This is an analytical and interpretative review of the book “Tune In: The Beatles – All These Years”, a comprehensive and detailed scrutiny of the phenomenon that was the Beatles. This is volume one, two more to come.
This kind of historical volume joins several other detailed multi-volume examinations of history, including “The Civil War” by Shelby Foote, “America in the King Years” by Taylor Branch and “The years of Lyndon Johnson” by Robert Caro.
“Tune In” is totally unlike glossy tabloid chronicles containing open-ended anecdotal factoids. It is a richly detailed and referenced history of each Beatle beginning at their birth and proceeding along in time, accumulating experiences that eventually brought them together. The incredibly detailed narrative is sometimes hard to wade through but there is a point to it. These details matter because the diversion or omission of any one of these experiences could have ended the story before it started.
Post-war Liverpool was a tough, wearying slum full of violence and alcohol. Women as wives learned to make-do with the little they had and maintain their families under extremely trying conditions. This made for very close family ties. Fathers all worked at various trades for low wages. Each strongly pressured their sons to swap non-paying interests for the security of a steady job no matter how mundane. The expression emerged: “Trade – Made” “No Trade – Mad”.
Into this unforgiving environment emerged four working class teens each with several important conditions in common. They were raised by very strong women, some to the point of social non-conformity. Lennon & McCartney’s female role models died suddenly, leaving a potent impression that was to shape them in many ways. The author suggests this generated an intimate resilience in them that also shaped their future.
Emerging youth in Liverpool had two-career choices- becoming a tradesman or getting good enough grades in school to enter some kind of academic career- teaching or art. At several points in their youth, each of the four refused to apply themselves in school, generating poor grades not even good enough to be accepted in trade school. They’re portrayed as intelligent and able, but with no particular interest in their future other than open ended optimism. Boredom even when performing something they had the potential to do well assured a clear path to the bottom of the barrel as simple laborers, a fate they accepted.
Working class existence in Liverpool was pretty sparse, full of obstacles and necessitating many sacrifices. In the late 50s there was no conception of “birth control”; teen hormones ruled absolutely. Paul McCartney’s then girlfriend Dot became pregnant and if she had not suffered a spontaneous miscarriage, Paul would have been a married tradesman to support a family as was his father’s plan for him. John entered into a shotgun marriage with pregnant girlfriend Cyn but later in their career. Ringo spent literally years in a hospital as a youth and came very near dying on several occasions. George came very near becoming a tradesman at the point of departure for the band simply because he was dead broke and had no food.
So at the emergence of young manhood, their lives were shaped by penury, the specter of pregnancy, and traumatic loss of close family members or devastating near-fatal illness. Each demonstrated ability without any particular ambition. Additionally, each demonstrated a severe case of teen rebellion against virtually every staple of their lives. Education, clothing, social mores and attitude. Ego, open-ended ambition and no future plans.
Into this circa 1958 mix was injected……..Elvis!
It’s hard to overestimate the impact of Elvis Presley on the then rather staid and traditional music scene. Elvis was a nuclear bomb. No one had ever heard anything like him. Elvis was the culmination of their incomplete lives. Each now had direction for their rebellion and each vowed to become England’s answer to all that Elvis stood for- sexual frenzy, raging passion and contempt for convention that was to define “Rock & Roll”. “Heartbreak Hotel”, “Blue Suede Shoes”, “Jailhouse Rock” and “That’s all right, Mama” on their rudimentary three-tube radios was the first watershed event that instantly changed their lives forever and eventually brought them into proximity with each other
Of course, the phenomenon of Elvis quickly spawned others of his ilk or highlighted other similar musicians of color that no English white kids had heard of before, specifically “Little Richard” (Penniman) and other black “rhythm & Blues” musicians plying the American chitlin’ circuit. Clones naturally followed the Elvis theme- Gene Vincent and the Blue Notes, Buddy Holly and the Crickets, Don & Phil Everly, Jerry Lee Lewis, Eddie Cochran, Duane Eddy, Linc Ray and the Raymen and a host of others emerging to fill the newly created niche.
From middle school, John, Paul & George found each other to employ the field expediency taught them by their mothers to form a rudimentary “combo”, initially covering “skiffle” bands such as led by Lonnie Donnigan. Real guitars were too expensive to purchase. The would-be band members eventually found cheap poorly constructed junk instruments. Lennon used four banjo strings early on, transposing to six string chords as best he could. Washboards were employed for the rhythm section and broom-handle basin bass section could barely be heard. Each eventually found 45 rpm records of Elvis songs and slowed them down manually to catch each note till their fingers bled.
The trio trod the path of all nascent musicians, playing for anyone that would listen for no remuneration. They didn’t have to be good. They just needed to proceed along the gauntlet surviving by dumb luck and by “just being there” when no one else good showed up. Anything to be seen and heard in any way possible. Terrible performances with inadequate equipment to electrified audiences of their peers hungry for anything resembling the phenomenon of “Rock & Roll”.
Erstwhile musicians came and went with no consistency. Most went back to work in factories when they ran out of funds. Importantly, the JP&G persisted, and at this state of their career, learned to pull portions of the musical works of others to generate styles of their own making. Also importantly, “mentors” evolved to nurture the business of bands, assist them getting gigs wherever possible and promote them. The combination of their persistence and acquiring a rudimentary “agent” eventually led them to a bar gig in Hamburg, Germany……A monster cultural turning point in their lives that was to set the stage for their future.
It almost never happened. Numerous events came close to scotching the Beatles before they made it to their watershed in Hamburg. John couldn’t find his birth certificate to get a passport and almost the trip. The stevedores initially refused to put the band’s musical gear on the boat to Europe (too bulky). German customs very nearly confiscated all the band’s musical gear at the border for taxes. Had any one of these events come to pass, it’s probable no one would know any of them now.
