‘The Beatles In Their Own Words’ (1978)

Imagine a world where reliable information on The Beatles is a little hard to find. There are some salacious biographies doing the rounds, with varying degrees of accuracy and questionable balance, the odd book of photos, and a fair few ‘cut and paste’ volumes recycling old newspaper reports or out-of-print tomes like Hunter Davies’ official biography. And you may or may not be able to pick up a couple of these at your local bookshop. Such was the situation for serious Fab Four fans in the early 1980s, though the flood of written works that would fill an entire library today was well underway by then. One book you would usually find on the shelves, though, was The Beatles In Their Own Words. Surely this would be a must-have? One that every student of the band could glean precious facts and insights from, right? Well, not exactly. In fact, if could be described as a disappointment then, it comes off as downright feeble reading it again now.

The edition I picked up in the mid-1980s

The Beatles In Their Own Words, first published in 1978, was part of a series of books from Omnibus Press which pulled together interviews and other quotes from rock stars of the day. There were similar volumes for the likes of Bob Dylan, David Bowie and the Rolling Stones, plus separate editions covering the wisdom of John Lennon and Paul McCartney, as well as a belated follow-up (in 1991) dealing with The Beatles after the break-up. The 1978 book was compiled by Barry Miles, who looms large in Fabs lore as co-owner of the Indica Gallery, where John met Yoko, and the man who helped facilitate Paul’s avant garde adventures in Swinging London’s artistic underground. And, of course, he later penned Macca’s authorised account of his life in the 1960s, Many Years From Now. This book also features excerpts from exclusive interviews Miles conducted with Lennon and McCartney during the late-60s. So far, then, so good.

The first thing you notice, however, is that it’s quite a slim volume (128 pages) and that many of the pages are taken up with photographs. So you don’t really get that many of their words for your money. And then there’s the curious structure of the book. It’s divided up into sections covering ‘The Story’, ‘Press Conferences’, ‘Songwriting’, ‘The Songs’, ‘The Films’, ‘Drugs’ and ‘Politics’ – quite a strange grab bag  of themes. And the one on politics runs for all of three pages, almost as if it was thrown in as an afterthought. The content of some chapters also leaves you scratching your head. ‘The Story’ scarcely touches upon the Hamburg years, the trip to Rishikesh, Apple or Allen Klein. Stu Sutcliffe, Pete Best and Brian Epstein are each dealt with and despatched in little more than a paragraph or two, while the break-up receives the equivalent of a page. Similarly, some well-known songs are allotted a sentence or nothing at all,  while the Help! and Let It Be films barely get a mention. It all feels a little thrown together at random.

Filming ‘Help!’ — something barely mentioned in the book

Worse, though, is the complete lack of context for any of the quotes chosen. We’re given no dates and – apart from the press conference section – don’t even know whether the comments were made during the band’s lifespan or after the split. And in some cases, particularly where key parts of their career or output are so scantily covered, that context is crucial. There are pros and cons of both contemporary recollections/thoughts from the ‘60s and more reflective/bitter/hazy look-backs from the vantage point of the ‘70s, but we aren’t given the dates to help inform our perspective. And occasionally it would have helped to have some more background about what they are discussing. There are also parts which cry out for a bit of editing. While some songs or events warrant only a few words, there are sections which ramble on for ages and go nowhere – especially John and George’s somewhat airy observations on the Maharishi and religion, which seem to have been included at length to fill out that part of the book. It’s just lazy.

Then there’s the bias. The book should really have been titled John Lennon In His Own Words (with the odd comment from his bandmates). I would estimate around 75% of the quotes come from John, which is just ridiculous.  George and Ringo barely get a look in – apart from eight words, the first Harrison contributions don’t appear until page 27, and even then it’s just a couple of sentences. It’s true John was probably the most entertaining interviewee, shooting more from the hip, even in the early days, and was always ready with a witticism or memorable soundbite (though it’s also true he could speak a lot of drivel on occasion). But this overwhelming focus on him does a huge disservice to the others, who also gave many fascinating, amusing and insightful interviews down the years. It also puts a Lennon slant on almost everything, as if John’s take on things was the gospel, the definitive version of events (and time has shown that it wasn’t – he had his agenda, and skewed memories, just like everyone else). The book’s heavy reliance on using extracts from his (in)famous 1970 ‘Lennon Remembers’ Rolling Stone interview is a case in point. Yes, it’s a great read, but was just a snapshot of how he felt at a particular moment in time – a trenchant and combustible moment, just after the band’s acrimonious split. Subsequent recollections were generally more considered and rounded, but books like this rehash it as if it were the last word on John’s feelings and the band’s history. Giving Paul, George and Ringo so little space deprives the book of balance and depth. As George once joked, “How many Beatles does it take to change a lightbulb? Four.”

Live on stage in 1963

Of course, as it is The Beatles in their own words, there is still lots of interesting copy in here, some of which you may be very familiar with, and a few bits you won’t. Paul gives a very precise reminiscence about the genesis of ‘Eleanor Rigby’, for example, and reveals how offended the band was when one reviewer described Sgt Pepper as “George Martin’s finest album”. It’s fun to read John recalling long-forgotten songs he wrote during their early days and realising they weren’t bad. There’s also some thoughtful stuff from John about his lyrical inspirations, heavyweight musical analysis (“it was quite flattering to hear all that crap about The Beatles, but I don’t believe it”) and how most of his songs “sound wrong” when transcribed to sheet music. And it’s intriguing to learn that Paul knew quite a lot about some of the obscure Indian gurus George chose to put on the cover of Sgt Pepper, reflecting how the four fed off each other throughout the 1960s.

The press conference section is good, bringing together lots of their off-the-cuff quips and put-downs, as well as highlighting the sheer banality of much of their questioning (Q: “What do you fear the most, the atom bomb or dandruff?” Ringo: “The atom bomb. We’ve already got dandruff.”). On a more serious note, there’s lots of space devoted to the 1966 ‘Bigger than Jesus’ controversy, and it’s gratifying to read how John – while clearly shaken by the tumultuous reaction it stirred in parts of the US – refused to retract or compromise on the meaning of what he had originally said. Some parts of the book, however, do remind you that even Beatles can spout complete cobblers from time to time. Paul’s metaphysical musings about the Sgt Pepper cover, for example, sound suspiciously like they were inspired by smoking some herbal cigarettes, while a couple of John’s political pronouncements are naive in the extreme (“I’m beginning to think Chairman Mao is doing a good job.”).

Curiously, for a book about words, one of its main strengths is the choice of photographs. There are some very familiar ones, obviously (the band at the Cavern, with Marlene Dietrich at the Royal Variety Performance, collecting their MBEs, at the Sgt Pepper launch party in Brian Epstein’s house), but some ones you don’t see as often. For example, there’s a great one of Paul, George and Ringo tucking into what looks like kippers for breakfast at (I think) the London flat the four briefly shared in early 1963, a windswept shot of John and Paul with director Dick Lester on the London set of Help!, a fine photo of them onstage in Munich during their 1966 world tour and a quirky one of Paul (alongside Jane Asher) pretending to hide from photographers in 1968. There are also some snaps of fans during the wild American tours, giving us an idea of the view looking out from the goldfish bowl at the centre of it all. But even here, the designers drop the ball by using some poor quality images or blowing certain pictures until they become grainy and distorted. A pity.

Recording ‘I Want You (She’s So Heavy)’ in February 1969

All in all, The Beatles In There Own Words is a missed opportunity. There are a few snippets here you might not have come across anywhere else (perhaps the quotes taken from Miles’ own chats with John and Paul), and it’s nice to have extended highlights of their press conference banter. But if you’re looking for an in-depth, personal overview of their career together and how they experienced it (and remember, there were only four people who did experience it from the inside), it falls well short. It’s too brief, too scatter-shot and too Lennon-centric. I’m not sure whether a definitive collection of Beatles quotes, mixing as-it-happened observations from the ‘60s with remembrances from later years, has ever been published, though The Beatles Anthology is obviously a prime place to start. Either way, this is a pretty flimsy effort which doesn’t really do the subject justice. I can’t give it more than 5.

Sing along: Paul’s ‘Put It There’ video

The UK singles chart was a strange place in February 1990. Dance records by the likes of Technotronic, Beats International, Black Box and Mantronix predominated, rubbing shoulders with seriously whiffy cheese from the likes of Cher and Michael Bolton, and more edgy, indie-style fare from the likes of The Wedding Present, House of Love and Depeche Mode. There was still room for established older acts, like Rod Stewart, Phil Collins, Eric Clapton and The Stranglers, but even then the order of the day was big, booming records which choruses you could demolish a house with. So when Macca released a gentle, folksy, two-minute ode to parenthood as the fourth and final single from Flowers in the Dirt, it was never likely to make any waves. And so it proved. Which is a shame, as the song and its accompanying video hold a uniquely unassuming and affecting place in his discography.

While it was one of many jewels which festooned Flowers when it was released in the summer of 1989, ‘Put It There’ was singular in its simplicity. Featuring just Paul on acoustic guitar, supplemented by Buddy Holly-style knee slaps and an elegant string quartet section scored by George Martin, it’s part of a Macca ballad lineage stretching from ‘And I Love Her’ in 1964 to ‘When Winter Comes’ on the recent McCartney III. In fact, it’s the kind of song reviewers often lazily refer to along the lines of “a bit like ‘Blackbird’, only not as good”, when in truth it’s every bit as good – if not better – but is instantly devalued (for them) by being released under the McCartney banner rather than the Beatles one. Unlike many of its  counterparts, however, it’s not a song about romance or being at one with nature, but instead deftly explores and celebrates the father-son relationship. Supported by a winsome melody, the lyric charts the evolving but enduring nature of parental love with real economy and skill.

Paul with his dad, Jim – man and boy

As Paul liked to tell interviewers on its release, the song was inspired by a regular saying of his dad, Jim, who used to hold out his hand and say “Put it there, if it weighs a ton.” By all accounts, Paul was very close to his father growing up, a bond which intensified when Mary McCartney died of cancer in 1956 and Jim was left to bring up two boys alone (on a very limited wage, to boot). He obviously did a fine job of it, and Macca still likes to quote his dad to this day, his affection, respect and gratitude clearly evident. And it was of course Jim, a former jazz band player, who nurtured and encouraged Paul’s love of music from an early age, something we should all be grateful for. But ‘Put It There’ is also about learning and passing on the baton to the next generation – in this case, Macca’s own son James, who was born in 1977. They seem to have a close relationship, too (James has grown up to be a musician, like his dad and granddad), and you can imagine that this was a tune which emerged from Paul’s heart as he watched him grow up. But, as with so many McCartney songs, it doesn’t really matter where it came from. It has a universal message any parent or child can tune into, whether it triggers warm memories or points a way to raising your own offspring when the time comes. Or both.

