Tag Archives: John Lennon

Mark Lewisohn: The Beatles Tune In

LewisohnBeatlesTuneIn

I’ve not been on here much recently, largely because most of  my free time has been taken up with working my way through Tune In, Mark Lewisohn’s new history of The Beatles up to the end of 1962. This is one enormous slab of a book in itself but even at 840 pages plus introduction, notes and index it’s only the first third of something even bigger called All These Years which will surely be the last word on this already copiously written about group (the other two volumes are in preparation). Incredibly, this doorstop is the streamlined, edited version of Lewisohn’s work – I thought I was a Beatles obsessive, but even I balk at the extended edition which is twice as long and is currently going for about a thousand pounds on Amazon (or about forty quid on Kindle). Is there really anything more to be said on this subject that hasn’t been comprehensively covered already?

As it turns out: yes, actually, there is. Despite its sheer weight making it a bit of an awkward read anywhere except in an armchair or at a lectern Tune In is, presuming you’ve got a healthy interest in its subject, a real page-turner. It’s written in a clear, accessible style and while Lewisohn doesn’t skimp on presenting the fruits of his formidable research into, for example, the family backgrounds of these boys and the myriad professional and amateur bands working around Liverpool and Hamburg at the time the book hardly ever gets bogged down into dry and unreadable fine detail. Personally, I found the only hard parts to get through were those concerning managerial and publishing contracts but these bits are there for a reason: I never knew before that pressure from a music publisher was one of the deciding factors in George Martin going against his better judgement and allowing the group to release one of their own compositions as their first single. This decision was pretty remarkable. Lennon and McCartney had written dozens of songs together as teenagers but it simply wasn’t the done thing to play your own stuff live and almost all of these were never used – it seems that they didn’t revive their songwriting in any serious way until after they’d secured their recording contract with EMI and had a real possibility of stamping their personalities on the records via the use of their own material.

For the bulk of the book the author does an admirable job of dropping you into the lives of a group of bright young men growing up in Liverpool in the late 50s who are confident and talented enough to want to make music but have no establishment connections on their side to do any favours for them. These boys were obsessed with rock’n’roll at a time when you could only get to listen to it via unreliable pirate radio stations and the odd precious 45rpm record you might be able to pinch from a shop or hear at a party and Lewisohn really communicates the sheer thrill and impact of listening to Elvis, Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis for the first time. It must have felt music from outer space when compared to the sedate easy listening fare that the BBC was providing.

John, Paul and George had formed a seemingly unbreakable musical unit as early as 1958 (George was only fourteen at the time) and spent the next couple of years playing sporadic gigs where and with whom they could (at one point they played as trio called Japage 3, which sounds like the name of a particularly naff early 80s futurist outfit). Eventually John persuaded his art school mate Stuart Sutcliffe to fill in on bass but drummers were always a problem. Pete Best only got the gig when a last minute slot for a 1960 season at a Hamburg nightclub comes up and he’s literally the only candidate who’s even vaguely suitable but he never fitted in and the book is particularly thorough at presenting all the reasons that he was dropped just as the group was about to break big, even if seemed like a shocking and callous decision at the time. Hamburg really marks the start of the group as a cultural phenomenon: from this point they’re maturing and evolving at an explosive rate, working through a vast repertoire of popular standards and rhythm and blues obscurities as they unfailingly whip up their audiences into a very un-British frenzy.

Tune In ends, somewhat frustratingly, at the end of 1962 with the group having achieved national success with their first single Love Me Do and with the surefire follow-up Please Please Me about to be unleashed. They’ve got to this point through a combination of raw talent, unabashed confidence and tireless guidance on the part of manager Brian Epstein, and have had startling luck in falling into the hands of George Martin, probably the only record producer working in the UK who had the good taste and judgement to let them be themselves, despite his initial misgivings about them. A project on this scale can hardly be recommended for the casual reader (if you’re only ever going to read one book on this subject Ian MacDonald’s Revolution In The Head is still my favourite, even if I don’t always agree with him) but it’s clearly as definitive as anyone could wish for, and it’s highly readable too (although I hope they clear up the typos for the next reprint). Great photos too.

Lennon’s Letters and Dury’s Lyrics

LennonDury

Here’s a couple of rather handsomely put together collections of the words and musings of two great British songwriters.

It would be a bit cruel but certainly not too inaccurate to say that The John Lennon Letters, edited and annotated by long-time Beatle associate and chronicler Hunter Davies, represents what might be one of the final scrapings of the Beatle memorabilia barrel. Davies himself admits in his introduction that this is a pretty scattergun collection, featuring only that fraction of Lennon’s letters that were available and affordable from the canny collectors that have ended up with them, and that furthermore a large proportion of them don’t really qualify as letters at all: to pad the book out, we get postcards, scribbled notes, shopping lists even. Davies has done an awful lot of work to set what he had to work with in context and to provide linking narration so as to minimise the joltiness of the book for the reader, but even so this has the feel of a collection of footnotes to a much more interesting story that’s happening elsewhere, and the profusion of in-jokes, puns, wordplay and impenetrable personal references in the material doesn’t really encourage close examination. Most of this stuff is charming, but barely relevant: cheery replies to fans, Christmas letters to relatives containing family news, mock-imperious instructions to underlings and so on.

