The recent announcement that George Harrison’s 1970 All Things Must Pass opus would finally get its bells-and-whistles 50th (well, 51st) anniversary reissue in August included news that a disc of alternative takes of many of the album’s tracks would feature in the package. In fact, for anyone more interested in the ‘budget’ three-disc edition, that’s all the bonus material you’re going to get (the more interesting demos of material considered for the album – including several songs never properly recorded or released – will be available only on the more pricey five-disc sets). To whet our appetites, one of those outtakes – Take 36 of ‘Run of the Mill’ – has been made available online, giving us a flavour of what is to come. It’s nice to hear how the song might have sounded, but George was definitely wise to hone it further. This take is too fussy and cluttered – the guitar is over-done, it’s slightly too fast and the vocal isn’t as good. Put it next to the graceful eloquence of the finished version, and there is no comparison. Likewise, the many alternative takes included on the John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band box set released earlier in the year. For example, Take 91 (!) of ‘Mother’, with John strumming through the song on guitar. It’s interesting, but simply doesn’t stand up to the gut-wrenching piano performance which made it onto the finished master. And therin lies the rub: beyond the novelty effect, is there really much long-term value in hearing endless outtakes from the Beatles archives?
Don’t get me wrong, I know a lot of people want this kind of stuff. And in these days of deluxe, multi-disc ‘ultimate collections’ of albums, it is a fact of life. Particularly in the case of an artist like John (and, to a lesser extent, George), where there is very little in the way of ‘new’ songs left in the vault, they are going to lean heavily on demos, outtakes and remixes to help sell the same material over and over again (in the case of Plastic Ono Band, they gleaned a whopping 159 different mixes out of the original 11 tracks – quite a feat, especially considering it’s a very bare album to start with). I’m not saying we shouldn’t have them; just that, for me, they hold very little appeal. When the three Beatles Anthology albums came out in the 1990s, it was exciting to hear – for the first time, officially – different versions of the songs we knew so well. But even then, the only ones which warranted regular repeat listens were tracks which sounded substantially different to what was originally released: stuff like ‘Can’t Buy Me Love’, And Your Bird Can Sing’, ‘Got To Get You Into My Life’, ‘Tomorrow Never Knows and ‘Ob La Di, Ob La Da’. And, enjoyable though they were, none of them (for me) were as good as the versions the band eventually opted for. The Beatles’ taste and judgement hardly ever failed them.
It’s a totally subjective thing, of course; and some people may prefer a few of the alternate takes, and that’s fine. I’m not trying to rain on anyone’s parade. But I remember George Martin (and, I think, Macca) saying after the release of the Anthology albums that any future ‘new’ Beatles releases should be called ‘Scraping the Bottom of the Barrel’, and I can’t help feeling that – in some cases – that’s now where we are at. I came to that conclusion after recently listening to some of the early takes released on the Sgt Pepper 50th anniversary edition, the release which effectively kicked off all these mammoth reissue sets back in 2017. Given a fresh lick of paint in the form of a remix, plus a generous batch of outtakes (there are 65 tracks on the ‘super deluxe’ version), a book and DVD, the different formats helped propel the album back to the top (or very near to it) of charts around the world, and won mostly rave reviews from critics and fans. All worth celebrating, of course. But I wonder how many people have listened to those early takes much in the years since. They do nothing for me; in fact, at the risk of being denounced as a heretic, I find them rather dull.
My issue is this: it’s okay to listen to listen to a work in progress once (or maybe twice), but after that? Why on earth would I want to hear an inferior run-through of a song I know and love, stripped of many of the ingredients which make it so special? For example, Take 9 of the title track – the bulk of the finished version seems to be there (the vocal, to my ear, sounds very much like the ‘master’), but the lead guitar part is missing. As is Paul’s bass. And the brass section. And the audience sound effects. In other words, all of the fairy dust sprinkled on top. Ah, argue its supporters (including Giles Martin, who pulled the project together), but doesn’t it show what a great live band The Beatles really were, underneath all the overdubs? Well, I kind of knew that already. Who was I supposed to think was playing the backing track, The Monkees? It’s the same problem with, say, Take 2 of ‘When I’m 64’. Here we get a lead vocal, bass, piano and drums, and nothing else. The song didn’t really change in any way beyond this point, it was just polished and supplemented until it became much better. So why listen to this skeletal, inferior rendition?
And so it goes on. We have ‘Mr Kite’ and ‘Lovely Rita’ without all the effects and quirky overdubs. ‘Good Morning Good Morning’ sans the brass parts and Paul’s electrifying guitar solo. And then there’s Take 1 of ‘A Day in the Life’, with just John’s vocal, piano, acoustic guitar and maracas. Yes, there’s the novelty of hearing roadie Mal Evans count out the empty bars where the cacophonous orchestral bridge parts would eventually go, plus the climactic hums instead of the crashing piano chord we are so familiar with. Having read it being described in various books over the years, it was nice to finally hear that – but you can also see why they ditched the idea very quickly. It doesn’t work, simple as that, which reinforces the point I’m making. And the backing tracks of ‘With A Little Help From My Friends’, ‘She’s Leaving Home’ and ‘Within You, Without You’, without any melody on top, are just snooze fests.
There are a few things which are fun to listen to. The keyboard-heavy Take 1 of ‘Getting Better’ has a breezy, Beach Boys-style feel, which is quite different to the finished record. The snippets of studio banter between takes are always enjoyable, putting you right in the studio with the Fab Four. I love the enthusiastic chatter between John, Paul and George at the end of their first run-through of the title track, for example, and Paul offering some suggestions to improve John’s vocal after ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’. And John’s comedy rendition of “For the Benefit of Mr Kite…” just before Take 4 of the song is very amusing. These early takes also highlight just how great Ringo’s playing was on these sessions, right from the off. Most of the parts are the same as on the completed album, but sparseness of the arrangements puts the drums front and centre and makes you realise how integral they were to the songs. Both versions of ‘Sgt Pepper’, ‘Getting Better’, ‘Lovely Rita’ and ‘Good Morning Good Morning’, in particular, all feature some epic drumming.
However, on the whole, there’s little that makes me want to listen to it again (and I’ve never bothered with the extra material in the ‘super deluxe edition’, even though it’s available on Spotify). It’s the same feeling I had when sitting through never-ending takes of ‘Don’t Let Me Down’ or ‘I’ve Got A Feeling’ on scratchy Let It Be bootlegs back when I was a teenager, or having the opportunity of buying a bootleg filled with umpteen early run-throughs of ‘From Me To You’. Why bother? We already have the perfect versions. It’s a bit like when I was a kid, I was never keen on TV specials which featured behind-the-scenes secrets of how the special effects for films like Star Wars or Superman were realised; I just wanted to enjoy the magic of the finished product.
To take the analogy a little further, listening to the Sgt Pepper early takes is like looking at the cover of the album in black and white or with some of its famous faces missing and The Beatles posing in jeans and T-shirts. Something very important is missing. I know some fans want to have all the Beatle music they can get their hands on, and that’s fine; I daresay there will eventually come a time when EMI/Apple will open up the vaults online and give us access to every single note the band ever recorded (at a price). But, assuming I’m still around, I doubt I’ll be buying any of it. Outtakes add to our knowledge of The Beatles, true, but do they add to our appreciation of them? Thanks, but I’ll pass.
There aren’t many chapters in The Beatles’ career that I find less than fascinating. It’s such an engrossing journey, both collectively and solo, driven by four charismatic personalities with talent to spare, with so many twists and turns, triumphs and missteps, glories and goofs. Even projects or life choices which are usually heralded as failures are often full of intrigue and hidden depths. But John and Yoko’s peace campaigning in 1969 has long been an aspect of the story which never really captured my imagination. While I agreed with the core purpose, the long hair, all-white outfits, repetitive interviews, silly stunts and slight air of hectoring left me cold. It’s all a bit like the song ‘Give Peace A Chance’ – an important message, which needed to be said (especially as the Vietnam War was raging at the time), a perfect protest tune, all very worthy….but as a piece of music, rather dull. Even the ‘bed-in’ events, an amusing piece of Lennon lunacy, seemed like a joke that went on a little too long. I’ve always preferred John when he’s grappling with personal issues rather than playing mini-messiah on the world stage, as well-intentioned as he undoubtedly was. The fact that the campaign effectively ended by the end of that year also gives the impression that it was another passing fad (although, to be fair, he continued to espouse its sentiments for the rest of his life).
After recently re-watching the documentary which captured the high watermark of their crusade, Bed Peace, however, the whole affair was probably more interesting that I’ve previously given it credit for. Or certainly, this film and its companion piece, 24 Hours: The World of John and Yoko (recently made available for streaming), are. Bed Peace documents their second bed-in for peace at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel in Montreal from 26 May – 1 June 1969, where the Lennons invited all and sundry to their bedside for a chat and used the massive media exposure they received to promote world peace. Cameras of course followed their every move, including the now legendary impromptu recording of ‘Give Peace A Chance’, and the resulting footage was edited down to 70 minutes and released the following year. It came out on DVD in the 2000s, and was also screened on satellite music channel VH-1, which is when I got to see it. The 35-minute 24 Hours took a similar fly-on-the-wall approach but was more mobile, following the Lennons at work and play in a variety of settings over five days later in 1969. It was screened on the BBC soon afterwards, but wasn’t seen again until John was voted into the top ten of Great Britons during a huge national poll run by the BBC in 2000. It’s been stuck in the vaults ever since, until being made available via Amazon Prime in May as part of promotions for the John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band album reissue.
So why are they worth a look? Well, taking Bed Peace first, there are a couple of things to recommend it. First, it’s a fascinating time capsule of a very different world. A world just discovering the possibilities of global mass communication, in the throes of a pop culture explosion like no other, a world where social boundaries, norms and values are being questioned like never before. A more idealistic, less cynical world; yes, there’s plenty of cynicism and eye-rolling about what John and Yoko are trying to do, and their motives for doing it, but the division lines between different viewpoints seem more clear cut than they are today (though the lack of tolerance for other people’s opinions remains the same). It all feels less commercialised and commodified, less about virtue signalling and looking good, and more about trying to do something worthwhile, no matter what the approbation and ridicule. Naïve and slightly pretentious, yes, but genuine. As John points out during the film, he could’ve promoted himself more easily and made much more money by doing other things; he was a Beatle, he certainly didn’t need any extra attention. The look and feel of the film reflect that idea of doing things differently – rough, jerky, almost amateurish at times. But the cinema verité approach helps to put you in the room, by the bedside, and gives a real flavour of the madcap goings-on.
Which brings me to Bed Peace’s other main selling point – its intimacy. Contrary to the earnest, confrontational image of the event I had in my head, John is actually relaxed and charming for the most part, happy to take the brickbats as well as the bouquets, and having a laugh wherever he can. Despite being a virtual unknown to the wider public before hooking up with John a year earlier, Yoko too seems very comfortable (and patient) in the intense spotlight, selling the peace message with endless enthusiasm and a quite endearing, child-like daffiness. While the film mostly focuses on the couple’s interactions with guests, there are some more intimate moments when the doors are closed, including a sweet scene of them cuddling and verbally teasing one another in bed. Whatever cynics may say about how their relationship panned out, they certainly seem to be very into each other here, despite – or because of – them spending everyone waking moment together. Their closeness was definitely beginning to impinge on The Beatles at this point and there’s little mention of the band in the final edit, even though John was still an active member at this point (the bulk of the sessions for Abbey Road took place soon after the bed-in). There is one nice moment where local fans present John with a hand-stitched blanket depicting animated versions of the Fabs from the (then-recent) Yellow Submarine film. Lennon seems genuinely touched by their efforts, and it stays on their bed for the remainder of the couple’s hotel stay.
The real meat of the film, though, deals with the parade of visitors to their room and the various discussions about the peace debate. The footage early on of the mass ranks of TV, radio and newspaper reporters crowding their bed to grab some soundbites is eye-popping – it’s inconceivable today that a star of John’s magnitude would grant such unfettered, unfiltered access. It’s also questionable whether it was wise to have Yoko’s young daughter Kyoko at the centre of such a scrum (her father Tony Cox, who would later abscond with the child, may not have been impressed watching it), though she does seem quite unperturbed by all the attention. In this age of Zoom and Skype calls, it’s interesting to watch John and Yoko lending their support to student protesters in Berkeley, California, via shouting down a bad telephone line. There’s a lot of talk in that scene, and throughout the film, about fighting “them” – the authorities, the Establishment – and you can’t help but wonder who Lennon would be railing against in today’s much more blurred culture war battle lines if he were still around.
