Initial reflections on ‘Get Back’, part three: heading up to the roof

Riches continue to flow forth in part three of Get Back as time runs down and The Beatles up their game. Or, as Paul puts it, “The best bit of us…is when our backs are against the wall.” Fans waiting outside their Savile Row HQ – later immortalised in song as ‘Apple Scruffs’ by George – have told the film crew they long for a Beatles live show. But The Beatles themselves can’t agree where or how to give one, perhaps secretly struggling with the inevitable weight of expectation which would attend such an event. Even when director Michael Lindsay-Hogg suggests performing on the roof of the Apple building, there’s no big lightbulb moment or happy consensus; it just seems to be greeted as the most expedient, least complicated option. The one which would require the least amount of effort. And when Paul ventures up on the roof towards the end of episode two to see the lay of the land, he still doesn’t seem entirely convinced. But by then, they have only a few days left to complete the project and deliver a big finale, and when part three begins they’ve even come in on a Sunday to make up for lost time.

George helps Ringo structure ‘Octopus’s Garden’

Considering the (self-imposed) pressure to hit the deadline, it’s a very playful, relaxed session. Ringo even debuts a new composition (“the octopus one”, as he refers to it), with George helping out on the chord progression and John supporting on drums. It’s utterly charming, as is the presence of Linda’s five-year-old daughter Heather, who shares cuddles with Paul, banters with John about eating cats, plays with Ringo and dances around while the band goes through their paces. Her face when Yoko bursts into a bit of impromptu wailing is also a sight to see. Macca is mainly on piano for the day, as they work to refine ‘Let It Be’ and ‘The Long and Winding Road’, which is struggling to emerge in the form Paul originally heard in his head. They don’t seem unduly worried about the impending concert though, finding time to conjure up the silly jam ‘Dig It’ and tear through a few rock ‘n’ roll favourites of their youth – their joy at performing ‘Shake, Rattle and Roll’ (as heard on Anthology 3), for example, is infectious. Their backs don’t seem press that firmly against a wall just yet.

George introduces the brand new ‘Old Brown Shoe’

George has some great moments in this episode. After taking a few years to find his feet as a composer, the songs are pouring out of him by this point. One morning he brings in ‘Old Brown Shoe’, after staying up late the previous night to finish it (following an old piece of advice from John), and as he hammers it out at the piano it does appear almost complete. When Paul (initially on drums, then guitar) and Ringo fall into a supportive groove, you can hear the beginnings of the record they would make a few months’ later – another bit of Beatles magic appearing before our very eyes. What really surprised me, though, was how much of ‘Something’ he had written by January 1969 – John’s priceless suggestion to fill a gap in the lyrics with “attracts me like a cauliflower” has rightly grabbed headlines, but from what we get to see the rest of the number is pretty much there. When George strums it on electric guitar, it’s clearly a once-in-a-lifetime kind of number, but The Beatles have an abundance of those and so just file it away to return to another day. On the opening credits of this episode we even get to hear the Dylanesque ‘Window Window’, a lovely tune even George himself never got around to recording properly, despite demoing it for All Things Must Pass. He’s evidently got great songs to burn, and tells John (who is much more supportive of his bandmate than he had been during the Twickenham sessions) of his plan to make a solo record to clear some of his mounting backlog, while continuing with The Beatles. It’s a tantalising thought that the band could have continued in that form, making records individually but still coming together to pool their talents on Beatles albums. Either way, George seems much happier and more integrated into goings-on than earlier in the month, though – as the one most scarred by the excesses of Beatlemania – he still remains the most ambivalent about a live performance.

Will they or won’t they? Discussing whether to play on the Apple roof

Even the day before rooftop gig, the Fabs still seem to be prevaricating about whether or not to play (or, at least, what to play). There’s a fascinating conversation between John and Paul about it, a very misleading snippet of which was featured in the original Let It Be film. There, it appears that McCartney is trying to give Lennon a near-desperate kind of pep talk, and is oblivious to his partner’s silence and indifference. But the full scene paints a completely different picture. There’s a lot to dissect, but my general impression is that Paul still seems undecided that the roof scenario is good enough, and is grasping (without much clarity) for a stronger solution; John, on the other hand, comes over as keen to crack on with it, not matter how many songs they’ve got ready to go – he thinks they’re ready. George Martin appears to be on Lennon’s side, pointing out that they keep setting deadlines without making a decision, prompting a somewhat tetchy response from Paul: “That’s why I’m talking to John and not you.” Ouch. When George shows up, he expresses further reservations about the plan, though his earlier bitter opposition to a full-blown concert appears to have abated. In fact, there’s no rancour or heated arguments about any of it, just a mixture of uncertainty and nervousness. Spirits remain high, as evidenced by a riotous take on ‘Two of Us’ which John and Paul sing through gritted teeth, like ventriloquists – the expression on John’s face cracks me up whenever I think of it, it’s one of the funniest moments in the whole film. Unbeknownst to the band, however, there is a seriously dark cloud looming on the horizon. During this episode, they have their first collective meeting with Allen Klein, the New York businessman who ultimately plays a key role in their demise. We don’t see that discussion, but there is a scene beforehand where John (who has met with Klein already) is selling him to George, and basically says he is throwing his lot in with him come what may – a knee-jerk reaction which eventually has disastrous consequences. Ringo, too, is sold on the American after their meeting, saying: “He’s a con man, but he’s on our side.” Well, he definitely got the first part right.

John singing ‘Two of Us’ through his teeth

The day of the gig is an exercise in building tension and anticipation, with a pay-off of unremitting joy and exhilaration. We see the various camera crews setting up to record the event, with George Martin and Glyn Johns standing by in the basement studio ready to capture the music on tape, while the bustle of life continues at ground level in and around Savile Row, the shoppers and office workers unaware of what is to come. The Beatles, however, are locked in a room together, still undecided about whether to do it at all. If only Lindsay-Hogg had managed to sneak a hidden microphone in there. Legend has it that John spurred them into action, saying: “Fuck it, let’s do it.” One by one, they emerge onto the roof, in what people forget would have been bitterly cold January conditions. Alongside the technicians, a small group of onlookers is perched to the side of the makeshift stage – among them Ringo’s wife Maureen, coming to cheer them on for a lunchtime session just as she had at the Cavern in what must have seemed a lifetime earlier. I think that’s what makes the setting for the show so apt, so perfect. Playing in a Roman amphitheatre in the desert as the sun comes up would’ve been awesome, true, but doing it unannounced on a grimy, cramped roof in England on a grey winter’s day seems more honest, and fun, somehow. It’s like they’ve turned back the clock, and are just doing another lunchtime show. To paraphrase a later Lennon lyric, they more they change, the more they stay the same. After a bit of tuning up and adjusting their equipment, John counts them into ‘Get Back’ – what else? – and we’re off.

I’ve watched the rooftop concert (or, at least, the abbreviated version of it in Let It Be) numerous times, and it never ceases to send a shiver down my spine. So to watch the full, unabridged event, from multiple camera angles, is a treat of mammoth proportions. Okay, they play a few numbers more than once – there wasn’t room for a grand piano on the roof, and acoustic songs like ‘Two of Us’ and ‘For You Blue’ wouldn’t have worked in that setting – but it doesn’t matter. Almost from the off, everything falls into place, they (and Billy Preston) hit their marks nervelessly and the performances are uniformly marvellous. ‘Get Back’ has a bite and drive which betters the finished record; ‘I’ve Got A Feeling’, ‘Dig A Pony’ and ‘One After 909’ are so good they are the finished records, and ‘Don’t Let Me Down’ is a fireball of anguish and longing, despite John’s vocal fluffs (bizarrely, he could never remember the words to this one, even the released version is an edit of two takes). They’re all at the top their game – the vocals soar, George’s lead guitar parts (especially ‘One After 909’) are dazzling, and Paul’s throbbing, thunderous bass must’ve shaken central London to its foundations – and clearly having a blast. It’s a kick-ass rock ‘n’ roll fest, and gives the lie to claims that they couldn’t have matched The Rolling Stones, The Who, Led Zeppelin or anyone else had they chosen to tour the world in 1969.

Rocking on the roof. A thing of beauty

We also get to see more as-it-happened reactions to the show than in Let It Be. More people emerging onto more rooftops to see what was going on, and more people interviewed on the ground as they gathered to hear the unexpected racket. It’s an amusing microcosm of British society, then as now. The excited youngsters, the nosy passers-by, the stuffy pinstripe brigade, the chirpy taxi-driver, the granny who’s annoyed her sleep has been disturbed, the eccentric duffer, and the uptight, self-conscious soul who used to like The Beatles until they “changed”. Then, of course, there are the police. The bumbling bobbies who turn up in response to complaints over the noise (oh, how British) appear to have come straight from sitcom central casting. To be fair, it was a tricky situation for them and they didn’t realise they were walking into pop culture history. But their faffing about in the downstairs reception – ringing their chief for instructions, asking why The Beatles can’t overdub music onto a live performance later and generally being given the run-around by Apple staff – is unwittingly hilarious. When they eventually do make it to the roof, some fans have cursed them for bringing the gig to a premature end, but I think it’s an ideal way to bring the curtain down. The Fabs have exhausted their new numbers (they were onto their third take of ‘Get Back’); it gives Macca a chance to ad lib mid-song (“you’re playing on the roof again…you’re gonna get arrested!”); it bestows a faint whiff of notoriety (of a very gentle, English nature) on the occasion, and it leaves us – as always, with The Beatles – wanting more.

Hello, hello, hello….the Old Bill come to see what’s making so much noise

Get Back director Peter Jackson clearly wanted that to be the finale of the film, and you can understand his thinking. As a climax, it’s impossible to top. However, in real time there was still a day’s recording and filming left, when The Beatles shot famous performances (in the studio) of ‘Two of Us’, ‘Let It Be’ and ‘The Long and Winding Road’. In Let It Be, Lindsay-Hogg got around this by inserting those clips before the rooftop sequence, but Jackson opts to stitch together outtakes from that session to run under the end credits for the documentary, meaning that we we don’t get to see the finished takes. In truth, it’s not very satisfactory and one of the few missteps in his otherwise brilliant assembly of all this gorgeous footage. Okay, these songs are in Let It Be, but there is still no sign of an official release for that and so they represent a glaring omission here. In fact, my main criticism of the film is that – the concert segment aside – there aren’t many complete versions of any songs. This is particularly problematic when subtitles tell us we’re watching a take which was used on the final Let It Be album, but we get to see only a part of the performance. Surely, when the overall running time is already nudging eight hours, they could have shown us all the album’s songs in their entirety? And, considering the film’s intro section provides a potted overview of The Beatles’ career up to 1969, it’s a shame Jackson didn’t compile a brief epilogue dealing with Abbey Road and the band’s break-up the following year, which would’ve put the Get Back/Let It Be project even more in context of the wider story. It would certainly have been handy for any newcomers discovering the Fabs for the first time, which this film must undoubtedly have drawn in.

My only other issue relates to where this film sits next to its ‘parent’ documentary Let It Be which, unbelievably, is not going to feature on the forthcoming DVD release of Get Back. Despite Jackson telling interviewers he would not be duplicating much from the original 1970 film (apart from the gig) in his version, there is quite a bit of overlap – greatly expanded in a few cases, but repeated nonetheless. This has led some fans to declare that Lindsay-Hogg’s film is now totally superfluous. That, along with the unflattering comparisons many have made between it and Jackson’s lengthier, more fleshed-out take on events, means Apple has a hard sell on its hands if it’s holding Let It Be back for a separate release. Yet there is still a fair amount of footage in the earlier film which is unique (not least the three songs mentioned above). So why they couldn’t have cleaned it up and stuck it on an extra disc as bonus feature (it is just 80 minutes long, after all) – thereby offering an extra incentive to buy the DVD set for anyone who can watch Get Back on Disney+ whenever they want to – is beyond me.

However, as an entity in its own right, Get Back is nothing short of a marvel, and brings us closer to The Beatles than ever before. And what magical individuals they were. Charming, sardonic, witty, edgy, clever, silly, focused and talented beyond belief. Considering how famous and feted they were, there was also an amazing lack of ego on display; from what we see, they treated people with kindness and respect (with the possible exception of music publisher Dick James, with whom relations were becoming frosty). I suspect they helped one another stay grounded in that respect, but – considering the diva-ish antics of so many of today’s ‘stars’– it’s something that shouldn’t be underplayed. They also displayed a sensitivity, self-awareness and emotional intelligence which was way ahead of its time among British men from working class backgrounds, whether it was John’s understanding of George’s frustration at being locked out of the Lennon-McCartney partnership or Paul’s empathy towards John and Yoko’s obsessive romance. I guess we shouldn’t be surprised, as they are characteristics which infuse so many of their songs.

Paul leads the band through ‘Get Back’, as George Martin watches on

I also think we learned a lot about them as individuals. Ringo’s patience and reliability shine through. He’s like the calm centre in the storm of creativity swirling around him, an anchor of calmness and responsiveness, always ready to lay the rock solid foundations while the others work out the pretty bits to go on top. He submerges his ego to give his bandmates the space they need, and speaks only when he has something to say. It might be just to reveal that he’s got a hangover or has farted, but it’s always worth hearing. George is a sometimes brooding presence during the Twickenham part of the film, and we don’t yet know the full reasons for this (Jackson has alluded to him having personal issues at the time). But what is clear is that he was now truly blossoming as a songwriter, and wasn’t always getting the kudos he deserved from his peers, especially John. Some have opined that he must have been fed up of the sessions turning into the John-and-Paul show, but I would imagine that was always the case throughout the band’s career. And, once they ditch the big concert idea and move to their studio in Savile Row, tensions evaporate and he seems to be having as much fun as anyone. He certainly contributes massively, and his song output continues to put John to shame.

