Mark Lewisohn’s Hornsey Road reviewed

Mark Lewisohn has made his name as a Beatles expert. A Fab Four scholar who was once trusted by Apple/EMI to listen to all the audio tapes a few decades ago and produce authoritative tomes such as The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions and The Complete Beatles Chronicle. He was ‘inner circle’ and also worked on projects like Paul McCartney‘s Wingspan book.

In recent times Lewisohn has found himself outside the circle, when it comes to Apple and The Beatles. For example, there are nine sections to the book in the Sgt. Pepper super deluxe (not including the lyrics at the end) and none of them are written by Lewisohn, which would have been unthinkable if such a project had been conceived in the late 1980s or early 1990s. Kevin Howlett (also a great writer and Fabs researcher) is now the preferred choice when it comes to Beatles audio history, and indeed, he has also contributed significantly to both The White Album and Abbey Road reissues, at Apple/Universal Music’s request.

One imagines it must rankle a little bit, but Lewisohn has not abandoned writing about those four lads from Liverpool. Far from it. In 2005, he started a three-volume biography of the band which, by his own estimation, will take around 23 years to complete! Volume one of The Beatles: All These Years was called ‘Tune In’ and was published in 2013. There is no official release date for volume two at the time of writing.

If you are going to lock yourself away for  nearly a quarter of a century to write what amounts to a VERY BIG BOOK you probably need some money coming in (for cups of coffee and Kit Kats etc.) and this, it seems, is part of the motivation for the rock star approach of hitting the road to offer audiences some detailed insight into the making of the last recorded album by The Beatles: Abbey Road.

Lewisohn has called the show ‘Hornsey Road’, which is a pithy reference to the fact that EMI nearly bought a studio in Hornsey Road in London to record all their pop/rock output with a view to keeping their studios in Abbey Road (at that time called EMI Studios) for classical/jazz output only. That never happened but it’s one of many fascinating ‘could have beens’ explored in the show that runs for around two hours (with a 20 minute interval in the middle).

This is a one man show with minimal stage design (the zebra crossing is recreated with a small table and chair, stage left) dominated by a big screen. Lewisohn is our guide for the evening and he talks to the audience while introducing photographs, film clips and, crucially, lots and lots of Abbey Road audio.

Mark Lewisohn does not possess a natural stage presence, it has to be said. In London, he was wearing a shiny orange waistcoat and bright white trainers – dressed like your Geography teacher at the school disco – and there were moments of awkwardness, such as at the finale, after quite an emotional piece of footage is shown, when Lewisohn stepped forward with a semi-apologetic “that’s it…” just to confirm to the audience that it really was all over.

But what he lacks in stage craft, he more than makes up for with sheer knowledge. Lewisohn takes you through each song on Abbey Road in detail, in the order they were recorded and even for a Beatles buff like myself, imparts some great and often very funny detail. For example, we see images of the route John Lennon took when he took Yoko on an ill-fated tour of Britain. We are shown the Mini he started the trip in and the Austin Maxi (oh the glamour) that he switched to when the Mini was deemed too small. We then see a photo of the smashed Maxi after Lennon crashed the car!

Lewisohn remixed ‘Rock Band’ isolated tracks to create an interesting listening experience

For the audio, I was curious what Lewisohn would – or could – do. He has been reasonably inventive, because for each song he has created his own remixes – via the Playstation Rock Band isolated tracks – designed to highlight the contributions of all four Beatles. So generally, a track would start with everyone playing and then suddenly we’ll hear only vocals, or perhaps Paul’s melodic bass highlighted, or a George guitar line etc. It was an approach that kept things interesting.

Accompanying the music was always a visual; sometimes video, but more often a photo montage. The photos were stunning – many polaroid-type shots of the band in the studio and loads of Linda McCartney’s photos. I wondered more than a few times what permissions were sought (or required) to just use all the music and images, willy-nilly.

Entertaining highlights included some detailed research on who exactly ‘Mean Mr Mustard’ was (with even a copy of his last will and testament) and some suggestions as to who might have stolen the leg from Yoko’s bed (ordered from Harrods and placed in the studio, to allow her to recuperate from the car crash).

Lewisohn was clearly well rehearsed. If he was reading from a crib sheet it wasn’t apparent and he exuded the confidence of someone who knows he’s an expert in his field. Perhaps the show may have benefitted from a few guests on stage, to offer a different angle on a subject or just a fresh tone of voice, but these are minor points.