Paul with his son, James

The song certainly had a good reception when Paul performed it on his 1989/90 world tour, though he brought in other band members to bolster the delicate arrangement for stadium settings and added in the closing section of ‘Hello Goodbye’ to round it off (no idea why, but it worked quite well). Allegedly, it ended up being chosen as the album’s final single due to a strong reaction it garnered at a show in Paris in the autumn of 1989. This strikes me a little fanciful, likely one of the many tall tales put about by Geoff Baker, Pauls PR man/spin doctor at the time. There weren’t really that many obvious singles on the album, once ‘My Brave Face’ and ‘This One’ were out of the equation, so I suspect ‘Put It There’ was seen as having a bit of novelty potential. And, to be fair, in the more flexible, catholic charts of times past it might have had – though I don’t think it would ever have been a massive hit.

A still from the video

To promote it, a suitably simple video was put together. It mixes sepia-tinted shots of Paul performing the song in half-shadow alongside specially filmed footage of fathers and sons hanging out and having fun – playing football, swimming, making models, reading stories and so on. It’s a very idyllic portrait, true, emphasised by the old-fashioned, 1940s-style setting (perhaps harking back to Macca’s own childhood), and I guess whether you like or not will depend on your tolerance for this kind of sentiment. But it steers well clear of the contrived, mawkish approach of Mike and The Mechanics’ ‘The Living Years’, another song about filial relations released a year earlier. Most of the scenes running through the video have an authentic feel and are, I think, quite touching. We also get a nice pay-off at the end, as the clip closes with an old family photograph of McCartney father-son bonding, with James face-painting his famous dad.

The closing image of the video

‘Put It There’ is a kind of sister song – or perhaps that should be brother – to an earlier and equally fine McCartney composition about parental joy, ‘Mama’s Little Girl’, recorded by Wings in 1972. Paul or someone at MPL must’ve have thought likewise, as the widely-bootlegged tune was finally given an official release as the b-side of this single. Alas, even that wasn’t enough to tempt more than hardcore Macca fans into buying it. Despite the triumphant run of concerts in Birmingham and London (his first UK live shows in more than a decade) just prior to its release, ‘Put It There’ stalled at #32. Nonetheless, it hit the top 20 in the Republic of Ireland and even reached #9 in the Canadian charts. A timely reminder, perhaps, that the UK and US charts aren’t the be-all and end-all for significant chunks of the world population. For some baffling reason, neither this song nor any of the other Flowers tracks were included in the 2016 career-spanning Pure McCartney compilation, though the video did feature on the 2007 McCartney Years DVD collection (though, for another reason we can only guess at, the whole film was tinted blue). It’s a pity it hasn’t had a little more recognition, though maybe it will have its day in the sun eventually. It came to mind when I saw two dads playing football with their boys in a local park the other day, and it holds a charm and a truth that will never go out of fashion. As Paul sings, “it’s all that matters in the end.”

The tinted 2007 version of the video

Mixing a whole: the pros and cons of remixing The Beatles

Late last year,  the Harrison estate finally confirmed long-running speculation about the release of an expanded set to mark the 50th anniversary of George’s first post-Beatles album, All Things Must Pass. Details of what it will contain and when it will come out (we are already past the anniversary date) are still to emerge, but we do know that the original album has been remixed. This, of course, plays to the rather schizophrenic view of the album among some fans. I’m forever reading people saying that this is the best Beatles solo album of all, and others proclaiming (often in the same breath) that it sounds terrible. It’s that evil Phil Spector again. The producer many hold accountable for “ruining” the multi-million selling Let It Be album with his meddling and overdubs was apparently also responsible for masterminding the recording of George’s most successful and acclaimed work, while simultaneously making it sound lousy by swathing it in his trademark  lush, orchestral ‘Wall of Sound’. Hmm. Even the official announcement quoted George’s son Dhani as saying: “Making this album sound clearer was always one of my dad’s greatest wishes and it was something we were working on together right up until he passed.” Putting aside the fact that George did reissue the album shortly before he died and chose not to tinker with the mix, what do we have in store when this set does eventually appear (which I’m betting will be closer to the 51st anniversary than the 50th)?

The new mix of ‘All Things Must Pass’

As a taster, a remix of the title track (one of the greatest of all Harrisongs) was made available on streaming and download platforms in November. Like other recent Beatles revamps (which I’ll come onto shortly), it sounds louder, with the instruments more clearly defined (especially the strings), and the vocals and drums more prominent. I could certainly hear a couple of little nuances in George’s vocal which weren’t evident before. So, a little different to the version we’ve all grown up with, but better? Improved? I wouldn’t say so. You see, I love All Things Must Pass just the way it is, Wall of Sound and all. You may say it’s bloated, overstuffed and mushy; I’d say it’s rich, epic and rammed  with goodies. In fact, it’s Spector’s Wagnerian production touches which help bestow some of the songs with the sense of grandeur they deserve (and it’s only one aspect of the record – as with Let It Be, it’s often overlooked that many of the tracks have much sparser, more low-key arrangements, according to their needs). In my book, it’s always sounded great. If there’s a record which is better produced than ‘My Sweet Lord’, for example, I’ve yet to hear it. Yes, you could argue some parts could be mixed further forward – I do concede there is some fine guitar playing from George here and there which is a little buried – but it’s swings and roundabouts. The point is, this is how George wanted it to sound at the time he made it.

Remixing, it would appear, is the new frontier when it comes to managing and marketing The Beatles’ group and solo catalogues. After all, if you haven’t got much in the way of new material left to put out (though that is seriously debatable), what better way of making people buy what they already own again – and possibly attract new fans – than to tweak the recordings, and make them sound different? Remastering – in other words, giving them a sonic upgrade – no longer seems to be enough; now we’re wading into the more murky waters of changing the way the songs sound. Think of it as being similar to making the grass in a painting by Constable a darker green, or giving the lines in a Van Gogh a bit more definition. Or, even worse, removing something from a painting altogether. Based on what we’ve heard on recent Beatles and Lennon releases, my views on this are (excuse the pun) decidedly mixed. I don’t want to be a stick-in-the-mud reactionary who views their recordings as some sort of untouchable, Dead Sea Scrolls, to be preserved forever in aspic. But, for the most part, the changes I’m hearing sure as hell aren’t making them sound better. In fact, I’d say they are unpicking the painstaking stitching The Beatles employed when creating their intricate tapestries. Just because modern technology allows you to do something, it doesn’t necessarily mean you should.

Promoting the 2017 ‘Pepper’ reissue

Aside from a some tasteful tweaks to some of John’s albums reissued in the early 2000s, the remixing juggernaut really got underway with the 50th anniversary re-release of Sgt Pepper in 2017. With the blessing of Paul, Ringo, Yoko and Olivia Harrison, George Martin’s son and protégé Giles was given carte blanche to give the album a make-over and, I guess, freshen it up for 21st century ears. Given his loyalty to what his father had achieved in the first place, and his long-standing connection to the Beatles family, he was probably the ideal choice – they obviously trusted him not to spray-paint the Mona Lisa, as it were. And I have to say that when I first heard it, I was pleasantly surprised. He had really beefed up the sound, not only making it louder but giving the instruments and vocals more definition and space, allowing them to leap out of the speakers and fill the room – creating a more panoramic, ‘Cinemascope’ effect. Considering the whole album was created on primitive (by today’s standards) four-track recording machines, this was no mean feat. He had breathed new life into it. Many of the songs were enhanced, and I still stand by that.

Except then I started to notice things that were missing, or that were somehow gelded by the new mix. The way John and Paul’s vocals slowly drifted from left to right over the stereo ‘picture’ during the middle section of the title track – gone. The giddy, groaning ending to ‘Lovely Rita’ had lost its zip. Paul’s scorching guitar solo in ‘Good Morning, Good Morning’ sounded de-clawed. Worst of all – and it’s a massive failing – the rumbling, ominous orchestral cacophony which roars out of ‘A Day in the Life’ sounded hollow. By giving more clarity to the 41-piece orchestra ‘freak-out’, Martin robs it of its power, and the song is fatally hobbled as a result. Sometimes that dense packing of instruments, the way they interconnect and mesh together, is an integral part of what makes them work.

Like this photo, the 2019 remix puts a different slant on ‘Abbey Road’

This problem is even more pronounced on the 2019 remix of Abbey Road. This was the album which George Martin saw as his masterpiece, from a production point of view, and is generally regarded as the most ‘modern’ sounding of all Beatles records. Playing around with the structure of the songs was always going to be risky, and so it proved. It’s typified by how Giles approached ‘Something’, one of the most beautifully arranged and produced of all Fabs songs, with all its constituent parts melding together like a perfectly crafted Swiss watch. By bringing everything forward and separating them out, he has disrupted that delicate harmony. The strings, for example, now sound disconnected from the rest of the track. The rhythm guitar part sticks out like a sore thumb instead of blending in with everything else, and the cranked-up vocals and drums overpower everything else in the middle-eight section. Elsewhere on the album you can hear little bits and pieces which may have been obscured or downplayed before, but I’m not sure they add much to the listening experience – just the opposite, in fact. In ‘Come Together’, for example, pushing John’s buzzing guitar higher in the mix unbalances the song in my opinion. And worse, part of his vocal during the fade-out seems to have disappeared altogether. In ‘I Want You (She’s So Heavy)’, as with ‘A Day in the Life’, the layering of guitars, synthesisers and white noise which builds up to a thundering crescendo has lost some of its visceral impact. And while it’s harder to put my finger on, the imperious suite of songs which makes up the second half of the record just doesn’t sound the same. The one notable exception to all this dubious tampering is the new mix of ‘Oh! Darling’, which actually carries more of a punch and sounds terrific.

Of course, the ‘problem’ may lie with me, rather than the shiny new mixes. I’ve been listening to this music for my entire adult life, and expect things to sound a certain way, with everything in a certain place. I guess it’s a bit like coming home after a holiday and finding someone has moved all  your furniture around, and even added some new curtains. It probably meets the trendy tastes of some interior designer, but isn’t what you’re used to or what you’re comfortable with. Maybe some people had the same reaction when music switched from mono to stereo (and some people still prefer mono mixes), I don’t know. Maybe it won’t even be noticeable on phones or small portable speakers, it may even make the songs sound better on those devices. But if you want to listen to the albums on big speakers or a decent pair of headphones, much of it just doesn’t sound right. Crucially – and I keep coming back to this – they don’t sound how The Beatles and George Martin intended.

This comes more sharply into focus when you get to the most recent Lennon reissues. When 1971’s Imagine album was reissued for the umpteenth time in 2018, we were given what was entitled the ‘Ultimate Mix’ – and, to be honest, it wasn’t half bad. In fact, I’d go as far as to say it’s the most most satisfying Beatles-related remix so far. Like the best moments on the Sgt Pepper revamp, the songs sound largely the same, just fuller, with more presence, space and depth. They have ramped up the sound without, for the most part, sacrificing any of the textures and elements we’ve come to know and love.

