You have written New Zealand out of the John Lennon story for the first time definitively by disproving the suggestion his father was going to emigrate with him here when John was a boy.
Yes indeed. That’s a prime example of how you read something one way for a very long time but when you actually really stop and try to get back to source information often for the first time then you find out what you thought was right all along actually was never right.
Obviously, you’ve done a lot of fresh research, but you’ve also done a lot of poring over existing secondary sources. Was it a case in some instances of things hiding there in plain sight?
Yes. That’s a very good way of putting it. Actually, with this book every kind of research discovery in every kind of way is there. Some of them have just been waiting to be found, some of them have been there all along. Whatever the situation, with a book of this scope they kind of all apply. But [hiding in plain sight] certainly applies to some of them, yeah. Similarly, there’s all the new stuff in here that wasn’t hard to find, as well as the stuff that was.
You’ve been writing the book over 10 years, is that right? You started in 2003?
I started the research then, yes, and researched it for about five-six years before I started writing it.
You have obviously written many other Beatles books so would have a lot bigger picture of the band than other people. Did you nonetheless come to things you thought you had researched completely and utterly previously and discover there were new things there?
Yes, I suppose so. Actually, the main point about what you say is you can never research something completely and utterly. There’s always more. You think you can be thorough but … the resources for this book are actually infinite. You never quite know where the next one is going to pop up and what the next one will tell you. And not only do they pop up with great frequency but as a researcher if you go out looking for them you obviously get deluged by them and it’s all interesting and most of it is new. No matter how long you research this, there’s still more. And so you never know everything, you’ve never seen everything. You have to keep an open mind. And go where the information is. And that’s the way I work. I never actually think I’ve got enough on this, because that might close the avenue for another wonderful thing to happen five minutes later.
I boggled after 900 pages. Surely to God there’s no more to be known as a casual reader, I thought. But there’s an extended special edition, I then discovered, which is almost twice the length again. What have you kept for that?
What actually happened is I considerably overwrote when writing this book. Because I decided this was the one real opportunity to do this subject as thoroughly as it deserves and in order to tell the story right I would write whatever needed to be written for the story to be understood. In other words, I wasn’t hampered by the word count target I had been set. So I just started writing and ended up with 780,000 words, which is huge, absolutely immense. And my publishers looked at it and said, “Well, this is absolutely fantastic, we want to publish this, but we do still need this book to be at a shorter length for the mass market.” So I had to create the mass-market edition out of the bigger one. It’s 900 pages but it’s actually abridged.
And how frustrating a job was that? Like killing your babies?
It was very tough. I’ve always struggled to cut more than a few words before and here I was having to cut something like 50%. The way I wrote the book both made the task difficult and easy. It was difficult in that it was very hard to think what parts of this book were expendable without the meaning being lost. I feel very strongly that this [abridged version of the] book is complete in itself and therefore what it’s lacking are layers of a deeper story, which are all tremendously interesting and rewarding, but layered. So as long as I haven’t cut out the very top layer, it is still present in the abridged version. There are no real holes in the abridged version but the bigger one goes deeper and deeper. And believe me with a book like this whenever it goes deeper it just stays as interesting as it does earlier.
You use the word “layers”. I was born in 1965 and the Beatles have been in my life throughout my life, but I suspect like a lot of people I’m a casual fan. There’s a lot of received wisdom out there about the Beatles and what for me the book brought was depth to that. As one example, it’s often said Decca dropped the ball – it didn’t sign them and EMI did. Ha ha, Decca. But you reveal here the complications of all that deal and that EMI was no more ultimately perceptive than Decca. And you suggest a lot of other record companies probably made that bad decision as well.
