‘Love Me Do! The Beatles’ Progress’ (1964)

One of the strangest things about The Beatles’ story, I think, is how few books were published about them during the 1960s. Countless forests were no doubt torn down to feed the constant demand for newspaper and magazine content about them, sure. But the biggest entertainment phenomenon of the 20th century barely merited a handful of books at the time, even during the latter half of the decade when even hardened naysayers must have realised it wasn’t all just a flash in the pan. If the Fabs had come along in the 1980s or later, book store shelves would surely have been groaning under the weight of volumes keeping track of their lives and art. But at the time they were actually together, as Beatlemania raged around the world, not so much. There was 1964’s The True Story of The Beatles, a hastily cobbled-together, teen-friendly account of their origins published by the people behind their official monthly magazine. And a much more grown-up, in-depth telling of their story came four years later, of course, with Hunter Davies’ authorised biography. But the only contemporary book which took an objective, unfiltered look at the band and the madness swirling around them was Love Me Do! The Beatles’ Progress, by Michael Braun.

The 1995 reprint edition

An American journalist living in the UK, Braun was intrigued by the growing national obsession of Beatlemania in the late months of 1963 (which was challenging the weather as country’s favourite topic of conversation, as he drily recounts in the opening chapter), and managed to secure a place among the band’s entourage during their UK tour that autumn. His timing was exquisite. Their appearance at the Royal Variety Performance, together with the dual release of ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’ and With The Beatles, confirmed their ascent to unprecedented levels of fame and popularity in their homeland. Even better, Braun was invited to accompany the group on their trips to France and the USA early the following year, when the mayhem went global. The writer had a front-row seat for it all, and the resulting 144-page book published later in 1964 mixes fly-on-the-wall reportage with vignettes of fan adoration, bemused media coverage and off-the-cuff chats with the band members. While it was out of print for many years and tended to be forgotten as the trickle of printed Fab Four scholarship which emerged in the 1970s became a flood in the 1980s, John Lennon always liked its honesty and leading Beatles historians Mark Lewisohn and Philip Norman later heralded it as perhaps the best book ever written about the band. In 2020 Rolling Stone magazine agreed, putting it first in a top ten list of Beatles books.

So why does it garner such praise? Well, firstly, it gives a unique and priceless close-up look at The Beatles when their star was truly on the rise – from the awakening of teen hysteria in places like York to the global stage afforded by New York and beyond. There is no other contemporaneous book, written without the benefit of hindsight or the fog of memory coming into play, which provides such a glimpse into the eye of the hurricane. This was written and published while the band was in the first flush of fame, when everything was fresh and new, and the world was still struggling to grasp what on earth was happening. The early chapters are full of great observational stuff as the Fabs whiz through provincial UK outposts like Cambridge, Lincoln and Leicester, interacting with press and fans, relaxing in the sanctuary of their dressing rooms and dashing on and off stage to perform before a barrage of ever-louder screams. In a rare break in the touring schedule, Braun then visits them at their (temporary) homes in London – John and Cynthia in their apartment, George and Ringo at their Mayfair flat, and Paul at the Asher family home – before joining them on a brief trip ‘home’ to Liverpool, where they taped an episode of the BBC-TV show Jukebox Jury. By year’s end (the book’s midpoint) Braun is noting how the UK press corps are already turning on their newfound idols, predicting they are about to be crushed by the Dave Clark Five’s “Tottenham sound” – at the exact same time ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’ is starting to climb the US charts.

Recording ‘With The Beatles’ with George Martin at Abbey Road, 1963

And, barring a detour to play before initially unimpressed French audiences in Paris, the latter half of the book largely deals with their triumphant debut American visit in February 1964. Braun is there for the chaotic arrival at New York’s JFK Airport, the fans’ siege of the Plaza Hotel, the Ed Sullivan Show, the Carnegie Hall concert, the trip to Washington and the ill-fated reception at the British Embassy. All the while, he records the full gamut of reactions they stir, from harassed policemen to star-struck aristocrats to bewildered psychologists, and The Beatles’ own relaxed, almost nonchalant responses to the craziness they have unwittingly created.

In many ways, Love Me Do! is like the print equivalent of The Beatles’ First US Visit film, giving us a raw, as-it-happened snapshot of this pivotal period in the band’s career. And while this is one person’s take on it all, if anything it brings us even closer to their true feelings and personalities, because they were probably less guarded when the cameras weren’t around. Indeed, Braun’s reproduction of their earthy language, off-colour jokes and forthright comments shocked some readers in 1964. Paul and George describe various things as “fucking soft”, while John and Paul refer to masturbation at one point. Elsewhere, John says “women should be obscene and not heard” and, when it’s suggested the head of Decca Records Dick Rowe must now be kicking himself for passing up the chance to sign The Beatles in early 1962, he says: “I hope he kicks himself to death.” Such dialogue did not accord with the ‘lovable Moptops’ image and was decried in the NME as “coarse”, but it’s one of the things which makes the book such a great read. Many quotes you will have seen littered through biographies over the past 50 years or so first appeared here.

On the Champs Elysees during their Paris trip, January 1964

Their individual personas also come through loud and clear – at least in terms of Lennon and McCartney, who do most of the talking. Paul is very much the PR man, as always, but there’s a underlying intelligence and self-awareness to what he says, and you can almost visualise the twinkle in his eye at certain points. There’s a great moment when he announces to the Asher family: “Well, I’ve had a very tiring day making lots of people happy. I’m going to bed.” His interest in artistic and intellectual pursuits are also very apparent, something John pokes gentle fun at: “I don’t go in for those culture things, like Paul. Just drop a name and Paul will go; I’d rather stay at home.” Throughout the book, John’s keen wit leaps off the page, knocking people off guard and puncturing pretentiousness with an endless stream of quips and deadpan asides. But the pair do slip into serious mode when quizzed about issues such as class, fame and money. Ringo gets his chance to hold forth on a few subjects, too, but George really does play up to the ‘quiet one’ stereotype here. Or maybe Braun didn’t think he had as many interesting things to say.

Fans greet the Fabs’ arrival in America at JFK Airport, February 1964

Overall, though, the author wisely lets the almost surreal story tell itself, and supports it with an elegant, economical writing style. He judiciously weaves in newspaper reports, fan letters, press conference interplay and musical critiques, all propelling the book with a breathless pace which mirrors the events it documents. It conveys the feeling of the world falling in love with the band, and you can see why: their charm, cheek and freshness is evident at every turn. You also get a sense of the impenetrable camaraderie which carried them through it – as Braun points out, in one of perceptive lines which pepper his prose, they were a little island unto themselves. And it’s full of telling, captivating scenes – for example, Jane Asher talking about her romance with Paul; John’s obvious intimacy with journalist Maureen Cleeve; Brian Epstein admitting the band bring him to tears, and Paul writing ‘One and One is Two’ (a tune they later gave away) in their Paris hotel suite. “Billy J. [Kramer] is finished when he gets this song,” remarks John.

The big problem with the book is that there just isn’t enough of it. Considering the time he spent with the band and the many private moments he had access to, Braun could surely have written more. It seems to be treated as just another assignment, even though he undoubtedly realised something special was going on. And sometimes the rapid pacing does the story no favours – the chapter where he visits the individual Fabs at home, in particular, is frustratingly brief. And it’s worth noting that John gets the lion’s share of it. When there is so little first-hand, unauthorised material from this period, it’s a real pity that so much of it must have been left in the author’s notepad. In addition, the 16 pages of photographs are a mixed bag. There are some nice backstage shots and striking images of fan frenzy, but also some well-worn press hand-out snaps, as well as one of Astrid Kirrcherr’s 1960 Hamburg pictures which has no relevance to the story told here. A bit of a missed opportunity.

Performing at the Washington Colliseum during the first US visit

For all its faults, though, Love Me Do! remains an essential part of The Beatles’ bibliography – partly because of the invaluable insights it provides, and partly because there’s really nothing else like it. I picked up my copy in 1995, when it was finally reprinted just ahead of the Anthology project being unveiled, and it provides a nice counterbalance to such retrospective reassessments. I’m not sure it’s been published again since, but you can still find second-hand copies online for a reasonable price. I’d definitely recommend it; it’s too short, yes, but what there is is like gold dust. John Lennon said he rated the book because it showed The Beatles as they were, “which was bastards.” If only we had more bastards like that. I’d give this one a 7.

It’s all a show – Paul’s ‘Appreciate’ video

The concept of a pop ‘single’ has changed an awful lot over the past 20 years or so. The notion of people releasing two songs on a 7-inch piece of vinyl had long since disappeared by the 21st century, of course, but as CD singles were superseded by downloads and more recently streaming, the whole definition of what constitutes a single has become much more nebulous. Hence you can end up with the parlous situation of someone like, say, Ed Sheeran having the top ten charting singles all at the same time. Lordy. Come to think of it, I no longer have any idea how to define a single these days, and I daresay I’m not alone. Nonetheless, artists (and/or record companies) are still in the habit of lifting certain songs to promote their parent album on radio, TV or online, even if there is no separate physical release, as in olden times. And while the halcyon days of MTV and VH1 are now long past, they’ll sometimes promote said tunes with an accompanying video to help generate a bit of ‘buzz’ on social media. Such was the case with ‘Appreciate’, a track from Macca’s 2013 album New.

Paul with video co-star ‘Newman’

Before and after the disc’s release in October that year, a few songs were plucked from it to stir a bit of interest and media airplay. While the title track and ‘Save Us’ had no videos to speak of, ‘Queenie Eye’ was treated to a star-studded clip filmed at Abbey Road Studios and featuring the likes of Meryl Streep and Johnny Depp. But none of these ‘singles’ managed to break through into mainstream awareness and prevent what has become a typical trajectory for a latter-day McCartney album – stellar reviews and a promotional splurge from Paul helping to secure strong early sales and high chart placings, only for it to disappear off the radar within a couple of months. Without the sustained radio airplay needed to support them, this is pretty standard for almost all new releases from so-called ‘legacy artists’ (i.e. acts of a 1960s-80s vintage) these days, irrespective of how good they are. Paul doesn’t lose interest quite so quickly, though (at least not until he gets onto his next album), and is also in a position to indulge his artistic whims. And so in May 2014, more than six months after New came out, an eye-catching video for ‘Appreciate’ appeared.

New is a mixture of old-style pop/rock (albeit with a modern sheen) and uber-contemporary production numbers, and ‘Appreciate’ is very much in the latter category. The drum-heavy track, awash with moody synths, tape loops, processed vocals and scratchy, shrieking, distorted guitars, is one of Paul’s attempts at showing he’s still “with it”, that the old master can still teach the young pups a trick or two. And, for the most part, I think he pulls it off. Tautly produced by George Martin’s son Giles, it has bags of atmosphere, with Macca’s fragile, distant voice carrying a sly, hypnotic charge which explodes during the pounding, jagged middle sections. It’s a fire and ice cocktail with a delicious groove and, while it might not boast the best melody he’s ever written, it’s definitely one of his more convincing forays into the edgier corners of present-day pop (certainly more effective than his Fireman work, in my book). A friend of mine’s twenty-something son picked it as his favourite track from the album, and I think it might have held a lot of appeal for that demographic had the person making it been 50 years younger.

