An Interview with Mark Lewisohn

The world's leading Beatles historian tells Read it Forward about his meticulous research, his love of libraries and his ever-changing favorite song.

The Beatles

Mark Lewisohn is the world’s leading Beatles historian and his latest work of narrative nonfiction, Tune In, the first in the trilogy All These Years, tells the full story of the lives and work of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr.

Ten years in the making, Tune In takes the Beatles from before their childhoods through the final hour of 1962—when, with breakthrough success just days away, they stand on the cusp of a whole new kind of fame and celebrity.

For anyone who thinks they know everything about The Beatles, this is the lesser-known story of four war babies coming of age in Liverpool. Mark Lewisohn tells Read it Forward about his impeccable research that helps him dissect fact from fiction and tell the true trajectory of these four young men who changed the landscape of music forever.

Read it Forward:  Your latest book, Tune In is the first volume of All These Years—a biographical trilogy that tells the full story of the Beatles. Tune In, which took you over ten years to write, tells the early story of the band, starting with their childhoods and ending in 1962, when they stood at the precipice of stardom. Mark, your career has taken you into the realm of biographer, which means dedicating years and years of your life to a single subject. In your opinion, why is it satisfying to really dig deep?

Mark Lewisohn:  I like to do things thoroughly. There was an adage when I was growing up, which is quite a long time ago now, which said if a job is worth doing, it’s worth doing properly. I wouldn’t say exactly that that phrase stuck, but I’ve always remembered it because it’s true.  If you’re going to do something, do it well. If you’re going to write a biography of someone or something, then why go about it in a half-assed way?

Why skim the surface when the true treasures might be deeper below the surface? It’s just in my nature that I do things thoroughly and that I’m an organized person. And most of us, if not all of us, are born with certain skills. I know what my skills are. I know what they’re not. And what I’ve found is that, as a researcher and as a writer, I can use all my skills to the best of my ability. If you asked me to build a house or put up a shelf, I would consider that to be tricky. But research and write a thorough book? I can do that.

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RIF:  When you’re in the midst of the research, do you ever get bored, frustrated, or experience burnout on your subject?

ML:  I can honestly say that it never happens to me. I am never bored with this work. And although it would appear that I’m working on a single topic, which is The Beatles, actually, in order to research and write their history, you do need to research and write a much broader, deeper contextual history.

RIF:  Right.

ML:  But all the same, the core focus of it is The Beatles.  And, not only have I been doing this project now for 13 years, but I’ve been researching and writing about them for 35. And I do not ever get bored.

RIF:  That just must prove how much richness there is in this story.

ML:  Yes. I genuinely believe there’s no greater biographical subject than The Beatles because their story legitimately goes everywhere and connects to everything. And they were always moving on, always breaking new territory, always keeping things fresh. So, for someone researching their story, it means you encounter the same continual refreshing.

RIF:  Tune In covers the early years of The Beatles, which is happening at such an apex of history during the post-World-War-II years. Describe what was happening in Liverpool at the time?

ML:  Well, volume 1 of the trilogy is very much a Liverpool story. The Beatles affected everybody and everything around them, so Liverpool became branded as The Beatles’ birthplace and then the city had to cope with it—at points, embracing it, and at other points, pushing it away.

But The Beatles were all war babies. They were born into a bomb-damaged, bomb-blitzed city. They played on bomb sites, like a lot of Europeans. It was wrecked. There was very little money and no luxuries to speak of, rationing. They grew up in a time of austerity, intent on creating their own world, if you like.

The opportunity to do that came along in 1956 when each of them individually—because they didn’t really know each other yet—heard Elvis Presley’s Heartbreak Hotel. A record made in Memphis, Tennessee, came over to the UK on a plane, was pressed in a record factory near London, distributed around the country, got onto the radio airwaves, and directly entered the heads of these four people and many others. Their lives were changed from that moment onwards.

