Anyone who’s read a Beatles biography undoubtedly knows something of their early days in Liverpool. But the details are often murky, steeped in myth, missing crucial elements, and muddied by years of conflicting narratives. Mark Lewisohn’s Tune In – The Beatles – All These Years, Volume 1 brings those fuzzy details into vibrant color while busting some of the longest-standing myths in Beatles history.
The book and its author have received extensive praise since Tune In‘s November 2013 release, and it has further established Lewisohn — already well-known for his extensive catalog of Beatles books — as the world’s foremost Beatles scholar. The research is meticulous, detailed, and endlessly fascinating, shedding new light on a story told so many times before.
This is the most comprehensive work on the Beatles to date; so comprehensive that the book discussed here is only the first of a three-part series. Vol. 1 covers the Beatles through the end of 1962, just when they were at the cusp of worldwide fame (volumes 2 and 3 are yet to be released). The abridged, mass-market edition numbers over 900 pages, 80 of these containing detailed endnotes; the full version is a limited-edition 1,728-page tome. Though its length and academic nature may seem daunting at first, this is an accessible and engaging page-turner of a book. The joy is in the details and is a must-read for anyone who wants to know how it all began — and perhaps, more importantly, what it was like to be there.
That experience of being there is one of the book’s most striking features. For all the big names in the Beatles’ story — Brian Epstein, George Martin, Allan Williams — hundreds of others played small but significant parts in this early history. Tune In captures countless never-before-heard stories from early fans who had intimate knowledge of the Beatles’ personalities, their everyday lives, and their world. The testimonials reach far and wide, from Cavern Club regulars, to German girlfriends, and even to a man who sold George Harrison a much-coveted guitar (and still has the IOU to prove it, as Harrison never paid the balance). They give us the good, the bad, and the ugly side of all the Beatles, highlighting everything from the sweet letters written to fans while abroad, to their unbridled cockiness and unwillingness to do their own dirty work.
Some are also blunt accounts of terrible early performances, giving added significance to just how hard the Beatles worked to improve in such a short amount of time. The anecdotes become more poignant with the passing of time, as some of the contributors have since passed away. June Harry, John Lennon’s art school contemporary who contributed an amusing story about a “borrowed” amplifier that was never returned, died before the book’s publication, as did Tony Sheridan, a major early collaborator and witness to the Beatles’ formative time in Hamburg.
Many of these anecdotes do not add critical information on their own, but as a whole, they place the Beatles’ story in a real and living context, an element that is missing in many biographies, but one that readers — who often wish they had been there themselves — hunger to know. These firsthand accounts, along with unpublished interviews, long-lost newspaper articles, and rare artifacts, have been painstakingly compiled to construct a nearly day-by-day account of the Beatles’ activities in the late ’50s and early ’60s, an incredible achievement considering how much has likely been lost over time.
While this depth of research creates a fascinating narrative in its own right, it has also unearthed facts that alter and, in some cases, negate some of the most pervasive myths in Beatles history. Five-year-old John Lennon was never asked to choose between his parents, as the dramatic and heartbreaking legend has long led us to believe, and there is no medical credence to the myth that Stu Sutcliffe’s death was a result of a kick to the head during a fight. It also sheds light on Pete Best’s firing, a hotly contested subject among Beatle fans. Testimonials from friends, German record producers, and Cavern Club regulars paint a picture of “mean, moody, and magnificent” Pete’s musical skills and relationship to the band that sheds light on a complex chapter of the Beatles’ story.
Lewisohn’s biggest bombshell is a surprising discovery that the Beatles were already contracted to Parlophone prior to their first studio session, long assumed to be an audition. Contrary to popular belief, George Martin did not have control over whether they were signed; by the time he got to them, it was a done deal. Meticulous research into the EMI vaults and the testimonial of a key player in the behind-the-scenes negotiations, Kim Bennett, tells a different story, showing the twists of fate, personal motivations, and chance occurrences that led to what would come to be the most important creative collaboration in the history of popular music. If that sounds dramatic, that’s because it is.
As the book progresses, the reader is left with an uncanny feeling that it was all meant to be. Lewisohn traces the paths of the major players, most notably George Martin, Brian Epstein, and Ringo Starr, well before they become part of the Beatles’ story. As with any good history, Lewisohn tells their stories in real time, letting us live with them as their lives unfold without any unnecessary foreshadowing. And even though we may already know what is to come, we read with excitement as each last-minute decision, twist of fate, and unlikely coincidence builds to the improbable and amazing story that came to be.
The book’s final pages describe the Beatles’ unbridled enthusiasm as they reach the end of 1962, proud of their accomplishments and expecting great things in the coming year. For the reader, Volume 1 ends with an “intermission” of undetermined time; we can only hope it won’t be long until we can accompany Lewisohn and the Beatles on the next stage of their great adventure.