No half measures here: If you ever cast an eye toward Pepperland and wished for an epic Beatles bio, this sprawling tome would seem to be pure payoff. The first volume of a planned three-part series, Mark Lewisohn’s book charts the band’s early years through the end of 1962, when the Beatles have exactly one record to their credit and the recording of their first album is five weeks off.
Beatles buffs love Lewisohn because of his excellent “The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions’’ and “The Complete Beatles Chronicle,’’ but I’d caution you: What they love is the depth and veracity of Lewisohn’s research, not his prose, nor his musical judgments, shortcomings that put a drag on this weighty account.
He does ladle out the facts, though, and as they accrue, the work morphs from what it might have been — a canonical piece of rock biography and history — into another Lewisohn reference book. And it’s a shame because the basic material is here; he has unearthed lots of new information — from how the group nearly broke up a host of times to
All These Years: Volume One: Tune In’
Lewisohn’s prose can be flat, more like unadorned reportage than enlivened narrative. But then again, he’s often writing about something like what Ringo was doing on one side of town on an ostensibly random Tuesday and how that correlates with where Paul happened to be that day. You don’t doubt that his guiding principle is one of scholarship over entertainment.
Readers who delighted in the salaciousness of band insider Peter Brown’s 1983 biography, “The Love You Make’’ (written with journalist Steven Gaines), won’t find nearly so many prurient pleasures here, but Lewisohn’s big revelations are powered by subtlety and careful thought, such as when he makes the invaluable point that John brought Paul into the group, who in turn brought in George, who brought in Ringo, a neat succession that fused four people to each other as one.
Garden-variety Beatles fans — that person who turns up the oldies station when “She Loves You” comes on and leaves it at that — like to slag off Ringo as the lovable loser in the right place at the right time, but Lewisohn gives him his proper due. The guy could flat out play, and a ragged sound got awfully tight once he took up his spot in the drummer’s chair.
There’s chicanery to go around during the Hamburg stints, rock ’n’ roll tours of duty that, essentially, made the band among the most experienced in the world before they ever cut a record. In one incident, Gene Vincent, one of the wildest of rakehell rockers, “zeroed in on Paul and kept offering to knock him out cold by touching two pressure points on the back of his neck.”
You picture John looking on coolly, for that is what Lennon does often in this book. A hard man with a tough wit — and a deep and loyal character — it’s his band, and Lewisohn smartly makes that plain. The pecking order would change throughout the group’s career, but for now, Lennon is the shot-caller. And we see times when his relationship with McCartney was, if not in the water closet, surely not as secure as it was with the doomed Stuart Sutcliffe, whom everyone in the band needled to the point of verbal abuse.
One key new wrinkle to Beatles studies is Lewisohn’s account of the Parlophone career of George Martin. Most books treat Parlophone as a virtual novelty label and Martin another person well-positioned by fate. But Martin was making vanguard music when he met the Beatles, with Parlophone’s backing. And that, ultimately, reflects a major theme in “Tune In’’: how the Fab Four managed to get just what they need from the right people and places at just the right time, from song pushers to German club owners, early managers, schoolgirl classmates, and each other.
Intriguingly, the Beatles themselves come off, often, as layabouts, incapable of advancing their own careers without many other people making sacrifices for reasons that never really come clear. These Beatles were a long way off from the Beatles you know. But as Lennon states near the end, “We thought we were the best in Hamburg and Liverpool — it was just a matter of time before everybody else caught on.” You’ll get to read all about them being the best in the world in the next installment. But now you know, if you didn’t before, how they primed for takeoff.
Colin Fleming is the author of “Dark March: Stories for When the Rest of the World Is Asleep’’ and “Between Cloud and Horizon: A Relationship Casebook in Stories.’’