The recent Lennon remix album. Truth has got little to do with it

By contrast, last year’s Gimme Some Truth: The Ultimate Mixes compilation – overseen by John’s son Sean – is just horrendous. It’s so bad, I couldn’t even get all the way through it. Sticking with the art metaphor, it’s like they’ve scribbled on earrings, tattoos and a hipster beard onto the Mona Lisa in a bid to make her look more contemporary. Or to put it another way, by eradicating some of the blurring of the colours, they’ve made her look wan and washed-out. On tracks like ‘Mind Games’ and ‘#9 Dream’, the drums and vocals have been pushed to the fore, rendering the songs clunky and wrecking the subtlety of the original arrangements. ‘Whatever Gets You Through The Night’, which always had something of a messy production, sounds far worse now it’s been ‘cleaned up’ and sanitised. And, ironically, the more modern-sounding numbers from Double Fantasy – like ‘(Just Like) Starting Over’ and ‘Woman’ – have been stripped of their production sheen and just sound rougher. Like you’ve pulled off the cover of your laptop to reveal all the wires and circuits creating the magic which appears on its screen.

What is far more concerning and hard to swallow, however, is that some stuff has actually been removed by the remixing process. For example, the pulsating horns on ‘Steel and Glass’, a highlight of the song, are now nowhere to be found on the so-called ‘Ultimate Mix’. Unforgivable. And the 1973 Rock ‘n’ Roll album outtake ‘Angel Baby’ – which I’ve listed previously on this blog as my favourite cover by any of the solo Beatles – now sounds unrecognisable. From the removal of John’s charming spoken word introduction to the scaling down of the original huge-sounding brass arrangement (that man Phil Spector again), the track has been drained of life. Apologies for the metaphor overload, but it’s like a widescreen Technicolour epic has been reduced to a grainy, flickering home movie. A travesty. Even though John once said he would have liked to re-record every Beatles song, I struggle to believe he would have been on board with this. Changing the emphasis of a recording is one thing; taking out parts which the artist had put in there – in short, altering their vision of the song – is another entirely. What’s worrying is the guy behind this project, Paul Hicks, has also been in charge of overhauling All Things Must Pass. Be still my beating heart.

The new, de-horned verison ‘ Steel and Glass’. No, no, no.

Like it or not, I guess remixing is with us to stay, at least for the foreseeable future. As well as All Things Must Pass, this year is also set to bring new versions of John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band (which should be interesting, bearing in mind none of the songs feature more than three instruments) and, of course, Let It Be. Paul has yet to jump on the bandwagon with his reissues (with the exception of a modest remix of Tug of War in 2015), but I suspect it’s only a matter of time. I just hope the original versions do not disappear from view (though, if they do, I would imagine they will eventually be given a much trumpeted return – “the original mixes! As nature intended!”). Anyone discovering the band through these “ultimate mixes” will not only be given a distorted, inaccurate picture of what The Beatles created but – in many cases – be sold very short indeed. Cleaner isn’t always better. Sometimes music is meant to sound a little fuzzy and indistinct; sounds blending together to form something greater than the sum of their parts. And if people then start arbitrarily removing some of those parts as well, artistic integrity is one of the things which has passed away.

Finding my way: first impressions of ‘McCartney III’

I’d better start by coming clean – I’ve never been a big fan of either McCartney (1970) or McCartney II (1980). It’s not that I dislike them (there’s no such thing as a bad McCartney album, as far as I’m concerned), it’s just that they would come very low on the list when I come to rank his albums. Both are wildly erratic, showcasing Paul at his very best (with songs like ‘Maybe I’m Amazed’, ‘Every Night’, ‘Waterfalls’ and ‘One of These Days’) and at his absolute worst (‘Kreen Akrore’, ‘Valentine Day’, ‘Bogey Music’ and ‘Darkroom’). Half of each album is made up sketchy, unfinished musical doodles, throwaways and scratchy flights of whimsy which go nowhere. I understand that some people enjoy it when Paul retires to the studio alone, loosens up and  gives free rein to his more quirky impulses. But to read – as I have, repeatedly, in recent weeks – that these albums are “classics” and among his best solo efforts, leaves me baffled. I wonder how many people came to his music through these albums. Surely most of us were first drawn to the polished, fully-realised songwriting on Revolver, Sgt Pepper, Abbey Road or Band On The Run? Ah, but what about his contributions to the rough and ready White Album, I hear you say? To which I’d reply that, for every ‘Why Don’t We Do It In The Road?’ or ‘Wild Honey Pie’, there were many more painstakingly perfected, lovingly produced (and, in my opinion, much better) numbers like ‘Martha My Dear’, ‘Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da’ and ‘Honey Pie’. Put it this way: I’d much rather have the full-on, concentrated Macca genius brought to full fruition on an album like Tug of War than the goofy, bitty, off-the-wall experimentalism of McCartney II – fun, and sporadically brilliant, though it is. There is room for both, of course, but it’s just what I prefer.

‘McCartney III’

So, aside from being thrilled at the prospect of a new McCartney album so soon after 2018’s Egypt Station, I was a little wary of the news that Paul had spent the year’s first Covid lockdown retreating to his studio to create another one-man, home-made, off-the-cuff production in the vein of its long-distant predecessors. Of course, fans of those albums were very excited at the prospect – the general feeling seemed to be that this time we’d get ‘pure Paul’, doing everything himself, giving in to his experimental side and not polishing stuff up too much or striving to please the pop crowd (such people are also invariably advocates of Macca’s more underground collaborations with the producer Youth, under the name of The Fireman, which I’ve never cared for). Which seems to overlook the fact that (a) Macca loves writing melodic pop songs, and always has, and (b) since 2001’s Driving Rain he’s recorded most of his new material on his own, and has never been afraid to go in off-beat directions (check out ‘Road’ from 2013’s New, if you don’t believe me). What going to be different this time was the lack of a producer and, perhaps, his own mindset. Also, those earlier McCartney albums were redeemed by some stellar songwriting, as I’ve said, heights he’s rarely hit this century. Without a ‘Maybe I’m Amazed’ or even a ‘Coming Up’ to fall back on, would the new work lean much more heavily on half-baked, rambling fripperies like – ugh – ‘Check My Machine’? Or charming but inconsequential ditties like ‘Momma Miss America’?

Thankfully, McCartney III charts a different path. It’s more consistent, fleshed-out and wholly song-led than its two predecessors. It’s instrumentally more in keeping with McCartney (though not massively so), eschewing the synths and electronica which took up chunks of McCartney II, though it does retain some of the latter’s eccentricities and more idiosyncratic approach. Admittedly, there are no tracks worthy of legendary Macca status (though one comes mighty close), and there are moments when he could really have done with a second opinion, but there are no real misfires on it. It’s a solid set of songs which, as ever with Paul, reward repeated listening. Despite gripes from some quarters, his voice is more than adequate (I don’t get those criticisms – I mean, the guy’s 78, do people really expect him to have the same honeyed larynx of 20, 30 or 40 years ago?). Sure, it cracks and frays here and there, but for the most part it’s still strong and pure. And even its weaknesses add authenticity, reflecting the passage of time and how much water has flowed under the bridge since that same voice crooned ‘Michelle’ in 1965. I would’ve liked more bass and lead guitar flourishes, but his playing and arrangements are as inventive as ever. He’s still a questing artistic soul, constantly looking for new ground on which to express himself, employing new pallets and textures or clever mixtures of old ones. I don’t want to keep bringing up the “he’s nearly 80!” line, but the fact he is still showing some of that creative fire is astonishing.

In the studio during, ahem, ‘rockdown’

I’m not generally a fan of instrumentals, but ‘Long Tailed Winter Bird’ makes for a decent opener. While the main riff is nothing special, I love the descending guitar lines and discordant notes which break it up. Without ever really going anywhere, it builds nicely, layering scratchy guitars, flying in snatches of spooky recorder and ghostly vocals, and picking up pace with some really solid drumming. It’s simple yet clever, and has a rootsy, Celtic vibe which reminds me strongly of 1978’s London Town. Maybe it overstays its welcome by a minute or so, but I can live with that.

‘Find My Way’ is the nearest thing on the album to a McCartney pop song, albeit a lo-fi, slightly off-kilter variant of it. I’m not entirely sure what passes as indie rock these days, but the snatches I’ve heard don’t sound a million miles away from this. It mixes big power-pop chords with synth-brass, free-wheeling rhythms and tricksy, effects-laden guitar breaks, plus a false ending. The confident, driving verses are fine, but the falsetto middle sections are especially good, giving the song added urgency and weight. He sings about fears and anxieties, yet still manages to retain that trademark Macca feeling of optimism. It’s a real grower, and is probably the track which will receive the most airplay.

The video for ‘Find My Way’

Ringing acoustic guitars drive the more gentle ‘Pretty Boys’, which he says was inspired by reflections on the lot of male models (and probably some of his own experiences as one of the most photographed people of the 1960s). Its an unusual subject matter for Paul, but showcases his gifts as a sharp, intuitive observer and empathetic storyteller. The words are framed by a really sweet, stately melody, and his slightly careworn vocals add poignancy. It’s one of my favourites on the album. ‘Woman and Wives’, on the other hand is one of the least effective tracks. Paul affects a deep, growling vocal in the style of an old Delta bluesman over rolling piano chords, as he attempts to impart some homespun wisdom about the paths we travel and the choices we make, etc. It’s not a bad song, and has some nice twists and turns as the lines flow into each other, but it sounds a little forced and isn’t quite as portentous as I think he’d like it to be.

By contrast, ‘Lavatory Lil’ is light-hearted to the point of silliness. A basic, bluesy rocker with a nagging, sinewy guitar riff and call-and-response vocals, it sees Macca taking aim at a mystery woman who wronged him in the past (there is one obvious candidate, of course, but I can’t believe he’d want to re-open those wounds so publicly). It’s nothing to get excited about, but the caustic lyrics give it a bit of substance and it is good, infectious fun.

‘Deep Deep Feeling’ is the album’s centrepiece and, for me, comfortably its stand-out track. A brooding, impassioned epic, it starts very bare, with Paul singing tautly over a simple drum pattern. But it slowly grows into a rich, complex soundscape as he weaves in prowling, howling guitars, orchestral samples, counter melodies, tempo changes and a gorgeous, haunting piano part. Stretching out well over eight minutes, it achieves a hypnotic, unsettling effect, powered by the uncharacteristically direct lyrics about the emotional extremes of being in love. If I’m being critical, it lacks a soaring, break-out moment – perhaps a raging guitar solo (as in 2007’s ‘House of Wax’), or an old-school, screaming Macca vocal. But even without that, it’s still a wonderful piece, unlike anything he’s ever done (which, over a 60-year career, is saying something) and ranks among his best songs from the last 20 years.

At the mixing desk

The second of the album’s rockers, ‘Slidin’’ is the better of the two, thanks to its meaty, swampy sound and more dramatic tone. Originating from a soundtrack jam with his touring band, guitarist Rusty Anderson and drummer Abe Laboriel Jnr. both play on this, which spoils the DIY ethos somewhat (and neither do anything on this Paul couldn’t have done just as well himself). It lacks the sense of abandon you find in his best rock songs, but it’s still a decent track and, again, the falsetto sections work very well. ‘The Kiss of Venus’ is a curious one. An acoustic, romantic ballad, it doesn’t quite sound like his previous work in this field – mainly, I think, due to the brittle, elusive tune. I’m not sure the high-pitched vocal does it any favours, and some of the lyrics are a bit too obscure. That said, it has a winsome charm, and the harpsichord break is a nice touch. Another grower, I suspect.

