Q&A with Mark Lewisohn
So much has been written about the Beatles, why is this book different to all other books?
‘We know everything there is to know about the Beatles, so what else can possibly be written?’ People say that all the time – and I don’t agree with it for a second. I wouldn’t argue the Beatles’ story has been told often, but I would argue that it can’t be told again and differently. It’s been related the same old way for so very long and it’s also dying under the suffocating blanket of ‘celebrity’. I want to start again, I want to press the Refresh button.
This is a comprehensive biography, three volumes, a sequential history in which I set out to relate everything that happened, and do so with integrity, attention to detail, accuracy and, I believe, a fair understanding of where the story needs to be told and how to tell it. I’m writing so it unfolds as if in real time – there’s no hindsight cleverness, so you get a vivid sense of the forward movement. The Beatles’ story always had tremendous energy, speed, vitality – and this must be tangible to the reader.
It all boils down to this. They were four war babies from Liverpool who really did change the world, and whose music and impact still lives on in so many ways, after all these years. I say, let’s scrub what we know, or think we know, and start over: Who really were these people, and how did it all happen?
Why three volumes?
Way too much of importance and interest happens in this story to cram into one book. In part, my method has been not to write ‘a Beatles book’ at all but to write biographies of several lives. It’s a thorough biography of John Lennon and of Paul McCartney, of George Harrison, of Richy Starkey, and of the four of them collectively, and it’s a biography of George Martin, and of Brian Epstein and others – all woven together with the thread of what was going on around them. I want it to be ‘the Beatles in their world and the world about them’, so we can see them as people, their lives, personalities, characters, process. It’s really a million miles from ‘a celeb biography’.
Why All These Years and why Tune In?
The three volumes cover a broad span of time, so all these years seems right straight away, and it reflects that the Beatles have been part of our lives for all these years, a very long time now. I’m trying to write something authentic for those who lived through those days (as I did, I’m pleased to say, and which I think is important) and something instructive-interesting for those who didn’t. And it’s written for people who don’t usually read Beatles books, but might realise that, in a very real sense, this is about all our lives.
And Tune In because that’s the essence of everything, especially the years covered in this first volume. At its most obvious, it’s how four lads tuned in to rock and roll, rhythm and blues, country and western and all the other glorious sounds reaching them from the promised land, America. Above all else, it’s how these extraordinary main characters tuned into one another.
You made your name with books such as The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions and The Complete Beatles Chronicle. Is All These Years like those, a diary-like reference work?
No. I wrote those other books in my twenties, and that was what I wanted to do then, and what I felt I could do. Long-form narrative is very much what I want to do now that I’m in my fifties and have a broader world view. The depth of detail is still very much the same, because that’s what I love looking for and reporting, but now I need to express it as a read.
You have a long professional association with the Beatles, and some of them individually – are they involved in Tune In and is this book authorised?
No. I received the odd tiny bit of help which I specifically asked for and they didn’t have to give – but substantially no, they’re not involved. That’s fine, because it’s what I expected and what I wanted. This has to be an independent and impartial book. But are the all main players appearing and speaking at the book’s core? Yes, constantly. Paul McCartney decided not to talk to me for this particular project, and I completely respect and understand his reasons – but I’ve interviewed him maybe fifteen times in the past and I’ve also sourced other quotes of great strength and immediacy for all the players.
One of many reasons the Beatles’ achievements and reputation sustain with such integrity is because they were true. They stood for truth, projected truth and lived truthfully as best they could. It’s entirely right that their history is written as true as possible, with no embroidery, nothing faked or glossed, nothing stupidly interpreted, everything transparent, everything attributed. Of course my attachment to this subject is deep and lifelong, but I’m not the least bit interested in writing a book simply to say how great they were. They certainly don’t need that, and I certainly wouldn’t do it. It’d be a waste of my time. My passion is for learning everything I can about this subject, understanding it, and doing my best to set it down clearly so it can be understood relative to what happened.
What period of the story does Tune In cover?