Various US celebrities of the time drop by, including LSD guru and wannabe politician Timothy Leary, comedy actor Tom Smothers and stand-up comic and civil rights activist Dick Gregory. The latter proposes The Beatles could help put a stop to capital punishment in the States by urging all their fans to tune into a TV special just before sitting down to eat on Christmas Eve, and then show a film of a Death Row prisoner being executed. John thinks its a “brilliant idea”. But the real stand-out section (much of which was lifted for 1988’s Imagine: John Lennon documentary) was the Lennons’ showdown with cartoonist and humorist Al Capp. Capp is clearly spoiling for a fight from the moment he arrives, and pours scorn and sarcasm on the pair throughout. John surprisingly keeps his cool during the onslaught, raising his voice only once, but must’ve been seething inside. It’s the right tactic, though; while entertaining, Capp comes over as boorish, smug and (especially to Yoko) unforgivably rude.
Musically, there’s not too much to write home about.Yoko’s ‘Who Has Seen The Wind?’ makes for an effective bit of background music at the start; we also get a snippet of John running through future Beatles track ‘Because’ on acoustic guitar, and ‘Instant Karma’ plays over the end credits, presumably because it was a more contemporary song when the film was finally released. But the real centrepiece, of course, is the recording of ‘Give Peace A Chance’, accompanied by Smothers, Leary, Beatles press officer Derek Taylor, fans, pressmen, a local chapter of the Hare Krishna movement and many more. It goes on a bit, but it’s fun to watch a little bit of history unfold before your eyes.
24 Hours continues the fly-on-the-wall theme over five days (this time in England, during December 1969), but in pacier fashion over different locations. So we get to see the pair larking around at their Tittenhurst Park home, travelling to and from engagements in their Rolls Royce, meeting Japanese journalists at Apple headquarters, waking up in bed (once again), and taking seemingly endless enquiries from reporters tracking their every move (is John going to play Jesus on the London stage? “I don’t know anything about it, I don’t want to do it…and God bless you.”). You get to see John sat spellbound watching film of The Beatles performing at the Cavern in 1962, footage he may never have seen before. There’s also a quite surreal recording session at Abbey Road, and the film ends on a bizarre note with them dressed in monk-like cowls watching a giant hot air balloon take off in Lavenham, Suffolk (a scene set up for one of their short ‘art’ films, Apotheosis).
In the middle of all that is another famous scene (also purloined for the Imagine: John Lennon film) at Apple where they are challenged over their headline-grabbing activities by sceptical New York Times columnist Gloria Emerson. This time, John doesn’t hold back in his responses; when Emerson reveals she admired him in earlier years, he retorts: “I’ve grown up…but you obviously haven’t.” It’s a fiery exchange – again, it’s hard to imagine today’s sycophantic, carefully-briefed media corps even daring to question a celeb’s virtuous, socially-aware credentials. But, while Emerson is somewhat patronising and pompous (and again, unaccountably rude when addressing Yoko), you can kind of see that the likes of her and Al Capp represented a whole swathe of people who were struggling to come to terms with how not just John Lennon, but the whole world, had changed so rapidly since the carefree monochrome days of A Hard Day’s Night just five years earlier.
Watching films like this, many people at the time would have thought John had lost his marbles, and no doubt blamed Yoko as a bad influence. Whether their campaign really advanced the cause of peace is open to debate, though it certainly put the word on the front pages of newspapers around the world and gave the movement an anthem to march behind. It also set a baleful precedent of musicians assuming their views on society are not only automatically the right ones, but also something we need to hear about at every available opportunity. However, few have come close to the impact and iconography of John and Yoko in 1969. If nothing else, they colourfully pointed up a fresh way of thinking, of doing things, and confirmed Lennon as a true one-off. These films capture that crazy moment in time and, more importantly, the people living it. Some of it may leave you shaking your head, but you’ll still be glued to the screen.
It’s strange how music can be completely re-evaluated with the passage of time, with Paul McCartney’s earliest solo works being a case in point. While watching an ad the other day for the new Apple documentary series 1971: The Year That Music Changed Everything I was amused to see Ram flash up as one of the many great albums released that year, confirming its ascension to ‘classic’ status in the minds of fans and critics alike. This despite the fact it was heavily denigrated by many reviewers at the time (especially compared to John’s Imagine and George’s All Things Must Pass, both of which were universally lauded), and that by the 1980s its stock seemed to have fallen even further, with most Beatles books I read dismissing it as a whimsical waste of time. The last 20-30 years, however, have seen a complete about-turn in the way it is regarded, with critics generally now rating it as a must-have and fans falling over themselves to describe it as Macca’s solo masterpiece, surpassing the previous undisputed holder of the title, Band On The Run. Likewise its predecessor, 1970’s McCartney, has gone from being seen as a half-baked, unfinished collection of flimsy musical sketches and doodles to a landmark lo-fi celebration of autonomy and independence; its rough-hewn, home-made quality, the thing so many despised on its release, is now seen as trail-blazing brilliance.
The reputational rehabilitation of Paul’s third album, Wild Life, does not appear to be on the horizon, however. Even its lavish re-release as part of the McCartney Archive Collection in 2018, with all the attendant hype, did not prompt a critical re-appraisal of a record which came out just a few short months after Ram. I suspect there are a few reasons for this. First, it didn’t sell anywhere near as well as the two Macca albums which came before it; it only just made the US top ten and stalled at #11 in the UK, and was Paul’s only real commercial flop of the 1970s. Some people still equate sales with quality, though you’d think the likes of Milli Vanilli would’ve put that argument to bed a long time ago. It has just eight tracks (one of them a cover), and no hits – or even singles – to latch onto. Then there is the running order, which front-loads the weakest tracks (certainly the least accessible) on the first half of the LP, meaning some people will have lost patience before getting to the gold on what was the old side two. It also has the Wings prefix, which is still a handicap in some people’s eyes. Despite Paul’s rising status among critics over the past decade or so, Wings – Band On The Run excepted (those pesky sales again, perhaps?) – is still a slightly toxic brand, in the UK at least. A sign of naffness, something to be mildly sniggered at, an attitude summed up by comedy character Alan Partridge’s line: “Wings? Only the band The Beatles could’ve been!” Wild Life has its coterie of vocal supporters in the hardcore fanbase, of course, like all of his albums do, but it rarely features highly in polls to find his most popular efforts.
Is this fair? Well, yes and no. I think part of its problem is that Paul was still getting used to the idea of putting a whole album together, as opposed to submitting five or six of his best numbers for a Beatles record. While even the solo records which came before it were painstakingly put together over several months (in truth, the homespun McCartney was deceptively well crafted, in terms of recording if not always songwriting), Wild Life was laid down in a couple of weeks or so, with a brand new band, and with many of the numbers taped in one take. Inspired by Bob Dylan’s no-frills recording process of the time, Paul was no doubt keen to capture some rawness and spontaneity, to get back to basics and pull off a musical reset in the way he had tried (and ultimately failed) to do with The Beatles during their last year together. While achieving that to a large degree, the album also sounds rushed and a little slap-dash in places. With John’s and George’s latest efforts continuing The Beatles’ tradition of rich, fully-realised and lavishly produced songs, you can kind of understand why some people thought Paul – the driving force behind Sgt Pepper and Abbey Road, the perfectionist, the Beatle most obsessed with attention to detail – was no longer taking things seriously.
It’s also interesting to consider Paul didn’t really have to make this album at all. Ram had been released in May 1971, and he was back in the studios in July, with the record in the shops by early December. Even by his workaholic 1970s standards, this was a rapid turnaround (tellingly, its follow-up Red Rose Speedway didn’t appear for another 18 months). Paul had determined to form a band during the Ram sessions, roping in drummer Denny Seiwell (though failing to convince guitarist Hugh McCracken), and was presumably keen to strike while the iron was hot. Whether he was influenced by the reaction to Ram is hard to say – while it took a pasting from many (though not all) critics, it topped the charts in the US (and hit #2 in the UK) and yielded his first American #1 single in ‘Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey’, so it’s difficult to surmise his train of thought. The critical backlash over something he had laboured over and poured all his creative energies into may have pushed him in a different, looser direction, or it may not. What is inarguable, though, is that – having decided not to use leftovers written or recorded for Ram (with one exception) and start from largely scratch, as it were – he was short of quality material for a full album. The urgency to get into the studio also meant that the band wasn’t even fully formed. While former Moody Blues lead singer Denny Laine had joined him, Linda and Seiwell by this point, Wings made its first album without a lead guitarist (Henry McCullough wouldn’t sign on until early 1972). Paul was more than capable of handling the lead parts, of course, but it’s another indicator that he charged headlong into his new adventure without all the pieces of the jigsaw being in place. Was he defiantly sticking two fingers up to his critics by dashing off another record which gleefully confounded expectations, or was it more a case of him simply following his instincts and deliberately building up his new combo from ground zero? Perhaps a bit of both.
What is also indisputable (in my book, at least) is that, despite its shortcomings, there is a huge amount to enjoy on Wild Life. The rootsy, organic sound it has works incredibly well, for the most part. There is an unadorned, unpretentious feel about the whole enterprise, and yet every now and then McCartney will throw in a dash of invention and imagination which will floor you with its audacity and remind you who you are dealing with. The musicianship is solid, but it’s Paul’s singing – absolutely at the top of its game here – which drags occasionally so-so songs onto a higher level. And while there is a bit of sub-par stuff, including one utter clunker, most of the album rewards repeated listens, not least a couple of sparkling gems which deserve to sit among the best tunes he’s ever written. Yes, Beatles included.
The album bolts out the door with ‘Mumbo’, which sounds exactly like what it is – a studio jam lassoed and steered into the confines of a song. It’s still a pretty wild beast (excuse the pun) though, rampaging through a series of jagged guitar riffs while Paul screams nonsense noise over the top. The lack of a coherent lyric means it lacks direction, but it rocks hard and Macca’s lead guitar/vocal combination is electrifying. Not a great tune, per se, but good fun. It sounds like something US alternative rock band The Pixies might have recorded 20 years later and been heralded as geniuses for. It’s harder to champion the next track, ‘Bip Bop’, which has become something of a byword for slack, silly McCartney writing. There’s footage of him performing it on his acoustic guitar at his Scottish farm earlier in 1971, seemingly to entertain his kids, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But it’s basically just a throwaway ditty he never took any further, and while he gives it a full band arrangement for the album, it can’t breathe any life into it. It’s catchy, yes, and there’s a nice shuffling groove to it, but it spends an awful lot of time going nowhere. Paul and Linda even giggle at its repetitive inanity towards the end, which is amusing and irritating in equal measure. In the late 1980s, Paul admitted his embarrassment over this tune, though someone or something must’ve convinced him otherwise in the years that followed as it was included on the 2016 career-spanning compilation Pure McCartney. Don’t believe the hype – it’s no better now than it was in 1971.
The third track is another which emerged from a studio jam, with Macca deciding it reminded him of ‘ Love is Strange’, a 1957 hit by US duo Mickey and Sylvia (later covered by both the Everly Brothers and Everything But The Girl), and layering that song over the top. I used to think it took a long time to get going, but now I appreciate the lilting reggae rhythm and slow burn before Paul and Linda’s vocals kick in. Macca’s bass also shines on this one, but it is the singing which makes it – particular on the last minute-and-a-half or so, when Paul really cuts loose, ably supported by Linda and Denny Laine. His voice nimbly switches from husky vulnerability to surging confidence to unbridled joy, skipping through playful improvisations on each line. It’s a thing of wonder, as is the descending, ringing guitar part which brings the number to a satisfying close. That bit always takes me right back to my childhood, though I can’t think why – we certainly didn’t have the album in our house, and plans to release this track as a single were abandoned, so I can’t imagine I would ever have heard it on the radio as a toddler.