The reality is everybody made that decision. The thing is, you see, you can use hindsight the wrong way. Hindsight would suggest anyone who turned down the Beatles was completely mad. Because, after all, they went on to become the biggest thing ever and still are, which is a remarkable thing all to its own. But actually when you look at it in the context of everything that was going on around it, although the decisions that led to the Beatles’ rejections were strange, there is a point at which you can actually understand it, if you consider that decision-makers generally at creative concerns are more interested in what has been big than what might be big, because they can’t see the next big thing, then you can understand why the Beatles were being turned down. They were so different to everything that had gone before. No one then had any idea that it would be the thing for ever. Bands called The who write their own songs. Since they were the first, no one thought it could be that special. Apart from certain individual people who clearly saw it, like [manager] Brian Epstein, for example, who knew it the moment he saw them. That they were going to be the biggest thing ever. But most minds are not as receptive as that. So they were turned down. What particularly interests me about this is not so much the Beatles were turned down at the start of 1962 by every British record company, including EMI, but in September 1962, when the Beatles were establishing themselves, when they had Please Please Me, which was going to be confidently reckoned by everyone who heard it a No 1 in the making and so it was, American record companies turned that down for nothing, a free contract. “Sign this band. No advance payable. Minuscule royalty due.” Whereas Decca turned down a group that didn’t function in the studio very well, Laurie Records, Liberty Records, Capitol Records all turned it down for America. That’s even more interesting for me. It’s that we’ve been focused on the wrong story. The right story about the rejection, the bigger story, is that three American companies turned down Please Please Me. Well, it was no 1 there not much more than a year later.
This is approximately the point where you end the first volume. There were any number of points you could end it – what was your thinking about the way you’ve divided the three volumes?
Well, this volume was actually originally going to end in 1963, but had I done so it probably would have been half as big again. 1963 is really the year when it all kicks off. And I was so overwriting this I thought I would end it in 1962 instead. The beauty of the Beatles story is you could end it pretty much on any calendar year – even December 31 to the very night – and it will be in some way a complete story. And ending it in 1962 is actually a very good way to end it because they have done everything they can to get themselves to the position they are now in. And they’re flying back from their very last trip to Hamburg, which ended on December 31, just like you would wish it to. And they’re flying back to become, although they don’t yet know it, the biggest stars who ever were.
The fact you just said there that if you had 1963 you might have half the length again suggests the next two volumes are going to be bigger still than this one.
It’s hard to say. This book covers more than 100 years in terms of its editorial span [with family histories etc]. The next book will cover four or thereabouts. So it’s much more contained. But, of course [laughs], so much is happening, yeah. I don’t know how big the book will be. What this book is proving to me time and again as its writer is every time you try and second guess how long it might be, how long it might take, and so on, it ends up taking you by surprise. Everything about this project seems to be big. So I’m not going to predict how big the next one will be, but there’s so much to say I can’t believe it won’t be big.
Have you started researching and writing it?
I’ve done a fair bit of the research for volume two and some of the research for volume three. But that’s it. no writing.
I recently interviewed Charles Moore about his Margaret Thatcher biography and he said he was ever mindful of the fact some of the people he needed to talk to he needed to get to quickly because they were dying off, that generation. This has taken a long time to get to volume one. Are you mindful of the fact you at least need to have talked to people for volume three pretty soon?
The answer to that is yes and I’ve been mindful of that since the very start of the project 10 years ago. So I did some interviews then I might not get to for 15 years but I needed to get them then and not wait. And that continues as well, but the problem is there’s only one of me. So how many ways can I divide myself up? But yes, I’m certainly aware of the problem. Anyone 30 years old in 1963 is now 80 years old. Anyone 35 is now 85. Even the teenagers of that period are now, some of them, approaching 70. Or actually are 70. So I’m mindful of that. But volume two and three will have depths this one doesn’t in terms of their paperwork. The recourse to documentation. The absolute base standard of all these books must be archive research. People are important but actually after a while their memories are so distant from the actual events that I place greater emphasis on archive research.
The Rolling Stones famously, or possibly apocryphally, have a warehouse full of archive material – recordings and so forth. You’ve worked with Beatles in various ways over the years. Have they similarly archived their past?
No, not really. Each of them has their own stuff. They actually do all have things. Olivia [his widow] has George’s collection, which I think has got some great stuff in it. I think they’ve all collections of great stuff. But they’re not public or available in any way, and I think that includes to me. Well, it does include to me. But you never know about the future. But I don’t lack for materials, that’s for sure. I have immense quantities of great stuff for volumes two and three already. It’s just nonstop how it keeps coming in. I know already I have enough to turn this story – in many little ways that can add up to a big way – on its head a bit. If you think I’ve been able to correct a fair bit of perceived truths in volume one, well that isn’t going to end with volumes two and three.