Once he gets past the (perhaps drug-induced) sluggishness sometimes evident at Twickenham, however, it’s clear why Lennon is the one they all look up to and bounce off. He’s got such a commanding personality and, when he’s switched on, you can’t take your eyes off him. Despite his acid-tongued reputation, he comes over as sweet and lovable much of the time, not to mention relentlessly funny. It also occurred to me that, while Paul was often the ideas man, John was the decisions man. It seemed a ‘yay’ or ‘nay’ from him usually steered the band’s course, musically or career-wise. But what is also clear from Get Back is that McCartney was The Beatles’ driving force, the ever-turning engine which kept them moving forward. Yes, there may have been moments where this became overbearing, but you don’t see many of them here. His vision and drive draws the best out of the others, and keeps them on track. Like John – all of them, in fact – he’s a magnetic presence on screen; the beard suits him, there’s a steeliness under the doe-eyed charm, and he’s at the absolute peak of his musical powers, constantly turning water into wine.

Ultimately, though, it’s the alchemy of all four incredible personalities working together which makes Get Back such an unmissable experience. It shows, contrary to the history books and their own testimonies in the years since, that this was not a band on its last legs, but one with plenty left in its phenomenal tank. Yes, it’s apparent that things have changed and there are wheels in motion which we now know, with the benefit of hindsight, would bring Camelot crashing down a little over a year later. The mounting post-Epstein business problems, culminating in the fracturing arrival of Klein. The band members’ diverging (or, at least, broadening) musical interests and preferences. John’s commitment to Yoko slowly eating away at his ties to the group. Above all, they were growing up, finding other families and starting to redefine themselves as individuals. Other groups might stay together, or adopt a Genesis-style model of running parallel solo careers (which George hints at in Get Back). But they weren’t like other groups. They were The Beatles. It was an all-or-nothing love affair; the fact they burned so brightly and then broke up when they did is a key plank in their legend, and one of the things which guarantees their immortality.

Oh, to be inside that magic circle

That’s another reason why Get Back is so special. The fact that we know the end is nigh makes this footage all the more precious. They are able to tackle and (temporarily, at least) overcome their problems during the course of the film and, ahem, get back to being the unstoppable unit forged in Liverpool more than a decade earlier. “All we’ve got is us,” John says at one point. The gang of mates who have their own secret code, who enjoy being together, make each other laugh, support one another, make wondrous music together, love each other. As George Martin realised when he first met them, they were people you just wanted to be with. Get Back allows us that privilege, and then some. It couldn’t last forever, of course, but what they created together will, as long as people care about love, friendship and music. And when you see them up on the roof and singing into the sky, outpacing the icy fingers of time and living out their boyhood dreams together once again, it makes you feel that anything is possible.

Initial reflections on ‘Get Back’, part two: Savile Row

When the second part of Get Back begins, The Beatles are in a real quandary. Not only are they nowhere near having 12-14 new songs ready to unveil to the world in a live performance just a couple of weeks later, but they have no idea what form the concert will take or where it will happen (increasingly desperate, documentary director Michael Lindsay-Hogg suggests an orphanage or children’s hospital at one point). Most crucially of all, they are one Beatle down. George has had enough, and shows no sign of returning. John, his abandonment issues perhaps coming to the fore, flippantly suggests they “get Eric Clapton in” – a preposterous idea on so many levels, and he undoubtedly knew it. This is one band which could never have interchangeable members. They soldier on as a trio (astonishingly, still consolidating the development of the song ‘Get Back’ as they go), and Yoko even makes up the numbers at one point as they embark on a frenzied, free-form, grungy “wig-out”. It’s the kind of screechy, feedback-heavy exercise that would become an early trademark of John-and-Yoko, though here you suspect it’s more of a cathartic musical metaphor for the floundering Fabs. They can’t go on like this, and things soon come to a head in what is one of the most riveting and revealing parts of the whole film.

One day, John doesn’t show up either, and proceedings grind to a halt. A discussion between Paul, Ringo, Lindsay-Hogg, Linda and others spotlights not only the problems besetting the project, but also the issues within the band. A meeting at Ringo’s house (presumably seen as neutral ground) to persuade George to return had gone badly – largely, it seems, because John refused to engage, allowing Yoko to do his talking for him. While acknowledging it has caused tensions within the band, Paul seems relaxed about Yoko’s continuing presence (“he just wants to be with her”), but at a loss about how to deal with John’s on-going apathy. An audio recording of this conversation has been circulating a while, but seeing it take place puts it in a whole new light. While Macca makes jocular references to the documentary ending with The Beatles’ break-up, the most telling moment comes when he sums up the stark situation with: “And then there were two.” Everyone falls silent, and the camera lingers on his face for a moment; his eyes glisten, and he looks heartbroken. Likewise a few moments later, when Lennon finally returns their calls and says he is coming in after all, Paul returns from the phone with a spring in his step, visibly relieved and happy. No matter how famous they all were, or what they had achieved, their relations with each other were still paramount. This wasn’t a loveless marriage, with people staying together just for the sake of the kids or their finances; they really cared. The problem was, things weren’t the same as when they first got together as teenagers.

A sober Paul reflects on The Beatles’ internal struggles

When John does show up, a private conversation between him and Paul was captured by Lindsay-Hogg via a hidden bug in a plant pot in a nearby dining area. It’s miraculous we have this, a completely unfiltered, unguarded dialogue between them on how to save The Beatles. The content is a bit of a jumble, as intimate chats between close friends often are to anyone listening in, and there are no clear answers or solutions in it. But we do hear some unflinching, startlingly self-aware admissions from John: that excluding George from the Lennon/McCartney writing partnership (a decision made back in 1962) was a “festering wound” for George that they’ve never really addressed; that he (John) has been “frightened” of Paul’s powerhouse composing and arranging abilities, and that they need to make compromises to stay together. Paul, for his part, seems to be tacitly imploring John to be more involved, to show more leadership. He again reiterates that he doesn’t want to be the “secondary boss”, I’m guessing because he knows the group dynamic won’t work like that. It’s amazing stuff, and does seem to make a difference to how things play out afterwards.

We later hear George has gone to Liverpool for a couple of days, so the Fab Three continue work at Twickenham, play host to a brief but uneventful visit from Peter Sellers (soon to be starring alongside Ringo in The Magic Christian) and hold further talks about where the project goes from here. Paul also has chance to wheel out more sparkling baubles alone at the piano, including the debut of ‘Oh! Darling’. But the absence of George is palpable, and it’s a relief to hear that a further meeting at Ringo’s house has brought him back into the fold – on condition that the proposed concert abroad is ditched, and that they abandon Twickenham for the more cosy confines of their new Apple studio in Savile Row to concentrate on finishing the album. And what a difference these decisions make. Once they reconvene there a few days later, the mood and ambience is dramatically different. They instantly seem more relaxed, together and focused. John, in particular, is more like the Lennon of old – alert, interested and playful, constantly goofing off and making cracks. He’s even come up with a new song, ‘Dig A Pony’, washed his hair and eased off on the drug use (he doesn’t appear strung-out, at least). George Martin is also much more to the fore, coming to the band’s rescue by borrowing recording equipment from EMI after Apple’s own electronics “genius”, ‘Magic’ Alex Mardas, had over-promised and under-delivered once again. The shift to recording, instead of rehearsing, gives him greater prominence, although engineer Glyn Johns remains a lively, colourful presence.

Back in harmony – George and John in the Apple basement studio
Paul and Ringo at Apple

In short, facing up to their internal problems and shifting locale galvanises the band and the whole enterprise. This is further augmented by the unexpected arrival of American keyboardist and friend from their Hamburg club days (where he was in Little Richard’s backing band), Billy Preston. The fact that he just drops in the exact moment they are (literally) crying out for an additional musician to help them stick to the ‘live performances, no overdubs’ approach to making the album is one of the seeming endless slices of serendipity which litter The Beatles’ entire career.  He not only helps to flesh out some of the songs with soulful electric piano and organ contributions, but also – equally as important – burnishes the positive vibes which have blossomed in the Apple studio. The Fabs clearly love him, he’s obviously thrilled to be there, and he slots seamlessly into the picture. “You’ve given us a lift, Bill” says John at one point, and he’s right. Musically, things undoubtedly start to gather pace. Certain songs from Twickenham are quietly ditched (such as ‘Across The Universe’, ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’ and ‘All Things Must Pass’) while they concentrate on bringing others to fruition. ‘Get Back’ finds the groove and shape we all know and love, with George cleverly suggesting they borrow some inspiration from the Four Tops’ ‘Reach Out (I’ll Be There)’. ‘Don’t Let Me Down’ and ‘I’ve Got A Feeling’ really come to life, greatly benefiting from Preston’s swampy keyboard licks. John finally gets behind one of George’s songs, playing some pitch-perfect slide guitar on ‘For You Blue’, while ‘Two of Us’ – a tune they’d laboured over a little earlier in the sessions – is reworked in a more persuasive, wistful acoustic setting, with George (playing bass on it) happily commenting on how they’ve turned it around.

Billy Preston gets the invite to join The Beatles

In truth, though, the pleasure Get Back comes as much from soaking up their banter, interplay and humour as from the music. As I wrote last time, they loved reading about themselves in the press – in an ironic way – and a sensationalist tabloid piece by Michael Housego about their recent troubles captivates them during their first day’s work at Apple. Falsely claiming that John and George came to blows at Twickenham and gleefully dancing on the grave of the band’s public image, the article is ludicrous, riddled with cliche, fabrication and self-righteousness (though probably reflective of how some parts of the public now saw their once-beloved moptops, who they believed had turned into “weirdies”, as Housego puts it). But The Beatles lap it up, John having a mock fist-fight with George, and Paul reading out the entire article in a faux intellectual, pompous comedy voice while the others jam around him. It’s a hoot, but then most of the time at Savile Row is full of laughs. Like their uproarious reaction when roadie Mal Evans brings in a ridiculously impractical guitar – with a revolving neck – designed by Magic Alex, or when John and Paul (in thick Scouse) playfully chide Glyn Johns for interrupting a take of ‘Get Back’. Or when Paul points out that some lyrics in their new songs seem to echo or reply to each other and John says that makes him and Macca sound like lovers, suggesting they should “camp up” the tunes in concert. John is on fire at Apple, firing off non-stop quips, gags, funny voices and musical parodies, displaying the full force of his charm and wit that was partly absent at Twickenham.

A bemused John ponders the latest crackpot invention of in-house Apple whizzkid ‘Magic’ Alex Mardas

There’s a fascinating segment when the Fabs discuss their visit to India the previous year. Some of this chat was featured in the Let It Be film, but it is greatly expanded here and – crucially – augmented by footage captured at the Maharishi’s retreat in Rishikesh. We saw excerpts from this in The Beatles Anthology series, but we get more of it here, not only restored to pristine condition by director Peter Jackson and his team but also with a narration from Paul, as he recounts watching it the previous night. John and Paul seem to view the whole escapade as a jolly jape, with Macca repeatedly saying “it wasn’t us”, meaning that they weren’t being truthful to themselves. In one of the few moments of tension at Apple, George disagrees, clearly feeling they didn’t take it seriously enough. Paul nods his head in understanding, but you get the feeling he’s just reluctant to rock the boat after their recent schism; shades, perhaps, of his careful handling of George during the Anthology reunion 25 years later.

As with the first episode, though, there are too many highlights to list here. It’s thrilling, for example, to finally see John say some of the one-liners we’ve heard on the Let It Be album all these years (such as “I dig a pigmy, by Charles Hawtry and the Deaf Aids!”). And the visual context often places familiar incidents in a wholly different light – for example, Lennon’s jokey spoken improvisations during their performance of an embryonic ‘Teddy Boy’ (as heard on the Anthology 3 album) are often portrayed of a sign of his disdain for the song, but here you can see it’s just another instance of them larking around, something which happens with nearly all the tracks at one time or other. Then there’s the moment when George asks Paul if they’re going to have an intro for ‘Let It Be’, and Macca just produces one out of thin air. I also love the scenes where they gather in the control room to listen to playbacks, sitting shoulder to shoulder, joking around and discussing everything from the drum patterns for ‘I Dig A Pony’ to whether they should rush-release ‘Get Back’ as a single. They’re just four mates from Liverpool hanging out, but at those moments I’m sitting there open-mouthed thinking: “Fuck – it’s The Beatles!!!” There’s a particularly eye-opening moment in the control room when Paul and George are discussing the arrangement of ‘The Long and Winding Road’ with George Martin. George suggests brass might be good, whereas Paul is thinking of strings. Quite how either of these would have been incorporated into a live performance isn’t clear, but it also calls into question Paul’s oft-expressed outrage at Phil Spector’s orchestral overdubs when the song was readied for release a year later. To be fair, it was probably the scale of the additions Paul resented, but it’s still intriguing to learn he was imagining a fatter sound for the tune from the get-go.

In the Apple studio control room

Two other things occurred to me while watching the first two episodes. First, they were very conscious and aware of their own history, and constantly refer to it. As when Paul points out an early attempt at ‘Get Back’ is in danger of sounding too much like ‘She’s A Woman’ or reminds the others that they’ve recorded numbers without a bass part before, citing ‘I’ll Follow The Sun’. Or when John and Paul both hark back to the 1964 TV special Around The Beatles. Or their regular dipping into previous songs, from ‘Love Me Do’ to ‘I Feel Fine’ to ‘I’m So Tired’. You’d think stuff like that would seem ancient to them, so much had happened since, and then you realise that all this took place in just seven years, a blink of an eye really. Staggering. Second, how comfortable and at ease they are with each other. I know that might sound obvious, considering John, Paul and George had been together since their mid-teens and they’d been friends with Ringo for almost a decade. But when you consider the intense spotlight of fame and unimaginable pressures they’d been under for so long, how their egos must have mushroomed with years of being treated almost like gods, and the strains on their relationships of recent months, it’s remarkable they get along so well – a testament to their special friendship and enduring bond. The bonhomie of A Hard Day’s Night may have been played up for the cameras, but watching the real thing unfold, they’re still every bit the gang you wish you could be part of. They love being together and strike sparks off each other, personally and creatively. I always think that’s a big part of their lasting appeal. They get a real buzz making music together, and that transmits to us.

