Front Page > Beatles News
Catching Up With Mark Lewisohn
by Brad Howard, Publisher/Editor The World Beatles Forum
thanks to The World Beatles Forum and Beatlology Magazine
In the world of the Beatles, author Mark Lewisohn is renowned for his meticulous research and integrity. His word is his bond. Perhaps, Mark became the envy of Beatles fans the world over when, in 1987, he was commissioned by EMI to listen to all of the Beatles original session tapes and catalogue his findings in the heralded book, The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions. Mark has been engaged as a consultant on scores of official projects by EMI, MPL and Apple for almost 25 years.
Now, Mark is embarking on his most ambitious project, a mammoth three volume biography of the Beatles that will conclude in 2016.
Mark graciously took the time to answer a few questions. Our interview, via e-mail, took place Thursday, January 27, 2005.
Brad Howard (BH): Congratulations on your multiple book deal. Could you tell our readers what they can expect in these new books?
Mark Lewisohn (ML): I'm writing a biography of the Beatles which, if I get it right and achieve my aims - and I've set the bar high - could become, well, a lasting work. It's a change of direction for me in that my previous Beatles books were 'reference' in nature, whereas this will be a pure biography in structure and appearance.
I'm going to relate the Beatles history comprehensively and accurately and richly and with, I hope, a broad level of understanding. It merits three volumes to do it full justice. I'd been planning to write a single biography of the year 1963 anyway, with perhaps other periods to follow, and then I decided to bite off the lot. This is virgin territory, though - there's never been such an extensive biography of a pop/rock band or artist, but the Beatles always were about doing things first, and in fact they still are: look how many artists have copied the Anthology TV series, albums and book.
So here I am with a three-volume commission to write an inclusive, contextual and authoritative biographical history of the band that changed the world. And history is exactly what it is now - it's half a century since John Lennon started it all off, and there are many ways now in which the 1950s seem positively prehistoric, let alone the period before that.
I'll be producing a series of books the publishers firmly believe could outlive us all - me included - and it's going to monopolise my own life for the next twelve years while I research and write them. I had to think long and hard before taking the leap - do I really want to be living and sleeping this for the next dozen years? But I've assured them I'll deliver a biggie and now I have to meet that promise. So far, one year into the job, I'm still enjoying every minute of it. The first of three large volumes will be out in 2008, and this will take the reader up to the end of 1963. The second volume will pick up from there and be out in 2012, the third in 2016.
BH: Has there been any reaction from the surviving Beatles, Olivia Harrison, Yoko Ono, or Apple?
ML: I need to be guarded in my answer here because this is a very long project that's still in its earliest days. Beneficial situations can turn around, and vice-versa, and I won't jeopardise anything. I must stress, though, that this is not an official series. Apple has not officially endorsed an outside project for as long as I can remember, and they haven't asked to come on board. These books must be seen to be neutral. I have no agenda, I just want to research and relate the Beatles' history, and the history of everything that was going on around them - they didn't exist in a vacuum - and to use my skills as a writer to ensure it rises from every page. It's a story so fantastic that no embroidery or deception is required, and nor would I give it any. It'll be told straight, with no 'side' whatever.
I'd like to think they'll all know I'm worthy of the task - they've been employing my knowledge for long enough - and better perhaps that someone with proven passion is doing it rather than somebody unknown to them or whose work is shoddy, which really would give them something to worry about. A friend recently pointed out to me that by the time the trilogy is completed, in 2016, I'll have been researching the Beatles, professionally, for almost 40 years. That should convince anyone where my heart has always been. And these books could be very useful to the Beatles, commercially, because it is anticipated that they may open up a whole new future audience, reaching people who've never bought a Beatles record . . . at least not yet.
I'm very mindful of the responsibility: how the Beatles story goes down in these books could shape how they're remembered far into the future, when everyone involved has gone. Getting it right - or as accurate as any human can ever make something - is absolutely paramount, for all parties.
BH: In the July 1999 issue of The World Beatles Forum, you stated, "The fact that we've had Beatles CDs in our collections now for 12 years and we still don't have Hollywood Bowl is probably no oversight." Given the fact that Beatles fans never thought that they would see the Beatles "capitolize" on the American configurations and mixes, do you think that there is a better chance today that we will see the Hollywood Bowl album released on CD in the near future?