While it may or may not be a comment on the Covid calamities of the past year, ‘Seize The Day’ is an unabashed McCartney pop pep-talk. Perky and life-affirming, it reminds me a little of The Feeling, the soft-rock band who commandeered the UK airwaves with a string of such hits in the late 2000s, and who seemed to take their lead from the likes of Supertramp, 10cc and, er, Wings. There are some nice, silly, slightly surreal lines about Eskimos, dinosaurs and Santa Claus, and a solid middle eight. The chorus doesn’t carry the punch it should, though, and it lacks something special to lift it above the norm. But it’s okay.

With his beloved ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ upright bass

Next up is another of my favourites, ‘Deep Down’. You wouldn’t think a song built around a couple of simple chord changes could sound so good, but it really does. The keyboards are so evocative and, meshed with the drums, form a relentless, irresistible groove, with echoes of ‘70s soul as well as a more modern, chill-out feel. It is punctuated by some tasty bursts of synth brass, and also boasts Paul best vocals on the album, as he pulls out a range of styles from his still-formidable bag of singing tricks to deliver the slightly saucy lyrics. At just under six minutes, it is a shade too long, and would’ve undoubtedly benefited from a producer’s input. More lyrics or a shift of musical gears midway through could’ve elevated this to an out-and-out classic. Nonetheless, it’s still a very strong number, and was the one which stuck in my brain after a single listen.

The album closes with ‘Winter Bird/When Winter Comes’, a brief reprise of the opening track followed by an acoustic guitar song Paul recorded with George Martin back in 1992. The same session yielded ‘Calico Skies’ and ‘Great Day’, which later appeared on Flaming Pie, but – while I know a lot of people like this one – I just don’t think it is of the same calibre. If it had (as originally intended) appeared on the recent Pie reissue, I would probably have thought: “That’s okay, but I can see why it didn’t make the cut.” The melody is so-so and the bucolic lyrics make it a distant cousin to ‘Heart of the Country’, which has always been my least favourite track on Ram. I don’t mind his rustic ruminations, I just think he can tackle them in more poetic, lyrical fashion (as with ‘Mother Nature’s Son’, or even ‘I Lie Around’). It’s not without its charms, but he’s done it better before.

The short animated film for ‘When Winter Comes’

The main plus about ‘When Winter Comes’, though, is that it was the song which got him back in the studio (to record some extra music for the short animation film which accompanies it) and thus triggered this whole project. I’m not sure I buy his story that he never intended to make an album but, either way, it doesn’t really matter. I’m just glad he did. It’s definitely an unexpected bonus, and there is a temptation these days among fans and, indeed, critics (my, how times have changed) to go overboard in greeting anything we get from rock legends at this stage in their careers. Look at the rapturous response to Bob Dylan’s latest album earlier in the year. In truth, I think there’s a bit of that with this record (especially considering how some earlier, stronger albums were treated) – but not excessively so. And if anyone’s earned the right to a few garlands, surely it’s Paul McCartney.

If you’re one of those people who, for some reason, cannot bring themselves to appreciate anything he’s done since The Beatles, or who just isn’t a fan of latter-day Macca material, it’s not going to convert you. But if you’re someone who is still hooked on hearing what Beatle Paul is going to come up with next, there’s a lot to enjoy. It’s never going to be among my favourite McCartney collections – in fact, it will probably end up fairly low on the list, though that’s more to do with the absurdly high standards he’s set in the past (and possibly my own jaded mentality) than any real failings here. Irrespective of how old he is or what he’s done before, McCartney III succeeds on its own merits as a playful, uplifting, occasionally stirring and always interesting record which proves he can still push buttons that no-one else can. And it wouldn’t have happened without the shit-show that was 2020. Once again, he’s taken a sad song and made it better.

See yourself: George’s album covers, from worst to best

Rating album cover artwork is, in some ways, more difficult that explaining why you like music. Both are wholly subjective, of course, but at least with a song you can say, “I like the guitar solo”, “the melody sticks in my head” or “I can really relate to the words”. But the image on the front of a record? I guess you either like it or you don’t. You could argue that, in these digital days where even the concept of an album carries less and less weight, cover art doesn’t even matter anymore. It’s importance has probably been shrinking – quite literally – since the arrival of the CD. But the lasting iconography of The Beatles’ album covers (along with many others, from David Bowie and Pink Floyd to Fleetwood Mac and The Smiths) shows they can really make an impact if you get them right.

For me, I guess I’m looking for a striking image (it doesn’t have to feature the artist, though I tend to like ones that do) and/or something that somehow captures the mood of the music in some way. If it doesn’t have a photo of its creator(s), then the image needs to grab my attention in its own right. I know you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover (after all, what could you possibly glean from the White Album?), but it can put some people off. How many times have you listened to a duff album and then thought: “even the cover’s crap”? Did the lousy cover help to plant negative thoughts in the first place? And how often have you been pumped to hear an album because you thought the artwork was really cool? A strong cover won’t necessarily make an album sell more, but it won’t hurt. Or at least it didn’t, in the old days.

Beatle solo album covers are a pretty mixed bag (partly, I suspect, because there have been so many of them over such a long period of time), and George’s are no exception to that. He didn’t consistently hit the heights that John did, for example, but his artwork choices were generally solid. Crucially, they were identifiably him, mixing splashes of humour with spiritual earnestness – sometimes both at the same time. For the purposes of this list, I’m not counting his experimental  Wonderwall and Electronic Sounds albums, nor his live or compilation discs (which is just as well in the case of the dreadful Live in Japan and Best of Dark Horse covers, which seem to be designed to make it as difficult as possible for any potential buyers to make out that they are George Harrison records). I’m not sure he even had any say over the 1976 Best of George Harrison release, in any case. And I doubt he’d have been thrilled at the use of a Beatles-era photo to adorn 2007’s Let It Roll solo compilation, either. So what follows is just my ranking of the covers for his studio albums, from least to best.

10. Extra Texture

Some original versions of this 1975 album cut out the letters of the album title, allowing you to see a photo of George on the inner sleeve; others had an embossed design on the cardboard sleeve (‘extra texture’, get it?). They probably worked a little better than the later, ‘flat’ copies – like the one I have. But even so, considering this came out at a time when LP covers were approached as intricate and often grandiose works of art ( think Tales from Topographic Oceans by Yes or Led Zepplin’s Houses of the Holy), this just comes over as drab, cheap and uninspired. At a time when George’s output was starting to take a critical battering and his sales were falling, I doubt this did much to generate public interest, and it certainly isn’t worthy of the fine music contained inside.

 9. Brainwashed

I believe George left notes about his ideas for the cover of this album, which came out in 2002, a year after his death. And I get the point he was trying to make, reflected in the title track, about many people having their ideas and opinions dictated to them by the mainstream media (very prescient, considering where we are today). But I think this image of a family of crash test dummies clustered around a TV set is a little clunky and heavy-handed, to say the least. Nor was the less-than-subtle message it conveyed likely to endear itself to potential buyers. The song features a mixture of contempt and hope of spiritual salvation, but the cover leans much more towards the former. It’s interesting to note that EMI soon put a slipcase around the CD, featuring a nice photo of George taken in Hawaii during the 1990s, instead.

8. Gone Troppo

This one, from 1982, is better. Colourful and playful, it’s also based on the title track and reflects George’s decision to effectively step away from the maelstrom of the rock world and go on semi-permanent vacation. Hence the sand, sea, sun and sombrero imagery, and various tropical paraphenalia. However, from a visual point of view, it’s also a bit messy and unfocused – your eye doesn’t quite know where to look. The (slightly odd) photo of George, his name and even the title of the album tend to get lost in the mix. I’m not sure the cartoonish quality of it all entirely works, either, but it does have a certain charm.

 7. Dark Horse

I’m in two minds about this one, from 1974. On the one hand, the simplistic artwork and pallid colours make it look like a tatty ‘70s religious painting you might find gathering dust in a charity shop. But it is clever how the designers managed to take an old school photograph and frame it in a spiritual, vaguely-Himalyan setting. Adorning the stiff, buttoned-up 1950s teachers (or masters, as they would’ve been known) with funky 1970s logos (including the record labels of Apple and George’s own soon-to-launched Dark Horse Records) is a fun touch too. However, I’m not sure that having the youthful George (coloured in Krishna blue) above everyone else and nearest the godhead figure sends out a very likeable message to his former classmates, or the rest of the world for that matter

6. Living in the Material World

Sometimes less is more, and that is the case here. Perhaps reflecting a shift to a more pared-down sound after the heavily-layered glories of its predecessor, All Things Must Pass, or perhaps just another nod to his religious beliefs, this 1973 album featured just an eerie photograph of George’s hand, apparently holding a Hindu medallion. The image was obtained using Kirlian photography (the technique which captures something’s electrical, coronal aura), and was taken at UCLA’s parapsychology department. I must say the end result is more creepy than spiritual, looking like something you’d find in a book about weird paranormal phenomena, but – accompanied by George’s signature – it makes for striking, unusual cover art.

5. Somewhere in England

The original 1981 sleeve…
…and the one first intended, later restored on the 2004 reissue

This 1981 collection famously had its original cover (showing George’s head merging with an image of the UK) rejected by his record label, Warner Brothers, along with some of its songs. It was later replaced by a photo of George in front of a painting at the Tate Gallery in London, only to be swapped out again in favour of the first choice artwork when the album was re-issued in 2004. I like both, but actually feel the Tate gallery shot which adorned the record on its first release is the better one. It’s a more memorable image (and what could be more English than a curb-side yellow line?), and is nicely supplemented on the back cover as a grinning George reveals he wasn’t lying down on the pavement at all.

4. George Harrison

The self-titled 1979 album features George as his most relaxed and laid-back, and the cover shot perfectly captures that mood. It’s a beautifully executed photograph, from the out-of-focus flora in the foreground to the mottled sunlight effect on George’s face. He looks contemplative, absorbed, like his thoughts focused are on a far horizon. The effect is spoiled slightly by his less-than-transcendental ‘70s curly perm but, nonetheless, it’s a very elegant, easy-on-the-eye cover which reflects the warmth and depth of the music within. And, perm aside, it doesn’t look dated at all.

3. All Things Must Pass

The most famous of all his albums, the austere cover photograph taken in the expansive grounds of George’s (then new) Friar Park home in Surrey has become a classic rock image, and deservedly so. Capturing him at the height of his landed gentry hippy look in 1970, he again seems to be staring slightly off-camera, with a serious, sage-like expression. But the grandeur of his surroundings and pose is nicely undercut by the Wellington boots he’s wearing and, particularly, the gently mocking garden gnomes placed around him. It didn’t occur to me for a long time that the four figures might be representing The Beatles, which many believe. Certainly, their close proximity to him, and the wide open spaces beyond, may be sending a message about his break for freedom a solo act. When the album was reissued in 2001, the cover was coloured in, and its CD sleeves and booklet pictured an imaginary encroachment of the modern concrete world which George so disliked, adding high rise flats, a motorway flyover and jumbo jet to the scene. They were good, but the chilly, monochrome beauty of the original was rightly restored on all releases since.