Perhaps to reflect the song’s synthetic trappings, the accompanying video adopts a futuristic, almost sci-fi approach. In a prologue to the actual song, we are introduced to a  ‘The Museum of Man’, a sterile, brightly-lit environment presumably established to display examples of our now extinct species. It is patrolled by a large robot (apparently called Newman – New man, geddit?), who wanders past waxwork dummy-type representations of a family at dinner, a puppeteer, a businessman dictating to his secretary and so on. Then he comes across a display depicting a famous musician from the far-flung 20th century, clutching his famed Hofner bass guitar. In a kind of reverse Pinnocchio set-up, the supposedly lifeless human starts to move, the song kicks in and we’re away.

I Want To Hold Your Hand – Paul meets his latest fan

Macca is soon singing to his newfound mechanical pal and, stepping through the display’s force field, begins showing him some dance moves as well. This triggers the other ‘exhibits’ to start moving too – gently, at first, but when the rocking middle section arrives they all go a bit bonkers, in time to the music. Two boxers exchange jabs, a footballer runs though his ball control tricks, and the (slightly creepy-looking) puppeteer launches into his show. Mostly, though, the rest – the businessman and secretary, dining family, photographer and model, the clientele of a diner – just jerk and dance uncontrollably, like the mannequin on the puppeteer’s strings. There is a bunch of pre-pubescent boys who remain statically glued to their X-Box or whatever, though whether that’s a wry comment on the gamer generation or just a naked attempt to pull in kiddie viewers, it’s hard to say. Meanwhile Paul and Newman continue their bonding, busting some moves, play-fighting and, by the end, trading some licks on electric guitars. But, just as the robot is losing himself in the music, the song ends as abruptly as it began, and – like a scene from Toy Story and its ilk – all the humans return to their inanimate positions, McCartney included, and Newman is left with only his guitar for company. As one of the lines from the song intimates, maybe it’s all a show.

Making the video – the Ninja-style puppeteers were later digitally erased

It’s all a bit arty and heavily stylised, with vague allusions to this and that, but the overall effect is impressive. The various exhibits, while a very curious cross-section of western civilisation, are striking and cleverly filmed as they lurch into life. And though Newman doesn’t seem a particularly advanced example of the artificial intelligence which has presumably replaced mankind, he does have a sprinkling of character, and his interactions with Paul (put together by the same people behind the War Horse stage play) are seamlessly done. As for Macca himself, he shines here. He’ll never win any acting awards, of course, but he shimmies and shakes his way through the clip in endearing , playful fashion, nattily dressed (in a sort of update of his Abbey Road suit) and with respectable hair colouring/styling, looking darn good for a man of 71. He says the idea for the video was inspired by waking up one morning with an image of himself stood with a giant robot (as you do), which he had originally considered using for the New cover. The setting of the hi-tech ‘museum’ certainly mirrors the final CD artwork, and you wonder whether this film was originally planned to come out much closer to the album’s 2013 release and be a major plank in its promotion, but – as is often the way – just took too long to complete.

Either way, Paul seemed strangely married to his ‘man-meets-machine’ idea. So much so that he even planned for Newman to join him onstage for a series of dates in Japan in the spring of 2014, posing with the robot on his arrival at Haneda Airport that month. This has always struck as one of the most madcap ideas of Paul’s career, and his bizarre attachment to it makes me laugh out loud (he even recorded a video introducing his new ‘friend’, for heaven’s sake). Alas, we never got to see him performing alongside the robotic rocker, as illness subsequently forced him to cancel those Japanese dates and Newman seems to have been quietly mothballed thereafter. I think fate was being kind in this particular instance.

Macca and Newman in Japan – this buddy thing was starting to get out of hand now

It’s a shame more people didn’t get to see the ‘Appreciate’ video, though. It’s purpose as a promotional tool for the album didn’t seem to have much impact. With so few mainstream TV channels showing pop videos these days, it was likely viewed only by hardcore Beatles/Macca fans online. It was released on a ‘collectors edition’ of New later that year, as part of a bonus DVD compiling videos and TV performances to promote the album (there is also a ‘making-of’ featurette), though that’s pretty hard to find these days. And, for reasons best known to McCartney HQ, it’s no longer available on his official YouTube video channel (though ‘Queenie Eye’, from the same record, is – go figure). Thankfully, there are still fans who will curate and upload such material for him, so we can all enjoy one of his most polished, ambitious promo films from the past 20 years. Clips like this may not get much recognition or exposure any more, and may not help shift more CDs, but it doesn’t really matter. It’s just great that Paul still wants to make them and, when they’re as much fun as this, they’re worth doing in their own right. I just pity poor Newman, no doubt now gathering dust in a crammed storeroom marked ‘McCartney Flights of Fancy’.

The ‘Appreciate’ video

Solid gold – the ‘Red’ and ‘Blue’ albums

For those of us of a certain vintage, the ‘Red’ and ‘Blue’ compilation albums were our imperishable gateways into the wondrous world of The Beatles. Much like the 1 collection has introduced a wholly different generation to the band’s back catalogue, the 1962-66 and 1967-70 sets provided the first concentrated whiff of a drug which became a lifelong addiction. Unlike 1, they had all the hits and more, twice as many songs in a near-flawless selection charting the Fabs’ musical growth and unstoppable momentum, mirroring the two identical cover photographs taken seven years apart at either end of their recording career. It’s such a simple idea, but brilliantly executed – so much so that, since their joint release in 1973, they have remained the gold standard of Beatles compilations. Whereas other albums which followed in their wake during the 1970s and ‘80s have long since fallen into pop antiquity, the ‘Red’ and ‘Blue’ releases have endured through the eras of CDs, downloads and streaming, and are pretty much established as a part of the band’s core canon. But why is that? And, as they are seen as representing the cream of the Fab Four crop and the idea sampler for newcomers, is the song running order all that it might be? 

An ad for the albums’ 1993 release on CD

The albums were produced in the first place only a result of external forces coming into play. Curiously, in the ten years since The Beatles had made it big, there had never been an official career-spanning hits collection and bootleggers were keen to exploit this huge gap in the market. In 1972, a US company called Audiotape Inc. brazenly threw copyright laws out of the window and began selling a four-disc collection of Fab Four classics called Alpha Omega, even advertising it on TV. Never one to miss the chance for filing a new lawsuit, Apple general manager Allen Klein quickly sprang into action to put a stop to the cheeky enterprise and claim some hefty damages in the process. But it also made him realise what the company was missing out on and so, in one of his few lasting positive contributions to the band’s legacy, he commissioned an authorised hits package – and The Beatles 1962-66 and 1967-70 were born. Simultaneously released in April 1973, they were predictably runaway successes, charting high around the world (making the top 3 on both sides of the Atlantic, with 1967-70 hitting #1 in the US) and going on to become two of the biggest sellers of the decade. 

It’s said the track listing for the sets was chosen by the Fabs themselves – if so, I’d love to know how that was worked out. I guess the hit singles picked themselves, and maybe popular cover versions of tunes like ‘Michelle’ and ‘Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da’ (both of which provided UK chart-toppers for other artists) earned the originals their spots. But I often wonder what drove some of the other selections. Songs like ‘All My Loving’, ‘Norwegian Wood’ and ‘Back in the USSR’ may seem like obvious inclusions now, but were they considered so back then or have we come to think of them as stand-outs because they featured on these albums? And why are there twice as many tracks lifted from Rubber Soul as from the White Album? Why no album tracks from Revolver? Why were B-sides included on 1967-70 but not 1962-66? It’s fascinating to ponder but, whichever way you slice it, it’s hard to argue too much with the end results.

Using a 1962 photo taken at EMI’s Manchester House headquarters

The presentation was also excellent. What serendipity that the April 1969 photograph reproducing their Please Please Me LP cover from 1963 was never used, as intended, for the project which became Let It Be – allowing it to be packaged up here with an outtake from the Please Please Me photoshoot to provide bookend images for the two albums. A happy accident, but – as with so much of their career – it seems written in the stars. The covers perfectly chart the band’s transition from fresh-faced, lovable moptops to knowing, hirsute hippies in such a short space of time, and I can’t exaggerate the fascination this exerted on my younger self. “How did they go from there to there?” I wondered and, of course, the music within illustrates (in potted form) the whole dazzling story.

How times change – the same pose replicated seven years later

My parents weren’t particularly interested in music when I was growing up, and my brother and sister had both left home by the time I was about six. So I was never really encouraged to listen to music, and there was precious little of it lying around the house even if I wanted to, but one thing we did have was a home-made cassette copy of 1962-66 (though, for reasons never uncovered, it was missing ‘And I Love Her’). I’ve no idea where this came from, though the fact my Dad scrawled ‘Beetles’ on it indicates he had something to do with it (spelling was never his strong suit, bless him). As I reached the age of about 11 or 12 and began sticking on tapes in the background as a way of alleviating the drudgery of doing school homework, this was one of the ones on rotation. Without realising it, I suppose, the seeds of my Fabs fandom were being sown. A few years later, when my interest in Beatles music began to really take hold, the battered old cassette (now swathed in Sellotape to hold it together) made for a perfect primer but, of course, it represented only half the story. And while I was given or loaned other tapes by the band in the meantime, the first Beatles album I ever went out and bought with my own money was the ‘blue’ half of the deal, 1967-70.

I still remember it vividly – the regular Saturday shopping excursion to a nearby town which usually bored me rigid, but on this occasion I couldn’t wait to get there and headed straight for WH Smith’s music department. As a double-length cassette it was priced at £8.99, a not-inconsiderable sum for a 15-year-old managing his pocket money in 1985. But I snapped it up, and shoved it in our car’s tape deck as soon as we set off back. First up, ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ and ‘Penny Lane’…. Wow. My Mum, never a fan of rock music, groaned from the back seat, but my Dad was more into it. I remember thinking ‘Lady Madonna’ was sung by Ringo.  We were still on the fade-out of ‘Hey Jude’ by the time we got home – not even half-way through the album! What a treasure trove. Perhaps the best £8.99 I’ve ever spent.

Within a couple of years, The Beatles’ back catalogue was released on CD and – with the emphasis now squarely on listening to their music in the original configurations – the EMI-produced cluster of post-split compilations were left to wither on the vine as LPs and cassettes slowly disappeared from the market place. Albums like Rock ‘n’ Roll Music and Love Songs, which the Fabs themselves had never been too crazy about in the first place, were gradually erased from history. But in 1993, in the wake of the court settlement of long-running legal disputes between EMI and Apple which cleared the way for a new wave of Beatles releases, what was the first jointly-agreed product which hit the shelves? Yep, CD versions of the ‘Red’ and ‘Blue’ albums, then hailed as the “ultimate Beatles compilations” and launched at an Abbey Road press party attended by no less than Georges Harrison and Martin. There was a bit of griping from fans that 1962-66 was split over two discs, when the CD format could easily have accommodated all the tracks onto a single one, but it didn’t stop both albums re-entering the charts around the world.

The two Georges back at Abbey Road to launch the albums on CD in 1993

Of course, the 2000 release of the all-conquering 1 – the first single disc to collate all of the band’s transAtlantic #1 hits – saw that become the undisputed daddy of all Beatles compilations, commercially at least. But even then, its more weighty antecedents weren’t forgotten. Remastered versions of 1962-66 and 1967-70 came out again in 2010 and did very respectably, hitting the top 40 in the States and making the top 10 in the UK. All told, they have sold more than a million copies between them in the UK since 2010 alone, and a staggering 16 million in the US since their initial release. And, alongside 1, they remain the only official out-and-out Beatles compilations you can find on Spotify. So Apple clearly sees them as a key part of the catalogue, and it’s hard to argue with that.

