Uncut Legends: Lennon (2005)

Beatles historian Mark Lewisohn noted recently that  John Lennon’s image is no longer viewed with the reverence of old in some quarters. Putting aside the fact that the lionisation which occurred after his death was (perhaps inevitably) largely rose-tinted and unbalanced, I guess we shouldn’t be surprised that his character is being re-evaluated in this more sensitive, delicate and easily offended age. At a time when there is a rush to judge events of the past by the virtue-laden standards and moral absolutes of today, some people are going to struggle with John’s drawings and impersonations of the disabled, the attitude he showed towards women during his youth, or the fact that he suggested Brian Epstein’s autobiography should have been titled “Queer Jew”. Indeed, many people would recoil in horror at such things, which is all a bit ironic considering Lennon was also a torch-bearer for many of the causes – civil rights, sexual equality, anti-war protests, vegetarianism and so on – which are viewed as sacred now.

But you know what? While it’s impossible to predict (as many people regrettably do) what a modern-day John Lennon would have thought or felt about anything – not least because he changed his mind so frequently – I think I’m on fairly safe ground by claiming that if he were still around, whatever was said about him on Twitter, web forums, 24-hour news stations or elsewhere, he just wouldn’t give a fuck. It’s one of the things I like most about him. Yes, criticism often riled him, spurring him to dash off a vituperative letter, caustic song or scathing interview soundbite. But it rarely changed his behaviour one jot. He was who he was, and sod what anyone else thought.

The contradictions and complexities of his life, personality and work were explored in a special edition of UK magazine Uncut, published to mark the 25th anniversary of John’s death in 2005 (my, how time flies).  In the early 2000s, long before it launched its now regular ‘Ultimate Music Guide’ series, the makers of the magazine produced a number of spin-offs themed around “rock’s ultimate icons”, entitled Uncut Legends. Unlike the Ultimate Music Guides, which rely heavily on archive interview material, these were filled with brand new articles from a number of different contributors, and so it was with the Lennon issue. The 148 pages offer a rich smorgasbord of content – a chronology of his life, a run-down of his 30 greatest songs (as chosen by famous fans, writers and contemporaries), interviews with his partners (Cynthia, Yoko and mid-70s beau May Pang),  a batch of photo spreads with commentaries from the people who took them, reviews of his solo albums and short profiles looking at different (often contradictory) aspects of his character. The core of the magazine,  however, is made up of in-depth essays looking at the key phases of his life: the young rocker period, Beatlemania, the early days with Yoko, the ‘primal scream’ episode, his fight against deportation from the US, the ‘lost weekend’ separation from Yoko in 1973/74, and his re-emergence from househusband duties to record Double Fantasy in 1980.

An Astrid Kirchherr shot during the making of ‘A Hard Day’s Night’

The first thing to say is that the magazine is beautifully put together and laid out. A lot of care and attention to detail clearly went into it. It touches most of the important bases in his story and career, with a host of well-chosen photographs to illustrate them. Indeed, the three sections given over completely to photography are especially strong. There are the classic Astrid Kirchherr images from Hamburg (plus some great shots when she visited the band on the set of A Hard Day’s Night), along with selections from British showbiz snapper Tommy Hanley (including famous shots from Tittenhurst Park during the 1971 Imagine recording sessions) and Bob Gruen, who took some of the defining photos of John and Yoko after they moved to New York in the 1970s. Gruen’s close friendship with the couple is reflected in the relaxed, candid nature of his pictures, some of which I’d never seen before. Particularly striking is one of a hung-over, remorseful Lennon prostrating himself before Yoko on an icy Manhattan morning after an episode of public infidelity the night before.

The ‘Loves of Lennon’ interviews make for an interesting contrast. Cynthia, in keeping with her excellent book John published the same year (2005), pulls no punches about her relations with Yoko and Lennon’s Aunt Mimi, nor about her former husband – though her criticisms of him are mixed in with warm reminiscences, too. May Pang is more wholly positive, coming over as being little removed from the starry-eyed, smitten young woman who lived with John for more than a year during his hiatus from Yoko. Curiously, her favourite memory of their time together was when they spotted a UFO from their New York apartment in 1974; though John also liked to tell this story, so it must’ve been quite the experience. The Yoko Q&A seems altogether more guarded and bland, though in fairness the questions focus more on her role as custodian of his legacy (she’s even asked about meeting Liam Gallagher at one point, for heaven’s sake) than about her role as wife and lover.