Rekindling the joy of being Beatles

Despite the newfound direction and communal intent at Saville Row, however, uncertainty about the ultimate purpose of the documentary remains. The original dates for a concert have been scrubbed, and Lindsay-Hogg is fussing and fretting. A restless McCartney, concerned that it will just be a film of them making “another fucking album”, is still keen on some kind of live finale. Lennon seems up for it, Harrison less so; Ringo, as ever, seems content to go with the flow. But where, and when, and have they got enough songs that are (a) suitable, and (b) ready to premiere? They briefly consider Primrose Hill, a public park with spectacular views of London not too far from Abbey Road, though how that would’ve worked in the middle of winter I’m not sure. But a more prosaic solution soon presents itself, and gives part three of Get Back a whole new momentum, which I’ll discuss in my next post.

Initial reflections on ‘Get Back’, part one: Twickenham

There was so much to love in The Beatles: Get Back documentary series which finally aired on Disney+ late last year that it’s hard to know where to start. I was quite incredulous to read that some Beatles fans found it heavy going or even boring in places. Seriously? Haven’t we always dreamed of being a fly on the wall while they recorded an album, witnessing the preternatural creative process up close, watching them bounce ideas and jokes off one another, and listening in to their private conversations? I’m sure actually sitting through every minute of every session might have got a bit wearing, even for an obsessive fan, but what Peter Jackson delivered here was a painstakingly potted version which – even at almost eight hours – still left you wanting more. Sadly, rumours of additional footage on the forthcoming DVD edition appear to unfounded, but this was still an absolute joy from start to finish. Not only did it give us that ‘up close’, intimate experience of Fab Four recording sessions, but the unique circumstances of the time brought the added drama of a band teetering on the brink of collapse, uncertain of its direction and fearful of living up to its own myth, yet ultimately coming together, reaffirming its synergy and brilliance, and producing yet another iconic career highpoint (quite literally, on a roof). At the very least, Get Back completely redraws the final part of The Beatles’ history as a band, and gives us an understanding of their personalities and internal dynamics like nothing else. Lazy, glib biographers and critics who pedal simplistic, black-and-white interpretations have nowhere left to go, and for the rest of us….well, I think we’ll be feasting on this for years to come. Warning: if you haven’t seen it, there are spoilers ahead.

Rehearsing at Twickenham studios, January 1969, with a suitably trippy ’60s backdrop

To begin with, Jackson and his team deserved huge plaudits for the restoration of the film, and the ordering/editing of the 55 hours of material (with multiple camera angles) they were presented with. Original director Michael Lindsay-Hogg and his camera crew take the credit for the shots, of course, but the grainy quality of the Let It Be film has been replaced by pin-sharp picture definition and vibrant colours, and the way it has all been put together to tell a quite different story (in much longer form, admittedly) is masterful. Watching it is a wonderfully immersive experience – The Beatles (and supporting characters) really come alive, and you feel like you’re sat there with them as they weave their magic. The idea of kicking things off with a brief recap of their career to date (particularly opening with the 1958 Quarrymen recording of ‘In Spite of all the Danger’ playing over photos of them as teenagers) was a great move, giving viewers a vital bit of context, like a prologue to a novel. Thereafter, Jackson deftly lets the story unfold with a minimum of interference, simply identifying the participants and the songs being performed, providing occasional subtitles, and framing it all in the ridiculously pressured month-long timetable (enforced by Ringo’s imminent departure to shoot the Magic Christian film) the band members had submitted themselves to. They are working against the clock, and this is partly what gives the film its narrative drive.

The first part takes place entirely at Twickenham film studios, and you get a sense very early on that The Beatles, for once, may have bitten off more than they can chew. Arising from a plan which emerged in late 1968 to promote the ‘White Album’ with their first live shows in more than two years, it has now morphed into a project centred around rehearsals for a televised performance of entirely new songs, which will take place at the end of that very same month. And instead of recording at Abbey Road as normal, they will pull this particular rabbit out of a hat on a vast, chilly soundstage in the middle of winter. Oh, and be filmed while doing it, so there will be a documentary to accompany the concert. You get the feeling it hasn’t been properly thought through, just thrown together on a Beatle whim (a bit like Magical Mystery Tour, perhaps), and this lack of preparation, definition and clear consensus dogs proceedings throughout the month. The cavernous space of Twickenham (picked because it was available and a potential location for the concert), with its dubious acoustics, was not conducive to optimum band creativity; likewise the switch to early morning starts, when the Fabs – well-known night owls – had long since been accustomed to working through the night, probably didn’t help much either. But the problems ran a little deeper than that, as becomes clear.

Ringo takes a tea break

The exhaustive and exhausting sessions for the mammoth White Album had finished just over a couple of months before, yielding 32 released tracks and a host more demos and outtakes. By today’s standards, in the unlikely event of any band producing that amount of music in one go, it would need to take at least a five-year break to recover. At the same time, on-going tensions and fractiousness had emerged between the Fabs in the studio for the first time, resulting in both Ringo and George Martin taking a leave of absence during the making of the album. The reasons for that are hard to pin down, though the sudden omnipresence of Yoko Ono at John’s side would certainly have been a factor. However, when the cameras start rolling at Twickenham, there seem to be good vibes aplenty. The first run-through of ‘I’ve Got A Feeling’ (or ‘I’ve Got A Hard-on’, as John dubs it) is great, as is the scene on day two when Paul, George and Ringo wryly read up on their escapades in the latest issue of The Beatles Monthly Book magazine (reading about themselves was something they obviously found very amusing and is a recurring theme in the film). Yoko is once again ever-present, but the others seem to have accepted her by this point and she’s certainly not a disruptive influence. In fact, she barely says anything at all, outside of an animated chat you see her having later on with Linda Eastman. Nonetheless, the rehearsals do start to flounder a little bit, and that’s down to the dynamics between John, Paul and George.

For a start, there’s an issue around the new material they need to pull together for the show. With Paul’s workaholic nature and innate genius in full flow, great songs are pouring out of him on a daily basis; John, on the other hand, seems to have ‘Don’t Let Me Down’ (which still needs a lot of work to knock it into shape) and little else, bar a few undeveloped snippets. The raft of fine numbers he’d written during and immediately after their trip to India the previous year seems to have drained him of inspiration (though there was likely another factor at play, which I’ll come onto shortly). Despite Paul’s promptings, there’s so little coming from the Lennon corner that they resort to resurrecting old tunes, including ‘Across The Universe’ (recorded the previous year but not to its author’s satisfaction, and still unreleased at that point) and even some of the earliest entries in the Lennon/McCartney songbook, written as teenagers in Liverpool, like ‘Too Bad About Sorrows’ and ‘One After 909’. It’s a glorious segment, but it does highlight one of the band’s main writers was struggling to find his mojo.

John and Paul harmonise on a track, with one of George’s Hare Krishna pals sitting in the background

To further complicate matters, George was bringing in more and more numbers of his own – most of them amazingly good – but they weren’t getting much traction in the band setting. While Paul is engaged and enthusiastic, John’s disinterest is evident. He does play keyboards on a run-through of ‘All Things Must Pass’ (and, in a fantastic moment, makes a telling suggestion to improve the lyric, which George immediately recognises and adopts), but doesn’t play on early attempts at ‘For You Blue’ and is dismissive of ‘I Me Mine’, preferring to indulge in a faux-waltz with Yoko while the others attempt to work through it. With John offering so little new material of his own, this attitude must’ve rankled with George and contributed to his darkening mood as the Twickenham sessions progressed. Perhaps John felt threatened as the previously junior songwriting partner moved more to the fore, the “little kid” who used to follow him around in Liverpool now turning out stronger compositions than he was. One can only guess.

I think John’s generally passive frame of mind at this point in the project is also causing problems. It’s not that he’s disengaged, exactly, just not the powerhouse you would’ve imagined him to be previously in their career. It’s likely that his heroin use played a big part in this. He and Yoko were definitely partaking heavily around this time; there’s footage online of a deathly pale John interrupting an interview with a TV crew at Twickenham to go and be sick, which many observers have attributed to his drug intake. Whatever the reason, his mentality unbalances the band in my view – it’s a bit like a car running on three wheels. This is nowhere more evident than during the infamous “argument” scene, partially included in Let It Be but expanded here to give its full and proper context. Paul and George disagree about their approach to the arrangement of ‘Don’t Let Me Down’, and this continues into their next song, ‘Two of Us’. Macca wants him to play a different guitar part; a visibly irritated George says he’ll play whatever he wants him to play, or “I won’t play at all…whatever it is that will please you, I’ll do it.” John is silent through most of all this and Paul’s frustrations at having to whip up enthusiasm for being The Beatles (!) finally boil over. He’s tired of having to try to be “the boss”, presumably due to Lennon’s apathy, and before long they’re openly discussing the end of the band. George, claiming they’ve been in the doldrums for “at least a year” (perhaps referring to their trip to India), suggests it might be time for a divorce. Paul, lamenting the loss of Brian Epstein and his ability to keep them focused and moving focus, points out that he’s already mooted this idea. John, again, says little. They continue the rehearsals, but the band he formed and – until now – has led is clearly adrift due to his indifference.

Old band hierarchies re-emerge as George struggles to take direction from Paul

That said, I don’t think the initial dispute between Paul and George is that big a deal, and is surely the kind of thing which must’ve occurred countless times during their recording career as they tried to decide on the best way forward for a song. For what it’s worth, I think George was right that they were over-complicating the arrangement for ‘Don’t Let Me Down’ (as the finished version proved). Equally, I think Macca was well within his rights to suggest a rethink for ‘Two of Us’ if he felt it was going in the wrong direction. However, this clearly rubbed up against George’s newfound self-confidence; he had just come back from spending time with Bob Dylan and The Band in the US, where he was lauded and treated as an equal. Now he was back, in his mind at least, to being a second-tier Beatle, disconnected from Lennon and unwilling to take direction from a reluctantly dominant McCartney.

Another issue is the overall direction of what they are achieve, at least in terms of the planned live performance. Michael Lindsay-Hogg has taken some flak for his role in the film, and his continual push for the band to do a concert at a Roman amphitheatre in Libya does become quite comical. But to be fair, he knew the film he was making had to have some kind of climax, and the clock was ticking ever louder while The Beatles fooled around with half-baked cover versions and unfinished songs. I think the Libyan idea would have been wonderful if they could’ve pulled it off (Pink Floyd did something similar in Pompeii just a few years later), and John and Paul seemed keen. But the logistics and deadlines involved, not to mention Ringo’s unwillingness to go abroad, would’ve made it all but impossible. And the prospect of them sailing on a cruise liner to get there, with the audience on board, was rightly dubbed “insane” by George, who seemed staunchly opposed to the whole concept (and, I suspect, was losing interest in the overall concert idea by this point).

Lindsay-Hogg is one of a number of compelling supporting players in the film. As the band was rehearsing rather than recording at Twickenham, George Martin is very much a peripheral figure at this stage, and you sense they miss his guiding hand. Instead, they rely more on young engineer Glyn Johns, who – in his kaftans and leather jackets – comes over as a very chilled, cool customer, and extremely likeable. Mal Evans, the gentle giant of a roadie who had been with them since the Cavern days, remains the ever-faithful factotum, serving up lyric sheets, cups of tea, equipment and whatever else is required, usually at the drop of a hat. Yoko practices her trademark inscrutability for the most part, but when she smiles or and/engages with the music (as on a playful version of ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’, with John hamming it up to the max) a totally different, more attractive and intriguing person emerges. And when an obviously-smitten Paul brings Linda in one day, her beauty and calm persona is striking.

Smile! Yoko and John lighten the mood

Particularly spellbinding is the scene where music publisher Dick James calls by to give the band an update on the latest goings-on with their company, Northern Songs. Relations between him, John and Paul were becoming increasingly strained by this point, not least because – under the terms of their original contract – he was making more money from the Lennon-McCartney catalogue than they were (he would sell off his shares in the company just a few months later, triggering the bitter wrangles of ownership of the songs which continue to this day). Despite James’ perky banter, the atmosphere is frosty; Paul, in particular, barely conceals his dislike of the man, while George makes a pointed reference to his own “half a per cent” share in the company. There are hilarious moments, though – Macca, leafing through a list of songs newly acquired by Northern, is thrilled to find an old standard one of his uncles loved, while the prospect of wartime sweetheart Vera Lynn covering a couple of their compositions really tickles John’s funnybone.

In truth, the first part of Get Back is full of great moments like this. I can’t go through all my favourite bits, but a few spring immediately to mind. The aforementioned romp through some of their earliest songs is marvellous (I wish we had more of this, but perhaps these snippets was all Jackson had to play with), as is their revisting of old rock ‘n’ roll chestnuts like Chuck Berry’s ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Music’, even though John can’t remember many of the words. Watching Paul vamp his way through tunes like ‘Martha My Dear’, ‘Another Day’ and ‘Carry That Weight’ alone at the piano (Ringo: “I could watch him do this for hours”), with George joining in on drums at one point. The endless in-jokes between them all, and the obvious delight when they greet each other in the mornings. Paul and Ringo’s impromptu piano duet. George’s gorgeous solo acoustic rendition of Dylan’s ‘Mama You’ve Been On My Mind’ while Paul and Linda, and John and Yoko, watch entranced, wrapped up in their own coupledom worlds. Ringo arriving hungover one day (“I’m not gonna lie…”). Ringo’s endless patience, deadpan reactions and instinctive drumming responses to the never-ending song fragments thrown at him. Their early stabs at ‘Let It Be’. The realisation that, in January 1969, they not only had much of the material for Abbey Road in the bag or underway, but were also mapping out songs which would ultimately appear on their solo albums: ‘All Things Must Pass’, ‘Isn’t It A Pity’ (All Things Must Pass), ‘Back Seat of My Car’ (Ram), ‘Jealous Guy’, ‘Gimme Some Truth’ (Imagine). The scope and quality of their creative output, especially at a time when we have been led to believe they were at a low ebb, is simply mindblowing.

John and George getting to grips with a new Macca song called ‘Let It Be’

One of the absolute highlights is the genesis of the song ‘Get Back’. One morning Paul, muttering that “Lennon’s late again”, plugs his bass in and starts strumming it like a guitar. Out of nowhere, the verse melody of the tune starts to miraculously emerge, the very same tune now as familiar to millions of people around the world as ‘Happy Birthday’. George and Ringo watch intently at first, and then start joining in. John arrives, and instantly does likewise. It’s Beatles wizardry taking place before our eyes, or as one critic has said “like watching a chick emerging from its shell”. We have the thrill of watching the song take shape over the course of the film, as the band tries out and discards various ideas, including using the lyric as a way of lampooning the (then) controversial anti-immigration policies of British politician Enoch Powell. As an added bonus, this spins them off into a totally different, unreleased number called ‘Commonwealth’, which is tonnes of fun.