Men of the people – the 1968 photo which graces the albums’ inside gatefold sleeves

Nonetheless, could the tracklisting have been even better? I’ve always found it curious that the ‘Red’ album has two songs fewer than its ‘Blue’ counterpart, even though the running time is much shorter (by a whopping 37 minutes, in fact). Couldn’t EMI have levelled it up by adding a couple of numbers? Assuming they would want to stick to original compositions only (thus ruling out ‘Twist and Shout’, for example), I would suggest ‘I Saw Her Standing There’ as an obvious addition. And, considering both the paucity of tracks from Revolver and the complete absence of any Harrisongs on this set, I would also put on George’s ‘Taxman’. The choices on 1967-70 are difficult to fault. I guess my only question mark would be over ‘Old Brown Shoe’, a song I’ve grown to appreciate a lot more over the years, but does it really warrant a place on a collection of their elite work? I’d be inclined to switch it out for something like ‘Blackbird’ or – maintaining the Harrison quota and recognising the otherwise ignored batch of songs released on Yellow Submarine – the seriously underrated ‘It’s All Too Much’. And I might swap around ‘Let It Be’ and ‘The Long and Winding Road’ in the running order, so the album ends on the former, more full-on band recording.

Both the ‘Red’ and ‘Blue’ albums are pretty good as they are, though. It’s hard to imagine any other artist of band has a greatest hits package as comprehensive or as satisfying as this. Even though the original albums are my go-to listening choice, I still give these a spin from time to time (by contrast, I don’t think I’ve ever listened to 1 – I’ll leave that to the millennials). There’s something about the journey they take you on, like climbing a musical mountain that’s just a succession of peaks. And, if you’re like me, they also unlock special memories of stumbling across this magic kingdom in the first place.

A TV ad for the albums from the 1970s…
…and a more concise version to mark their 2010 reissue

‘John Lennon: A Life in Ten Pictures’

It must be so difficult for documentary producers to come up with fresh angles on subjects which have been exhaustively covered elsewhere. In the case of John Lennon, he’s been dead longer than he was alive, and the unique nature of his life – along with its tragic ending – has understandably made him a magnet for biographers and filmmakers over the past 40-plus years. His was a truly iconic 20th-century story, one that has become ingrained in our popular culture, with the very modern, extraordinary nature of his personality and artistic output giving him an enduring appeal that I think outstrips many other notable figures from his time (such as Elvis Presley, for example). But here’s the rub – many people growing up now will never have read any of those books or seen any of those films. For lots of people under 30, say, they may not know much more about John than: was in The Beatles, married Yoko, campaigned for peace, wrote ‘Imagine’, got shot. They may be familiar with some of his songs, sure, but they won’t necessarily know much about the backstory. So there’s always going to be a new audience, but how to approach the subject in a way that keeps it fresh and draws in us older fans, too? 

Last year, the BBC had a pretty good stab at it when Lennon was featured in its A Life in Ten Pictures series. The hour-long programmes essentially selected ten photographs to tell the life stories, from beginning to end, of major celebrities who are no longer with us (Elizabeth Taylor, Muhammad Ali and Freddie Mercury were among the other subjects covered). Some of the shots were well known, professionally-staged pictures, while others were more obscure, caught-in-the-moment snapshots. Friends, associates and admirers were interviewed to provide background information and insight into each image, all linked together with an overarching narration and archive footage. It’s the kind of classy, understated but impactful thing the BBC still does well, a world away from the trashy, quick-cut, gossipy and overwrought bios you sometimes see on other channels. There are limitations to this kind of approach, which I’ll come to later, but – certainly in John’s case – it did provide an interesting way of zeroing-in on key moments in his life without rehashing too many tired old tropes. 

John with his mum Julia, 1949

The Lennon edition kicks off with the only photo we have of John and his mother Julia, taken at a family gathering in 1949. John was raised by his Aunt Mimi, of course, and – as Beatles biographer Mark Lewison recounts – rarely saw much of his mum until his mid-teens. They began to re-establish a relationship on the back of his obsession with rock ‘n’ roll, and the fact that Julia was knocked down and killed yards from John’s home when he was just 17 would weigh heavily on him for the rest of his life. If anything, though, the tragedy did drive him still deeper into music, and the second photo captures that – one of Mike McCartney’s two colour shots of John, Paul and George playing together as the Quarrymen in 1958. Curiously, the show opted for the lesser of the two pictures, where George has his back to the camera and John’s face is partly obscured, a decision possibly influenced by the fact the image surfaced only recently in Mike’s 2021 Early Liverpool book (and I’m sure his contribution to this programme around the same time was no coincidence). Still, the first-hand memories of McCartney Jnr. are fun, recalling how he instantly identified the young Teddy Boy Lennon as a “rebel” and describing the photograph as one of “innocence” and – in the grim milieu of post-war Liverpool – “hope”. 

John “trying to look hard” in Hamburg, 1960

Astrid Kirchherr’s legendary 1960 shot of John at a Hamburg fairground comes next, discussed by official Beatles biographer Hunter Davies. He doesn’t really bring much to the table, other than recalling his meeting with Astrid in the late 1960s while researching the Fabs’ past, and pointing out that her camera had captured John “trying to look hard”. But the image is so powerful, it speaks for itself. The fourth choice is an odd one, a snap of John larking around with Cynthia and Julian at their Weybridge home at the height of Beatlemania. While his home life during that period has often unfairly overlooked or dismissed (including by Lennon himself), it’s still not a picture which has a lot of resonance in the scheme of things. However, it does provide an opportunity to hear from Helen Anderson, an art college friend of both John and Cynthia, someone I’ve not seen interviewed about him before.

A shot of a pensive John in a US hotel room during The Beatles’ troubled final US tour in 1966 is used to open up that year’s huge ‘bigger than Jesus’ controversy, and the toll it took on him. Author and critic John Harris provides some thoughtful commentary and perspective on the incident (though, in truth, Lennon could’ve been thinking of anything when the snap was taken – it’s all about interpretation, I guess). Anthony Fawcett, personal assistant to John and Yoko, then speaks about a photo of the smiling pair posing in front of the car they crashed while on holiday in Scotland during 1969 and later had delivered to their Ascot estate to serve as a piece of art. While offering the chance to outline the impact of Yoko’s arrival into John’s life, I’d have thought there were scores of other, better pictures to illustrate the point (as the accompanying footage of the couple on their honeymoon ‘bed-in for peace’ that year demonstrated). Even more curious is the focus on a shot of the Lennons arriving at a New York courtroom in 1972 at the start of their legal battle to prevent the Richard Nixon administration deporting John from the US as an undesirable alien. A key part of his life, for sure, but I’m pretty sure the photo was chosen because it also featured his lawyer Leon Wildes, who – along with his son Michael – is then able to talk about his (somewhat frayed) memories of the case.

John and Yoko turn their 1969 car crash into “art”

John’s famed (if somewhat exaggerated) ‘Lost Weekend’ 18-month separation from Yoko is discussed next, with BBC DJ Bob Harris reflecting on a picture of Lennon and lover May Pang kissing, with Harry Nilsson in the foreground, at LA’s Troubadour club in 1974. This is meant to represent John’s debauchery and aimlessness at this time but it seems pretty innocuous in and of itself. Again, another photo could have been used to better effect, such as the notorious one of a drunken John and Harry being thrown out of the same nightspot that year. His life regained its equilibrium when he reunited with Yoko in 1975, of course, leading the birth of their son Sean later that year. Photographer and confidante Bob Gruen provides the background to a gorgeous shot of a joyous John cradling the newborn in the bedroom of the family’s Dakota apartment in New York. The final image is the polar opposite, showing John signing an autograph for his assassin, just hours before he was killed. A historically important photo but, as Mark Lewisohn points out, “no good comes of this picture.”

John snogging May Pang while Harry Nilsson gets blotto, Los Angeles, 1974

And, after a few musings on lost potential and what might have been, that’s it. The problem with the show, as I’ve already alluded to, is that the pictures seem to have been chosen to fit the narrative – and the talking heads – rather than the other way around. I doubt the photos of John with Cynthia and Leon Wildes would make anyone’s shortlist of the most compelling images of Lennon’s life, and even the Quarrymen shot looks like it was chosen as part of a deal to promote Mike McCartney’s book. Where are the photos of John facing hordes of screaming fans at the height of Beatlemania, in India with Maharishi or selling his peace message in bed with Yoko? And what about the indelible images of him celebrating his new life in the States, giving the peace sign in front of the Statue of Liberty or wearing his famous ‘NYC’ T-shirt? Most egregious of all, there is not a single of picture of John at work in the recording studio, making the music that is his greatest legacy. No Sgt Pepper, no Imagine, nothing.

Similarly, the contributors are a mixed bag. Hunter Davies has little of interest to say and, while it’s nice to hear from someone different about John, neither does Helen Anderson. Bob Harris seems to have been chosen purely because he works for the BBC and once interviewed John (thought that isn’t mentioned in the programme), and Leon Wildes is so elderly his answers needed to be continually prompted by his son. But the problem may also have been shoehorning so many people into an hour-long documentary. I would’ve loved to hear much more from Anthony Fawcett and Bob Gruen, for example, who both spent huge amounts of time in the company of John and Yoko and surely have lots of memories to share. Indeed, some of the shots (and their related stories) were probably worthy of separate programmes all their own. The lack of Beatles/Lennon music throughout the show is also strange, though The Byrds’ ‘So You Want To Be A Rock ‘n’ Roll Star?’ forms a nice soundtrack to the section on the Fabs’ final US tour.

Bob Gruen’s marvellous shot of John, Sean and Yoko at home in October 1975

For all that, however, it’s all still very watchable. The story of John’s life, even broken down into these bite-sized chunks, is eternally fascinating, and focusing on frozen moments in time is a novel way to approach it. There is the occasional bit of insight, and – though they never met Lennon – writers Lewisohn and Harris provide a considered, retrospective overview to some of the events described. The generous use of old news footage and interviews with John is also extremely effective. I don’t think I’ve seen so much of the tense Chicago press conference in 1966 when he has to face up to the world’s media about his ‘bigger than Jesus’ comment before, and certainly not the section of it where he is asked about his father. There’s also film from his and Yoko’s Amsterdam bed-in in March 1969 (when asked about the future of The Beatles, he says “we’re closer than we’ve ever been”) and, from 1972, the pair discussing their US immigration struggles. Sadly, there’s very little such footage of John from 1973 onwards.

At the time of writing, the show remains available on BBC iPlayer for another ten months and, if you get the chance to see it there or elsewhere, it’s worth a look. It’s very stylishly done and, if it leaves you wanting more, you can always seek out other sources for more detail. If nothing else, programmes like this keep John’s life in view of new generations and help make that ubiquitous but long-distant face a little more human, a little more real. I suspect the last thing Lennon would ever have wanted to be was a grainy photo in a dry history book, supplemented with a simplistic caption; stuff like this brings his remarkable story to life.

What if…The Beatles had reformed for Bangla Desh?

The Concert for Bangla Desh was, of course, one of the crowning moments of George’s solo career. Held at New York’s Madison Square Garden on 1 August 1971, it was the first major all-star rock fundraiser, laying the foundations for Live Aid 14 years later. Such events seem to happen every other week now, but then it was a novelty for pop musicians to translate worthy words and social consciences into hard action to help people in need – in this case, the millions of refugees displaced by the Bangla Desh Liberation War in Pakistan that year who were facing mass starvation. George, arguably the biggest rock star on the planet at that time, rounded up big-name pals like Ringo, Eric Clapton and Bob Dylan, plus a notable supporting cast including Badfinger and Billy Preston, for two sell-out gigs which also spawned a chart-topping live album and concert film. Notwithstanding the contractual wrangles which later held up the flow of badly-needed humanitarian cash, it was a fantastic achievement which raised millions of dollars and made headlines around the world. But if George’s original plan had worked out, it would’ve been something even bigger – a Beatles reunion show. 

