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Saturday, 8 February 2014

Remembering Beatlemania - or, The Beatles Tune In

Being unwell has its advantages. I’ve been suffering from a very unpleasant cold, the symptoms severe enough to stop me from working for several days. And, since some passer-by ploughed his car into the power-supply pylon outside our house last Monday, we are without telephone or Internet. (Our supplier says they are working on it. Yes. Thankyou.) Still, having once, as a schoolboy, been made to write an essay entitled ‘A wet half-holiday can be a blessing in disguise’, I am used to finding silver linings. Such circumstances as now prevail have provided me with the perfect excuse for an unscheduled midwinter break, during which I have worked my way through Mark Lewisohn’s impressive first volume of the Beatles story (The Beatles Tune In). It’s a real clunker of a book: managing its bulk while you turn the pages – especially if you’re in bed - is a genuine physical challenge.

We start with the backgrounds of John, Paul, George and Ringo’s families, 1845-1945, then move quickly on to the 1940s. By the time we get to the point, late in 1962, where ‘Love Me Do’ makes the lower reaches of the charts and the band records ‘Please Please Me’ – which will become their first Number One hit a few weeks later – we’ve devoured no fewer than 840 pages. Not quite the end of the book, you understand, because there are still 75 pages of notes and credits, plus a 31-page index.

Is the journey worth it? Yes – and I’ve absolutely no reservations on that score. In places, certainly, the author is inclined to cram in a little more detail than might be absolutely necessary, telling us what each member of the band was wearing for a particular performance, the full set-list of songs at another gig, or how much German beer they poured down their throats in some dingy bar along the Rieperbahn. There are, too, witness statements about all manner of indiscretions committed when they were resident band in that seedy Hamburg night-club; excerpts from letters written by – and to – their fans; expansive diversions into the parallel careers of other up-and-coming (or nose-diving) performers on Merseyside, and constant up-dates on the (pathetic) payments that were the norm for entertainers on the fringes of the pro circuit.

So at times, yes, it might be a bit of a grind. But if I ever felt that way it was, I suspect, because I knew what was coming and, like the Fab Four fifty years ago, I wanted to get there as soon as possible. Besides, there are pay-offs. First and foremost, with the slow passage of time, you get a genuine sense of the long, hard road that had to be trodden; how endless, frequently hopeless, it must have seemed. Okay, maybe it was only four or five years of playing the clubs and pubs with inadequate equipment, of living in squalid rooms, of lugging the drum-kit across town on buses to make some gig that paid £3 – which had to be divided between the four or five members of the bands, of running from gangs of Teddy boys whose girls had been making eyes at them on-stage and were hell-bent on kicking the shit out of them. But those four or five years must have seemed an eternity for four lads who were still in their teens, constantly being told by every adult who felt entitled to an opinion that they should ‘get a trade, son, get a trade’.

Moreover, the book’s leisurely pace allows you to get to know the boys. You feel you’ve been everywhere, seen everything, with them. Pretty much every place they lived or worked is described in detail, from the homes they grew up in to the Liverpool streets of that shattered post-war world, from the shared beds of the Hamburg days to the lack of basic hygiene or safety measures in the fabled Cavern. In making this such a long excursion for the reader, Lewisohn lends an epic flavour to his version of a story that’s usually synopsised, often made to sound like a brief inconvenience on the highway to fame. Along the way from those modest Liverpool homes and war-damaged streets to the opulence of a London – a city that had no idea what was about to hit it - the whole cast of characters becomes familiar. They get under your skin.

It’s a measure of Lewisohn’s success in plotting the vexed relationship between John, Paul, George and the original drummer, Pete Best, that I finally found myself irritated with his failings, that I couldn’t wait for them to get rid of him and replace him with the guy they’d had their eyes on for so long, Ringo Starr. And yet, when it happened – and again I doff my hat to the author for creating living, breathing characters with whom we can empathise – I found myself cringing at the callousness with which the switch was effected, that particular piece of dirty work being delegated to their recently hired manager Brian Epstein.

Of course, this is a story – or rather a phase of a story - whose ending we all know. Early in 1963, ‘Please Please Me’ would be a smash hit and Beatlemania would explode. Nothing would ever be the same. Could it happen today? I can’t see it. The world was a much more ordered place then, rigidly ordered. There were so many barriers waiting to be broken down. Some of the prejudices the Beatles met seem unimaginable now. They suffered scorn and rejection on the basis of their mere appearance, for their (supposedly) long hair, their (supposedly) scruffy clothes, their extreme youthfulness, their brash self-confidence, and of course for the city they came from – which was considered a backwater, a breeding-ground of criminals and firebrand trade unionists which seemed utterly resistant to the new economic well-being.