They do seem to have lots of fun at Twickenham, despite everything, but the underlying problems George is grappling with don’t go away. Peter Jackson has also alluded to personal issues that apparently came to a head at the same time – perhaps relating to his mother’s health (she died the following year), or marital troubles with Patti. Nonetheless it’s still a shock when, at the end of one day’s rehearsals, George calmly says: “I think I’m going to be leaving the band now.” Off camera, he tells the others “I’ll see you round the clubs”, and quits. Not just the project, but The Beatles. As this episode’s epilogue shows, a subsequent meeting at Ringo’s house to persuade him to return ends in failure. The biggest band in the world is now in big trouble, and some remarkable events unfold in episode two of Get Back, which I’ll discuss next time.

The Beatles in ‘Crawdaddy’ magazine

When I first became interested (infatuated?) with The Beatles back in the mid-1980s, there were no glossy rock/pop magazines in the UK. The ground-breaking Q was just around the corner, true, but the likes of MOJO and Uncut were a long way off. Aside from the teen-oriented fortnightly Smash Hits, the only way you could read about pop music – after a fashion – was via  ink-stained weekly music papers such as the NME and Melody Maker. And if you wanted any kind of considered views of music that was actually popular with the masses, as opposed to cool, underground, “indie” fare, well, forget it. They were far too elitist and snooty for anything so base (although very amusing at times, and they spawned some fantastic writers). The US, though, was way ahead of the game when it came to grown-up rock journalism. While the only example readily available in the UK was Rolling Stone (and even that was hard to find in provincial areas like the one I grew up in), my subsequent visits to record fairs, specialist shops and Beatles events revealed a number of other Stateside magazines that featured quality coverage of the Fab Four from the early ‘70s on. One of the most noteworthy, which ran great interviews with John, Paul and George at the peak of their solo success, was Crawdaddy.

The first ‘Crawdaddy’ Beatle front cover, though by all accounts there was very little content inside

In its initial incarnation, Crawdaddy began publication in the 1960s – actually predating Rolling Stone – but, by all accounts, came of age and enjoyed its greatest success in the 1970s. Apparently named after the Crawdaddy Club, one of England’s key ‘Swinging Sixties’ venues, it set out its stall as a publication which would take rock ‘n’ roll seriously, as opposed to the swooning, pin-up dominated Datebook-style magazines which were primarily aimed at teenage girls. This perfectly coincided with the explosion of the rock counter-culture in the mid-60s and the dawn of the multi-million selling album market ushered in by Sgt Pepper. It also covered films, TV, sport, politics and other cultural touchstones of the era, but music remained its primary focus. And while it missed out on major Beatles coverage during its fledgling years, the individual Fabs remained big draws and automatic cover stars during its 1970s heyday, with three issues which are well worth looking out for.

The Lennon edition, 1974

First up was John, who fronted the March 1974 edition following a chat with the wonderfully-named Patrick Snyder-Scumpy. This is interesting for two reasons – first, it was one of the few interviews he gave to promote Mind Games, the album which came out in late 1973; second, it would’ve been conducted at the very height of his infamous ‘lost weekend’ period, when he was separated from Yoko, living in Los Angeles and, ahem, partying hard. Indeed, he discusses the then-current recording sessions for Rock ‘n’ Roll with Phil Spector, which later became notorious for their licentiousness and debauchery, and eventually foundered amid oceans of liquor, mountains of cocaine and increasingly deranged behaviour from Spector. Unsurprisingly, there is no mention of such antics in the interview, though John’s inability to recall the names of all the many musicians who were drifting in and out of the wild sessions is perhaps telling. Generally, though, Lennon is presented as a more relaxed, philosophical and less strident figure than the angry  young man who burned his Beatles bridges so spectacularly  just three years earlier (referring to his searing 1970 ‘Lennon Remembers’ interview with Rolling Stone, he wryly suggests that this feature be titled ‘Lennon Forgets’). His split from Yoko is mentioned but not discussed (though he admits to missing New York), and there is no reference to the woman who was now sharing his life and striving to keep him on the straight and narrow, May Pang.

For the most part, however, it’s a typically open, free-flowing conversation. John talks about his love of American culture and, in particular, the original wave of ‘50s rock ‘n’ roll stars (“I’m a groupie, one of the biggest on earth”); the critical and commercial disaster of 1972’s Sometime in New York City album (“Fucking hell goofed”); the successful One-to-One benefit concert at Madison Square Garden that same year, and how his on-going deportation battle with the US Government had thwarted his plans to tour in the wake of it. He reflects on his random approach to songwriting (apparently some of the words in the Mind Games track ‘Bring On The Lucie’ were inspired by a book he was reading on British occultist Aleister Crowley), and how he had retained his ‘on-demand’ approach to new material from his Beatles days, producing more than half the tunes for Mind Games in the week before recording began. He says Paul, George and Ringo remain among his closest friends, and brushes off criticism of the anti-McCartney diatribe ‘How Do You Sleep?’, recorded a couple of years earlier: “I’m entitled to call Paul what I want to, and vice versa; it’s in our family. But if somebody else calls him names I won’t take it.” And when the inevitable Beatles reunion question is posed, he doesn’t rule it out.

There is some rather pretentious writing in between the Lennon soundbites, and that spills over into the rest of the magazine. That’s part of its charm though, as you sense new-born rock journalism stumbling blinking and unsteadily into the light, rubbing its eyes and groping for extravagant metaphors as a means of pulling itself forward. And as a rather highbrow time capsule of the US cultural zeitgeist, the issue is fascinating. There are articles relating to Watergate, a prospective vinyl shortage (the horror!) and the romantic film classic The Way We Were (later to become a favourite of John and Yoko), and even a short story by sci-fi writer Harlan Ellison. There are ads and reviews for various rising rock stars – some of whom proved pretty durable (Billy Joel, Genesis, Bruce Springsteen) and others who were very much of the time (David Essex, Shawn Phillips, Don McLean). And what should be the headline LP review, but Band On The Run by Paul McCartney and Wings? It’s a positive critique, but somewhat grudging in its praise. Clearly some writers were still  struggling to forgive him for, as they saw it, breaking up The Beatles. Or for making music which didn’t fit within their rigid, preconceived parameters.

Paul gets his say, 1976

And two years later, in the April 1976 issue, it was Paul’s turn to hold court in the magazine. Band On The Run had long since won over any doubters about his post-Beatles pedigree and he was now in his solo prime, with Wings about to embark on the US leg of their deliriously successful world tour. It would constitute Macca’s first concerts on American soil in a decade, and so Crawdaddy took the opportunity to reflect on his erratic but indomitable ascent as a solo artist, and the critical brickbats which had often accompanied it. In fact, the piece is as much a Linda interview as a Paul one, and the tone is often defensive. For instance, she reiterates a few times how her husband is a “heavy rock ‘n’ roller” and not just a producer of soft pop (curiously, she cites ‘Silly Love Songs’ – being recorded while the interview is taking place – as a tune which will smash that caricature, when in fact its release would ultimately reinforce it). Discussing Paul’s early-70s batterings from the critics, she also bites her tongue when the influence of John and Yoko comes up, but it’s clear Lennon’s very public barbs against the McCartneys caused lasting wounds. Elsewhere, she concedes that 1973’s Red Rose Speedway album was “such a non-confident record…something was missing” and believes the material would’ve sounded much better recorded by the 1976 incarnation of Wings. It’s strange that even at this point, at the apogee of Wings’ success, she still feels the need to justify the band so much.

Their ace in the hole, though, was the magnificent stage show which would soon conquer America, and it’s previewed at length during the article. The inclusion, for the first time, of a handful of Beatles songs in the set inevitably draws attention, but Wings were so big by that point (‘Silly Love Songs’ would go one to become the biggest selling single of the year in the States) that the focus of the piece stays on them, rather than Macca’s previous band. For his part, Paul – while acknowledging some of Wings’ early teething troubles – seems more relaxed than his wife, and content with his place in the 1970s rock firmament. Interestingly, he says he can’t see a time when he will cease playing live, though he admits that when he reaches 50 (!) “I may have to slow some of the songs down a bit”. Overall, it’s an absorbing and informative snapshot of the McCartneys when they had finally escaped the shadow of The Beatles and carved their own place at the summit of the music world.

George hits the front again, and this time it’s a proper interview

Certainly, quotes from the conversation were liberally plundered by biographers later in the decade, and the same thing happened after George was profiled by the magazine in early 1977. His career too was back on an upward curve, following a difficult couple of years when sales dipped and he became something a punch bag for critics. His buoyant, upbeat 33 & a Third album had helped him rediscover his chart mojo (in the US, at least), and its success was undoubtedly boosted by an uncharacteristically extensive and in-depth round of media interviews. Not only that, but we was happy to talk – at length – about his Beatles past, and so it proved with his Crawdaddy feature (even the cover featured a 1960 Hamburg-era photograph showcasing his turban-like quiff, rather than one of the luxuriant curls he was sporting by the mid-1970s). Indeed, he wastes little time in getting a few things off chest, particularly concerning the Let It Be sessions in January 1969. He recalls the “weird vibes” of the period, saying he brought in keyboardist Billy Preston to encourage John and Paul to behave themselves, and criticises Paul’s “selfishness” in insisting the band focused on McCartney material. Having watched the recent Get Back documentary, you might question his interpretation of these events, but I’ll talk about that another time; either way, it was clearly something he continued to feel aggrieved about, years after the fact.

Nonetheless, fonder memories of The Beatles shine through elsewhere in the chat. He singles out the Rubber Soul/Revolver phase as his favourite period, musically, but also waxes lyrical about the pre-fame Hamburg days (“we really had fun”). The interviewer says he’s not even going to ask about a Fab Four reunion, which is of course a clever way of asking exactly that, and – intriguingly, considering his earlier grumbles – George says “it’s not beyond the bounds of possibility”. He discusses a range of other topics, including his love of Indian music and Monty Python, the influence of Bob Dylan on his songwriting, and his relationship with Eric Clapton (as well as the peculiar role it played in the break-up of his marriage to Patti Boyd). He also talks of his frustration about the litigation which hampered his attempts to release badly-needed aid funds from the 1971 Concert for Bangla Desh (“it’s enough to make you go and commit suicide”) and details how his religious experiences play a fundamental role in both his music and his lifestyle. The profile concludes with some fascinating backstage reportage of his celebrated 1976 Saturday Night Live appearance with Paul Simon. All in all, it’s an excellent interview, rightly remembered as one of the best of his career.

Alas, there would be no more Beatle appearances in the magazine. In 1979, after changing its name to Feature, it began losing advertising revenue, and folded before the year was out. And, apart from a relaunch in the 1990s, that was that. Flicking through its pages now, it does seem very 1970s, and perhaps was unable to reinvent itself for changing times and audiences in the way Rolling Stone managed. However, those three Beatle issues remain as outstanding pieces of Fabs journalism from the time – thoughtful, insightful, and revealing. They may not have been in the same band anymore, but they continued to be utterly captivating individuals.

My Top Ten solo Beatles live albums

Live albums aren’t everyone’s cup of tea. Some think they don’t have the polish or precision of studio recordings, while others may feel that what sounded so great in person, on the night, never translates as well when you’re listening to it at home on your hi-fi, phone, or whatever, without the attendant atmosphere. But there are those of us – me included – who feel concert recordings, done well, are an important part of an artist’s canon. I tend not to judge live versions of songs against their studio counterparts but rather see them as a different interpretation. Some are just facimilies, perhaps played a little faster or louder, but other renditions can have a feel and style all of their own. The running order of a live album can also put songs in a different context, hearing tunes written decades apart side by side, the older ones perhaps seasoned by the singer’s own life experiences in the meantime. And the little imperfections which fleck concert performances all help to put more water between them and their studio progenitors.

In the case of the solo Beatles, there is a shelf-full of live albums to choose from, even though concert tours before 1989 were relatively rare. Paul alone has now clocked up six such releases, while I’ve actually lost count of the number Ringo has issued over the past 30 years, mainly under the mantle of his ever-changing All-Starr Band. As he changes his own setlist selections so infrequently, those rotating band members are the only reason to bother forking out for said albums, and so my interest waned after the first couple. John, sadly, has only two concert albums to his name and the first – Live Peace in Toronto 1969 – barely qualifies, featuring just seven songs with him on lead vocal and an awful lot of cacophonous caterwauling by Yoko which doesn’t bear repeat listens. Unsurprisingly George, the Beatle most reluctant to take to the stage following the excesses of Beatlemania, released just one live album, documenting his brief tour of Japan in 1991. But it’s a real pity his estate has never put out a package showcasing his much-maligned but fascinating jaunt across North America in 1974. Some of the song arrangements are downright odd and his voice wasn’t in the best shape, but the bootlegs I’ve heard of the gigs capture a fiery, funky show which deserves a wider audience. And, despite his generosity with such releases, there are a couple of glaring omissions from the McCartney live catalogue – notably Wings’ final tour, of the UK in 1979 (which may be included in a future archive re-issue of that year’s Back to the Egg album), and his 2005 US shows (as documented in the DVD The Space Within US), which featured some cracking performances and many songs he’s rarely (if ever) performed before or since.

For the purposes of this list, I am sticking to full-blown concert performances, not shows recorded before a live audience for TV – so there’s no Unplugged from Macca, or VH-1 Storytellers from Ringo. I’ve also decided to discount Paul’s 2007 Amoeba Gig disc, an abridged show taped before a small crowd in a Los Angeles record store, for similar reasons (interesting though it undoubtedly is). There’s also no room for George’s all-star Concert for Bangla Desh, though I do slightly contradict that reasoning at one point. There are no bootlegs or live DVDs featured either, we’re just talking officially released CDs. I’ve assessed them on the basis of performance, song choices, sound and how well they hang together as listening experiences, as well as that hard-to-define ‘vibe’ thing. Of course, the fact that I attended a few of the tours which albums may come into play, too. But, as we shall see, terrific gigs don’t always transfer to great live records.

