was as I read through the book.
Now, on to the contents: I'll admit that when I saw that this volume begins in 1845 with the emigration of the Beatles' ancestors from Ireland to Liverpool, and ends on December 31, 1962 on the cusp of Beatlemania, I instantly thought that this would be the most "boring" of the three volumes. Like most fans (I'm assuming), it was the years from '62-'70, when all of the magic was created in the studio, that I really wanted to read about. I'm happy to say that, from page one, I was proven completely wrong.
The book starts in 1845 and describes how each of the four Beatles' families ended up in Liverpool, beginning with major focus on the births and upbringings of their parents. This of course leads to their births, childhoods, and how they became bitten by the music bug as they entered their teen years and started to play their instruments and learn as many songs by the emerging new rock and roll artists from America. Lewisohn does a very nice job weaving the four parallel lives into an engaging narrative until he's able to overlap them once John and Paul meet in 1957. After George joins the band, it's basically written as two parallel tracks, one for John, Paul, and George, and another for Ringo. In between are focuses on Stuart Sutcliffe and Pete Best as they enter the story, as well as Brian Epstein, George Martin, Neil Aspinall, and Mal Evans. Throughout it all, the story is so interesting and extraordinary, even when one already knows (nearly) all of the details, that it's almost as if it's a work of fiction. There were several moments where I had to remind myself that these are real people and real events that I was reading about; I, of course, knew this already, but I think that is more than anything else a testament to how Lewisohn decided to weave all of the details into the narrative, and how he ultimately presented it.
As far as new bits of information, I'm not going to post everything, or even close to everything, since that wouldn't be feasible and would also ruin the joy of reading all of these revelations for anyone who hasn't read the book yet. I will, however, offer a few examples in order to illustrate what I meant earlier when I said that most, if not all, of the new information revealed in the book is of a minor, but still fascinating and enlightening manner.
- All four Beatles shared the same bill a few times PRIOR to meeting in Liverpool, when the Quarrymen (John, Paul, and George) shared the bill with the Eddie Clayton Skiffle Group (Ringo on drums)...they didn't meet Ringo until later on in 1960 in Hamburg, but they were on the same bill
- The often-told story where young John had to choose between his mum and dad at the docks in Blackpool: it never happened. It was settled relatively amicably at a friend of Alf Lennon's house and they determined who he would live with; six year old John had no say in it
- Ringo had actually seen the Beatles perform once at the Casbah Club when he was going full force as a member of Rory Storm and the Hurricanes. At the time, the Beatles had no drummer, and Ringo didn't think much of their performance
- Everyone in Liverpool rightly agreed that Ringo was THE best drummer in all of Liverpool
- The four of them (John, Paul, George, and Ringo) played together and were recorded on a record backing Tony Sheridan in 1960, as well as several times in 1961 and 1962 prior to Ringo joining the band in August 1962
- Pete Best was aware that his best friend Neil Aspinall was having an affair with his (Pete's) mother, and even fathered a child with her, and he (Pete) was fine with this
- Almost as soon as the Beatles and Hurricanes started sharing a bill in Hamburg in 1960, the Beatles schemed on a way to get Ringo in the band, not only for his playing but because when he'd hang out with them in between shows, he instantly clicked with them personality-wise, whereas Pete had little or no contact with the band when they weren't traveling to gigs or onstage
- And many more that I will leave for readers of the book to discover for themselves
One thing that I was reminded of as I read the book, even more so with many of the new revelations, is how much luck and fortuitous timing was involved in everything; the stars were literally aligned for it all to happen how and when it did. For instance, Brian Epstein had been in Hamburg at a record shop owner's convention while the Beatles were playing there (before he'd ever met them or even heard of them, in 1960) and he (supposedly, according to the person he was meeting with), even stepped briefly into the club when they were playing, but took no notice of them.
Something that has been brought up to me when I've discussed the book with fellow Beatles fanatics is the question of "just how much new information can there be, and why has none of it come out until now?" While I agree that it can be considered surprising that a lot of these little bits of information hadn't surfaced before, to be fair to Lewisohn, he did a LOT of digging for this book, going back through papers and documents and news clippings, etc, just for a scrap of knowledge before tracking down the people mentioned in order to interview them, many of whom are dead by now, or in foreign countries (Germany, for example). When looking at it from this perspective, I can see why much of this stuff is just surfacing now, simply for the fact that no one bothered to put in the effort to dig through the galaxy of documentation and human memory that contains this information. I've read where Lewisohn has said he spent ten years on this book and I'm sure he still thinks that wasn't enough time to find everything there is to know.
Finally, the last thing I will mention as far as style goes, is that Lewisohn does a nice job including many firsthand accounts from local Liverpool fans who were present from the beginning of The Beatles' emergence onto the Mersey rock scene (which, in fact, they helped to invent). People who were teenagers or young adults at this time are quoted for their memories of gigs, encounters with the band, and so on. Through all of this, as the band picked up steam and headed toward Beatlemania, which this book ends just on the cusp of, the thing that really comes across is that there was absolutely nothing manufactured or prefabricated about The Beatles, not as musicians, personalities, or a phenomenon. This was a completely grassroots phenomenon, built from nothing, from the ground up, and this was almost certainly the first true "scene" in England, if not the entire world, between a band and its fans, where there was a shared and communal give-and-take, a sense of belonging, and emotional investment in not only the music, but in the personalities behind that music. I don't mean this to sound as pretentious as it probably does, because there were musicians from earlier eras, from Mozart and Beethoven, to the jazz and blues men of the early 20th century, who generated interest in their personal lives in addition to their music. What I am trying to convey is the sense that has been taken for granted as a fact of life over the past forty years of a sense of shared experience and community between truly devoted fans of a band. These days, the thought of this generates little more than a shoulder shrug and murmurs saying "of course," but in the early 1960s, this was unheard of. Lewisohn does a great job painting this picture and more than that, he captures and conveys just what it must have felt like as The Beatles picked up momentum and things really started happening for them.
After all of what I've just written, it's probably unnecessary for me offer a final assessment of the book, as I'm sure it can be inferred quite easily, but simply put: if you are a serious Beatles fan, you need this book. While I don't think it completely makes previous excellent books, like Davies' (for instance), redundant, I do think that this book, and its subsequent two volumes, is now the definitive Beatles biography and will never be bettered. Because of that, and not just the fact that I am a lifelong Beatles fanatic, I give this book the highest rating possible.
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