In 1962 there was great novelty in the Liverpool accent; it irritated, perplexed or amused people in a way which we cannot easily imagine today. Provincial accents were just about unheard in the mass media of the time – unless improvised by actors depicting comic rustics or sub-criminal Cockneys. For ‘mass media’ read the BBC, which, with the exception of the hiss and crackle of Radio Luxemburg of an evening, monopolised radio broadcasting, and a couple of half-hour TV shows that showcased skiffle groups, trad jazz and sugar-coated pop – but remained suspicious of actual rock-n-roll. Lewisohn even reminds us of the music industry’s resistance to the very notion of ‘a group’ - just about all its other stars were individuals – and of its startled response to ‘beat’ music, to singer-songwriters, to provincials, to performers with real personality.

As in all great stories, there are the moments when it might have gone another way altogether. There are a number of passages when the awful realisation that ‘it’ might not come to pass sends a shiver through the reader – because Lewisohn has us recruited to the cause from the very outset. There’s a delightful passage in which the boys first meet George Martin, who was to be their producer and a considerable influence on their style. He’s quite unimpressed by their music. In his opinion they’ve produced nothing of any virtue. Their drummer, Pete Best, is lousy. Martin doesn’t really want to waste his time on them: he’s just recorded ‘Hole in the Road’ with Bernard Cribbins. He’s wondering what Brian Epstein, who fixed up the meeting, sees in these youths. He’s talking – at some length - about a song they’ve performed, taking it apart as they listen in glum silence. After a long pause he asks, ‘Is there something you don’t like?’ Nobody answer. The clock ticks. Then George says, ‘Yeah. We don’t like your tie.’ And it seems that that marked a turning point, the flipping of a switch. These were lads with personality, wit, charm... spirit. Maybe he could work with them after all.

So it’s a book I would strongly recommend. As with any history which deals with a period one has lived through, it took me down a few dimly lit passages in my own memory. It brought to mind the Beatlemania that I recall from my schooldays. It brought to mind the way a bunch of 14-year-old public schoolboys - boarders, locked up in a dreary institution in the Surrey hills - suddenly started combing their hair forward, adopting Scouse accents, and using words like ‘fab’ ‘gear’ and ‘wack’, and singing along to every song that came out of this mystical land beside the Mersey, somewhere up north. Perhaps the most bizarre manifestation of Beatlemania in our particular neck of the woods took place around the time the group’s second album hit the shops, which I would put at late 1963. I mean the album whose cover sported the four photos – John, Paul, George, Ringo in black-and-white, half in shadow, wearing those polo-neck sweaters: terribly hip, and surely inspired by the photos of their Hamburg friend, Astrid Kirchherr.

We had a boy in my year at school called Johnny Burgoyne. He was a day-boy. His mother worked for a local printer, Garrad and Lofthouse (or was it Garrard?) Either way, they printed album covers for Parlophone. And the word was that they were throwing out a bunch of unused ones, which were shortly to be collected by the corporation waste disposal people. It’s hard to credit it from this distance, but picture if you will a horde of well-spoken schoolboys in grey trousers, black blazers, shirts and ties, black beetle-crusher shoes, many of them with their hair combed forward – hair which revolted at this assault on its natural leaning and curled up in preposterous cow-licks just above the eyebrows. There they are, dashing out of the final lesson of the afternoon, lolloping up the wooded hillside behind the school, and snaking off along Harestone Hill, thence picking up the regular cross-country circuit which took them over the ridge and down towards the Caterham by-pass and an ugly scar in the chalk Downs that was the Urban District Council’s rubbish tip. Picture these same boys scrambling over mounds of tipped earth, around piles of domestic waste, abandoned cookers and broken radiograms. fighting back tears as the smoke from scattered fires got into their eyes, and finally – finally – lighting on the stuff that had been dumped, just as Johnny Burgoyne said it would be. Treasure.

We staggered back to school in time for supper, burdened with mounds of LP covers – not just the Beatles, but the Searchers, the Fourmost, Freddy and the Dreamers, Billy J Kramer and the Dakotas. I’m sure we thought we would sell them to other boys, but I’m equally sure that we didn’t. Few of us had more than two bob a week to spend – on sweets, comics, cigarettes, ink cartridges. That’s 10 pence. Like that other autumnal harvest – of shiny brown conkers – our salvage operation yielded a stack of memorabilia that soon lost its gloss and eventually made its way back to the dump where we found it.


Well, still no phone – just a text message from British Telecom to say that service will be restored by… the 7th February. It feels rather like the 1960s all over again. I’m off to look for another good book to read. Whatever I find has a lot to live up to.