For days after Christmas I didn’t leave the sofa, enthralled by The Beatles Tune In, the first of three volumes in which Mark Lewisohn intends to tell the definitive story of the Beatles. It’s a grand book in every sense of the word: this volume clocks in at close on a thousand pages, ending as the group travel to London to record their first single ‘Love Me Do’; it’s also meticulously-researched and written with passion, authority and elegance. This is not your average pop hagiography, but is also an informed and insightful social history of Liverpool and the emergent youth culture of the 1950s. After this, all future accounts of the lives of the Beatles will be redundant.

Evidence of the breadth of Lewisohn’s perspective is apparent from his opening sentence which snaps us forward to the point in time where this volume will end. It’s October 1962, and the Beatles – who, with Ringo taking the drum stool, have only recently taken the form by which they will become known to the world – are gathered on a piece of empty, rubble-strewn wasteland in front of an empty tea warehouse on Dublin Street, close to the docks just north of Liverpool’s Pier Head.

They’re there for a photo-shoot to promote their first single, ‘Love Me Do’, which has just been released by Parlophone in London. That’s where most music journalists would have left things.  But Lewisohn has also done some serious social historical research and discovered that, although John Lennon had no idea at the time, he was standing on the very ground where, less than a hundred years earlier, his great-grandad James Lennon from County Down had settled – just one among the million and a half starving Irish men, women and children who sailed into Liverpool between 1845 and 1854, fleeing the potato famine in their homeland.

The Beatles on Saltney Street, October 1962
The Beatles on Saltney Street, October 1962

With their new ‘flat’ hairstyle and Chelsea boots, the four lads are standing where the Lennons first made their home in Liverpool – beneath their feet lies the rubble of the cholera-infested court-housing that lined Saltney Street, a stone’s throw from the landing stage at the Pier Head.

Lewisohn’s antennae are attuned to such historical coincidences, though he doesn’t mention another one: four years later, when Bob Dylan and the Band arrive in Liverpool during their controversial tour of Britain in 1966, photographer Barry Feinstein takes Bob to the very same spot to shoot some of the most evocative images of his Bobness (see them here).

I came to Liverpool in 1967, a student at the university drawn to the soot-blackened city by the Beatles myth. So what makes this first volume of Lewisohn’s monumental work so absorbing is that it is as much a social history of the city that became my home as it is a biography of its most famous citizens. Lewisohn traces the roots of the Lennon, McCartney and Harrison families as far as 1845 – tangled up with migration to Liverpool from Ireland – and the Starkeys, who by contrast were ‘Dingle through and through’, Protestant, boisterous and hard-working).

Author Mark Lewisohn
Author Mark Lewisohn

Mark Lewisohn’s cv is entirely Beatles: ‘the world’s only professional Beatles historian’ (as the jacket blurb puts it) has made them his career, working for EMI  and Apple (officially commissioned to document all of the Beatles’ original session tapes), and writing many reference books about the Beatles. But the current work represents the summit of his ambition. In 2005, announcing that he had started work on a three-volume Beatles biography (to go under the over-arching title, All These Years), he said:

The Beatles story has been told very often but, in my view, rarely very well. I’m writing a wide-ranging history and my aim is true: to explore and comprehend what happened in and around the Beatles, and to write it even-handedly, without fear or favour, bias or agenda. A rock and roll group came out of Liverpool and shaped the last half of the 20th century the world over, and their music transcends changing times. The whole extraordinary story needs to be fully recorded and it needs to be done now, while first-hand witnesses are still with us.

So, though secondary sources have been comprehensively mined, the backbone of this work is primary material: letters, public records and business documents, (some of which Lewisohn probably encountered during his work for EMI/Apple and for the Beatles themselves on Anthology) and, crucially, interviews with family, friends, and many hitherto unrecorded individuals whose lives intersected with the Beatles. Meticulous throughout, Lewisohn adds 72 pages of scrupulous notes and credits, plus footnotes.

