The Big Read: Mark Lewisohn and a decade it took to reboot the Beatles's story
Mark Lewisohn dedicated a decade to writing the first volume of his Beatles book – with a little help from the ECHO, he tells Laura Davis
By Laura Davis
10 Oct 2013
The Saturday-night hop in Hulme Hall, Port Sunlight. Its 7 July 1962 and everything is coming together fast. When they next play here, on 18 August, theyre John, Paul, George and Ringo. © Graham Smith Appears in Mark Lewisohn's book The Beatles: Tune In
Legend is a word you won’t find in Mark Lewisohn’s much anticipated Beatles bible that’s being launched in Liverpool tomorrow night.
In his quest to overturn all the stories that have come before – the unproven ones anyway – he has quite deliberately left it out.
John, Paul, George and Ringo may have changed the world, he says, but that didn’t mean they weren’t ordinary people.
“They had passion, they had attitude, they found each other and the chemistry worked but they were just guys,” says Mark, who has come up for air after 10 years of researching and writing All These Years, The Beatles: Tune In, the 900-page first volume of three.
“They were not legends. They were just people growing up in ordinary streets, in ordinary houses. They just happened to be doing extraordinary things.”
Dubbed the “world’s foremost authority” on the Fab Four, London-born Mark became fascinated by the story behind the Beatles after being blown away by the music – “It was the most incredible thing I’d ever heard in my life.”
Ringo and Johnny Guitar in Rory Storm and the Hurricanes second Butlins summer, Pwllheli, 1961. Their chalet nights birds in adjacent beds got them kicked off the camp. © Iris Caldwell Appears in Mark Lewisohn's book The Beatles: Tune In
He believes he is the only one to have made a profession out of being a Beatles historian and is the author of six previous books on the band, including one on the Abbey Road years that details their every recording session.
He is a fact obsessive – there is nothing in his books that he hasn’t confirmed and, if there’s anything he is unsure of, he says so.
“It’s like pressing the reboot button on things you think you know,” says Mark.
“This book is about dismantling all the myths.
“I wasn’t happy with the standard of Beatles literature out there. I felt this was a subject that deserved to be explored more comprehensively, more accurately, with greater understanding.
“It’s the last opportunity now really because if it isn’t done now it will never be, and if it isn’t done right it’ll be wrong forever.”
Nor is he concerned what the surviving band members will make of the book – if indeed they ever read it.
“I’ve not done it for their edification,” he says. “The Beatles were always about truth and this book is a very truthful.”
His exceptionally detailed first volume spans 1956, when John Lennon set up his skiffle band The Quarrymen with pals from school, to December 1962 – the month of the band’s fifth and final Hamburg season.
Memories of people still living are interspersed with accounts of those who have died and other background sources.
Knowing what to believe was not always easy. Stories have a tendency to become exaggerated and embellished over time, even unintentionally.
“In the Beatles world you have to be particularly careful,” says Mark.
“For any of its participants, it’s the biggest thing to ever have happened to them. Naturally, therefore, the tendency is for people to manufacture and adapt their stories.
“If I came to it as a complete beginner I don’t think I’d be able to tell the difference but because I’ve been doing this now for 35 years and because I am, so people say, the world’s leading authority on the Beatles, I have the ability to know what’s right and what isn’t. Of course I’m learning all the time.”
Also unusual is the trouble Mark has taken in painting a picture of post-war Liverpool and in placing The Beatles’ evolution in the context of all that was going on around them – the city’s burgeoning cultural scene that included more than music.
Merseybeat didn’t happen in isolation, he points out.
It is therefore fitting that tonight’s book launch will take place at the former Liverpool College of Art on Hope Street, where John Lennon and Stuart Sutcliffe attended. Last year, the building was bought by LIPA, which is mainly housed in the former Liverpool Institute – Paul McCartney’s old school.
“A big fat book like this that’s mainly about the Beatles’s pre-fame period is predominantly a book about Liverpool. It has to be,” says Mark, 55.
“The Liverpool story has never been told this deeply before. I very much tried to tell its entire story – the poetry, the art movement.”
To ensure his descriptions of the city and its people were authentic, he read every edition of the ECHO cover-to-cover, from 1955-64 and plans to keep going until 1971.
He has thousands of pages of typed notes of the contents of hundreds of copies, filed according to issue date and page number.
“The ECHO is a big part of this book,” he says.
“You can’t beat the immediacy of reading a local newspaper. It’s really got the tone of the city, you get a very strong sense of what’s going on.
“It was always jazz in the Liverpool ECHO until 1954, then you got the rock ’n’ roll ads going on, the promoters needling one another and the bands putting ads in saying ‘We’re off to Hamburg now, we’re looking forward to seeing you when we get back’.
“It’s wonderful colour for a writer.”
Mark has no plans to forget Liverpool when he starts writing about the rest of The Beatles’ lives, even though they moved away from the city.
“I won’t leave Liverpool behind when the Beatles moved to London,” he says.
“How Liverpool deals with the fame that The Beatles brought it is a story in itself and what happens to the Liverpool scene after the bigger bands get their recording contracts and start having hits.”
But he’s hoping the next two volumes won’t take him as long as the first one.
“I’ve got two more books to go which is slightly worrying in terms of my own longevity,” he jokes. “The next two won’t be done quickly but they won’t take 10 years each.”
All These Years, The Beatles: Tune In is published by Little, Brown, priced £30 in hardback and is also available as an ebook.
Hoylake, 16 April 1955 the grand opening of Clarendon Furnishing, Brian Epstein installed as manager by his mother Queenie (to his right) and father Harry (left). In front is BBC presenter Muriel Levy, who performed the opening. © The Epstein family Appears in Mark Lewisohn's book The Beatles: Tune In
5-4-3-2-1. Five Liverpool youths, four guitars on the drip, three amps, two drumsticks, one new band. The Beatles at the Indra, first night, 17 August 1960 fresh in Hamburg and primed to learn, fast. Appears in Mark Lewisohn's book The Beatles: Tune In
John and Cynthia outside Liverpool College of Art, spring 1960, her mousey hair bleached into the requisite Bardot-like blonde. Fellow student Jon Hagues Ford Model Y takes the weight of four. He kneels behind Cyn; behind John is Tony Carricker, the record collector and music enthusiast who introduced John to some joyfully authentic American R&B. © Tony Carricker Appears in Mark Lewisohn's book The Beatles: Tune In
If every picture tells a story, this ones an exhibition. The boys, snapped by Brian Epstein on the tarmac at Liverpool Airport, 4 September 1962, en route to making their first record in London. © The Epstein family Appears in Mark Lewisohn's book The Beatles: Tune In
Beatles historian Mark Lewisohn Copyright Piet Schreuders