December 17, 2013
I was in seventh grade when I began poring over Beatles books. That was shortly after I’d gotten the “Red” and “Blue” double-record compilations and started methodically, obsessively buying album after album, hoping eventually to fill all gaps.
The Beatles had broken up years earlier, and I couldn’t help but be vexed that I’d never enjoyed the thrill of hearing a groundbreaking new Beatles album at the time it came out. So the books were my ticket to experience some of that excitement, retroactively at least.
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There was Roy Carr and Tony Tyler's "The Beatles: An Illustrated Record," a big square paperback the size of a vinyl album boasting page-sized color photos and descriptions of all of the band's records in historical context. My friends and I studied this book till the pages fell out of the binding.
We also spent more time than might seem reasonable with Ron Schaumburg's "Growing Up With the Beatles," a picture-laden, oversized paperback in which the author presents the band's chronology in the context of his awkward adolescence in Kansas and his feelings about each release. He was a bit of a nerd (takes one to read one) and wasn't much of a critic; he deemed "Because" and "Sun King" to be "boring." But we didn't have an abundance of alternative voices at our fingertips in the late '70s, though when we got hold of Nicholas Schaffner's "The Beatles Forever," we recognized it as the superior critical-minded history.
And when we wanted just the facts, we turned to Northwestern grads Harry Castleman and Walter J. Podrazik's "All Together Now: The First Complete Beatles Discography: 1961-1975," which offered release information for every record that featured any or all of the Beatles. In those pre-Wikipedia days, such a resource was invaluable.
But these days are not those days. Now you can read individual Wikipedia entries on pretty much every Beatles song, album, film and live appearance, and each year the market becomes more glutted with Beatles books, many of which are finding new ways to repackage old information. There's some logic behind this strategy: If a mouse click can answer most of your questions, then presentation will be the key to getting fans to pony up for a physical product.
The package really is the selling point for Jean-Michel Guesdon and Philippe Margotin's "All the Songs: The Story Behind Every Beatles Release" ($50, Black Dog & Leventhal). This is a handsome, heavy, hardcover book packed with full-page photos and organized chronologically by album. It appears to contain no new research; the footnotes cite sources such as Mark Lewisohn's "The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions" and the Beatles' own "The Beatles Anthology" oral history. The Beatles snob in me desires more in a book than what's already been published, but the seventh-grade me would have devoured this.
The balance between presentation and content is even more skewed in Mat Snow's "The Beatles Solo" ($50, Race Point), which chronicles the foursome's post-breakup years. The cover, boasting elegant line-art illustrations of each Beatle, is actually a box containing four thin hardcover volumes, each summing up a solo Beatle's career and life in 91 pages (plus index). This uniform length makes little sense: You can't detail Paul McCartney's highly active 40-plus solo years in the same amount of space as John Lennon's tragically shortened post-Beatles decade. Then again, given the large type and abundance of photos, none of these books offers much more depth than you'd find in an article in the literate music magazine Mojo, which Snow used to edit.
In contrast, "The John Lennon Letters" ($25, Little, Brown), a 2012 release edited by original Beatles biographer Hunter Davies (with cooperation from Lennon's widow, Yoko Ono) and recently issued in paperback, offers a treasure trove of revelatory visual and written material. Lennon was a great letter and postcard writer, from the pre-Beatlemania years up to his 1980 murder, and he also did much whimsical drawing and scribbling on these missives.
His unmistakable combination of humor, romanticism and acidity comes through whether he's in Hamburg, Germany, repeatedly professing his love to future wife Cynthia Powell back home while complaining about bunkmate Paul's snoring ("Sharrup McCartney! Grunt grunt") or doing post-breakup battle with Paul and Linda McCartney and tangling with others who have given offense. The last include various journalists and musician Todd Rundgren (referred to as "Sodd Runtlestuntle," "Turd Rundgreen," "Dodd" and "Godd"). With the letters and postcards reproduced and transcribed, you can open this book to any page and find something that draws you closer to the artist.
Another book that pushes the ball forward is Kevin Howlett's "The Beatles: The BBC Archives 1962-70" ($60, Harper Design), which chronicles the band's many BBC performances and prints interviews with its members, all in a coffee-table-worthy book that comes in a faux reel-to-reel tape box. The book works as a companion piece to the newly released early-performances collection "On Air — Live at the BBC Volume 2" and the superior rereleased/remastered "Live at the BBC" (originally issued in 1994). But it also stands alone as a revealing series of interviews moving from the band's fresh-faced, happy-to-be-here days to their been-through-the-wringer later years.
But by far the most anticipated of this season's Beatles releases is Lewisohn's "Tune In: The Beatles: All These Years, Vol. 1" ($40, Crown Archetype). The first of three planned volumes, it offers 803 pages of narrative plus another 129 of end notes and index (plus three photo sections) to take the band's history to the end of 1962, with the group's debut album and Beatlemania lurking around the corner.