The title number which follows is almost the polar opposite – a strong song held back by a rather plodding arrangement and production. While the lyrics neatly capture our headlong rush towards eco destruction (way ahead of their time), the music lumbers like a slow-moving beast trying evade extinction. It’s saved by another impassioned, searing McCartney vocal and some deliciously grungy guitar playing, some of which I could swear U2 ‘appropriated’ for their hit ‘One’ 20 years later. There’s an affecting, doom-laden melancholy to the song, but I think it came off a bit better when Wings performed it live on their European tour the following year.
Things move up several gears on the second half of the album, beginning with the gentle acoustic guitar riff which opens the wonderful ‘Some People Never Know’. This is more traditional McCartney territory, and a classic of its kind. While echoing the ‘us against the world’ theme of several songs during this period (‘No one else will ever see/Just what faith you have in me’), the words actually go much deeper than that, exploring how love can help salve psychological tears and insecurities, and reflecting on how many of us fail to see that. The title refrain is sung out of sadness, not smugness. The music supports the lyric, creating an air of fragile beauty punctuated with bursts of resilience and redemption. Paul and Linda duet very effectively once again, and there are some lovely wordless harmonies towards the end (which cleverly covers up the fact that we’re going through the song’s middle section for a third time). Yes, it could maybe have done with a little editing, but the melody is so strong it doesn’t matter and I love the extended, percussion-heavy fade-out. And am I the only one who thinks it’s spooky how Paul was writing the line ‘Some people can’t sleep at night time/Believing that love is a lie’ at about the same time John Lennon was recording the anti-McCartney diatribe ‘How Do You Sleep?’
‘I Am Your Singer’ is a sweet, airy love song, something that sounds so effortless and yet is full of melody and charm. Macca enjoys likening his life to a song from time to time (think ‘Here Today’, for example, or ‘Heaven on a Sunday’), but really runs with the metaphor here, to beguiling effect. Linda gets a rare lead vocal line in this – not technically great, but heartfelt and intimate – and there’s a little recorder solo which is just right. The whole thing isn’t quite at the level of the two tracks either side of it, but is still stronger and more cohesive than anything on the first half of the album. It’s another number you can watch them crafting on their Scottish farm earlier that year.
After a brief acoustic reprise of ‘Bip Bop’, we arrive at the tentative, yearning piano notes which begin ‘Tomorrow’, the album’s finest moment. A gorgeous depiction of a pastoral romance, the tune captures the nervous uncertainty of the early days in a relationship before the chorus soars as the lovers hold hands and “both abandon sorrow”. It’s broken up by a couple of stunningly beautiful, idyllic middle sections, and then a false ending leads us into a heart-wrenching finale, Paul’s pleading vocal and thundering guitar ramping everything up a notch. The backing singing also deserves special praise, showing how the Paul/Linda/Denny blend which would come to define Wings’ sound was in place from the get-go. Linda’s father Lee Eastman often told Paul he should re-record the song, feeling (understandably) that it was a piece of magic buried on a forgotten album, but I think it’s perfect as it is. Macca at his peerless best. I remember a friend gave me a funny look when I said it was in the same league as ‘Here, There and Everywhere’, but I urged her to listen to it again. It really is that good. The fact that ‘Bip Bop’ was chosen to represent this album on the Pure McCartney collection rather than ‘Tomorrow’ shows how Paul seems intent on sabotaging his own legacy at times.
He returns to the piano again for the album’s big finale, ‘Dear Friend’. Though written before the aforementioned ‘How Do You Sleep?’ was released, it deals with his fractured friendship with John and is perhaps the perfect response to the bruising personal attack included on the Imagine album. The song has a wounded, weary feel to it, as McCartney tries to dial things down and bring them back from the brink, cutting through Lennon’s snarling defence mechanisms and appealing to this best mate underneath. Or as Paul himself said when Wild Life was reissued in 2018: “I’m trying to say to John, ‘Look, you know, it’s all cool. Have a glass of wine. Let’s be cool.’”
I don’t think John ever commented on the song, publicly, but certainly relations did begin to improve from 1972 onwards. So who knows, maybe it touched a nerve. My issue with the song is that it sounds unfinished. Listening to the home demos of the tune included on the 2018 Archive Collection release, Paul evidently had the two verses which make up the song from the start, but never expanded on them. Which is a pity, as I think he could’ve turned it in a major work with a bit more effort. But what we got was still pretty impressive – it’s the only track on the album which gets big production touches, and the orchestral overdubs really give it some dramatic heft, helping to compensate for the limited lyrics (needless to say, there’s another fine McCartney vocal, too). And the whole thing ends on a disquieting, unresolved note, poignantly symbolising the broken state of affairs.
And, apart from a spiky, rapid re-run of the ‘Mumbo’ riff, that’s it. Hardly the kind of grand flourish which had brought the curtain down on Sgt Pepper or Abbey Road (or even Ram, for that matter), and I can kind of see why people were a little underwhelmed by the record as a whole at the time it came out. When I first bought it, while at college in the autumn of 1988, I enjoyed side two straightaway but did think the first half was a bit of a write-off. Inevitably, considering how quickly the album was written and recorded, the 2018 Archive Collection re-release didn’t through up any especially thrilling outtakes among the bonus material, which mainly composed of a few home demos and acoustic guitar noodlings, plus some tracks recorded at different sessions altogether.
It doesn’t matter, though. Wild Life holds up really well, probably much better than it did 50 years ago when many people were still carrying lots of Beatles baggage in their heads. Yes, he could have waited until he had more material, cherry-picked the best numbers and put out something better in 1972, but I’m glad he didn’t. Even the weaker tracks are a lot of fun and, overall, I slightly prefer it to its more polished successor, 1973’s Red Rose Speedway. While he would go on to make stronger, more consistent albums with Wings, Wild Life retains a unique, unfussy charm, a freshness and vitality all its own. It’s lower-tier McCartney, true, but his lesser works are more worthwhile than most people’s best in my book, and that’s certainly true here. Just stick it on, “catch a breath of country air” and go with the flow. To borrow a phrase: when day is done, harmonies will linger on.
Even now, almost 20 years after his death, books devoted solely to George Harrison are few and far between. I understand that his Beatles songwriting output and solo success didn’t match up to that of John and Paul, but he still had a pretty remarkable life and career, whichever way you look at it. Still, there is a lot more available to read now than when I first became a Fabs fan in the mid-1980s. In those days, you had a choice of exactly two books – George’s own memoir-cum-lyrics-collection, I Me Mine, and George Harrison: Yesterday and Today, written by Ross Michaels and published in 1977. I picked up the latter during my first visit to Liverpool and the Beatles Shop there in early 1987, and was thrilled to get hold of it. A book all about the Quiet Beatle, his underrated guitar playing and neglected solo career – what’s not to like? Revisiting it now, however, its shortcomings are more apparent.
The 96-page paperback is divided into five main sections. The first is a brief chapter on the 1971 Concert for Bangla Desh in New York, the first all-star charity rock concert which set the template for Live Aid 14 years later. Then come the two sections which take up the bulk of the book – ‘From Liverpool to Let It Be’, detailing George’s youth and time with The Beatles, and ‘Commuting to the Material World’, an overview of his early solo career. Things wrap up with ‘Gently Weeping’, a look at his guitar playing styles and innovations, and ‘In George’s Words’, a study of his song lyrics. There’s also the obligatory discography, a must-have for such books in the days before the internet. The timing of its publication – 1977 – is interesting. George’s solo career was on an upward curve again after a major dip in fortunes during 1974-75, but he was no longer at rock’s top table. I would guess the successful splurge of Beatles reissues in 1976 (coupled, ironically, with the global success of Wings) gave the green light for the book. It does mean the story is woefully incomplete (even though George had recorded half the albums he would ever issue by this point); and while the book was reprinted in 1982, which is the version I have, it was sadly not updated.
So what does that leave us with? Well, back in the day, I certainly enjoyed the few pages dedicated to the Bangla Desh show (it would be another three years, in 1990, before I had the chance to watch it on video). It was a real highpoint of George’s career – still basking in the huge success of ‘My Sweet Lord’ and All Things Must Pass (never mind The Beatles), he was quite possibly the biggest rock star in the world in 1971, so it was a good way to start the book and remind people of his stature during that period. The Beatles section is pretty standard fare, a cut-and-paste job but competently written. However, it doesn’t really focus on George’s role in the story until about 1966-onwards, when his Indian influences began to loom large. It runs through the usual lines about his growing disenchantment with both his role as a Beatle and the fact that his increasingly accomplished songwriting was being stifled by the dominance of the Lennon/McCartney axis, but doesn’t really offer any fresh insights. That said, there weren’t that many Beatles books around in the 1970s, so it probably didn’t need to.
The best part of the book is the section focusing purely on George’s solo career. It charts the early triumphs, the fall from grace triggered by the Dark Horse album and tour, plus the ‘My Sweet Lord’ lawsuit which found him guilty of ‘stealing’ a few notes for his biggest hit, and his subsequent return to the upper echelons of the charts (at least in the States) with 1976’s 33 & a Third LP. I learned quite a bit from this first time around (most Beatles books back then gave short shrift to the solo careers, George’s and Ringo’s in particular), but at the same time it’s a little bit rote and Michaels doesn’t diverge from the ‘received wisdom’ of the story. Thus, the 1974 US tour is deemed a disaster, when in fact many shows were sell-outs and garnered a great response from audiences (the bootleg I have from the Baton Rouge gig certainly bears that out). Likewise, 1975’s Extra Texture album is unfairly branded “pale”, “depressing” and “muddled”, while its follow-up 33 & a Third is praised to the skies, when in fact – in my opinion – the latter is not necessarily a better work, just a more commercial one. I think part of the problem is that the author leans heavily on articles and interviews from the 1970s rock press to form his narrative, notably Rolling Stone and an extensive interview about his career George gave US publication Crawdaddy in 1976. Similarly, the Beatles section pilfers freely from Hunter Davies’ 1968 official biography of the band. To his credit, though, Michaels does delve quite deeply into George’s religious beliefs and their impact on his life and work, which can be a tricky subject to navigate and one some biographers tend to skim over.
Having chapters on George’s guitar playing and lyric writing is a nice idea but not especially well executed, mainly because they are too short and superficial to do their subjects justice. There is some nice stuff covering his pioneering instrumental work with The Beatles. When you track his development from a Chet Atkins/Carl Perkins-inspired picker in the band’s early days through the jangly Rickenbacker 12-string parts of A Hard Day’s Night and the carefully composed psychedelic backwards guitar stylings on Revolver,and onto his more bluesy, slide playing during the band’s later years, it reminds you what a hugely innovative and influential performer he was, even if he wasn’t as flashy as some of his more lauded contemporaries. While not as ground-breaking, he continued to develop and refine his playing after the break-up, but you wouldn’t really know it from this book. His work after All Things Must Pass is covered in a few desultory paragraphs. There is more attention paid to the lyrics in his solo career, if only because there were/are obviously a lot more Harrisongs released after he left the group. The author does a decent enough job of highlighting certain themes, such as the ambiguity in some songs from the late ‘60s onwards as to whether George was singing to a lover or a God figure, but generally the analysis is pretty rudimentary. Curiously, in this section, All Things Must Pass is passed over fairly quickly compared to his other solo albums, and a couple of the tracks Michaels chooses to focus on are real head-scratchers – the 1975 single ‘You’, for example, was clearly never meant to be a profound lyrical treatise, yet it receives more coverage than the words of, say, ‘Beware of Darkness’. It is good to see underrated numbers like ‘Simply Shady’ and ‘The Answer’s at the End’ get some discussion, though.
One area where the book really excels is in its choice of photographs. It is packed with many fantastic images, many of which were new to me when I first read it and there are some you don’t see that often even today. Highlights include photos from The Beatles’ last official concert at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park in 1966; John, Paul and George all blowing on wind instruments before an amused Brian Epstein during the recording of ‘All You Need is Love’; generous helping of shots from George’s 1974 North American tour; his visit to the White House to meet then-US President Gerald Ford that same year; some rare snaps of George and Olivia in their early days together (including an eye-popping one with Olivia in the most cropped of crop-tops), and several showing George proudly sporting his new curly perm in 1976. While black and white, most of the images are reproduced in excellent quality, some over a couple of pages, and provide a fine visual record of George’s life up to that point – in a way that 2011’s official, glossy Living in the Material World photo book didn’t really do. The book finishes with the usual discography listing, though the fact the reprint covers releases up to and including 1981, whereas the main text wasn’t updated beyond 1977, just looks odd.
