Word In Your Ear

The Beatles: “If Brian Hadn’t Come Along They Were About To Break Up”

Word In Your Ear
Mark Lewisohn signs his Magnum Opus.

Two major books on the story of pop music are released this month. They are like buses. Not because you wait for ages and then two come along at once. No, these two resemble buses in size alone.

The books I am referring to are Bob Stanley‘s story of modern pop, “Yeah Yeah Yeah” and the first part of Mark Lewisohn‘s long awaited Beatles trilogy “Tune In”.

Last week I attended a launch party of sorts for both books, organised by the team behind the (late lamented) Word Magazine and hosted by music journalist David Hepworth. Hepworth and team have regular music oriented events in Islington called “Word In Your Ear”, and this one invited both authors to talk about their books alongside a brief chat with artist Morgan Howell whose beautiful creations I wrote about last month.

On the night, Hepworth spoke with both Stanley and Lewisohn, beginning with a look at both books: Said Hepworth, “In the year 1964 you could encapsulate the Beatles’ life entirely in the book “Love Me Do: The Beatles Progress” by Michael Braun.

The Beatles Progress Love Me Do Michael Braun

In the year 2013, with the help of a crane and pulley system I’ll get out this book: Mark Lewisohn’s Tune In.”

“In 1969 Nick Cohn could do the whole of pop music in “Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom” which is 244 pages. It is dated but still enormously charming. Fast forward to 2013. Bob Stanley’s “Yeah Yeah Yeah: The Story of Modern Pop which has over 700 pages.

To be fair to the latter book, some 40 years have passed since Cohn first attempted to capture a history of pop. Seminal acts have come and gone in that time. The Sex Pistols, R.E.M., Nirvana, Bananarama, Brother Beyond…

Bob Stanley (right) talks to David Hepworth
Bob Stanley (right) talks to David Hepworth

Bob Stanley’s book begins in 1952, as he explained, “I find it fascinating that everything was in place before rock n roll. Vinyl singles, the NME launched in 1952, Dansette’s first record player was manufactured in ’52. The first chart was in ’52.” The latter perhaps was the catalyst for everything that followed. “Once the first record charts came out you could see if Frankie Lane was more popular than David Whitfield. We love cricket statistics and bus numbers – I think it’s a national hobby, things like that.”

Stanley’s book balances being comprehensive with readability. If you want to know who Stanley feels is “almost as good as Kim Wilde“* and who he feels are “The Monkees of hip hop”** then pick up a copy.

However, we have to delve a little further back to find which artists really stood out for Stanley: “Little Richard. Listening to the 1956 chart (on CD): Perry Como followed by Ted Heath, followed by Little Richard, you can completely understand the impact he would have had. It’s terrifying, incredible, and so powerful. Completely unlike anything that had gone before”.

And the Beatles? “It’s impossible to over-estimate the Beatles”.

This was just as well, as Mark Lewisohn was next up to talk about his book – the full version of which runs to 1,728 pages and only gets to the year 1962.

“I overwrote” explained Lewisohn, perhaps unnecessarily, “I was given a word target and bust it quite quickly. I think I’d got up to 1930-something” he joked. “I was meant to write 250,000 words and I wrote 780,000.”

The abridged version is out now, with the longer version out next month. “Everything that is germane to the story is in (the abridged version). What I have removed are levels and layers, more context, family background and all that kind of stuff. There’s no fat in it but by the same token if you buy (the abridged version) you’re not missing anything. The other one is complete, and then some…

Having read Lewisohn’s Complete Beatles Chronicles (the one with the misprinted cover, as Mark pointed out to me), I know this trilogy is likely to be the Last Word in all things Beatles, so here’s what Lewisohn had to say about some topics:

On Brian Epstein

“I don’t do “what ifs?” But it is now clear to me that if Brian hadn’t come along they were about to break up. Within a year of taking up his management they were in the charts. His management of the Beatles in the first year was exceptionally good – first class. Operating without a template, with no prior experience, he was brilliant at it.”

On George Martin

“George Martin signed The Beatles because he was made to sign them. He didn’t like them. He hadn’t met them. When he met them he did like them, but initially he didn’t like what he heard.”

On John Lennon

“In 1994 I had a call from Sotheby’s from someone who had a recording of the Quarrymen that day at the fete (when John and Paul met). We now hear John Lennon at the age of sixteen singing and what you hear , which is the most extraordinary thing of all, is unlike anybody else who starts singing at a young age. They’re aping the record, they’re aping the voice of the singer. John Lennon – already at 16 – sings only like John Lennon. He is an original and we have the tape to prove it.

On Pete Best

“They didn’t want him in the first place. He was a beginner. He couldn’t play. Eventually they got Brian to sack him.”

On Stuart Sutcliffe

“He was like James Dean onstage”.

There’s more. About 1,700 pages more…

If you are waiting for volume 2 however, then you may have a long wait. Said Lewisohn, “This one took ten years, which is a little bit worrying because I’m 55 now. I realised I should have started a little bit earlier. I reckon it’s going to take about six or seven years for the next one and six or seven years for the one after. I’ve never had so many people ask me how I am…”

Record #246: Kim Wilde – Kids In America

* Madonna

** De La Soul


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