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The one and only

By David Wilson

Looking back, I suppose I was becoming a bit of a bore this past winter as I ploughed through Tune In, the first volume of Mark Lewisohn’s epic three-part history of The Beatles. I could not contain my excitement over the trove of revelations in the book’s 900 pages — eyes began to roll as I relayed each new discovery to anyone who would listen.

Lewisohn is the world’s leading authority on the four young men from Liverpool whose music changed history. The book follows The Beatles as far as New Year’s Eve, 1962, as they are on the verge of conquering Britain, then the world. The depth of Lewisohn’s research is staggering. Ever wondered about the typeface used on the band’s first fan-cards? Gill Sans. Their first suits? Dark blue mohair, single-breasted, three-button with narrow lapels, purchased at an 18-percent discount. Total hours onstage during their first two stints in Hamburg in 1961 and 1962? 918, or the equivalent of 612 90-minute shows.

You get the picture. The astonishing amount of detail in the book — amplified in footnotes and duly sourced in 77 pages of endnotes — strips away the layers of myth that have come to cloak The Beatles’ narrative and lays bare the infinitely more compelling reality beneath. This telling does not diminish them; if anything, it makes their journey from rebellious teenage louts to enduring global icons all the more breathtaking.

As a journalist, I found the depth of detail exhilarating; as a person, I found it a little unsettling. Dozens of factors coalesced to transform a ragtag combo playing for pocket change in shabby clubs around Liverpool into world-changers. Remove even one tiny piece from the puzzle, and The Beatles likely never happen: if Britain doesn’t begin to phase out the National Service as the band is starting out, the members likely get conscripted; if Brian Epstein doesn’t get arrested in a London morality sting, he probably becomes an actor instead of the band’s manager; if George Harrison doesn’t make a cheeky crack about producer George Martin’s tie, The Beatles’ first recording session ends in failure instead of Martin being charmed and willing to give them another try.

Contemplating the what-ifs in The Beatles’ story got me thinking about the serendipity of life generally. So much of what they became turned on chance, just as so much of what we all become turns on little twists of fate whose significance is rarely evident at first but which ripple through our narratives to the end: the missed phone call; the left turn taken instead of the right; the “send” button hit by mistake. We may be greater than the sum of our parts, but none of us completely control what those parts are, or will be. To a degree, we are all creatures of serendipity.

Most of us are reluctant to dwell on this: it’s unnerving. So we run to the safety of the bigger picture — the choices we freely make, the things we can control. But we can’t hide forever; inevitably, something forces us to consider the minutiae that have shaped us. As unsettling as it might be, it’s also enriching — a simultaneous affirmation of our singularity and of our connection to every other thing touched by chance.

I was among the hundreds of millions of fans heartbroken when The Beatles broke up in 1970. The anguish was deepened by the sense that there would never be anything like them again. Tune In makes it clear there never could be: the serendipity that helped shape them was too uniquely theirs. There could never be another us, either, and we should live accordingly. 

Author's photo
David Wilson is the editor-publisher of The Observer.
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