Zooming in to Ringo’s new EP

Remember the sleeve notes of 1964’s Beatles for Sale LP, written by their press officer Derek Taylor? He predicted that the “kids of AD 2000” would still be grooving to Beatles music, and – as that  year saw the release of the multi-zillion selling 1 compilation – he wasn’t wrong (though his vision of said “kids” being radioactive and picnicking on Saturn were slightly less accurate). I assume his claim was probably greeted by mockery by wide sections of society at the time, but I wonder if even he – or anyone else – would’ve given much credence to the idea that Ringo would still be recording and releasing new pop music in AD 2021, at the age of 80. It would probably have been pushing it to say Paul would still be active (never mind topping the album charts), but at least he was a front man and a songwriter with a few big hits already behind him. But Ringo? The drummer, with “limited” vocal range, who was allowed to sing one track per album? At the time, even the Fabs thought anyone over the age of 30 was past it, and could never have dreamed any of them would be making music in a far-flung future when we would presumably be using flying cars, rocket ships and teleportation as our preferred means of transport.

Okay, not many people are actually still buying Ringo’s releases, but that’s kind of beside the point. What matters is, are they still any good? Well, I guess it depends on what yardstick you choose to measure them by. There are those who don’t bother with any of his solo stuff because, well, it’s “only” Ringo. Those of us who have continued to follow his career have been rewarded with some genuinely good stuff, particularly during the 1990s and early 2000s, when he hooked up with some well-suited collaborators and enjoyed a real hot streak. Over the past decade or so, it’s been more of a mixed bag. Eschewing outside producers, Ringo has opted to take sole charge of his records and downsized somewhat, making them all at home with a roster of familiar rock star pals. His usual approach has been to come up with a song idea, lay down a rough backing track, and then invite people over to help build the tune on top of it. His first stab at this, 2010’s Y Not, was solid enough, but the follow-up Ringo 2012 was hugely disappointing, a lazy effort which marked a real low point. 2015’s Postcards from Paradise offered only a modest improvement, but he then came back with his most consistent album in years, Give More Love (2017).  His last release, 2019’s What’s My Name, was decent too but, generally speaking, he’s been playing it safe in recent times – the same way of working, in the same place, with the same people, producing samey results (even the album covers are barely distinguishable from each other). I guess at his time of life he’s entitled to do whatever he likes, and it’s not as if anyone expects Sgt Pepper any more. Still, he is a Beatle, and I want to see him step outside his comfort zone from time to time.

The first Beatle release of 2021

Which brings us to his latest offering, Zoom In. For some reason, Ringo has decided that What’s My Name is to be his last album, and he will make only EPs from now on. Not quite sure what the thinking is behind that – especially when you consider he’s planning to release a second EP later this year, so he’s effectively putting out two halves of an album a few months apart. Go figure. Anyway, Zoom In features five tracks recorded last year which, on the face of it, follow the usual Ringo modern-day pattern: made in his home studio, with a little help from famous friends, with a cover trumpeting his peace-and-love credentials (though the bouffant lockdown hair cut is new – where does an octogenarian get all that hair?). However, while not radically different, he does ring a couple of changes this time out, to good effect. First, he’s given full sway to outside writers – in fact, he co-wrote just one number – which gives the material a different feel. And while he is still co-producing with regular crony Bruce Sugar (apart from on one song), he’s gone for fresh approach here. There were hints of it on What’s My Name, but the generous helpings of horns, organ, female backing vocals and the like help to create a fuller, richer ambience than usual; a throwback to the 1970s, in some cases. He hasn’t sounded this good for quite a while. And some of the songs are pretty strong, too.

The first track, ‘Here’s to the Nights’, released as a single (or what passes for one these days) just before Christmas, is the one you may have heard. Penned by veteran songsmith Diane Warren (who’s provided a bewildering array of hits for everyone from Aerosmith to Lady Gaga), it’s a big, bombastic anthem about breaking rules, having fun and, er, getting blind drunk. Okay, there’s nothing subtle about it and the lyrics could’ve been lifted from a greetings card, but it’s an uplifting, instantly memorable tune with a slick, stylish arrangement. It’s the kind of track Ringo hasn’t attempted for some time (it’s particularly nice to hear a big string section on one of his records again), and it fits him like a glove. For the booming chorus, he enlists a, ahem, starry list of guest vocalists, including Dave Grohl, Sheryl Crow, Lenny Kravitz and our very own Paul McCartney, though the end result is so megalithic you may struggle to tell the individual contributions apart without the video to help you. Ringo’s own voice is, probably for the first time, showing signs of age on this, but even that adds to the wistful, nostalgic glow of the song. And he still manages to hold an impressively long note at the end (seemingly much to his own amusement, judging by closing chuckle).

The video for ‘Here’s to the Nights’, with some nice clips of Macca alongside Ringo

I didn’t care much for ‘Zoom In Zoom Out’ to begin with, but it’s a real grower. It starts off a little like Davie Bowie’s ‘Jean Genie’ but then settles into a shuffling, relaxed groove behind another surprisingly catchy melody. While repeating the standard ‘love is what it’s all about’ message, the lyric is actually quite clever, managing to be cosmic and commonplace at the same time (who’d have thought we’d get to hear him sing a line like ‘Shift your paradigm’?). Laced with some nice bluesy guitar from The Doors’ Robbie Krieger and featuring a crafty false ending, it’s a good track, full of Ringo’s characteristic bonhomie and optimism. His grandad dancing in the accompanying video is best forgotten, though.

Next up is ‘Teach Me To Tango’. As with ‘Better Days’, one of the stand-out tracks on What’s My Name, it was written by Sam Hollander, who’s provided hits for Katy Perry, One Direction, Panic! At The Disco and many more. And Ringo should definitely keep him on speed dial, because this is another winner. After a rumbling, drum-heavy intro, it powers into a hook-laden tune which rocks along for a rollicking, invigorating three minutes. The chorus will lodge in your brain and the tasty arrangement – topped off with a sizzling guitar break – is enough to get anyone on their feet. A perfect party tune, this is exactly the kind of thing Ringo should be doing these days, and it’s possibly the best number here.

One Starr that’s still shinging bright

The remaining two songs are not quite so good, but still far from write-offs. Co-written by Ringo, ‘Waiting for the Tide to Turn’ is one of his occasional ventures into reggae, and – alongside the obligatory reference to Bob Marley – he makes some big claims for the music’s healing power in these troubled times. “Just play some reggae music and it will be a better day”, apparently. Be that as it may, there’s not much of song here, but it does have a definite Caribbean vibe to it and a certain hazy charm. Again, the meaty production really gives it some heft. I think ‘King of the Kingdom’, the reggae work-out on Give More Love, was a stronger composition, but it’s not bad.

Ringo was persuaded to record ‘Not Enough Love in the World’ by the sentiment of the title alone, which makes you wish he’d be a bit more stringent when choosing his material. Written by former Toto guitarist and long-time All-Starr Band member Steve Lukather, it’s a bouncy, bright bit of mid-tempo pop, with a 1960s/70s feel. The lyrics are as hippie-ish and as daffy as the title suggests, sung with the carefree attitude you’d expect of a multi-millionnaire living in Los Angeles, though there’s a nice nod to our current situation in the middle eight (“I’ve lived a pretty crazy life/And I now I have to stay inside, oh my”). There’s nothing wrong with it – it’s pretty catchy, and Lukather supplies some fine guitar in it – it’s just the kind of thing we’ve heard many times before.

All in all, though, Zoom In is a pleasant surprise and rewards repeat listens. Ringo sounds spry, vital, and full of intent. It has no real clunkers, no heavy-handed references to The Beatles, and none of the air of going through the motions which has marred a few of his tracks in recent years. It shows the benefits of using outside writers and material tailored specially for him – like John, Paul and George used to do, in the old days – and of a bigger, more punchy production ethos. It certainly whets the appetite for the follow-up EP later this year which, considering Ringo will be 81 when that comes out, is surely more than we have any reasonable right to expect. I doubt not even Derek Taylor, with his radioactive kids picnicking on Saturn, would’ve predicted that.

A little featurette on the making of the EP

John in 1965 – the best ever?

Imagine, if you will, that in 1965 Paul McCartney hit a writer’s block and George Harrison hadn’t yet found his feet as a songwriter. The Beatles were dependent on John Lennon compositions, plus the occasional cover. Brian Epstein kept a rabid EMI and, in the US, Capitol at bay by insisting the group would issue only one LP that year, as well as a couple of spin-off singles. Yes, I know Paul, George and Ringo massively enhanced John’s songs with their ideas and instrumental contributions. And I know that Macca played a key role in creating many Lennon originals during this period (though it cut both ways – for every McCartney-burnished ‘In My Life’, there was a Lennon-bolstered ‘Michelle’ or ‘We Can Work It Out’). Of course, collaboration was fundamental to achieving what they did, especially in this most glorious of Beatles years. I’m just urging you to focus on John’s creativity that year. Because I think there’s a case to be made that 1965 was Lennon’s artistic apex in the band, and captured him as the greatest rock star we’ve ever had.

A classic shot by Robert Whittaker

That’s not to say John wasn’t brilliant throughout his career. He dominated The Beatles’ 1964 output, for example, and had several other songwriting hotspots – the epic, mind-bending compositions of 1967, for example, 1971’s inspired Imagine  album and the array of great numbers he either created from scratch or polished off for his 1980 comeback recordings. In fact, he continued to evolve and develop throughout his life, refining his style and often reinventing it, and even his lesser years – say, 1969 or 1972 – are studded with great tunes. But there’s something about his songs for Help! and Rubber Soul, and their accompanying singles, which find a really sweet spot and capture him at the very peak of his considerable powers. Don’t believe me? Okay, let’s have a look at the track list for The Beatles’ 1965 Lennon-led album:

Help!

You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away

You’re Gonna Lose That Girl

Yes It Is

Ticket to Ride

It’s Only Love

Norwegian Wood

Nowhere Man

The Word

Girl

In My Life

Run for Your Life

(*Day Tripper, a co-write, could be the non-album single)

It’s all a matter of opinion, of course, but I think ‘Help!’, ‘Girl’ and ‘You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away’ are the best songs he wrote with The Beatles. And ‘Ticket To Ride’ and ‘In My Life’ are pretty close behind. And ‘It’s Only Love’ is one of the most underrated of all Fabs tunes. And ‘Norwegian Wood’ and ‘Nowhere Man’ aren’t bad, either. See what I mean? The power and consistency of his writing (and singing) here is phenomenal. And, like a supremely confident boxer, he’ll take you down any which way want – dazzling you with his technique, battering you with a barrage of body blows or leaving you breathless with his speed, dexterity and audacity. So you have angst-ridden introspection (‘Help!’, ‘Nowhere Man’); wounded, flailing romanticism (‘Ticket’, ‘It’s Only Love’, ‘Hide Your Love Away’); dreamy, conflicted meditations on the past (‘Yes It Is’, ‘Norwegian Wood’, ‘In My Life’), and impatient, frustrated relationship demands (‘Lose That Girl’, ‘Run For Your Life’). And, in the miraculous ‘Girl’, he somehow covers all four of these themes at once. And it’s not just the subject matter he plays around with. Stylistically, he switches from power pop to folk to jangly rock, all the while adding instrumental flourishes (flutes, sitar, harmonium, guitar volume pedals) which took rock music in to new areas. Looking for a more harder-edged Lennon? Well, he outdoes the Rolling Stones at their own game on ‘Run For Your Life’, and also leads the band through two ferocious covers of Larry Williams songs, ‘Bad Boy’ and ‘Dizzy Miss Lizzy’.