Tune In looks at what they did with that inspiration, how, within a few months, they were forming friendships and getting up on stages and making music of their own. They existed during a period of time in Liverpool where there were lots of other kids playing music, but those who would become The Beatles were always different from the rest.

RIF:  I loved hearing that Paul and John were writing their own music early on before songwriting was popular.

ML:  Absolutely. One of the reasons why the book is so thick is because I need to demonstrate what the world was like when The Beatles entered it so that, in books two and three, we see how they changed it. We see what it is that they changed because they did change everything for almost everyone.

Tune In shows the extraordinary moments of good fortune that had to occur for something as miraculous as this to actually happen because there are so many moments in the book when the whole thing could have been blown off course. But chance encounters and extraordinary coincidences and things pepper this story. And they’re all true.

RIF:  So at some point, you had to give Tune In to your editor and declare it done.  How did you know when you were finished?

ML:  Yes. Since there have been so many of hundreds of books on The Beatles, what’s the point of doing something more unless you can bring something new to the table and make it authoritative? I want to get these books done for the readers’ sake and also for my own sake, but I’m not going to cut any corners just to meet a deadline.

I’m looking all the time to move it forward as best I can. But only I know when I feel that I have enough material to actually then start writing. It’s not about enough material, actually. It’s about being certain in your head that there is nothing more of great importance that you’ve missed.

When it comes to volumes two and three, I already have, in terms of quantity of material, way more than I could possibly use. I reached that point several years ago, and yet I’m still researching. Why? Because I know there’s still important stuff to be found. It’s not about the quantity; it’s about the quality, and about being satisfied that you’ve not missed anything that needs to be said.

So ultimately, with each of the three volumes, there comes a point where I, as the researcher, will think, I’m satisfied that I’m not missing anything more. I now need to start writing it. The structuring of it is a fundamental part of the process as well.

RIF:  What intrigues you about narrative nonfiction? Tune In does read very much like a novel. There were parts where I found myself wondering, what’s going to happen next?

ML:  Yes, yes. I’ve had so many lovely comments from people who say you’ve got to do the next book soon because I want to know what happens next—as if we don’t know.

Part of that is because there’s no forward thinking in this book. Though everybody will know where this story’s headed—it’s heading in ’64 to the States; it’s heading in ’67 to Sgt. Pepper; it’s heading to ’70 and the breakup—those are headline moments that everybody knows. But all the stuff in between is the nitty-gritty of the book. And, even though I’m writing about a rock group, it’s really about people’s lives. Nobody knows what is happening tomorrow. They might have a schedule, but they don’t really know what’s happening tomorrow because something could interrupt it.

I wrote the book—the first one and the next two in the same fashion—with no forward knowledge of what’s coming. There are a few seeds that I plant, but, for the most part, I am resisting all temptation to foreshadow anything. It always makes me laugh when you read a book, and you come upon the words, “little did they know that in five years’ time, such and such would happen…” Well, yeah, they don’t know! I want to make this book in the moment of its occurrence always. That technique, which just occurred to me as being the sensible one, is unusual, it turns out. I would’ve thought it was the obvious way to go for most historians, but it turns out that it’s quite an unusual approach. I find that it really engages the reader in the moment. They feel like they’re there with them when these things are happening. I use all the small details that I unearth in my research to actually lift and enhance the story and take the reader there. The details are what unlocks it for everybody and make them feel as if they were there.

RIF:  In your writing process, how do you keep all of these disparate details organized? What’s your writing technique, and how do you find things?

ML:  Well, it helps to be an organized person. It’s an absolutely essential tool in the putting together of a book like this.

From a research point of view, you need to know where to go, who to see, and how to unlock the doors that might have something within. Then from a structural writing point of view, you need to make sure that you’ve marshaled it all well. That is a time-consuming but necessary process because it’s at that point that you review what you’ve got, and you see how something you found in room A connects to something you found in room Z. You might have found them years apart in different buildings, in different countries, but they actually fit together. And it’s at that point that you realize how they fit together. So organization is crucial to a book like this. The book is written strictly sequentially, so the best tool of all to organize around is through chronology. It makes things a lot easier.

