The Beatles: All These Years, Vol.1 (2013)
If you think you know a lot about The Beatles, particularly their formation, and you haven’t read this book, then trust me. You don’t really know anything.
Mark Lewisohn is widely regarded as the undisputed expert and authority when it comes to knowledge about The Beatles. And in this fascinating and enjoyable biography, he’s amassed a stunning amount of information and accounts of the paths and roads that led The Fab Four to the brink of stardom.
First published in 2013 after over a decade of forensic investigation and research, it’s Volume One of a promised three-volume set. He promises Volume Two will be ready in a couple years, after another decade of research and writing. I cannot wait!!
Volume One only takes us up to the end of 1962, just to the point where the group is about to break it big. You may think, like I did before reading this biography, that there can’t really be that much to know about the of the pre-Fab Four history of The Beatles.
Most Beatles fans know the story: Paul sees John’s skiffle band performing at a church fete in the late 50s and is impressed. John, likewise impressed by Paul’s musical knowledge and ability, asks him to join his band. Paul brings George along. Eventually they, along with drummer Pete Best and bassist Stuart Sutcliffe, become The Beatles. They gig in Liverpool and take a couple of trips to play in Hamburg, Germany. Stuart dies, Pete gets sacked, they get Ringo to be the drummer, and the rest is history.
Those are the familiar basics. What more can there be to know? Turns out, there’s an immense amount to discover. Lewisohn doesn’t hold back. He dives deep into everything: the genealogy of each band member, manager Brian Epstein and producer George Martin; the history of post-war Liverpool; the history and societal impact of the early years of rock and roll; and of course, the plethora of events and occurrences that lead these people to become The Beatles – and he writes it all in a way the absolutely engrosses and enthralls you.
How detailed does he get? Well, he unfolds the story in a chronological order. The aforementioned John and Paul meetup at the church fete doesn’t actually occur until over 400 pages into the book. So, yeah, 400 or so pages before John and Paul even meet. And I gobbled it all up! It takes another 400 or so fascinating pages before they eventually meet George Martin.
Despite our knowledge that they will become the biggest and most important band in the world, Lewisohn crafts the story of their early years in such a way that we catch ourselves wondering if this plucky band will even make it, such are the factors that pile up against them. There are several moments throughout this early history of the group where events conspire that cause the members of the band to come oh-so-close to giving up. It’s thrilling to discover just how often The Beatles as-we-know-them almost didn’t happen. It turns out to be a most-exciting read.
One of the aspects of the book that I most appreciated was the discovery of just how punk and alternative The Beatles were in these early years. I knew they were talented and exciting before they “made it”, but Lewisohn really takes the time to explain in a clear way what made/makes The Beatles in 1960-62 such a remarkable group. (even the concept of “group” didn’t really exist until The Beatles demanded to be taken as such. George Martin was trying to decide whether they’d be known as John Lennon & The Beatles or Paul McCartney & The Beatles before they insisted – and he agreed – that they had to be, simply, The Beatles. A rock and roll group)
They were constantly and stubbornly going against the musical trends of the time, subtly demanding the industry bend to their way of doing things, rather than them caving in to “the way things are done”. That was an exciting eye-opener for me, and I now look upon and listen to those early recordings of The Beatles with fresh eyes and ears. Yes, they may be seen to be the epitome of simple pop songs to our 21st century experience, but the music they were creating, and the ways they went about creating it, truly was remarkable and completely different from the sounds of the day.
If you have any interest in the history of The Beatles, you owe it to yourself to read this book. It will absolutely alter your perspective of the band for the better. I can barely wait for Volume 2!!!