Overall, Yesterday and Today is a fair primer on George’s life, career and artistry – up until his mid-30s, at any rate – but not much more. Although well written, it lacks depth and overall offers little in the way of perceptive observations. It filled a big gap at the time it came out, but has since been overtaken by more thorough, complete works. I still have a nostalgic affection for it, though, and the photos really are terrific. It achieved what it set out to do, so I’d give this one a 6.
The release earlier this year of the wonderful preview clip from the forthcoming Get Back film confirmed that a major item on any fan’s Beatles wish list was finally about to be ticked off. The wait for a proper release of the Let It Be film and some of the attendant hours of footage which didn’t make the cut stretches back 40 years, when it was last issued on home video (and LaserDisc, for those who had such devices). It’s a real pity it’s taken so long, and baffling; Apple has sifted through and remastered the raw material twice before, in 1992 and during the early 2000s, and yet the four Beatle camps could not reach a consensus on whether to put it out. According to then Apple Chief Executive Neil Aspinall in 2007, “this stuff is still controversial. It raised a lot of old issues.” And yet, low and behold, when Oscar-winning director Peter Jackson gets hold of it, it seems the footage is full of the band members larking around and having a high old time, and Apple can’t wait to release a brand new cut (The Beatles: Get Back) telling a much more triumphant story. It’s a miracle. How ironic that they had to delay its release by a year due to the pandemic.
Anyway, we are where we are, and I guess we should just be happy that particular long and winding road is almost at an end. But it got me thinking about what other goodies I’d most like to see released, both under The Beatles banner and as solo artists. A remastered/remixed deluxe package of Let It Be material will almost certainly accompany or follow the release of the film, now that Apple have reaped the dividends of similar anniversary sets in recent years. And I would imagine other albums will be getting the same treatment over the coming years, most likely starting with Revolver. Likewise, a revamped, expanded version of George’s All Things Must Pass will come out this year, and I’m sure some (if not all) of John’s solo albums will be similarly overhauled following the recent ‘ultimate’ mixes of Plastic Ono Band and Imagine.
However, while they will be interesting to hear, remixes don’t really float my boat, as I’ve explained in a previous post. And early takes or alternate versions of songs we already have (unless they are radically different) don’t interest me much, either. Personally, I’d rather they raided the vaults for genuinely unreleased material, and cleaned up stuff released decades ago which is crying out for a bigger, fatter sound. Whether this is on disc or just digitally I guess doesn’t really matter any more. Being an old-fashioned kind of guy, I’d prefer the former, but at this stage of the game I’ll take whatever I can get. So here are the ten releases I’d most like to see before I become a(n even more) wizened old man. The likelihood of some of them actually happening seems remote but, hey, we can dream. The problem is, with Apple in particular, is that it always wants to appeal to the mass market, the casual fan. Which is fine when you are repackaging classic albums like Sgt Pepper or Abbey Road, but I think most of the following could be targeted at more serious fans and all involved could still turn a tidy profit.
1. The Decca audition tapes (The Beatles)
I find it strange the recordings from the band’s failed audition for Decca Records on 1 January 1962 haven’t had an official release yet. Semi-legal LP copies were on the market for a while in the 1980s – I think I bought mine from a major high street store – before Apple and EMI began to close the loopholes which allowed this and the Star Club live album to appear in shops without the band’s permission. Five songs from the audition were included on the Anthology 1 set in 1995, but that leaves another ten tracks still in the can. These include covers not available anywhere else, including ‘Take Good Care of My Baby’ and ‘September in the Rain’, as well as an otherwise unreleased Lennon-McCartney original, ‘Love of the Loved’ (later a minor UK hit for Cilla Black). I always think of this set as The Beatles’ first album, though it was never intended as such; it’s not as polished or as confident as their early EMI work (it seriously lacks the input of both Ringo and George Martin), but it nonetheless has a lot of musical and historical value, and merits a place in their official canon. They could even flesh it out with selections from the band’s first two BBC radio sessions, which also feature unreleased tracks and Pete Best on drums. But therin lies the rub; I can’t see a new album coming out under The Beatles’ name which doesn’t feature Ringo at all. I think this is unlikely to surface until after Ringo (and Paul) are no longer with us.
2. The Beatles at Shea Stadium (The Beatles)
It’s insane that this concert film isn’t officially available. The 1965 gig represented the high watermark of Beatlemania, and all the band looked on it as one of the stand-out moments of their career together. Yes, the half-hour performance footage was restored and shown after some cinema screenings of 2016’s Eight Days A Week documentary on their touring years, but was omitted from the subsequent DVD of the film. I kind of see the sense in that, as it probably warrants its own standalone release, but really, what is Apple waiting for? The 60th anniversary? When they do get around to putting it out, I’d suggest making it part of a ‘Beatles live’ package, adding a second disc hosting concerts from each of the other prime touring years. You could have the Royal Variety Performance (in colour) from 1963; either their first US concert at the Washington Coliseum or the show filmed in Melbourne, Australia, representing 1964, and one of the Tokyo Budokan gigs captured by Japanese TV in 1966. Throw in a few extras, like contemporary interviews and press conferences, and you’ve got a great DVD set of stage performances through the Beatlemania period. But, please Apple, no colourisation of black and white film this time.
3. Live in New York City (John Lennon)
The album and home video showcasing John’s only full-length live show as a solo artist came out in 1986, and have pretty much been left to rot since. There has been talk in recent years that both the audio and film of the 1972 afternoon and evening shows at Madison Square Garden were being freshened up for a new release, but the project seems to have fallen down the pecking order or abandoned altogether. Which is a pity, as it’s a good show, despite John’s obvious nervousness at the start. Unlike some, I really like the Elephant’s Memory Band backing him during this period, and there are some fine performances of Lennon classics. The CD could do with a remix as well as a remaster, though, as the original (in true ‘80s style) turned the drums up way too loud. There were also criticisms first time out that the album featured the weaker afternoon show rather than the more assured evening gig, so a new disc could cherry-pick the best performances from both – as well as including a few of the rock ‘n’ roll chestnuts John and the band ran through in rehearsals. A spruced-up DVD of the concert, maybe with rehearsal and interview footage, is also a must.
4. The Dakota demos (John Lennon)
I think Yoko has, on the whole, done a very good job in curating John’s legacy since his death, and made lots of great stuff available through a variety of media. One thing I do take issue with, however, is her handling of the many demos he recorded at their Dakota Building home in New York from 1975-80. In particular, the songs he never got the chance to properly record have been spread far too thinly across multiple releases – for example, if you want to get hold of ‘One of the Boys’, ‘India’ and the wonderful piano take of ‘Serve Yourself’ you have to splash out on the mammoth Lennon box set of all his original studio albums which came out in 2010. And, despite featuring in the late-1980s radio series The Lost Lennon Tapes, some of these tracks have never been formally released at all, despite their obvious quality (‘She’s A Friend of Dorothy’, for instance, is a great tune). Bootleggers have already filled the gap, of course, with collections like Free as a Bird: The Dakota Beatle Demos, but it would still be great to have an official album bringing all these songs together in cleaned-up, pristine quality. I’ve heard it mooted that they might feature as part of bonus material on a future deluxe box set covering the Double Fantasy/Milk and Honey albums, but I think that should focus on demos of tracks which ended up in the recording studio. The other songs, which never made it past John performing them alone on a piano or guitar, are different altogether and deserve a release of their own.
5. Ringo’s back catalogue (Ringo Starr)
To the best of my knowledge, none of Ringo’s albums have ever been remastered since they first appeared on CD, meaning that around half his back catalogue is stuck within the limitations of 1990s audio quality. Some are also very hard to find on disc now without paying an arm and a leg, and very few of them were ever issued with any bonus material. Sadly, when occasionally quizzed about it in interviews, Ringo seems to have zero interest in remedying this situation, which is a real pity. Yes, it’s a messy situation in terms of rights, with his output spread across a whole host of different record labels. And some would say reissuing a set of old Ringo albums wouldn’t be a very commercial proposition, seeing as many of them didn’t set the charts alight first time around. But I think that, handled by the right label and with some well-chosen extras, a box set or two would likely appeal to hardcore Fabs fans. Certainly a collection of his Apple albums from the early ‘70s, when he enjoyed his greatest solo success, would be a surefire winner, I reckon. If it were left to me, I’d aim to lay out his career over three sets (excluding live albums, with the exception of the VH1 Storytellers CD) – one covering the ‘70s, one rounding up the ‘80s and ‘90s, and another spanning his 21st century releases. As things stand, though, that looks like another pipe dream.
6. The 1974 Dark Horse tour (George Harrison)
George’s only solo tour of the States has gone down in history as something of a disappointment, partly due to the state of his voice and partly due to his refusal to meet audience expectations of ‘Beatle George’. Some decidedly mixed reviews – notably in Rolling Stone magazine – seem to have really upset him and, apart from putting him off touring, it was an experience he never seemed keen to revisit. Only one song from the shows, a version of ‘For You Blue’, was ever released in his lifetime, and even then only in limited edition form. Certainly, he took more risks with these gigs than any other solo Beatle – the setlist was a bit of a head-scratcher, and the arrangements of the Beatles songs he did include (as well the two numbers from All Things Must Pass) are different, to say the least. And altering some of the lyrics to fit in references to God and Krishna divided opinion, too. But I think that’s part of the charm, and bootlegs reveal some very funky, powerful performances (including crowd-pleasing tracks from Billy Preston). Some shows were also professionally filmed, and the snippets included in Martin Scorcese’s 2011 Living in the Material World documentary looked fabulous. A CD and DVD release from the tour is long overdue.
7. Harrison rare and unreleased material box set (George Harrison)
It will be 20 years in November since George left us , and I still can’t get my head around that fact that – despite two career-spanning box sets – a whole bunch of songs which had a limited release during his lifetime have not been properly compiled and remastered. Great tunes like ‘Sat Singing’, ‘Lay His Head’, ‘Mo’, ‘Hottest Gong in Town’, ‘Cockermamie Business’ and the like. And then there’s the stuff which has never had any kind of release at all. We had a couple of unheard covers on 2011’s Early Takes album of demos (teasingly subtitled Volume 1, though – a decade on – no further volumes have appeared), and that’s it. What about the terrific version of Bob Dylan’s Abandoned Love which George cut in the 1980s? Or the songs he recorded towards the end of his life which didn’t make it onto the posthumous Brainwashed album (notably, a song entitled ‘Valentine’ which was heard by journalist Timothy White in 1999)? Or the huge collection of demos George taped down the years which Olivia has described finding here and there in drawers and boxes around their Friar Park home? Serving up yet another release of All Things Must Pass is all well and good but I for one would much rather hear some brand new songs, a few more unreleased covers and cleaned-up, good quality versions of some hard-to-find gems.
8. London Town and Back To The Egg (Paul McCartney)
These late ’70s efforts are the only albums in Macca’s catalogue from 1970-83 which have not yet been given the Archive Collection remaster/reissue treatment. It makes sense to do them next, but thus far the Archive series has been devoid of logic and consistency, preferring instead an utterly haphazard, random path. Likewise there seems no hurry to get these albums out to what is – largely – an ageing fanbase, with MPL focusing its attention instead on the forthcoming McCartney III Imagined set (Paul’s last album reworked by various hip modern artists) and the 50th anniversary half-speed edition of Ram, an album most fans surely have multiple copies of already. So I’m not holding my breath for anything this year. If and when they do appear, let’s hope they fill up the bonus discs with generous helpings of unreleased tracks from that era (and there are plenty), as well the older tracks that the final incarnation of Wings added to and polished up in 1980 for inclusion on the subsequently abandoned Cold Cuts collection, such as the version of 1972’s ‘Night Out’ with lyrics and lead vocal. The Back To The Egg package could even include the full soundtrack of the Rupert Bear animated film Paul was working during this period – yet another McCartney project which has never seen the light of day. Sigh.
