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Book review: All These Years: The Beatles Volume One: Tune In, By Mark Lewisohn

Do the Fab Four merit this epic scholarly biography? Yeah yeah yeah, says Liz Thomson

The Beatles were big in our house. My sister, a baby boomer with a pay packet from Harrods, was in the audience on 13 October 1963 when they played Sunday Night at the London Palladium. Just six, I was allowed to stay up – as I was three weeks later, when they starred in the Royal Variety Performance.

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My mother was from Liverpool and it was at the Rialto dance hall that she met my father, a Londoner who sailed the Atlantic Convoys and first dropped anchor in the Mersey amid the 1941 May Blitz. They lived in London but Liverpool never lost its lure, and they were delighted when the Beatles put it on the map. Almost literally: a cousin teaching in Essex recalls being an object of curiosity until the coming of Beatlemania.

John, Paul, George and Ringo were "nice boys" and, from the moment of Lennon's "rattle your jewellery" injunction to the royal box and his naughty-boy face as he said it, Britons were charmed. Together with Mary Quant, they turned the Sixties Technicolor. "England was an aristocracy gone to seed, exhausted by war and responsibility, and very nearly tired of life," wrote Jan Morris in 1966. "It was the Angry Young Men of the Fifties who shocked the old body into self-awareness: the Beatles and their friends… put her into mini-skirts."

1963: the Second World War had ended less than 20 years previously – though everywhere evidence remained of those six hard years, particularly in Liverpool, as Mark Lewisohn points out in The Beatles: Tune In, a book that recounts the city's social history in pointillist detail. It's half a century since the sight of Paul and George, close at the mic, shaking their shiny moptops on the falsetto "ooooooooooooh" of "She loves you", caused worldwide hysteria.

Within 10 years, the quartet had gone their separate ways, leaving a catalogue of songs easily the equal of Schubert or of the great American songbook on albums that fall into periods as distinct as Picasso's or Stravinsky's. William Mann, Wilfrid Mellers, Deryck Cooke and Joshua Rifkin, derided for early claims they made for Lennon and McCartney as songwriters and the Beatles as musicians, have been proved right. These "four lads who shook the world" (as a mural in Liverpool's Mathew Street has it) are as important to the history of music as Beethoven.

Which brings us to Lewisohn's biographical trilogy, signed in 2004 for a reported £1.2m, with this first volume originally scheduled for 2008 to mark Liverpool's year as European Capital of Culture. No doubt many "purists" feel it is so much portentous nonsense, that too much has already been claimed for a mere pop group. Others would sympathise with Natalie Haynes, who once declared on Newsnight Review that the endless harping on about the Beatles was intolerably boring. Mann, Mellers et al were seeking to appropriate the Beatles' output for a Great Tradition and if their arguments are now uncontroversial (the Beatles were long ago accorded a place in The New Grove Dictionary of Music & Musicians, with their music the subject of scrutiny at distinguished universities) why should a biographer not treat them as Alexander Wheelock Thayer did Beethoven or as Michael Holroyd did Bernard Shaw?

Lewisohn, who was born in London in 1958 and whose life has been dedicated to chronicling the Beatles, has done an astonishing job, mapping "mountains of unfound knowledge – vibrant colour, vital details". Sure, he draws on all the usual sources (Merseybeat; the innumerable lives, authorised and otherwise; the acres of newsprint; the miles of audio tape).

But the backbone of his monumental work is primary material, including letters, photos and other documents (some of which he would have turned up during his work for EMI/Apple and for the Beatles themselves on Anthology) and, crucially, interviews with family, friends, and the hitherto untapped individuals with whom John, Paul and George crossed both paths and swords. (Ringo was a late entrant to their world, brought in to replace Pete Best as the band stood on the threshold of national stardom.) There are 72 pages of scrupulous notes and credits, as well as footnotes.

Lewisohn spent six months living in Liverpool, and you can tell. Not just in the way he traces Beatle forebears but in the way he puts those forebears in their socio-historical context; in his understanding of the city's psychogeography: what it meant to grow up in rough-tough Dingle, as Ringo did, or in south-suburban Woolton, as John did, or to experience life like Paul and George, on the council estates created by Liverpool Corporation after the war as it moved people out of the city, leaving its bomb-damaged historic heart to rot until the 1980s renewal. The would-be Beatles criss-crossed its gap-toothed streets, guitars on their backs, in search of new musical experiences. Paul and George once crossed town to meet a stranger who they'd heard knew how to form a B7 chord. Today, you'd Google it.

We know the story in outline. Motherless John and Paul. Sickly Ringo who teetered on the brink of death, missing too much school ever to catch up. George, a 14-year-old with attitude, bent over his guitar. The parents (and John's Aunt Mimi) with aspirations for boys who refused to play along. Skiffle the way in. Elvis, Buddy Holly and Little Richard the way forward. The Cavern. The Reeperbahn. Stuart Sutcliffe, the artist who died young - but not before he and girlfriend Astrid Kirchherr had created the Beatles' look.

It's an extraordinary story of four determined and authentic young men whose natural gifts, coupled with innate charm and wit, won our hearts and minds. Their success owed nothing to any starmaker or Svengali, merely to the vision and belief of the heir to a family retail business, Brian Epstein. The music they created was a new phenomenon, a genuine and vital eruption from below. These days it is imposed, Cowell-like, from above – marketplace capitalism in its purist form.

What Lewisohn brings is background and foreground – context, which gives point to the trainspotter detail. He's not a great stylist but he has written a game-changing study which raises the bar in a genre characterised by pap or pretension. It is a meticulous piece of work which takes Epstein's "boys" to the brink of stardom, 31 December 1962. I can't wait for volume two.

Liz Thomson is, with David Gutman, co-editor of 'The Lennon Companion' (Da Capo)