RIF:  What does your writing space look like? 

ML:  I hear mention from time to time of the paperless office.  Well, that is not mine.

That’s not to say that I’m not digital because I have vast amounts of documents and photographs and recordings stored on hard drives. But I also have filing cabinets full of old-fashioned materials like newspapers and magazines and photocopies of documents.

This is very much a document-based history. And it needs to be so because the magnitude of The Beatles was so much that everyone who was caught up in it to any extent has been interviewed quite often. There is always the temptation with humanity to begin to enlarge your role in something and every time you retell it, it just gets a little bit further from how it actually happened. A big part of my job is knowing what not to believe as well as what to believe. That’s crucial. And that comes with simply being steeped within it. It’s what I call my bullshit detector.

I’m after the truth and nothing but the truth. I have been told some amazingly funny stories and anecdotes, but at the end of the day, if I don’t believe it’s right, I won’t use it because I can’t have that kind of misinformation.

RIF:  And why is it so important to get The Beatles story right?

ML:  Everything should be right, not just this subject, but with any subject. I think the role of a biographer or historian is to do everything he or she possibly can to get it as right as possible because it’s as simple as right or wrong. I mean, why would you wish for it not to be right?

But in this particular subject, since the impact of The Beatles was so immense, then and now, the subject is best honored by being as truthfully told as possible. I often get asked the question why are we still talking about The Beatles after all these years? Why are they still relevant? Why is their music still influencing people and selling?

I think it comes down to a number of factors, but one major one that wasn’t necessarily noticed at the time is that The Beatles stood for truth. They were truthful in themselves, in the way that they went about everything they did. There was no hype. There was no fakery about them. And since they weren’t interested in being icons, but rather in just being themselves, then the story needs to be told truthfully. It’s long enough ago now for it to be told truthfully without hurting anyone.

RIF:  What do you consider to be the key ingredients for telling any story? You’ve written on other subjects besides The Beatles and you seem to tease out these beautiful threads.

ML: It comes down to research. The deeper you research, the more that the threads will show themselves. I do like a thread because the reader can jump on the thread with you and follow it. It’s just typical of the way that we all live our lives nowadays. Everything is a thread of some kind. In fact, in the Internet age, we call forum discussions threads.

I like to find the connections. The connections will always make the reader stop and go oh, okay, so they knew each other already or so they were on the same street at the same time, though they didn’t know each other, but they have that picture in their head of the two people passing, but they’re in the same space. There’s a lot of that and the research opens those up.

RIF:  As you said, the rich details really tell this story. How, as you were researching, did you find these details that were integral in painting the full picture?

ML: One of the joys of this project is spending a lot of time in libraries looking at the professionalism of journalists and reporters of the past and the brilliance of newspapers as they used to be.  And just realizing that anything that seems peripheral in the moment will, in time—provided it’s preserved properly—go on to become a historical document of some kind.

The Beatles left behind the very richest of historical trails. First of all, they existed during a period of time when people wrote real letters. The Beatles wrote lots of letters to people and because they were The Beatles, and the recipients were, in some way, in awe of them or in love with them or whatever, they kept them, and they’ve come up through the auction rooms now.

So I have hundreds of examples of handwritten letters from The Beatles to people, which are very much set in the moment. They’re dated. You get a real sense of the life as they were living it. I draw upon every possible source: recordings, films, photographic, handwritten letters, and business documents of all kinds, as well as contemporary reporting. I mean, The Beatles were a music group. And in the 1960s in the UK, there were four weekly newspapers devoted to covering what was going on in music:  interviews with them, accounts of seeing them in nightclubs. You can actually re-piece together their movements on pretty much a daily basis —who they were with and what they looked like that day, what they were wearing. If I was writing about something from the forties or the fifties, that would be a lot more difficult, but because it’s the sixties, there are tape recordings and photographs of all kinds. So suddenly, it’s becoming clearer. I spend every day looking for the pieces.