9. McCartney rare and unreleased material box set (Paul McCartney)
As alluded to above, this has been on Paul’s to-do list since he first envisaged the Cold Cuts album almost 50 years ago (!), and yet nothing has ever appeared. Unbelievable. Yes, a few treats have slipped out on some of the Archive Collection releases over the past decade, but they have been far from comprehensive, with lots of stuff left off. And that still leaves dozens of tracks (that we know about) from other parts of his career, of which we have only low-quality bootleg versions or have never heard at all. Then there are the many ‘giveaway’ tracks which stand outside his main catalogue – original songs for film soundtracks, covers of numbers by the likes of Buddy Holly, Ian Drury and Noel Coward for various tribute albums, and collaborations with people such as George Michael, Tony Bennett and Nirvana. Plus hordes of b-sides and bonus tracks which may or may not be featured in future Archive Collection editions (really, who knows?). And maybe a few choice live cuts? I’ve set out my ideas how I’d like to see Paul’s back catalogue properly curated and compliled in a previous post, but there seems little chance of that happening. However, we’re crying out for some kind of box set of unheard and rare Macca tunes along the lines of the John Lennon Anthology (even if he just selected the best stuff, he could easily fill four discs). Please Paul – while some of us still have enough of our hearing and faculties left to really enjoy it.
10. The Beatles Anthology –with added Threetles (The Beatles)
Amazingly, for those who were around to enjoy it, it’s now over a quarter of a century since the advent of The Beatles Anthology, and the attendant reunion of Paul, George and Ringo to complete two unfinished Lennon songs. The three double-CDs of demos, outtakes, live numbers and unreleased Fabs material are definitely due a sonic upgrade. It wasn’t trumpeted at the time, but the two ‘Threetles’ songs included on The Beatles 1 DVD collection in 2015 had clearly been remastered and remixed, so we certainly need a proper audio release of those. And, as it’s also nearly 20 years since the Anthology DVDs came out, why not reissue those with bonus interviews with John, Paul, George and Ringo, plus other footage which didn’t make the final edit for the documentary? And, what I’d like to see most of all, more film of Paul, George and Ringo chatting and playing together at George’s Friar Park home in 1994 – much more film than the paltry snippets included on the extra disc on the original DVD release. Okay, John wasn’t there, but I think we have to look past that and just enjoy it for what it was, a glorious little coda to The Beatles’ collective story.
An audio disc of the session in George’s studio with the three of them running through old rock ‘n’ roll favourites and early Lennon-McCartney tunes would make for the perfect finale, bringing them back to where the Quarrymen first started. It needn’t be heralded as a major new Beatles release, they could just include it as a little treat for fans as part of a big CD/DVD Anthology box set. And if they wanted to make it extra special, there is always the third Lennon tune the Threetles attempted in 1995, ‘Now and Then’. We know they worked on it before ultimately discarding it (allegedly due to George thinking it wasn’t good enough), so there is one remaining song featuring all four Beatles lying in the vaults. Paul has spoken a couple of times of his desire to finish it off and, while some fans were not keen on the reunions songs, I think most of us would embrace a final one with open arms. I know I would. Is it ever likely to happen? Probably not. But, as I said earlier, we can dream.
Back when I was growing up in the early 1980s, my Dad would often muse (as fathers do) on the mysteries of the day. How the England football manager remained in his job, for example, what Boy George was all about, or whether William Shatner wore a wig. And one thing which really perplexed him was how Ringo Starr – the short, big-nosed, least good-looking member of The Beatles – had bagged himself a Bond girl. And not just any Bond girl, either. Barbara Bach was a grade A beauty who had matched Roger Moore’s 007 step for step as a rival KGB agent in The Spy Who Loved Me (at least until the final reel, when she had inevitably ended up in a bikini waiting for Bond to rescue her). How had Ringo managed that, my Dad (and I) wondered, clearly not considering anything beyond physical attraction and simultaneously failing to acknowledge Ringo’s charm, charisma and quirky sex appeal. I daresay we were not alone in pondering their match-up, though, and yet last month Ringo and Barbara celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary, cementing their relationship as the most enduring of all Beatle marriages. And they seem to be as solid as ever.
Their paths first crossed, in a very indirect fashion, in 1965, when 17-year-old Barbara attended The Beatles’ famous Shea Stadium gig in New York with her younger sister Marjorie. Barbara later said she was acting as a chaperone, and was more into Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones at the time. Strange to think, though, that she would have seen her future husband perform ‘Act Naturally’ at such an epochal event, though it’s unlikely she would have heard him above all the screaming. She was just embarking on a successful modelling career, which later morphed into acting, and wouldn’t encounter Ringo again for many more years.
The pairing didn’t have the most auspicious beginning. They met on the set of the goofy film comedy Caveman, in 1980, a fun but schlocky prehistoric caper which it is hard to believe anyone ever thought was a commercial proposition. This was when Ringo was still dabbling in acting, but it proved to be the latest in a long line of cinematic flops for him, and probably also put paid to whatever movie momentum Barbara had (after Bond, she’d also starred in World War II thriller Force 10 From Navarone opposite Harrison Ford). More importantly, however, it brought them together, and they were apparently smitten from very early on; by the end of filming, Ringo had left his long-time girlfriend Nancy Andrews and Barbara also ended her relationship of the time (her first marriage had ended in divorce in 1975). Their blossoming romance was strengthened when the pair survived a serious high-speed car crash on the roads of Surrey in May 1980 (Ringo later had his wrecked Mercedes crushed into a cube and used it as a table – class). Within weeks, they had announced their engagement and in April the following year were married at Marylebone Town Hall in London (which seems to be a good start point for Beatle marriages, with Paul tying the knot with both Linda and Nancy there). The McCartneys, along with George and Olivia, were among the guests, and the “reunion” – especially coming so soon after John’s death – inevitably triggered Beatlemania-like crowd scenes, a media scrum and headlines around the world.
In the early days of the relationship, echoing John-and-Yoko and Paul-and-Linda, Barbara was by Ringo’s side as much professionally as personally. She had cameos in his videos for ‘Wrack My Brain’ and ‘Stop and Smell the Roses’ in 1981, plus a prominent role in The Cooler, the short film he made with the McCartneys that same year. And the spree of chat show appearances to promote the Stop and Smell the Roses album during that period invariably featured both of them, often holding hands and swooning over each other. In acting ventures too, they came as something of a package, appearing together in the 1983 blockbuster mini-series Princess Daisy and Macca’s ill-fated Give My Regards to Broad Street film the following year. The former was a very curious affair, one of the many glossy, star-studded two-parters based on best-selling raunch and romance novels which littered TV schedules of the time (see also Lace and Hollywood Wives). In it, Ringo played a gay fashion designer, with Barbara as his lesbian wife. No, I’ve no idea why, either. I dimly remember it being on in our house at the time, and recall two things: a scene where Ringo and Barbara paint each other’s toenails on a yacht, and my Mum decrying Ringo for slumming it in such a production (I don’t know if my Dad was present, but you can guess what his comment would have been). Either way, that and Broad Street – where they had thinly written parts as a drummer and a journalist who hook up together – did little to advance their thespian careers; in fact, they pretty much put a full stop on both of them.
Barbara pretty much turned her back on acting after that. The problem was that Ringo’s music career had ground to a halt too by this point, leaving the pair with pretty much nothing to do apart from go to parties, appear on the occasional TV show and attend red carpet film premieres. And drink. Lots. Ringo’s boozing had become legendary during the 1970s, but by the mid-1980s had spiralled out of control – unfortunately dragging Barbara into the vortex with him. He later said: “We would sit around for hours and talk about what we were going to do, and of course I’d get so bleeding drunk I couldn’t move…..We used to go on long plane journeys, rent huge villas, stock up the bars, hide and get deranged.” Things reached crisis point in 1988, when he came to after a blackout and realised he had “trashed” not only his house, but Barbara too. The pair duly entered a rehab clinic in Arizona, insisting they shared a room and were treated together. They emerged sober, and have remained that way ever since – in fact Ringo, now a sprightly 80, has become something of a poster boy for healthy living, recently revealing that the only cheese he eats comes from goats, because their milk has “smaller molecules” than that from cows. Who knew?
If anything, the alcoholism and subsequent triumphant recovery seems to have brought the couple even closer. While she’s taken more of a back seat in his professional life (though I think she has a brief cameo in the video for his 1998 single ‘La De Da’), she’s always with him at public events, whether it’s collecting his knighthood at Buckingham Palace, being inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, his annual birthday ‘peace and love’ celebrations or attending a listening party for the latest Beatles deluxe reissue package. They are inseparable, always arm in arm and flashing peace signs in tandem. I always remember when I saw Ringo and the All-Starr Band at London’s Shepherd’s Bush Empire in 1998, I was near enough to the front to spy Barbara (and Olivia Harrison) in the wings dancing joyously to ‘Photograph’. And she must’ve heard that song a thousand times.
Such unfailing support must be a huge boon to Ringo, and rarely an interview goes by without him making some adoring reference to his wife. In 2016, for example, he gushed: “I think I love Barbara as much today as I did when we met, and I’m beyond blessed that she loves me, and we’re still together.” He’s also put his feelings into song many times, co-writing a host of strong numbers in tribute to Barbara during the second phase of his career, including ‘Mystery of the Night’ (from Y Not, 2010), ‘Not Looking Back’ (Postcards from Paradise, 2015), ‘Show Me The Way’ (Give More Love, 2017) and, best of all, the brilliant ‘Imagine Me There’ from 2003’s Ringo Rama. She was even name-checked in the touching Vertical Man number ‘I’m Yours’ (1998), which captured Ringo at his most dewy-eyed.
Barbara is far from a just a glamorous housewife of Beverly Hills, however. In 1991, she co-founded the Self Help Addiction Recovery Program (SHARP) with George’s ex-wife Pattie Boyd, and also runs the Lotus Foundation with Ringo, a charity which supports a range of good causes including people affected by cancer, domestic violence and drug abuse. And she has slotted seamlessly into the extended Beatles family – lending her support (alongside Yoko and Linda) to Olivia Harrison’s Romanian Angel fundraising campaign for orphans and displaced children in the 1990s, for example.
She always finds time to be there for Ringo, though. Most recently they ventured out during last year’s COVID lockdown (in masks, obviously) to send positive vibes on his 80th birthday from the Peace and Love steel sculpture he had gifted to the city of Los Angeles in 2019. It was a typically daffy Ringo gesture, but Barbara backed him all the way. Judging by his extravagant new hairdo, I wonder if she’s been taking charge of his grooming duties during lockdown, too. Whatever, their relationship is another example of how all The Beatles have tried to walk the walk, and not just talk the talk in their songs, and I raise a glass of fizzy mineral water (perhaps with a slice of goat’s cheese on a stick) in their honour. If my Dad was still around, I’m sure he would be sratching his head in bewilderment but, to lift a Beatles lyric, it’s clearly real love. As Ringo wrote on Twitter to mark their anniversary: “It was 40 years ago today. The love of my life said yes yes yes, and I said it right back. Peace and love.”
As he neared the end of 1972, Paul McCartney’s fledgling solo career must’ve seemed in a pretty precarious state. A year earlier, he had launched his new band Wings and their debut album Wild Life, amid no little fanfare. The record took a hammering from the critics, which was already par for the course for McCartney LPs, but it also sold in markedly fewer quantities than its predecessors McCartney and Ram, just scraping into the US top ten and stalling at #11 in the UK. A couple of months later the band’s first single, ‘Give Ireland Back To The Irish’, was predictably banned by the BBC, meaning a lot of people never even heard it, while many of those who did may have been put off by its stark, confrontational message about a very sensitive, nuanced subject. And whatever street cred he might have gained from such a bold political statement (not to mention a couple of drug busts during the year) would surely have evaporated in the summer when he followed it up with his version of the nursery rhyme ‘Mary Had A Little Lamb’. It was a UK top ten hit, but it must have invited the same sort of derision from many quarters that the Frog Chorus would trigger just over a decade later.
Neither single even made the US top 20, a market where Paul had previously carried all before him. And while Wings were cutting their teeth as a live band with a series of low-key gigs, many people were already ridiculing Linda’s inclusion in the band and her limitations as both a keyboard player and vocalist. And all this played out while George and John were still basking in the chart-topping glow of their All Things Must Pass and Imagine albums, respectively (though John would make his own major misstep in 1972 with the ill-judged Some Time in New York City LP). Even Ringo had crushed Macca on the singles chart with his smash hit ‘Back Off Boogaloo’. As strange as it seems now, many people back then would’ve been wondering if the man who had produced ‘Eleanor Rigby’, ‘Hey Jude’ and ‘Maybe I’m Amazed’ had lost his Midas touch, or even the plot. To put it simply, Paul needed a hit. Badly.