The four Fabs pictured during the early 1970s

It’s fairly well documented that Harrison asked both Lennon and McCartney to take part in the show (a typically selfless move, considering he no longer needed their support to command mass interest and huge ticket sales). John initially accepted the invitation, but the thorny issue of Yoko’s participation seems to have put paid to the prospect of him taking part. George apparently stipulated that he didn’t want her more esoteric approach to music-making as part of the show, something which – as John and Yoko were still very much joined at the hip during this period – became a problem. John fell out either with George or with Yoko as a result, depending on who tells the story, but either way he ended up pulling out of the show. Paul, on the other hand, flatly refused, citing the band’s internecine legal conflicts which were raging during 1971. It’s easy to be critical of such a stance in hindsight, but you have remember that relations between Macca and his former bandmates were at an all-time low at that point. He’d taken them to court at the start of the year in a bid to remove what he saw (correctly, as it turned out) as the malign influence of Allen Klein over their company Apple and all the money flowing into it. The fall-out from that sparked bad feeling on both sides, with John especially wasting few opportunities to trash Paul in public as the year unfolded. Indeed, with help from George, Lennon had recorded the bitter McCartney rebuke ‘How Do You Sleep?’ that very summer, which would emerge on his Imagine album released just a few weeks after the Bangla Desh concert. And Klein was still very much in cahoots with the other three Fabs (he’s actually quoted in the contemporaneous book Apple to the Core gleefully contemplating how Paul’s absence from the show would damage his public image). So it’s hard to, ahem, imagine a worse time for possible Beatles reformation than August 1971. 

That said, it’s tantalising to consider what might have happened if they could have put their differences aside for just one day. If Yoko had seen the bigger picture and opted to step aside, urging John to take to the stage in support of what was effectively an anti-war event – something you would think would be very close to both their hearts. If John and George had called a halt to the public sniping (if not the legal disputes) and promised Paul that Klein would be nowhere near the event. If Paul had then swallowed his pride and accepted the olive branch without giving any ground over his position on the complicated dissolution of Apple. There are an awful lot of ifs and contingencies in there, true, but they might not have been totally insurmountable. In an alternate universe, there could’ve been some kind of fleeting rapprochement, a one-off truce in Beatle hostilities for the greater good. Okay, the whole of the US eastern seaboard might have gone into meltdown in the clamour for tickets once word got out, but what a moment it would have been. Or would it? And what form would the show have taken? 

George performing ‘My Sweet Lord’ at the Bangla Desh show

Even if the Fabs had managed to put aside their differences, I doubt very much the event would ever had turned into a full-blown, full-length Beatles concert. They were all very much hitting their stride as solo performers then, and I don’t think any of them would’ve had the appetite to turn the clock back completely and put on Shea Stadium part two. Two many bridges had been burned; they weren’t a band anymore, and the level of pretence would’ve been too much. In addition, this was a ‘George Harrison and Friends’ show, very much his baby, and I think he would have remained the lead player. To that end, I don’t think the first two-thirds of the gig would have been much different to what actually transpired. Riding high on the success of All Things Must Pass, I reckon George would’ve run through the same tracks from that album, plus a couple of his Beatles biggies (‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ and ‘Here Comes The Sun’), with the same backing band – Clapton and all. I’m guessing there’d still have been the solo spots for Ringo and Billy Preston performing their recent hits, and – possibly – Leon Russell’s sprightly medley of ‘Jumping Jack Flash/Youngblood’. But then, instead of the surprise guess appearance by Bob Dylan (it was touch and go whether he would even show up at all, and I can’t imagine he would’ve wanted his thunder stolen by a Beatles reunion), I think the crowd would have gone even more berserk with the introduction of two of George’s very special friends. 

Paul live onstage in 1972

I think John and Paul would have performed short solo sets first. Interestingly, neither had a backing band at this time – Lennon’s relocation to New York was still more than month away, so he hadn’t yet hooked up with the Elephant’s Memory Band, while the first iteration of Wings hadn’t quite taken shape – so they would most likely have performed with the band George had put together for the event (though I can see Harrison himself taking a breather at this point, thus allowing his former bandmates the full spotlight for a few numbers. Ringo may well have stayed behind the drums, though). But who would’ve taken to the stage first? John being John, my guess is that it would’ve been Paul (though possibly in a trade-off for something later in the show, which I’ll come to in a moment). There wasn’t a lot of McCartney solo material to choose from at that point, just a couple of albums (McCartney and Ram), and one single. A second 45, ‘Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey’, would be released in the States the day after the Bangla Desh show (to huge success) but, even given Paul’s famed eye for promoting his work, this orchestra-laden tune would’ve been nigh-on impossible to reproduce live back then (and it remains a song he’s never attempted in concert to this day). That being the case, I think he would’ve kicked off his mini-set with a rocker from Ram (which was still riding high in the charts). The digs at John in ‘Too Many People’ would probably have made that inappropriate for the conciliatory occasion, while the inane lyrics about smelly feet and bad breath would likely have ruled out ‘Smile Away’ as the first live song performed of his post-Beatle career. So I think he’d have walked onstage with his Rickenbacker bass and ripped into ‘Eat At Home’, a song he did play live with Wings the following year. Linda’s prominent presence on the studio version would have been missed, but I can’t imagine Paul would’ve plunged her into such a big event for her live debut (and that’s before you consider he’d have had to abide by the ‘no spouse’ ruling which applied to John). Then I fancy he would’ve switched to acoustic guitar for ‘Another Day’, his debut single from earlier in the year, a big hit and a track we know from recent years translates well to the concert arena. And I don’t think there’s much doubt he would’ve closed out his section by moving to the piano and singing ‘Maybe I’m Amazed’, a recent FM radio staple and already a stone-cold Macca classic.

John performing at Madison Square Garden a little over 12 months after the Bangla Desh concert

Then, after returning to the stage and exchanging a (perhaps slightly awkward) hug with the retreating Paul, George would’ve stirred up more frenzy by introducing John. Lennon had even fewer released songs than McCartney at this time, comprising just four singles and 1970’s John Lennon/Plastic Ono album. And while that LP had enjoyed huge critical acclaim, it hadn’t sold as well as Paul’s or George’s early efforts, and some of its stark numbers might not have come over well in such a setting. So I reckon he’d he’d have kicked off with ‘Power To The People’, a hit single just a few months’ earlier. True, it’s not a great song (John later professed to be slightly embarrassed by it), but he’d have wanted to play something recent and its vague political notions might have given it some kind of activist relevance for a benefit show. With Clapton and Ringo onstage, as per the record, I think it’s a given he’d have performed ‘Cold Turkey’ (and if it had been anything like the rendition he gave at the same venue a little more than a year later at his One-to-One fundraising show, it would’ve been a treat). I did ponder whether he might have introduced the world to ‘Imagine’ at this show – it would certainly have fitted the bill, lyrically, and the crowd would probably have lapped up anything by this point, even an unheard song. But I suspect he’d have wanted to finish his three-song slot with more of a bang, so would have chosen to hammer out ‘Instant Karma’ on the piano. A big hit, of course, and another number which came off really well when he sang it at Madison Square Garden the following year. Then he’d have stood up, thanked the crowd and strode into the shadows, followed by the rest of the band – leaving the audience baying for an encore…

And what an encore it could have been. Picture the scene: the lights go up, and four familiar figures take to the stage. The Beatles! As per their last live performance together, Billy Preston slots behind the keyboards, but everyone is too busy losing their shit to notice that. The front three briefly tune up their guitars and share a few words with each other, before John announces: “We haven’t done this for a while, so you’ll have to bear with us,” before laughing and counting the band into ‘Come Together’. It was the one Fabs song he chose to do at his solo concert a year later, and it was a favourite of all the band, so it makes sense they would’ve played this one, with Billy replicating Paul’s keyboard part. And you can see them all grinning at each other as they rediscover the joy of playing together, especially when Paul harmonises with John’s lead vocal. Then another tune from Abbey Road, with George – as per the actual event – singing ‘Something’. Finally, it would be Paul’s turn to close things out with ‘Get Back’, surely the perfect track for the occasion, You can imagine the ecstatic response as the audience recognises that galloping intro, Beatlemania reborn. It might seem obvious now that they’ve have put ‘Hey Jude’ in there to wrap things up, but I feel that would’ve given the finale too much of a McCartney flavour for George and John at that time. I also think George would be keen remind everyone what the show was actually about before saying goodnight, and so would’ve summoned the full backing band back onstage for the (very fine) high-speed version of his ‘Bangla Desh’ single which ends the existing live album. The other Beatles would probably join in, but would just be part of the all-star blow-out. I don’t think the four would be able to resist a curtain call bow together, though, before hugging one another as they retreated to the wings and the lights came up.

Always ready to support his mates – Ringo at the Bangla Desh gig

So I think the show setlist (and who knows, maybe a live album) would’ve gone like this:

‘Wah Wah’ (George)

‘My Sweet Lord’ (George)

‘Awaiting On You All’ (George)

‘That’s The Way God Planned It’ (Billy Preston)

‘It Don’t Come Easy’ (Ringo)

‘Beware of Darkness’ (George)

‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ (George)

‘Jumping Jack Flash/Youngblood’ (Leon Russell)

‘Here Comes The Sun’ (George)

‘Eat At Home’ (Paul)

‘Another Day’ (Paul)

‘Maybe I’m Amazed’ (Paul)

‘Power To The People’ (John)

‘Cold Turkey’ (John)

‘Instant Karma’ (John)

‘Come Together’ (The Beatles)

‘Something’ (The Beatles)

‘Get Back’ (The Beatles)

‘Bangla Desh’ (all).

A mouthwatering prospect, indeed, and it’s hard to imagine how this could’ve been anything other than awesome, assuming all four Fabs could have left their disagreements at the door and got into the spirit of the show. But, of course, things were just too fractious at the time, and relations would become even more strained – for a while – when John detonated ‘How Do You Sleep?’ just a few weeks later. But you know what, maybe it’s a good thing they didn’t reunite then. Maybe Paul was right in questioning the wisdom of getting back together so soon after they had split up. In time, it might have been seen as being a bit ‘after the Lord Mayor’s Show’; they had signed of their live career so perfectly with the iconic Apple rooftop gig in 1969, why do it again just a couple of years later? And I always find it fascinating that they avoided any kind of formal reunion – either when John was alive, or at events such as Live Aid and their 1988 Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame induction – until they were ready to do so, with the Anthology project in 1995. It would be on their terms, no-one else’s, and that quarter-century wait certainly gave the reformation all the more impact when it finally happened. Still, in this era of cinematic superhero multiverses, it’s fun to dream of an alternative dimension where, for one night only, The Beatles returned to rock the 1970s and leave another golden moment for us all to savour.

