Mark Lewisohn’s latest book on the Beatles is almost impossible to review sensibly. Possibly the simplest review is simply to describe it. It’s volume one of a projected three-volume biography of the Beatles. My copy runs to 803 pages of fairly small type, plus a further 129 pages of endnotes, index, etc.
And it ends on January 1, 1963, at the point where they only had one single out.
And what I have is the “standard edition”. There is an extended edition available which contains “hundreds of thousands of words” of extra material.
Knowing that, along with the fact that Mark Lewisohn is a scrupulously accurate researcher (I only found one error in the whole book — a persistent misspelling of The Tremeloes as The Tremiloes), will tell you if this is the kind of book you want. If you’re absolutely fascinated by the Beatles and want an utterly definitive biography, this is the book for you (although even someone as interested in them as myself can find it occasionally a little creepy to know quite that much about a stranger’s life). If you’re only mildly interested, then you can probably do without it.
I say “probably”, rather than definitely, because the book has some material that will interest even the more casual fan. In particular, Lewisohn finally provides a decent explanation for how the Beatles got signed to Parlophone after being turned down, one which also explains why they had multiple sessions in 1962 and why How Do You Do It? was never released:
It turns out that George Martin never actually wanted to sign the Beatles at all — Parlophone turned them down originally, and Martin disliked their demo tape. But then Ardmore & Beechwood, EMI’s publishing department, wanted to sign Lennon and McCartney as songwriters on the strength of Like Dreamers Do, which they wanted to publish.
Having been told that Brian Epstein wasn’t interested in just getting them a publishing contract, but that he wanted the band to have a record contract, Ardmore & Beechwood were so convinced of the potential of the couple of Lennon/McCartney songs on the demo that they actually offered to pay the costs of a single if EMI would put it out — that way they would get the rights to the songs, which they could then get recorded by a more successful performer.
No-one at EMI wanted the Beatles, and George Martin was made to take them as punishment, because his boss didn’t approve of Martin having an affair with his secretary while he was still married. Martin was unimpressed with the results of their first session (with Pete Best), and thought their original songs were terrible, so insisted they go away and learn How Do You Do It?
The second session, with Ringo, saw them record How Do You Do It? and Love Me Do, because Martin knew they had to record at least one Lennon/McCartney song for Ardmore & Beechwood. But Ardmore & Beechwood wouldn’t agree to having Love Me Do be only the B-side, and the publishers of How Do You Do It? wouldn’t let *that* be the B-side either, so Martin was forced to scrap that track — not because the Beatles didn’t like it, as people have assumed, but because the people who were actually paying for the session wouldn’t tolerate the idea.
This is why there was a third session, with Andy White on drums — who was brought in because while Ringo had played fine on Love Me Do and How Do You Do It? he had horribly cocked up an early attempt at Please Please Me and Martin didn’t trust the band’s judgement of drummers after Pete Best had been so terrible.
Ardmore & Beechwood then promoted the single, even though Parlophone didn’t do much with it, and only after it became a hit did George Martin start to take a real interest in the band — and the first thing he did was persuade them to stop being published by Ardmore & Beechwood (whose boss he didn’t get on with) and instead to go with his old mate Dick James…
There are fascinating things like that, things that quietly make sense of a whole lot of confusing information, throughout this book. Happily, despite Lewisohn relying on the Beatles for his career, he doesn’t pull any punches in his descriptions of their behaviours. Lennon comes across as a callous, severely troubled, but basically decent person, McCartney as almost inhumanly cold, Harrison as a decent person but one more concerned with music than people, Starr as a genuinely good man with no real faults at all, Brian Epstein as a flighty, overindulged, but basically decent person, and George Martin (surprisingly) as a Machiavellian, backbiting, nasty piece of work.
One also still feels sorry for Pete Best — not so much for his sacking (as is made abundantly clear in this book, he simply couldn’t play the drums, and if this book does nothing else it will hopefully clear up the myths around that forever), but for the way the other Beatles used him for two years while never liking him either as a person or a musician, and while planning all along to drop him at the first opportunity. While Lewisohn clearly takes their side, it comes across as a massively nasty thing to do.
The book is ridiculously detailed — it starts in 1845 with the earliest known ancestors of the Beatles, and contains far more information than even the most ardent fan will necessarily want to know. I could have lived perfectly happily, for example, without knowing that Ringo lost his virginity on the same day that Paul first heard Hound Dog and that both had been to the same fairground earlier that day. The level of detail is such that when Ringo forms his own group aged 18, but they split after two rehearsals (“We had a clarinet player who could only play in B-flat, a pianist who could only play in C, a guitarist who was quite good, a tea-chest bass, and a trumpeter who could only play When The Saints Go Marching In“), we learn the names of the guitarist, clarinet player and trumpeter in question.
There are some flaws to the book — in particular, Lewisohn keeps using bits of period Liverpool slang in otherwise fairly formal writing, and it jars. Even worse is his occasional habit of thinking it really, really amusing to use pseudo-phonetic spellings of words like “laugh” or “fucking”, which are pronounced differently in Liverpool to what Lewisohn (a Londoner) clearly thinks is the “proper” way, and so become “laff” and “fooking”. It’s nasty London-centric bigotry, and really beneath him.
A more excusable flaw is in the way the book treats Ringo. Quite rightly, he has the same space devoted to him as any of the others, but for much of the book John, Paul, and George are spending almost all their time together, and have complicated, changing, relationships with each other that can be explored, while Ringo’s life essentially doesn’t intersect with theirs until near the conclusion of the book. This makes Ringo’s life seem like a series of irrelevant asides to the main action, although it is hard to see how Lewisohn could have dealt with this more effectively.
It’s not a perfect book, then, but for anyone who wants a true understanding of where the Beatles came from, the cultural context in which they live, and the personal relationships which allowed them to rise to success, it’s pretty close to essential. I can’t imagine there ever being a better narrative biography of the band, and I’m already looking forward to volume 2 and seriously considering that extended edition…