It ends on 31 December 1962, with the Beatles on the cusp of their phenomenal breakthrough, but with everything having fallen well into place – all the people, places, personalities, situations, organisation. So I’m writing about the Liverpool and Hamburg years, the formative years, the teenage years and the childhood years, and all the family backgrounds in a Who Do They Think They Are-style history – and these families were almost as fascinating as their famous offspring. The three volumes aren’t only about ‘who these people were’ but ‘what made them what they were?’ I begin this history in 1845; there’s a fair deal of Irish blood in the Beatles and I start with the potato famine, which forces the Lennons into Liverpool. Then it moves swiftish through the next hundred years and becomes very solid from the Second World War and the arrival of all the main players.
I’m sure it won’t surprise anyone to learn that the Beatles didn’t suddenly grow personalities when they had a hit record – that their talent, originality and relentless desire to move on fast, to try new things, was already well in place in their early years. I’m sure no one would be amazed to find the Beatles didn’t become instantly remarkable when they conquered Britain, America and much of the world, or funny when they filmed A Hard Day’s Night, or inventive when recording Revolver or Sgt Pepper. It was always who they were, a continuation of what was going in all these earlier years, except more visible. The richness of the stories to come in books two and three is also in volume one all the way through. Really, everything was revved up and running in these formative years, in the halls, houses and streets of Liverpool, the only place these people and those events could have happened.
What are your resources?
Everything. Absolutely everything, and this is a book that very much revels in its sources. The Beatles have the richest of history trails and I’ve spent decades turning up documents, recordings, photos and archive material of every conceivable kind, and – through these things – trying to learn all there is to learn, and make sense of it. I’ve had more punch-the-air moments on this project, more moments of major discovery, than any other.
The Beatles are the most extraordinary subject to research: there’s gold on the surface, gold one layer down, gold, gold, gold, all the way to the nth level of discovery. No matter how deep you dig, there it is, another fascinating nugget. I just try to keep an open mind and go where the information might be, where its keepers are. I’m perpetually looking for anything that that tells me something new – and still it happens every day. People always say to me ‘Surely you know all there is to know about the Beatles’, but no one knows everything about anything. There’s always more.
When it comes to interviewees, again, I’ve had some wonderful times on this book. Beatles authors routinely speak to the same old people and get the same old quotes. I don’t mean to sound disrespectful, but it’s all become pat. What is someone going to say the 500th time they’re interviewed that they haven’t said in the previous 499? But are they the only people to talk to? Absolutely not. Are they even the best people to talk to? In many cases, no. There are Grade A witnesses to this history who’ve never advertised themselves to writers, and whose nature is to not speak until they feel the time is right. They’re throughout this book, and the immediacy of their quotes is breathtaking in places.
This doesn’t mean I swallow everything I’m given: all material must be scrutinised, because if it doesn’t stand up to testing then it’s suspect and shouldn’t be used. Having an association with the Beatles is often the biggest thing in a person’s life, so exaggerations and untruths can creep in. I have a very good bull-detector: I know what’s useable and what isn’t. After that, it’s just a matter of organising the material and seeing what it tells you in context with every other discovery. I liken the book to a jigsaw puzzle: it’s about finding as many pieces as possible and fitting them together where they belong, at which point the picture just gets clearer and clearer, with more colour, context, energy, authenticity.
What does this book tell us that other books haven’t?
As I’m explaining, it’s a combination of two primary factors – a great deal of entirely new material, and a refreshing of the already known elements, pumping life back into a story squashed flat by half a century of constant (and not always very good) telling. It’s now a connected and contextualised story, greater than the sum of its parts. Have I found big new things? Yes. But I’m not into sensationalism: the big things are folded in with the small in the way that they naturally unfolded, and the surprises come on pretty much every page because it’s the story of what happened.
What’s gained by writing about the Beatles contextually?
