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Spencer Leigh's The Beatles in Liverpool is a surprisingly insightful and fresh re-telling of a familiar story.

Book Review: The Beatles in Liverpool: The Stories, the Scene and the Path to Stardom by Spencer Leigh

At first blush, simply hearing the title The Beatles in Liverpool: The Stories, the Scene and the Path to Stardom might suggest a here-we-go-again history of the early days of the Fab Four. Without question, the biographies of John, Paul, George, and Ringo are well-trodden ground both individually and collectively.

But two things make The Beatles in Liverpool a fresh read for Beatle fans. One is the richness of the photos that present the people, places, and artifacts of Liverpool in the 1950s and early ’60s. As the subtitle implies, there’s an emphasis on “the scene.” This means author Leigh brings into sharp relief the hometown contemporaries of the Quarrymen, what youth culture was like throughout Liverpool at the time, and the legacy the Beatles left on the city. Leigh agrees with commentators who believe Liverpool was the fifth Beatle, and his book presents convincing evidence to support this claim.

Being a fellow Liverpudlian himself, Leigh has invested considerable time with his research, especially interviews with those who were there. He’s explored much of this material in his previous books he either wrote alone or co-authored including The Beatles in Hamburg: The Stories, the Scene, and How It All Began; The Cavern: The Most Famous Club in the World; Tomorrow Never Knows: The Beatles on Record; and The Walrus Was Ringo: 101 Beatles Myths Debunked.

This time, in his companion volume to the Hamburg book, Leigh offers details that are not as well-known as the oft-told biographies of the young Beatles. For example, I didn’t know Liverpool performers had five number one hits in England before the Beatles. Lita Roza was the first British female to have a number one, her 1953 version of “How Much is that Doggie in the Window?” Other now forgotten chart successes were Frankie Vaughn, Billy Fury, Michael Cox, and Lance Fortune. Craig Douglas, who had a hit with “Only 16,” would have the distinction of having the Beatles back him on stage after they recorded “Love Me Do.” While I knew Johnny Gentle had toured with the Silver Beatles, I didn’t know Lennon’s first lyrics were written in collaboration with Gentle. While uncredited, Lennon wrote the bridge for “I’ve Just Fallen for Someone” which was recorded by Adam Faith in 1961 and later by Gentle himself. Perhaps I’d read that Chas Newby was a temporary bass player for the Beatles in late 1960 and was offered a permanent position. If so, the story of that short-lived Beatle didn’t stick in my memory banks.

How important this minutia might be for the reader depends on your interest in Beatles history, especially the contexts of their formative years. Of course, there are very different potential audiences for this book. Not everyone has read all the hefty Beatle biographies that have come out over the years. For them, Leigh had to sketch memories of the group’s home lives and the formations of the proto-Beatle lineups. For such readers, learning about the time and place that served as the launching pad for the Beatles is likely to be revealing even when skimming over the more familiar stories.

For those who think they know it all, Leigh’s contribution to Beatle lore is likely to be enjoyable because of the insights from fellow Liverpudlians who’ve seen the story being told and revised and taken different directions over the years. For example, Pete Shotton (who wrote a wonderful memoir of his own) states that he’s continually being referred to as Lennon’s childhood “lieutenant” when the two never saw themselves as anything other than mates. Beatle insider Alistair Taylor refutes the idea Brian Epstein signed the group because he was in love with Lennon. The Beatles manager, Taylor says, had other priorities, like making money. Everyone knows the role of the Cavern Club in the Beatle legend, but how about the “Operation Big Beat” concerts at New Brighton’s Tower Ballroom?

Beyond the stories, again, are all the photos of then contemporary Liverpool, the faces who were part of the Beatles story, and artifacts like concert posters, fliers, and programs. Further, Leigh traces the realities of Liverpool bands who followed in the Beatles wake. At first, they were doomed to suffer by comparison. Not until the success of groups like Echo and the Bunnymen could new generations of Liverpool musicians cut their own way in rock.

In short, The Beatles in Liverpool: The Stories, the Scene and the Path to Stardom is a worthy addition to any Beatle library, no matter how many titles you already have on the shelf.

About Wesley Britton

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