Paul McCartney’s new album, “New,” includes a song called “Early Days” that sounds almost like a pre-emptive strike on Beatles biographer Mark Lewisohn:
“Now everybody seems to have their own opinion / Of who did this and who did that / But as for me I don’t see how they can remember / When they weren’t where it was at.”
“The fact that this song was released the same week as my book was rather delicious,” says Lewisohn, the 55-year-old author of the exhaustively researched, 932-page (including index and extensive end notes) tome “Tune In: The Beatles: All These Years, Vol. 1” (Crown Archetype, $40), which ends in late 1962 just as the Beatles as we know them are getting started. “I think he’s having a dig at me along with everyone else. I think it’s a general rump at people who think they know more than he does.”
At the same time, the British Lewisohn notes in a phone conversation from New York, he has been personally employed by McCartney, and the author knows that Part 1 of his planned three-volume Beatles history covers as many angles and perspectives on the band’s early days as he thought possible.
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“No one has tried harder than me to get it right,” says Lewisohn, noting he delivered a book to McCartney’s office with the inscription “I did my best.” “But if he doesn’t like it, I have to go on.”
Among Beatles die-hards, “Tune In” was the most eagerly awaited item of what’s become an annual holiday-season bonanza of Fabs-related material — with this year offering a particular immersion in the lives and music of the group’s formative years. The band’s remastered stereo albums came out on vinyl last year, and a box of the band’s mono LPs was due to follow this year but has been pushed back to 2014.
Instead, Capitol/Universal last week released “On Air — Live at the BBC Volume 2,” a two-CD / three-LP follow-up to the 1994 two-disc set “Live at the BBC,” which itself is being reissued in remastered form Nov. 25. “On Air” feels less groundbreaking than its predecessor, which debuted live radio performances of about 30 songs the Beatles never recorded — gems such as Arthur Alexander’s “Soldier of Love”; Chan Romero’s “The Hippy Hippy Shake”; bunches of songs by Little Richard, Carl Perkins and Chuck Berry; and “I Just Don’t Understand,” a brooding ballad originally recorded by Ann-Margret.
The revamped “Live at the BBC” still may be the best way to go given the helpful tweaks: “Things We Said Today” no longer features talking over the intro, for instance, and the new edition adds a bit of air between the songs whereas the original discs’ songs annoyingly ran into one another. Plus, it’s logical that the strongest material would’ve been included on this first collection rather than the sequel released 19 years later.
“On Air” is far more weighted toward songs that the group recorded on its first few albums, though some, such as a crackling take on Buddy Holly’s “Words of Love,” predate the official versions. This collection also includes less music and more amusing banter with the BBC hosts, as well as eight-minute interviews with each Beatle, all illuminating but not necessarily made for repeated listening.
Yet you still get to experience what a firecracker young band this was. “I Saw Her Standing There” may be rougher than the recorded version and less explosive than the one on the first “Live at the BBC,” yet it remains undeniable — and the occasional missed notes and jagged edges throughout the collection make these guys seem more human and less iconic: hardworking guys giving their all to a regular radio gig.
Recently released as a sort of companion piece is Kevin Howlett’s “The Beatles: The BBC Archives 1962-70” (Harper Design, $60), a handsome, photo-filled book that comes in a reel-to-reel-tape-size box. It contains transcriptions of the Beatles’ BBC interviews and context-placing commentary by the author / compiler and also includes: a separate folder with facsimiles of the band’s BBC audition form filled out by manager Brian Epstein, an Audience Research Report following a March 1964 broadcast/performance (29 percent rated it “A+” or “A,” 38 percent “B,” 25 percent “C” and 8 percent “C-“), another one following the December 1967 telecast of the Beatles’ ill-conceived “Magical Mystery Tour” film (74 percent “C” or “C-“) and the 1967 letter informing the Beatles that the BBC was banning the song “A Day in the Life”:
“ ‘Turned on’ is a phrase which can be used in many different circumstances, but is currently much in vogue in the jargon of drug-addicts. We do not feel that we can take the responsibility of appearing to favour or encourage those unfortunate habits …”
And if you’re looking for yet another attractive book to place onto a Beatles coffee-table tableaux, there’s Jean-Michel Guesdon and Philippe Margotin’s “All the Songs: The Story Behind Every Beatles Release” (Black Dog & Levinthal, $50). Very little, if anything, is new here; the co-authors are cribbing material from previously released books and interviews to create this rundown of each song’s authorship and recording.
