Book Review: Tune in by Mark Lewisohn
by Mark Lewisohn
(I loved this yeah, yeah, yeah.)
Not just fiction can be a saga. Sometimes you even find one in a biography. Tune In by Mark Lewisohn is such a book, an astounding piece of research detailing the early history of the Beatles. In order to fully understand who a person is you have to know where he or she came from and the effect of people and places on their decisions. The author doesn’t skimp on details. In the beginning, he delves into the Beatles’ family histories back several generations with as much enthusiasm as he describes hardscrabble life in Britain after the war and, in particular, the inhabitants of down-and-out Liverpool. The development of a unique sound appears to have as much to do with social and economic reasons as musicianship.
Different biographical threads weave together a musical tapestry, and surprising details emerge. All of the Beatles started by playing skiffle music made with an assortment of store bought and homemade instruments, the Liverpool version of a hootenanny. None of the Beatles had more than a smattering of music lessons with a teacher. John’s first stringed instrument was a banjo that he learned to play from his mother. As the banjo has four strings and the guitar six, he could only play four-stringed guitar until Paul and George showed him how. Ringo, like Paul, was naturally left-handed, but was forced to use his right by his crazy granny who thought lefties were possessed by the devil. Every time young George heard about a musician who could play a new chord, he’d track him down, knock on the door, and ask to be shown. Paul wrote the original draft of “When I’m Sixty-Four” when he was fifteen. From the birth of their signature haircuts in 1961 to the signing of manager, Brian Epstein, and the production of their first single by George Martin, this book covers it all.
Many musicians came and went with the group before the Beatles became John, Paul George, and Ringo, but they went through a lot of names too; The Quarry Men, The Quarrymen, the Beetles, the Silver Beetles, among others. What comes through loud and clear in Tuning In was the Beatles were unique. No other group had three guitarists and a drummer. No other group had all three sing lead and harmony. No other group at the time dared to write their own songs. Admiration for all the band members at overcoming great odds is evident, but Lewisohn doesn’t gloss over the darker aspects of their personalities. School always took a back seat to music. Drinking, drugs, and casual sex were part of their lives at an early age. John, who many recall as a hippie in his bed-in with Yoko, was a bit of a thug and could be callous and cruel to women.
This book is neither dull nor dry, but not for the biographically faint of heart. At over 700 pages it ends in December 1962. Ringo has been part of the group less than six months, the Beatles haven’t released their first album yet, and no one in America knows their name. Other volumes will continue the story, but this is a must-read for anyone with a deep interest in music, especially the early history of rock and roll.
I received this from Blogging for Books in exchange for a review.