Recording ‘Rubber Soul’, autumn 1965

Why was he so good in this year? I think there are lots of factors behind it. Firstly, while still tied to an insanely busy work schedule, The Beatles had a little more time to breathe in 1965 and enjoy the fruits of their labours. At this point,  the mania whirlwind hadn’t yet begun take its toll; there was still an element of freshness and excitement, of new frontiers to conquer and undiscovered worlds to explore. For John, I think it was the first time he had the chance to take stock and reflect on what had happened to him, to savour his stardom and success, before the madness of it all became oppressive and the incessant attention began to chafe. From being an art school drop-out and Scouse ne’er do well, he was now a globally fêted multi-millionaire, heading up the biggest entertainment and cultural phenomenon of the century, hailed as a genius (which he had always thought he was, anyway) and mixing with the UK’s Swinging ‘60s cultural elite, some of whom he had loved and admired while growing up. As the memoirs of wife Cynthia and childhood pal Pete Shotton attest, he loved it – and, as with the other Fabs, it fuelled rather than stifled his creativity.

At the same time, while the previous year’s ‘I’m A Loser’ had hinted at his insecurities, the endless chart triumphs must’ve made him feel supremely confident. Rather than play it safe and stick to a winning formula, John’s character was such that it would have encouraged him to take more risks and see what he could get away with, to challenge his audience and test their adoration. The success in 1964 of his ‘In His Own Write’, his first book of sketches and language-mangling poetry, doggerel and short stories, had proven he could enjoy artistic success on his own terms. This not only resulted in a slightly darker, more twisted second book, ‘A Spaniard in the Works’, in 1965, but also encouraged him to take a more literate, personal approach to his songwriting. Contrary to what he later said, his early lyrics had often revealed a lot about the inner workings of his psyche (going back to ‘There’s A Place’ on Please Please Me), but this undoubtedly became more overt and sophisticated in 1965. Bob Dylan is often cited as a key influence here, but I suspect Lennon saw him as someone he wanted to put in his place, a rival, rather than an artist he aspired to be like. John never wanted to be anyone other than himself, and he always wanted to be top dog.

From teddy boy to teddy bear

But the insecurities remained. Much has been made, not least by John himself, of the pain and tragedy of his early life, and how it provided the engine for his artistic expression. It undoubtedly found more of an outlet in his work after hooking up with Yoko in 1968, culminating in the tortured ‘primal screams’ of John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band in 1970, and echoing through much of his solo work in the decade that followed. Those feelings were obviously buried during the prime Beatlemania years, but they were still there, bubbling away from day one. In 1965, we can see now they were starting to come to the surface, ripping through the carefully composed moptop canvas in the most forceful of ways – none more so than in the song ‘Help!’, nominally a catchy toe-tapper but also a shard of self-realisation. His 1965 songs are not only more mature and eloquent, they showcase the aching sensitivity hidden beneath his mocking, sometimes caustic public persona. Nonetheless, his internalised hurt was balanced out by the positive influences in his life. His pain may have been a driving force, but it didn’t overwhelm or define him. While he was just beginning to explore and articulate past traumas, and coming to understand that success, his marriage to Cynthia and even Beatlehood would not ultimately satisfy his innermost cravings,  he was smart enough to know he was living out a life most people could not even dream of.

And this is reflected in the Lennon we see interviewed during that period. He never whines or preaches or over-intellectualises, or plays the showbiz game. The burning intelligence and biting wit is there, but he seems comfortable in his own skin and with his status, unfazed by adoration or criticism. He’s a shade more grown-up than before, but as playful as he ever was and, possibly, ever would be again. He was already a spokesman for his generation, but didn’t see himself as that (though ‘The Word’, on Rubber Soul – in particular, the line ‘I’m here to show everybody the light’ – betrays the first flickerings of a messiah complex). He was cheeky, cocksure and irreverent, absolutely, but utterly charming, funny and irresistible. Watch him at the Shea Stadium concert. The world is literally a puddle of hysteria at his feet, and he thinks it’s hilarious. Look at the cover of Rubber Soul – while the others are scanning far horizons, he staring directly at you, challenging, engaging you, with an enigmatic, Mona Lisa-style smile. Maybe he knows something more than you do. Or maybe he doesn’t. But you instinctively know it will be fun finding out. Oh, and he looks so cool (though arguable even more so in 1966).

Never one for a typical showbiz pose

Drugs also started to seriously come into play in 1965,  notably LSD. While The Beatles almost never wrote or recorded under the influence – by all accounts, it was pretty much impossible to produce anything worthwhile in such a state – the experience began to find its way into their music, and John’s in particular. LSD represented another way of tearing down social restrictions and conventions, feeding his insatiable desire for something new and novel while also connecting with the surreal view of the world he had nurtured since childhood. Crucially, though, the heavy use, the thousands of ‘trips’, the days of “eating acid for breakfast” (as he later described it), didn’t come until later. In 1965, it was just another stimulant, alongside music, sex, booze, pot, fame. He was still very much in command of his faculties, still razor sharp, still in full control, and still very much the leader of the biggest band in the world. The drug-induced ego disintegration of 1966-67, when Paul became ascendant, was still a way off.

Which brings us back to the nonsensical fantasy I painted at the beginning about John dominating The Beatles in 1965. What makes his output that year all the more astonishing – and perhaps also partially explains it – is that Paul was just a hair’s breadth behind him in his stratospheric development. Indeed, you could argue in that in 1966, in pure songwriting terms, he overtook him (and I could make an equally strong case for Macca being the ultimate rock star from mid-1965 to mid-1966). In fact, if you see him as the junior parter in the 1964 Lennon-McCartney team, Paul’s progress during this period is even more startling – he recorded ‘I’m Down’, ‘I’ve Just Seen A Face’ and ‘Yesterday’ in just one day, for heaven’s sake – and it undoubtedly impacted on John. The intense rivalry and collaboration between them would’ve push John further, faster and more fervently into new realms of accomplishment. Add in the input from George (whose own writing was starting to blossom at this point), Ringo and George Martin, and his wonderful tunes were able to reach fantastical fruition. The John Lennon of 1965 could never have existed without the support and impetus provided by his best friends.

His talents were in full flower during 1965

Despite all that, I still think John was a remarkable creative force that year. As I said earlier, he was always great, and one of the things that made him so was his quest to keep moving and changing. The critic David Hepworth, in an article written last year to mark what would’ve been John’s 80th birthday, said Lennon remains the gold standard for anyone who picks up a guitar. And I think his work in 1965 raised the bar to an almost impossibly high level. If music truly is a universal language, and an advanced alien race with time travelling capabilities arrived and invited the Earth to enter a single person into an intergalactic musical contest, I’d say send for John during the Rubber Soul sessions. He’d probably think it was a right laugh, and the extra-terrestrials would be disarmed, wooed, amused, jolted and ever-so-slightly intimidated. I’d fancy our chances to win.

‘Lady Madonna’: a first glimpse inside the studio

I wrote last year how I’ve long felt ‘I Feel Fine’ has become a little overlooked in The Beatles’ early run of hit singles. By the same token, it strikes me that 1968’s ‘Lady Madonna’ was perhaps the least celebrated of their later 45rpm blockbusters, certainly in years past (‘The Ballad of John and Yoko’ is perhaps less valued or recognised these days). This was probably due to its relatively modest success by Fab Four standards – it sold ‘just’ 250,000 or so copies in the UK, making #1 for ‘only’ two weeks. In the US, it peaked at a measly #4 (though was still another million-seller). But I think it’s also partly down to the fact that it didn’t ‘fit’ in any particular part of their oeuvre; not just a standalone single, it was divorced from any wider album sessions (unusual in the second half of their career) and while it was trumpeted in the music press at the time as the band getting back to their rock ‘n’ roll roots, it didn’t really herald any new direction for them. While it was a definite shift away from the layered psychedelia of their 1967 output, it bore little resemblance to anything recorded for the White Album later that year. Rather – as was their wont – they simply tried on a new style, had fun playing around with it, and then immediately discarded it to move onto something else.

The sleeve for the US single – replicating a typical publicity pose from five years earlier

That’s not to say that ‘Lady Madonna’ is not utterly brilliant, because it was and remains so. A lot is made in some circles of the fact that Paul borrowed the initial piano lick from a 1950s trad jazz hit called ‘Bad Penny Blues’ by Humphrey Lyttelton – you know, like The Beatles never ever nicked something from a tune they liked as a start point for a new song. In fact, it’s real inspiration – as Macca happily admitted – was  New Orleans rocker Fats Domino, one of the band’s original rock ‘n’ roll heroes. But, as with the Chuck Berry homage ‘Back in the USSR’ cut a short while later, their verve and imagination elevated the song onto an altogether different plain than their idol would ever have been capable of. Paul’s boogie-woogie, ‘walking’ piano and deliriously dynamic bass line, supported by Ringo’s artful mixture of deft brushes and pounding, low-end drums, move the number along at a rollicking, irresistible lick. On top of that, you’ve got Macca’s deep, deep vocal (I thought it was Ringo singing when I first heard it), harmonised with John on the ‘see how they run’ bit, and some snaking, distorted guitar parts from John and George. And then you’ve got a battery of saxophones to reinforce the jazzy feel (including a silky solo by British jazz stalwart Ronnie Scott), as well as a typically impish, slightly satirical bit of scat singing from John, Paul and George imitating the horn players. And did I mention the powerful kitchen-sink lyric eulogising motherhood? It all seems so effortless, and comes and goes within a ridiculously economical two minutes and 16 seconds.

Another noteworthy aspect of this release was that its accompanying promotional film gave us the first real glimpse of the band at work in the studio. Okay, the ‘All You Need is Love’ global TV satellite clip was broadcast from Abbey Road the previous year, but it was a semi-live performance, with much of the backing track already laid down. They were just showcasing their latest single in the recording studio, rather than on a TV set or concert stage. And while the film for ‘A Day in the Life’ captures (in rather hallucinogenic fashion) the famed orchestral overdub session in February 1967, I don’t think this was seen by the wider public until many years later. So ‘Lady Madonna’ represents the first real footage of The Beatles in their Studio 2 home actually recording a new song. Perversely, it just doesn’t happen to be the one that’s on the soundtrack.