ML: It would be foolish to say that it will never happen because a) while I've a long relationship with Apple and EMI they certainly don't phone to tell me all their future plans, not unless they want me to be involved in them, and b) anything is possible. I would simply reiterate my point, adding now six years to the total, that it's not likely to be an oversight that an album issued on vinyl and tape 28 years ago, in 1977, has not yet been issued on a shiny silver disc. As to whether that situation will ever change, your guess is as good as mine.
BH: With the innovation of vastly improved sound reproduction over the past few years, and the success of the new Capitol box set, is it possible that EMI and Apple will attempt a British box set of the first four albums in stereo (and maybe the others in mono)?
ML: Again, I really don't know, and I couldn't comment on their business even if I did. All the same, it's clear that for many years now there has been a general clamour for a substantial revisiting of the original Beatles CD catalogue. The quality of the key 13 Beatles albums in the racks at the moment is well below that of any other major act, in terms of artwork and sonic quality, and this is a pity because it is not enhancing their reputation and it's losing them substantial income. Everyone would benefit from a significant reissue programme, Beatles and buyers alike.
BH: When you originally listened to the John Lennon archives for what was to eventually become the John Lennon Anthology CD set, were there plans to write and publish a book based upon what you heard, similar to your EMI book?
ML: There was no such intention. I was certainly planning to write something extensive along those lines in the CD book but of course, after I'd been framed for a misdemeanour not of my making, I departed the project. As for whether such a book will ever be written, that's for Yoko to decide. I do think the story of John's recording sessions, done like the Beatles recording sessions book, could only emphasise what a tremendous artist he was. But it would be for someone else to write: I'm busy for the next twelve years!
BH: Lately, there has been a rash of so-called new Beatles discoveries (in most cases, rediscoveries). There was the suitcase of recordings in Australia, the elderly man from Suffolk with a supposed 18-song rehearsal tape, and most recently, there is a collector who asserts that he has a claim to a previously unheard Lennon-McCartney composition, Mississippi River Born, that he sold to either Yoko Ono or EMI. Other than some of the "Get Back" tapes that were confiscated a few years ago, have there been any new legitimate Beatles audio or video discoveries since the release of the Anthology CDs?
ML: You say 'lately' but it's my impression that so-called 'new discoveries' have been happening fairly regularly since the 1970s - and while one is always excited at the prospect of a genuinely important new find they usually turn out to be disappointing. The so- called suitcase from Australia seemed to me to be a hoax from the start and I tried telling this to the journalist from The Times [London] who was bothering me on and off for a day trying to make his breaking story into something special. He wasn't going to let the truth get in the way of a good headline - and that was The Times, of all papers. What an indictment of the world we live in. However, I'm delighted - as I'm sure all fans and students are - that audio and visual items assumed lost do continue to turn up from time to time, and I would add photos and documents to that category. For me, a fascinating, previously unseen photograph or letter or historical document turning up is always exciting.
BH: You have written several books about the Beatles and your 1988 landmark volume, The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions, is still in high demand, today. Is there any plan for EMI to publish a slightly revised version (with the Anthology additions) of this popular book? It would certainly be a top seller.
ML: I think that is unlikely to happen, for the simple reason that EMI can no longer produce Beatles-related projects without asking Apple's approval, and this was an EMI-authorised book, not an Apple- authorised book. Had it been so then I expect Apple would have taken exception to some of the things I wrote, or people said, possibly with sound reason. I'm actually much more interested in republishing The Complete Beatles Chronicle, improving its format and embracing all the new information that has come to light since it was first published in 1992. Again though, now that I'm fully engaged on the biographical trilogy, that will have to wait, even if the publishers were to break with tradition and ask me.
Incidentally, I'm not even sure if EMI are aware that Hamlyn recently licensed the reprint of Recording Sessions that brought it back into the stores for the first time in more than a dozen years. I certainly didn't know it had been done until people said they'd seen it on sale. And I hate the cover. Hamlyn's corporate nonsense has been dogging me for years, and they never bother to invite the involvement of the person who created the work.
BH: Here is a question from Markus in UK. Although you have listened to all of the Beatles' original session tapes, John C. Winn, the author of two books, Way Beyond Compare: The Beatles' Recorded Legacy, 1957-1965 and That Magic Feeling: The Beatles' Recorded Legacy, 1966-1970, has questioned some of your findings concerning takes and variations of some of The Beatles recordings. Can you comment on these criticisms?