The Beatles didn’t exist in a vacuum; their story can only be fully understood by seeing it in the mix with everything else going on around them. They were always part of scenes with friends and rivals, young turks together in clubs and night-clubs. There’s also a broader context: that at the time they were rising, so too was Bob Dylan, the Stones and all the other elements that made the 1960s the decade we’re still talking about. It’ll all come together in volumes two and three, and Tune In ends with everything in place, on the brink. This book is also the story of Elvis and skiffle and girl-groups and Larry Parnes and Tamla Motown and Gene Vincent and Cliff Richard and Little Richard and Goffin-King … though it’s always told through the Beatles’ filter. I never forget the Beatles were musicians. A fair part of Tune In takes place in ‘browseries’ – record shop listening booths – where they squeezed in tight to imbibe the influential sounds coming across from America, deciding what was ‘crap’ and what was ‘great’. It was usually one of the browseries in their manager’s record shop, Brian Epstein, whose own life story is just incredible, as is George Martin’s.
Over these three books, I’m also interested in looking at how the society that shaped the Beatles first received them and was then shaped by them, and I want to really look at how the Beatles so deftly handled their own friendships and relationships, and the media, and such outlandish fame. Also, while it’s accepted fact that they transformed the worldwide music industry, and shook global youth culture awake, and induced a revolution in listening to and playing music … again, I’m saying how? and really looking at it. Let’s see what things were like when the Beatles came along, and how it all unfolded.
One more thing. I’ve always found the Beatles’ story very funny – the people, places, personalities, incidents and moments, and that enjoyment is present in this book. I’m not the first to realise the Beatles were comedians: maybe the best of their generation as well as the best rock group, four genuine senses of humour and then a collective fifth, and it’s all woven into the fabric of the story.
Does Tune In have unpublished photos?
Yes, but not every one. It’s typical of the Beatles that so many fine photos were taken of them before they became famous, but they number in tens, not thousands, and most have been seen by now. But yes, I do have some good new ones, and the others will have the benefit of being seen in fuller context, which should refresh them.
What follows Tune In?
Volume two will pick up in January 1963, though I haven’t yet decided where it will end – some point in 1966 or 1967 probably. This first volume took ten full years to research and write but I don’t envisage the same stretch being necessary for books two and three: the periods covered are more enclosed, and I’ve already done a fair bit of the research. Still, I know – I’m sure – there’s much yet to be discovered, especially more documents, and my foot will be pressed hard down for a long time to come.
What drives you?
George Harrison looked me square in the eye on two separate occasions and said ‘You weren’t there, so how can you write about us?’ That’s not an argument I agree with, but I could clearly understand why, in his life, he’d arrived at that thought. The Beatles have been the subject of almost total public dissection in books, many of them poor, that it’s inevitable they long ago formed ‘a particular view’ about them and about writers. This applies to Paul and Ringo equally. So I wasn’t there, but I’m not pretending I was. By George’s line, you could only have autobiographies, nothing by anyone else, nothing objective, no biographies, no histories. As a great reader himself, he already knew otherwise.
My motivation is that if the Beatles’ story isn’t researched and written properly, and this isn’t done now, it’ll be wrong forever. Imagine if Shakespeare or Mozart had biographers in their time and not when all the participants in the story were dead and most of the documents destroyed? The players in the Beatles’ story, and its witnesses, are dying – anyone aged 30 in 1963 is 80 now. I’ve already been interviewing for books two and three, because by the time I get there, really very few people will be left – and those who are might not remember as much as they do now.
I’m not just saying this as hype, but the Beatles story really is an incredibly good read. Every artist, band, producer, impresario has a story, and many of them are important and worthy of fine books, but there’s nothing like the Beatles story to legitimately go everywhere and strongly connect everything to everyone. They were continually at the forefront, doing things first, so it’s bound to be strong. It’s a blockbuster history with surprises at every turn, many heroes, a few villains, unparalleled triumphs, great joys and genuine tragedies, the ebbs and flows of human lives – plus an avalanche of fortuitous chances and coincidences that defy the laws of probability. I want it to be told as right as humanly possible, and I certainly don’t want to go to my grave with it infuriatingly wrong when I could have done something about it. I know the Beatles’ story now more than ever before and I feel privileged to be able to share it. No writer could want for more.