John and Paul in the ‘Lady Madonna’ film. While recording a different tune entirely

The band had cut ‘Lady Madonna’ in early February 1968 as something to keep things ticking over during their extended trip to see the Maharishi in India, starting later that month. Realising they would need a promo film to sell it in their absence, they decided to return to Abbey Road on 11 February to perform it for the cameras. Somewhere along the line, though, they opted to use the time more productively and were instead filmed recording a new Lennon composition, ‘Hey Bulldog’ (coincidentally, another terrific ensemble piece built around a heavy piano riff). So what we finished up with was a snapshot of The Beatles recording in 1968, which just happened to have ‘Lady Madonna’ as its soundtrack. But, oh, what a snapshot it is. We have so little film of them like this (before the Let It Be sessions, at any rate), that it’s just priceless. And it’s in colour!

So we get Ringo, rock solid as ever, on drums; Paul lost in the creative zone as he figures out his bass line; a solemn George, characteristically precise and studious on his guitar; and John, showing off some outrageous lamb chop sideburns, larking about on the piano and at the microphone. There’s marvellous film of Lennon and McCartney having a whale of a time together at the mic, sometimes split into four, as if to give us a bug’s eye view (it must’ve been a ‘60s thing, I guess). In fact, the best bits are when you see two or more of them playing or singing in tandem – there’s even a blink-and-you-miss-it shot of John and George on guitars backed by Paul on drums – giving us a rare glimpse of them literally making the magic happen. For some reason, the clip also incorporates a bit of footage (notably during the last 20 seconds) from Paul’s recording session with Cilla Black when they worked on her single ‘Step Inside Love’ in November 1967.

Snapshots from the promo film

Compared to their multi-coloured dandy attire of the Summer of Love just a few months earlier, the Fabs are neatly, soberly dressed and – John’s sideburns aside – clean shaven. In fact, this may have been the last time the public ever saw them as something resembling the loveable moptops that they had cherished for the past five years or so. The band even plays up to that image with the smiley promotional photos taken to promote the track, with music press ads (and the US picture sleeve for the single) mimicking a pose used to publicise the ‘Please Please Me’ single from February 1963. The film may also capture the last time they were so fully cohesive, all pulling in the same direction and joyously bouncing off each other as in days of yore – before the trip to India (which biographer Mark Lewisohn pinpoints as the key turning point in their story), before John’s infatuation with Yoko and subsequent descent into heroin, before the business chaos of Apple.  Sure, they recovered that vibe of brotherhood many times afterwards, but it was always under pressure from outside forces and distractions, and was more difficult to sustain. They were rarely as carefree and so totally focussed on one another again.

Still 100% fab – a promotional shot from February 1968

When I first became a Fabs fan in the mid ‘80s, sightings of this film were rare. I first came across a bit of it on the 1982 The Compleat Beatles documentary, though I had no idea what it was (bizarrely, it was played over audio of ‘Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite’ in the section about Sgt Pepper). I think I first saw a grainy copy of the full clip at some Beatles convention, possibly the annual Liverpool one in 1990. It was still rare enough to make me very excited when it was included in the Anthology TV series in 1995 and the home video releases a year later. The picture changed significantly in 1999, though, when Apple – eager to find something new to promote the re-release of the Yellow Submarine film – had the footage recut to match the song the group was actually recording that day, ‘Hey Bulldog’ (which features on the Submarine soundtrack, of course). While it was thrilling to have the film and music finally synched properly, it does mean the ‘Lady Madonna’ clip has lost some of its shine as a result. When you’ve heard what they are actually performing, it seems odd to have a different song layered on top.

Nonethless, it was good to have the original film included, in pristine quality, on The Beatles 1 DVD promo film collection in 2015. Over time, I think ‘Lady Madonna’ has acquired much of the prominence it deserves as part of the golden run of Beatles singles – helped, no doubt, by its inclusion on the best-selling 1967-70 and 1 compilation albums. The fact it has become a mainstay of Paul’s concert set lists since 1993 has also helped its cause, I reckon, as it always goes down a storm with audiences. And rightly so. If this doesn’t get you up on your feet and grooving, nothing will. The fact they can make you dance, sing, feel happy and think about the world around you, all at the same time, is one facet of what makes The Beatles so special. And another reason I’m fond of this song is that I’ve tinkled the ivories that Paul plays on it. But I’ll save that story for another time.

The ‘Lady Madonna’ clip

The Beatles on ‘Parkinson’

My earliest memory of watching a TV interview with one of The Beatles involves Ringo’s appearance on the UK’s Parkinson show, to promote his Stop and Smell the Roses album in December 1981. It’s curious that it stayed in my mind, as I didn’t have much interest in pop music at that time (and Ringo had long since vacated the singles charts by that point); I think it was partly down to the fact that my initial interest in the Fabs had been piqued in the wake of John’s death, and partly down to the screening of the video for ‘Wrack My Brain’. A stroll through a haunted house populated by the likes of Dracula and Frankenstein’s Monster (albeit cut-price versions) was sure to grab the attention of my 12-year-old self. I’ve occasionally looked online for this clip over years without success, so was thrilled (such is my low threshold for excitement during lockdown) when a friend told me it had recently appeared on YouTube. And that got me thinking about a clutch of interesting Beatle guest spots on the show stretching over more than 30 years.

Paul’s appearance on the show in 2005

Fabs fans outside the UK are probably most aware of Michael Parkinson through his presence on the cover of the Band On The Run album, but in this country he’s most famous as the doyen of chat shows. Certainly in the 1970s, he was the nation’s top celebrity interviewer (though, looking back, I can’t actually remember too many others) and his late-night Saturday slot on BBC-1 was often must-see TV. He regularly bagged conversations with Hollywood legends like James Cagney, Orson Welles, John Wayne and Bette Davis, alongside more contemporary superstars like Muhammad Ali, Raquel Welch and Peter Sellers, and it wasn’t always just about plugging their latest project. Cultivating a  plain-speaking, man-of-the-people persona mixed in with vague aspirations of intellectual sparring, Parky – as he came to be known – was pretty good at teasing out worthwhile answers and meaty stories from his illustrious guests, at least in those days. He struck just the right balance of showing respect without being reverential, of intimating friendliness without being fawning. It was a far cry from the host-as-comedian format of today, with the guests lined up just to push product and supply punchlines for an endless stream of self-serving gags.  While he started to believe his own myth in later years, when it came to thoughtful, headline-grabbing showbiz parleys back then, Parky was the master.

His first stint on the BBC ran for more than a decade, and among the guests during his very first series in 1971 were John and Yoko. Long thought lost (though I’m sure I’ve seen snippets over the years), the full 20-minute segment from this show turned up recently and was broadcast on the UK ‘pop-up’ channel Lennon at 80 last October. It seems the couple were there to promote the reprint of Yoko’s book Grapefruit, and Parky wastes no time in telling her that he finds its contents incomprehensible. It’s a little churlish, but it’s also kind of refreshing (and now very rare) to see a star challenged so directly, and continues when the host goes on to tell John that the pair’s outrageous antics over the previous three years have alienated many people who used to love him. John calmly rebuts this, arguing (not entirely convincingly) that the negativity is all down to skewed media coverage – and he does make a valid point about the press’s treatment of Yoko, in particular. It’s not until the midway point of the interview that The Beatles are brought up, and this triggers one of the highlights of the clip, as John reminds his interrogator of his promise that any Fab Four questions would have to be asked from inside a black bag (one of John and Yoko’s avant garde japes from their early days together). Parky is a good sport about it, and it is laugh-out-loud funny to watch him try to continue the interview while completely covered.

Yoko reads out a poem to John and Parky, 1971

When discussing the break-up of The Beatles, it’s obvious John has nothing but fondness for, and pride in, his former band. Dismissing the suggestion that Yoko caused the split (“nobody could break us up….we broke ourselves up”), he compares his decision to end the group with the story of Japanese holy man who built a golden temple everyone loved; the man could not bear the thought of it falling into decay, so he eventually burned it to the ground. And even though it would’ve been around this time that he was recording his notorious anti-Macca diatribe ‘How Do You Sleep?’, there is no trace of animosity when he talks about Paul, just disagreement. He even says that after the business stuff is sorted out, they would go back to being friends within a year (and he was pretty much right), though he swats away the inevitable reunion question by saying it would be “like going back to school”. It’s all over far too quickly, but is still a great interview – while some of Yoko’s answers meander, John is relaxed and amusing throughout, and looks very cool. The whole thing hasn’t surfaced on YouTube yet, but hopefully will at some point. And when it does, you’ll be amazed at how John is not only smoking throughout, but also lights up cigarettes for Yoko and Parky so they don’t miss out.

A brief snippet from the John and Yoko interview

A couple of years later, Paul asked Parkinson to be one of his celebrity ‘prison-break’ gang on the cover of Band On The Run. Parky agreed, on condition that Paul would one day appear as a guest on his show. It would prove to be a very long wait. It’s funny, considering that John liked to describe Macca as the world’s greatest PR man, that while Lennon regularly guested on prime time talk shows on either side of the Atlantic during the first half of the 1970s (even co-hosting the Mike Douglas Show in the States for a week), Paul – to the best of my knowledge – didn’t appear on a single one. George kept a similarly low profile during the decade, and Parky wouldn’t get another Beatle on his show until the aforementioned Ringo episode at the end of 1981. By this point, though his show was now something of a British TV institution, the host was looking for pastures new, and the end of the show was in sight (something Ringo mischievously alludes to during the interview).

Ringo appeared alongside his then-new bride Barbara Bach, lyricist Tim Rice and Liverpudlian comedian Jimmy Tarbuck (who went to primary school with John Lennon and had met Ringo during their days at the Butlins holiday camps in the early ‘60s). The Starr man seems quite, ahem, well-oiled (and he appropriates a glass of wine from Tarbuck soon after arriving on stage), but is on fine form. Maybe tries to cram in too many gags, but enough of them land, so it’s not an issue. The questions touch on his acting career, his early attempts at songwriting (with the familiar story of him presenting tunes to the other Fabs which they instantly spotted as re-writes of old songs) and the beginnings of his solo career with Sentimental Journey – leading to some nice banter with Tarbuck about old-fashioned Liverpool parties. There’s even a lengthy discussion about the pros and cons of the British weather, while Barbara owns up to a complete lack of musicality and a poor sense of rhythm (Ringo: “I’ve seen a fly with more time.”) Curiously, there are no questions about The Beatles or John’s death just a year earlier (it probably wouldn’t have fitted with the jovial nature of the show), though Ringo does keep winking at the camera at one point, inferring it’s an in-joke with Paul and George. The programme ends with Parky and guests performing the ‘50s hit ‘Singing The Blues’ (later to be covered by Paul on Unplugged). It’s great to see Ringo on drums for this, though when he steps out front to take the mic he cheerfully admits he doesn’t know the words. Classic.