Hamburg was the breeding ground for the band to become professional level virtuosos. They played continuously every day with minimal sleep. They evolved to become not only consummate musicians but also polished performers. Sex, drugs, Rock & Roll and cheap thrills killed Janice Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison but it nurtured the nascent Beatles and made them stronger.
In his book, “Outliers”, Malcolm Gladwell introduced the concept that there is no “natural talent”, but 10,000 hours practice will allow anyone to become the compleat master of an endeavor. Bill Gates was used as an example (using code). The elite don’t just work harder than everybody else. At some point they fall in love with practice to the point where they want to do little else. Eddie Van Halen regularly skipped school to practice guitar sitting on the edge of his bed as long as 18 hours a day.
The nascent Beatles endured abhorrent working conditions, equipment and environment. The audiences were unappreciative and they were poorly paid, but the Hamburg experience generated at least 10,000 of playing time forced them to master their game. By 1962 they were playing eight hours per night, seven nights per week. By 1964, the year they were discovered by American kids, the Beatles had played over 1,200 concerts. In comparison, most contemporary bands don’t play 1,200 times in their entire career.
As the Beatles grew in musical skill, confidence and charisma, audiences demanded more performances and when they returned to Liverpool, they did so as accomplished performers in great demand. They also returned cold, hard, rebellious, leather clad iconoclasts. They had the attitude and innovation Rock & Roll mandated. As a practical matter, they may have been the best Rock group in the world, not just Liverpool. Brian Epstein arrived as their manager and forced a cohesiveness on them as to on-stage dress and behavior that was to prove a great value later on.
Shortly after arriving back in Liverpool, the Beatles were still using Pete Best as their drummer. Everyone agreed that Pete was at best a mediocre percussionist and more importantly a boring personality. Pete never bonded with the rest of the group and this was to be his eventual downfall. Richard Starkey (Ringo Starr) had been drumming for several groups around the Liverpool area and knew only knew JP&G casually. On several occasions when Pete called in sick, Ringo was asked to sit in and was well liked by JP&G.
Brian used his record company connections to get them an audition for a recording contract. This was a disaster as their equipment was perfect for The Cavern but not amenable to a recording studio. This plus a bad case of nerves all around rendered a bad performance and rejection from Decca Records, the manager of which opined that Rock & Roll was a temporary fad and guitar groups would eventually fade with it.
There were more disappointments in store. Ultimately the Beatles did make a record that didn’t sell any copies; didn’t even make the top 100. But what didn’t kill them definitely made them stronger and part of the key to overcoming their jinx was to finally get rid of Pete Best and install Ringo Starr, an uninspired but methodical, consistent drummer with personality. Pete was inconsistent. Ringo could keep a 4/4 beat like clockwork, maintaining the cohesive rhythm of the other musicians.
In a final apocalyptic event, Pete was dropped (very precipitously) in August of 1962, replaced by Ringo who had been floating around the music scene with little structure and happy to play with mates he got along with. This was followed thereafter with a serendipitous connection with emerging mega-engineer George Martin (and EMI) combined with the emergence of Lennon-McCartney songwriting. The combination of these events changed the entire landscape and propelled the Beatles toward fate at literally the speed of sound. But their true destiny waited across the big pond 3465 miles to the West. If this fortuitous timing hadn’t been almost to the month and year, the Beatles would most likely have remained hometown favorites.
President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963. Kennedy had assured America they had a cause they could believe in and a leader they could follow. Something, call it innocence or hope or optimism, was lost that day in Dallas. Shock and sorrow marked the revelation that Camelot (if it ever existed) was over and a new age of uncertainty was to follow.
American youth began to explore alternatives to the gentle, self-fulfilling prosperity of the Eisenhower ‘50s. Bland “Pop” musical trends of the early ‘60s evolved to harder edged “Rock” played by more unconventional groups with attitude and a heavy beat who wrote and performed their own original material. The era of Buddy Holly and Jerry Lee Lewis arrived after 1963. American kids emerged ripe for what was happening as well in England.
The Beatles fulfilled a lot of what Americans were looking for post Camelot collapse. Something harder edged, innovative but in-touch. Beatles were “cute”, had different hair, different attitude and they might be just a little dangerous but within limits. They played their own instruments with a defined danceable beat, wrote their own songs the lyrics of which American youth could identify with and looked cool in their mop tops, matching outfits and Cuban heel boots.
American kids latched onto the Beatles phenomenon like a pit bull on a poodle. A new life-style emerged around them in the summer of 1964 fueled by a need for a new order in musical expression. Other groups evolving vertically from the stage that fostered the Beatles quickly followed to America included Gerry & the Pacemakers, the Searchers, the Zombies, the Spencer Davis Group, the Who, the Moody Blues, the Dave Clark Five, the Rolling Stones, the Yardbirds, the Kinks, Freddie and the Dreamers and Herman’s Hermits as the “British Invasion”.
So ends Volume One chronicling the Brownian motion that came together in a non-linear series of events producing one of the unlikely phenomena in world history. Had any significant event not occurred, it would have poisoned the dynamic and all four would have gone back to the trades as their parents had originally desired.
Or maybe not. Was there a predestination component? Each event in their lives contributing to a fate that could not be diverted? Would it have mattered if ANY error occurred in the life map. Was the phenomenon of The Beatles serendipity or kismet? The author suggests that possibility and as the reader absorbs the accumulating details, they can only wonder if each fork in the road would lead them to the same place because they were a phenomenon that had to be.
Volume two eagerly awaited.