This is a lot of book to devote to the Beatles' least sexy period, and the early chapters are slow-ish going as Lewisohn introduces the family histories and the contexts that produced four wartime babies who would grow up to become the century's dominant popular-music figures.
Yet like a skyscraper's foundation, this back story is necessary to support all that follows, acclimating us with great specificity to the world in which the action will take place. When the paths of Lennon, McCartney, George Harrison and Richy Starkey begin crossing — their common bond being a love of American R&B and early rock 'n' roll records — the book's momentum snowballs just as the band's does.
Lewisohn is not a flashy writer; he is taking a studiously journalistic approach here, combing through the many interviews the Beatles and their contemporaries have given and conducting new ones when possible. (He had interviewed McCartney and Harrison before, though not specifically for this book, but many other key players spoke to him.) It isn't his mission to present the material in the most dramatic way possible; we're not treated to re-created dialogue and scenes crafted as if in a movie, and we're always aware that we're viewing these characters from the outside. What he's doing is setting the record straight and offering the most detailed, accurate account of the Beatles' early years yet available — one that should stand as definitive for years to come.
The story itself turns out to be thrilling even before the band has conquered America or much of England. Points that seem obvious come to feel revelatory: There was no template for rock 'n' roll bands back then; there weren't even any rock stars until Lennon et al were in their teens, and folks such as Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Little Richard and the ill-fated Buddy Holly and Eddie Cochran were all from the United States. That no one expected to make a living playing rock 'n' roll was a given; even acquiring functioning instruments and amplifiers presented a challenge, and then the musicians had to learn to play them, mostly by figuring out what was on those beloved records.
The Quarrymen, a Beatles precursor, went through an extended period with four guitarists (Lennon, McCartney, Harrison and one Ken Brown) and no rhythm section. They eventually wound up with a bassist, Stuart Sutcliffe, who had never previously played but was an art-school pal of John's, and a mediocre drummer, Pete Best, who was available at the last minute to travel to Hamburg and whose mom booked a Liverpool club. Yet even with a subpar rhythm section — and even without what would become their greatest asset, those Lennon/McCartney songs — the Beatles went through a sort of alchemic transformation while playing lengthy sets in seedy, violent Hamburg clubs, all under the order to "Mach Schau" — that is, make a show. As Lewisohn writes
Mach Schauing became essential to the Beatles at the Kasiserkeller: they did nonstop stomping, nonstop four-in-the-bar, nonstop flat-out rock and roll, nonstop comedy, nonstop crips and hunchbacks and Sieg Heils and lying on the floor, nonstop piss-takes, nonstop joy, nonstop insane athleticism. They were a complete music-hall show, all in one, led by John who, says Pete, "would be jumping off the piano and doing the splits."
Soon enough they'd be back in Liverpool, miles ahead of any other rock band in terms of energy, charisma, vocal chops and sheer experience; Lewisohn goes so far as to posit that after Hamburg the Beatles probably had logged more performance time than any rock band up to that point. Yet even as the group is making the damp, fetid Cavern Club their second home, McCartney is hedging his bets and taking a factory job with an eye toward becoming an executive, if only to appease his father. These guys know they're a strong rock 'n' roll band, but what does that mean? They have visions of success and no idea what awaits them. Lewisohn keeps the story on a human scale rather than crafting a mythology.
Rarely have the Beatles come off as so relatable, so alive as in "Tune In," even when they're making tough decisions such as to stiff the promoter who made Hamburg happen for them or to dump Best, which had to be done on musical grounds even though he and his mother did much to book and promote the band. Manager Brian Epstein and producer George Martin are compelling, complex characters as well, accomplished mavericks who see something special in these rough-looking musicians learning to create their own material.
The seventh-grade Beatles enthusiast might consider the length and level of detail in "Tune In" to be all too much — and the casual fan certainly isn't the target audience of its "Extended Special Edition," available only in the U.K. That version totals 1,728 pages, including end notes and index, and goes into even greater depth, particularly about the cultural landscape from which the Beatles emerged. (British publisher Little, Brown has this edition priced at 120 pounds, which is close to $200 and four times the regular British edition's price. The package is nice, with a cardboard box enclosing two hardcover books containing some extra photos as well as text "printed on New Langely Antique Wove woodfree paper" in a non-numbered "very low press run" that the publisher wouldn't specify, but that's quite a premium.)
But when you've been listening to and reading about this band for decades and feeling a connection that goes beyond all rational explanation, you're grateful for anything that lets you hear the music and see the story with fresh ears and eyes. That's what "Tune In" does. Instead of rushing toward the end, you may find yourself luxuriating in all those little moments as you immerse yourself in a world where four spirited young men are about to conquer the world with bright, tuneful music.
Mark Caro is a Tribune entertainment reporter and admitted Beatles geek.
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