At Apple, 1969 (taken by Tommy Hanley)

The Top 30 Lennon Songs – with contributors ranging from Elbow’s Guy Garvey and Lemmy from Motorhead to Paul Weller and Garbage singer Shirley Manson – is a fun read. You won’t be surprised to learn ‘Imagine’ comes in first spot, while ‘All You Need Is Love’, ‘Strawberry Fields’, ‘Across The Universe’ and ‘Mother’ make up the rest of the top five. It’s always interesting to see other people’s takes and interpretations on the music you love, and learn why they like it so much too. For my money, though, any Lennon ‘best of’ list that doesn’t include ‘Girl’, ‘You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away’ and ‘Love’ is seriously lacking credibility.

The articles which make up the bulk of the magazine are a real mixed bag.  Most of the one page examinations of his different traits (rock ‘n’roller, wit, fighter, romantic, radical) are fairly dismissable. They are either too short or fail to provide any fresh insights into his character; for example, one rightly cites him as changing the idea of romance in pop, but then offers no real explanation or analysis of how he did it, barely even touching on any of his songs after 1964. Even worse, the ‘fighter’ profile reports as fact a rumour that John brutally attacked Stuart Sutcliffe and ended up kicking his friend in the head, when there is zero evidence this ever happened (Lewisohn, in his exhaustively researched biography Tune In, doesn’t even mention it).  A couple of the longer articles take an awful long time to say not a great deal. ‘How John and Yoko Quit The Beatles’ is actually more a run-down of the pair’s avant garde art activities at the end of the ‘60s, while the piece about their famed primal scream therapy in 1970 and the impact on the music they produced immediately afterwards offers little that is new (to his credit, Dr Arthur Janov respected John’s patient confidentiality throughout his life).

Displaying their wedding certificate for Tommy Hanley, at Tittenhurst Park in 1971

While the need to put down McCartney while praising Lennon has happily abated somewhat among writers since the 1980s, there are still traces of it here. The article on John’s youth basically implies John and Paul were more work colleagues than real friends, which is utter nonsense; even at the height of the bitter fall-out following The Beatles’ break-up in 1971, John still referred to Paul as his best friend, and elsewhere in this very magazine Bob Gruen recounts a joyous evening in the mid-1970s when Paul and Linda visited the Lennons at their Dakota Building apartment in New York. Then there’s a sly dig which points out that at the very time John embarked on soul-searching psychological therapy to help tackle deep-rooted neuroses, Paul was buying the rights to Rupert Bear, thus setting in train the differing paths of their solo careers (Lennon being the deep artist, and Macca the facile entertainer). Apart from the absurdity of pigeonholing McCartney’s entire career around one project (for children) released 14 years later, the author conveniently overlooks that, at the same time John was seeking professional help, Paul was experiencing a breakdown of his own, isolating himself at his Scottish farm and drinking heavily as he struggled to come to terms with The Beatles’ split. It’s all a bit lazy, and completely unnecessary

There is some fine writing elsewhere in the magazine, however. Chris Ingham, Beatles author and regular contributor to magazines such as MOJO, pens an excellent article looking at John’s remarkable growth as an artist from 1962-67. He also contributes the best of the album reviews, cogently championing 1973’s woefully underrated Mind Games. Other stand-outs include an engrossing piece on John’s self-proclaimed ‘Lost Weekend’ when separated from Yoko in the mid-70s, charting that period’s strange mixture of self-destructiveness, fruitful creativity and mending of broken bridges before he inexorably drifted back to this wife. And I really enjoyed the detailed story of his 1980 comeback, in particular the fateful trip to Bermuda which helped to kick-start a return to concentrated music-making. Both articles have lots of fascinating recollections from people around him at the time.