2. Cloud Nine

I love this cover. After a five-year, self-imposed hiatus, George returned to the music scene in 1987 with a set of sparkling, upbeat – and undeniably commercial – songs, and this photograph shows a happy, revitalised man in step with the times and in touch with his muse. He’s starting straight at the camera this time (albeit from behind shades) and smiling, a far cry from the slightly bitter, almost grumpy figure we had seen at the start of the decade. Clutching the Gretch guitar he played during his early Beatles days, it also reflected someone at ease with his illustrious past (as did his thanks to John, Paul and Ringo on the inner sleeve), but the dreamy clouds in the background also signified the search for heavenly enlightenment hadn’t gone away.

  1. Thirty Three & 13

I’m not exactly sure what it is about this sleek 1976 cover I like so much, but it works on every level for me. A little like Cloud Nine, it shows George in cool, confident mood following a couple of difficult years when his critical and commercial standing had slumped. I love the double exposure on the photo – it’s colourful and dynamic, portraying forward movement. There’s the oligatory religious reference (the album title actually reads as Thirty Three & 1/ॐ, the final letter a spiritual symbol in Indian religions) but it’s a light, clever artistic touch which doesn’t come off as preachy. And any remotely serious tone is nicely dispelled by his silly sunglasses. All in all, one of the very best solo Beatle album covers.

‘The Long and Winding Road: A History of The Beatles on Record’ (1982)

When I first began devouring all things Beatles, back in the mid-1980s, discographies were must-haves. With no internet to rely on, any Beatles book worth its salt would have a list of the group’s records. It might simply be a basic run-down of their singles and albums, tucked away at the back, or the whole book itself might be given over to an in-depth exploration of their catalogue. In these days of streaming it must seem rather quaint to some younger fans, but release dates, chart positions, sales figures, running times and (to some) even catalogue numbers really mattered back then. These were the nooks and crannies of the Beatles story, the material manifestations of their other-worldly music. And one of my favourite books of this type from those days is Neville Stannard’s The Long and Winding Road.

The UK edition of the book

Subtitled The History of The Beatles on Record, this is a book for proper record geeks. An ardent fan, Stannard began work on the book in the ‘70s because he felt there wasn’t a single volume which had all the facts and figures in one place. The bulk of the 240 pages is given over to a chronological list of all the band’s official releases, starting off with ‘Love Me Do’ in 1962 and ending in the very murky (and increasingly exploitative) waters of picture discs, rehashed compilations, audiophile editions and mail-order box sets of the early 1980s. The book was published just ahead of the CD boom and the belated legal agreement between EMI and Apple which finally gave the surviving Fabs (and Yoko) more control over how their work was repackaged and sold – leading to a much more considered and ordered series of releases which continue to this day. On that level, it’s an interesting time capsule reflecting just how much the management of The Beatles’ legacy has changed over the last three decades or so. As if to emphasise that, the book is chiefly divided into distinct sections covering UK and US releases, illustrating how differently the band’s output was handled on either side of the Atlantic, particularly during  the Beatlemania period. The group began to exercise much more control over American releases from 1967 onwards, but even then you had anomalies like the Magical Mystery Tour and Hey Jude albums.

Stannard lists all the singles, EPs, albums and compilations in the order they were released, along with details of their chart performances and estimated sales (though his estimates become a little vague towards the end of the ‘60s, with a few “probably sold…” and “sales must be around….” references). The story in the UK becomes a little complicated once EMI started seriously milking the Beatle cash cow in the mid-’70s, but in the US section it’s just confusing from the start. Different record labels had rights to different songs, which meant the American market was flooded with endlessly repackaged versions of the same material in 1964 (Jolly What! England’s Greatest Recording Stars: The Beatles and Frank Ifield on Stage has always been a favourite of mine). And even when it wrestled back full control the following year, Capitol continued to hack up the band’s UK catalogue to produce as many different LPs and singles as it could get away with, and squeeze every last dollar out of the English phenomenon it’s bosses had smugly dismissed throughout 1963. Stannard does a good job of guiding you through how the songs were recycled in different configurations, but your head will still be spinning at the barefaced cheek of the record companies.

One of the print ads featured in the book. How cool do they look here?

If all this sounds a bit dry, it really isn’t. Stannard doesn’t pass judgement on the songs or attempt to analyse them – you need to look elsewhere for that. He does go into who plays what on some tracks (with very varying degrees of detail, it has to be said) and even attempts to pin down recording dates, some years before Mark Lewisohn’s ground-breaking The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions book lit up that particular corner of the band’s story. What he excels on is the chart facts and figures, even though for the UK he relies heavily on the NME and Melody Maker hit parades rather than the BMRG chart which is now viewed as the definitive one (though some would argue the music paper listings were the ones people really cared about in the 1960s). The level of research and attention to detail is impressive, and – unusual for books at that time, when some authors tended to operate on hearsay and guesswork – there are very few obvious errors. The only real howler is his claim that the band re-recorded ‘Across The Universe’ in 1969 for Let It Be, when in fact Phil Spector simply slowed down and overdubbed the original 1968 version. But we didn’t have anywhere near the wealth of knowledge about their output in 1982 that we have now, so it’s forgivable.

One really good aspect of the book is that Stannard doesn’t just give you The Beatles’ chart performances, he also digs a little bit into the artists whose songs they recorded, and the people who subsequently covered the Fabs’ own material. So, for example, you get to learn about how the relatively little-known (at least in the UK) Larry Williams, composer of ‘Dizzy Miss Lizzy’, actually had two million-selling global hits, one of which was the gloriously titled ‘Short Fat Fanny’. And how the release of Rubber Soul in 1965 triggered a slew of cover versions targeting the UK singles chart, ranging from total flops by the likes of Three Good Reasons (‘Nowhere Man’) to now long-forgotten hits by the St Louis Union (‘Girl’) and The Overlanders (‘Michelle’). And I’d certainly forgotten about later hit covers by the likes of Rod Stewart (‘Get Back’) and Earth Wind and Fire (‘Got To Get You Into My Life’). Okay, it’s footnote stuff in the greater scheme of things, but it’s yet another illustration of how the Fabs’ influence permeated the music world like nothing else, as well as the deathless nature of their songs. And it continues even today, as recent covers of ‘Yesterday’ and ‘Something’ by current pop sensation Billie Eilish demonstrate.

Original ‘Sgt Pepper’ press ad

The mind-boggling sales figures and chart performances in the book provide another way of gauging their meteoric impact, as you see records tumbling one after the other (no pun intended). Please Please Me, for example, became the longest reigning #1 album ever in the NME charts (29 weeks). Twist and Shout was the first EP ever to crack the UK Top Ten singles chart, achieving an unprecedented placing of #4….until that was topped by the Magical Mystery Tour EP four years later. With The Beatles was the first British album to sell a million copies in the UK. In the US, Rubber Soul became the fastest selling album in history, shifting 1.2 million copies in nine days – a record later smashed by Let It Be. In the US singles charts, ‘Hey Jude’ and ‘Get Back’ became the first records ever to debut in the Top Ten, but then their record-busting entries at #10 was soon beaten by ‘Let It Be’, which crashed in at #6. And so on. Even sub-standard cast-off songs, given to the likes of Peter and Gordon or Billy J. Kramer, often yielded million-selling number one hits. Remarkable.

A knowing old-school ad for ‘Lady Madonna’ in 1968

It is interesting to note, however, that 1966 – often regarded as their creative peak – actually saw a slight dip in The Beatles’ commercial tidal wave. While their releases remained hugely successful, ‘Paperback Writer’ was their first single in three years not to go straight to #1 in the UK, while neither ‘Eleanor Rigby’ nor ‘Yellow Submarine’ reached the top spot in the US. And Stannard lists Revolver as selling ‘only’ 500,000 copies in the UK, slightly fewer than any of their previous albums. I would hazard a guess this was due to increased competition from the likes of the Stones, the Who, the Kinks and the Beach Boys (who actually claimed the Fabs’ crown as Best World Vocal Group in the 1966 NME Readers Poll), together with falling interest from teeny-boppers who were probably put off by the more ‘far out’ sounds coming out of Abbey Road at that point (and thus creating a vacuum that would soon be filled by The Monkees). But normal service was resumed with the arrival of Sgt Pepper the following year, restoring the band’s unquestioned pre-eminence which would continue for the rest of the decade (and beyond).

Another thing I really liked about the book when I picked it up in 1987 was the reproduction of original music press ads for their releases, many of which I’d never seen before. The ones for ‘Eleanor Rigby’ and Sgt Pepper, in particular, stood out, but the artwork used for promoting post-split releases was also intriguing and, in some cases (1976’s ‘Yesterday’ UK single and the Rock ‘n’ Roll Music compilation album), downright bizarre. I also loved the book’s cover, with its photos reflecting the band’s visual transformation from clean-cut pop cherubs to hirsute hippy demigods in just seven short years.

1976’s ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Music’ album ad – any reference to The Beatles is purely accidental

Stannard finishes things off with a lengthy appendices section, which fills in the gaps left by their ‘official’ canon. It looks at songs they gave away, non-EMI recordings, bootlegs, the Christmas fan club releases and (curiously, for a book predicated on facts) the story behind the ‘Paul is Dead’ rumour. It’s amusing to note his reporting that talks were underway between EMI and Apple to release an album of The Beatles’ BBC radio recordings, negotiations which wouldn’t reach fruition for another decade. Like many authors of the time, he accepts without question the existence of many more unreleased studio tracks than there actually were, citing such phantom titles as ‘Peace of Mind’ (apparently laid down during the Sgt Pepper sessions) and ‘Four Nights in Moscow’, allegedly a lost gem from Abbey Road. But, on the whole, his forensic approach continues to serve him well in this part of the book, particularly in unpicking the tangled, never-ending release history of the 1961 Hamburg material backing Tony Sheridan and the live set taped at the city’s Star Club in December the following year. It even makes Capitol’s handling of the EMI catalogue look restrained.

On the whole, Stannard achieved what he set out to do, and put together a very comprehensive and reliable discography. It did so well, there was a reprint in 1983 (the version I have) and he followed it up with an equally impressive volume on their solo careers, entitled Working Class Heroes. Of course, the problem with any book of this kind is that it rapidly becomes out of date. And with the internet now at our disposal, together with much deeper detail about The Beatles’ studio work, you could argue it is totally redundant. But I still enjoyed revisiting it, and if you want a book which rounds up the band’s release history before the CD era, this is among the best. It still rates a 7.

Memories of December 1980

It’s become something of a cliché that people can always remember where they were when they heard news of a major historical event. When I was growing up, people always talked about President Kennedy’s assassination, or the Moon landing. And, as I got older, I realised that – as with a lot of clichés – there was some truth in it. For my generation, learning about Princess Diana’s fatal car crash or the 9/11 attacks were occasions that remain burned in the memory. And I think they stay with you more as an adult, as you are more aware of the import of what has happened. You feel the shockwave that (metaphorically, at least) rolls under your feet and resonates in the world around you. Yet the first time it happened to me was as a child – and years before I became interested in The Beatles – with the death of John Lennon.