Despite all that the book isn’t a complete waste of the dedicated Beatle obsessive’s time, and Lord knows there are plenty of them still around, myself included. The various letters and scraps have been scanned and lovingly reproduced, so you get to see Lennon’s effervescent Milligan-inspired doodles in proper context, there are hundreds of hitherto unseen (by me, at least) photographs, including many of John as a child or in early incarnations of the band and there’s a certain insight to be had here as to how Lennon was spending his time in New York in the last five years of his life, when he’d retreated from public view in order to bring up his son. And every now and then you get something that stands out as having genuine public interest: the letter to the Queen by which Lennon returns his MBE, or a raw broadside against Paul McCartney, in which he attempts to explain his frustrations about the messy legal battle the greatest pop group in the history of the world eventually descended into.

In contrast, ‘Hallo Sausages’ The Lyrics Of Ian Dury, compiled by his daughter Jemima, is well-nigh essential to any fan of Dury, a near-contemporary of Lennon with an equally sharp talent for the resonant lyric who didn’t achieve wide recognition until ten years after the Beatles split up. Dury only had a handful of hits but he added to the language like few rockstars have ever done (‘sex and drugs and rock and roll’ is one of his) and as this book makes startlingly clear he wrote a whole lot of songs and took a lot of time and trouble to make sure his words were as good as he could get them, even when it was by no means certain that they’d ever be recorded, or even get tunes added to them. There are over 160 lyrics here, and that’s just the complete ones – Jemima deliberately hasn’t included any half-finished work. As in the Lennon book, we get to see the original manuscripts alongside the transcriptions, though Dury seems to have been a lot tidier in his working methods as in the main they’re neatly typed out, or handwritten with an eye to legibility. Corrections are rare, but the draft of Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick presented here still shows some interesting rejected ideas behind the crossings-out. None of these songs were of course ever intended to be read in this way as opposed to listened to, and all of them are going to lose something without Dury’s authoritative vocal phrasing, but it’s fascinating nonetheless to get a handle on how much work went into music that seemed so effortlessly natural and witty and life-enhancing. Jemima compiles the songs chronologically and divides them into sections representing stages in their author’s career, and in between she sketches in details of her father’s life, family, living and working arrangements and friends in clear and accessible prose. There are (again like the Lennon book) copious photographs and reproductions of publicity material and there’s even a CD containing two revealing and characterful interviews. Dury didn’t live long enough to write his autobiography (the only words he managed on the subject before he died at the age of 58 were ‘Hallo sausages’) but this is a more than adequate substitute, and gives much more of the sense of the man than the well-meaning but unnecessarily contrived bio-pic of a few years ago (Andy Serkis’s superb impersonation notwithstanding). I remember seeing Rhythm Stick on Top Of The Pops as a child and being fascinated by the short, funny-looking, not noticeably young, singer – you can’t imagine the powers-that-be letting a one-off like Dury loose on the nation these days, more’s the pity.

Peter Doggett: You Never Give Me Your Money

A few months ago I posted a fairly sniffy review of Peter Doggett’s The Man Who Sold The World, a minutely researched blow-by-blow account of David Bowie’s 1970s recordings that provided much detail but precious little critical insight about the actual music. I felt a bit bad about this at the time so I’m happy to report that I had a much better time with his earlier book on the gradual break-up, estrangement and afterlife of The Beatles, You Never Give Me Your Money. While this may seem like a pretty depressing subject, what with the greatest pop group the world has ever seen eventually being reduced to suing each other, issuing public slapdowns and in a couple of cases descending into alcohol and substance fuelled torpor for extended periods, it does make for a gripping and dramatic narrative – there was simply no precedent for a band this popular, containing individual members this talented and strong-willed, and when their complicated business arrangements started to get tangled up with personal loyalties and attachments the fall-out started to take on the dimensions of high tragedy, occasionally undercut by moments of absurd farce. John gets distracted into well-meaning but inevitably self-indulgent avant-garde projects when he meets his muse Yoko, Paul’s efforts to stabilise the group by bringing in his father-in-law as a prospective manager are greeted with disdain, and George gets increasingly disillusioned with the material world and withdraws into meditation and non-Western musical forms. It’s actually fairly astonishing how long the group managed to continue recording and releasing singles and albums, and their quality control was never compromised, even when they were barely speaking to each other: the joyless and frustrating January 1969 sessions for the documentary Let It Be still managed to provide enough material for a brisk and characterful soundtrack album, and the sleek, polished and musically highly accomplished Abbey Road has nothing of a death rattle about it, despite the group effectively ceasing to exist only weeks after finishing it.

Doggett charts a clear course through all the complications, reversals and backstabbings, from the start of the group’s studio years in 1967 right up to the present day, taking in such notable episodes as the fiasco of the launch of Apple records and the free-loading that went with it, the appointment of the formidable Allen Klein to look after the business affairs of three of the four Beatles, McCartney’s legal action to dissolve the group, and the deaths of many of the key players, Lennon’s being the most prominent and shocking by some way. The book is written in a measured, accessible style with no-one being painted as either hero or villain, although Lennon does seem to come off worse of all the band members, being variously capricious, hypocritical, cruel and surprisingly naive. There’s lots of fascinating detail I’d never heard before, not least the degree of rapprochement between Lennon and McCartney in the years before the former’s murder – it seems that on a couple of occasions a Beatles reunion was not as much of a hopeless fantasy as I’d previously imagined. The best Beatles book I’ve come across remains Ian MacDonald’s Revolution In The Head for its startingly incisive analysis of their music, but this is probably the best thing I’ve read about their lives after the break-up of the group, and if you’re a fan you ought to give it a look.