‘The Beatles Album File and Complete Discography’ (1982)

Once I had truly discovered The Beatles, my thirst for information about them was insatiable. And in those misty pre-internet days of the mid-1980s, that largely meant whatever books I could lay my hands on. As I recall, there was one in my school library – effectively a compilation of magazine articles about them from the 1970s (which also covered their early solo careers, had some great photographs and wasn’t actually a bad read). There was a glossy hardback, simply called The Beatles, for sale in my town’s sole bookshop, which was rapidly added to my Christmas gift list in 1985. And then there was The Beatles Album File and Complete Discography, which a friend of mine had a copy of and quoted from ad nauseum. At that point, I hadn’t actually heard most of their back catalogue and this book seemed like a goldmine, with information on every single tune they had committed to tape. The Fab Four had recorded a song called ‘Everybody’s Got Something To Hide Except For Me And My Monkey’?? No way! I wasted little time in borrowing the paperback from my friend and devouring every page, every word. When I flick through its pages now, I still feel the giddy sense of discovery and anticipation it stirred back then. It’s just a pity that one of my first Beatles books was riddled with errors, guesswork, weird assumptions and half-baked theories about their output which now leave me scratching my head in bemusement. 

The revised 1989 edition

The Beatles Album File and Complete Discography was written by Liverpudlian Jeff Russell and first published in 1982, one of the glut of Beatles-related books which appeared in the years following John’s death. It was reprinted in 1989 (the version I now have) and 2005, though the content updates were limited – a bit of an issue, as I shall come onto later. The 310 pages basically offer a chronological guide to the band’s catalogue, mainly concentrating on the original vinyl releases of the 1960s and ‘70s (though later editions do cover CDs, too), including all those weird and wonderful compilations which EMI put together to squeeze as much money out of the Fabs in the absence of any new or unreleased material. Collections like Rock ‘n’ Roll Music and Love Songs may now seem an anachronism to modern-day fans used to Spotify playlists, but they did keep the band in the charts in the late ‘70s and early ’80s (Ballads was the first Beatles album I ever owned) before the public began to tire of increasingly contrived efforts like Reel Music. There is also a section devoted to the US album configurations which, of course, differed significantly to their UK counterparts up to 1967 (and occasionally afterwards), plus appendices covering odds and ends like the Christmas flexi-discs for fan club members, alternative mono/stereo versions and a largely spurious list of unreleased tracks. 

There’s usually a page or two precis detailing the release history of each album, including the pre-fame, non-EMI recordings like the Tony Sheridan releases on Polydor, the Decca audition album and the Live at the Star Club 1962 set. In fact, Russell puts those right at the start of the book, reviewing the music in the order it was recorded – an approach I haven’t seen anywhere else, and which I think works really well. The only downside to this is that, as the book’s title indicates, it’s all about the albums – meaning singles and b-sides don’t get discussed until their first appearance on an LP, often long after some of them were recorded and released. So you won’t find information about, say, ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’ until the UK compilation A Collection of Beatles Oldies in December 1966, which follows the chapter on Revolver. It’s a bit disjointed, but I can live with it. The real problems emerge when Russell embarks on his track-by-track analysis. 

The first UK Beatles compilation, released in 1966. Extremely odd cover

For each song, he sets out who plays what and who wrote it, followed by some background information and his view of the number (except for the Live at the Star Club album, which for some reason has nothing beyond the instrumental line-up and composing credits). Some of his deductions, assumptions and omissions are downright peculiar. On Please Please Me, for example, there is no mention of the (very prominent) piano played by George Martin on ‘Misery’, while ‘P.S. I Love You’ is described as a re-write of John’s ‘Ask Me Why’ (eh?). It gets stranger. He says George’s speeded-up solo in ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ sounds like a harpsichord (it really doesn’t), that ‘I’ve Just Seen A Face’ is a faster version of ‘Rocky Raccoon’ (!) and that ‘Eight Days A Week’ was John’s failed attempt to write a theme song for The Beatles’ second film, provisionally titled Eight Arms To Hold You (a particularly huge leap of erroneous logic there). George is credited with the guitar solo on ‘Taxman’, not Paul, while there is apparently no bass guitar on ‘You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away’, no electric guitar on ‘With A Little Help From My Friends’ and no drums on ‘Being For The Benefit of Mr Kite’. And so on. This from a book which purports to give “complete musician credits”.

Russell really comes unstuck on the White Album. Ringo is credited as playing drums on ‘Back in the USSR’ and ‘Dear Prudence’ (it was, of course, Paul) and George as playing violin on ‘Don’t Pass Me By’, while there is no mention of John’s key piano intro contribution to ‘Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da’. John is listed as playing on ‘Savoy Truffle’ and ‘Long, Long, Long’, yet actually performs on neither. The author goes on to state that the version of ‘All You Need Is Love’ on Yellow Submarine is “completely different” to the earlier single version whereas, apart from being a slightly shorter stereo mix, it is exactly the same. On Abbey Road, his ordering of the alternating guitar solos played by John, Paul and George on ‘The End’ is completely wrong, and he mistakes the version of ‘Get Back’ on Let It Be for a live take. Elsewhere, he writes that John, George and Ringo considered forming a new group called The Ladders after Paul quit, with Klaus Vormann on bass – a hoary old myth which surely had no credibility by 1982.

Almost 20 years before the ‘1’ album, we had ’20 Greatest Hits’

Even though a lot of factual detail about Fab Four recordings wouldn’t yet have been freely available by the early 1980s, I’m not sure guesswork and hearsay was the best way of bridging the gap. Either way, it’s unforgivable that the revised version of the book issued in 1989 – in the wake of Mark Lewisohn’s landmark, authorised and meticulously-researched The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions – did not correct many of the original errors. In a book like this, if some of the basic facts are clearly wrong, it’s difficult to give the rest of it much credence. I’ve read reviews of the 2005 edition which report that the same mistakes remain in that, which is even more baffling.

It’s not just the factual stuff that’s problematic. While his enthusiasm for some tracks is evident, many songs – including ‘In My Life’ – receive no more than two or three lines of text. And though I have no problem with authors voicing their personal opinions, there are some curious ones here. ‘I Want To Tell You’ is described as being “off-key, with a rather erratic backing beat”, and the gentleness of ‘Long, Long, Long’ is compared to a “funeral dirge”. Each to their own, I guess. Russell also incorporates a few tiresome stereotypes; for example, he writes about the widening gap between John’s and Paul’s songs on the White Album, portraying Lennon’s songs as “hard hitting and caustic” (er, ‘Julia’ and ‘Good Night’, anyone?) and McCartney’s as “pleasant inoffensive ballads and love songs” (he must’ve skipped ‘Helter Skelter’ and ‘Why Don’t We Do It In The Road?’). This kind of thing was a common narrative at the time, true, but really doesn’t bear close scrutiny. He also has nothing but scorn for Phil Spector’s involvement in Let It Be.

A curious eight-disc greatest hits package from 1980, available only by mail order

Perhaps The Beatles Album File and Complete Discography works best as a kind of time capsule, a relic from the days when we didn’t know a lot about the minutiae of the band’s recording career. When, prior to the vaults being opened up via projects like Live at the BBC and the Anthology CDs, books like this would fill half their pages documenting the ways in which EMI and other record companies sought to repackage the group’s existing material in as many different ways as they could get away with. And when accepted tropes and narratives about their career were rarely challenged or analysed too deeply. Certainly, as my gateway into The Beatles’ back catalogue as it stood in the mid-1980s, this book retains a warm nostalgic glow for me. But if you’re after reliable information and rigorous assessments of their output, I recommend you look elsewhere. Taking off my rose-tinted specs, I have to give this one a 5.

‘McCartney 3,2,1’

With all the fuss about the release of The Beatles: Get Back series last year, the premiere of another major Fabs documentary a few months earlier tended to get a little lost in the mix. McCartney 3,2,1 was clearly meant to be something of an event in itself, showing a modern-day Macca revisiting his Beatles past as acclaimed producer Rick Rubin guides him through the original EMI mastertapes in a bid to shake free any fresh reminiscences from the now (mercifully) grey shaggy moptop. As it turned out, the six-part, three-hour series ended up acting as little more than an entrée to the main televisual course of 2021, wolfed down and rapidly digested by fans and critics ahead of the rich, full-fat feast provided by Get Back. Did it deserve more attention in its own right? Well, it is definitely worth seeing, but if you’re looking for any new revelations about The Beatles – or indeed, any new stories at all – it doesn’t dish up much more than a few scraps from the master’s table.

A promo image for the show

The format of the show (available on Hulu in the US and Disney+ in the UK) is very simple, albeit leavened with a few artistic pretensions. Shot in moody black-and-white (though curiously intercut with gaudily colourised photos from the 1950s and ‘60s), it’s basically a free-form conversation between Rubin and Macca in what appears to be an old warehouse (with shadowy figures moving about in the background from time to time). Paul occasionally turns to a stand-up piano or acoustic guitar to make his point, but most of their chat is prompted by tapes Rubin has ready on an old-school mixing desk (the kind used at Abbey Road in the 1960s), allowing him to dissect the original records and offer up different aspects of them – from bass and guitar parts to vocals and drums – for comment by one of their original creators. While the promotional flim-flam for the series trumpeted that it would cover McCartney’s 50-year career as a solo artist, the finished product predictably spends no more than 15-20% of its time on that, devoting the rest to Beatles tunes and stories. Even so, it’s still a novel idea to get Paul to look under the bonnet of some of his most famous works – so why does it end up being something of a missed opportunity?

For a start, in the way it’s edited at least, the songs are presented and discussed completely at random. You jump around from 1967 to 1963 to 1969, and occasionally into the solo years, with no real structure or overview. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; I wouldn’t have expected a chronological, album-by-album approach, but reviewing the material this way gives no sense of progression or context. And in doing this, while the show is generally aimed at a more general, casual audience (rather than hardcore music fans), it assumes a lot of prior knowledge of Paul’s career on the part of the viewer. Yes, it gives the episodes a loose, unpredictable feel, but I would have thought it might have made more sense – for example – to feature Macca talking about his earliest inspirations early on the in the series rather than almost at the very end. It could all have been pieced together to give you a sense of his musical journey and development; instead, it’s a bit of pick-and-mix mess.

Macca makes a point to Rubin

Rubin as interviewer is also slightly problematic. While affable, musically knowledgeable and undeniably thrilled to be given this opportunity, he doesn’t really do a lot with it. He makes it clear The Beatles have had a massive influence on his life and career choices, and that he is a real student of their work. Which makes it inconceivable that he wouldn’t have known Paul was writing songs long before the Hamburg days, or that Paul played drums on ‘Back in the USSR’ and lead guitar on ‘Another Girl’. It’s basic stuff, and it’s not only disingenuous of him to feign ignorance about it but also limits the range of his questions. Okay, Macca may not have wanted to talk about the friction which led to Ringo briefly quitting the band during the White Album sessions, but couldn’t Rubin have asked what impact it had on the remaining Fabs? Did it draw them closer together and give them a renewed sense of purpose when they came to cut ‘USSR’ and ‘Dear Prudence’ as a trio? It would also have been fascinating to play some early versions of tunes, like ‘And Your Bird Can Sing’ or ‘Helter Skelter’, which sounded quite different to the recordings eventually released, and ask Paul why they changed course so drastically. I found myself wishing several times that Rubin would probe more on stuff like that rather than just letting Paul trot out tales about dreaming ‘Yesterday’, or how a young Julian Lennon came up with the painting which inspired ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’, for the 4,000th time.