As well as the question of getting to the witnesses in time, there’s also the question of looking after yourself. Feasibly, it could be another 20 years before you finish the third volume. Do you look after yourself?
Yes, I do [laughs]. I’m no saint …
It would be very frustrating if you get half-way through volume three and pop your clogs.
It would be very frustrating. And who knows? You never know what’s going to happen next in life. But at this moment I’m in good health. I’ve been in good health all my life. And I intend to stay that way.
You mentioned a moment ago that there’s just you to sift through all the material. You’ve worked on official Beatles-related projects over the years. This isn’t an official Beatles-related project. Presumably, if it had have been you might have a little team of researchers there working with you. Was that a conscious decision to detach yourself from them in order to make it the – as you hope – definitive biography. The objectively definitive biography.
Well, it was just kind of the right decision. They would not have authorised this and I didn’t want them to.
Why would they not?
It’s a complicated answer in the sense it’s part of their history that they do not do that kind of thing. They have their own projects, their own product, which they control, and they do very well with as well – its good quality stuff. They have never commissioned an independent author to write their official history. Even the  Hunter Davis book that was authorised at the time was a product of its time. They haven’t done it since they broke up. That’s the point. In 40-odd years. And they’re not going to now. But by the same token I didn’t want that anyway. In fact, even if they’d offered it, which they wouldn’t, I would have resisted it. Because this book should be seen to be independent, must be seen to be neutral, and fulfil its own course, really.
Did that require a degree of steeliness on your part, in the sense you have worked with Paul McCartney certainly, writing sleeve notes and various other things for projects over the years? You could feasibly burn your bridges completely with a book like this. Or a series of books like this. Was that something you were mindful you had to be prepared for?
Yes, very much so. I’m not setting out to burn any bridges. I’m just setting out to write the book I feel needs to be written. If it burns them, that would be really unfortunate, but it won’t be me lighting the fires. If it doesn’t burn them, it might strengthen them. I do not know. It doesn’t matter is the honest answer. The book is what needs to be done and anything else will be what it will be.
One of the most interesting things for me in this volume is the sense of the age dynamic between them all. How does that play out in the following two volumes and over the rest of their lives? A lot of us are set in the past in our minds in our friendships and that was so important with them all being the different ages they were – the three of them particularly – when they started. Has that continued to have an effect? Does that continue to have an effect in the later story?
Yes, it does. It is, as you say, typical you would position people in your relationship with them in ways you did in your formative time together. So rather like your big brother or your big sister is always going to be your big brother or your big sister, even if you’re 70 and 73, that three-year age difference is still there, so it is within friendships. Many times and certainly in these situations. That’s not to say they let it get in the way all the time. They mostly didn’t. But, of course, it does come up every once in a while.
On the page, a couple of the group’s actions in these years seem in many respects reprehensible, although one cuts them slack – and I wonder if you do, too – because of their youth and them being new to the thing and what they were going through. I am thinking particularly of their not coming back from Hamburg for [friend and ex-Beatle] Stuart Sutcliffe’s funeral and their handling of the sacking of [then Beatles drummer] Pete Best, both of which don’t reflect particularly well on them.
No, but the Beatles were tough. They were before they were famous and they certainly had to be during their fame years. That isn’t to say they couldn’t have their tender moments. In fact, one of the great strengths of the Beatles story is they were capable of both, simultaneously. Tough and tender. They are not tough to the exclusion of tenderness and neither are they tender to the exclusion of toughness. They have their moments when they can stick together as a foursome and brazen something out and it’s part of what got them to the top, to be honest. It’s unfortunate but one of those things. Generally speaking, their behaviour was very good, but of course there were times when they could have done better, like we all could in our own lives. The Pete Best situation was quite an extraordinary situation from every point of view, actually, and there was so much more interest and depth to it than I ever realised before. The things Brian Epstein had to go through to achieve that dismissal from the Beatles were really quite unbelievable. He was the one who really had to do the dirty work and took the heat for it and it was not his decision at all. As for not coming back for Stuart Sutcliffe’s funeral, well, the Beatles never go to funerals. They never did then and they still don’t now. Why didn’t they come to that one? Well, it would have meant leaving Hamburg and coming back to England. They had a contract. I dare say special dispensation might have been given but there’s no indication it actually entered their mind. I think they felt they could grieve for Stuart and mourn Stuart without actually being at that ceremony.