Ringo and Barbara on the show, 1981

Parkinson came to an end in April 1982, with the host going off to – among other things – present a similar show in Australia (you can see Ringo’s appearance on that, later that year, on YouTube). Nonetheless, Parky remained a prominent figure in British showbiz in the years that followed, even hosting his own show on BBC Radio 2, on which Macca guested in 1997. But it wasn’t until 1998, after some bright spark at the BBC thought it might be a good idea to revive his original Saturday night chat show, that he returned to what many felt was his rightful place, with considerable fanfare. However, the celeb interview format had changed a great deal in the intervening years, and so had he. There was a much softer, more chummy feel to the show; it was more of a glossy love-in. Parky’s professional Yorkshireman schtick quickly grew tiresome, and led to one critic memorably describing him as a “self-regarding old bore”. Ouch. There were guests who seemed to appear on the show every other week (Judi Dench, Billy Connolly, etc.) and while he still pulled in big names, they didn’t seem as big as they used to be. Perhaps because they often appeared on lots of other talk-fests at the same time

There was still the occasional show-stopping, high profile edition, though, and one such was an entire show dedicated to Paul in December 1999, as Macca finally fulfilled the promise he made 26 years earlier. I was visiting my parents when it was screened and – taking them as the barometer of Joe Public – they seemed very interested in the occasion. It was the first big TV interview he had given since Linda’s death the previous year, and the opening questions tackle that head-on. Paul seems quite composed in his answers, and you get the feeling he had thought them through in advance to help navigate what must still have been very raw feelings.

After that, Parky runs through the usual tropes in chronological order – asking him about his childhood, meeting John (“What was he really like?”), forming The Beatles, Beatlemania, songwriting, Wings (“By 1976 we were a shit-hot little band”) and so on. It’s all pretty predictable fare, but Paul’s charisma is on full power and he manages, for the umpteenth time, to breathe new life into some very old, oft-told stories. What’s really interesting about the show, however, is the amount of music it features – some of which is quite unusual. Sure, when he’s strumming on an acoustic guitar we get ‘Twenty Flight Rock’ and the inevitable ‘Yesterday’, but he also illustrates how he wrote the melody for ‘When The Wind is Blowing’, a tune which didn’t get an official release until the Ram Archive reissue in 2012. Likewise, when he moves to the piano, he sings not only ‘The Long and Winding Road’, but also the (then) recently composed ‘Your Loving Flame’, which didn’t come out for another two years on Driving Rain, the Frank Sinatra reject ‘Suicide’ (finally issued in 2011) and the cabaret-style ‘The New York Song’, which remains unreleased to this day. He also performs raucous versions of ‘Honey Hush’ and ‘All Shook Up’ with his band from Run Devil Run (including Pink Floyd’s Dave Gilmour), and even finds time to squeeze in a clip of ‘My Love’ from his latest classical music venture, Working Classical. What a pro!

The rehearsals for the 1999 Macca special, followed by the full show

In 2004, Parky and the show were lured lock, stock and barrel to commerical network ITV, serving only to diminish their prestige even further. It was now just another chat show, and a rather quaint one at that. But there was time for one last Beatle appearance, when Paul returned for a headline 20-minute slot in December 2005 (bizarrely, scheduled directly against his Chaos and Creation at Abbey Road special on BBC-2 at exactly the same time). It is another multi-plugging tour de force, with Macca managing to promote Chaos and Creation in the Backyard, his new live DVD The Space Within Us and self-penned children’s book High in the Clouds. In general, though, it’s a pretty unremarkable interview, with Paul seeming a little subdued by his standards. We now know that his marriage to Heather Mills was floundering by this point, which may have had something to do with it (though he still drops in a plug for her website when discussing animal cruelty in China!). There is a nice moment when he demonstrates how a little guitar piece he and George Harrison played as kids eventually evolved into ‘Blackbird’, but – as he was doing that during every show he appeared on that year – even that feels a little rote. His hair is tidier than on his previous Parkinson appearance, although he was well into his bad hair dyes by this point.

The 2005 Macca guest spot

Parky brought the curtain down on the show in 2007, with a final edition bringing together some of his favourite guests (yes, Judi Dench and Billy Connolly were there). I presume Paul was dyeing his hair that night. The programme was well past its sell-by date by then, but in earlier times it did give us some fun, charming Beatle chats which are well worth checking out.

‘Paul McCartney & Wings’ (1977)

As 1977 dawned, Wings were – if you can forgive the timeworn pun – flying high. Soaring, in fact. On the back of three consecutive chart-topping albums and a seemingly endless barrage of hit singles, they had undertaken a triumphant year-long world tour, playing to around a million people. The resulting live album, Wings Over America, hit #1 in the US charts (one of only three triple-LP sets ever to do so) and made the top ten in most other countries.  Paul had achieved what many thought would be impossible after The Beatles, and conquered the music world a second time. This period was probably the commercial peak of his solo career, with Wings established as one of the biggest bands on the planet (and their most popular global single, ‘Mull of Kintyre’, was still to come). And this elite status was reflected in the fact that, even though the rock biography market was still in its infancy in the mid-70s, his group was the subject of not one, but two books that year. Both large format, hardback productions, both telling the story of the band’s inception and rise to the top, and both – rather confusingly – entitled Paul McCartney & Wings.

The one I picked up first, at some point in the mid-80s, was the one written by Jeremy Pascall. By the time I got it, Wings had long since disbanded as Paul decided to focus on solo ventures, and the band – like much of the ‘70s in general – had become something of a symbol of naffness. Swaddled in flared trousers, feather-cut hairstyles and double-necked guitars, and now best remembered for the aforementioned love-it-or-hate-it ‘Mull of Kintyre’, they were unhip as could be and well on the way to becoming Alan Partridge’s favourite group. In the shiny, sleek 1980s, even Paul seemed vaguely embarrassed  by his former act, telling Q Magazine in 1986: “I met a nurse recently who was a Wings fan!….an actual die-hard Wings fan. I didn’t think they existed.” But I didn’t care. For my teenage self, eager for information on the Fabs’ solo careers, this book was a bit of a goldmine. And, revisiting it recently, it still stands up fairly well today.

Sure, it’s not an in-depth biography that more discerning readers would expect today, with lots of fresh interviews and insights. It’s more like a quickie, commissioned by a publisher to cash in on someone’s sudden or large-scale success, the kind of volumes which became common in the 1980s and which you’ll still find in bargain bookshops today. A sort of basic introduction to an artist, if you like. It’s a cut-and-paste job, with the author scouring the mainstream press and music papers to assemble his narrative and cherry-pick his quotes. But, for all that, it’s very diligently done. The story is cohesive, engagingly written and comprehensive, in terms of the key facts. The quotes are well chosen and informative, and offer perspectives from all members of the band (though it’s telling Macca is the only one to feature on the cover). It’s a long way from the official Paul-and-Linda-centric Wingspan documentary/book project from the early 2000s.

Inevitably, though, the focus is on Paul, and the first two chapters deal solely with the protracted break-up of The Beatles. Pascall does a terrific job of pulling together the main strands of that murky, uber-complex story and presenting them in simple yet thoughtful manner. He approaches it from the McCartney perspective, true, but it’s quite balanced and doesn’t whitewash any aspect of it. He weaves in lots of salient quotes from interviews the Fabs gave in the years that followed and, interestingly, refers to the September 1969 boardroom summit between John, Paul and George – the tape recording of which heralded as recently as 2019 as a momentous discovery in Fabs history, even though its content has clearly been hiding in plain sight since the mid-1970s. The 1971 High Court case to dissolve The Beatles’ business partnership is also summarised extremely well, and Pascall throws up some points that many subsequent authors either missed or ignored, such as the fact that Macca’s famous ‘self-interview’ which resulted in “Paul is Quitting The Beatles!” headlines around the world in April 1970 never actually said any such thing. The story was even refuted by the Apple press office the very next day.

Wings Mark 1, on ‘Top of the Pops’, 1973. An undoubted high point for fashion

From there on, we get a recap of Paul and Linda’s romance (with some interesting tidbits about Linda’s early life) and how their marriage weathered the twin storms of The Beatles’ split and the hostile critical reaction to Paul’s early solo forays (which these days, of course, are lauded to the skies). Then it’s a straight romp through the Wings story – the patchy first couple of albums; the rough-and-ready, low-key early tours; the regular drug busts; the abrupt departure of drummer Denny Seiwell and guitarist Henry McCullough; the enormous breakthrough of Band On The Run and subsequent global domination, culminating in that record-busting world tour. It’s an fascinating tale, well told, showcasing Paul’s determination to reinvent himself from scratch and not rely on former glories. But, as I mentioned earlier, it gives weight to the other members too, filling in their back stories and so giving you more context about the make-up of the group. For instance, many books will simply tell you that Henry was “formerly of Joe Cocker’s Grease Band” and leave it at that, whereas this gives you more detail and helps to explain why the Irishman’s freewheeling style was probably doomed never to fit in with the well-drilled, ultra-professional unit Paul wanted Wings to become.

Another part of the book’s value is that it’s a contemporary reading of the group. It came out at the height of Wings’ popularity, and so gives you a feeling of how big they were at that point. The facts and figures for the 1975-76 tour really are staggering, from the world record attendance they scored for an indoor gig at Seattle’s Kingdome (67,000) to them becoming the first Western rock band to play behind the Iron Curtain (Zagreb, in the former Yugoslavia). To say nothing of a tune they knocked off during quick sessions between legs of the tour, ‘Silly Love Songs’, going on to become the USA’s biggest selling single of 1976. Towards the end, Pascall also digs into the McCartneys’ family life, an oft-overlooked component of the band’s appeal. Inviting your wife to join your band wasn’t really the done thing in an era of macho, promiscuous rock stars, with Mick Jagger among those questioning the wisdom of “taking your old lady” on stage. The book does reflect some of the antipathy towards Linda, particularly in the early days of the band when her singing wasn’t always great. But Paul laudably stuck to his guns, giving his critics the middle finger and achieving success on his own terms.

Paul and Linda in harmony during the ’76 US tour

The downside of the book coming out when it did, though, is that the story is incomplete; there’s nothing about ‘Mull of Kintyre’ or 1978’s London Town album and the further personnel reshuffles which accompanied it, nor the last hurrah of Back To The Egg and the UK tour of 1979, never mind Macca’s infamous 1980 Japan drug arrest which ultimately signalled the band’s death knell. Each chapter of Wings’ history has a different flavour and trajectory, and it’s a pity the last one is missing – a bit like a novel that finishes before you get to the end.