Lest this sound too much like something only for Beatles nuts, let me add that Lewisohn writes exceedingly well, with the result that the book often reads like a novel, as paths cross, dramas unfold and personal tragedies occur. And because we all know how the story ends, there’s a fascination in how easily it all might have turned out so differently: how much chance and luck plays a part in all our stories.

The only surviving picture of John Lennon with his mother Julia
The only surviving picture of John Lennon with his mother Julia

One outstanding example of how well Lewisohn tells this story is his account of the death of John’s mother, Julia Lennon. The bare bones of the tragedy are well known, but Lewisohn reveals a tragedy of remarkable coincidences and consequences that would make it seem improbable in a novel.

Since 1946, when he was five years old, John had seen little of Julia (and nothing of his father, who had disappeared from Liverpool). The pair had been married during the war when Alf Lennon, a merchant seaman, was on shore leave and Julia was working as an usherette at the Trocadero cinema. Their marriage was unstable and chaotic;  ‘The only good thing that came out of it was John,’ Julia’s older sister Mimi would say later. It was Mimi who became John’s guardian and main parental figure, raising him in the house called Mendips, on Menlove Avenue, a busy dual-carriageway in suburban Woolton.

Lennon with his aunt Mimi
Lennon with his aunt Mimi

But in 1957 John began to see more of Julia: at 40 she was like an older version of John, irreverent, uninhibited, and with a huge personality. She lived less than two miles from Mendips, in a council house obtained by claiming marriage to John ‘Bobby’ Dykins, though she and Alf Lennon had never divorced. By the summer of 1958, John was living there more than at Mendips.

Dykins was an alcoholic with a job in a restaurant in the city. For years he’d been courting trouble, driving home in the early hours well over the limit. Just after midnight on 20 June 1958, he was spotted driving drunkenly along Menlove Avenue by a constable who booked him for drink-driving. The consequence was that Dykins was banned from driving for a year and lost his job, unable to get home late from the city without a car.

Julia was now often at Mimi’s, their relationship rekindled since John began shuttling between them. But her reason for going to Mendips on 15 July was another consequence of Dykins’ drunk-driving: he had told Julia that since he’d lost his job they could no longer afford to have John staying with them. So she went to talk things over with Mimi, taking the bus.

That was why, at 9.45 that evening, having said goodbye to Mimi at the gate of Mendips, Julia came to be crossing Menlove Avenue.’On another day’, writes Lewisohn, ‘Bobby might have come to collect her …if right here on Menlove Avenue he hadn’t lost his licence …but for which she mightn’t have been here at all’. She was run over by a policeman, a learner driver who shouldn’t have been on the road unaccompanied.

Nigel Walley, a friend of John, was at the scene. He told Lewisohn: ‘To my mind, she’d been killed instantly. I can still see her gingery hair fluttering in the breeze, blowing across her face.’ Lewisohn leaves it unstated, but nine years later Lennon wrote his beautiful tribute to the woman whose death had been, ever since, at the core of who he was: ‘Her hair of floating sky is shimmering, glimmering,/
In the sun’.

Stuart, John & George, Hamburg 1960-61, by Astrid Kirchherr
Stuart, John and George photographed in Hamburg in 1961 by Astrid Kirchherr

There were other tragedies, each sensitively recounted by Lewisohn: Paul McCartney’s mother Mary, dying from breast cancer when he was 14; and Stuart Sutcliffe, the band’s first, less-than-brilliant bass player, who, aged 21, slipped into a coma and died of a brain haemorrhage on 10 April 1962 in Hamburg, just as John and Paul were arriving for the band’s second stint in the city.

All four Beatles were war babies who grew up in a city shattered by war. All, apart from Ringo, were grammar school boys, educated in institutions such as Quarry Bank Grammar and Liverpool Institute for Boys that held fast to tradition. As luck would have it, they just escaped the dreaded national service, phased out from 1957. Luck and chance, as Lewisohn shows, were not insignificant factors in precipitating the ultimate success of the Beatles. But there was determination, too. They may not have been inclined to stick with their education or hold down a steady job, but all four were committed to the music.