One of the things that peeks through the book is a sense on your part of perhaps frustration at questions that weren’t asked of people that are no longer here to ask them of. You say John Lennon was never actually asked by an interviewer about Stuart Sutcliffe. It seems such an integral part of the band’s history and yet nobody actually ever asked him in an interview about it?
Well, the only person you can ask that question of are the interviewers who failed to do that. I don’t wish to appear clever with hindsight. If I had interviewed John in 1970, even for five hours, I probably wouldn’t have thought to ask, either.
Why is that? In more recent years, Stuart Sutcliffe seems such an important part of the story, but was he not in there for a long time in terms of public perception?
The thing is, I think it was actually John Lennon’s death that caused the Beatles to become more a part of history and less ephemeral than they were considered. I’m not for a moment saying they were considered ephemeral, but if you look pre-1980 for any indication of the kind of interest in the Beatles we have now or the level of knowledge we pursue now, it simply wasn’t there. It was too soon afterwards to actually be apparent. So these days there are several books about Stuart, there have been exhibitions, there are websites, and now I’ve written at length about Stuart in this book. Pre-1980, there was really very little. And he just wasn’t really thought about very much. He was just the guy who died. The interest in Stuart has really followed John Lennon’s death. Because everything followed John Lennon’s death in terms of this becoming a subject worthy of research. It was always worthy but it just wasn’t done.
When did you start researching the Beatles?
I started just before John Lennon was killed. My first research job on the Beatles was published in March/April 1980.
And how did that come about?
Philip Norman, who was writing Shout: The True Story of the Beatles, asked me to find out if it was true the Beatles had made their BBC radio debut in June 1962. When I looked into it, I found actually the Beatles had a great history of recording sessions for radio broadcasts. In fact, we’re just about now to get Apple’s second volume of BBC tapes released. But at that time, although it was only a few years previously it had all happened, it was kind of not known about any more. It was just something they had done. I decided I would research all the Beatles radio appearances and all the tracks they sang, and it turned out half the bootlegs we had in our collections in those days, which we thought were EMI outtakes, were BBC.
How invested were you in the band before that?
Well, I was obviously a committed fan. I was already writing about them by then. I was writing about them in reviewing new albums. I was 21 at the time. What got me was how interesting it was to do Beatles research. How rewarding it was in terms of the things you discovered. And how it made me realise this was an important part of what they’d done and I knew nothing of it and I was supposed to know more about them than most. And I didn’t know anything about it. That was really how my Beatles research began and from there I started to do every live appearance they ever did and then I did every recording session and all of that.
What do you remember of when you first encountered the Beatles as a listener?
I was born in 1958, so I was five in 1963, and I heard I think it was Please Please Me. I’ve told this story so many times now I’m even confusing myself. It was either Please Please Me or She Loves You. I think it was Please Please Me. And I heard it on the radio and I’m told my reaction was just one of, like, it got me, like it did so many other people. One listen to the Beatles and you realise – or so many millions of people realise, and still are realising – what’s this? This sounds interesting. This sounds exciting. This sounds engaging and bright and melodic and catchy and funny and it’s got attitude – it had all these ingredients in it. I couldn’t verbalise that as a five-year-old. It just made me feel good. And, as I say, I was hardly the only one. It caught light around the world in the space of months.
If a Beatles track comes on the radio, some of us who’ve heard it a lot of times in our lives tend to say, “Oh God, I just can’t listen to it anymore. I’m done with that.” You would have listened to them more than probably anybody over the years. Are you still able to find it fresh or is it more the history than the music for you these days?
No, it’s all wrapped up in one. It’s everything now. When I hear a piece of music, I’m thinking about the people in the studio, what was going on in their life the night they recorded it, whatever they brought to the session, whatever they took away from the session – no, I just hear the bigger picture all the time. And it stays ever interesting, ever fresh. I’m surprised actually to hear you say what you said. Because most people as far as I know might think they’ve heard enough of the Beatles and they hear something again and they go, “Yes, that’s it, that’s why I love them.”