The real problem, though, is that the book doesn’t really diverge from the facts and give you any opinions or analysis. There is only the most cursory appraisal of the group’s musical output or live performances – you do get a good sample of the reviews at the time (often quite damning), which is enlightening, but it would have been quite nice for Pascall to offer his own thoughts from time to time, and make some effort to plot the band’s creative evolution. Macca’s forging of a very different style and sound after The Beatles was no mean feat, and still doesn’t really get the credit it deserves. But I suspect that wasn’t really part of the author’s brief.

Wings, circa 1975

Where it does shine, however, is in the wealth of great photographs throughout. My view is that the 1970s were actually anti-fashion, the style was that there was no style (which makes it so hard for TV and film drama producers to accurately reproduce it), but at the same time that makes for some utterly beguiling, colourful and unique visuals. Wings were no exception to that, and the images here are a feast for the eyes. The proliferation of unfeasibly wide lapels, tartan, unkempt hair, garish colours, platform heels, braces, sequins, check trousers and the like will leave you scratching your head at the mismatched anarchy of it all. Paul’s stage suit for the 1976 US shows still looks pretty cool, though, flares notwithstanding. Certainly better than the odd kimono-style outfit he wore on some earlier legs of the tour.

The photos are the perfect accompaniment to the text which, for just 96 pages, crams in a surprising amount of detail. A lot of Macca bios tend to skim over his solo career, so if you’re looking for an illustrated primer on the Wings era – albeit an truncated one – you could do a lot worse than this. We all know how big The Beatles were; Wings, like pretty much every other band since, didn’t approach that level of impact and influence, but they were still improbably successful in their own right and among the biggest acts of their day. Paul McCartney & Wings is like a printed time capsule of those heady times, and still warrants a 7

Beatles for sale? An ad man’s dream

It was at my 50th birthday party, shortly before COVID-19 hit. As part of my ‘intro playlist’, to welcome guests to the venue, I had chosen Paul’s 1976 Wings smash, ‘Let ‘Em In’ (clever, eh?). While it was playing, a friend of mine who’s not a massive follower of pop music said: “Ah. I know this one. It’s the Postcode Lottery song.” For those of you who don’t live in the UK, the tune is indeed licenced by Macca’s company MPL for TV ads promoting the People’s Postcode Lottery. The 1977 hit cover version by Billy Paul plays in the background while people are shown, erm, knocking on doors and ringing bells to give winners the good news. It made me laugh that this was how my mate recognised the tune, but it did get me thinking – was that recognition a good thing, or should I be appalled that he (and presumably other, younger guests) associated it with a tacky, cheesy advert?

They always agreed using their songs in commercials was a no-no

The Beatles’ stance on using their music in advertising, along with my own views on it, used to be pretty clear cut. No, no, and thrice no. The band always seemed dead set against it, arguing that it would tarnish the integrity of the work if their songs were repurposed to sell fast food, underwear, sofas, cars, package deals or whatever. As a fan, I was always proud of that position, and stood full square behind it. I’m sure mutual back-scratching between pop and advertising was going on before, but the corporate cash-in seemed to begin in earnest during the 1980s. Inspired by MTV and Miami Vice, the money men saw the tie-in potential and the dollar signs, and began to exert a grisly grip on the music scene – often aided and abetted by some of its leading lights. Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston and Madonna all gleefully hitched their wagons and lent their tunes to the lucrative soft drinks juggernaut, adding more millions to their bulging bank accounts (I don’t begrudge anyone making money but, seriously, how much did they need?). At the same time, hits from yesteryear were dredged up to flog everything from insurance to jeans, and put people like Marvin Gaye, The Hollies and Nina Simone back in the charts (in the UK, at least). Fizzy drinks all round.

Of course, The Beatles represented the fattest cash cow of all. Their music was already embedded in public consciousness across the globe, and the wildly successful relaunch of their back catalogue on CD in the late 1980s reaffirmed their timeless, cross-generational appeal. Quite literally, they represented the gold standard in popular music. But monetising that love for the band proved tricky. People of a certain age will probably recall the furore which greeted Nike’s decision to use ‘Revolution’ in a 1987 commercial for its sports shoes. It was the company’s first major TV ad (so my research tells me), and certainly made a splash – coincidentally or not, sales doubled over the next two years, the ‘brand’ took hold and Nike was soon established as the market leader.

The infamous Nike ad. Other sports shoes are available

The backlash, however, was huge. I think what stuck in the craw was not only that John’s brilliant counter-culture rallying cry had been commodified and turned into a symbol of big business avarice, but that they had the cheek to use the actual Beatles recording as well. Instead of advising you to “change your head”, John Lennon was now urging you to go out and buy some new trainers. As Time magazine wrote: “Mark David Chapman killed him. But it took a couple of record execs, one sneaker company and a soul brother to turn him into a jingle writer.” Although Yoko had given her consent for the ad, The Beatles’ own company, Apple, filed a lawsuit over the use of the track. Apparently settled out of court, it ensured that no recording by the group would ever again be used to sell product without permission. In 1987 George said: “If it’s allowed to happen, every Beatles song ever recorded is going to be advertising women’s underwear and sausages. We’ve got to put a stop to it in order to set a precedent.” And, during his promotional rounds for Flowers in the Dirt two years later, Paul also reiterated his opposition to the band’s music being commandeered for commercial purposes, saying it would “devalue the whole thing”.

Paul discussing his unhappiness with Beatles ad licensing in 1989

The problem was, of course, that they had lost control of the publishing/licensing rights to almost all their songs at the end of the 1960s. It’s too long and convoluted a story to go into here, but British TV company ATV acquired majority shares in the band’s Northern Songs catalogue in 1969. And, in 1985, ATV’s owners famously sold it off to Thriller cash-rich Michael Jackson for a little over £24 million. You may have thought a fellow musician would’ve been happy just to let the royalties from this little goldmine continue to flow in, but the Nike episode showed Jacko wanted his acquisition to ‘work’ for him a little more strenuously. Worse was to follow in 1995. Clearly all that money he’d acquired from those 1980s soft drinks ads had not been enough to pay for the continued upkeep of the exotic animals on his Neverland ranch or the latest accessories for his pet chimp, as a now cash-strapped Jacko sold half his stake in ATV to corporate giant Sony Music Publishing. And there was no way the people running that weren’t going to maximise their Fab Four asset.

Sure enough, in 2008, it was announced that the band’s back catalogue was up for grabs to advertisers (though, thankfully, not the original recordings), and the use of ‘All You Need Is Love’ to sell a brand of nappies effectively, er, opened the floodgates. More and more Beatles songs have found their way into ad campaigns in the years since – though, to be fair, I haven’t noticed market saturation, at least not here in the UK. In recent years, I can recall seeing ads featuring ‘Do You Want To Know A Secret’, ‘Real Love’, ‘Drive My Car’ and ‘Come Together’, but not too many others. Maybe the Sony money men realise that a little goes a long way.

The Lennon estate seems a lot more relaxed about this kind of thing. Despite the uproar about the Nike ‘Revolution’ commercial, Yoko allowed them to use John’s 1970 single ‘Instant Karma!’ soon afterwards. The shit really hit the fan, though, in 2010 when she gave car manufacturer Citroen permission to use actual (dubbed) footage of John in an ad for its DS3 motor. Responding to the inevitable avalanche of criticism, Sean Lennon said she took the decision not for financial reasons, but to keep John in the public consciousness and give him exposure to younger generations.

The 2010 Citroen ad. The worst thing is the dreadful ‘scouse’ voiceover

Which brings us to the concept of ‘legacy’. A lot of time has passed since The Beatles were a functioning band (for a 15-year-old today, 50 years is ancient history), and two of them are long since dead. Isn’t advertising just one way of keeping their music alive? I remember reading an interview with Brian May and Roger Taylor of Queen a few years’ back in which they said Apple was missing a trick by not utilising the commercial market to generate interest in the the Fabs’ back catalogue (something which has certainly paid healthy dividends for Queen). And maybe that argument eventually led Macca to a change of heart as, a few years ago, it was quietly announced that his solo work was available for licensing – hence the joys of the People’s Postcode Lottery (though the only other McCartney song I can recall being used in this way was ‘We All Stand Together’, in a Christmas ad for department store Debenhams). So what happened to his staunch resistance to such exploitation? And, in this day and age, does it matter?

First of all, I have no objections to The Beatles earning as much money as they can off their work. The idea (which holds strong in some minds) that the band were somehow anti-materialistic is preposterous. Yes, they never equated money with happiness (it can’t buy you love, after all) nor as an end in itself, and tried to be altruistic with it as much as they could (resulting in the ill-fated early aspirations of Apple). But becoming wealthy and independent was always pretty high on their list of ambitions. As Paul once said: “John and I literally used to sit down and say, ‘Now let’s write a swimming pool.’…For the first time in our lives, we could actually do something and earn money.” And by 1980, John had overcome his earlier guilt about being wealthy (“I worked for money and wanted to be rich….What would you suggest I do? Give everything away and walk the streets?”) Hell, by the mid-’80s, Ringo – admittedly at something of a loose end in his life – was even starring in a series of TV ads. But, crucially, they didn’t involve either his or The Beatles’ music. And for me, that’s the key point.

One of Ringo’s Japanese TV ads in the 1980s. I think he was on something stronger than apple juice when he agreed to do this

My attitude to this, perhaps like Paul’s, is probably no longer as black and white as it used to be. If it does turn some younger people on to their music, that can’t be a bad thing. I remember being in a cinema once when a rocking rendition of ‘Come Together’ was promoting something or other to a youthful demographic, and I actually felt a sliver of pride that the Fabs’ music is still seen as a way to win hearts and minds, and make money. There’s also an element of just having to accept that it’s the way of the world we live in, and will probably only happen more over time. As musicians make barely any money from sales or streaming any more, the line between hits and jingles will probably become more blurred. As long as it’s not in my face all the time, I can probably live with it. After all, the use of Phil Collins’ ‘In The Air Tonight’ to sell chocolate (with most people under a certain age now equating it with a gorilla playing drums) hasn’t stopped that being a great song; nor has Lloyds Bank’s appropriation of The Carpenters’ ‘We’ve Only Just Begun’ diminished that number – perhaps because, amazingly, it actually started out as a TV commercial tune before it was ever a hit.

At least this was an ad for their music

And yet, using Beatles music for adverts still doesn’t sit well with me. They are a special case, though I guess anyone who loves a particular band or artist could say that. I just think their songs carry such meaning to so many, it’s hard to swallow hearing them being reduced to earworm advertising clickbait. Paul was right to begin with – using them in adverts does cheapen the brand, and can strip a little bit of value away. I’m not saying they’re sacred texts or anything like that, but does everything have to be viewed through the prism of sales value? More to the point, from a legacy point of view, they don’t really need it. While we should never take anything for granted (and I’m sure the marketing people at Apple and EMI never will), The Beatles’ canon of work is uniquely saturated into world culture. As someone once said to me, their songs now seem part of everyone’s DNA, new generations included. And, thanks to the internet, there are so many more opportunities for young people to discover them. Is hearing some crummy cover version on a hackneyed detergent ad ten times a day likely to send them scurrying to Spotify to listen to Revolver?

