Meet The Beatles
Nobody comes close to Mark Lewisohn as a scholar of the Fab Four. The extended special edition of his biography of the band is an epic on an unprecedented scale
(L-R) Paul McCartney, George Harrison, John Lennon & Ringo Starr of the Beatles, taking a dip in a swimming pool . (Photo by John Loengard//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)
The Beatles: All these years
As a Beatles scholar, Mark Lewisohn has no serious rival. In books such as The Beatles Recording Sessions and The Complete Beatles Chronicle he took popular-music research to levels that would impress even the most dedicated professor. With All These Years he switches to biography, attempting nothing less than a lifetime’s work embracing the cultural and personal history of the Fab Four, a multivolume epic written on a scale unprecedented in its genre.
There have already been several substantial Beatles biographies, brick-size volumes on Lennon and McCartney, countless sociological and musicological studies, and a small library of recollections from former friends and associates. With the possible exception of Bob Dylan, no other 20th-century musical icon, not even Elvis, has attracted this much print.
For any biographer, such a project is an undertaking of Sisyphean proportions. In addition to the vast amount of secondary source material, Lewisohn interviewed 262 people and cites correspondence with a further 209. He also trawled through public records, unseen letters, diaries, contracts, yellowing newspapers, radio and television broadcasts, court transcripts and previously confidential documents.
As he rightly points out, The Beatles and their families, friends and business associates left a paper trail that challenges the myths and cliches produced by their all too fallible memories. This is the essential strength that Lewisohn brings to his writing: the triumph of scholarship over reminiscence and critical assumption.
The author also uses his past association with various Beatles, having previously worked on projects for the BBC, Apple and Paul McCartney’s MPL organisation. Their involvement in the book, however, is limited. Lennon was dead before Lewisohn starting interviewing anybody; McCartney spoke many times with the author but never during the gestation of this book; Harrison evidently offered a single interview, many years ago, in which he sarcastically protested “but you weren’t there”. Ringo Starr declined to talk.
It is the lugubrious drummer’s wit and wry perspectives from the present day that you miss most in the text, although Lewisohn has a wealth of quoted material to fill that gap. Starr ultimately emerges as the unlikely hero of this period, an animated Lazarus who overcomes debilitating childhood illness, limited education and a premature streak of greying hair to take his place as a Beatle late in the book.
The characterisation of the other Beatles is equally adept. Having read many accounts of the friction between Harrison and McCartney, it comes as a pleasant surprise to be reminded that they were once the closest of friends.
Recalling their interaction in 1957, an associate remarks: “They seemed totally different personalities. George always seemed a bit moody, morose, whereas Paul was light-hearted – he probably could have been a comedian if he’d wanted. George was nothing like that. I found it really strange that they were friends.” This is an early indicator of the Beatles alchemy that made the group unique.
The Lennon-McCartney relationship is, of course, the bedrock of the story, and Lewisohn wisely begins with a lengthy appraisal of their remarkable partnership. From the beginning, they shared a Goons-inspired humour, buoyed by a keen interest in girls and rock ’n’ roll.