I was going to move on to that. Reading this book, I went back to listen to the red compilation album. I’ve always thought myself not a fan of the very early Beatles. But actually I put it on and woah, it completely stopped me in my tracks. Love Me Do. It’s one of the great achievements of your book that you’ve refreshed that period of music we thought we knew. You’ve refreshed these years as an audio experience as much as a historical one.
I’m delighted to hear that. I’m not setting out to make them look even better than whatever, I’m not setting out to polish their reputation. They certainly don’t need me to polish their reputation and I wouldn’t even try. It’s very important I make clear in the book – and I believe I do – that I’m just telling this story as a historian. I’m a fan of the Beatles and have been all my life, but I’m not trying to say, “Hey, weren’t these guys funny, weren’t they great, whatever.” I’m just telling the story. As you say, you read a couple of bits where you didn’t think they seemed so nice, well that’s the story, too. To me it’s important people don’t misunderstand this book. This is not a fan’s book as such. I just bring the passion of being a fan into the duration of it, if you like, because if I wasn’t so interested how could I do it for 20 years?
It’s become quite a concertinaed story for many people in some respects. You seem to have put the links back into the chain in terms of various incidents people know about. The Pete Best sacking, for instance. People go, “Yeah, they sacked Pete Best.” But you’ve actually put the flesh on the bones of that story.
You say people know and I know exactly what you mean by that. People know. So many people around the world – not everyone, of course, but so many people – have some knowledge of the Beatles story that they’ve either picked up second-hand or third-hand or fourth-hand or fifth-hand. A lot of books are written that I, knowing the subject as thoroughly as I do, have major problems with in terms of editorial weaknesses. But other people are reading those not knowing what the weaknesses are and taking it all in. I can’t challenge what everybody’s ever written, I just kind of have to draw the line under all that and just think, “Right, I’m going to start from the beginning and I’m going to see what this story tells me.” I don’t want to come to this book with any preconceived ideas. What it tells me, not surprisingly when you stop and think about it, is that the story is very different from the one we know. How do we know the one we know? We know it from a patchwork of sources over many years with some good stuff and some bad stuff woven together until you can no longer work out what’s what. And I decided I’ll just tell the story again and disregard everything else. And it turned out to be quite different. Which is hardly surprising, as no one else has ever done this before.
In order to talk to witnesses etc, is this the most difficult volume, because for later books they are a much more public band and also a lot more of the people they were in contact with were public figures? For me, in this book, your interviewing of Pat Moran, their first fan, was one of the most impressive things. Did you have to track her and those like her down or are they out there quite publically in forums and so forth, these figures?
No, they’re not. That’s another point that’s actually crucial to make. If you look at all the books on the Beatles we’ve ever had, you tend to see the same people quoted over and over and over again. And my point is if someone’s being asked the question for the 500th time you’re going to get one of two things. Either, one, they tell the same story that every other book has had, so the author can’t possibly have anything new that the other authors didn’t get. Or the second possibility is because they’ve told it 499 times they make something up just to spice it up for themselves or whatever and it becomes a little bit distorted from what the true story is. My take was are they the only people out there who can be interviewed? Surely, there must be other people out there who can be interviewed. These same people are interviewed over and over and over again because when a writer decides to write about the Beatles and he comes to England and he comes to Liverpool and he goes into the Beatles shop and says, “I’m writing a book, who can I speak to?”, there are only five or six people who get pointed to every time. But if you are prepared to really do the research, if you’re absolutely determined to go and hunt fresh stuff, then there are a whole load of other people out there who have never been interviewed at all and whose stories are actually stronger, better and more central to the storyline than the people whose stuff you’ve read forever. So I love the challenge of finding these people and had some wonderful discoveries. No doubt there are more people I didn’t get to. I mean, as I said, you can never think you’ve seen everything or heard everything. But I certainly got some great people who told me some great stuff. And Pat Moran, who was the Beatles’ first fan: millions upon millions of fans of the Beatles – there had to be a first and I found her and she was fantastic and told great stories. And also very sadly died this year.
Was there a holy grail of somebody or something you hoped to and maybe did get to?
I think I probably did get to it. My holy grail was as many early Brian Epstein Beatles management documents as I could possibly find. And I found a lot. I don’t know I found them all. I don’t know how many out there I haven’t seen, because one just doesn’t know what’s out there. But I have seen a lot now and that was totally great. It was a wonderful moment for me as a researcher and writer looking through stuff and seeing gold on every page. Thinking, “I can’t wait to write about this.”