A Bob Gruen shot taken at a New York cafe, 1975

As for the album reviews, well, you pays your money and you takes your choice. Ultimately, as always, it comes down to personal opinion, though some of the critics here argue their cases better than others. I guess I’m in the minority of people who don’t consider Plastic Ono Band a masterpiece (as the review here claims), though I do understand why some find flaws in Imagine – even though I love it to bits. When someone describes a wonderful song like 1974’s ‘Nobody Loves You (When You’re Down and Out)’, as “utterly cloying”, though, I am left scratching my head. Still, I always enjoy music reviews, and they’re all interesting in their own way. In particular, it was nice to read a positive reappraisal of Double Fantasy.

As I write this, there’s lots of stuff going on in the media and online to celebrate what would have been John’s 80th birthday. Even though he’s now been gone for as long as he was alive, you can’t argue it wasn’t a life well lived. That extraordinary journey is, for the most part, well documented in Uncut Legends. If you can find a copy on eBay or somewhere, it’s well worth picking up.

A bullseye? Paul’s ‘Arrow Through Me’ video

The summer of 1979 must’ve been a strange time for Paul McCartney. He’d recently signed an eye-watering deal for Columbia Records to release all his work in the USA, had just enjoyed yet another transatlantic chart smash with ‘Goodnight Tonight’, and was about to receive an unheard-of rhodium disc from the Guinness Book of Records to coronate him as the most successful songwriter in history. On the other hand, his first album with Columbia, Back To The Egg, hadn’t set the charts alight in the same way previous Wings efforts had, while the lead-off singles in both the UK and the States had failed to create much of a stir. In later years he would say his enthusiasm for Wings began to wind down around this time, and the fact that he retreated to his home studio to start recording new tracks on his own (to be released as McCartney II the following year) is perhaps an indicator of that.

Wings – the 1979 version

However, Wings were still very much an active entity at this point, and in August Columbia  wanted a second single from the album. While the backbone of Back To The Egg was composed of hard rock numbers, it was a stylistically diverse set, even by McCartney standards. The heavy, guitar-driven ‘Old Siam Sir’ had stiffed as a single in Britain, so it was relegated to the b-side here and they opted for ‘Arrow Through Me’ instead – a song from the other end of the musical spectrum completely. In a real departure for Paul, there were no guitars at all on this, with even the bass line being played on a keyboard. Instead, we get a smooth slice of synth pop, blue-eyed soul with a hint of funk. Drummer Steve Holly came up with a great groove, and Macca delivers the obligatory sumptuous melody and polished vocal on top, casually dipping into seductive falsetto when he feels like it. I’d always thought the  horns which kick in half-way through were played on synthesiser too, but apparently the Wings brass section were involved. Either way, they are super catchy and add some punch to the song, giving it a bit of a Stevie Wonder feel. I’ve always liked the lyrics, as well – who else could write something like: “A bird in the hand is worth two flyin’/But when it came to love, I knew you’d be lyin’”?

Sheet music for the single. How quaint

Earlier that summer, Wings had recorded separate promotional films for seven tracks – half the album – something which was pretty rare in those pre-MTV days. These were welded together to form a short TV film, but if the point was to push the album to the widest possible audience, their marketing department was sorely lacking. The resulting special didn’t air on US TV until the end of the year, by which time Back To The Egg had fallen out of the charts, and wasn’t shown in the UK until 1981 – after the band had broken up. Paul did have form for this kind of thing in the ‘70s though. Wings Over The World, the TV documentary about the 1975-76 world tour, didn’t emerge until 1979, while the accompanying concert film Rockshow didn’t hit cinemas for a further two  years (by which time the musical landscape had changed almost beyond recognition). And some Wings film projects, like 1974’s One Hand Clapping, didn’t see the light of day for decades.