Fresh insights were few and far between. For all the isolation of songs’ individual backing tracks, I didn’t really hear anything new until the final episode, when they uncovered a guitar part in ‘Maybe I’m Amazed’ that Paul had either removed or buried in the mix back in 1970. Most of the time, Rubin just lifts up the bass or some other instrument and says  “wow, that sounds great, man!”, or the pair simply grin at each other, rock their heads and sing along. Likewise, when we do get a cursory dip into the McCartney solo catalogue, it’s so brief as to be virtually pointless. For instance, Rubin plays a burst of the gorgeous ‘Waterfalls’ from McCartney II, and Paul indicates that he wished he had recorded it differently. Rubin should be asking: “why, what’s wrong with it? How would you have arranged it now?” But he just mentions glibly that it has a sound many modern artists are using (without giving any examples), and moves swiftly on. And of all the wonderful solo tunes he could have spotlighted, why Rubin chose to feature one of the absolute worst – ‘Check My Machine’, a dreary, throwaway b-side from the McCartney II sessions Paul made up to test out some equipment – is anyone’s guess. It’s just a waste of precious time. Even when discussing Macca’s first solo album, it’s through the lens of The Beatles’ break-up, and Rubin is more interested to know how long it was before he started including Fab Four songs in his live sets.

Revisiting his early days on acoustic guitar

It’s not all Rubin’s fault, though. It’s inevitable Paul can’t always remember the detail of events which took place more than 50 years earlier (and it’s fascinating that he’s still sticking to the story of John praising ‘Here, There and Everywhere’ during the filming of Help! in 1965, when the song wasn’t written and recorded until the following year). And even when the producer does push him for more information on some of his most impressive instrumental contributions to Beatles songs – such as his intricate bassline on ‘Something’ or his dazzling guitar solo in ‘Taxman’ – Macca genuinely hasn’t got any great stories to tell. He didn’t prepare the parts in advance or spend weeks rehearsing them, he just instinctively produced them on the spot while they worked out the arrangement of the songs in the studio, his genius taking over. It must be difficult to explain or articulate moments of inspiration like that, even if you were the one responsible for them.

Of course, there is still plenty to enjoy across the six episodes. For a start, Paul looks great, and is as charming as ever. While his years are more apparent now, he still retains his zest and enthusiasm, and so emanates a beguiling mix of innocence, animation and wisdom – remarkable for someone nearing their 80th birthday. And his unbridled pleasure and pride in listening back to his old band is something to behold. As he says at one point, enough time has passed for him to listen to the music objectively (“I’m now a Beatles fan”). To the show’s credit, it spends as much time on Lennon and Harrison compositions as it does on McCartney ones, so we get to focus on Paul’s instrumental and arranging input as well as his songwriting. And you get a warm glow when he discusses memories of his dead bandmates, especially George. The McCartney-Harrison relationship is often pushed to the margins in such retrospectives, in favour of Lennon-related interactions, but not so here. There are lots of charming reminiscences, stretching back to their teenage years, and Paul is fulsome in his praise for George’s personality and creativity. It’s also telling of the band’s closeness that they accepted a rare contribution from an outsider – Eric Clapton’s lead guitar solo on ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ – not because he was a feted, superstar player, but because he was “George’s friend”.

Paul clearly had a blast making the show

And there are a few snippets I don’t recall hearing before. As well as the well-worn tale of writing something French-sounding in an attempt to woo girls at Liverpool parties, Paul revealed that ‘Michelle’ was also partly inspired by an Edith Piaf hit from 1960, called ‘Milord’. Likewise, alongside the ever-expanding story of being mugged during the Nigerian recording sessions for Band on the Run, he also talks in detail about the impact of seeing local musician Fela Kuti perform live and how the music brought him to tears. He recounts how Ringo made a big impression on the fledgling Fabs because he was one of the few drummers in Liverpool who could play Ray Charles’ ‘What’d I Say’. We get to hear him play ‘Come Together’ on acoustic guitar in the heavily Chuck Berry-influenced form which John originally brought into the studio for Abbey Road. And the isolation of the bassline in ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ highlights how different it was to the rest of the arrangement, allowing modern-day Paul to improvise an entirely different sounding song over the top of it. The spark is clearly still there and, as if to emphasise this, we’re also treated to an excerpt of a brand new tune at the piano (perhaps one of the numbers he’s been drafting for the planned It’s a Wonderful Life stage musical).

Macca and Rubin at the mixing desk

Maybe I’m being a bit harsh on McCartney 3,2,1. I have to remind myself that I’ve been a fan of Paul and the band for my entire adult life, and soaked up so much information through interviews, books and documentaries that very little now tells me anything new. Many people won’t have that store of knowledge, of course, especially younger fans, and so programmes like this are probably hugely informative – not least because it comes first-hand from one of the two surviving people who created it all. I guess a lot of these stories will be new. I just wish the show had taken Paul out of his comfort zone a little bit, maybe going through every Beatles album (and a few key solo ones) track by track and seeing if the experience could unlock a few things which had lain dormant in his memory bank, quizzing him on some of his artistic choices and exploring more deeply the dynamic between him and his bandmates. I’m probably expecting too much at this stage of the game though, and should simply cherish the opportunity to spend a few hours with Paul on a stroll down memory lane. Even if you’ve seen most of the scenery before,  he’s still fabulous company.

A trailer for the series

You can’t do that – viewing Beatles songs through a 2020s lens

Over the last few months, I’ve enjoyed watching videos recorded by an Australian singer-songwriter ‘Call Me Caroline’ on YouTube, who has made a series of those ‘reaction’ clips as she has listened to The Beatles’ entire catalogue – album by album – for the first time. It’s always fun to see young people discover and appreciate their work, and she’s brought some interesting, articulate perspectives to music I’ve been listening to for longer than she’s been alive (gulp). I’d definitely recommend giving her channel a look. But one thing I found arresting was her horrified take on a few of the lyrics she encountered, notably on ‘You Can’t Do That’, ‘Getting Better’ and – in particular – ‘Run for Your Life’. And she’s not alone. The latter track appalled another female musician I saw performing Rubber Soul in its entirety online, and it seems to be deeply problematic for some people on internet forums, podcasts and Facebook groups. Others are also discussing whether Paul should drop ‘Back in the USSR’ from his concert setlists because of events in Ukraine. While I’ve not yet come across anyone screaming for The Beatles to be cancelled for such brutish aberrations, it has made me ponder whether any songs which fail to meet some kind of arbitrary modern moral standards might ultimately come with trigger warnings or be erased from certain platforms altogether, in the same way cigarettes are now routinely airbrushed from some of their photographs.

The Fag Four – the boys brazenly flout 2020 indoor smoking rules

Let’s start by examining those particular lyrics a little more closely. ‘You Can’t Do That’ has been perceived as a man exerting a controlling influence over his girlfriend, telling her what she can and can’t do within the parameters of their relationship. Yet the lyric actually reads: “If I catch you talking to that boy again/I’m gonna let you down and leave you flat….You can’t do that”. Which to me sounds like someone who is overly jealous (not a good trait, admittedly) saying he will finish with his partner if she continues flirting with other men. Which I guess is a little controlling, but to me speaks more about his insecurities than of a platform for an abusive relationship. The only threat here is that he’ll walk out if she carries on doing it, and in that case she may well be better off without him (though we don’t know the extent of her flirtatiousness), or maybe he’ll discuss it with her, grow up a bit and deal with it. I’m sure romances have foundered on such things since dawn of time, and will continue to do so for many moons yet. ‘Getting Better’ is, of course, a more stark admission of really bad behaviour: “I used to be mean to my woman/I beat her and kept her apart from the things that she loved”. There’s no defending that, but the point of the song is that the singer has learned from his mistakes and is trying to be a better person (John himself once hit Cynthia during the early days of their relationship but bitterly regretted the incident and never repeated it). To be fair, ‘Call Me Caroline’ did acknowledge this during her review of Sgt Pepper, but I am surprised this song hasn’t attracted more misinterpretation and approbation. There’s still time, I suppose.

But the really contentious track is ‘Run for Your Life’, with it’s opening line of “I’d rather see you dead little girl/Than to see you with another man”, followed later by “Baby I’m determined/And I’d rather see you dead”. Another manifestation of John’s green-eyed monster, to be sure, but did he really have murderous intent? First, he had effectively lifted the opening couplet from Elvis Presley’s ‘Baby Let’s Play House’, so probably hadn’t put a great deal of thought into it in the first place. More importantly, it’s surely just a turn of phrase rather than a direct threat to his lover, an expression of exasperation and anger rather than a homicidal warning. Maybe it’s a north of England thing, but when I was growing up I was always hearing people annoyed with loved ones say things like “I’ll kill him when I get my hands on him” or “I’ll kill you if you carry on like that.” As far as I know, none of these disputes led to an actual murder, nor were such statements taken seriously. And last, perhaps most important of all, it’s just a song. Not every line an artist writes is meant to be a literal statement or treated as their personal life manifesto. Or are we to believe John actually thought he was a walrus? As it happens, I’ve long thought ‘Run for Your Life’ is a bit of a Rolling Stones pastiche, so maybe the lyric is indicative of that; after all, there is a band known for penning the occasional misogynistic lyric (check out ‘Under My Thumb’, for example). But even then, they’re still just songs. Have you listened to the words of Tom Jones’ singalong favourite ‘Delilah’ lately?

Trigger warning – John isn’t giving a peace sign

I think there are a couple of other points to generally bear in mind here. First, The Beatles’ catalogue was created nigh on 60 years ago, so you might have to put the occasional song in that context. As someone once said, the past is another country – they do things differently there. Not many pop singers of today would release a racy song called ‘Little Child’, for example, but the meaning of the phrase – or at least, its interpretation in song – was entirely different then. All of the Fabs were the product of a northern, working class, post-war upbringing and, while strong women abounded in their families, they undoubtedly inherited certain attitudes that today would be considered sexist. But the fact that they all learned, evolved and transcended those beliefs – through their relations with independent, free-thinking women like Astrid Kirchherr, Jane Asher, journalist Maureen Cleeve, Yoko Ono and Linda Eastman – is one of their many achievements in terms of both personal and artistic growth. Which brings me to my second point – if their songs are (often, though not always) a reflection of their inner thinking, is it really fair to expect them to have been fully formed, uber-wise beings in their 20s, or even later? Aren’t people allowed to develop, see the world around them in new ways, and change their minds? Think about how John acknowledged and confronted his issues with jealousy just a few years later, in ‘Jealous Guy’.

Second, some songs may find their author playing a role, or even creating third person characters (I doubt anyone would think Paul’s 1975 Wings song ‘Magneto and Titanium Man’ was about real people, for example), and exploring emotions or behaviours they may not subscribe to – or endorse – but which are nonetheless all around us. In the same way books and films often depict villains or deeply-flawed characters, songs aren’t always going to be about hearts and flowers, or idealistic platitudes, but may sometimes reflect aspects of the human condition we’re not very comfortable with. I’m not saying for one moment ‘Run For Your Life’ was ever intended to have any great meaning (John himself never rated it, though I think it was more to do with him viewing it as a musical ‘throwaway’ than any contrition over the lyric), but it nonetheless deals with feelings – anger and unreasonable jealousy – which lurk within most of us, and so is just as valid a subject matter as, say, the wistful nostalgia of ‘In My Life’. Unless we’re saying that artforms should now be edited or censored lest they contain anything which might offend anyone. Oh, wait…..

Another problem with this kind of thing is, where does it all end? We’re continually redrawing the lines of what people may find offensive or distasteful, and reinterpreting things according to our ever-changing mores (at least in the eyes of the righteous intelligentsia who seem to have unquestionable authority in such matters). So will George’s championing of Indian music on The Beatles’ mid-1960s albums (and thus introducing it to millions of people across the West) come to be seen as some kind of imperialist cultural appropriation? On a more prosaic note, I’m surprised that Paul and Ringo haven’t been hauled before the court of Twitter opinion for their 1981 collaboration ‘Private Property’, with its line “She’s mine/she belongs to me….she’s my private property” (I think the fact that most people have never heard of it has probably allowed them to escape censure thus far). The fact that it’s just a tongue-in-cheek expression of monogamist feeling, designed to warn off potential suitors, would probably cut no ice with a woke jury of today. Everything has to be viewed in the worst possible light.