Cool cat

In that they were not alone: Lewisohn gives a vivid account of how, from the mid-fifties on, fired up by skiffle and American rock ‘n’ roll, young men across Liverpool took up basic instruments and began to make their own music. He gives the impression, though, that it was the Beatles – especially McCartney and Lennon – who were singularly possessed of a powerful belief in themselves. It was John who would fire up the rest whenever doubt or depression kicked in, the feeling the group was going nowhere, with the shout, ‘Where are we going, fellas?’ And they’d go, ‘To the top, Johnny!’ And he’d say, ‘Where’s that fellas?’ and they’d say, ‘To the toppermost of the poppermost!’.

Beatles on stage in Hamburg. Paul at the piano, Stuart on bass, Pete Best on drumsPete
The Beatles on stage in Hamburg: Paul at the piano, Stuart on bass, Pete Best on drums
The Beatles on stage in Hamburg, 1961
Ripping it up in Hamburg in 1961 with local gangster, foreground

As important as their self-belief was their work ethic. For lads (particularly Lennon and McCartney) who eschewed academic discipline and steady jobs they put in serious time playing hard rock ‘n’ roll: like some maniacal accountant, Lewisohn carefully tots up the hours they spent working the Cavern (lunchtimes and evenings), the circuit of Merseyside clubs and halls that hosted rock ‘n’ roll gigs, and, most significantly, the three Hamburg seasons. In total, he calculates that the Beatles put in 11190 on-stage hours during 38 weeks of playing – the equivalent of three hours every night for a full year. In Hamburg they were required to perform for around five hours a night with no repetition. The result was not only a great leap forward in their collective musical skills, but also the accumulation of a huge and diverse repertoire.

The Beatles in leather suits
Rockers: The Beatles in 1962

Lewisohn diligently stirs into his narrative details of the songs the Beatles heard during regular visits to the listening booths at Brian Epstein’s NEMS store on Great Charlotte Street: the latest songs from American pop, R&B, rock ‘n’ roll and soul acts that they would quickly incorporate into their act. It would be some time, however, before the paths of Epstein and the Beatles would cross: on Thursday 9 November 1961, at the Cavern lunchtime session, to be precise:

Right on cue … the tracks that had been running in parallel for so long finally converged. Brian Epstein’s ‘My Bonnie’ enquiries had taken him so far but no further. He knew it was a foreign record, probably from Germany, and found it ‘very significant’ that NEMS had received three orders for it. He knew the Beatles were a Liverpool group and for the first time actively searched Mersey Beat for their name. The current issue (which, also for the first time, had a NEMS front-page ad) included Beatles [advertisements] for appearances at Litherland, New Brighton and the Cavern.

Alongside the paths of John, Paul, George, Pete and Stu (as well as that of Ringo Starr, drummer for rival Liverpool band The Hurricanes), Lewisohn has already been tracing those of the two men from very different social backgrounds who would come to play such a crucial part in the Beatles legend, interleaving the stories of Brian Epstein and George Martin in a manner which not only reveals a great deal about the workings of the music business in Britain, but also casts light on social attitudes towards homosexuality and marital infidelity at the time.

the Beatles
George, Paul and John obscure their new drummer: Hulme Hall, Port Sunlight, 18 August 1962

In this rich and rewarding narrative the Beatles don’t take their legendary form, with Ringo taking over the drum stool, until around page 700. On 18 August 1962, for the first time, the Beatles were officially John, Paul, George and Ringo. After a two-hour rehearsal they played at Hulme Hall in Port Sunlight. The occasion was the local horticultural society’s 17th annual dance.

This volume is largely the story of the Beatles as schoolboys, of Lennon and McCartney sagging off to write songs in secret at Aunt Mimi’s, of the electrifying effect of hearing the latest singles from America, of teenage sex, of the genius and tragedy of Stu Sutcliffe and of Pete Best, the guy who never quite fit in.