One of the final photos, December 1980

I hadn’t long turned 11 when 9 December, 1980 dawned. Then, as now, I would’ve been reluctant to get out of bed on a cold, gloomy morning (I don’t like getting out of bed any morning, in truth) and trudge my way to school. But Christmas was coming, so my spirits would’ve been high, nonetheless. My brother and sister had long since left home, so it was just my parents and I by that point. As usual, my Dad was first up and had called several times to raise me from my slumber. I eventually made my way downstairs to join him in the kitchen, where the radio was on, as usual (breakfast television in the UK was still more than two years away). It was invariably tuned to the cosy banter and easy listening tunes of Terry Wogan on BBC Radio 2, but it sounded very different today. There was a lot of very serious talking, involving a man on a very crackly phone line. Still, I carried on oblivious, prattling away as I stood at the sink getting a glass of water or sorting out a bowl of cornflakes. Until my Dad said: “Ssshush! I’m listening.”

“Why? What’s happened?” I said, as obedient and selfless as ever.

“John Lennon’s been shot. He’s dead.”

“Who’s he?” I asked.

“He was one of The Beatles.”

“Oh. Right.”

Contrary to what some people will tell you now, The Beatles were already a cultural touchstone. I can’t really compare their status then as opposed to now, as I wasn’t old enough to fully understand it, but I certainly knew who they were, even though music didn’t really play a big part in my life at that time. I probably knew they had been the biggest pop group there ever was, were from Liverpool and had funny haircuts, and was almost certainly familiar with some of their songs, even then. But I was less clear on the individual components. I knew Paul, of course – then, as now, everyone knew who Paul was. I can vividly remember hearing on John Craven’s Newsround in 1978 that ‘Mull of Kintyre’ had become the biggest selling UK single of all time, and Paul remained a fixture in the charts, in the newspapers and on TV, though his fame already transcended any of that. Although he was no longer a regular in the charts, Ringo also had a high public profile, and I was well aware of him. George, on the other hand, hadn’t registered in my consciousness. He’d released only one album since 1976, and done precious little to promote it. And John was even less visible. He’d been in semi-retirement and out of the public eye altogether since early 1975 – half my life at that point. And I certainly had no idea he’d just embarked on a comeback. I had only a passing interest in pop music, dipping in and out of Top of the Pops once a week and the chart run-down on Sundays. My main musical memory from that period is the release of Abba’s ‘Super Trouper’ (we were big Abba fans in our house). I have no recollection of John’s ‘(Just Like) Starting Over’ single, it just wouldn’t have been on my radar.

Nonetheless, when my Dad explained what they were talking about on the radio, I shut up and listened. From his reaction, and that of my Mum when she came downstairs a few moments later, I knew John Lennon was someone important. My parents weren’t Beatles fans, per se, but I could tell he meant something to them. I don’t recall any of details of what was said on the radio, beyond the emerging facts of his murder and the reaction to it. Certainly, having grown up on a TV diet of Kojak and other New York cop shows, I wouldn’t have been remotely surprised that someone had been gunned down in the city. It seemed like the Wild West to me (and, compared to the crime rates there today, probably was). Still, this was a real person. A pop star. Why would anyone want to shoot a pop star?

A BBC-TV news report from 9 December

When I got home from school later in the day, it dominated the TV news, obviously. The BBC screened Help! that evening as a tribute. Although intrigued, I was still more preoccupied by playing with Star Wars action figures or reading my latest Marvel comics to watch much of it. Still, I have vague memories of the scene in the pub, and the climactic silliness on the beach. And I noted that my parents did watch some of it, which – again – was unusual. They weren’t normally interested much in pop stars, at all. What was it about this guy? The newspapers were full of nothing else for the next week or so. The Daily Mirror was our paper of choice, for some reason, and it was around this time that I’d started reading it in detail once my parents had done with it. The main thing I remember from the coverage was the reaction of the other Beatles, and speculation over what would happen next. I can’t be sure, but I wouldn’t be surprised if people were already touting some sort of band reunion in John’s memory.

The newspaper I would have read on 10 December

I was in my last year at primary school and, by sheer coincidence, our class project that term was for each of us to produce our own newspaper. I enjoyed doing it so much (and won a pen for my efforts), it planted the seeds which eventually led me into a career in journalism. I was just putting the finishing touches to it when the news came through of John’s death, and it ended up being the final story in my publication – following on from the likes of Steve McQueen’s death, the Iran-Iraq War and the latest Yorkshire Ripper murder. Gruesome times, though I did try to lighten things up with football scores, some jokes, a report on Miss Germany winning the Miss World competition and a fictional story about rats (no, I’ve no idea why). I probably plundered the Mirror for most of the facts about John, though I do remember asking my Dad when The Beatles had broken up. He was never very good on dates, much to my chagrin. I plumped for 1971, which wasn’t too far off.

My hot-off-the-press report. I’d give myself marks for use of apostrophes and spelling Hawaii correctly, but missing the ‘C’ in McCartney and the second ‘r’ in Starr is unforgivable

I can recall bits and pieces from the weeks that followed. My family talked about it over Christmas lunch. My Mum reiterated her view (shared by many in the UK, I’m sure) that John had “gone crazy” after meeting Yoko and embarking on his peace bed-ins, nude album covers, avant garde musical excursions, political protests and the like. Think she also may have commented on how thin he looked during his last days (though that may have been something she said years later) – I don’t think she saw Yoko as a particularly positive influence. In the new year, ‘Imagine’ was at #1 in the charts for what seemed like forever. I don’t think I had a strong opinion about it as a song, but do remember watching the video on Top of the Pops and thinking there was something very sad about it, in light of what had happened to him. Bizarrely, I also thought that – at the beginning of the clip, when you see John and Yoko strolling through the gardens at Tittenhurst Park – John still had his long hair from 1969 (probably the shadow cast by his hat), but then had it chopped off before they filmed him at the piano. The vagaries of an 11-year-old mind.

A still from the ‘Imagine’ clip, which came to define John in early 1981

I guess my curiosity started to fade after that. I have no recollection of ‘Woman’ topping the charts soon afterwards, though it’s now one of my favourite Lennon songs. Like I say, music wasn’t high on my list of priorities back then. But I do wonder if my interest in The Beatles – as a modern myth, perhaps, rather as creators of dazzling music – first began to germinate at that time. We had a taped copy of The Beatles’ 1962-66 compilation album in the house, and I may have started playing it from time to time in the months that followed. It would be a few more years before the love affair with the band really began to take root, but the memories of that horrible (and for my young self, horribly fascinating) day in 1980 never left me. It’s strange to think that John’s now been gone for as long as he was here. And for me, it’s almost as strange to realise that 40 years after I first wrote about him and The Beatles, I’m here doing it again (hopefully in a slightly more informed way). As he once sang: “You know the more it change/The more it stays the same.” He was a pretty cool fella, John Lennon. It’s such a pity we lost him so soon.

The day L.A. stood still: Ringo’s ‘Only You’ video

When it came to making promotional films, Ringo was the quickest Beatle out of the blocks after the group disbanded in 1970. John never really made any bespoke videos for his singles, and George didn’t get in on the act until 1974. Paul joined the fray in mid-1972, by which time Ringo had made not one, but two, promos for his first solo single, ‘It Don’t Come Easy’, and another for its follow-up, ‘Back Off Booglaoo’. Apart from a rarely seen clip for ‘Photograph’, though, there were no promos for his 1973 smash hit album Ringo. When he finished work on its successor, Goodnight Vienna, he put that right by making a TV ad for the album and a sister film for its lead single, ‘Only You’.

The cover of the ‘Only You’ single

‘You’re Sixteen’, from Ringo, had topped the US charts and been a hit around the world, so it made sense to record another tune from the salad days of rock ‘n’ roll for his next LP. And it was John Lennon who suggested that he tackle ‘Only You (And You Alone)’, the classic 1955 song by The Platters. Listening to the original, with the high pitched vocal intro, it would seem an off-the-wall choice for Ringo, but John came up with a very different arrangement which was more suited to the inimitable Starr style (John’s guide vocal for the track was eventually released on 1998’s John Lennon Anthology box set).

Even so, it’s still a bit of a gear shift for Ringo. His low-key, high-register vocal is in contrast to his usual, more exuberant approach, but he pulls it off admirably. And his deadpan spoken-word section in the middle, in heavily-accented Scouse, is just class. The whole recording is very simple – again, a move away from the more busy material  on Ringo. As well as playing the chugging rhythm guitar which drives the track, Lennon ropes in his and Ringo’s boozing buddy of the time, Harry Nilsson, to join him in providing dreamy backing vocals. And that, along with drums, bass and some little keyboard and lead guitar flourishes, is pretty much all there is to it. It’s not the best thing ever recorded, but it’s an effective remake and quite winning in its own way.

Perhaps echoing the 1950s theme, the parent album paid homage to the 1951 film The Day The Earth Stood Still in its cover artwork. An early sci-fi classic, it’s a cautionary tale of aliens visiting earth to warn mankind off its atomic age, Cold War rush towards self-destruction. Its key scene features a flying saucer (seen as the only respectable method of interstellar travel in those days) landing in Washington D.C., and opening up to reveal the extraterrestrial visitor, Klaatu (Michael Rennie), and his accompanying protector, a giant robot called Gort. Goodnight Vienna depicts this image, only superimposing Ringo’s face over Rennie’s and adding a big white star onto his outfit. No idea why, as there’s nothing remotely space age about the album, but it does make for a memorable cover.

Ringo reaches for the star(r)s

Wisely, the marketing men riffed on this image when the album was released in November 1974. They made a glorious TV commercial which begins with Ringo in his space suit joining a marching band somewhere in Los Angeles (playing the drums, naturally), before a flying saucer makes a somewhat shaky landing in the same street. It’s not quite on the same scale as the one from The Day The Earth Stood Still, it has to be said, but it’s big enough for Ringo to clamber inside. The craft (steam-powered, by the looks of it) then takes off and soars through the L.A. skyline, before coming to rest atop the famous Capitol Records building, where Ringo waves to the assembled Earth people below. All this plays out to snippets of songs from the album and a marvellous, playful narration by Ringo and John Lennon (Ringo returned the favour by voicing the TV ad for John’s Walls and Bridges album, released a couple of months earlier).

The TV ad for the album

The film for ‘Only You’ picks up roughly where the commercial left off. You see the spaceship coming in to land (it’s not exactly Star Wars level of special effects, though I really can’t see the wires) and then Ringo singing the tune on the roof of the Capitol building. There, he is joined by Harry Nilsson, who spends half the clip sitting in a deckchair, smoking a fag and reading a music paper (albeit one with Ringo on the cover). Still, it could have been worse. Considering how high up they were, I’m presuming the director was keen to get all the footage in the can before the bars opened.