John and Yoko in full ‘power to the people’ mode, 1972

I’m not saying I agree with every word the Fabs have ever written. Take John’s controversial foray into hardcore agitpop, 1972’s radical politics pamphlet set to music Some Time in New York City. While opening track and lead single ‘Woman is the Nigger of the World’ found him at his most provocative, I have no problem with that – the whole purpose of the song was to shock people into thinking about both racial oppression and the patriarchal dominance of society, and it’s brilliantly done. But when he and Yoko call for the release of all prison inmates on a number like ‘Attica State’ I can only roll my eyes, and when they trot out banal Irish stereotypes on the well-meaning but dim-witted ‘Luck of the Irish’, it’s a choice between cringing or laughing out loud. Taking complex situations and issues and turning them into empty slogans or ill-advised soundbites is just puerile and….well, when you think about it, very 2022. Perhaps this is an album which will get a get a positive reappraisal. But my point is, as crass as I find a few of John’s lyrics on that album, I don’t deny their right to exist, nor anyone else’s right to listen to them. Indeed, they’re fascinating as a snapshot of Lennon as an artist at that point; they may represent a misstep, but that in itself is interesting in a wider context. We may carp at a song we find offensive or dumb, but the whole point of art is surely that it expresses the whole gamut of emotions or beliefs, and may be considered good or bad according to individual taste. And if we don’t like it, we don’t have to engage with it – though that should be our choice, and nobody else’s.

Being mildly subversive, 1968

The irony of all this, of course, is that The Beatles were at the forefront of liberal thinking and social changes in the 1960s, which we are all reaping the benefits of today. Intentionally or not, their songs (and their whole attitude to life) often encouraged people to look at life in a different way, challenging conformity and rigid rules, promoting things like peace, freedom of expression, individuality, understanding, equality and empathy with others. And, of course, love. The fact that one or two of their lyrics may now jar with over-sensitive modern audiences perhaps shows how far we’ve come. But all the emotions they wrote about haven’t gone away, and whitewashing tunes which deal with issues we’d rather not think about would be utterly futile and, indeed, counter-productive. Let’s acknowledge the whole human experience, good and bad. That said, it’s amazing how timeless the vast majority of The Beatles’ catalogue remains, and how it still speaks to us about life in 2022. The geopolitics of something like ‘Back in the USSR’ may be somewhat dated (and I can understand that Paul might not want to perform it at the current time), but it’s still a track which lifts the spirits and makes you want to move. Music and words are not harmful – just the opposite, in fact. When it comes to The Beatles, I think we should just enjoy the joy.

My Top Ten solo Beatles duets

I have to be honest, I tend to be a bit wary of duets. There’s something overtly ‘showbiz’ about them, and they tend to come over as a mutual backslapping exercise between stars who want to join forces and double their sales. Sure, John, Paul and George regularly sang together in The Beatles, but they were harmonising rather than trading lines or verses while gazing lovingly into each other’s eyes (à la Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers on ‘Islands in the Stream’, for example). Duets so often have the timbre of an in-joke (Elvis and Frank Sinatra), a jovial competition (Bowie and Jagger), a desperate attempt at hipness (Elton John and Eminem) or a contrived tribute (Elton John and George Michael), or are smothered in schmaltz (Lionel Ritchie and Diana Ross, among countless others). There are exceptions to the rule – David Bowie and Freddie Mercury worked well together on Queen’s ‘Under Pressure’, for example, and Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush joined forces very effectively on ‘Don’t Give Up’, while Phil Collins enjoyed a couple of monster collaborations in the ‘80s with Philip Bailey and Marilyn Martin (the latter, ‘Separate Lives’, may have been a tad schmaltzy but it was superior schmaltz). But too often the end results make me shudder.

Thankfully, the solo Fabs haven’t indulged in many such shenanigans since splitting in 1970, even though the lustre of sharing a mike with a Beatle must’ve prompted many requests. Apart from singing with Yoko, John recorded barely any duets in his lifetime; George likewise. I suspect both would’ve shared my misgivings about such affairs. Ringo – naturally enough, considering how often he has been supported by superstar pals on his records – has turned out a few, and generally acquitted himself well (with the exception of the awful syrupy slop of ‘I Wouldn’t Have You Any Other Way’ with Jeannie Kendall on Beaucoups of Blues and the downright bizarre link-up with Joss Stone, ‘Who’s Your Daddy?’, on Y Not). Inevitably Macca – the most prolific Beatle, the most keen to work with new faces and the one whose eye was most firmly fixed on the commercial prize – has partnered-up the most, and has had the most success in doing so. Indeed, in the early 1980s he became known for it, scoring three mega-hits which still rank in Billboard magazine’s top 40 most successful duets of all time in the US – with two of them, remarkably, in the top five.

Mugging for the camera while working on their outrageously successful collaborations of the early 1980s

Whether he’d just had enough of such pairings or maybe realised his credibility had been damaged in some circles by these singles, Paul moved on and has taken part in only a handful of vocal couplings in the past 30 years or so (thankfully his collaboration with Kanye West didn’t involve any ill-advised McCartney rapping). So there really aren’t that many Beatle duets to choose from, though there are enough which avoid the usual pitfalls of the genre and range from good to excellent. I’ve ranked the following efforts based on the quality of the song, and the effectiveness of putting the two voices together. For the purposes of this list, I’m not including John-and-Yoko or Paul-and-Linda showcases, Paul’s acoustic guitar demos with Elvis Costello, nor George’s shared lead vocals with the Traveling Wilburys. General harmony or backing vocals are excluded too – it has to be a record where a Fab has shared equal billing with another. I reckon the following are undoubtedly the best duets of their solo careers, though I would also give an honourable mention to ‘Write One For Me’, the nice country-pop tune Ringo recorded with Willie Nelson for 2003’s Ringo Rama.

10. ‘What’s That You’re Doing?’ – Paul with Stevie Wonder, 1982.

Inevitably overshadowed by that other McCartney/Wonder tune on Tug of War, this is a completely different kettle of fish. Written by the pair on the fly in the studio, it finds Macca diving headfirst into Stevie’s funk territory and having an absolute blast. It’s fairly simple fare but has an irresistible groove and, while I used to think it jarred a little with the lush arrangements elsewhere on the album, there are actually lots of clever production touches which keep it interesting. Most of all, I adore Paul’s singing on this – responding to Stevie’s soulful growl, he really ups his game and delves deeply into his bag of vocal tricks to squeeze every bit of lustful longing out of the lyrics. The whole thing is a sassy, pulsating potboiler I’ve grown to like more and more over the years and, while it is a shade too long, I sometimes wonder how their collaboration would be viewed today if an edited version of this had been the album’s first single instead of you-know-what.

9. ‘Drift Away’ – Ringo with Tom Petty and Alanis Morrisette, 1998.

This cover of the Dobie Gray classic from Vertical Man is a bit of a cheat, as Ringo shares out the verses with not one but two guest vocalists. I’ve never been a fan of Petty’s voice, but his trademark drawl works well enough here; however, Morrisette’s entrance after the middle section really helps lift the track. Hearing her youthful, feminine tones come in after the guys have sung their bits is akin to a glass of refreshing mineral water after sinking a couple of bourbon shots. It also helps that it’s one of Ringo’s more adventurous vocal performances, and the three combine really well (along with a bunch of other singers) on that sledgehammer chorus. The drumming, as always, is really on the money, anchoring the tune, and the whole thing builds to a fell-good crescendo. Great stuff.

8. ‘Whatever Gets You Through The Night’ – John with Elton John, 1974

Considering Elton John has put his name to a host of dubious duets over the years, I find it strange that this song from John’s Walls and Bridges album wasn’t credited as one, when it so clearly is. Elton’s voice is as prominent as Lennon’s, from start to finish, and helps give the song a fun, almost frivolous tone which John probably needed after a series of rather earnest, worthy single releases. It probably didn’t hurt that Elton was at his critical and commercial peak when it came out, and it’s subsequent run to #1 in the US eventually prompted the pair to perform it live together (see, I told you it was a duet) at New York’s Madison Square Garden, in what would prove to be John’s last concert showing. Ironically it’s not one of the stand-out numbers on its parent album, and its somewhat muddy production hasn’t aged well, but it still retains a galloping, zesty charm. And it’s nice to hear John feeling relaxed instead of tortured.

7. ‘Shanghai Surprise’ – George with Vicki Brown, 1986

George sounds so comfortable on this it’s surprising he never went in for more duets. Written and recorded as the title song for the ill-fated Madonna/Sean Penn movie released by George’s HandMade Films company, he teamed up with Vicki Brown, wife of his long-time pal Joe Brown and mother of soul singer Sam (who memorably performed at the Concert for George tribute in 2002). The pair trade off some witty lyrics referencing rickshaws, chopsticks, coolies and opium, all carried along by a memorable tune, some Eastern-sounded motifs and a thumping ‘80s production sheen. It showed that, after a few years’ mini-retirement break, George was back in the game and primed for his glorious comeback with Cloud Nine the following year. Alas, the toxic reputation of the film meant this track didn’t get an official release until the augmented reissue of Cloud Nine in 2004. I don’t know whether George ever considered pairing with Madonna for the song (unlikely), but if he had it’s hard to imagine this wouldn’t have been monster hit in 1986, stinker film or no. Vicki does a great job, though.

6. ‘Heal The Pain’ – Paul with George Michael, 2006

Written as a kind of tribute to Paul, many critics noted this latin-flavoured acoustic ballad’s resemblance to McCartney songs like ‘I Will’ when it came out in 1990 as part of Michael’s acclaimed Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1 album. Some 15 years later, the pair got together to record a new version – albeit with an almost identical backing track – which emerged in 2006 on Michael’s Twenty Five hits collection. I used to think the original was rather slight, but over the years have come to appreciate it as a really lovely, articulate composition (though if he had co-written it, I think Macca would’ve tightened up one or two passages). It is a shame they didn’t work together on the original, partly because Paul’s voice was nearer to its prime, and partly as it represents another near-certain smash hit which got away. The two vocal lines are a bit random and muddled, and there’s some showboating in their singing I could’ve done without, but their voices do blend nicely. It’s a number I’m sure Paul would’ve been proud to have written, and I’m glad we’ve gotten to hear him sing it.

5. ‘Don’t Hang Up’ – Ringo with Chrissie Hynde, 2005

Matching Ringo up with the voice of The Pretenders might seem like a strange idea, but it works incredibly well on this track from Choose Love. As with much of Ringo’s work during this period, it has a strong 1960s/70s feel, and it’s just a lot of fun. He and Chrissie share rapid-fire verses, pitching his ’n’ her perspectives in a tale about an up-and-down musician and his long-suffering partner. Propelled by pounding drums and muscular guitars, augmented here and there by organ and horns, the pair bounce off one another brilliantly and also combine on some terrific harmonies – particularly in the killer middle section. The whole thing whistles past in under three-and-a-half minutes, before an obligatory telephone effect brings it to a perfect conclusion.