What he came up with as his year-end single was, has often been the case in his career, not what people would necessarily have expected. Especially as he already had ‘My Love’, a surefire winner in the classic Macca ballad tradition, in his back pocket. ‘Hi Hi Hi’ was essentially a bar room rocker, a rough and ready romp. He’d road-tested the number during Wings’ European tour that summer, albeit in slightly different, more ragged form (Henry McCullough’s scratchy, out-of-tune guitar solo on this performance is really something to behold). While it seemed to go down well with audiences, Paul wisely tightened it up when they took it into the studio, giving it more shape and focus. McCullough’s solo was removed altogether, though – to be fair – he contributes some nice slide guitar lines to the finished version. Nonetheless, it remained a pretty simple song, a chugging, stop-start slice of rock ‘n’ roll which made few concessions to the prevailing glam rock zeitgeist of the day. I imagine Paul thought it’s meaty, sing-a-long chorus would guarantee plenty of radio airplay. But then there are the lyrics….
Considering he’d already been arrested twice that year on drug-related offences, he was probably pushing his luck by raucously singing about getting high (high high). Early 1970s Britain was still struggling to come to terms with rising levels of violence, bad language and sexual explicitness across all forms of entertainment and pop culture, and the increasing prevalence of drug use must’ve been another horror to content with. Certainly, the Establishment was quick to blame most of society’s ills on such licentiousness, so when the BBC learned that ‘Hi Hi Hi’ also made references to lying on the bed and getting ready for a “body gun”, and doing it “like a rabbit” until the night is done, a further ban was inevitable. Paul protested that his music publishers had mis-heard part of the lyric, claiming that he hadn’t sung “body gun” but rather the more abstract “polygon” (while slyly conceding the former were “better words, almost”). You can’t really tell either way on the record, and I think he should’ve kept his mouth shut – “body gun” is a better line and, as it was getting banned anyway, he might as well have been hung for a sheep as for a lamb. Younger Beatles fans, raised on a 21st century pop music diet of blatant sex references, misogyny, open celebration of narcotics and the like, must be wondering what all the fuss was about. Even Paul himself releases records today brazenly singing a line which sounds very much like “I just wanna F— you”, and no one bats an eyelid. But, hey, it was a more innocent time.
Unaware (perhaps naively) that his raunch-fest was about to encounter such difficulties, in late November 1972 Paul took Wings into a TV studio to record a promotional film for the song. This was still a novel move in his solo career, as he had not promoted any of his singles in this way until ‘Mary Had A Little Lamb’, just a few months earlier. But while he had made a couple of colourful clips for that, dressing up and bringing in farmyard animals, the film for ‘Hi Hi Hi’ was as basic and uninspired as pop promos get. The band simply perform the song on a stage, in very static fashion, tracked by a handful of very static camera angles. It’s also pretty poorly lit (you can’t actually see Paul until he starts singing), like someone forgot to put a few coins in the electric meter – though as Britain was plagued by power cuts in the early ‘70s due to striking coal miners, this may have been something beyond the director’s control. At the end of the clip, the lights go out entirely, though you can just make out some feet. Very odd. Even when you can see the band, there’s not a great deal to comment on. Paul’s mullet is coming into its own by this point, though he’s wearing a natty (for the time) long coat which looks good. Well, it may look horrific, but the studio is so dark it’s hard to tell.
Alas, the resulting ban meant the film was never broadcast on BBC-TV channels and shows like Top of the Pops. Luckily, the band had recorded an uber-catchy B-side – the playful, reggae-tinged ‘C Moon’ – which was strong enough to warrant airplay of its own (it also had its own promo film, which I’ll look at another time). Whether ‘C Moon’ did the heavy lifting, or whether the decent reviews and word of mouth about ‘Hi Hi Hi’ piqued pop pickers’ curiosity, it’s hard to say; what mattered was that the single gave Paul the success he needed, hitting #5 in the UK. In the States, where DJs presumably had no problem with the A-side’s smutty innuendo, it gave Wings their first top ten hit to date, peaking at #10. It also charted well in other countries, notably Spain, where it hit the #1 spot in April 1973. Clearly the Spanish don’t mind a little sauce with their pop. Unsurprisingly, ‘Hi Hi Hi’ was a constant in Wings’ live sets for the next few years, culminating in scorching encore performances of the tune during their 1975-76 world tour ( thankfully preserved for all time on Wings Over America and the Rockshow concert film).
It was also included on the Wings’ Greatest compilation at the end of 1978, which is how I first came to hear it eight years later. As with some of Paul’s other 1970s output, once you get past the quirkiness of it, you realise there’s a lot going on. Along with the aforementioned lead guitar parts, I love the pumping rhythm of it (and the drums sound great) and the Paul/Linda/Denny Laine harmonies that would become a Wings trademark are really starting to come together here. Then there’s the fabulous fast-paced finale, propelled by a Little Richard-style whoop from Paul and the, er, swelling organ which brings the track to a shuddering climax (wow, now I’m doing it….this song is contagiously filthy). But, by the mid-1980s, Paul – perhaps conscious of his role as a respectable middle-aged parent – had started to distance himself from the song. In 1987, he told the NME: “I hear it now and cringe and think, ‘Did I really do that?’” In keeping with that line of thought, it was left off the same year’s All The Best! compilation, with ‘C Moon’ included instead.
By the 2000s, however, his attitude seemed to have softened. His next solo hits collection, 2001’s Wingspan, restored it to its rightful place, and the promo film also featured in a Top of the Pops 2 McCartney special in the UK to promote the album – by my reckoning, the first time it was ever broadcast by the BBC, almost 30 years after the fact. It was nice to finally see it in good quality, as opposed to grainy bootleg versions, and the clip subsequently made it onto the McCartney Years DVD video collection in 2007. And by 2014, the song’s rehabilitation was complete, as Paul included it in his concert setlists for the first time in almost four decades – interestingly, in the encore section alongside Beatles evergreens. I finally got to see him sing it at London’s 02 Arena the following year, and it was a huge thrill. When Macca rocks out, there is just no one to touch him, and he really cut loose on this.
I wouldn’t say ‘Hi Hi Hi’ was among his very best rockers, but it’s still a good one, and a lot of fun. Back in 1972, it restored some much-needed swagger to the McCartney brand and proved he could still make hit records on his own terms. It planted Wings’ flag firmly in the sand, and laid the groundwork for the chart-topping glories of 1973 and beyond. The video was fairly forgettable, but it too helped Paul to get back in the saddle and much better promo films were to follow. ‘Hi Hi Hi’ showed Wings were on the rise and would have plenty of staying power. And I’m going to stop now before I’m utterly consumed by double entendres.
Last time out I waxed lyrical about Tune In,the first volume of Mark Lewisohn’s mammoth Beatles biography, which was published in 2013. It richly deserves all the bouquets and plaudits which have come its way, and I have no doubt it will come to be seen as the ‘Bible’ on the band (not that I am comparing The Beatles to Jesus Christ as a person or God as a thing in any way whatsoever, you understand). But is it perfect? It comes staggeringly close but, no, I do have a handful of gripes with it. It may be that some of them are addressed in the extended (double-length) ‘author’s cut’ of the book. And, as it is, they don’t cast any real blemish over the regular, 840-page version. But Lewisohn sets such high standards, you can’t help but notice if he falls short once in a while or leaves some questions unanswered. It’s a little like Revolver having ‘Yellow Submarine’ on it – it’s still a majestic album, but not quite a flawless one (in my opinion). So here are a few nits I couldn’t help picking while reading Tune In.
In the course of his unparalleled research and forensic analysis for the book, Lewisohn came to question and, ultimately, revise some aspects of the band’s story which had been routinely accepted as fact down the years. And when the book came to be published, it’s ‘myth-busting’ credentials formed a key part of its marketing strategy, with its author credited as setting the record straight and correcting falsehoods. But, while there is no doubt it brings us closer to the truth and has thrown up a wealth of important information people didn’t even know existed, I can’t subscribe to the same feeling of certainty Lewisohn attributes to his re-telling of some events. For example, the moment in 1946 when the infant John Lennon was forced to choose between his warring parents, the heart-breaking tug of love which – legend has it – scarred him forever. As told in numerous bios, magazines and documentaries, it plays like a scene from a Hollywood weepie. Spirited away to Blackpool by this errant father Freddie, John was set for emigration and a new life in New Zealand, until his mother Julia turned up and begged him to stay with her. John initially chooses his dad but, at the last moment, bursts into tears and runs back down the street into his mum’s arms. Cue some of the lifelong inner torment and anguish which eventually erupted 24 years later on the John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band album.
But, according to Lewisohn, this never happened. Instead, after speaking to Billy Hall, the merchant navy pal Freddie was staying with, he paints a likely more realistic picture of both parents sitting down – with Julia’s new partner – in the house in Blackpool to calmly discuss what was best for John’s future, and coming to an agreement that he would stay with Julia in Liverpool. John may not even have been in the room. As I say, this sounds a more credible version of events, but how can we be sure? In interviews, Lewisohn likes to make a point that people’s memories – particularly of events decades ago – are not always reliable, and that he puts much greater emphasis on written documents made at the time. That being the case, he places an awful lot of weight on the veracity of Billy’s recollections, some 60 years after the fact. Yes, he may be the only living witness to the proceedings, but his memory seems unusually vivid about something which didn’t even concern his own family. This could well be how it went down, but how do we know what John’s reaction may have been? Or whether his parents – both volatile, mercurial people – might have been less composed when the moment came to finally part and, in Freddie’s case, leave John behind for good? Many myths contain a sliver of truth, after all.
Then there is the matter of John and Paul’s songwriting output from 1960 until late 1962 – or, rather, the lack of it. According to Tune In, they wrote virtually no songs during this period, together or separately. This despite the many numbers the pair came up with during sessions in each other’s homes during their early days together from 1957-59. Well, apparently, they just stopped. For two whole years. And then suddenly turned the tap back on when they landed a record deal. I’m sure Lewisohn would have based this claim on something – like I said in my last post, he’s not one to speculate, guess or assume – but it’s not clear what. After all, no-one outside of Lennon-McCartney would’ve cared what they were doing at that time, much less been slavishly keeping notes. How does he know that no material was started and finished later, or just scrapped altogether? It may have been a fallow period for them, but I just find it very hard to believe they would’ve lost interest in writing altogether. Paul, in particular, was a compulsive composer since the age of 14, and remains so to this day. But he just downed tools for two years, when he had a band he (and John) could write material for? It doesn’t quite ring true to me. And if it is, I’d like to know why.
The revelation I have the biggest issue with, however, is how The Beatles got their record deal with EMI. The accepted story has always been that, after the group was rejected by pretty much every record label in the land, George Martin at Parlophone spotted something all the others had missed and decided to take a punt. And we all lived happily ever after. Not so, according to Tune In. It claims (spoiler alert) that Martin had also turned them down sight unseen, and that EMI’s hand was eventually forced by persistent pressure from a record ‘plugger’ called Kim Bennett on behalf of the company’s music publishing arm Ardmore and Beechwood. Bosses there had apparently taken a liking to the three Lennon-McCartney originals performed at the band’s failed audition for Decca Records in January 1962, which were featured on the acetate disc Brian Epstein was hawking around London in a vain attempt to impress record company executives. Ardmore and Beechwood was apparently so keen to secure publishing copyrights to these songs that it kept chipping away at EMI management until they caved in and agreed to sign the unknown Liverpool beat group. And they then decided to foist the band on Parlophone as a way of “punishing” George Martin over his long-running extra-marital affair with his secretary Judy Lockhart Smith (who later became his second wife).
