Monday, December 30, 2013

TUNE IN: The Beatles all these years, Volume I by Mark Lewisohn

Seeing the Beatles being introduced to Americans on the Ed Sullivan Show is still a vivid memory. Mark Lewisohn has written an history from the group's genesis to just before their meteoric rise on the new pop music scene. This cumbersome book is really only for the dedicated fan because the 800 + pages are filled with just too much minutia about the four men from Liverpool to be that important.  The book's organizational skeleton can seen as the Beatles' teenage formation, honing their skills in Hamburg, Stuart Sutcliffe's relationship with the group, their relationship with Brian Epstein, the firing of drummer Pete Best and his replacement Ringo Starr (Richy Starkey), being rejected by every major recording studio including George Martin at EMI, the machinations that led George Martin's reassessment of the group, their first hit record, the relationship to their music publisher Dick James, with the book's ending with being on the verge of their second hit record.

The members of the group were typical of post WWII youth who were swept up by and swooned over the new American musical phenomenon called 'rock and roll'.  Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly and the Crickets, Chuck Berry and Little Richard gained a great following and became heroes in the UK. The name 'Beatles' was inspired by the 'Crickets' when John Lennon and Stuart Sutcliffe came up with a double entendre.  The book made a point of telling that the name was unique because English groups were usually known as the lead singer and his back-up (like Gerry and the Pacemakers, Rory Storm and the Hurricanes etc)

The group put in many hours of playing time in Hamburg, Germany, thus honing their skills as musicians and as a band; the long hours required to stay awake inspired drug use; the neighborhood where they played was a lair of hedonism with the Beatles seeking out its pleasures.  One learns that Stuart Sutcliffe was really a talented artist and not much of a musician but his close friendship with John Lennon stalled his departure from the group.  He marries Astrid Kirchherr from Hamburg, a photographer and his tragic, untimely death shocked the group.

All evidence points to the sacking of Pete Best as a result of his poor performance as a drummer.  He can't seem to keep consistent time nor beat, either slowing down or speeding up, thus compromising the music of the group.  The Beatles wait until they have a manager (to do the dirty job of firing) and the Music Producer's assessment that his play is unacceptable for recording before he is formally severed from the group.

Jewish Brian Epstein discovers the group when he makes good on his business promise to customers that NEMS (North East Music Stores) will procure any record requested.  Although he has trouble finding the Beatles' first coarse recording of  "My Bonnie" from a Hamburg distributor, Epstein is taken in by the sound.  He visits the local group at the famed Cavern Club and falls in love with the group and offers his services to manage them.  Although pejoratives about being Jewish are common, the stereotype about Jews having a flair with money convinces the Beatles that he is a good choice. One learns about real Jewish ethics in Mr. Epstein's business philosophy that he learned from his father and Grandfather: "The fair deal is the right deal!"  As a matter of fact, one sees clearly that Epstein steered clear of any impropriety or accusation of taking advantage of the group.  His fees for services were under market value at 10 percent not to exceed 25 percent (when others were charging between 30 and 50 percent!).

Although George Martin was in charge of comedy records (helping Peter Sellers' career) at EMI and originally passed over the Beatles'  'My Bonnie' demo, behind the scenes office politics required him to record some songs with the Beatles. He did not like "Love me do" because he really did not like the harmonica drawl, nevertheless, he gave the Beatles a better look after the recording started to rise on the pop charts.  Martin's discretion, integrity and originality, willing to experiment with new sounds made him a perfect fit with the Beatles.  Not only was he an accomplished musician with an ear and eye for talent but he was also the perfect sounding board for the group.  He was used as the ax on Pete Best. When hearing Pete's effort on their Demo he would require a replacement drummer for future recordings.

Another Jewish figure that played prominently in the Beatles early success is Dick James (Isaac Vapnick) their music publisher.  He also did the unusual and changed the way business has been done since 1900.  In the past the publisher owned the rights to the sheet music, not the author/artist.  The songwriter earned a small royalty on each sheet music sold.  James saw the great potential of the Beatles and not wanting to eventually lose their business he changed protocol and offered Lennon, McCartney and Epstein a partnership in his business so that not only would the songwriters earn a royalty but would split company profits 50-50.  This eventually created a wealth gap between John and Paul on the one hand with George and Ringo on the other.

I would only recommend this book to the avid fan willing to plow through so much information. The notion that there are two other volumes to continue this saga boggles my mind.  Mr. Lewisohn, nevertheless, utilizes the tools of the historian constantly verifying and cross referencing information with corroborating sources thus making this contribution a very accurate record.

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