Part of the pre-publicity for this tour had centred around Lewisohn’s acquisition of a tape, recorded by John Lennon, of him, Paul and George discussing post-Abbey Road plans. This tape exists because Ringo was in hospital and John wanted him to be aware of what was discussed in his absence. The Guardian ran a big piece on it, with Lewisohn claiming the audio “rewrites everything we knew about The Beatles” because the tape makes clear that they didn’t necessarily think that Abbey Road was ‘the end’. All very intriguing, but sadly Lewisohn would not play the whole tape, as planned, because if he did, he said “someone told me bad things might happen to me.” It seems that 50 years on, Beatles politics and vanity (Paul, by all accounts, doesn’t come across in the most positive light) are still alive and well!

Despite this disappointment, Hornsey Road was highly entertaining and wonderfully informative. Not to be missed if you have the chance. It continues tonight in Liverpool. Check the tour dates here.

38 responses to Mark Lewisohn’s Hornsey Road reviewed

  1. John Mason says:

    How does his examination of AR recordings compare to that in ‘Solid State,’ both in terms of depth and quality of writing?

  2. John Muir says:

    For those asking why Mark is no longer part of the inner circle, Mark himself knew it would happen and chose to go that route. The alternative was to write an ‘authorized’ biography, which would have entailed getting consents from everybody involved and leaving out what they would not agree to include. Hunter Davies did that and regretted it. Mark wanted to remain unbiased and objective and realized he could not do that and still be considered an insider by the survivors. It made ‘Tune In’ a better book and I admire him for it.

  3. Vaughan Riley says:

    Saw the show at the lowther theatre Lytham st. Anne’s , brilliant absolutely fascinating. What was the name of the building EMI bought on Hornsey rd ?

  4. Billy grimley says:

    I saw the show last Ssturday at the Olympia Theatre in Dublin. Great show. Very enjoyable…
    Recommend it for any Beatle fan.


    A really entertaining and informative show. The Dublin night was interrupted by a couple of technical glitches, but Mark handled it well and got things back on track quickly. No Q&A, but Mark was happy to meet and greet after the show. There were no books or other merchandise for sale on the night, but Mark was happy to sign books or other items that the audience brought along.

    Mark did a lengthy interview after the show with Dublin based podcast Nothing Is Real, which will be released on Wednesday 9th October.

  6. Paul Murphy says:

    Mark is – one feels like one is defacing the Mona Lisa by saying it – somewhat incorrect in stating that the tape “rewrites everything we knew about The Beatles” because John, Paul and George were discussing a new album and single. The tape was recorded on 08 September 1969; John decided he “wanted a divorce” on the Toronto Rock and Roll Revival festival flight the following week. Irrespective of whether he, Paul and George had discussed future albums, films or whatever [small unannounced club tours], John would still have altered his mind and made his decision to bring the band to an end.

  7. Paul D says:

    I’m off to see in Southampton too. I’ve heard his initial previews were running at over four hours, so sounds like he has continued to finesse the overall show

  8. Phil Cohen says:

    I wonder what Lewisohn did that angered Paul, Ringo, Olivia & Yoko.

  9. RikTheHib says:

    I hope Mark L. will film some of the shows for a future BluRay/DVD release for all the people who wanted to be there but couldn’t be – like myself – being in Oz makes it slightly expensive to get the the show.

    There are pointers as to why he (Mark L) may be on the outer part of the circle if you recall the days/weeks after the release of his 1st tome (Volume 1 was published in October 2013). A certain song from Paul McC springs to mind:

    From “Early Days: on the “New” album (Also released October 2013):

    Now everybody seems to have their own opinion
    Who did this and who did that
    But as for me I don’t see how they can remember
    When they weren’t where it was at

    I think Paul McC got a bit riled by the well researched material presented in the book which he would have known about for quite a while.

    Well, that’s what I reckon anyway.

    • Paul Sinclair says:

      There will never be a DVD of the show, because he would be releasing ‘homemade’ remixes of Beatles tracks and need permission to use all the photos and videos.

      • Rick says:

        I think he could maybe get away with it by saying the audio excepts are for ‘educational purposes’ similar to the disclaimer on the ‘Deconstructing The Beatles’ series. That series uses tons of bootleg takes, again, for educational purposes. I could be, and probably am, wrong, but thought I would comment.

    • James Percival says:

      Hi Rik
      In the podcasts I mentioned in an earlier post, Mark mentions George’s hostility to the project based on the assumption only insiders can tell the story (that rules out most of history, then?). I noticed that lyric from Paul too, and felt the same as you. But Mark has mentioned that he accepts that his search for honesty and openness, based on sound evidence, will lead to a breakdown in relationships. For example, he has specifically mentioned that exposing the true story behind the signing and first recording session with the Beatles, which involved George Martin’s affair with his secretary (and later second wife), resulted in a loss of friendship in George’s last few years of life. I think he thinks that this is the chance to get it right, because it would be difficult for a later researcher to build up the contacts and knowledge base that Mark has accrued over 50 years, and that there will be some casualties.
      He has also mentioned that many of the central witnesses are not necessarily reliable sources and he prefers to follow the paper trail. That’s what historians do and he is right to state it.