Nonetheless, the Back To the Egg film at least provided a raft of ready-made promo videos for any singles pulled from the album, and ‘Arrow Through Me’ was among them. It was the last clip to be filmed and, it has to be said, the least imaginative. No location trips to a castle or a beach (as with some of the other videos), this was all shot in a London studio against a black background, with the band just running through the song on a set of keyboards, plus drums. Paul looks quite dapper, though he hams it up a bit too much at a couple of points. Linda, guitarist Laurence Juber and a pretty shabby-looking Denny Laine also feature, though I don’t think they are actually on the record (possibly some vocal harmonies in the middle). Macca was clearly still keen for the world to recognise that Wings was a “real band”, not just a showcase for him. Perhaps realising they needed to make up for the rather bland setting, some slightly trippy visual effects were added. I doubt it was cutting edge fare, even for the time, and makes the clip look a little like an outtake from a particularly cash-strapped 1970s episode of Dr Who.

Macca at the mercy of 1970s ‘special’ effects

The video didn’t help ‘Arrow Through Me’ materialise very high on the US charts, with the single stalling at #29 – not a terrible showing, but not great by Macca standards of the era. It may have been that Wings were seen as somewhat passé by this point (though the fact that their live version of ‘Coming Up’ stormed to #1 the following year suggests otherwise). More likely, the song just lacked a certain something – maybe a big chorus – to make a big splash in a singles market now dominated by disco and new wave stompers.

Wings performed the song on what proved to be their final tour, a jaunt through British venues in late 1979, and then – as with so many McCartney solo numbers – it was filed away and forgotten about. Along with almost all the Back To The Egg videos, it was senselessly omitted from the McCartney Years DVD promo collection in 2007. However, the song did find its way on to the random grab bag of tracks which made up the Pure McCartney solo compilation album in 2016. But even then, Paul was quite dismissive when talking about it:

There are some songs that I just hadn’t heard literally since I recorded them. One was called Arrow Through Me. That is a kind of funky little thing. Interesting harmonies, interesting brass riff. As I say, something I recorded and then not listened to again.

It’s a shame so much of his post-1970 catalogue is viewed like this, whereas he treats even the most run-of-the-mill Beatles song with such reverence. Oddly, Paul McCartney is one of the least effusive proponents of his own music. Let’s hope an archive edition of Back To The Egg is not too far away, so that its songs and videos can gain a fresh appreciation. It may have a humdrum video, but ‘Arrow Through Me’ is still a fine piece of work.

My Top Ten cover versions by solo Beatles

While cover versions of their favourite songs were a staple of most early Beatles albums, by late 1965 the Fabs were focusing solely on their own material. This would continue for the remainder of their recording career, though the Get Back/Let It Be sessions in early 1969 showed they never needed any prompting to run through beloved tunes from their youth whenever there was a lull in making a new album. This was an itch which needed to be scratched after they went their separate ways, too. The first fully-fledged solo album of “real” songs was Ringo’s Sentimental Journey, a collection of pre-rock standards in 1970, and more often than not he would include an oldie or two on the albums which followed. Most of George’s solo outings also featured a cover of some sort, while John went the whole hog in 1975 with his Rock ‘n’ Roll album. Paul followed suit – twice – in 1988 and 1999, before taking a leaf out of Ringo’s book with 2012’s Kisses On The Bottom, mostly made up of jazz-flavoured ‘Great American Songbook’ numbers.

John listening to a playback during the sessions for ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll’, 1974

 I don’t begrudge them revisiting the music which inspired them in the first place. The problem is, their own material (particularly in the case of John, Paul and George) usually has more depth, sophistication and invention than the tunes of yesteryear; one of the main reasons for their impact  (and perhaps why they have endured) is that they tore up the Tin Pan Alley rulebook, wrote songs with emotional reality which articulated feelings way beyond Moon/June romantic clichés,  and expanded the horizons of pop music far beyond what was conceivable even just a few years before. For that reason, hugely enjoyable though they are, none of their ‘covers’ albums would feature high up in my rankings of their strongest solo work. Nonetheless, their best interpretations of other people’s material inject palpable energy, wit and passion, elevating them to the same level as some of their own compositions. The following list showcases my favourites.