Ringo with a, ahem, relaxed Harry Nilsson

The video isn’t the most dynamic, in truth, though they do inject some humour to try to liven it up. It’s pretty hokey, variety show-style fare – Ringo pulls the ‘arrow through the head’ gag during the spoken word section, and then they do the ‘form a long line by ducking under the camera as the camera pans past’ routine (none too convincingly). But, as ever with Ringo, it’s done with such guileless charm that you can’t help but smile. Best of all, during the fade-out, we get shaky but quite impressive aerial shots of the pair swaying to the music on the roof, plus a glimpse of Gort, the robot from the film and album cover, alongside them. This incarnation of Gort must be at least three times the size of the spacecraft he’s supposed to have travelled in but, hey, who are we to question alien technology?

The old ones really are the best

‘Only You’ was released at the height of Ringo’s chart powers, and continued his amazing run of US Top Ten hits, reaching #6. It also made the Canadian top 20, and gave him what proved to be his last Top 30 hit in his homeland (where the video was shown on Top of the Pops and, I would imagine, must have seemed quite a glamorous affair to mid-’70s Britain). The promo film finally had an official release on a DVD accompanying the 2007 greatest hits compilation, Photograph: The Very Best of Ringo Starr. He has made better videos in his career but it’s still a nice visual relic from a far-flung time when Ringo Starr, solo artist, was quite literally top of the world.

It won’t be soon enough for me – 10 years of the McCartney Archive Collection (part three)

The view among fans about the McCartney Archive Collection to date seems to be very mixed. Some people are really happy with what MPL is putting out, think the lavish deluxe editions offer value for money and love unboxing them when they arrive in the post. I have no problem with that, and don’t wish to rain on anyone’s parade. The books, and other bits and pieces, look beautifully produced, and it’s good to get detailed information about each album out there. But, for me, this is putting the cart before the horse. As I’ve said in previous posts, the most important thing is the music  – and, in this, I think we’ve been seriously short-changed. 

Let me say, I have no sense of entitlement about this. Paul has already given us acres of great music over 60 years (with more to come), and it seems almost churlish to ask for more. He’s an artist, and is perfectly within his rights to do whatever he wants with the stuff he’s created. However, if he wants to repackage his back catalogue and make a profit in doing so – and the very existence of the Archive Collection indicates that he does – it would make sense that it’s done properly, and with an eye on what your target audience wants. Even the standard two-disc Archive releases are not going to have much mass appeal beyond the McCartney fanbase, and Paul’s “people” have said the profit margins on these products are quite tight, so why not make them as attractive as possible by including the one thing virtually all fans would like to see: more rare and unreleased songs? 

In the Virgin Islands recording ‘London Town’, which has yet to have the Archive treatment

The thing is, it’s not like he’s been set against this idea throughout his career. As far back as the mid-‘70s, he was talking about a Cold Cuts collection of tracks which didn’t quite make it onto his early albums, but it never appeared (except on bootlegs). And he remains very unusual among his contemporaries in not having ever issued a ‘rarities’ set (Elton John is the just the latest of Paul’s peers to do so, with the recent release of an eight-disc collection. And that is currently selling for less than £90….compared with £240 for the Flaming Pie deluxe). Okay, he’s put some stuff on the Archive releases but, as my earlier posts have discussed, there are still lots of songs inexplicably left in the can. Paul said in a recent interview that he wished he could be more like Bob Dylan. If that’s the case, he would do well to check out Dylan’s on-going official Bootleg series – albums full of unissued material, which now span almost 30 years and a staggering 15 volumes.

Ah, but what about quality control, I hear you ask? Maybe Paul doesn’t want to put out recordings he thinks are inferior and so tarnish his reputation. Well, that argument tends to run aground when you consider the Archive releases have already included truly awful material like ‘Women Kind’ and ‘Bogey Wobble’, or worthless trifles like ‘Message to Joe’ and ‘C’mon Down C’mon Baby’ (not to mention ‘Outtake’ versions i, ii and iii on Wild Life). I know taste is subjective, but stack those up against gems like ‘Waterspout’, ‘Seems Like Old Times’, ‘On The Wings of a Nightingale’, ‘Yvonne’, ‘Return to Pepperland’ and other quality songs which are still languishing in the vaults. Okay, I know some of these could yet turn up on future Archive packages but – based on previous releases – I wouldn’t want to put any money on it. The stupid thing is, all these songs have already surfaced on bootlegs, so not putting out official, good quality versions seems an exercise in denial and futility. It may also be a sign that Paul doesn’t really have a clear idea of the riches he is sitting on. It’s very interesting that one unreleased track from the early ‘90s, ‘When Winter Comes’, was lined up for inclusion on the Flaming Pie Archive edition, until Paul decided it deserved better and has instead made it the closing song on his forthcoming McCartney III album.  You can only presume he forgot about it for the best part of 30 years. In the Flaming Pie book, when quizzed about another unheard song from those sessions, ‘Cello in the Ruins’, he simply says: “It does ring a bell….but god knows where the bell is.” Seriously? He doesn’t have anyone – a team, even – compiling and managing his vast musical archive? 

There must be a mountain of unheard acoustic songs in the vaults

So, on the whole, I feel the Archive Collection has been something of a bust so far, which is a real pity. It’s unlikely Paul will change course now though – we know what he’s like when he’s got his mind fixed on something, and he doesn’t like to be told he’s doing something wrong. I’d rather he took a different approach (which I’ll come onto later) but, if the series does continue, there are a few simple things MPL/Capitol could do to make it a more appealing proposition to fans and a much more polished, considered presentation of the McCartney oeuvre.

Pick up the pace

The glacial pace of these releases is unfathomable. As I said in part one, we’re a decade in and haven’t even got to the half-way point (assuming he plans to do his whole catalogue). I know Macca’s a busy man, but surely he’s got teams of people to do the leg work? Yes, the accompanying books are nicely done and must take a while to put together, but surely not this long? If nothing else, the drawn-out release dates make no financial sense. I’m generalising, but younger fans are not so hung up on physical releases, and the hard-core older fanbase which must make up most of the target audience is inevitably shrinking all the time, either through other commitments or sheer mortality (people are literally dying to hear this stuff). Which is bound to impact on those fabled “margins” we hear about. Is it really too much to ask that a minimum of two Archive editions come out every year? For the next few years, at least, they should commit to: 

  • 2021 – London Town and Back to the Egg
  •  2022 – Give My Regards To Broad Street and Press to Play
  • 2023 – Choba B CCCP and Run Devil Run.
A scene from ‘Broad Street’ – will that even get an Archive edition?

Keep it affordable

Another thing eating into those profit margins is the fact that the cost of these sets are soaring with each release. Yes, you’ll always snare the die-hard collectors who’ll go without regular meals to pay for this kind of stuff, but more and more people are saying “I’m out” with each new release. Which means MPL/Capitol puts the price up again next time, to recoup their costs. Which means fewer people buy it, and so on. A vicious circle. Here’s a thing – why not trim out any unnecessary books and other trinkets and throw in an extra disc or two, and peg the price at around the £100 mark? You know, like, er, The Beatles have done with the recent anniversary special editions. Yes, I know the market for those is bigger, but surely it’s better to sell five copies at £100 than two copies at £180? And you can still do luxury special editions with all the added treats for those who really do wish to re-mortgage their homes.

Be thorough and complete

First of all – and I can’t believe I’m having to say this – do all the albums. I’m slightly concerned Paul last year released remastered versions of Choba B CCCP and Paul is Live without any Archive extras or bonus material. Indeed, Choba actually had fewer tracks than the previously available version (11, as opposed to 14), because that’s how it was originally released in Russia, or some such nonsense. Really, who makes these decisions? All his studio albums, at least, should be properly, erm, archived. Okay, remastering probably won’t make much of a difference to the sound quality of ones released after 2000, but let’s not leave the house half built. And, as part of that, all b-sides, bonus tracks, giveaways and other rarities – in other words, everything he’s ever officially released – should be included alongside the relevant albums. And fully remastered. Otherwise, what’s the point?

Enterprising bootleggers have created their own ‘Ultimate Archive Collection’

Involve the fans

You’re never going to be able to please everyone with these sets, I accept that, and Paul shouldn’t be dictated to by his fan base when compiling his work.However, there are lots of people out there who appear to have a more in-depth, rounded knowledge of his back catalogue than he or his “people” do. They are also much more likely to have an idea what will make fans (not just serious collectors) part with their hard-earned cash. With their input, situations like Flowers in the Dirt debacle could easily have been avoided. I’m sure they could offer solid advice about how these sets could be made as appealing as possible to the majority of the potential audience. Which brings me to….

More unreleased material

I can’t imagine any fan would disagree on this one. As I mentioned earlier, we already know there’s some great stuff lurking in the vaults; we also know the titles of other tracks which have yet to see the light of day, and I’m sure there is much more we know nothing about. The 1988 Elvis Costello collaborations (on the Flowers Archive edition) and a few other goodies aside, we’ve seen precious little of this stuff in the series so far – incomprehensible, when you consider this would be a major selling point. Perhaps Paul is holding stuff back for some sort of outtakes box set but, as such a project has failed to materialise since Cold Cuts was first mooted 46 years ago, I wouldn’t hold your breath. In fact, I doubt anyone involved in this series thinks very far ahead. For all the talk of a “comprehensive plan” when Macca re-signed with Capitol in 2016, the reissue campaign has been characterised by scattershot, inconsistent decision-making and missed opportunities. There’s a real lack of imagination and care going into the music side of these releases, as if MPL is making it up on the fly.

As long as enough people keep buying the Archive sets, I’m sure they will continue, and I doubt very much will change, sadly. But there is another way. Capitol could run a concurrent series of releases just focusing on the music, mopping up and properly presenting stuff missed off the Archives (which would, of course, give people an incentive to buy some of those albums again). Looking at the way David Bowie’s catalogue has been divided up into a series of chronological box sets over recent years, I’d love to see something like this for McCartney: 

  •  put out his studio albums of original material in three box sets, with seven or eight per box, plus bonus discs filled (not half-filled) with related demos, singles/B-sides and unreleased songs from that period. You could have “1970-76”, “1977-93” and “1997-2020”.
  •  compile companion box sets rounding up the other sub-genres of his output — “In Concert”, with all his live albums (including Wings Over Europe); “Covers” (possibly including Broad Street and Unplugged alongside the two rock ‘n’ roll albums and Kisses on the Bottom); “Classical”, and “Experimenting” (including the Fireman releases, Liverpool Sound Collage and Twin Freaks). Each box could also have bonus discs collecting rarities and unreleased material, plus a CD-style liner notes book.
  • produce a four-, five- or even six-CD anthology box of unreleased home demos and outtakes recorded at his Rude Studio over the years. And you could finish things off with a DVD box containing ALL his promotional films, concert films and notable documentaries/TV specials such as Put It There, Movin’ On, In The World Tonight, Back in the US and so on.
A bootleg of material recorded at Paul’s Rude Studio

They could make each album available individually, on CD and for download/streaming, as well. But if they really want to encourage the collectors among us, they could design the artwork for each of the nine boxes so that they spell out M-c-C-A-R-T-N-E-Y when displayed on a shelf, perhaps with a different instrument on the cover of each (three different basses on his studio collections, acoustic guitar, piano, etc.). If these were priced at around £120 and came out once a year, I think most fans would be in heaven. And it would give Paul a chance to tidy up and collate his musical legacy while he’s still around to do so.

