That’s how the late Ray Coleman, long time editor of the British music weekly Melody Maker, once described Beatles historian Mark Lewisohn.
The comparison to 18th Century writer James Boswell, whose biographical work on Samuel Johnson defined the genre, concisely captured Lewisohn’s dedication to deep, thorough research on one subject: The Beatles.
It was appropriate. Most recently Mark Lewisohn spent the better part of a decade researching and writing what will arguably be the definitive Beatles biography (The Beatles – All These Years, three volumes during the next decade, or so).
Yet in its glibness, such a quick thumbnail almost glosses over details of Lewisohn’s entire body of work. That is especially relevant in understanding why a man who was not there in the inner circle of the 1960s, or watching first hand in Liverpool even earlier, has turned out to be the best-suited chronicler of the Fab Four.
The Beatles – All These Years: Volume One: Tune In, his first biographical volume, is immediately striking by its sheer size (400,000 to 700,000 words, depending on the edition). Appropriate to his research style, Lewisohn explained the length in a clear, measured tone. His key point: opportunities for deeper levels of detail.
In that spirit, even as Mark Lewisohn begins to roll out excerpts of volume one, here are deeper levels of detail on Mark Lewisohn himself, and his own research journey. Tune In is not “merely” the result of years of concentrated research.
The book reflects a Boswell-like lifetime of observations.
Mark Lewisohn began capturing the story of The Beatles as the sheen of their first decade of solo work in the 1970s had begun to fade. By 1978 there was a vague pop culture sense that perhaps their era of automatic sales and cultural influence had at last passed, despite individual successes.
Lewisohn effectively disagreed and quickly demonstrated a keen eye for capturing their present, while simultaneously looking back at their roots.
First, he deftly turned news about the individual projects of The Beatles into engaging monthly reports for The Beatles Book magazine series, published in Great Britain. These pieces helped to make the case that new music from the solo Beatles still carried relevancy.
In doing so, Lewisohn provided a rich mosaic of behind-the-scenes detail that future researchers would welcome (and wish had been offered back in the 1960s). Later, he would do the same for Paul McCartney’s in-house “Club Sandwich” publication.
Simultaneously, Lewisohn repeatedly demonstrated that while much had indeed been written about The Beatles since 1963, there was still much to cover. It had not all been told. In fact, his string of research milestones effectively rewrote long time assumptions about Beatles history
First came the BBC radio shows. For a pair of articles in The Beatles Book in 1980, Lewisohn at last made sense of dozens of Beatles performance tracks that had long been circulating in the collecting world, sometimes touted as studio outtakes, or vaguely identified as being “from British radio.” Clearly, methodically, and completely, Mark Lewisohn identified every one (and then some), spelling out the titles, original recording dates, air dates, recording locations, and lead vocalists.
This served as the informational foundation for interest in later packaging of these songs as two volumes of archival recordings.
The Beatles Live! book in 1986 delivered what writing partner Harry Castleman and I once described as impossible: a chronicle of every performance by the group, from the day John met Paul to the rooftop concert from Let It Be. Lewisohn’s original research and travel took him through back issues of tiny local newspapers, town flyers, and personal interviews.
That project truly caught the collective eye of the Beatles hierarchy, particularly Paul McCartney. The Beatles had been far too busy living it to remember it. Lewisohn gave them back their own history.
For the 1988 Beatles Recording Sessions, Mark Lewisohn was commissioned to take on a task every fan would have volunteered for: listen to and describe all of the Beatles recording sessions. There was no one better suited for the project, as Lewisohn instinctively connected the dots of the outside world to what took place in the group’s musical inner sanctum.
In 1992, Lewisohn took the threads of media appearances, live performances, and studio work and turned them into The Beatles Chronicle. That was soon followed by his involvement in The Beatles Anthology record releases, which drew from those previously unreleased recordings.
By the time of the Anthology releases, it was clear that an accumulated awareness of Beatles historical information had taken hold in pop culture. Whether in some rock almanac, daybook, or news anniversary feature, the points of reference in the story of The Beatles had expanded to almost routinely cite recording dates, concert appearances, and other media moments Lewisohn rescued from obscurity. Even without citing his works by name, they were there.
The Beatles – All These Years: Volume One: Tune In begins the crowning phase of Mark Lewisohn’s lifetime chronicling. Set to his exacting standards. Getting the story right, even if it contradicts accepted conventional wisdom. It virtually guarantees future attribution. Even for longtime fans, it is like hearing the story of The Beatles for the very first time.
Text and photos © 2013 by Walter J. Podrazik