Promotional image for ‘Run Devil Run’, 1999

For the sake of this run-down, I am arbitrarily limiting it to stuff before 1970, ie. songs they grew up with. I should also give honourable mentions to some great tracks which haven’t made the list but are still well worth a listen: John’s take on ‘To Know Her is to Love Her’, recorded with Phil Spector in 1973; Ringo’s ‘I Keep Forgettin’ from Old Wave (1982), and George’s 1987 mega-hit ‘Got My Mind Set On You’ (from Cloud Nine). There many other decent ones, but here are what I consider to be the toppermost of the poppermost.

10. ‘Slippin’ and Slidin’’ – John Lennon

Paul bagged almost all the Little Richard songs The Beatles performed in their early days, so John must’ve relished the chance to get stuck into this one when he recorded 1975’s Rock ‘n’ Roll album. It certainly sounds like it – the pounding piano and wailing saxophones capture the ‘50s vibe perfectly, and buoy up his exuberant vocal. After his draining battle with the US immigration authorities for the previous few years (and which was still going on when he taped this), I wonder whether he injected a little extra venom into the line “you know you better surrender” in the third verse. Either way, it’s a cracking track.

9. ‘More I Cannot Wish You’ – Paul McCartney

This beautifully tender reading of an obscure song from the original Guys and Dolls stage musical was – apart from the McCartney-penned ‘My Valentine’ – the best track 2012’s Kisses On The Bottom. Paul’s ageing voice is perfectly suited to the lyric of a parent ruminating on the future of his child (he admitted he was thinking of his daughter Beatrice, then eight, when he sang it). The low-key arrangement, including some subtle strings in the second half, and languid pace also combine to help make a very elegant, moving confection.

8. ‘Baltimore Oriole’ – George Harrison

George was a big fan of old school tunesmiths like Hoagy Carmichael, and recorded two of his numbers for 1981’s Somewhere in England. But while ‘Hong Kong Blues’ was a rather awkward mix of synth-driven early-80s pop and 1930s songwriting sensibilities, ‘Baltimore Oriole’ was a masterful update of the genre. The stylish, smoky arrangement, with piano and saxophone to the fore, provide the perfect backdrop for George’s understated guitar and vocal, as he croons the tale of a lovelorn man missing his songbird partner who’s left him for adventure and warmer climes. His dreamy backing vocals are also excellent.

7. ‘I Got Stung’ – Paul McCartney

1999’s Run Devil Run, recorded with a band of seasoned pros (including Pink Floyd’s Dave Gilmour), was Paul’s first release since Linda’s death the previous  year. It’s easy to read too much into that, but there is something genuinely life-affirming and restorative about the way he attacks the rock ‘n’ roll songs of his 1950s youth which make up most of the album. And never more so than on this Elvis number, which he tears into right from the opening lyric. It’s a breathless performance – you feel like you’re clinging onto a runaway train for dear life – which climaxes with  a frenzied vocal wig-out in classic Macca fashion.

6. ‘Stand By Me’ – John Lennon.

I have to be honest, I’ve never been a fan of the Ben E. King original. But John Lennon’s voice can work wonders with just about anything, and so it is here on this stand-out from the Rock ‘n’ Roll album. The way he lets rip when he gets to the first chorus is phenomenal, transforming the song into a gut-wrenching plea in the face of an apocalypse, bearing his soul, as ever. I also love the swampy backing and draggy beat, a sort of ‘Wall of Sound’ in miniature, and the twin guitar solos are just great.

5. ‘Matchbox’ – Paul McCartney

I can count on one hand the number of Beatles songs I don’t like, and their 1964 version of Carl Perkins’ ‘Matchbox’ is one of them. It’s so lacklustre and half-hearted, on the part of both the band and George Martin, it has a feeling of “we need one more track for this EP – let’s knock this one off quickly so we can get to the pub”. Their 1962 version from Live at the Star Club, with John on lead vocal instead of Ringo, has more fire in the belly but is still not much more than ‘okay’. But this Macca rendition, recorded during a soundcheck during his 1989/90 world tour and included on Tripping the Live Fantastic, is a different beast altogether. Right from the snarling opening guitar chord, Paul and his band rock the life out of it, throwing in two scorching guitar solos (from Macca and Robbie McIntosh), synth horns and a piano break from keyboardist Wix, and a raw, throaty lead vocal. It’s still not much of a song, but the groove is irresistible.