  10. Blakey says:

    Sounds like a great show. Interesting bit about the 1969 tape too. Maybe Mark fell foul of Macca, just like Geoff Baker and Tony Bramwell did. And I bet I know why Macca doesn’t want the tape heard: he doesn’t want to shatter his recent ‘John broke up the Beatles’ ‘exclusive’ to Howard Stern and he also doesn’t want people to hear him dumbing down George Harrison for the umpteenth time.

  11. Eric says:

    I’m curious as to why he’s no longer part of the inner circle after having been at the center for a long time.

    • James Percival says:

      There are a couple of long and really interesting podcasts where Mark has been interviewed by American and Australian Beatles experts (Mark seems very generous with his time for radio interviews). Apologies for not having the links to hand, but one is Fabcast I think the other was Let it be Beatles (LIBB). Anyway, in one interview Mark mentions losing inner circle status. It seems it was concerned with an interview he did about the then unreleased archives, specifically playing some of the tapes, and further accusations that he released things to bootleggers (which he strongly denies). It was George who turned against him, and George knew how to hold a grudge, while Paul did fight for his continued inclusion. Based on the Beatles minority veto approach, for example Let it be film, he was out. At it would seem Olivia continues to follow George’s wishes.

  12. bruce kelso says:

    will there be any u.s. dates ?

  13. Ian Harris says:

    I thought I spotted you Paul on the way out – I should have come and said hello.

    I really enjoyed the evening, although it was perhaps a wee bit overlong- I was very grateful for the interval. I consider myself quite a well informed Beatles fan and I certainly learnt new things from it.

    I was amused by the suggestion that John wanted any of his and Paul’s future Beatles songs credited to just Lennon or McCartney had they carried on, because he didn’t want to share the blame for bringing Maxwell’s Silver Hammer into the world.

  14. Iain B says:

    I’m going to this on 6th November and looking forward to it. Was there a Q&A session at any point?

    • Paul Sinclair says:

      No. And I’m surprised that wasn’t part of it.

      • Paul Murphy says:

        Well, 300 people all asking “When is book 2 coming out?” might not have been something he was looking forward too!
        With regard to the why-is-Mark-swimming-in-the-sour-milk-sea debate, apart from the distancing he received from George Martin, I remember Mark saying that Julia Baird had also closed her door on him due to the revelations about her father, John ‘Bobby’ Albert Dykins. Having read Volume 1 several times, I personally find ML to be a very sensitive writer about personal events – as Mark said about the George Martin affair, “hey, if The Beatles came about through love [George and Judy], that’s pretty good”], but that is from the outside, not as one of the personally involved. It is probably safe to also speculate that Paul will never forgive the inclusion of the “everybody hates Paul … I just feel sorry from him” quote from one of Stuart Sutcliffe’s letters.

        Oh, and in case you’re reading this Mark – when is Volume 2 coming out?

  15. Graham Turner says:

    Thanks for the review Paul.

    I saw the early show on Sunday and thought it was a fascinating and informative trip through the recording of Abbey Road and the end of The Beatles. I actually found it quite emotional towards the end.

    As mentioned elsewhere it’s a 2 hour+ show and the way Mark presents the audio and visuals kept my interest throughout the entire length. I loved that he included the more esoteric facts along with the details of the sessions themselves. I would happily make the trip if he chose to visit other periods in a similar manner.

    For anyone with more than a passing interest in The Beatles I would highly recommend the show if you can get to it.

  16. Gary C says:

    Excellent review Paul
    And also I spotted one The Office quote and a Partridgism too….so 8/10 for that

  17. Josip says:

    So, was anything at all played from that tape from the meeting?

  18. Dave Moore says:

    Gutted to miss out due to sickness!
    All the best Paul.

  19. Eamonn says:

    Not exactly relevant but I live just down the road from Hornsey and our bus route has been diverted this week. Could have sworn I saw Bob Stanley on the bus yesterday.

  20. Martyn Alner says:

    I’m going to this in Southampton soon, so hoping it will be good.

  21. What? Lennon? Worry? says:

    whats the chances the other two volumes will be called “Turn On” (covering the Mid 60’s) and “Drop Out” (to the breakup).

    just my 2 shillings worth

  22. gogandmagog says:

    The Beatles: All These Years is a must
    Interesting, funny, moving…and as a non english, I learnt a lot about Britain culture, history, social classes, etc.

    I just wonder why Lewisohn got/kicked out of the inner circle.
    I suppose something about Paul (not Sinclair!!!)…

  23. Mark says:

    Hi Paul,
    looking forward to seeing him in Dublin on Saturday so thanks for that review. Sounds like a good one!
    How long is the show roughly?

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