Over the years I have read more books about the Beatles than I care to admit to and they vary in quality from pretty good to absolutely terrible. However, when Mark Lewisohn announced that he would be writing the `definitive' biography of the band, fans believed him. Lewisohn is not only THE Beatles expert, but he is also someone who has an obvious love for them. In other words, he is also a fan and the little details, which intrigue us, also interest him.
This first volume looks at their family history and childhood, then splits into five chapters; taking detailed looks at the years 1958, 1959, 1960, 1961 and 1962. From the first, two things become abundantly clear - that the author understands the relationship between John and Paul and that he is keen to debunk myths that have become almost accepted - especially ones built around John's childhood. Yes, his childhood was difficult, but films such as "Nowhere Boy" have created a totally fictional account of what happened and even recent books, such as "When They Were Boys" by Larry Kane, simply repeats them. Stories of Mimi dodging bombs to visit the baby John in hospital or John's mother and father forcing him to choose between them in an emotional `tug of love' are just that - stories. Mimi also gets a much more sympathetic portrayal and we learn how, rather than trying to keep John's father away from him, she even allowed him to write to his son from prison. They may have lost touch, but it was certainly not Mimi's fault that they did.
Having established that he wants to tell the story as the truth, Mark Lewisohn is certainly not portraying the band in a better light, or concealing their flaws. They were young boys at this time, each with their own character traits and faults, as everyone has. He also ties in what was happening to other people who enter the story at a later date - Brian Epstein, George Martin and other musicians are there, sometimes almost within touching distance, but their paths not quite intersecting. Most interestingly for fans, he has tracked down people that have simply not been heard from before - school friends, those who worked with them in early jobs, fans, people who were there but have not been considered perhaps important enough to be interviewed before - as well as the more obvious characters in the Beatles story.
This, then, is the complete timeline of those early years - the founding of the Quarrymen, John and Paul meeting at the St Peter's Fete, George joining the band, Ringo becoming part of Rory and the Hurricanes, early auditions, success and failure, and of that first trip to Hamburg, which honed their sound and changed them into a band - even if they were always, "John, Paul, George and a drummer" at this stage. Lewisohn is not afraid to state what most fans have always known - that Pete Best was asked to go to Hamburg simply because they needed a drummer in order to fulfil the contract and that, almost from the point the poor man packed his kit into Allan Williams van, he was on borrowed time as a member and certainly never a Beatle.
Returning to Liverpool, there is the show at Litherland Town Hall which showcased how good they had become, as the Liverpool scene took off and the Beatles - sneered at before leaving - were undoubtedly now the top band in the city. They were the Kings of Liverpool but, as always, wanted more. Enter Brian Epstein, who Bob Wooler remarks, came to the Cavern to watch them - "he came, he saw and he was conquered." There follows the long road towards a recording contract, a changing image with the arrival of suits, the death of Stuart Sutcliffe and the beginning of George, in particular, conspiring to get Ringo in the band. It was also the beginning of girls hanging around their houses, which would never stop from that point on.
With the Beatles finally achieving that recording contract, it was essential to change drummers. They were then no longer "John, Paul, George and a drummer" , but changed to "John, Paul, George and Ringo"- four equal members. "Love Me Do" peaked at number 17, but considering the lack of exposure and the resistance to the Beatles it was amazing the record ever took off. "So, what's from Liverpool?" sneered Dick James, when George Martin told him about `the boys'. That North-South divide was about to be smashed down, as Merseybeat would explode on a jaded British pop market. If London was uninterested at first, then the US certainly resisted anything from England. However, even they would succumb to the charm, charisma, enthusiasm, energy and talent of the Beatles. For the Beatles itself, it was no surprise. As John Lennon said, they always knew they were "the best" and "it was just a matter of time before everybody else caught on."
Sadly, Mark Lewisohn has not yet written the second and third parts of this trilogy, but if they are anything as complete, well written (his dry humour can almost rival the Beatles themselves) and his desire to tell the story as it should be told, then they will be worth waiting for. In the meantime, there is an extended, two volume edition of this book due out soon. I cannot imagine what Lewisohn may have left out, but I am quite sure that I will enjoy reading it to find out. This book has been needed for a long while, it is a triumph and I am sure it will become the definitive biography of the Beatles.