RIF:  Do you have a favorite library?  You must’ve spent hours and hours in libraries all over the world.

ML:  Yes, yes, I have. I spend a lot of time in the British Library. The British have been very good about keeping a copy of every newspaper and every book ever published. I discovered the British Library’s newspaper division when I was 21 in the late 1970s, and I’ve been going there ever since. I could not write a book without going there.

RIF:  The look on your face is one of love and admiration.

ML:  You form visceral attachments to libraries. As a child, I used to go to the library a lot because my mother was a voracious reader of mostly fiction, but occasionally biography. She used the public library. She would go every three weeks and take out six books and read them in 21 days.

RIF:  Wow.

ML:  So I lived in a house with a mother who read, which was an influence on me. I would often go to the library with her and I would go straight to the reference section and look things up. No one had taught me that, but I knew how to look things up, and I understood how to use directories and how to use card index systems. It was just second nature to me.

I love libraries. The Internet is an immense help as well, but people who say, surely you don’t need to go to libraries anymore because everything’s on the Internet, obviously don’t know what they’re talking about.

RIF:  Right, exactly. There’s nothing like seeing the actual newspaper or ticket stub, right?

ML:  Yes. As immensely helpful as it is to be able to zero in through some computerized index to a particular piece you’re looking for, it’s only really by turning the pages of the newspaper that you see the context of the piece you’re looking for. And whilst you’re looking, the thing you’re looking for might be on page 7, but on page 8 is something else that you would never have thought to look for that absolutely goes with what you’ve just found and enhances it completely. I do a lot of that, the turning of pages, not just looking for what I’m looking for, but looking for what else is there.

Volume one is set in Liverpool, which is an extraordinary city full of extraordinary people. And much of it takes place during a period of time that I wasn’t even alive. So how can I take my reader into the houses and streets of Liverpool? And the answer is by looking at all the Liverpool newspapers of the period—and there were several per day—and going through them all and just seeing the cinemas opening and closing and who’s coming in and the royal family paying a visit, and this school closes, and that school opens, and this club is opening. I have thousands of pages of notes from the Liverpool papers alone, which ultimately, I think, I want to make public because I’m only using a fraction of what I found.

In life, you meet writers who possessively guard their discoveries and don’t want anybody else to know them. But I think that’s mean-minded. The spirit of The Beatles was openness and sharing. I think that whatever I find in my research is not for me to hang on to. It’s for sharing with everybody because it enriches the telling of the story, and therefore can enrich the experience for the reader.

RIF:  Dare I ask, do you have a favorite Beatles song? 

ML:  It changes all the time. Right now, it’s “Happiness is a Warm Gun.”

RIF: A great one from The Beatles’ later years.

ML: I don’t distinguish between late and early. In each instance, at the moment they were doing it, it was music unlike anybody had done before. So because the late sixties Beatles music is a little bit more in tune with the way rock has stayed, that tends to be where people keep their favorites, but actually, the early stuff was pushing the envelope just as much.


Featured image: Astrid Kirchherr, Copyright: Ginzburg Fine Arts, LLC; Author Photo: Piet Schreuders

MARK LEWISOHN is the acknowledged world authority on the Beatles. Before embarking on The Beatles: All These Years his books included the bestselling and influential The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions and The Complete Beatles Chronicle. He was a consultant and researcher on all aspects—TV, DVDs, CDs and book—of the Beatles own Anthology and has been involved in numerous additional projects for them. Married with two children, he lives in England.

About Abbe Wright

Abbe Wright

ABBE WRIGHT is the Editor of Read It Forward. As a kid, she used to get in trouble at summer camp for using a flashlight to read inside her sleeping bag after lights out, but these days, she lives in Brooklyn, where nobody minds if she stays up late reading. She has written for Glamour, O, The Oprah Magazine and The Cut and tweets about books (and The Bachelor) at @abbewright.