By Gillian G. Gaar
Given the wealth of Beatles books in existence, you might think there’s nothing else that could be learned about them. But leave it to Mark Lewisohn to find something new. The author of such essential tomes as “The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions” and “The Complete Beatles Chronicle,” Lewisohn has set the bar high with what will be a three-volume series, “The Beatles: All These Years.” The first volume, “Tune In,” runs 803 pages (not counting notes and the index), and it only takes the tale up to the end of 1962.
“I make the analogy at the start of this book that it’s rather like a jigsaw puzzle,” says Lewisohn, speaking from his home in England, “and I’m out there finding as many pieces of it as I can, and then putting them down where they really belong, and looking at what I’m learning from it, what it’s telling me. And that is incredibly interesting stuff. There’s something very magical about this story, basically.”
Lewisohn began work on the project 10 years ago. He’d previously focused on writing reference books, but after completing “Funny, Peculiar: The True Story of Benny Hill” (published in 2002), he realized he was capable of writing long-form narrative books as well. And he knew from the start his Beatles biography would need more than one book. “The Beatles’ story is very deep as well as broad,” he says. “I just felt that in order to write it properly, it should be done in more than one volume.”
Initial publication dates were planned for 2008, 2012 and 2016, which Lewisohn concedes “seemed like a good idea at the time, but it was actually wildly ambitious. As soon as I began researching it, I knew that I would never get the first one out in 2008, because this book is a lot bigger than anyone could have realized, including me. I had no real sense of the scope of what I was taking on. I thought I’d be in for a 12-year job, and it’s looking more like 25.”
Lewisohn was also determined to take a fresh approach.
“I decided from the very outset to have no preconceived ideas at all,” he says. “I wanted to keep a really open mind and not inhibit myself in any way by thinking, ‘Oh I know that bit, so I’m not going to bother looking for it.’ I really wanted to come at this afresh.”
This meant doing more than just collating the band’s work activities, which Lewisohn has done so well in his previous books.
“I certainly needed all of that, but I also needed to look into their actual lives — their family lives, their family histories,” he explains. “I needed the anecdotes about the way it all happened, the experiences people had with them backstage and in vans and so on. I didn’t just need the information, I needed the color to go with it. So I just went out looking for absolutely everything that I could get that I thought would be of use to the story.”
His efforts have paid off.
“There’s much, much more to this story than other writers had found. And that was always my feeling with this book. And if you dig deep, as a researcher and as a writer, you’re quite often going to be first person to go there,” Lewisohn says.
Even hard-core Beatles fans will find previously undiscovered information in “Tune In,” such as the fact that that John, Paul and George went around as a trio called “Japage 3” (pronounced “Jay-page”) during one of their drummerless periods.
“They even had a manager, a guy called Derek Hodkin,” Lewisohn says. “You won’t find his name in any other book on the Beatles! And until recently, if you’d Googled ‘Japage 3’ you wouldn’t have found a single hit. And now, suddenly, I looked yesterday, and there were 55. And obviously there are going to be more and more, because now it’s known about.”
He also untangled the surprisingly convoluted story of how, and why, The Beatles were signed to Parlophone.
“Once I found the documents in the EMI archives detailing the issuing of their contract, I knew there was more to that story than we’d ever known before,” he says. “But what I didn’t quite ever know was why, what the missing ingredient was in that story, until I met this guy called Kim Bennett, who turns out to be a really hero of the Beatles story, and who died pretty much unknown.”
Bennett worked for Ardmore and Beechwood, a music publishing company in London run by Sid Colman. The company was also a subsidiary of EMI. So when Colman and Bennett heard the demo The Beatles made when they auditioned (and were turned down by) Decca Records, they urged EMI to sign them simply because they wanted the publishing rights for their original songs.
George Martin heard the same demo, “but he’d heard nothing in The Beatles artistically that encouraged him to sign them,” says Lewisohn. But Colman was able to persuade Len Wood, EMI’s managing director, to sign The Beatles, and Wood chose Martin to work with the band. His leverage in getting Martin to work with a group he wasn’t interested in was Wood’s unhappiness with Martin’s behavior; Martin, still married to his first wife at the time, was currently seeing his secretary (who would become his second wife).
“It all comes down to the fact that if George Martin didn’t love his secretary and they hadn’t been going out together, none of this would’ve happened,” Lewisohn says. “So in a sense, it all happened because of a love affair. I find that actually rather beautiful. It’s so unlikely; it’s so ridiculous, and yet it’s very beautiful in the same way.”
So why hadn’t we heard about the role Colman and Bennett played before?
“They were marginalized,” says Lewisohn. “They were pushed out of the picture and never really got the opportunity to tell their story. Sid Colman died in 1965. Kim Bennett tried telling his story; no one would listen. Until me. He was delighted when I actually got in touch with him, because he’d been trying to make someone understand his story for years. And I was the first person who was really prepared to listen and then to put it to the test. I really wanted to establish the truth of what he was telling me and not just simply swallow it. I grilled him quite thoroughly, to the point where he even lost his temper with me a little bit, because I was determined to absolutely test the rigor of the truth of what he was telling me until I was satisfied that it was.”
Conversely, the “mystery” about drummer Pete Best’s firing turns out to be as straightforward as the group always maintained; they didn’t think Best was a good musician. So why has it remained an open question? “I think the ‘mystery’ has prevailed because Pete has always said there must be more to his dismissal than that,” Lewisohn says. “And secondly, the other Beatles never really talked openly about why they got rid of him. So the idea that there must be more to it than meets the eye was allowed to take root, right from the outset. But, in fact, they told Pete why he was sacked. Brian Epstein told him, ‘The boys don’t think you’re a good enough drummer.’
“And the other reason is his personality was not a good fit with theirs, at all. The Beatles were more than just a band of musicians. They were friends. There was something there that they had between them always that bound them very close together. A friendship, a kinship if you like, and Pete was never one of them. It was always three and one. And it isn’t me saying that; it’s all the people around them who are saying that. In fact, even Neil Aspinall, Pete’s best friend, says it. That before they got Ringo, it was John, Paul, George and a drummer, which is the absolute clincher. I mean, how much more clear can you get?”
Fans hope they won’t have to wait another decade for Volume Two in Lewisohn’s series, but ultimately, they will have to accept that Lewisohn will take as much time as he needs.
“I don’t want to cut any corners,” he says.
Although Lewisohn’s been writing about The Beatles for more than half of his life, his enthusiasm has never waned.
“Typically, with another subject, if you start digging really deep, the pickings will become thinner and less interesting,” he says. “But with The Beatles, that is never the case. There’s always more to be found. There’s always fresh discoveries, pictures we haven’t seen before, documents I’ve not found before, recordings that surface that we’ve never heard before. It just seems never to end. So it’s endless discovery, really — discovery of things that just add more and more color and context to the picture.” GM