ML: Without getting into specifics here I'd like to say that it's been well established for many years that there are errors in the Recording Sessions book. None of them intentional of course but simply errors of fact or interpretation. I'm not surprised: it had a very rigid design already in place before they found a writer and I wanted much more time to do the job properly than I was given. It was done in a terrible rush to meet an unnecessary deadline, and corners were cut. I'm proud of it of course, but it could have been done so much better and more precisely. What's so pleasing is that the book helped pave the way for the numerous more studied, very well- informed analyses of Beatles recordings that have followed in the last 15 years, such as those Markus mentions, John C Winn's books, both of which I think are superb. There are several Beatles reference authors who deserve full respect.
BH: You wrote the brief liner notes for The Capitol Albums Vol. 1. How did you become involved in this project?
ML: The project was already underway when Apple called me in. It's always handy then to be in a position to have creative input. I pushed for both the mono and stereo mixes to be issued together, and was thankful when that was finally agreed. Those Capitol albums were very short, 25-27 minutes apiece, and all the parties - Capitol, EMI, Apple, especially the Beatles themselves - would have been sharply criticised for short-changing the public if they'd issued under two hours of music across four discs. The Beatles were never about that, they were a giving group. My most obvious contribution, though, was the essay. I wouldn't call it a 'liner note' because it clearly doesn't fulfil that function. I just wrote a short introduction, at Neil Aspinall's request, to explain what the box was about, making it clear why these albums were different from the CDs available since 1987. It's what Derek Taylor would have done if he was still with us . . . and how we all wish he was. I'd be showing him all the things I'm finding out for the biographies and he'd be loving it.
BH: Did you get to hear the albums before they were released on CD?
ML: No, they didn't ask me and I didn't need to. Along with several other people I simply urged for the CDs to be produced from the original Capitol LP masters, whatever one's opinion of them, rather than the current 'best' mixes of the required songs. To be authentic, to be true to the original sounds, was surely what the project was all about.
BH: Will you be part of Vol. 2?
ML: I'd be happy to be. However, I also understand that the collector buyers, who must constitute a higher than usual proportion of the sales here, might wish for the booklet to take a different approach. Whether Apple would be comfortable with that I really don't know.
BH: Do you know what albums will be next?
ML: I don't know.
BH: Apple and the Beatles are slowly restoring and releasing various albums and videos. The Beatles gave us the wondrous Yellow Submarine songtrack album and its breathtaking film. They released the Let It Be...Naked album a couple of years ago, but the film is still not available. Can you comment on its delay? Has it been delayed?
ML: The word 'delay' suggests that Apple announced a release date and then postponed it, which I don't believe is the case. All I know, and it's really no secret, is that they are continuing to do important work on the project. When it's ready, it'll come out. Hurrying could mean compromise so I'm certainly not for hurrying them.
BH: When Let It Be is finally released to the public, will it still be the same as its original theatrical release or will certain scenes be edited out?
ML: I don't know.
BH: Other than the projects mentioned previously, are EMI or Apple planning further Beatles projects?
ML: Apart from Cirque du Soleil, you mean? Not that I'm aware of but, as I've said, there's no reason why they should keep me abreast of their plans.
BH: You've written non-Beatles related books. Are there others in the works?
ML: No - I've cleared my desk of all other work until 2016 in order to concentrate fully on the three Beatles biographies. I've enjoyed focusing on other subjects for the past ten years and broadening my writing experience but now it's time to return full-time to Beatles research, with no distractions. I'm 46, I'll be close to 60 when it's all over, if I don't start now I won't get it done.
A very special thanks to Mark Lewisohn for his time and for keying in all his responses. Questions researched by Brad Howard with appreciated assistance from Andrew Croft (Beatlology magazine) and Lloyd Monaghan (TWBF).
In piecing together the complete history of the Beatles and their times, Mark Lewisohn would be pleased if any fellow collectors are prepared to share information or material which is not generally known about. He doesn't want records or CDs but principally letters, documents and images, anything that sheds light, no matter how small or insignificant it might seem. All contributions will be acknowledged in the appropriate volume(s) of the series. Please e-mail via: firstname.lastname@example.org
Published April 4, 2005