Every Christmas season a new load of books about the Beatles appears, capitalizing on a baby-boom market that has yet to flicker out and the enduring love many middle-aged people feel for the Liverpudlians’ joyous noise from the 1960s. But the fanatics among us have been waiting with mounting impatience for something special, a work we knew would be both authoritative and groundbreaking: the first of three volumes of a history of the band by one Mark Lewisohn.
Lewisohn, for the uninitiated, may be the most respected Beatles authority in the world: He was a consultant and researcher for the band’s own Anthology project and is the author of the essential reference books Complete Beatles Recording Sessions and Complete Beatles Chronicles. His publisher recognized his standing by reportedly shelling out huge bucks for this undertaking, even though such accounts as Philip Norman’s Shout! (1981) and the authorized 1968 biography by Hunter Davies have long been available.
After 10 years of toil, Lewisohn has finally weighed in—quite literally, given the book’s back-wrenching 944 pages—with this inelegantly titled first volume. It takes the band only to the end of 1962, when they were on the edge of stardom. For the truly insatiable, Lewisohn’s British publisher has brought out an even bigger version of the volume, an Extended Special Edition—or “author’s cut,” as Lewisohn puts it—in a set spanning 1,728 pages, bound in two books.
Has it been worth the wait? Yes and no. The mighty tome has landed with a distinct thud. Beatles fanatics are on their feet cheering, but those less invested may find Lewisohn’s approach heavy-going. To be sure, the author is nothing if not meticulous: He has performed the Beatles scholarship his admirers had hoped for, blasting through myths and getting as close to the truth, perhaps, as anyone could all these years later.
Take Liverpool club owner and early Beatles manager Allan Williams, the purported author of an entertaining 1975 autobiography The Man Who Gave the Beatles Away, one of the essential books on the band’s early struggles. Lewisohn persuaded Mr. Williams to sit down and discuss that work at length, sorting out the accurate passages from those dressed up by a ghostwriter to give the memoir some added pop. Lewisohn also debunks one of the most famous Beatles stories: the moment in Blackpool when 5-year-old John Lennon’s separated parents cruelly asked him to choose which adult he would prefer to live with. John was said to have clung to his father, then run bawling to his mum. But this never happened, Lewisohn concludes, having tracked down the merchant seaman at whose house this melodramatic, camera-ready scene was said to have taken place. Lewisohn is also uncommonly good in uncovering producer George Martin’s initial hostility to the Beatles’ self-written song “Love Me Do.” Lewisohn reveals the extraordinary role that office politics played in forcing Martin to give the Beatles’ first chart success a chance.
Other revelations are of a similar order. There is nothing that would shatter the oft-told story of the Beatles’ rise to fame, but there are intriguing nuggets, delightfully tasty to addicts. Lewisohn tells us, for example, that manager Brian Epstein wanted the chief songwriter to get top billing in credits rather than use the Lennon-McCartney nomenclature; that Epstein was not to blame for the lame set list for their disastrous Decca audition; that the band was briefly known as “Japage 3” for John, Paul, and George; and that Paul McCartney was at the low end of the totem pole when the Beatles first played Hamburg (“Everyone hates him,” bassist Stuart Sutcliffe wrote back home).
Lewisohn’s integrity keeps him close to the facts, and his judgments seem unfailingly sound. (Yes, the genial but drab Pete Best—fired just before the band hit it big—really was a mediocre drummer, as three sets of record producers confirmed.) But Lewisohn’s writing is uninspired, the pacing sluggish. And as much as I love the Beatles, I found the fact-stuffed account of their childhoods a wide, dreary prairie to cross—almost as tedious as the tale of their experience prior to the long nights spent in seedy Hamburg bars that transformed them into a tight and powerful band. While Lewisohn tries to spice things up with jokes and inside references, they seem more forced than charming: A producer “was flying to New York to get an early clue to the new direction”; a violent bouncer was “the man who put the punch in punctuality”; the Star-Club “planted an acorn for change in West Germany’s youth culture.” Or this: “It was a laugh a minute with John Lennon.” (At least he didn’t write that the Beatles were working eight days a week.)
Yet Lewisohn does reveal, in unprecedented detail, how miraculous it all was. A thousand things could have changed everything: Imagine if Paul had not met John; if the lads’ parents or guardians had succeeded in keeping them in school or at jobs; if Allan Williams had not met the Hamburg club owner Bruno Koschmider, or if other bands had been available to go. What if compulsory military service in Britain had not been ended? What if the Decca audition had been recorded before they were ready, denying them the essential assistance of EMI’s George Martin? What if the Beatles, on the edge of quitting many times, had done so? Each time the end neared, the Beatles would promise each other, “Something’ll happen.” And when, as the scattered pieces uncannily fit together toward the end of this book, something does happen, the effect is not only riveting; it is thrilling.
Edward Achorn, editorial page editor of the Providence Journal, is the author, most recently, of The Summer of Beer and Whiskey: How Brewers, Barkeeps, Rowdies, Immigrants, and a Wild Pennant Fight Made Baseball America’s Game.