The Beatles: Mark Lewisohn's Ticket to Write Their Ultimate History

24/10/2013 16:12 BST | Updated 23/01/2014 23:58 GMT

This is a book with a difference, one that ensures all previous rock tomes will gather dust on high, cob-webbed shelves. It's a work of careful research that turns the legend of The Beatles into a woven history that reads like a work of fiction.


At 946 pages, work on The Beatles: All These Years, Volume One - Tune In by Mark Lewisohn began in 2003. 'I'd like the next two volumes to not take the rest of my life to complete,' jokes Lewisohn, 'but it looks like they might take another 12 to 15 years.'

Having brought his forensic eye to a tale told many times before and incompletely, Lewisohn can happily consign the next 20 years of his life to his study because, with this first book of three, he has set the benchmark in popular music history that he alone can match.

Born in London in 1958, Lewisohn grew up listening to The Beatles and was arrested by their sound. 'Straight away, at the age of 5, I found the music intoxicating. Like so many people around the world, I'd never heard anything like it.'

The band sprang from an era when the British working class was able to culturally assert itself for the first time, benefitting, as Lewisohn points out, from 'the NHS and free grammar school education'.

They sauntered fearlessly out of a shell-shocked North with fresh ideas and the dry wit of educated sons, while they wore their street smarts with élan. There was no need to swagger. With backgrounds that were humble, they bore no grudges. Instead, they smiled upon a world they would soon make anew.

But was it John with his grammar school vigour who was the brains behind the creative thrust? Lewisohn disagrees. 'They are the ultimate proof that a band can be stronger that the sum of its parts. They were all brilliant. But you must remember that The Beatles, primarily, were John Lennon's band. Paul McCartney's contribution was enormous and vital, but the band needed Lennon, Harrison and Starr. Particularly John.

'The Beatles were cultural sponges. They had the ability to take on board everything around them and turn out something that was original. It was music that was meant to last five minutes at the time, don't forget. They had a clean canvas, but what they did with it was mind-boggling.'

The four men lasted a decade together, a brief bloom of extraordinary musical experimentation (in collaboration with George Martin), the roots of which lay twisted in the bomb sites of a post-war Liverpool.

'I had to bring something fresh to the table, so I decided to write it as a social history, at the heart of which are The Beatles.

'It's their story primarily, but it's a contextual one. The Beatles were war babies, so I follow them from infancy upwards to the teenage years when skiffle and rock'n'roll arrived in their lives. I carry on from there with their determination to do something with it, up to the point when these characters gel and start being truly original, which is quite early on.'

As songwriters alive to the social flux of the Sixties, they formed a distinct bridgehead between popular and high culture. The band's creativity was wholly unique as contemporary musicians, startled by their artistic surge, managed only to trail in their wake.

'In my research I will go as deep as I need to go to find all that needs to be found so that I can relate it properly for the reader. If there's something more to know, I'll go and get it,' says Lewisohn.

'The research involved finding as many pieces of this puzzle as possible, and putting them down where they truly belong.'

All These Years, Volume One - Tune In is perhaps the richest and most complex telling of the story of The Beatles, and it was essential that the book be independent and unauthorised. 'This is a work of history and I have refreshed the story so that it is told as if you've never heard it before. It's about human lives, not legend.

'The Sixties was a fertile period because The Beatles' generation was the first to take advantage of the post-war world and independence for young people. They were the baby boomers who had money to spend and who escaped national service.

'And the way they avoided being knocked off the top spot was to keep moving on musically so that you couldn't catch them. They left the copyists and plagiarists behind.'

This is the salient point: that some rare alchemy existed between the four men which gave rise to an unrivalled body of work. 'The Beatles were completely organic, not the product of a talent show, and were allowed to develop unseen. They had that sharp Scouse wit and could not be bullshitted. They were very much the product of their time and place.'

This British edge helped them withstand the immense pressure of early, global fame, which also kept them (relatively) sane and in good humour. 'They were able to turn it all to their advantage,' says Lewisohn. 'They were naturals. But they didn't intend to be spokesmen for their generation. It all happened as a result of them being original and wanting to make music their way.'

One only has to view on YouTube those early TV interviews with the band to see that The Beatles possessed the vigour of those roused from a long slumber, and though naturally-existing tensions between the personalities within the band meant that as a creative unit it could last only so long, they still managed to seize their moment and assimilate global pre- and post-war influences to create a legacy that resonates to this day.

All These Years, Volume One - Tune In is published by Little, Brown in the UK.

Photographs courtesy of (top) gnotalex ℅ and (bottom) Little, Brown