I understand that Paul might think, after years of unfair critical battering, radio apathy and lazy assumptions, that his solo work might be more easily forgotten. But, again, is the People’s Postcode Lottery really going to change that? Playing more solo songs in his concerts and having more cohesive, properly promoted greatest hits packages over the past 20 years would have probably been a better strategy. But, either way, I don’t think he needs to worry. Long after we’re all gone, Beatles songs (including their best solo material) will still be in people’s minds and on their lips, and I’ll wager their power and honesty will withstand whatever the advertising world can throw at them. People will always need nappies, true, but they will need a song like ‘All You Need Is Love’ just as much.

My Top Ten Ringo drumming performances with The Beatles

My appreciation for Ringo’s contribution to The Beatles as a drummer grows every year. When I first got into the band it was quite fashionable to mock or traduce his role in their success, with lots of people quick to single him out at the weak link or claim he just got lucky and rode on the coattails of the others’ brilliance. I think the fact that his own music career had dried up at that point and that he was more famous for narrating children’s show Thomas The Tank Engine probably had a lot to do with that attitude, along with general ignorance and a perhaps understandable search for some mortal aspect of the group’s all-conquering, almost super-human prowess. Part of Ringo’s appeal had always been that he was the ‘everyman’ in their ranks, the bloke next door who didn’t write an endless flow of astonishing songs, whose singing wasn’t all that removed from what you’d hear in your local pub, and who kept his feet on the ground while the others were seduced by psychedelia, Transcendental Meditation, LSD, avant garde art and the like (as John once said: “When I feel my head start to swell, I look at Ringo and know perfectly well we’re not supermen.”) It may be that people just started to assume that he probably couldn’t drum very well either, but they were wrong. Boy, were they wrong.

At Abbey Road, around the time of ‘Rubber Soul’

Over the years, as each new remaster or remix of the group’s music has made the drums more prominent and players from Phil Collins to Dave Grohl have lined up to praise his talent and enduring influence, Ringo’s cachet has slowly grown. Of course, there are still some lazy, ill-informed assumptions, but gradually facts are coming more to the fore. Mark Lewisohn’s brilliant biography Tune In makes it absolutely clear that Ringo was undoubtedly the best drummer Liverpool had to offer in the early 1960s, which is one reason why the city’s biggest band wanted him. Recalling the moment he first played with The Beatles, Paul later said: “I remember the moment, standing there and looking at John and then looking at George, and the look on our faces was like, fuck you. What is this? And that was the moment, that was the beginning, really, of The Beatles.” Ringo played on solo records by John, Paul and George after the split, and even when he wasn’t there his influence was still keenly felt, with Lennon regularly telling session drummers in the studio to “play it like Ringo”. He didn’t stumble into this group by accident.

You have only to listen to The Beatles’ (failed) audition tapes for Decca Records at the start of 1962 and compare it with their performance at the Star Club in Hamburg just under 12 months later to understand what the Starr man brought to the table. I’m not here to trash Pete Best, but the difference is colossal. Even allowing for the fact they were in an unfamiliar recording studio on a chilly winter’s day (as opposed to a sweaty club filled with well-oiled admirers), the band on the Decca recordings sounds tentative, stuck in a low gear; the drumming basic, samey, even tepid at points. On the Star Club album, by contrast, it’s a different beast altogether. A snarling, persuasive, confident beast, driven relentlessly forward by a dynamic, dynamite set of rhythms pumping out of the drum kit. The band’s startling synergy was now in place and would remain ever after, as Ringo kept pace with the others’ spiralling musical aspirations and effortlessly dealt with whatever was thrown at him over the next seven years. Indeed, there’s an argument that he didn’t even peak until their final recording sessions, so crammed is Abbey Road with fluid, memorable drum parts.

During the ‘Let It Be’ sessions, 1969

I’m no expert when it comes to drumming, but I thing Ringo’s qualities are pretty evident. He was versatile, inventive, reliable. He has a recognisable sound, a “feel”, and yet could turn his hand to just about anything – from ‘When I’m 64’ to ‘I Am The Walrus’. He’s not a flash, busy player, like The Who’s Keith Moon was, for example. It’s all about what the song needs, what the band needs. He’s selfless, a team player who provides that steady centre, the anchor which allows the others to go on their incredible flights of fancy and return safely to earth. In fact, most of the The Beatles’ recordings are such fine ensemble pieces, with each member providing an important piece of the jigsaw, it’s hard to take Ringo’s contributions out of context. Nonetheless, what follows are ten of my favourite drumming performances in their catalogue – moments of real Starr quality, if you like, exceptional even by his superlative standards. I’ve opted to do this list in chronological order, to illustrate the way he developed over the years.

 1.  I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Cry (Over You)  (Live at the Star Club, Hamburg, 1962)

As I mentioned earlier, the lo-fi live album recorded in Germany in late December 1962 is a great showcase for Ringo’s power and precision, demonstrating how he instantly moved the band up to another level. The primitive nature of the recording means the drums are really in your face here, and the energy of the playing on tracks like ‘Sweet Little Sixteen’ and ‘Red Sails in the Sunset is exhilarating, like proto-punk (but with more musicality). He can be loose and lithe when the material calls for it, too (his playing on the lilting ‘To Know Her Is To Love Her’ is just achingly right), but on the more rocking numbers he really delivers fireworks – none more so than on this Elvis cover. The song careers around wildly on his frantic beat and rapid-fire fills, but he never loses control. Quite showy, by Ringo standards, but brilliant. The first version I had of this album in the mid-1980s (on cassette) erroneously featured an old shot of the band with Pete Best on the cover. My Dad duly assumed he was the man behind the kit and, when this song came on, said: “Well, there’s nothing wrong with this drumming, is there?” He wasn’t wrong.

2.  Twist and Shout (Please Please Me, 1963)

After a shaky start in his first recording session with the band at Abbey Road, which led to George Martin booking a session drummer as insurance when they came to record debut single ‘Love Me Do’, Ringo quickly found his feet in the studio, as his fantastic playing on their follow-up, ‘Please Please Me’, demonstrates. Likewise, their first album is laced with terrific drumming, notably on ‘I Saw Her Standing There’ and ‘Anna’. But he saved the best until last, on this classic cover of the Isley Brothers’ hit. The drums are such an integral part of its appeal, and it sounds like he’s smashing through brick walls at some points. But what I really love is the way he tracks and underpins the vocals, helping the others build to a frenzy during the climbing harmonies section, and supporting John’s rasping lead. The rat-tat ending is just right, too. Magic.

3.  Little Child (With The Beatles, 1963)

This isn’t one of their finest early compositions; in fact, I’d say it’s the weakest track on their second album. What saves it, however, is the performance – and Ringo’s playing, in particular. There’s nothing especially clever about it, especially during the regular verse/chorus sections. But during the instrumental break in the middle it explodes, as he bashes the hell out of his kit amid a flurry of cymbals (he’s always great on his cymbals). It meshes fantastically with the piano and harmonica parts, and by the time John starts singing again, you feel quite giddy.

4.  Ticket to Ride (Help!, 1965)

While the drums are quite prominent on their first two albums, by Beatles For Sale at the end of 1964, they seem to have been downgraded a little, buried in the mix. However, this tune – their first release of 1965 – returns them to centrestage, and is unquestionably one of Ringo’s finest moments with the group. While it was apparently Paul who came up with the quirky rhythm which propels the song, as Ringo likes to say, it’s all about the fills (the bits where drummers veer off from the song’s main beat to do their own thing) – and the fills here are extraordinary. In keeping with The Beatles’ creative ethos, every time John sings “a ticket to ri-hi-hide” on the chorus, Ringo comes up with something different, keeping the listener on their toes. And, after a series of drum rolls, the way he echoes the sense of emotional exhaustion and resignation in John’s voice on the final chorus with just a single hit of the skins is genius.

5.  You Won’t See Me (Rubber Soul, 1965)

This has long been one of my Fabs favourites, and if any Beatles numbers can be said to be criminally underrated, this is surely it. Listening to it again recently, I realised how the drumming is so integral to its charms. Right from the opening crash, Ringo’s playing is artful, direct and elegant, once again perfectly in tune with the needs of the song. The core beat is decorated with subtle cymbals and endless fills, and the way he leads the band into the middle eight part (“Time after time…”) keeps everything flowing so naturally, you don’t notice how clever it is.

6.  Rain (b-side, 1966)

One of Ringo’s personal favourites and among his most highly regarded efforts, the flip side of ‘Paperback Writer’ is an obvious choice. His performance is just dazzling. As the others brought in ever-more complex songs, he rose to the challenge time and time again. I can’t even tell you how he achieves some of this, it’s like he’s on another plain here. The drums are almost the lead instrument, and pull off the amazing trick of anchoring the song but somehow disorienting you at the same time. Kudos goes to George Martin’s production, Paul’s stupendous bass playing and (of course) John’s hazy, trippy song, but Ringo is the Starr of the show on this.

7.  A Day in the Life (Sgt. Pepper, 1967)

Another inevitable pick, I suppose.There is so much going on in this track, but it just wouldn’t be the same without Ringo’s contributions. He doesn’t even appear until almost 50 seconds in, but what an introduction – the deft little fill behind “He blew his mind out in a car”. Then the rhythm starts in earnest, leaning heavily on tom-toms to build the song as John ethereal observations gather momentum. His playing here is so skillful and sensitive, it’s like a little work of art in itself. The pace picks up for Paul’s bouncy middle eight, then it’s back to the original pattern for the final verse, only a little faster as the song nears its crescendo. Ringo’s work gives it all a deep, sonorous ‘bottom end’, yet is lively and articulate in its own right. It’s just perfect.

8.  It’s All Too Much (Yellow Submarine, 1967)

Ringo goes epic on George’s psychedelic tour de force, recorded in 1967 but not released until early 1969. It’s such a grandiose, powerhouse number, it needed drums to match or the whole enterprise would’ve collapsed under the weight of its ambitions. Ringo doesn’t disappoint, attacking his kit from the get-go with real vigour, and the whole thing bristles with energy. It’s one of his more muscular, busy outings, and he sounds like he’s having a blast. It’s certainly a long way from ‘Love Me Do’.

