An authoritative biographer has his work cut out to reveal anything we didn’t know about the Fab Four
All These Years: The Beatles Tune In
Little, Brown £30
Thirty-three years ago, when he was writing the mournful epilogue to the book that still stands as a benchmark, Philip Norman tried to communicate how it felt: a world after the Beatles. He pictured a widow in a lofty apartment on Fifth Avenue, myriad lawyers and accountants mired in wrangling over the band’s money, and a still-beautiful barmaid in Hamburg, tired of the old questions (“Did you really invent the Beatle cut?”). And in Pinner, Middlesex, there was “a serious young man of 22” who sat alone in his room with his Beatles bootleg recordings, hour after hour, picking up the mutterings and whispers that echoed from the long-gone Sixties. His name was Mark Lewisohn.
The wheel comes full circle and little has changed. A publishing boom has kept pace with the band’s popularity over the decades, and this autumn will see the spotlight fall on Beatles Solo: The Illustrated Chronicles Of John, Paul, George, And Ringo After The Beatles by Mat Snow and The Beatles In America by Spencer Leigh, as well as biographies of George Harrison and Paul McCartney and a raft of the perennial picture and poster books, “untold story” volumes, day-by-day and song-by-song accounts and music books.
So what, it seems reasonable to ask, could Lewisohn possibly add? Well, simply, authority. If the Englishman had already won the national quiz which made him “Beatle Brain of Britain” by the time Norman came across him, he is now widely acknowledged (with endorsements from McCartney and George Martin, among others) as the band’s most trusted historian. In a world of recycled Fab Four facts the research for his seventh Beatles book is exemplary, drawing on first-hand interviews and exhaustive trawling of archives both familiar and obscure. His footnotes may be bursting (like all the other biographies) with references to other biographies; but when Lewisohn challenges the rest – describing, for example, how coachloads of tourists expecting to see the Legion hall in Speke where Harrison played his first gig are routinely shown the wrong building, or how Martin’s much-celebrated signing of the Beatles was actually forced on him when he was compromised by an affair with his secretary – I’m with Lewisohn.
And if, as a writer, he can’t match the purring Rolls-Royce prose of Norman’s Shout!, or bring to his subject the exacting disciplines of dramatic structure, there is still much to appreciate. The measured account of John, poised uncertain on the brink of incest with his wayward mother Julia, or the death of Paul’s mother Mary (“I would have liked to have seen the boys growing up,” the 47-year-old told her sister-in-law) evoke a domestic world which outflanks the legend.
This weighty first volume of three has the advantage, too, of dealing with the years before the whirlwind of success and fame – a period which is routinely skimped in the popular accounts. As Lewisohn points out: “Those later, world-changing Beatles are these Beatles.” But if this story’s greatest challenge is to imagine its teenage protagonists in a way which rivals the familiar personalities they became, then I’m sorry to note that the opportunity is only fitfully taken. Young McCartney, for example, is outed as “the boy Casanova of Speke” with almost no exploration of his title-winning behaviour, while the picture of Lennon as “a wolf in a grammar-school blazer” falls frustratingly short on engagement with the pain which drove the boy.
There are also two sides to Lewisohn’s status in Beatledom. This is not the man to challenge the central hook of the mythology: “four young men who changed the world.” He hangs his hat on it. And while there is much to be said for conventional history, the vast written output on the Beatles – with the exception of a few dozen “Paul is dead” conspiracy theorists – is so dulled by convention that you can’t help longing for some imaginative, cantankerous, or just plain wilful new perspective.
I’m not at all sure the Beatles would be pleased with the band’s commercial and cultural institutionalisation. The septuagenarian survivors seem to have befriended the process, but it’s not a stretch to imagine John or George having something cantankerous to say. On the subject of changing the world it was John, just before his death, who questioned the cliché: “Whatever wind was blowing at the time moved the Beatles, too. I’m not saying we weren’t flags on the top of a ship; but the whole boat was moving.”
Still, these are the flags we follow. And somewhere out in the shires and burghs today, you can be sure, there will be more than one bookish young man listening to the echoes, and making plans for a future life with the Beatles. n