Lewisohn deserves massive credit for uncovering these extra, significant layers to the story, which undoubtedly add more complexity to the sequence of events and bring us closer to the truth of what actually happened. But I think he overplays his hand in claiming as undisputed fact that The Beatles’ big break was solely due to these factors. Why? Well, if the main aim of Ardmore and Beechwood was to get their hands on the potentially lucrative ‘Love of the Loved’, ‘Like Dreamers Do’ and ‘Hello Little Girl’, why wasn’t the group compelled to record them when they finally got to Abbey Road? None of theses songs were ever performed for Martin at their early recording sessions or, by all accounts, even considered. The Fabs may have preferred ‘Love Me Do’, but that would surely have been less appealing to a music publisher and, in any case, they weren’t in a position to call the shots at that stage. Martin even made them record a different song (‘How Do You Do It?’) from an entirely different music publisher, which doesn’t fit Lewisohn’s narrative at all. I may be missing something, but it just doesn’t add up in my mind. And as for Martin being forced to take on the band because his bosses took a dim view of his love life, well, I know strict moral values played more of a part in early-1960s British life, but is that really how a major corporation would make its business decisions? For once, there’s no explicit evidence offered in the book about this, we just know the hierarchy didn’t approve of the relationship. I think it’s a bit of a leap.
I wrote last time how well the book understands the individual characters of The Beatles and brings you closer to them. That said, I don’t think Lewisohn gets under the skin of Paul quite as well as the others. Which is curious, considering he never met Lennon and worked for McCartney over several years, interviewing him many times. To be fair, Paul has always been the most guarded and (I think) difficult to fathom of the four but, even so, there are a couple of points in the book where you just need to know more. For example, close school pal Ian James says he couldn’t understand what (aside from music) drew Paul to George, who was younger and decidedly more abrasive than Macca. Lewisohn doesn’t really explore or try to explain that. Indeed, while John and George had quite similar temperaments and world views, Paul was different in many ways, and I’d have liked the book to dig a little deeper into what attracted – and ultimately bound – them to each other. Likewise, while Lewisohn is generally very fair and balanced in the way he portrays each member of the band, he does seem a trifle more forgiving of John’s foibles than Paul’s. For example, if Macca (who was raised in a frugal household where money was scarce) is reluctant to stand his round at the pub, he’s portrayed as tight-fisted; whereas if John (from a much more affluent background) actively steals from other people, well, that’s just that the rascally, cheeky Lennon of lore.
I also regret that some characters so prominent earlier in the story fade into the background after Brian Epstein comes onto the scene and the band’s career begins to take off. I guess it’s inevitable, but it would’ve nice to learn more about how John’s Aunt Mimi, Paul’s dad Jim and Cynthia Lennon reacted to the group’s growing momentum during 1962, though that may be covered in the extended version of the book. Similarly, I would’ve thought the author might have made use of some great stories about this period revealed in Cynthia’s book John, as well as in the memoir of John’s childhood friend Pete Shotton. But, as they’re available elsewhere, it doesn’t really matter that much.
In fact, none of my quibbles really detract from what is a remarkable achievement by Lewisohn. Most critics and fans felt the same when Tune In was published, eight long years ago, to rave reviews – so much so that it has become a victim of its own success, with the author fending off constant (and increasingly impatient) questions about when volume two will appear (it looks like 2023, at the very earliest). It’s become as fervently awaited as the next deluxe anniversary Beatles album reissue from Apple. I can understand the frustrations, particularly among older fans. Some people have literally waited all their lives for a biography like this, and are worried they may not live to read the concluding parts (you also have to wonder about Lewisohn’s own mortality – he’ll be in his mid-60s by the time the next part comes out, and if he allows 12-15 years for volume three, he might be pusing his luck). That said, I completely see his point: it’s a huge undertaking, and if you’re going to devote a big chunk of your life to something like this, you want to do it properly. The Beatles deserve no less.
So, what have we got to look forward to? Lewisohn did say at one fan convention that he planned to take the story up to 1974, presumably the point when the (ex) Fabs signed the papers which formally dissolved their legal partnership. I would love to see the books go deep into the solo years, but at other times he has intimated they will finish at the end of 1970, when the collective group story effectively ends. That being the case, volume two will feature the prime Beatlemania years of 1963-66, with the final book covering the grand studio era of 1967-70. Even though these are shorter time frames than that of Tune In, there is such a mountain of information to sift through, unravel, analyse and contextualise. The group crammed more into those years than most of us would managed in a couple of lifetimes; whereas Lewisohn probably had a real job on to find and validate information from their pre-fame years for volume one, I would imagine the polar opposite has been true for his subsequent research. After all, these were four lives lived under the glare of an public spotlight which has rarely shone so intensely, before or since.
Nonetheless, as the author likes to point out, many things about The Beatles have been misreported or misinterpreted down the years, or just missed out altogether. And I’ve no doubt we’ll get to learn oodles of new stuff about the band when the later volumes eventually do see the light of day. Personally, I’m most intrigued about the final years, and the events leading up to the split, which remain shrouded in distortion, conflicting accounts, wilful revisionism and just plain mystery – especially the period spanning late-1969 through to early-1970. I’m sure Lewisohn will delve deep into all this, and shed fresh light on a disintegration that many people still can’t seem to get their heads around to this day. But we’ve probably got a long wait on our hands until we found out. Luckily, there are plenty of other Beatles books to read in the meantime. But if the later volumes of All These Years are as good as the first one, you probably won’t need any other biographies on the band ever again. If you haven’t read Tune In already, don’t delay. Unless someone invents a time machine, I reckon this will be the best, most definitive account of their story we’re ever likely to get. I feel quite stingy just giving it a 9.5.
Almost as long as I’ve been a fan of The Beatles, I’ve longed for a big, all-encompassing book covering every facet of their lives and careers. Ideally, this would also include the post-split story, but – as this would have to span more than 80 years and involve two solo careers which are still unfolding – I have begrudgingly accepted that a tome focusing just on their time together, the time when they changed not just music but the world, is more feasible and saleable. Still, for a long time, despite the wealth of biographical and musical material to work with, no one seemed inclined or able to do it. Sure, there were plenty of books out there – since the early 1980s, the stream of Fab Four publications has turned into a gushing torrent, which shows no sign of drying up – but fully comprehensive, detailed bios? Not so much. The two go-to books when I first got into the band, and which remained so for many years, were Hunter Davies’ Authorised Biography, from 1968, and Shout!, the controversial best-seller by Philip Norman published in 1981. Both are very good and remain, despite criticisms in more recent years, key works on the band. But Davies’ book is authorised, with all the good and bad that entails, and incomplete; it ends in mid-1968, before the group began to fall apart. And, while compellingly written and featuring a lot of new material for the time, Norman’s book has too many prejudices and half-baked theories, and – worst of all – is astonishingly light on the actual music. Neither book brings the factual meat, in-depth insights and level of minutiae the band deserves and which us obsessives demand.
Mark Lewisohn obviously agreed. After being featured in Shout! as a young superfan of the group, he made his own mark in the Fabs literary world in 1986 with the publication of the scholarly The Beatles Live!, with none other than Paul McCartney soon pronouncing it his favourite book on the band. This led to EMI opening up their tape archive to him, resulting in the landmark The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions in 1988, which may still be my favourite Fabs book to this day. Soon afterwards, he went to work for Macca and, subsequently, for Apple as The Beatles Anthology project began to take shape in the first half of the 1990s. Despite playing a key role in that, a strange – and, of the face of it, very unfair – falling out with the Harrison and Ono/Lennon camps curtailed his association with The Beatles’ organisation, and he moved on to other, unrelated work. His love for the band never went away though and, in 2003, he embarked on the mammoth task of researching and writing what he wanted to become the definitive biography, in three parts, under the umbrella title of The Beatles: All These Years. Lewisohn has often said that, while their story has been told many times, it has never been told properly, and it has repeatedly been told inaccurately. His goal was put that right, establishing the facts in a balanced, objective fashion, without fear or favour, and giving their history the weight and attention it deserves. The first volume, Tune In, finally published in 2013, pretty much succeeds on every level – and then some.
Where Lewisohn differs from many Beatles authors is that he’s not some hack paid to knock out a book to make some bucks, or someone trying to carve out a niche in the band’s bulging bibliography by shining a light on a specific corner of their lives or work. The Beatles are his passion, and he set out to write the Big One, on his own terms, which meant years of research before he even sat down to write (Tune In took a full decade from start to finish, and it looks like we’re in for a similar wait for volume two). Lewisohn approaches his subject like a historian, and loves getting into the level of deep investigation most writers wouldn’t have the time or the inclination to pursue. He clearly cares about getting it right, and so happily spends months of his life burrowed in libraries or scouring legal documents, contracts, letters and diaries, checking and cross-referencing until he’s exhausted every possible line of enquiry to get as close to The Truth as he possibly can. Likewise – while denied recent access to the Fab Four and their inner circle (more of which later) – he has interviewed scores of people who passed through the band’s orbit, on a major or minor level, and whose voices are rarely or never heard in most bios, to glean every possible perspective on the band’s emergence and development. Thus you get to hear from relatives, school and college friends, workmates and rival musicians, Hamburg associates and Cavern regulars, all providing testimonies which add vivid colour and breathy authenticity, filling in gaps and bringing the story to life. And, as Lewisohn has said, this is really the last time anyone will be able to reap that vital first-hand knowledge and experience.
Apart from a wonderful prologue detailing John and Paul’s first songwriting sessions together, and another chapter mid-way through on the early lives of Brian Epstein and George Martin, Tune In takes a straightforward chronological approach. It even begins by exploring the Lennon/McCartney/Harrison/Starkey family backgrounds in the century before their births, and painting a picture of the economically depressed, war-ravaged Liverpool they were born into. It then tracks their individual childhoods, the seismic repercussions of rock ‘n’ roll on their teenage lives, their coming together as friends and bandmates, their (surprisingly slow) rise up the ladder of the local music scene, and the jaw-dropping moments of good fortune at key points which eventually put them in a position to conquer the civilised world. By the time it finishes at the end of 1962 – ie. before the group had become famous outside of Liverpool – it clocks in at 840 pages (for the really hardcore, there’s an extended edition which runs double that length. I haven’t descended into that layer of obsession…..yet). If that sounds like overkill to you, you’re probably reading the wrong blog, because even if you have just a passing interest in The Beatles, I guarantee you’ll find this a gripping read. And if you love them anywhere near as much as I do, you’ll be positively foaming at the mouth. As well as unearthing a treasure-trove of information and anecdotes, Lewisohn breathes new life into the stuff we already know – or thought we knew – and somehow leaves you wanting even more.
So, what’s so great about it? Well, to begin with, it’s that level of granular detail, that has never really been seen in a Beatles biography before – at least, not one that I’ve read. Pretty much everything you’d want to know is covered here, and more. Every page is peppered with nuggets of information, and none of it ever seems extraneous or irrelevant. From Julia Lennon’s love life to Paul’s ongoing reluctance to cough up cash for a new guitar to Ringo’s experiences as an apprentice engineer, it all serves the story, helps to build up the story piece by piece and shed meaningful light on the main protagonists. Similarly, I really appreciate how Lewisohn has scooped up all the familiar touch points in the story and assembled them in the right order, clearing up all the misconceptions, assumptions and errors which have littered histories of the band since pretty much day one. This not only establishes a coherent, credible narrative but also illustrates how quickly everything happened. It must’ve seemed like an eternity to the Fabs at the time, but within a year of meeting Brian they went from topping the bill in Liverpool dance halls to releasing records on EMI and appearing on national TV and radio – pretty much unheard of for a provincial rock ‘n’ roll band at that time.
The book is also strong on providing vital context. The Beatles didn’t happen in isolation. You get a real sense of the austere, post-war England they grew up in and the meteor-like impact of rock ‘n’ roll which – for them – must’ve smashed it wide open. And Lewisohn guides us expertly through the records which inspired and shaped their sound, not only in the ground-zero explosion led by the likes of Elvis, Little Richard, Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly, but right through their early years as a band – noting, for example, the growing influence of US R&B and soul music on their development in 1961/62. And all this is supported by judiciously chosen quotes from John, Paul, George and Ringo themselves. While Lewisohn was denied access to Apple’s own archive of materials (an insane decision, but sadly typical of its control freakery over all things Fab Four), and Paul and Ringo declined to share their recollections with him for this project, you wouldn’t really notice. There are literally thousands of Beatle interviews out there, and the author seems to have poured over every single one to find the right quote for the right part of the story. Certainly, there are lots of first-hand remembrances from the four that I don’t recall seeing before – like, for example, Paul’s recollection that he and John seriously considered extending the Lennon-McCartney writing credit to include George at one point. Real skill and patience is required for that kind of thing, and thankfully Lewisohn seems to have it in abundance.