9.  Here Comes The Sun (Abbey Road, 1969)

The Beatles’ final recorded album might just be Ringo’s finest hour (or 47 minutes). It’s a masterclass of drumming, from the adroit rumblings of ‘Come Together’ to the simple but expertly executed solo which kicks off ‘The End’. I could’ve chosen almost any track here, but have gone for this Harrison tune because it illustrates, for the umpteenth time, how Ringo instinctively knew what his bandmates needed. His drums (intertwined with Paul’s bass) are like galloping horses pulling the song into sunlit uplands, giving it the joyful impetus the lyrics demand. And his dexterity and imagination are in full bloom during the “sun sun, here it comes” instrumental section, leading us on a merry dance before returning us home for the breezy finale. Breathtaking stuff.

10.  You Never Give Me Your Money (Abbey Road, 1969)

One thing that definitely showcases Ringo’s playing on this album is the production – he never sounded better. It highlights how good he was, and this number is another stellar example. Again, for the first minute or so, you hear only some delicate cymbals here and there, but when he comes in on the “out of college…” section, it’s just electrifying. And listen to the way he shifts gears slightly to set up the “one sweet dream…” part, and then dives into fill heaven during the extended fade-out, dropping cymbal bombs all over the place. It’s majestic. It’s awesome. It’s Ringo.

Honourable mentions: ‘You Really Got A Hold On Me’, ‘Wait’, ‘She Said, She Said’, ‘I Am The Walrus’, ‘I’m So Tired’, ‘Something’….. in fact, pretty much everything they recorded. He scarcely missed a beat during their entire career. Ringo didn’t get lucky getting into The Beatles. The Beatles got lucky getting him.

Paul’s iTunes Festival concert, 2007

The recent BBC screening of Macca’s 2018 ‘homecoming’ gig at the Cavern crystalised the fantasy I guess most of us have about seeing The Beatles – or one of them – at a small, intimate venue. How cool would it have been to see them up close in Liverpool, or in one of the Hamburg clubs? Once Beatlemania took off in mid-1963 and demand for tickets soared, those days were over, something all members of the group later said they regretted. But when Paul suggested they returned to the club circuit incognito to recapture their collective mojo in 1969, it was rejected out of hand by John and inadvertently led to Lennon announcing he was quitting the group. Paul revived the idea a couple of years later, however, when he broke in the fledgling Wings with an impromptu tour of university dance halls. Inevitably, history repeated itself and he was soon back playing before stadium crowds, but he never forgot the special connection of performing in front of hundreds, rather than tens of thousands, of people. It’s an itch he’s periodically scratched since a short run of ‘secret gigs’ in Europe during 1991.

In the summer/autumn of 2007, there was a flurry of small shows to promote the release of Memory Almost Full. A recording of one, made at the Amoeba Music store in Los Angeles on 27 June, was eventually released in 2019 and found Paul and his band not only in fine form but also playing a few songs that have rarely made it onto a more ‘official’ setlist. I don’t think an authorised film of the gig has ever surfaced, but the cameras were there when he performed at the inaugural iTunes Festival in London eight days later. The show, at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA), was recorded by Channel 4 in the UK, and edited highlights were broadcast soon afterwards. You can watch it on YouTube and, if you want to get a feel for what a latter-day McCartney club  gig would be like, it’s well worth a look.

A bootleg featuring the ICA show

For a start, Paul’s voice was still consistently strong during this period. It began to falter in some shows soon afterwards, but he rips through the material here with confidence and ease. He also looks good, at a youthful 65, and seems a little more relaxed and casual than on the bigger stages. Likewise, he and the band seem to thrive in the more compact setting, and feed off the energy of the crowd. There’s a looser, more spontaneous feel to their playing, and they attack the songs with real zip. The likes of Kasabian also performed during the festival that month, but I’d be surprised if there was a more punchy, tight-knit, rocking band than this one.

This is nowhere more evident than on the trio of pulsating numbers which kick things off. First up is a turbo-charged ‘Coming Up’. For some reason, this has been absent from his main setlists since 2003, despite being a staple of previous tours. It’s strange, because the song is perfectly suited to this line-up, who deliver a slick, swaggering rendition here. It’s followed by another tune Paul sadly doesn’t perform all that often, ‘Drive My Car’. I’m perplexed that this isn’t one of his go-to live rockers, it always sounds so great whenever he does it. And the band keeps up the pace with a storming version of ‘Only Mama Knows’, a highlight of Memory and one of his all-time great rock songs. Again, like almost all of his ‘new’ numbers of the past 30 years or so, this got discarded from his stage shows as soon as there was a newer album to promote. A pity, because it really captures the band at its pounding best and, on this occasion, a quite brilliant vocal from Macca.

A rocking image used to promote the subsequent iTunes digital EP

He slows things down for the next number, bringing out a mandolin for Memory’s lead single and best-known track, ‘Dance Tonight’. Whether performed in an arena or a club setting (I’ve heard it in both; delivered in the latter by McCartney tribute acts), it’s a perfect crowd-pleaser. Not a major composition, perhaps, but majorly infectious, a fluffy, feel-good song in the classic Macca tradition. After that, we get a real surprise – ‘Midnight Special’, the folk song from the American Deep South which closed 1988’s rock ‘n’ roll covers album Choba B CCCP. Another one normally confined to pre-concert soundchecks, this has a suitably Cajun feel, with keyboard player Wix switching to accordion and Paul on acoustic guitar. The album take always felt a bit flimsy to me, but it’s markedly better here, benefiting from a solid groove, carefree lead vocal and an acapella section near the end which the crowd gleefully joins in on. Then the audience goes seriously nuts when the other band members retreat and Macca delivers a masterful ‘Blackbird’. I wish he’d swap this one out of his set for another tune once in a while, but I have to admit it never fails to hit the spot.

On the grand piano. Not something they had at The Cavern

He stays with the White Album as his bandmates return for a crunching ‘Back in the USSR’ (another track that always gets the motor running). The group is really cooking by this point, and even the old warhorse ‘Jet’ – another great song which could do with a rest from his shows now and again – is given a new lease of life. This slightly rough-hewn, sweaty rendition is one of his best since the heyday of Wings, with Abe Laboriel Jnr really giving it some welly on the drums. Next, Macca moves to a grand piano and dips back into Memory Almost Full for another treat, the brooding ‘House of Wax’. For me, this is his greatest song of the past 20 years, and among the best of his career, but it’s never made any of his main concert selections. In fact, I think this is one of only two times we’ve ever seen him perform it (the other being at the BBC Electric Proms show later that same year), and it’s a real highlight of this show. True, it can’t match the pyrotechnics of the studio version (try as he might, guitarist Rusty Anderson doesn’t get anywhere near Paul’s scorching solos on the record), but it’s still a wonderful moment, one to send shivers down the spine. Wish I’d been there for that.

The rest of the show is effectively a victory lap, as Macca brings out a couple of his big guns, starting with a rip-roaring ‘Get Back’. The keyboards seem a little high in the mix here, but second guitarist Brian Ray reproduces the original Lennon solos with some aplomb. Then, inevitably, it’s time for a real howitzer as he launches into ‘Hey Jude’. We’re so used to seeing it echoing around huge stadiums, it’s nice to hear it at closer quarters, where it works just as well – audience participation and all. No matter how many times he does it, it still weaves its magic, and makes for a fitting, bring-the-house-down finale (though the actual gig continued with a hit-packed encore).

Taking the applause

All in all, it’s a great show. Paul sounds and looks good (though a combination of sweat and air conditioning plays havoc with his hair during the later stages), and is in bouncy, playful form, clearly relishing standing shoulder-to-shoulder with his bandmates and being within touching distance of his audience. A digital EP was made available on iTunes soon afterwards featuring six tracks from the gig, but the film has never been officially released. That’s a shame, as the Channel 4 footage documents only 11 of the 25 numbers played and – while I know some people will groan at the thought of another McCartney live DVD – I think the full set would be a worthy addition to the catalogue (in fact, it would’ve been the perfect companion to the Amoeba CD, but we’ll just have to add that to the missed opportunities list). I think it’s a stronger show than either of his Cavern appearances – it has a better setlist than the covers-oriented concert in 1999, and more bite than the 2018 one – and gives a real flavour of what it must’ve been like to see The Beatles up close and personal. If only….

Highlights of the show broadcast by Channel 4

Spector at the feast? The Beatles and Phil Spector

Phil Spector. The name alone is likely to make some Beatles fans choke on their cornflakes or gnash their teeth in a fevered frenzy as they rail against his production of Let It Be. Indeed, when his death was announced recently some people on social media seemed to have more of an issue with his alleged blight on The Beatles’ recorded legacy than with the fact that he was a convicted murderer. But, putting value judgements to one side, is such antipathy really justified? After all, this was a musical magician whom all the Fab Four idolised. Who was invited to help salvage the Let It Be tapes when no-one else wanted to, and whose most contentious production job on it resulted in a US #1 single and a standard which remains one of the best-loved Beatles recordings. A man who co-produced three of the most acclaimed Fabs solo albums (two of which were also among the most commercially successful), and who was Lennon’s go-to guy for half his solo career. The brains behind the sound of ‘The Long and Winding Road’, ‘My Sweet Lord’ and ‘Imagine’. Before losing his marbles, did he really do such a terrible job?

Let me say, first of all, that I’m not here to discuss Spector’s criminal misdemeanors or defend them in any way. I understand how difficult it can be to distinguish the artist (and the art) from the human being (cf. Michael Jackson), and if you feel his offence and general behaviour cannot be separated from his musical achievements, then read no further. What I would say is that this post concentrates purely on his direct association with The Beatles from 1970-73, decades before his murder trial and subsequent imprisonment. It’s true his dangerous instability and declining mental health had already started to manifest themselves during this period (notably when he fired a gun into the ceiling during one of the recording sessions for John’s Rock ‘n’ Roll album, and subsequently made off with all the tapes), but the terrible consequences of later years were still some way off. What I find hard to fathom, if you will forgive the analogy, is why Spector is so often put on trial for his work with the Fabs and usually found guilty.  I guess, ultimately, it’s a matter of taste and changing fashions, but is it a fair judgement? Let’s consider the evidence.

John and Cynthia with Phil Spector during The Beatles’ first flight to the USA, 1964

Spector made a big impression on The Beatles right from the off. The debut single he wrote for his band The Teddy Bears in 1958, ‘To Know Him Is To Love Him’, became a mainstay of The Beatles setlist (albeit with a change to “her” in the title), performed at their 1962 Decca audition and appearing on both the Live at the Star Club and Live at the BBC albums. It was such a favourite of John’s, in particular, that he returned to it for his Rock ‘n’ Roll album in the 1970s. They were also fans of early ‘60s girl groups like The Ronettes and The Crystals, with whom Spector honed his famous ‘Wall of Sound’ production techniques, laying instruments upon instruments upon instruments to create a dense, monolithic sound. Or, as he put it, “little symphonies for the kids”. Though their paths crossed socially – Spector was on the flight to New York with them in February 1964 when they subsequently conquered America – they never worked together, though Macca did tell biographer Mark Lewisohn in 1988 that the band so admired his work on the magnificent Ike and Tina Turner single ‘River Deep, Mountain High’ that they did consider it. They never departed from George Martin, though, and I don’t think they ever would have. They trusted him, and – I think – instinctively recognised that he was fully committed to (and brilliantly adept at) helping them realise their vision in the studio, rather than imposing his own. Which might not have been the case with Spector.