These are just my thoughts – I’m sure others will have their own ideas. Paul has produced so much outstanding music over the past 50 years, I just hope someone at MPL or Capitol will come up with a serious plan one day to do it justice. There are easy ways to keep us happy, make some money and ensure the McCartney canon is given the care and status it deserves.

It won’t be soon enough for me – 10 years of the McCartney Archive Collection (part two)

When Tug of War and Pipes of Peace were announced as the next installments of the McCartney Archive Collection in October 2015, I was licking my lips in anticipation. Not only were these two of my favourite Macca albums, the b-sides from their attendant singles had never been released on CD – and, by all accounts, there was a wealth of unreleased material recorded during the sessions with George Martin from 1980-83. This package had the potential to be among the highlights of the series. But when the content for the bonus discs was revealed, it was a crushing disappointment.

The dual release of ‘Tug of War’ and ‘Pipes of Peace’, 2015

The b-sides were there, true, but the rest was largely made up of a batch of 1980 home demos of songs which made it onto the albums, and which had been circulating on bootlegs for more than 20 years. I always feel such things are a bit of a cheat, as they’re ultimately just unfinished or inferior versions of songs we already have. Interesting to listen to once or twice, but then you file them away and forget about them. Or at least I do, because the final recording is almost always the one I prefer. It was also baffling that demos were completely overlooked for earlier Archive releases like Ram and Venus and Mars, yet were now becoming the core of the bonus content – at the expense of unheard songs. But the craziest thing about the selection was that two of the demos he recorded in those 1980 sessions, the unreleased songs ‘Unbelievable Experience’ and ‘Seems Like Old Times’, were omitted from this package. WTF? One ‘new’ demo did make it onto the Tug of War extras, ‘Stop, You Don’t Know Where She Came From’ – but there is apparently a finished version of that, complete with a brass section, so why didn’t they give us that instead?

The Pipes of Peace bonus disc was a little better, in that it offered a couple of genuinely unheard curios, ‘It’s Not On’ and ‘Simple As That’, plus the relatively rare film soundtrack number ‘Twice in a Lifetime’ (I could have done without the ‘Say Say Say’ remix which flipped the Macca/Jacko vocal lines, though I see why it was included). But considering both that and the second Tug of War disc both had around 40 minutes of free space, this was pretty thin gruel. Why didn’t they include ‘Blackpool’, a track earmarked as the b-side of the cancelled ‘The Man’ single in 1984? Or the 1981 version of ‘No Values’, later re-recorded for Broad Street? Or ‘All The Love is There’, the song he cut with Stewart Copeland of The Police? Or the acoustic reprise of ‘Tug of War’ which was originally planned for its parent album? Or the three-part medley which originally welded ‘Sweetest Little Show’ with ‘Unbelievable Experience’ and the similarly unreleased ‘Any Younger’? Or some of the jams with Stevie Wonder and Carl Perkins recorded during the early 1981 sessions at George Martin’s studio in Montserrat? Hell, if demos were so important, why not include the terrific one Paul wrote and recorded for the Everly Brothers during this period, ‘On The Wings of a Nightingale’? Or the one he presumably must have cut for the song ‘Runaway’, recorded by the band Ivory in the early 1980s, or even the two tunes he gave Ringo for 1981’s Stop and Smell The Roses?

If these albums represented a huge missed opportunity, worse was to follow. In the summer of 2016, it was announced Paul had re-signed with the Capitol/EMI record label, and the accompanying press release touted that  “a comprehensive plan for the artist’s catalogue is being conceived.….. and will be implemented beginning July 2017.” This sounded promising, and hinted at a change of approach – after all, why would you need to conceive a “comprehensive plan” if you were just going to carry on with the Archive series in the same way? However, the next release – which actually emerged in March 2017 – proved to be the most controversial and divisive of the series so far.

The standard Archive version of ‘Flowers in the Dirt’, 2017

Again, on paper, Flowers in the Dirt (1989) promised so much. Another stellar album, it spawned some of his best-ever b-sides and bonus tracks. Lengthy recording sessions from 1986-89 also produced a plethora of unused songs, some of which saw a release on the Flaming Pie singles a decade later, while others (such as ‘Return to Pepperland’) languished in the vaults. And when the tracklisting for the Archive edition revealed that not only would the widely-bootlegged acoustic demos he recorded with Elvis Costello in 1987 feature, but also initial studio recordings of the same songs laid down the following year – recordings some of us didn’t even know existed – it looked like this package would really deliver. Sadly, that was where the good news ended.

First,  only the 1987 Costello demos (which most hardcore Macca fans already owned) would be included on the standard two-disc edition. If you wanted the really juicy 1988 studio versions, you had to splash out on the deluxe edition which, in the UK, was on sale for an eye-watering £130. Even though both sets of tracks would have fitted comfortably onto one CD. Not only that, but all other non-Costello outtakes from this period were completely ignored. As for all those great b-sides I mentioned, well, they were available if you bought the pricey package…..but only as digital downloads. This senseless decision understandably infuriated lots of loyal McCartney fans. There was even a petition on change.org, which attracted more than 1,000 signatures, urging MPL to add in an extra disc with the download songs, but to no avail. A spokesman claimed Paul didn’t want the Archive packages to contain more than four discs (including DVDs) – a bizarre, rather arbitrary “rule” which strangely didn’t apply to the Ram reissue, for example, or the more recent Flaming Pie release. Surely, when you are asking people to pay through the nose for a package like this, you should provide physical content? MPL seemed more interested in the accompanying books (including a less-than-essential photo book documenting the making of the video for ‘This One’ and a catalogue from one of Linda’s photo exhibitions) than actual McCartney music. Madness.

The ad for the full ‘Flowers’ deluxe package

In retrospect, I’m less bothered by the fact the b-sides were download-only than by the fact they weren’t even remastered, and so didn’t sound any better than the versions we already had – again, in total contrast to earlier Archive releases. It betrays a real lack of care towards how Paul’s music is presented. There are some truly great tracks there – ‘The Loveliest Thing’ is among my favourite Macca numbers ever, and there are many devotees of ‘Flying To My Home’, for example – and yet they were just tossed out without being upgraded or even put on a disc, like they didn’t matter. Even more perplexing, given the emphasis this release put on Paul’s collaborations with Elvis Costello (something he ultimately backed away from when making the original album), the downloads also featured four further co-writes, including acoustic demos of two completely unheard tracks plus the wonderful b-side ‘Back On My Feet’. As there was plenty of empty space on both bonus discs (again), why not put these in alongside the rest of the Costello-related tracks? The whole thing felt slapdash, ill conceived and a case study in how to alienate your (limited) target audience. If they had dropped a couple of the books, shoved in a couple of extra discs and pegged the price at around £100, I think many of us would have thought it was a luxury worth raiding the piggy bank for. As it was, well…..I have four friends who are huge Macca fans, and only one among the five of us actually bought the deluxe edition.

The ad for the ‘Red Rose Speedway’ reissue in 2018

To be fair, it seems MPL/Capitol took heed of the backlash around Flowers because, although we had to wait 21 months for them, the next Archive sets saw a big improvement. In December 2018, we lurched back to the early days of Paul’s solo career and the first incarnation of Wings, with reissues of Wild Life (1971) and Red Rose Speedway (1973). The former, recorded in little over a week with a threadbare collection of songs, was never going to offer much in the way of bonus goodies, though the compilers did their best, seemingly throwing on every sketchy home recording from that period they could find – including three brief snippets of guitar noodling which didn’t even have titles. Red Rose Speedway, on the other hand, was put together over the course of a year and was originally planned as a double album, and the resulting Archive edition is possibly the best one to date. The deluxe version contained the original double LP version of the album, including a clutch of unreleased numbers, plus a batch of other outtakes, live recordings and singles/b-sides. At around £150, it was still a pretty pricey affair but, crucially, almost all of the really worthwhile bonus music was also made available on the standard two-disc version of the release, and there was no download-only nonsense. So everyone was happy.

The mega ‘Wings 1971-73’ box – a snip at, er, £300

The only sour note came when a special Wings 1971-73 box set was also produced which combined both deluxe album packages and also threw in an exclusive live album from the band’s 1972 European tour….all for a trifling £300. Another poke in the eye for fans with more limited budgets (remember, this came out within weeks of the costly Beatles’ White Album and Lennon Imagine box sets) or those of us who just aren’t that interested in the books and other trinkets. Bearing in mind people buying both deluxe Wings albums would be paying the best part of £300 for them anyway, couldn’t Capitol have just released Wings Over Europe as a regular, standalone release? Plenty of people would have snapped it up. As it is, in this day and age, it quickly emerged onto the market through other, less “official” routes, but I just don’t see the sense of lining the bootleggers’ pockets when it could – and should – have been available for anyone to buy.

Still, there were signs of a more considered approach. But with the Archive Collection, it always seems to be one step forward followed by two steps back. The widely expected reissue of the remaining Wings albums London Town and Back To The Egg was bypassed and in July this year (sadly, 19 months between releases now seems to be the norm) we zoomed forward in the McCartney timeline with the release of his 1997 effort, Flaming Pie. Again, lots of potential with this one. We know he recorded a number of tracks with Steve Miller other than the ones which made the album, including ‘Sweet Home Country Girl’ and ‘Soul Boy’. Then there was ‘Cello in the Ruins’, a track recorded during the Pie sessions and almost issued on a charity fundraising album in 1995. And the cover of ‘A Room With A View’, released on a Noel Coward tribute album in 1997. So did the Archive edition feature any of these? No. Of course not.

This year’s ‘Flaming Pie’ reissue

What we got instead were demos of songs we already have on the album. Lots of demos. Home demos, studio demos, run through demos and, in some cases, multiple versions of the same song. I don’t know about anyone else, but I could happily have lived without four versions of ‘Beautiful Night’ and three each of ‘Great Day’ and ‘Calico Skies’, not least because none of them really that different. The rough mixes of the album songs featured here are equally pointless. And while they did include all the b-sides from the album’s three singles, most of them were recorded a decade earlier and have nothing to do with Flaming Pie. I can deal with that though – what is really annoying is that several of them are only available through the deluxe pay wall (now topping £200) and, even worse, are still embedded in the Oobu Joobu mini radio shows as featured on the original singles. I’m struggling to see the artistic value in that, as I’m sure most people would just want to listen to the songs in isolation. It’s strange how MPL/Capitol will go to the trouble of removing a few seconds of live stage banter at the beginning of ‘The Mess’ (as included on the Red Rose Speedway reissue) which fans had got used to hearing for 45 years, yet couldn’t be bothered to trim off many minutes of pseudo DJ chat and frippery – welded either side of six songs – that I can’t imagine many people ever wanting to listen to more than a couple of times.

So that’s where we are. In my next post, I’ll reflect on the Archive Collection as a whole, how it could be improved, and what I’d really like to see happen to the McCartney back catalogue going forward.