I actually own a book that does pretty much the same thing, William J. Dowlding’s “Beatlesongs,” but that’s a yellowing paperback from 1989, not a pretty, gift-worthy book offering full-page photos. Both books lean heavily on a work that was revelatory in its insights into the recording and creative processes: Lewisohn’s “The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions,” released initially as “The Beatles Recording Sessions” in 1988 and reissued last month in paperback by Sterling ($19.95).
Since that book’s release, Lewisohn, who also helped to edit the band’s official narrative, “The Beatles Anthology,” has been pretty much revered in the Beatles world, both for his access to material in the so-called vaults and the authority with which he has analyzed and reported on it. So the 2004 announcement of his three-volume Beatles biography was greeted with excitement among fans eager to read a definitive account that a) would render all other Beatles biographies superfluous, and b) would deliver that rarest of commodities: something new about the Beatles after all these years.
But such an approach requires patience, it turns out, as Volume 1’s initially announced 2008 publication date wound up being pushed back by five years. And, Lewisohn counsels, don’t hold your breath for Volume 2; this project is not like the “Hobbit” movie trilogy in which work on all three parts has taken place simultaneously.
“Most of my research was aimed at Volume 1, but along the way I’ve done maybe 40 percent of the research for Volume 2 and maybe 10 percent for Volume 3,” he says, adding that while this first book took about 10 years to complete, the second one probably will come in another six or seven years, and he expects to follow a similar time frame for the final installment.
“I’ll be 70 by then and wanting to finish it,” he says.
But Lewisohn has given readers much to chew on in the meantime, as “Tune In” devotes its extensive length to years that most Beatles biographies toss off in a chapter or two as they rush toward the thrills of Beatlemania. These are the least documented, least known years in the Beatles’ lives but in some ways the richest material, as Lewisohn shows John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Richy Starkey (not yet Ringo Starr) as wartime Liverpool babies who get inspired by American R&B, rock ’n’ roll and skiffle records (the last played partially on washboards and tea chests) while becoming the first British generation in decades to avoid call-up to National Service.
“This is a contextual history,” the author says. “It’s important how the music in their lives is explained, their passion for everything American. America runs deep in this book because although the Beatles have not yet got to America, America has got to them in a big way.”
We also witness the young men’s nascent sexual conquests; their adventures as a Hamburg bar band; the personal / professional dramas surrounding John’s ill-fated, not-quite-competent bassist pal Stuart Sutcliffe; the protracted maneuvering to sack original drummer Pete Best; and Epstein’s frustrations in landing the band a record contract.
Lewisohn says many of these stories were drawn from the vast amount of paperwork he explored, such as the legal files for Epstein’s first 18 months of Beatles management, while others came from interviews he personally conducted (including with members of the Beatles, though not specifically for this book) plus the great volume of interviews given by those in the Beatles’ circle over the years. Lewisohn’s approach has been drawing comparisons to Robert Caro’s ongoing multivolume Lyndon Johnson biography, though the Beatles author said his initial inspiration was Henry-Louis de La Grange’s four-volume biography of composer Gustav Mahler.
“Their cultural contribution is so enormous, they absolutely deserve a book like this,” Lewisohn says. “This is not a rock book. It’s also not a book about legends.”
And if you want more, keep in mind that the U.S. hardcover edition of “Tune In” is abridged. Lewisohn says the book initially was going to be 250,000 words, but he wrote 780,000 words and cut the manuscript down to 400,000 words for publication. But his original version, all 1,728 pages of it, was published Thursday in the U.K. in an “Expanded Special Edition” listed at £120 (about $192, though Amazon U.K. is discounting it at £74.20, about $119). A Crown spokeswoman said there are no current plans for a U.S. release of the longer version.
Lewisohn says the regular version is missing nothing that’s essential to the story; the longer edition just goes into more depth and offers more context and quotes regarding the ’50s and ’60s music scenes on both sides of the Atlantic, among other things.
“That’s everything that I wrote, and it’s what I feel needed to be said,” Lewisohn says. “There’s still no fat in it. There’s just a lot more of it.”
It should be enough to keep Beatles fans busy till next holiday season at least.