10. Wings Over Europe – 1972 (Paul)

For many years, I’ve had a bootleg from Wings’ first European tour in 1972 – a gig in Montreux called Wings Over Switzerland – which I’ve cherished. The sound quality is so-so and the performances are occasionally a little ragged, but it captures that loose, raw spontaneity of the band’s first incarnation, storming through a fascinating setlist to boot. So when I heard that the 2018 Wings 1971-73 McCartney Archive Collection box set would include a Wings Over Europe disc collating tracks from concerts throughout that tour, I was thrilled. However, when I finally got my mitts on a *copy* of it, it was a pretty disappointing affair. Not only were a couple of songs missing from the regular setlist (notably ‘Henry’s Blues’, a plodding but fun guitar work-out from Henry McCullough, and the Denny Laine showcase ‘Say You Don’t Mind’) but some of the actual numbers themselves were edited and abridged. Worst of all, the post-concert studio ‘sweetening’ Paul later employed to cover up bum notes on the Wings Over America set was clearly in play here too, but to much more jarring effect. All the rough edges on display from the fledgling Wings on the bootlegs have been smoothed out, so it all sounds a bit too clean and, for the most part, rather tepid. I’ve gone back to the warts-and-all Wings Over Switzerland.

Stand-out tracks: ‘ Wild Life’, ‘Maybe I’m Amazed’, ‘ Hi Hi Hi’.

9. Live at Soundstage – 2007 (Ringo)

As far as I’m aware, this is the only in-concert Ringo album which is all-Starr and no All-Starrs. And it’s all the better for it. Recorded in Illinois in 2005 with his occasional 1990s/2000s backing band The Roundheads, all 14 tracks feature Ringo on lead vocal, mixing Beatles tunes, solo hits and a healthy sprinkling of latter-day album cuts. Not only that, but the Fab Four material features relatively rare outings for ‘Don’t Pass Me By’ and ‘Octopus’s Garden’ (it’s bizarre he plays them so infrequently, considering these were the only two songs he wrote for The Beatles entirely on his own). And while it’s a pity he almost always plays the same songs from his ‘70s solo heyday, the selections from his 2000s output do inject a bit of freshness and make this a fairly satisfying career-spanning collection, or at least as near to one as we’re ever going to get. His backing musicians are solid, Ringo is in fine voice and the crowd laps it up. What more could you ask? I could live without ‘Yellow Submarine’, but I don’t suppose he’s ever going to stop singing that.

Stand-out tracks: ‘Don’t Pass My By’, ‘Never Without You’, ‘Back Off Boogaloo’.

8. Good Evening New York City – 2009 (Paul)

Of all the Macca live albums released since he returned to the road in 1989, this is the one which just doesn’t land with me. For a start, it came just six years after the Back in the World concert album, so it seemed a bit unnecessary. This also meant there was a lot of duplication in the tracklist (about half the songs are the same). And while there are some interesting choices – ‘A Day in the Life/Give Peace A Chance’, ‘Flaming Pie’, ‘I’m Down’ – it’s way too Beatles-heavy (the setlist for the show I saw in Cardiff the following year, which included solo gems like ‘Letting Go’, ‘Ram On’ and ‘1985’, would’ve made for a better listening experience). But the main problem here is the way it sounds. The energy and punch from previous live sets is missing, and it’s all a bit flat, thin and uninspired. The vocals and instruments sound a bit off, somehow. I don’t think this was Paul’s or the band’s fault – like I say, the show I attended in 2010 was fantastic, one of the best I’ve seen – so maybe it went awry at the mixing stage. Whatever the reason, whereas other most McCartney live albums expertly capture his onstage sound and dynamism, this one rather misses the mark.

Stand-out tracks: ‘Only Mama Knows’, ‘Something’, ‘I’m Down’.

7. Ringo Starr and His All-Starr Band – 1990 (Ringo)

Ringo’s first live album and still, for my money, his best. Recorded during his 1989 US tour, it was his first release after he and Barbara came out of rehab for alcohol addiction, and captures his joy at playing music again and rediscovering his sense of purpose after years in the wilderness. Equally importantly, he managed to persuade a bunch of grizzled rock veterans to join him, inaugurating the All-Starr Band concept which continues to this day (or at least would, if he were able to play live again). And while the group was perhaps a little over-stuffed on this occasion, it did feature some big hitters who brought their ‘A’ game and some terrific songs, including the likes of Joe Walsh (‘Life in the Fast Lane’), Billy Preston (‘Will It Go Round In Circles?’) and Nils Lofgren (‘Shine Silently’). There are so many people in the line-up Ringo gets only five of his songs on the album, but three of these – ‘No No Song’, ‘Honey Don’t’ and ‘You’re Sixteen’ – are ones he’s rarely played since, and so add even more sparkle to the proceedings. It does feel weird not to hear him sing ‘With A Little Help From My Friends’, though.

Stand-out tracks: ‘It Don’t Come Easy’, ‘Shine Silently’, ‘Honey Don’t’.

6. Live in New York City – 1972 (John)

Released in 1986, this captured the first of two charity fundraising shows John and Yoko gave in Madison Square Garden some 14 years earlier – the only full-length Lennon solo concerts there would ever be. Yoko has been criticised for putting out what some feel was the weaker of the two performances, and there’s no doubt John sounds very nervous early on (he shouts, rather than sings, his way through ‘New York City’). And the mix is a little odd, with the drums turned up very loud. But, to her credit, she excised her own songs from the running order, as well as her “extemporised” vocal contributions to John’s numbers, leaving us with a pure Lennon disc. And what a treat it is. Leaning mainly on his early solo catalogue, with fine support from the Elephant’s Memory Band, John soon shakes off any stage rustiness and has a blast. Peppered with characteristic quips and asides, there are plenty of great moments, including an astonishing, sinewy ‘Cold Turkey’, a lusty take on ‘Hound Dog’ (“Elvis, I love ya!”) and the only Beatles song on the night, ‘Come Together’ (“I almost remembered all of the words!”). Let’s hope this album gets a remaster and reissue soon – and if the second show was better, let’s have that, too.

Stand-out tracks: ‘Instant Karma’, ‘Come Together’, ‘Imagine’, ‘Cold Turkey’.

5. Paul is Live – 1993 (Paul)

This album suffers a bit in comparison with it’s brilliant predecessor, Tripping The Live Fantastic, recorded three years earlier with largely the same band. To begin with, in a laudable attempt to avoid repetition, any songs included on the earlier set are omitted here (with one exception), so it’s a somewhat truncated document of his 1993 concerts. Second, the soundcheck material which was woven so well in and out of the Tripping tracklist, is just dumped at the end of the disc, almost as an afterthought (and is largely disposable fare). And some intriguing numbers Paul did sing on the tour, notably ‘Get Out of My Way’, ‘Fixing A Hole’ and ‘Another Day’, are curiously missing in action here. However, what we do get is fantastic, with Macca reaffirming his stagecraft mastery and magnetism. Inspired by the success of his MTV Unplugged performance a couple of years earlier, there’s an acoustic-flavoured section which works extremely well, plus several tracks from the underrated Off The Ground, storming renditions of classics like ‘My Love’ and ‘Penny Lane’, and even a rare romp through Cavern-era favourite ‘Kansas City’. Special mention, too, for Robbie McIntosh’s stunning lead guitar throughout.

Stand-out tracks: ‘Biker Like An Icon’, ‘Here, There and Everywhere’, ‘My Love’, ‘Penny Lane’.

4. Live in Japan – 1992 (George)

Considering he toured only twice after The Beatles, and seemed to view the first one as something of a disaster, I guess we’re lucky to have any kind of live album from George. Recorded in 1991 during a short trek through Japan with Eric Clapton and his band, these concerts – unlike his quirky, almost willfully obscure sets in North America during 1974 – saw him fully embracing his Beatles past and solo hits. And, if anything, you could argue this show goes too far in the opposite direction. Clapton’s band are perhaps a little too slick, a bit safe in their arrangements. But that’s a minor quibble; from the spine-tingling opening riff of ‘I Want To Tell You’, it’s such a thrill to hear George finally give his most famous songs their due. And while Clapton takes many of the lead guitar duties, George’s slide playing on tunes like ‘All Those Years Ago’ and ‘Cheer Down’ is stunning. Yes, it would’ve been nice if he’d had delved into the far corners of his catalogue more (it’s a shame he didn’t retain ‘Fish On The Sand’ from the opening nights of the tour, for example), but the set remains a fabulous showcase for his songwriting and performing abilities.

Stand-out tracks: ‘Something’, ‘Cloud Nine’, ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’, ‘Isn’t It A Pity’.

3. Back in the World – 2003 (Paul)

Initially released as Back in the US in North America following Paul’s hugely successful 2002 ‘comeback’ shows there, the album was repackaged (with a handful of different songs) for other territories when he toured other parts of the world the following year. I think the addition of songs like ‘She’s Leaving Home’ and ‘Calico Skies’ makes World the better of the two, but both iterations of the album capture Macca at his hard-rocking, full-blooded best. The shows also marked the debut of his modern backing band which, remarkably, remains intact almost 20 years later. It certainly hit the ground running here, as Paul tears through most of the hits you would expect, but also some unexpected selections which he performs alone, such as ‘Mother Nature’s Son’, ‘You Never Give Me Your Money’ and his Lennon tribute, ‘Here Today’ (now a mainstay of his live sets). His vocal on that is tender, vulnerable and quite brilliant, and takes the song to altogether different place. But he’s in great voice throughout the album, and Back in the World remains the best representation of McCartney live in the 21st century.

Stand-out tracks: ‘Getting Better’, ‘Here Today’, ‘Maybe I’m Amazed’, ‘Hey Jude’.

2. Wings Over America – 1976 (Paul)

Capturing Wings at their live, critical and commercial zenith, this monster remains the best regarded and most popular of all Beatles solo live albums. And it’s not hard to see why. Linda had grown hugely in confidence and competence, while the arrival of drummer Joe English and guitarist Jimmy McCulloch gave the band a combustible (but reliable) core. By the time they hit the US in the spring of 1976, they were a well-drilled, powerhouse outfit, with Paul leading the way; his bass playing and vocals are just peerless here, almost superhuman in quality. The setlist is crammed with solo hits and album favourites – even a few non-Macca lead vocals are lapped up by the audiences – and when the five Beatles tunes (yes, just five) are rolled out, they just make for icing on an already delicious cake. There’s an exquisite acoustic interlude midway through, and the album builds to a thundering finale. He even has the chutzpah to end on a song he hadn’t even released, the pulsating Hendrix-inspired ‘Soily’. Wings Over America is a glorious listen from start to finish.

Stand-out tracks: ‘The Long and Winding Road’, ‘Bluebird’, ‘Listen To What The Man Said’, ‘Letting Go’.

1. Tripping The Live Fantastic – 1990 (Paul)

Okay, I may be a trifle biased with this, seeing as this was the first McCartney tour I ever got to see (two of the tracks, ‘Fool On The Hill’ and ‘Twenty Flight Rock’, were recorded at the Wembley Arena show I attended). Nonetheless, I think this is his most balanced, satisfying and well-structured live album offering. Mixing (for the first time) a heavy helping of Beatles numbers with solo hits, a couple of rock ‘n’ roll covers and six tracks from the wonderful Flowers in the Dirt (half the album, no less), with Paul switching between bass, piano, acoustic and lead guitar, it showcases everything he’s so good at. The main setlist is an ever-ascending series of peaks, culminating in the final section of the Abbey Road medley, but a series of soundcheck jams and cover versions are also dotted in here and there, as if to give us a breather before the next barrage of brilliance (‘Matchbox’ and ‘Don’t Let The Sun Catch You Crying’ are particularly good). Okay, the ten-year gap since his last tour means his voice is a little croaky on a couple of numbers, but generally Macca is on peak form. This was the first time in concert he fully opened the door to the treasures of his Beatles past but, at the same time, he didn’t let them swamp his solo identity and triumphs. It was the perfect blend, expertly presented and played with precision and passion. Which is why it is my favourite solo Beatles live album.

Stand-out tracks: ‘We Got Married’, ‘Sgt. Pepper’, ‘Back in the USSR’, ‘Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight/The End’.

The art of dying – remembering George, 20 years on

Compared with the extensive media coverage which attended the 40th anniversary of John’s death a year ago, the 20th anniversary of George’s departure from the material world this week barely warranted much more than a few fleeting mentions. I think that’s largely to do with the mundane, all-too human way his life ended compared with the horrific manner in which Lennon was robbed of his (had he met his end at the hands of the deranged intruder Michael Abram, who broke into Friar Park and repeatedly stabbed George with a kitchen knife in December 1999, the media narrative and attention would have been very different). His demise also happened much longer after The Beatles’ break-up than John’s, so I think the impact on the generations which grew up in the years since wasn’t quite the same; to many people, I guess he might have been just “that fella in the Traveling Wilburys”. And, while still tragically young at just 58, it was an age when some do start falling prey to illness. But, as much as anything, I think the lack of dewy-eyed reminiscence was probably down to the low profile he kept in his later years. At the time of his death, he hadn’t released any new music in well over a decade, had rarely performed live and – with the exception of The Beatles Anthology project in the mid-1990s – had studiously avoided the spotlight. Never a big fan of the mass media, I think he would’ve been more than happy no-one was making much of a fuss about the anniversary, was waxing lyrical or crying crocodiles tears. He was The Quiet One, after all.

With Oliva, Dhani and Dhani’s then-girlfriend Beth Earl in the summer of 2000, just months after the knife attack at Friar Park

For those of us who grew up and/or began following The Beatles in the 1980s, however, the world has seemed that bit quieter in his absence. I heard the news of his death while driving to work on the morning of 30 November and, while nowhere near as shocking as John’s murder, it still came out of the blue. Sure, we had known about his illness and various treatments earlier that year. I remember seeing the newspaper headlines about his initial throat cancer diagnosis back in 1997, and he had come through that okay (or so we thought). Then there was the awful Abram attack a couple of years later but, again, his Beatle powers – or maybe just his sheer bloody-mindedness – had pulled him through what must’ve been an unimaginably terrible experience. He was even well enough to take part in a promotional film for the 30th anniversary re-release of All Things Must Pass a year later. So when it was revealed he that he was receiving fresh treatment in May 2001 after the cancer had re-emerged in his lungs, I kind of just imagined he’d shrug it off again. There was even a lovely photo of him and Olivia released after their visit to clinic in Switzerland which seemed to reaffirm that. His hair was admittedly cropped very short, and he looked a little thin, but that was inevitable when you’d had major surgery, right? He’d be okay. Having come of age with three living Beatles, I just kind of assumed there would always be three, or at least for a long time. It seemed preposterous to imagine we might lose another one prematurely. But, to quote a song George himself wrote in the 1980s, you can only run so far. Even if you’re a Beatle.