Above all, Lewisohn’s book is a wonderful evocation of Liverpool in the post-war years, a city I never knew, arriving only after the Beatles had been gone for years, but one that inhabits my unconscious as vividly as if I had walked its streets when they did.

It’s no exaggeration to say that the Beatles set the course of my adult life: they gave this once great but now decrepit sea port an allure that drew to it a teenager looking for a university place in 1967. Still here decades later, that phantasmal city of the past lives on for me in ghost trails left by four myth-making musicians whose paths I cross daily, as I pass the places haunted by their traces. The squalid student flat I shared in Percy Street, little realising at the time that a previous occupant had been art student Stu Sutcliffe. The third floor flat on Princes Road which Rita and I lived in the early seventies, where we would sit on the fire escape, gazing along High Park Street, busy in those days, to Madryn Street where Ringo had grown. John’s old school, Quarry Bank, where friends taught and where our daughter sat her A-levels. Dovedale Primary where John and a younger George learned their first lessons, and where our daughter is now a teacher. Dingle Vale Secondary where Ringo was absent as often he was present, directly behind which we now work our allotment. Mendips and Forthlin Road, the childhood homes of John and Paul where they would meet and compose their first songs, close to my first student digs just off Heath Road. ‘All these places have their moments’.

It’s a sensation shared by Mark Lewisohn which he touches on in a passage in the lengthy credits section at the end of his book:

In Liverpool, I look not at today’s shopping malls and trendy empty apartments, but for the place of this extraordinary history. It’s there – you just have to squeeze your eyes tight and peer through. I stood outside Central Station one August Bank Holiday night, bag of chips in hand, forced myself to ignore the loud drunken lads pissing in the street and the loud drunken lasses with virtually nothing on, everyone shouting focchin this and focchin that … and when I looked through there was Jim Mac coming round the corner in his hat, puffing on his pipe, Echo tucked under his arm, and Aunt Mimi walking along with young John, berating him but having a laugh at the same time. I looked for the green double-decker bus driven by Harry Harrison, while his youngest son George – waering something outrageous – nipped out of Blackler’s and headed for Frank Hessy’s to ogle the guitars. I looked for Paul and Ian and Richy and Roy staring at the records in the windows of NEMS on Great Charlotte Street, from which Brian Epstein stepped out immaculately on his way to the Basnett Bar – where Dereck Taylor had stopped by from the Echo for a swift half, passing Mal Evans with his GPO engineer’s bag and Harry Greaves with his decorating ladder, everyone photographed by Mike McCartney from the hair-salon window above.I looked for Neil Aspinall leaving the Pru building, for Julia en route to the Troc with men wolf-whistling her, and Alf Lennon tripping by Johnny Best’s boxing stadium and Jim Mac’s Cotton Exchange on his way down to the docks.

Mark Lewisohn has written a superb account of the Beatles’ Liverpool years. Now we must wait for the second instalment of the trilogy. But will I be as gripped when the scene shifts from Liverpool? Kitty Empire, in her review for the Guardian, sums up the first volume’s allure:

The people and milieux that spring from these pages remain, largely, as we previously knew them: the core of Lennon, McCartney and Harrison, sharing in-jokes and a taste for hard-to-find vinyl and black leather; George Martin, a fellow comedy aficionado with the studio skills to bottle their magic and the courage to give this unruly, untried band their heads. It is the breadth and scope of Lewisohn’s endeavour that are unparalleled, the knowledge that the young Lennon and McCartney take two buses to some guy’s house who is rumoured to know a B7 chord.

Such a great book – so why did the publishers give it such a crap cover? The title isn’t much better, either.

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2 thoughts on “The Beatles Tune In: Mark Lewisohn’s definitive account of the Liverpool years

  1. An excellent review of what for me was also a fascinating, enthralling book. It’s brilliantly well researched and put together so well that I can’t wait for the next volume.

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