Perhaps the thing I like most about the book, though, is that Lewisohn really gets what The Beatles were about. The group dynamic, the personalities, the interactions and rivalries, the hierarchy, the similarities and differences, their astonishing closeness. I believe that one of the key factors behind the group’s enduring popularity, aside from the music, is that they formed an impossibly tight-knit gang that everyone would’ve loved to be part of. The way they meshed together so perfectly, complementing each other’s talents and shoring up any individual weaknesses, the way they struck sparks off one another, the endless in-jokes and the joy they so evidently had being in each other’s company. All so different, and yet joined at the hip – a “four-headed monster”, as Mick Jagger once memorably described them. As a fan, it’s something I can never get enough of, and Tune In explores this at length, with real flair. So you get to see how John came to admire the (relatively) much younger George because he wasn’t afraid to stand up to him; how Paul resented John’s close friendship with Stuart Sutcliffe because it temporarily returned him to the “back seat of the bus” alongside George, and how George was usually the one who buoyed the other two’s spirits whenever the band hit a dead end. And it shows, beyond a shadow of a doubt, how Pete Best’s tenure in the group was doomed from the start. People still wonder today why their first drummer got the boot but, really, there’s no great mystery. He wasn’t on the others’ wavelength, didn’t see the world the way they did, wasn’t ever truly part of the gang. And he wasn’t a good drummer. Ringo, on the other hand, most definitely was and – crucially – fitted right in from the get-go. And, by the point he joins the band late in the book, you’ll understand why.
While there is an ocean of material here (one can only wonder what fills out the extended version), Lewisohn it all pieces altogether in an extremely well written, readable style. There are no sneak-peaks into the future (an “on this day five years later they would be playing Shea Stadium in New York” type of thing) or even hints about what is to come, it all unfolds in real time, as it were, and has the feel of a novel. There is the occasional knowing wink – for example, after surmising how the four most likely spent New Year’s Eve 1959, he ends the chapter with: “And when they all woke up the following morning, it was the Sixties.” Almost everyone reading the book will know what happens next, so it kind of works as a prequel, an origin story, in which the superheroes acquire their powers. Except, in a way which is scarcely believable, it all actually happened. The author also deserves huge kudos for scrupulously sticking to the facts and preserving the objective impartiality which so often goes astray in works of this kind as their writers succumb to favouritism, speculation and their own tastes or interpretation. For the most part it has a very balanced view of its four subjects, and – while it doesn’t gloss over any of their less attractive character traits or behaviours – you’ll probably end up loving them all even more by the end. You’ll certainly feel like you know them better. So many fascinating things emerge, like Paul’s endearing pose as a wannabe young intellectual, riding around Liverpool on the top deck of buses while smoking a pipe and reading Waiting for Godot; George’s dry charm, bluntness and dogged implacability; John’s cocktail of insecurities washing up against his cast-iron sense of self, and Ringo’s single-minded focus on making a career in showbiz and aiming for the ultimate pinnacle, an appearance at the London Palladium.
Did his meticulous research uncover any big revelations? Well, yes, there are a few, but I’ll go into them in my next post. Because, for me, the highlights are the little things, the smaller details, where Lewisohn takes events which usually merit no more than a couple of paragraphs or even a footnote in other tellings, and expands them with delicious specifics. How each Beatle had one solid, close friend before joining the band. Their early romances – we even learn how Ringo lost his virginity, and I had no idea he was engaged to a girl while with Rory Storm and the Hurricanes. The chapter on the day John met Paul is mesmerising, as is the section on the band’s first semi-professional tour, of Scotland, backing singer Johnny Gentle. The Hamburg trips are brought to life like never before, as are the Cavern gigs and John and Paul’s pivotal trip to Paris for Lennon’s 21st birthday. You realise the importance of Brian Epstein’s intervention in their career, and how selfless and devoted he was to them. Their early recording sessions with George Martin at Abbey Road are brilliantly recreated, and convey the instant synergy between artists and producer. You learn how ‘I Saw Her Standing There’ was inspired by a flying visit to London Paul enjoyed with a beautiful redhead (shades of the future, there). I could go on and on.
Tune In is not without its flaws, which I will look more closely at in my next post, but – considering the scope and breadth of the book – there are precious few, they are minor ones, and they don’t really detract from its overall brilliance. If the remaining volumes reach the same standard, Lewisohn will effectively make most other straight biographies of The Beatles redundant. For, despite Apple’s disinterest and downright obstruction, this is the book which finally does the group justice.
Remember the sleeve notes of 1964’s Beatles for Sale LP, written by their press officer Derek Taylor? He predicted that the “kids of AD 2000” would still be grooving to Beatles music, and – as that year saw the release of the multi-zillion selling 1 compilation – he wasn’t wrong (though his vision of said “kids” being radioactive and picnicking on Saturn were slightly less accurate). I assume his claim was probably greeted by mockery by wide sections of society at the time, but I wonder if even he – or anyone else – would’ve given much credence to the idea that Ringo would still be recording and releasing new pop music in AD 2021, at the age of 80. It would probably have been pushing it to say Paul would still be active (never mind topping the album charts), but at least he was a front man and a songwriter with a few big hits already behind him. But Ringo? The drummer, with “limited” vocal range, who was allowed to sing one track per album? At the time, even the Fabs thought anyone over the age of 30 was past it, and could never have dreamed any of them would be making music in a far-flung future when we would presumably be using flying cars, rocket ships and teleportation as our preferred means of transport.
Okay, not many people are actually still buying Ringo’s releases, but that’s kind of beside the point. What matters is, are they still any good? Well, I guess it depends on what yardstick you choose to measure them by. There are those who don’t bother with any of his solo stuff because, well, it’s “only” Ringo. Those of us who have continued to follow his career have been rewarded with some genuinely good stuff, particularly during the 1990s and early 2000s, when he hooked up with some well-suited collaborators and enjoyed a real hot streak. Over the past decade or so, it’s been more of a mixed bag. Eschewing outside producers, Ringo has opted to take sole charge of his records and downsized somewhat, making them all at home with a roster of familiar rock star pals. His usual approach has been to come up with a song idea, lay down a rough backing track, and then invite people over to help build the tune on top of it. His first stab at this, 2010’s Y Not, was solid enough, but the follow-up Ringo 2012 was hugely disappointing, a lazy effort which marked a real low point. 2015’s Postcards from Paradise offered only a modest improvement, but he then came back with his most consistent album in years, Give More Love (2017). His last release, 2019’s What’s My Name, was decent too but, generally speaking, he’s been playing it safe in recent times – the same way of working, in the same place, with the same people, producing samey results (even the album covers are barely distinguishable from each other). I guess at his time of life he’s entitled to do whatever he likes, and it’s not as if anyone expects Sgt Pepper any more. Still, he is a Beatle, and I want to see him step outside his comfort zone from time to time.
Which brings us to his latest offering, Zoom In. For some reason, Ringo has decided that What’s My Name is to be his last album, and he will make only EPs from now on. Not quite sure what the thinking is behind that – especially when you consider he’s planning to release a second EP later this year, so he’s effectively putting out two halves of an album a few months apart. Go figure. Anyway, Zoom In features five tracks recorded last year which, on the face of it, follow the usual Ringo modern-day pattern: made in his home studio, with a little help from famous friends, with a cover trumpeting his peace-and-love credentials (though the bouffant lockdown hair cut is new – where does an octogenarian get all that hair?). However, while not radically different, he does ring a couple of changes this time out, to good effect. First, he’s given full sway to outside writers – in fact, he co-wrote just one number – which gives the material a different feel. And while he is still co-producing with regular crony Bruce Sugar (apart from on one song), he’s gone for fresh approach here. There were hints of it on What’s My Name, but the generous helpings of horns, organ, female backing vocals and the like help to create a fuller, richer ambience than usual; a throwback to the 1970s, in some cases. He hasn’t sounded this good for quite a while. And some of the songs are pretty strong, too.
The first track, ‘Here’s to the Nights’, released as a single (or what passes for one these days) just before Christmas, is the one you may have heard. Penned by veteran songsmith Diane Warren (who’s provided a bewildering array of hits for everyone from Aerosmith to Lady Gaga), it’s a big, bombastic anthem about breaking rules, having fun and, er, getting blind drunk. Okay, there’s nothing subtle about it and the lyrics could’ve been lifted from a greetings card, but it’s an uplifting, instantly memorable tune with a slick, stylish arrangement. It’s the kind of track Ringo hasn’t attempted for some time (it’s particularly nice to hear a big string section on one of his records again), and it fits him like a glove. For the booming chorus, he enlists a, ahem, starry list of guest vocalists, including Dave Grohl, Sheryl Crow, Lenny Kravitz and our very own Paul McCartney, though the end result is so megalithic you may struggle to tell the individual contributions apart without the video to help you. Ringo’s own voice is, probably for the first time, showing signs of age on this, but even that adds to the wistful, nostalgic glow of the song. And he still manages to hold an impressively long note at the end (seemingly much to his own amusement, judging by closing chuckle).
I didn’t care much for ‘Zoom In Zoom Out’ to begin with, but it’s a real grower. It starts off a little like Davie Bowie’s ‘Jean Genie’ but then settles into a shuffling, relaxed groove behind another surprisingly catchy melody. While repeating the standard ‘love is what it’s all about’ message, the lyric is actually quite clever, managing to be cosmic and commonplace at the same time (who’d have thought we’d get to hear him sing a line like ‘Shift your paradigm’?). Laced with some nice bluesy guitar from The Doors’ Robbie Krieger and featuring a crafty false ending, it’s a good track, full of Ringo’s characteristic bonhomie and optimism. His grandad dancing in the accompanying video is best forgotten, though.
Next up is ‘Teach Me To Tango’. As with ‘Better Days’, one of the stand-out tracks on What’s My Name, it was written by Sam Hollander, who’s provided hits for Katy Perry, One Direction, Panic! At The Disco and many more. And Ringo should definitely keep him on speed dial, because this is another winner. After a rumbling, drum-heavy intro, it powers into a hook-laden tune which rocks along for a rollicking, invigorating three minutes. The chorus will lodge in your brain and the tasty arrangement – topped off with a sizzling guitar break – is enough to get anyone on their feet. A perfect party tune, this is exactly the kind of thing Ringo should be doing these days, and it’s possibly the best number here.
The remaining two songs are not quite so good, but still far from write-offs. Co-written by Ringo, ‘Waiting for the Tide to Turn’ is one of his occasional ventures into reggae, and – alongside the obligatory reference to Bob Marley – he makes some big claims for the music’s healing power in these troubled times. “Just play some reggae music and it will be a better day”, apparently. Be that as it may, there’s not much of song here, but it does have a definite Caribbean vibe to it and a certain hazy charm. Again, the meaty production really gives it some heft. I think ‘King of the Kingdom’, the reggae work-out on Give More Love, was a stronger composition, but it’s not bad.
Ringo was persuaded to record ‘Not Enough Love in the World’ by the sentiment of the title alone, which makes you wish he’d be a bit more stringent when choosing his material. Written by former Toto guitarist and long-time All-Starr Band member Steve Lukather, it’s a bouncy, bright bit of mid-tempo pop, with a 1960s/70s feel. The lyrics are as hippie-ish and as daffy as the title suggests, sung with the carefree attitude you’d expect of a multi-millionnaire living in Los Angeles, though there’s a nice nod to our current situation in the middle eight (“I’ve lived a pretty crazy life/And I now I have to stay inside, oh my”). There’s nothing wrong with it – it’s pretty catchy, and Lukather supplies some fine guitar in it – it’s just the kind of thing we’ve heard many times before.
All in all, though, Zoom In is a pleasant surprise and rewards repeat listens. Ringo sounds spry, vital, and full of intent. It has no real clunkers, no heavy-handed references to The Beatles, and none of the air of going through the motions which has marred a few of his tracks in recent years. It shows the benefits of using outside writers and material tailored specially for him – like John, Paul and George used to do, in the old days – and of a bigger, more punchy production ethos. It certainly whets the appetite for the follow-up EP later this year which, considering Ringo will be 81 when that comes out, is surely more than we have any reasonable right to expect. I doubt not even Derek Taylor, with his radioactive kids picnicking on Saturn, would’ve predicted that.