The final photo with Olivia, summer 2001

I worked in a small district newspaper officer at the time, and was in a sombre mood when I got there that rainy Friday morning. A friend and fellow reporter, who was also a big Beatles fan, arrived soon after me and I could tell from her face that she had heard the news too. Nonetheless, I asked: “Do you know about George?” (like he was someone we both knew!), and she nodded. “Shit, isn’t it?” she said. We were normally extremely chatty in that office, but we barely spoke a word that morning as we got on with work and tried to process what had happened. We had no internet connection then (our newspaper was pretty parsimonious about providing frivolous things like that), which is probably just as well, as we’d have reading news stories rather than filing them. Our manager, who was quick to poke fun at all things celebrity or anything others cared about, wisely read the room and kept his counsel for once that morning, though when copies of that day’s paper arrived on our desks in the afternoon he revealed that George had been his favourite Beatle. I contacted the news desk at our head office offering to write a first-person reaction piece from a long-time Beatles fan(atic) – and someone who had been at George’s only solo UK concert at the Royal Albert Hall a decade earlier – for the next day’s edition. In their wisdom they declined, no doubt having already filled the column space with yet another hilarious rumination on the dangers of losing your car keys or the latest Big Brother eviction.

TV news editors took a rather more considered view, however. Arriving home that evening, the bulletins were full of reports and reaction to George’s death, as well as retrospective reminders of his astonishing life. Predictably, Paul’s response to reporters took centrestage. He spoke to film crews twice, once at his St John’s Wood home, near Abbey Road, with then-fiancée Heather Mills at his side, and again (on his own) outside his Sussex farm. Obviously learning from his ill-judged, unintentional reaction to John’s murder two decades earlier (the infamous “It’s a drag” line), his words were carefully chosen but heartfelt this time around – the fact that, unlike in 1980, he knew the day was coming and had time to prepare clearly helped. He leaned heavily on the “he was my baby brother” line, something which would probably have made George’s eyes roll, but it was evidently a key facet of their relationship and Paul’s way of expressing their close kinship in a simple way people would understand. I also noted how he referred to “Liv”, Olivia Harrison, and George’s son Dhani, again reflecting the familial ties which had never really gone away (as we were later to discover, Paul had visited George just days before his death and also provided a property he owned in Los Angeles where his friend could die in peace and privacy). After the news, the BBC showed a half-hour tribute programme, presented by Jonathan Ross, which – considering the speed at which it was presumably thrown together – wasn’t half bad. The first half inevitably focused on old Beatles clips, but there were some nice solo interview excerpts too, including a snippet of an appearance on Newsnight (talking about HandMade Films) which I hadn’t seen since the mid-1980s. The only similar instant tribute show I can recall the BBC putting out like this in the past 20-30 years was when Michael Jackson died in 2009. Sky News also screened a half-hour archive montage that evening.

The afternoon BBC news bulletin on George’s death

Now I don’t think I’m someone who identifies so closely with certain famous people that my emotions rise or fall with those celebs’ fortunes. I don’t believe in living vicariously through others, no matter how much you admire them or love what they do. I don’t think you can become too emotionally attached to someone you’ve never met, just because you’ve got all their films, books or records. And yet I’m not ashamed to say I shed a tear or two that night. It wasn’t the uncontrolled sobbing that was to grip me when my parents died. More a case of – and I guess there’s no other way of saying it – some gentle weeping. Why? Well, unlike when John died, by 2001 I’d been listening to The Beatles half my life, and I think it just reminded me how much their music and careers had become woven into the fabric of that life. As well as the thrill of first discovering the band itself, I recalled my first exposure to solo George through his electric mid-80s appearance on the Carl Perkins TV special, followed by his fine work on the soundtrack to Madonna’s ill-fated Shanghai Surprise film. Then there was his return to the charts in 1987 with the magnificent Cloud Nine album and ‘Got My Mind Set On You’ mega-hit single (it was so exciting to see him take on and beat almost all comers in the pop world that autumn, and deliver some great interviews into the bargain).

Of course, there was the aforementioned live show at the Royal Albert Hall in 1992, an unforgettable night which a friend and I somehow managed to get tickets for. And, soon afterwards, his reunion with Paul and Ringo for the Anthology project – a dream come true for most Fabs fans. He may have been the most reluctant to embark on the whole nostalgia trip, but his magical playing and singing on ‘Free As A Bird’ and ‘Real Love’, together with his thoughtful, unfiltered interviews for the project, betrayed a real passion for it once he was engaged. I think it was the thought of all that, together with the first inklings of my own mortality, which got to me that night. George had written or played a part in so many amazing recordings which meant so much to me. I pondered then, as I do now whenever I listen to Abbey Road, whether ‘Something’ might not only be the greatest Beatles composition but the best song ever written. But there would now be no more new Harrisongs to enjoy, no more heart-warming Beatle get-togethers, no chance to see him perform again. Even though I had never met him, the loss of his wit, wisdom, integrity and talent suddenly made the world feel a colder place.

The following day’s newspapers

I was doing the solo Saturday shift at my office the following day, but don’t think I got much work done. Instead, I went out and bought a bunch of that day’s newspapers, filled with tributes to the baby Beatle. Even the Queen expressed her sadness at the news. I think George would probably have chuckled at it all, while thinking it was “very nice” at the same time, that mixture of cynicism and warm, open-hearted humanity that was so him. The following weeks saw the music press on both sides of the Atlantic roll out big features or even special editions in his honour. News soon emerged of the album he had been recording before death, which would eventually emerge as Brainwashed a year later (though we got only 12 of the alleged 25 songs in the can; there’s still no sign of the rest). In the meantime, EMI re-released ‘My Sweet Lord’ which – even in the days of Britney, Robbie Williams and Eminem – still managed to hit #1 in the UK charts. George would have loved the fact that chants of ‘hare krishna” were once again filling the airwaves.

In the grounds of Friar Park, promoting the 30th anniversary of ‘All Things Must Pass’, 2000

One can only wonder what he would have made of the world today. The 9/11 attacks happened shortly before he died, and I’m sure the sequence of events they triggered would have left him feeling despair. And his song ‘Brainwashed’ almost seems written with the current pandemic, and the enfeebling intolerance currently decimating Western culture, in mind. The internet was also starting to make its mark at that time, and I doubt he would have had any time for social media – the gossip and rumour he so despised, writ large on an industrial scale. Likewise, the on-going, ever-expanding Beatles book industry would have exasperated him. On the other hand, I think he would’ve been happy with Apple’s various Beatles projects over the past two decades (he was the prime mover behind the Cirque de Soleil Love presentation, which premiered in 2005, for example). And I think it’s a great pity he didn’t live long enough to see Peter Jackson’s new cut of the Get Back/Let It Be footage; he’d have been pleasantly surprised to see the fabled ‘winter of discontent’ from January 1969 wasn’t actually as chilly as he’d thought. Whether we’d have got much new music from him in the past 20 years is a moot point; maybe a guest appearance on a Ringo track here, a Traveling Wilburys reunion there, perhaps even a solo album or two. But it would have been as the mood took him. George felt he had nothing to prove by his later years, and I think would probably have been happy proudly watching son Dhani embark on his own music career, while he stayed home at Henley or Hawaii, tending his garden and watching his flowers grow. For George, that’s what it was all about; whatever the state of the world around him, he felt he was just passing through, en route to another plane of existence and a deeper truth. I don’t subscribe to all his beliefs, but the fact that he found his own inner light is worth celebrating – as is the fact that light continues to shine from the things he left behind, and brightens the gloom which sometimes encroaches upon us. I don’t think you could ask for a better legacy than that.

‘The Beatles: The First U.S. Visit’

What with all the hoo-hah about the new Get Back documentary, I recently went back to another fly-on-the-wall Fab Four film, which was shot almost exactly five years earlier. The Beatles: The First U.S. Visit was born out of footage recorded – like it says on the tin – during the band’s now legendary Stateside debut in February 1964. JFK, Murray the K, Ed Sullivan, the Washington Coliseum and all that. A supernova explosion of Beatlemania, captured on 16mm black-and-white celluloid. In one of those benign quirks of fate which thankfully fleck the group’s story, UK regional TV company Granada – which covered The Beatles’ home turf in the north west of England – made a last-minute decision to commission film-making brothers Albert and David Maysles to follow the Fabs on their two-week east coast odyssey. The pair grabbed their equipment and raced to JFK Airport, where thousands of fans were awaiting the band’s arrival. The resulting film – subsequently intercut with TV and concert performances during the visit – is not only a slice of modern history, a ringside seat at an event which seemed to usher in the 1960s as we know them today, but also a total joy to watch.

The cover of the DVD

It is remarkable (and remarkably lucky for us) that the Maysles brothers were granted such intimate, unfiltered access at such a key moment, and they certainly made the most of it. Using what were, at the time, cutting-edge hand-held cameras and sound equipment, the compact two-man set-up allowed them to nimbly follow the band (almost) everywhere and unobtrusively record whatever was going on. They were at the eye of the hurricane with The Beatles, not only bringing us closer to them but also giving us their perspective on the hysteria raging all around them. So we get to see the Fabs in their hotel rooms at The Plaza Hotel, watching reports of their arrival on the evening news and taking never-ending calls from local radio stations; visiting Central Park for a photoshoot (minus George, who was in bed with a sore throat) and in their limo chased by screaming fans, and enjoying a night out at The Peppermint Lounge club. Then we hitch a ride with them on the train to Washington DC, where they perform a magnificent concert at the Coliseum amid a cauldron of screams and jelly beans, and join them at their Miami Beach hotel, where they record another Ed Sullivan Show segment, before heading home to England where they are greeted like all-conquering Caesars. Along the way, we also get snippets of Brian Epstein, ecstatic fans thronging the streets of Manhattan, and perhaps even more excitable middle-aged DJs proclaiming all manner of Beatle exclusives and approvals.

The mayhem begins – touching down at JFK Airport
Fans gather outside The Plaza Hotel

The whole thing comes across like a dry run for A Hard Day’s Night. The Fabs seem more bemused than anyone by the reactions they stir, and yet take it all in their stride with total insouciance. There’s a fantastic scene in their car, when Paul (who has a transistor radio glued to his ear in the early part of the film) hears one DJ announce that the band will be on air reading their own poetry that evening. “Eh? Really?” he says, looking bewildered, before a deadpan “We ain’t writ no poetry.” John smirks at him. A moment later, their vehicle is besieged by wide-eyed, bellowing young females; Paul plays it cool with a “Hi girls,” while John cries: “They’ve all gone potty!” As soon as their driver manages to put some distance between them and the advancing mob, and a policeman on horseback provides a sliver of protection, they make a mad dash for the hotel entrance. Glorious stuff. Even in their private suite, they have little respite, with people constantly buzzing around them like flies. There’s a marvellous moment when you see them preparing to head off to make their American TV bow, chivvying each other up but still unbelievably laid back ahead of a performance which would be beamed into more than 70 million homes and make or break their career.

With Ed Sullivan, who must’ve been sooooo pleased he got the scoop on their US TV debut

Some of the best scenes come on the train journeys to and from Washington, where they mingle with fellow passengers and entertain the ever-present press corps. You see Ringo’s sweet-natured banter with a young fan, Paul taking the piss out of the relentness nature of US TV commercials, and the whole band commandeered into yet another photo opportunity with the limpet-like DJ Murray the K (they seem to view him with cordial amusement, but you can only imagine what they really thought of a man twice their age who christened himself the “fifth Beatle” in an attempt to woo teen listeners). George and Ringo do most of the clowning around in these segments; Paul seems uncharacteristically subdued on the trip back to New York, though their antics do eventually tease a smile out of him. “I’m not even in a laughing mood,” he says. He is much more playful during the sequence in their Miami hotel room, where he, George and Ringo (John was off with Cynthia) lark about non-stop. Some of it is quite abstract, and you get the feeling lots of private ‘in-jokes’ are in play, but their humour is totally natural and very infectious. I also love the bit where Paul asks George to help him close his rammed suitcase. They may have been crowned the biggest stars on the planet, but they had no lackeys to do their packing for them. As always, they relied on each other.

Taking it all in on the train ride to Washington DC

All these moments give us an insight into their individual characters at that time. George, though the only one of them who had visited the States before, seems boyish and wide-eyed, almost unbelieving of what is going on, but dealing with it in his usual droll fashion. Ringo appears to be having the time of his life, lapping up every second and shining in the spotlight (many polls rated him the most popular Beatle with US audiences at the time). Paul is so charming, smooth and in control it’s laughable, managing the press men and photographers with nonchalant ease, like he was born to it. John, by contrast, is a more distant figure, watching things unfold with a sardonic eye, a cat-like observer until he needs to spring into action. He’s probably the one who says the least in this. However, the chemistry and camaraderie between the four is palpable, factors I always feel were (and are) so fundamental to their appeal. It’s so cool to have a peek inside their world, a gang of mates on an adventure beyond their wildest dreams – and when it was all still new and fresh.