The BBC recording of ‘To Know Her Is To Love Her’

Nonetheless, when 1970 rolled around, the group was virtually defunct, and John was first out of the blocks in exploring new directions. In January, apparently at George’s suggestion, he asked Spector to produce his solo single ‘Instant Karma’. And the American did such a fine job, updating the old rock ‘n’ roll sound to perfection without resorting to lots of overdubs, Lennon and Harrison subsequently invited him to work on The Beatles’ long-delayed Get Back/Let It Be recordings, made over a year earlier. Previous mixes had been rejected by the band but now, with the accompanying film scheduled to hit cinemas in the spring, time was pressing to get an LP ready for release. You probably know the rest – Spector overhauls the album; McCartney hits the roof over his unauthorised arrangement of ‘The Long and Winding Road’; the group breaks up amid a welter of claims, counter-claims and lawsuits, and the reputation of the album is tarnished forever after, with Spector invariably held responsible by commentators, critics and fans alike. Paul even approved a “de-mixed” version of the record in 2003, Let It Be…Naked, which stripped away Spector’s changes and also used a completely set of recordings into the bargain.

So, what was wrong with Spector’s version of Let It Be? Well, not a lot, in my opinion. If you don’t believe me, seek out one of the early mixes made by engineer Glyn Johns.  The one I’ve heard is terrible – the band sounds sluggish, sloppy and lethargic. There are some great songs, but no sparkle, no energy. The back-to-basics, “let’s record live in the studio like we used to” ethos of the sessions was a good idea, but the end results weren’t always up to scratch, particularly in the fractious early sessions at Twickenham film studios. If this early incarnation of the album had been released, it would’ve unquestionably been the low point in their recording career. Yet the finished version has Beatles magic in abundance. Quite simply, Spector saved the album – he chose better takes, made some clever edits, polished up the sound and added some trademark orchestral overdubs (where the song lent itself to a grander sound – it’s not as if he ladled strings all over ‘Dig A Pony’ or One After 909’). Those overdubs are, of course, the real bone of contention, but are they really so out of kilter with the group’s oeuvre? I concede that they lack the subtlety George Martin would have brought to the table, but I think they’re great, nonetheless. The score for  ‘I Me Mine’ is deliciously dramatic and if the song had been released on George’s All Things Must Pass later in the year, critics would’ve been hailing it a masterpiece. For my money, his additions give ‘Across The Universe’ a suitable celestial feel and improve on The Beatles’ earlier version of the track, and – whisper it– I also prefer his full-on, all-guns-blazing  take on ‘Let It Be’ to the more restrained single version produced by George Martin.

The chart-topping single, produced by Spector

Which leaves us with his most controversial reworking of all, ‘The Long and Winding Road’. Paul really resented the addition of harps and a female choir, in particular (the changes actually featured in the High Court proceedings about the legal dissolution of The Beatles, with Macca citing them as unauthorised interference with his work), and I completely get where he was coming from. It was his song, after all, and he should have had complete control over how it was presented. The irony was, of course, that Spector’s embellishments surely enhanced the song’s commercial appeal. It stormed to #1 when released as a single in the US, and has become a global standard, a staple of Paul’s concert setlists, and one of the most popular (and covered) Beatles songs of all. No less a personage than Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys says it is his favourite Fabs track. So for all the moaning by some fans and critics, millions of people love it exactly the way it is – and I’m one of them. In fact, it was one of the songs which first drew me to The Beatles, and remains the one I probably love the best. I can see why some feel it is over-produced (and, indeed, overblown), but for me it’s just majestic. The orchestration swells and soars in all the right places, cranking up the inherent emotion in the music and squeezing out every last drop of pathos from the lyric. While’s Paul’s exquisite live rendition on Wings Over America may just shade it as the best version, the Spector take is certainly a big step up from the original, unadorned performances later released on The Beatles Anthology 3 and Let It Be…Naked (the latter boasting a horrible, truly inappropriate organ solo by Billy Preston).

So I think Spector gets a seriously bum rap for his work on the final Beatles album. Yes, he seriously strayed from the original “live” intention for the album (on some tracks), but the band had already veered away from that by overlaying new parts to a few of the tunes at subsequent sessions. Let’s remember Spector was asked to get involved, that previous, more ‘raw’ mixes had been rejected, and that the band members were already focused on solo projects by this point and showed little interest in revisiting what were – for them – quite old recordings. It also wasn’t Spector’s fault that George had opted to withdraw some really strong songs (notably ‘All Things Must Pass’) midway through the original January 1969 sessions,  and that John hadn’t really turned up with much in the way of new material in the first place. Had Spector been able to include the best Lennon number from that period, ‘Don’t Let Me Down’ (already released the b-side of ‘Get Back’ a year earlier), I think it would’ve pushed the album into top tier Beatles – certainly on a par with Abbey Road. Or, as John put it in less laudatory terms: “Phil did a great job….when I heard it, I didn’t puke.”

Spector with a particularly hairy George during the sessions for ‘All Things Must Pass’

John and George must’ve been happy with the finished result, as they both placed themselves in Spector’s hands to launch their post-Beatles careers. In George’s case, it was effectively a straight continuation of the American’s work on Let It Be. Everything but the kitchen sink was thrown at some numbers, such as the thunderous ‘Wah Wah’ and the epic ‘Isn’t It A Pity’, imbuing with them with a sweeping, grandiose sound which Rolling Stone magazine aptly described as “music of mountain tops and vast horizons”. Other tunes had a more rootsy, low-key approach, such as the country-flavoured ‘Behind That Locked Door’, while the likes of ‘What Is Life’ and ‘My Sweet Lord’ represented expertly-honed pop perfection. There’s more of a variety of styles here than many would have you believe, and it all sounds great to me. Yes, some of the individual musicianship is sacrificed in the blur of the overall sound on occasion – hence we’re being treated to the inevitable remix when the album is re-released later this year, as I discussed in a recent post. But I can’t get too excited about that; for me, the original more-is-more Harrison/Spector production is an intrinsic part of the album’s appeal. George did switch to a more scaled-down approach for the rest of his solo career, perhaps wisely not trying to outdo his own magnum opus, but it’s telling that the best track (for me) on his follow-up, 1973’s Living in the Material World, is ‘Try Some, Buy Some’ – the one produced, in typically lavish style, by Phil Spector.

One of the many production-heavy, but brilliant, tracks from ‘All Things Must Pass’

By contrast, John chose to rein in Spector’s extravagances on his debut solo album, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band. In fact, it is almost the polar opposite of a typical Wall of Sound production, a raw, bare bones record with no more than three instruments on any one track and seemingly so little in the way of studio polish you wonder why Lennon employed the American at all. But then you listen to the way those instruments fill out the sonic landscape, and the co-producer’s fingerprints become more apparent. He really makes his mark on the sonorous ‘Mother’ and, in particular, on the spectacular ‘God’, which sounds as monumental as anything on All Things Must Pass, despite featuring only bass, drums and a couple of pianos. Thereafter, Lennon gradually began to release the brake on Spector’s natural inclinations. Their next collaboration, 1971’s Imagine, struck the perfect balance between Spector’s ornamentation and Lennon’s minimalist tendencies at that time. While still relatively sparse in make-up, the songs were fleshed out with more instrumentation, including strings and saxophones, and possess a generally richer, warmer feel. George Martin later said he would have loved to have worked on this album, but it’s hard to see how even he could have done a better job, particularly on tracks like ‘Jealous Guy’, ‘Gimme Some Truth’ and ‘How Do You Sleep?’, which all sound faultless.

The shift towards the Spector way of doing things continued on the glorious ‘Happy Xmas (War is Over)’ single, which had all the (sleigh) bells and whistles one would expect from the man who gave us the legendary Phil Spector Christmas Album. And it was also evident on John’s next collection, 1972’s Some Time in New York City – in fact, Spector’s work is one of the saving graces of a hugely disappointing album. He particularly shines in helping to conjure up the booming, impassioned agitpop of ‘Woman is the Nigger of the World’, the nightmarish, swampy sound of ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’ and the yearning atmosphere of ‘Angela’ (though his sickly sweet arrangement for ‘Luck of the Irish’ is one of many missteps in an unbelievably dire creation).

Recording the vocals for ‘Oh Yoko!’ during the ‘Imagine’ sessions, 1971

It was on the ill-fated 1973 sessions for John’s Rock ‘n’ Roll oldies project, however, that Spector was given carte blanche to rebuild his famous Wall of Sound, and did so with total abandon, employing whole battalions of brass and string players to breath new life into the vintage material. Unfortunately, his own increasingly erratic behaviour and the licentiousness of the sessions (John was entering his infamous ‘Lost Weekend’ separation from Yoko at this point) saw the album run aground amid a fog of booze, drugs and soaring studio costs. Spector scarpered with the master tapes and, by the time they were retrieved the following year, a more sober, focused John decided to finish the record without him. The resulting album, which came out in 1975, is dominated by more simple Lennon-led productions, though a few of the original Spector tracks did make the final cut – notably a full-blooded take on Chuck Berry’s ‘You Can’t Catch Me’. What is mystifying, however, is that the best numbers from the Spector sessions didn’t see the light of day until after Lennon’s death. Maybe John felt he wasn’t fully in control of his faculties when he sang them but, either way, there’s a heartfelt, naked emotion about his performances on ‘Angel Baby’ and two Spector co-compositions, ‘Be My Baby’ and ‘To Know Her Is To Love Her’. These tracks capture both artist and producer somewhere near their best.

The 1973 version of ‘Be My Baby’, not released until ‘The John Lennon Anthology’ in 1998

For Spector, however, this was the end of his association with The Beatles and, with a couple of exceptions, pretty much his last major throw of the dice in the music business. He became an increasingly reclusive reclusive and bizarre figure, bedeviled by various health issues and crazed behaviour, culminating in the murder of actress Lana Clarkson in 2003 and his eventual imprisonment. It’s a tragic story which is hard to understand. But one thing I think he is categorically not guilty of is harming or spoiling The Beatles’ recorded work. On the contrary, I think he brought a huge amount to the table and has suffered from simply being the right man in the wrong place at the wrong time when it came to Let It Be, getting dragged into the mire of the band’s break-up through no fault of his own. His contributions to their work, as a band and as solo artists, were much more diverse than he’s given credit for; and while his “little symphonies for kids” may not be to everyone’s taste, they added yet another rich shade to The Beatles’ collective palette that I, for one, will always treasure.

‘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.