For the record, Tune In is not a new book but was published in late 2013. But I’ve only just got around to reading it. So, new to me…
If you’ve ever read a biography of any sort about The Beatles, you’ve likely run into the name Mark Lewisohn, this book’s author. I have read several Beatle books and his name always crops up as the “guy with all the details.” How many takes to record “Penny Lane?” He knows. What kind of tea did they drink? Probably knows that too. He knows, or knew, all The Beatles. (McCartney declined to be interviewed just because they’d already spoken so many times.)
For years, whenever Lewisohn’s name cropped up, I just assumed he was a crazed fanboy. Well, he is that. But he is also a writer (and quite a good one) whom the book jacket lists as “the world’s only professional Beatle historian.” Although he’s written other stuff, most of his output is about the Fab Four.
At one point he worked for Apple Corps and was invited by EMI to listen to all of the bands’ original session tapes, an honor conferred to literally no one else outside the band. So if anybody knows their history, it’s him.
I recently finished reading the book. How is it? In a word, great. It is meticulously written and researched. The thing you should know is that Volume 1 only goes up to the end of 1962, just as The Beatles are starting to break in the UK. They’re known, they certainly have fans, but they’re not yet really stars.
But “Love Me Do” is heading up the charts and they’re starting to get fans outside of Liverpool. It won’t be until “Please Please Me” hits the radio in early 1963 when all hell breaks loose first in the UK, then in America and the world.
There is a very strong you-are-there flavor to this book. Lewisohn takes you down the mean streets of Hamburg where, over the course of five visits and two years, the Beatles honed their stage act, playing over 1,100 hours. Of course he goes into the Cavern years (upwards of 300 appearances over three years) and relates stories about them and their fans. (There are actually Wikipedia pages called The Beatles in Hamburg and The Beatles at the Cavern Club).
One of the revelations of the book is of the band’s closeness to their fans. Many of them were young girls whom the Beatles treated well and never took advantage of. They weren’t just fans but became their friends, often going over to Paul’s house to hang out, talk to his dad, even watch John and Paul write songs. One of the girls became president of their fan club and was even in the studio when they recorded “Please Please Me” in late 1962. They got letters from the guys when they were in Hamburg.
What comes across is not only their great love of and dedication to American rock and roll – and music in general – but also their humor and charisma. Everybody (men, woman, old, young) found them irresistible. They were a breath of fresh air in a post-war Liverpool. (And being from Liverpool and trying to make it in London? In 1962? As soon as they opened up their mouths, girls would walk away from them and their Scouse accents. There is much made in the book about how Londoners looked down on people from the North.)
The book goes into their lower working class (but not totally unhappy) lives. Both John and Paul lost their mothers at an early age, John being raised by his Aunt Mimi. (Who famously advised him that the guitar was all right for a hobby but he’d never make a living at it).
One thing is clear – John Lennon was the leader of this band. All the other guys looked up to him. Hell, everybody did. He was the coolest, rudest guy on the block. He exuded “Lennon-ness” and both guys and girls could not get enough of him (and his brutal, sarcastic, cutting humor.)
There was a pecking order in The Beatles, and John, Paul, George, Ringo reflected the order by which they entered the band and who brought them in. So the other interesting thing that’s revealed here is the interpersonal dynamics within the band, perhaps more fully than I’ve seen before.
It’s also noteworthy that there were some guys pushing to get the Beatles recorded, not because they loved their music, but because they wanted to make money off of the publishing rights. And while yes, George Martin was a great guy and absolutely, positively the right producer for them, contrary to any statements he might have made, he recorded the Beatles very, very reluctantly at first. He only did so because the studio head dumped them on him. So, a bit of serendipity there.
It’s all here – Stu Sutcliffe, Pete Best, The Casbah, The Cavern, NEMS Enterprises, Brian Epstein, George Martin, Astrid Kirchherr, Klaus Voorman, The Dingle. Gerry and the Pacemakers. And Liverpool.
Who might enjoy this? If you’re a Beatle fanatic, do not hesitate. You know the story but you do not KNOW it. If you’re not as much a fan, you can view this as a rags-to-riches story. If you’re a musician, there’s plenty here about the music business, publishing and the making of records to keep you interested. And at the end of the day, it’s just a damn good story well-told.
One thing to be aware of: Lewisohn did a ton of research and produced two versions of the book. The one I read was sufficiently comprehensive for me. The other, much more expensive one, ($121 USD) uses a lot more of his notes, going into a history of Liverpool and deeper into the families lives. I’m a Beatles fan. But that’s too much information even for me.
But to quote the New York Times review: “Many, many other books will be written about The Beatles. But Tune In, despite its bland title, will always hold an honored place among them.”
Anyway, plenty of time to read this. Lewisohn tweeted not too long ago to have patience. Vol. 2 due in 2020.
An early Astrid Kirchherr picture from Hamburg. Note Pete Best on left, Stu Sutcliffe on right.