4. ‘Ebony and Ivory’ – Paul with Stevie Wonder, 1982

Yes, I’m going there. This song has become not so much a stick to beat Paul’s solo career with as an electrified baseball bat tipped with iron spikes, and I really don’t see why. Maybe I’ve got cloth ears, but that unforgettable, stately McCartney melody, tasty bassline, infectious middle section and smooth backing harmonies really work for me. The pairing of the two contrasting vocals helps sell it, too; Paul’s solo version, originally released as a B-side, just isn’t as compelling. I can kind of see why some find the sentiment and the song a bit cloying, but for me the lyric is simple rather than simplistic. And is a simple plea for racial harmony any more naive than imagining a world with no possessions or trying to persuade us that all we need is love? It’s not the greatest track Paul has ever written, but there’s a reason it’s one of the most popular duets of our time – even if it’s deeply uncool to admit it.

3. ‘You Want Her Too’ – Paul with Elvis Costello, 1989

Paul hooked up with Costello to write a batch of great songs in the late 1980s, but this was the only one they ended up duetting on (at least on the finished record). Many saw the collaboration as Macca consciously reconnecting with Lennon-like sparring partner, someone who would bring a little bite, grit and cynicism to the traditionally sweet McCartney palete (or so received wisdom would have it). The songs which resulted from their partnership were generally much more nuanced than that, their interactions and individual contributions more subtle and wide-ranging. But on this number, included on Flowers in the Dirt, it seems like they decided to take the sweet/sour cliche and really run with it, framing Paul as the doe-eyed “hopeless romantic” and Elvis as his sniping rival for the same girl (or maybe he’s the taunting devil on his shoulder, forcing him to face up to his less-than noble desires). The two strike sparks off each other lyrically (it’s filled with great lines) and vocally, with Costello’s rasping voice the perfect foil for a tremendous McCartney performance. The musical backing is also fabulous, from a quirky guitar/keyboard intro to a dreamy, expertly produced middle-eight to a teasing big band-style fade-out. It’s the kind of song which gives duets a good name.

2. ‘Say Say Say’ – Paul with Michael Jackson, 1983

The first of Paul’s much heralded team-ups with Jacko, ‘The Girl is Mine’, was actually the last to be recorded, penned by Jackson for his Thriller album and released in late 1982. While tuneful enough and a big hit, it’s way too cheesy for my tastes, which is why it’s not featured on this list. And I’ve been surprised to hear some fans feel the same about ‘Say Say Say’, a co-write included on Paul’s Pipes of Peace the following year, because – in my book – it’s a pop song of the highest order. It plays to the strengths of both men, melding Jackson’s rhythmic prowess with Macca’s peerless melodic sensibilities, and George Martin’s scorching brass arrangement kicks it up another level. Jacko’s poor enunciation on a couple of lines is annoying (thank heavens for lyric sheets), but it doesn’t really matter. The end result is so slick and so catchy, with that chorus hitting you in waves during the extended fade-out, it’s easy to see why this lodged at the top of the US charts for five straight weeks (even outselling many Beatles singles).

1. ‘The Man’ – Paul with Michael Jackson, 1983

The last of the McCartney/Jackson collaborations to be released (also on Pipes of Peace), and the best. This is firmly a Paul-led number – a song (I think) about small dreams coming true and living life to its full potential, it finds his sunny optimism at its zenith. There’s a sumptuous, uplifting melody; a gorgeous arrangement, laced with elegant strings from George Martin, and a deliriously joyful guitar solo (played by Macca, one of his very best). But another key factor is how well the voices blend together. Shorn of his usual grunts, shrieks and other vocal tics, the natural sweetness of Jackson’s singing is allowed to come through and enhance the recording. The whole concoction works like a ray of sunshine bursting through the clouds. Originally earmarked as a single but never issued as one (perhaps Paul was indeed wary of going to the well once too often), it’s nonetheless a brilliant track and, for me, the most satisfying duet any of the solo Fabs ever pulled off.

Strange days indeed – John’s ‘Nobody Told Me’ video

With the wonders of YouTube, Vimeo and other video internet platforms now at our fingertips, it’s hard to recall (or for younger people, imagine) a time when footage of John Lennon after The Beatles was harder to find than hen’s teeth. John never really engaged with promo films during his solo career in the way that his fellow Fabs did, and of course he missed out on the MTV age. The plethora of films he made with Yoko during and immediately after The Beatles’ split were long out of circulation by the 1980s, and likewise his many TV chat show appearances were consigned to dusty archive rooms. And concerts and candid home movie footage? Forget it. This began to change in the decade following his death, as Yoko began (in a very measured fashion, I think) to release such material onto the market, notably the 1971 Imagine film made to promote the album of the same name and the 1972 ‘One to One’ charity gig in New York, plus a motherlode of footage in the terrific Imagine: John Lennon documentary which emerged in 1988. But in early 1984, when the first posthumous ‘new’ Lennon recordings appeared, it must’ve been thrilling to see a bona fide pop video – for ‘Nobody Told Me’ – which was crammed with clips spanning his entire run as a solo artist.

The cover of the single

‘Nobody Told Me’ was the lead single from 1984’s Milk and Honey album which – like its predecessor Double Fantasy – was divided evenly between alternating John and Yoko tunes, though Lennon’s material comprised mainly of unfinished studio rehearsals from his final recording sessions in the summer/autumn of 1980. Curiously, all but one of his songs were laid down early in those sessions but left uncompleted while he focused his attention on the seven numbers which made the cut for Double Fantasy. It’s not really clear if he’d have gone back to these tracks and used them as the basis of a follow-up album; and it’s widely held that ‘Nobody Told Me’ was in fact earmarked for Ringo, who was then cutting a host of tracks for what became 1981’s Stop and Smell The Roses and had already bagged contributions from Paul and George. The tragic events of 8 December meant the planned studio reunion with Ringo never took place, so the tune eventually surfaced as a fully-fledged Lennon number. And, while I’m sure Ringo would’ve done a decent enough job with it, hearing John performing it with such unbridled zest is an absolute joy. A wry, playful rocker, it’s got an unforgettable chorus hook reminiscent of ‘All You Need Is Love’ and ‘Instant Karma’ and the kind of fun-but-profound lyrics he was so adept at. I love how he ends each verse with a non-sequitur, whether entreating his son Sean to finish his meal or recalling his own sighting of a UFO during the 1970s, which knocks you off guard and sends the song spinning into its bemused but irresistible chorus.

As opposed to the urgent pronouncements he made as an impassioned peacenik a decade before, this song is very much the more reflective view of a man entering middle age, seeing the humour as well as the sadness in the pointless scrambles of modern life (one can only guess at what John would’ve made of today’s social media-dominated world). My first memory of hearing it is on the radio during a family holiday in 1985 – around the dawn of my Beatles awakening, as it were. I had no idea it was an unfinished recording; in fact, I assumed it was a hit from his 1970s solo heyday, it seemed so instantly familiar (as so many Lennon/McCartney songs do). And while he might have fleshed it out a little more had he lived and decided to put it out under his own name – perhaps a few overdubs or harmonies here, a extra guitar part there – it still sounds great exactly as it is, and more than worthy of a place in the upper echelons of the Lennon canon.

And a few months after hearing it, as my new Fab Four obsession began to gather pace, a friend of mine showed me the video for the song, recorded when it was shown on the UK’s Top of the Pops (ah, those were the days, strange or otherwise). It was certainly my first exposure to a lot of John’s solo footage, and so was completely fascinating. It’s all been recycled in different formats many times since, of course, but then it seemed like lost treasure back then – especially as any film of John was finite, and we didn’t know how much there really was. While Paul was still regularly making videos and appearing on TV, any material of John taped up to 1980 was all we would ever have. And there was virtually no professionally-shot footage of him during his ‘househusband’ years in the second half of the 1970s. So the montage put together for ‘Nobody Told Me’ was a real feast for the eyes.

A 1971 clip from New York City opens the video

It draws heavily on the aforementioned Imagine film made in 1971 and aired on US TV the following year. You get to see John and Yoko larking around in New York’s Battery Park and on a beach elsewhere in the city, but many of the clips come from their final months at their home in Ascot, England. In particular, there’s a lengthy focus on John’s rather hapless attempt at rowing a boat around a lake in the grounds of Tittenhurst Park (he ends up laughing at his own ineptitude), plus the surreal images of the pair playing chess with all-white pieces and John shooting pool blindfolded (when he takes the blindfold off, he looks so much like Beatle John circa 1965). There are also excerpts from the Bed-In documentary documenting their high-profile peace campaign of 1969, replete with long hair, white outfits and pyjamas, as well as charming family home movie clips from years later, with the semi-retired Lennons teaching toddler Sean to swim. Curiously, there is also footage of John and Yoko from their early days, including the famous overlaying of each other’s faces on film in the summer of 1968 and a snippet of John goofing about during the Let It Be sessions a few months later. I say curiously, because John was still very much a card-carrying member of The Beatles at this point, though I guess you could argue his solo career began soon after he hooked up  with Yoko (which I suspect is the very point the inclusion of these clips is trying to make).

John discovers that rowing is not part of his skillset

Watching it now, the composition of the video seems a little amateurish in places. It’s certainly not as slick or fast moving as similar posthumous videos would be later on; there are some real longueurs (particularly the rowing sequences) which seem to indicate the people putting it together were too entranced with certain moments or didn’t have much else to work with. And when you consider what else was surely available in the Lennon vaults – even just other parts of Imagine or the Bed-In film – the amount of different clips on display now seems somewhat parsimonious. There is no footage of John at work in the recording studio, for instance, or playing live. In that respect, the videos for the follow-up singles from Milk and Honey, ‘Borrowed Time’ and ‘I’m Stepping Out’, were much better, utilising more film from all corners of his solo career (though sadly, as they didn’t do as well in the charts, far fewer people would have seen them). There are also some real head-scratching insertions into this video, including a nuclear bomb going off (which somewhat jars with the perky nature of the clip as a whole) and someone climbing and then jumping off a stepladder. The latter bit may have been a reference to John and Yoko’s first meeting at London’s Indica art gallery in 1966, when one of her exhibits invited guests to look through a magnifying glass as a word written on the ceiling, but without any context it seems a totally random (and very grainy) inclusion here. Some of the footage does work well when set against the music though, particularly the shots of the pair cavorting in New York and facing up to the massed ranks of the world’s media during their legendary peace promotions of 1969. Strange days indeed.

Dancing past the world’s press during their 1969 peace campaign

Whatever its limitations by today’s standards, the video must have ticked the boxes for a public hungry for film of the recently-martyred Beatle in 1984. And the song was deservedly a big hit, his last solo effort to crack the top ten on both sides of the Atlantic (#5 in the States and #6 in the UK) as well as several other territories. It has made the cut on all of the many Lennon compilations released since then. Likewise, the video has cropped up on a few accompanying video or DVD releases of John’s solo promotional films, such as Lennon Legend and Power To the People. As is Yoko’s wont, however, I’m wondering if the original clip has been tweaked slightly; I seem to remember it fading out over camcorder footage of John and Sean on a boat circa 1979, with Lennon giving an ‘OK’ gesture to camera, though that is missing from the version you see now (a new video for the song was also produced for 2020’s Gimme Some Truth compilation album, but it simply offers even less imaginative rehashing of scenes from Imagine). But no matter. While it seems a little thrown together in retrospect, the video holds a lot of nostalgia value for those of us who were around when post-Beatle film of John was relatively scarce and still does a fair job of capturing a multi-faceted life lived a full pelt, as well as illustrating a song which showed his wit, lyricism and ear for a great pop tune remained fully intact until the end.

The original 1984 video for the song