While some of the original film was cut to make way for the music performances, I think they are an invaluable addition – certainly for UK audiences (I don’t think I’d ever seen any of the Ed Sullivan clips before this DVD came out in 2004). The music is the centrepiece and ultimate cause of all the mania, after all. The clips across the three TV appearances cover the hits you would expect – ‘ I Want to Hold Your Hand’, their breakthrough single and first US #1, is unsurprisingly played twice, and we get ‘She Loves You’, ‘From Me To You’, ‘All My Loving’ and all their other early stompers which were flooding American radio at the time. But, as on their big British TV showcases a few months earlier, they also cannily included the sweet show tune ‘Till There Was You’, not only wowing girls eager for as much doe-eyed Paul as they could get, but also showing older, more sceptical viewers that they could turn their hands to “real music” as well (I suspect the uber-melodic ‘This Boy’ performed a similar function in winning people round). Just three songs are included from their great Washington Coliseum concert, but they include a thrilling rendition of ‘I Saw Her Standing There’ and a raucous Ringo singing ‘I Wanna Be Your Man’ (George’s lead vocal on ‘Roll Over Beethoven’ is sadly nowhere to found on this disc).

In full flow at the Washington Coliseum

For some reason, I never got around to watching the bonus disc until recently, which was a criminal oversight on my part, as it weaves in interesting interview recollections from Albert Maysles with acres of outtake footage from the brothers’ time with the band. And much of it is wonderful. Highlights include an exuberant, rather “merry” Macca returning to the Plaza Hotel after their night out at The Peppermint Lounge, John slyly quipping “We’re all on drugs!” during an interview, an in-car chat with Brian Epstein as he is being ferried through the frosty streets of Manhattan, and an utterly charming scene on the train to Washington where the Maysles explain how their equipment works to four fascinated Fabs. The brothers may not have been allowed to shoot inside the Ed Sullivan TV theatre when the band made its historic first appearance, but their decision to drop into a nearby family apartment and film some mesmerised children watching the broadcast was sheer genius. There’s even a brief clip of the boys’ reception at the British Embassy in Washington, where one aristocratic society woman infamously snipped a lock of Ringo’s hair, causing John to storm out in disgust. We don’t get to see that, but the pandemonium which surrounds them (involving upper crust middle-aged types, not screaming teens) suggests that the hysteria portrayed in A Hard Day’s Night was, if anything, underplayed.

I first saw excerpts from the documentary back in the mid-1980s, when Granada TV put together its own special, The Early Beatles: 1962-65, using various gems from its archive treasure trove. Stateside fans got the whole thing when it was released on VHS in the early 1990s, and Apple finally got its act together with a worldwide DVD release in 2004. If you haven’t got it, I’d strongly recommend picking it up – as an up-close snapshot of the Fabs when their fame and influence went stratospheric, it’s hard to beat. And, intriguingly, I seem to recall that Granda TV show containing scenes which didn’t make the final Maysles brothers cut (in particular, a phone conversation between George and BBC DJ Brian Matthew back in England). And as the bonus disc shows, there was plenty of other stuff filmed during those weeks which ended up on the cutting room floor. Who  knows, perhaps some enterprising, Oscar-winning director will one day be let loose on the original reels of tape to produce a remastered, re-edited eight-hour version for TV? The 60th anniversary of the visit is coming up….

‘All You Needed Was Love: The Beatles after The Beatles’ (1981)

The saga of The Beatles, as a group, has been described by one podcast as “the greatest story ever told”. And, without wishing to trigger another ‘Beatles are bigger than Jesus’ furore, it is – certainly in terms of popular music, or 20th century entertainment. No? Tell me one that’s better, has more ingredients or is more complete, or which is broadly known by millions of people the world over. Don’t believe me about that last point? Well, how come the script of the biggest money-spinning film of the past decade, Avengers: Endgame (which was aimed primarily at the under-30s), included a joke comparing the Avengers’ break-up to that of The Beatles, a group which had been defunct for 50 years? The Fabs didn’t just forge the blueprint on which so much modern music is based or evaluated against, they also set the career template which every rock ‘n’ roll band has aspired to ever since. The raw beginnings transitioning into global boy band mania, films and stadium rock, and then increasingly ambitious musical expansion and artistic growth; the screaming fans, the groupies, the drugs, the mysticism, the business problems; the dating of super-models and actresses, the controversies, the internal rivalries/collaborations and, ultimately, the acrimonious split. It’s all there – a tale so rich and layered and fascinating that it never gets old, with new threads constantly emerging which make headlines around the world and keep people like me writing endless articles about it.

By contrast, what happened to the band members after 1970 is generally not granted such attention or accorded such prestige. I think this is partly because the superheroes of the earlier story are revealed to have feet of clay, with all of them making missteps in their solo careers and falling from public favour at one time or another, and inevitably unable to exert the same epochal influence on world culture that they managed as a team of young men. It’s also a more messy, complicated and fractured narrative, a harder story to tell and provide an overview of; not least because, in two cases, it’s still unfolding. And yet, it’s worth noting that they’ve enjoyed far and away the most commercially successful solo careers of any band which has ever existed (try to think of any Mick Jagger or Robert Plant hits, in comparison). Not only that, but the different trajectories their lives took after disbanding form a tapestry just as vibrant and engrossing as the one which played out when they were together. It has more than its share of triumphs, tragedies, stumbles, interactions, fall-outs, reconciliations, weird detours and grand statements; it’s just not been written about as much. One of the few books, and perhaps the first, to tackle the subject was 1981’s All You Needed Was Love: The Beatles After The Beatles.

The eye-catching original cover for the book

Written by John Blake, pop columnist and tabloid journalist (and future editor of the Sunday People newspaper), it was one of a glut of Beatle books which came out in the wake of John’s 1980 murder. Like many of them, it was a pocket-sized paperback, with 228 pages and a clutch of black-and-white photos in the middle, the sort of thing you’d find on a newsstand rack back in the day. I picked it up the best part of a decade later, drawn in by the rareness of its solo Beatles content and also by the fantastic cover, which features a poignant illustration of Paul, George and Ringo wearing both their Sgt Pepper outfits and the ravages of time, while a forever-youthful John looms in the background (a subsequent reprint cover was garish, bland and nowhere near as effective). The back cover boasted of recently conducted “exclusive” interviews, though I’m not convinced there was much of that, in truth. It smacks of a cut-and-paste job, with Blake making good use of newspaper and music press cuttings files at his disposal rather than getting bogged down with too much fresh research. But for all that, and in spite of the obvious haste with which it was produced, it still makes for a lively and informative read.

John and Yoko, with activist Michael X, donate their hair to some cause or other, 1970

Starting off with a vivid couple of pages detailing the January 1969 rooftop concert, it looks like we’re going to dive straight into the turmoil of their final year as a band. Alas, as with so many other volumes, it rewinds back to the start of their recording career, and we get the usual run through the moptop mania and psychedelic years. We don’t get to John’s famous demand for a “divorce” in September 1969 until page 86, or Paul’s coded announcement of the actual break-up the following April until page 109. So even in a book purporting to be about “The Beatles after The Beatles”, almost half of it is taken up with “The Beatles while they were The Beatles”. Frustrating. And some bits of it aren’t even about The Beatles at all – there are several pages on the infamous Beverly Hills murders orchestrated by Charles Manson, for example, a psychopath whose link to the band (basically, a twisted interpretation of some of their songs) was tangential, at best. And yet, Blake’s pithy, sparky tabloid writing style keeps the familiar tales interesting. The rooftop gig, for instance, finds the four “high with the joy of being The Beatles once again”, while on their first trip to Abbey Road to meet George Martin, they turn up “with all the cockiness and excitement of a gang of kids on a school outing.” The book’s full of memorable little vignettes like that.

Ringo on the set of the 1971 western movie ‘Blindman’, with soon-to-be ex-Beatles manager Allen Klein. An image loaded with metaphor, if ever there was one

It really hits its stride in the second half, though, when it delves into the unfolding solo careers. And once it does, you quickly realise how much ground there is to cover. In the early 1970s alone (putting aside their prodigious music output for a moment), you had John and Yoko’s indoctrination into so-called ‘primal scream’ therapy’, their battle to gain custody of her daughter Kyoko, their move to New York and subsequent head-first plunge into radical politics; George’s move to the palatial-yet-quirky surroundings of Friar Park, his involvement with the Hare Krishna movement, the Concert for Bangla Desh, and the developing love triangle between him, his wife Pattie and Eric Clapton; and then there was Paul’s retreat to his Scottish farm, his reluctant decision to sue the other Beatles, his new family and his struggles to overcome critical approbation and get Wings off the ground. Even Ringo, who is afforded fewer pages than the others, was busy making an eclectic roster of films, jet-setting around the world and carving out a super-successful music career almost on the side, all while his marriage to Maureen began to deteriorate. When it’s put together like this, you see how the pace of their lives didn’t really start to slow down for a long time – and that’s without mentioning the on-going business and emotional fall-out from their split, which loomed large over all of them during this period.

Blake navigates all these plot points at a fair lick, in concise, colourful tabloid style, dodging back and forth between short chapters focusing on each Beatle. And I use the term plot points advisedly, because the book is written almost like a novel. In particular, he has a habit of dramatising key moments in the story with imagined (i.e. made-up) conversations and comments, slipping them in among actual interview quotes. There’s certainly no way he could have been privy to John’s therapy sessions with Dr Arthur Janov, for example, or the moment Paul learned that two members of Wings had walked out on him on the eve of the band’s commercial breakthrough. This approach won’t be to everyone’s taste, but I don’t mind it so much. To be fair, Blake only extrapolates from stuff that was on the record, and the words or reactions he occasionally attributes to the Fabs do kind of ring true, in many cases. There’s nothing that makes you howl in disbelief.

Wings in 1977, circa ‘Mull of Kintyre’

What is a weakness with the book is the lack of attention paid to their actual music, without which the narrative wouldn’t be half as interesting. Even the more prominent works, such as John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band and All Things Must Pass, merit only a page or two; Ringo’s second solo album, Beaucoups of Blues, gets a couple of sentences, while I’m not sure Paul’s London Town is even mentioned at all. It’s a pity that the creative choices they made after breaking up – surely the foundation on which any exploration of their careers is built – is given such short shrift. If you want a more in-depth look at their music from 1970-80, you’d be better off picking Bob Woffinden’s book The Beatles Apart, which also came out in 1981.

The latter half of the 1970s, perhaps inevitably, is not covered in so much detail, although some omissions are puzzling. For instance, once you get past Band On The Run, Wings’ heyday from 1974-78 is skipped over in three or four pages. John’s fallow ‘retirement’ years of 1975-79 receive more coverage, though it’s all stuff you’ll probably know. Probably the best, most revealing chapter of this section – and one which does actually seem to feature some “exclusive” interviews – is the one on George’s life at this time, recounting his growing interest in motor racing, his marriage to Olivia and the birth of their son Dhani. Inevitably, the awful events of 1980, which began with Paul’s Japanese drug bust (and subsequent brief imprisonment) and ended with John’s death, get plenty of space. The book ends with the various reactions of Paul, George, Ringo and Yoko to the tragedy, which gives it a sorrowful sense of coming full circle (though, of course, we now know there were still plenty of major Beatle events left to unfold). Interestingly, the final paragraphs touch on the-then 18-year-old Julian Lennon making his first strides in the music business, presaging the burst of chart success he enjoyed just three years later.

George with Formula One world champion and pal Jackie Stewart in the late 1970s

All You Needed Was Love has its faults. It certainly would’ve made a better book focusing almost entirely on the solo careers, as its premise suggested, and giving their musical output much more prominence. And given the author’s predilection for mysteriously eavesdropping on private conversations, you may want to take bits of it with a pinch of salt. In addition, the story of The Beatles’ ‘afterlife’ has moved on a great deal in the 40 years since, with plenty of lows (George’s death, Ringo’s alcoholism, Linda’s demise and Paul’s marriage to Heather Mills) and highs (many terrific albums, triumphant tours, the Anthology reunion and so on). But this book remains a riveting read and, as a potted guide to the only period when all four solo Beatles were still alive and active, it’s a good place to start. I’d rank it a 7.

Rocketing skywards: Paul’s ‘With A Little Luck’ video

When Paul McCartney was mulling over (no pun intended) his first single release of 1978, he must have been in a bit of a quandary. On the one hand, his last 45 had produced the biggest hit of his entire career in the UK, with ‘Mull of Kintrye’ shattering even The Beatles’ sales records, shifting more than two million copies and topping the charts for two months either side of Christmas 1977. It enjoyed similar success elsewhere, hitting the top spot in nine other countries. So any follow-up would struggle to avoid coming off as a damp squib in comparison. However, in the US – where ‘Girls’ School’ was promoted as the A-side – the single stiffed, limping in at #33. This was an unexpectedly dismal showing for Wings, who had enjoyed almost non-stop success in the American charts for the previous five years, and so in that territory Macca needed something big to recover his footing and get the band back on track. Alongside those considerations, the pop landscape was really starting to change at this point, under a two-pronged assault from feisty newcomers riding the waves of punk/new wave and disco. Some people buying records now would barely remember The Beatles. Even in the markets where ‘Mull’ did well, its quirky appeal and omnipresence on the radio would have alienated as many people as it charmed. For all sorts of reasons, Paul must have been thinking: “How do I follow that?”

The cover of the ‘With A Little Luck’ single

Contrary to what you may have read, however, it wasn’t all snarling punk and disco dancing in the late-70s charts. Melodic pop and soft rock still accounted for a massive share of the market, and this was the general field that Macca opted to venture into. London Town, the album he spent most of 1977 and early 1978 working on, proved to be – despite its stylistic variations – one of his most relaxed and smooth efforts. Its lead-off single, ‘With A Little Luck’, epitomised that approach, and yet didn’t really sound much anything else on the market at that time (that I’ve heard, anyway). It’s fairly unusual in Paul’s own catalogue, in fact. Awash with synthesisers and keyboards, there is no guitar except for McCartney’s prominent bass. The full version (later edited down for radio play) comes in a little short of six minutes and features a lengthy instrumental passage in the second half, forming one of his occasional mini pop suites (a multi-part song genre – also favoured by contemporaries such as 10cc, Supertramp and ELO – I like to think of as ‘progressive pop’). The tune is pure Macca, though, full of deft little twists and turns, and is adorned with the trademark Wings harmonies, as well as an especially soulful lead vocal which really kicks up a notch towards the end. The lyric initially seems one of his less consequential efforts, and yet – as is so often the case – makes perfect sense in the context of the song. The guileless romantic optimism makes it feel like a younger brother of ‘We Can Work It Out’, and I like how he knits together completely random lines like “The willow turns its back on inclement weather”, “We could bring it in for a landing” and “don’t you feel the comet exploding” (?) into a sort-of cohesive whole (no sign of this one in his new The Lyrics book, though).