You credit Yoko Ono in the acknowledgements as opening an important research door for you. What was that?
I’m going to be slightly coy in my response, but there’s a particular archive of John Lennon-related documents I discovered the existence of and when I asked to see it I was told, “We need Yoko’s permission before we can show you.” I got in touch and she very kindly paved the way for me to see this archive.
Also you credit Paul McCartney with answering some extra email questions. In terms of him and Ringo Starr, are they for the next two volumes people you will need to talk to?
I will never close the opportunity to ask some questions only that kind of one-on-one can get [answers to], so yes, I would love to speak to them, but I think I’ve proven with this first book that they’re in it all the way through anyway. One of the things I decided from the start was I shouldn’t only use what people are telling me. As a proper work of history, I should be able to quote from anything at all and as long as I’m really clear in my attributions saying where every single thing comes from it’s all legitimate. And actually I’m using amazing interview quotes with all of them that have been used either never or once before in some little magazine or newspaper you wouldn’t remember. It just was done, got printed, got put in the library, and no one’s ever gone back to find them. These quotes were when the story was much more recent in their minds and in their lives than they are now.
Paul McCartney – unfortunate attributes always seem to adhere to him in people’s minds. Smoking the pipe, the intellectual pretensions, and for me the most devastating phrase about him, Stuart Sutcliffe’s girlfriend, Astrid Kirchherr, describing him as “on his own really. Paul was so ‘nice’ you couldn’t get close. He was like a diplomat …” Equally, there’s a hint here the older McCartney understands this about himself and some of the ways he behaved when he was younger. Is he someone who grows as a person through these next two books?
One of the things about this book that is a strength is it’s not me saying anything, it’s them or other people. I shape the text, I plot where it goes, I weave it, but the quotes are theirs. And so when I’ve got Paul McCartney behaving in a way some readers might think, “Whatever, oh dear”, it’s actually him saying it. So you end up thinking that to his own credit he said that. It’s not me saying it. And that goes for all of them as well, not just Paul. Actually, one of the strengths for me of this first book is how incredibly strong the Ringo story is. And what a misunderstood person he is and has been. I think he has been quite malignly misunderstood by people. I think he’s become a bit of a whipping boy and was even at the time but it’s become more so.
In what sense a whipping boy?
You know, people always go, “I love John, oh I love George and I love Paul, oh and then there was Ringo as well.” Or “Ringo wasn’t even the best drummer in the Beatles.” You hear that line. What you often hear is “As John Lennon famously said, Ringo wasn’t even the best drummer in the Beatles.” My question to that is when did John Lennon say this exactly? Not only is he being quoted saying it but he’s being quoted “famously” saying it. And actually, when you really look at it, he never said it.
He is a Beatles fan in Amsterdam. A highly literate man, a great reader of books and also a great musicologist, as into classical music as he is the Beatles. Probably more so even, if that’s possible. I met him through a mutual friend. He has a great library of books in his apartment, one of which is a three-volume biography of Mahler. And he said to me, “The Beatles should have a book like this and you’re the man to do it.” And after a little while I realised I could do it and decided to go for it. [Laughs.] So he’s responsible for all of this.
The deadline for this book came and went at least once. Do you have at least a deadline in your head for volume two?
My deadline is to write it as soon as possible but to keep my standards as high as they have been. In other words, not to cut any corners. So often those two things are mutually incompatible. It will take as long as it will take. But obviously it’s in all our interests I don’t spend forever on it.
On the basis of this one, the next time we’ll be talking on the subject will be 2023.
I would hope volumes two and three take less time. Because they cover a more finite period. The span of editorial content is much more defined. Four years at a time, or something like that. I haven’t really decided where the books will break. This book obviously covers more than a century. I’m optimistic it won’t take so long.
Are you giving yourself a sorbet course between books? A detox period?
No. In fact, I need to be ploughing ahead with volume two now, but obviously there’s now a period of publicity to promote volume one. But that will have to have a closed period. I will have to draw the curtain on this in a few months’ time and get back to the proper work.
THE BEATLES: ALL THESE YEARS – VOLUME ONE: TUNE IN, by Mark Lewisohn (Little, Brown, $75).