So, in some respects, a curious song to put out as a single, but what a song it is. The synth sounds are a perfect match for the “inclement weather” of the lyric, conjuring up a drizzly, windswept feel (as portrayed on the cover of London Town), and the earworm tune sways between chirpy hopefulness and sober, ‘if-only’ yearning. And the instrumental bit builds brilliantly, slowly amassing a wall of gloomy keyboards, which Paul punches through with an impassioned, defiant vocal when the chorus returns for a final pass (coming in for a landing, perhaps?). Like so many Macca songs, it’s quite deceptive – when I first heard it in 1986, thanks to a friend who taped his copy of Wings Greatest for me, I thought it was merely okay; solid, but nothing more. Time has revealed its charms though, and I’ve grown to love it in the years since. Seriously, who else would write something quite like this?

‘With A Little Luck’ was unleashed on the world in March 1978, and supported with a promotional video which can only be described as very ‘70s. Very, very ‘70s. Directed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg (yes, the same guy who did the Let It Be film, as well as a few Beatles promo clips), it’s a pretty simple affair which can’t have tested his film-making skills to any great extent. In fact, it could have been filmed on the set of any low-rent TV show of the era. Paul, Linda and Denny Laine (who completed London Town as a trio following the departures of guitarist Jimmy McCulloch and drummer Joe English) are simply shown performing the radio edit version of the tune before a dancing audience. We also get a glimpse of the newly-recruited drummer Steve Holley, even though he didn’t actually play on the record, with Macca obviously keen to integrate him into the band’s visual identity as quickly as possible.

Delivering the Wings harmonies in the video

Otherwise, the camera simply roams around the set, focusing on the dancers and revealing some hairstyles, make-up, facial hair and fashion choices which wouldn’t be out of place at a fancy dress party today. I feel an extra, complicit twinge of embarrassment watching it, as the little boy in the red tank-top who first appears around the 37-second mark looks eerily like I did at that exact same time (although, sadly, I have no recollection of ever taking part in a Paul McCartney video shoot). He’s one of several children shown grooving or simply running wild during the clip, lending it a general air of a family wedding reception in a community centre (although the make-up of the crowd is unusually diverse for those days). The curious thing is, it’s not really the kind of record which would ever fill the dancefloor at any party or club I’ve ever been to, so heaven knows why Hogg went down this route for the video. The expressions of the dancers themselves range from unfeasibly enthusiastic to camera conscious to just plain bored.

The band are also not helped by being back-lit by an orange glare that wouldn’t have been out of place on an alien world in the original 1960s Star Trek TV show. Still, Paul looks as winsome and camera-friendly as ever, though his hair seems trapped at the midway point between his lustrous 1976 mullet and the sharp cropped look he adopted in 1979, and so is neither fish nor fowl. Linda also has some hair issues in this, the unflattering back light pointing up more than a few split ends and static strands. The Farrah Fawcett look it is not. Denny Laine, as usual, seems to have made little or no effort, seemingly rolling up for the shoot following an afternoon at the pub. And no, I’ve no idea what he’s wearing.

The core Wings trio in 1978

In the UK, the video premiered on a music show hosted by actor Paul Nicholas called Paul, a short-lived programme I have absolutely no memory of. I doubt either the film or the song would have wowed New Wavers or other cool kids of the time, but the general public lapped it all up, elevating the single to #5 in the charts, a more than creditable follow-up to ‘Mull of Kintyre’. In the States it did even better, hitting the top spot and thus giving Paul his fifth post-Beatles #1. That strange Scottish waltz and the rude rocker which came before were forgotten, and it was blockbusting business as usual for Wings. Later that year it appeared on the aforementioned Wings Greatest compilation, and has featured on every McCartney hits collection since. Strangely, though, Paul has never played ‘With a Little Luck’ live to this day, one of the many solo smashes he routinely ignores in favour of scraping the bottom of the Beatles songbook barrel. Baffling.

I don’t recall seeing the video for this song until I picked up a bootleg collection of all Macca’s promo films at the annual Liverpool Beatles convention in 1990. It was a bit of a curio even then, and it didn’t get an official release until The McCartney Years DVD in 2007. It’s funny how time changes your perception of things. When I first saw the clip, I thought it was something of a cringe fest which didn’t do the song justice. Now I tend to view it as something quite innocent and rather sweet; a little naff, sure, but a relic of simpler, less complicated times.

Another kind of podcast – unravelling the Lennon/McCartney dynamic

During lockdown I discovered a variety of Beatles podcasts, which I continue to enjoy for their interviews, insights and (often) interesting opinions. I’ll cover the pros and cons of the ones I like best another time, but I’m particularly indebted to a friend for flagging up one that I might otherwise have skipped past. Now split into two sister podcasts, entitled Another Kind of Mind and One Sweet Dream, they offer a very different take on the band’s story and their relationships (the Lennon/McCartney axis in particular), challenging the established narrative we’ve all grown up with and taken for granted. Now if you’re just a casual fan who simply likes spinning/streaming their tunes and watching their videos, you might find them a bit heavy, or overly-speculative. They do delve very deep. But if, like me, you can’t get enough of exploring the band’s internal dynamics and how their interlocking personalities played out in their music and career choices, they might be worth a listen. As one of the hosts says, the more you dig into The Beatles’ story, the more interesting it becomes – and, as the various episodes show, not necessarily in the ways that you might think.

The basic mission statement of both shows – hosted by a bunch of US-based, mainly female fans – is this: many of the existing assumptions, facts or portrayals of the band laid down since the split 50 years ago are riddled with bias, errors or misconceptions, and need a thorough re-examination. The shows seek to challenge the orthodoxy on The Beatles, as it were, debunk myths which have grown up over the years, and take a much closer, more nuanced look at the story and its main protagonists. They cite Cynthia Lennon’s comment, about how biographers may have got the facts right but have the emotions all wrong, as the key to their approach. In particular, they are keen to deconstruct and challenge traditional views on the relationship between John and Paul, which they feel are over-simplified, hopelessly lopsided and just plain wrong – invariably to Macca’s detriment. Some of this is down to interpretation and opinion, of course, but they usually back up their arguments with a forensic gathering of well-chosen quotes and a “ridiculous and obsessive” (their words) amount of research. Another Kind of Mind studies a broad range of Beatle topics through this lens, from the content of their music to “bad behaviour” to the influence of outsiders like Yoko. One Sweet Dream, on the other hand, broadly (but not exclusively) focuses more heavily on band relationships, particularly during the period leading up to, during and immediately after their collective disintegration. As the ladies say, it’s a rabbit hole you can spend an inordinate amount of time in – as their 14-part “break-up series” illustrates.

I haven’t had time to venture too far down the rabbit hole yet (so many podcasts, so little time), but I’ll focus here on three episodes I think give a good flavour of what the shows are all about and make for a great listen. In ‘Who’s The Boss: The Fluidity of Leadership Within the Lennon/McCartney Dyad’ (don’t let the titles put you off), on Another Kind of Mind, Phoebe Lorde and Thalia Reynolds set out to demolish what they see as the false tropes and truisms which have grown up about roles John and Paul played both in The Beatles, and in each other’s lives. They argue that, in the wake of the break-up in 1970 and then John’s death ten years later, macho male journalists elevated John to rock ‘n’ roll sainthood, while at the same time relegating Paul second-class status, devaluing his importance and talent, impuning his motives and crucifying his character. Fuelled by some of John’s own self-serving interviews after the split, they claim these writers and subsequent Lennon-worshippers – or ‘jean jackets’, as they amusingly refer to them – portray him as impossibly cool and in control, and the undisputed leader and tortured genius of the group, who ditched Paul with nary a second thought to pursue an unfettered solo career. Macca, on the other hand, is routinely dismissed as a talented but shallow hack who needed/loved John far more than John needed/loved him, and whose endless manoeuvring and manipulations to gain control of The Beatles spectacularly backfired when Lennon famously demanded a divorce in the autumn of 1969.

John and Paul at the dawn of their friendship, 1957

Not so, say Phoebe and Talia. They claim it was a partnership of equals from the get-go, that they both determined the course the group would take – sometimes with one more to the fore than the other (much like their songwriting alliance), but always in collaboration. Even in the early Quarrymen days, they point to Paul’s gradual weeding out of John’s non-musical pals from the group (and, of course, the introduction of his friend George), his idea to forge their joint visual identity through similar outfits, and his drive to play their own material instead of just other people’s songs. They reflect on how biographers pore over the impact on John of losing his mother at an early age, but virtually ignore the fact that Paul suffered the exact same trauma (most likely because he dealt with it in a very different way). They contend that both men loved the other fiercely and deeply, and possessed equal (but different) genius which pushed each other on to ever greater heights, an interaction that continued even after the break-up. And so on. They also feel that depicting John in this way makes him a less sympathetic figure and robs him of his humanity.

It’s a compelling argument, and one which you might think is obvious. Yet it certainly wasn’t the way the story was told when I got into The Beatles in the 1980s. John’s version of events had been accepted as gospel by most, particularly by influential cheerleaders such as Rolling Stone editor Jann Wenner and Shout! author Philip Norman, and became somewhat set in stone after his death. By the time Paul began to put his side, he was playing serious catch-up and had to be wary of being seen to “walk on a dead man’s grave”, as he put it. I think, over time, a more balanced view of their relationship has begun to predominate, and McCartney has started to receive some of the kudos which is rightfully his. And yet, I would agree that a feeling persists, even in books such as Mark Lewisohn’s masterful Tune In biography, that The Beatles were “John’s band”. I even tend to think like that myself, but is that because I’ve read it expressed in those terms so often?

A classic David Bailey shot from 1965

In the first two parts of the “break-up series” on One Sweet Dream, Phoebe and Diana Erickson expand on this theme, as they investigate the roots of the split – as they see them – in 1968. In their minds, the established telling of how the band ultimately ceased to be has never been accepted or believed, which is why the world continues to ask why to this day (and you only have to note recent headlines which Paul’s comments about John instigating the “divorce” to see the truth in that). They zero in on comments by John and Cynthia Lennon made in Hunter Davies’ official biography, published that year, that John needed the other Beatles more than they needed him, and that he even needed to see them regularly to remind himself who he was. They claim this was especially true of his bond with Paul, and speculate that something may have happened during the band’s trip to Rishikesh, prompting Macca’s early departure and leaving Lennon feeling hurt and abandoned. Paul’s subsequent hook-up with Linda Eastman, they believe, exacerbated the problem and accelerated John’s drift towards, and eventual obsession with, Yoko Ono – opening up a rift and setting in train the protracted mind games which ultimately spiralled out of control and led to the group’s collapse less than two years later. They are adamant this was never what John had intended, despite what he avowed in countless interviews afterwards, claiming that he was then trying to save face and give the impression he had been in control all along. John himself often said that what he told journalists on any given day simply represented how he felt at that moment (and may not even have been the truth then), and shouldn’t be held against him as his definitive view. Or, as Paul put it more succinctly in a recent interview, “John talked a lot of bullshit”.

There’s a lot more to the analysis in these podcasts, I’m cherry-picking bits and simplifying, but you get the picture. Whether you agree with the hosts or not, their arguments are very passionate and opinionated, and the way they tear into the long-established Beatles narrative is often amusing and insightful. They also bring a distinctly female perspective to the table, which is really refreshing – when you think about it, the vast majority of Fab Four lore has been set down by men, so a different take on it all is long overdue. They tend to view John and Paul through the prism of a love story, “as beautiful as it is tragic”, even though the protagonists themselves would never have expressed it in those terms (Phoebe and Diana do briefly touch on a possible homoerotic angle, but thankfully don’t spend too long down that particular rabbit hole). One especially strong point they make, I think, which is often overlooked, is that Lennon and McCartney were the centre of each other’s worlds for over a decade (or, as John put it in 1968’s ‘Glass Onion’, “you know that we’re as close as can be, man”). The late teens and the twenties are key, formative years for everyone, but in their case they also formed a band and creative partnership which conquered the world during that period, enjoying unimaginable success and cramming more in more experiences than most of us would manage in a couple of lifetimes. John was undoubtedly closer to Paul (and the other Beatles) than to his own wife Cynthia, or anyone else. I’m not one for reading most of their songs as coded messages to each other (this podcast claims, for example, that the White Album’s ‘I’m So Tired’, among other tracks, was Lennon singing to McCartney) but, when you really think about it, maybe there’s a kernel of truth in that. Sometimes.

In 1968. They were always after the birds

Where the hosts occasionally come unstuck is when they push the point too far, and effectively come off sounding much like the ‘jean jackets’ they scorn – only in reverse. They repeatedly say how much they admire and respect Lennon, but can fall into the trap of tearing him down as a means of elevating McCartney. He’s sometimes referred to as weak, needy and almost unhinged, whereas Paul is invariably the grown-up in the relationship, and the one calling most of the shots. That can’t be true, either, or there’s no way Macca would have looked up to him in the way he so evidently did. Likewise, I think the podcasts sometimes misread and misunderstand, John’s behaviour in certain situations. Occasionally being rude to other celebrities or randomly pouring a drink a drink over someone’s head were not necessarily an expression of his deep-rooted insecurities and fear of rejection; to me, they are just examples of Lennon being prepared to do anything for a laugh. Whether you find them funny or not is another thing, but there are countless instances of this throughout John’s life, in print and on film, and in many cases I doubt they are a psychological manifestation of anything other than him wanting to make himself and his mates roar with laughter.

On the whole, though, the episodes I’ve heard on these podcasts so far represent a laudable, entertaining and sturdy attempt to come at The Beatles’ story from a different angle. You may not agree with all the hypotheses the hosts come up with, and there are moments of overkill. As I continue listening, I may find the dive a little too deep. But they are generally full of invigorating stuff which will make you ponder why you’ve always taken the accepted history at face value and never thought to question things a little more. And it’s a testament to that story, and the players within it, that it becomes more fascinating as we continue to peel the layers back and zoom the magnifying glass in ever closer.

You can listen to Another Kind of Mind and One Sweet Dream on Apple, Spotify, Podbean and many other platforms.