4. ‘Bring It On Home To Me/Send Me Some Lovin’’ – John Lennon

John cleverly melded Sam Cooke’s 1962 hit with a Little Richard b-side for what is probably the best number on Rock ‘n’ Roll. The opening part of the medley, with its taut, chugging piano-led rhythm, is good, but it goes up a couple of notches in the second half, with some meaty horns and more peerless Lennon vocals, full of yearning. Listen to the way he effortlessly apes Buddy Holly and Little Richard at various points. Incidentally, Paul also recorded ‘Bring It On Home To Me’ (for 1988’s Choba B CCCP) and there is a cleverly blended edit of their versions on YouTube. They sound great together, as always.

3. ‘She Said Yeah’ – Paul McCartney

Another high-speed adrenalin rush from Run Devil Run, Paul is in his element on this Larry Williams number. Aided by crunchy, visceral production, the band performance bristles with energy (including a glorious piano solo) and Paul sings it with a real lusty swagger. The combined effect is like going 12 rounds with a heavyweight boxer in just two magical, punch-drunk minutes. And as one reviewer wrote at the time, no one sings the word “yeah” quite like Paul McCartney.

2. ‘Aint That A Shame’ – Paul McCartney

John also recorded a fine version of this Fats Domino classic for Rock ‘n’ Roll, but Paul’s more muscular rendition just edges it. The best track on 1988’s Choba B CCCP, a collection of covers cut live in the studio the previous year and originally released only in the Soviet Union, it’s a pounding, powerhouse performance which builds in excitement as it goes along. There’s some fine lead guitar from Macca and his voice is thing of wonder, squeezing every last drop of pathos from the uncomplicated lyric. I got to see him perform this live a few times in 1990, and it was a thumping joy.

1. ‘Angel Baby’ – John Lennon

Inexplicably omitted when John compiled the final track listing for Rock ‘n’ Roll, this didn’t see the light of day until the 1986 posthumous release Menlove Avenue. Recorded in 1973 with Phil Spector, this take on the 1960 hit by Rosie and the Originals (one of Lennon’s “all-time favourite songs”, as he says on the intro) is just spellbinding. The sparse doo-wop style of the original is replaced with the full Spector Wall of Sound treatment, and John delivers towering, achingly fragile vocals to match. Like many of the tracks on this list, it’s a very simple song – the kind of number he or the other Beatles would have heard booming out of fairground speakers when they held hands or nervously fumbled for a first kiss with the girl of their teenage dreams – but he finds the inherent emotion in it to produce a swooning romantic epic for the ages. It stands comparison with some of his greatest solo work, and it’s good to see it finally getting some recognition by being included on the new Gimme Some Truth Lennon ‘best of’ compilation album. It’s more than worthy.

‘A Cellarful of Noise’ by Brian Epstein (1964)

It’s strange to think, in these days when you could probably fill a small library with volumes about or relating to The Beatles, that there were only a handful of books about the group published in the ‘60s. It’s a pity, because books written without the benefit of hindsight are particularly useful in helping us scratch away some of the myth which has grown up in the intervening years. On the other hand, the nature of the time and the fact that most of these efforts were “authorised” accounts meant that some truths were edited out or watered down, so as not to besmirch the group’s image. This was partially true of Hunter Davies’ official biography in 1968 (though not as much, I suspect, as some would have us believe) and certainly the case with Brian Epstein’s autobiography, A Cellarful of Noise, which came out four years earlier. We know a lot more about The Beatles, and Brian himself, than would ever have been allowed into print at the height of Beatlemania; yet for anyone looking for an insight into those scarcely believable days, I’d say it’s still well worth a look.

Why? Well, first, at just 119 pages it is a short, breezy read. Second,  though ghost-written by long-term Beatles publicist/ally Derek Taylor, these are effectively Brian’s own words and reflections. As he died just three years after the book’s publication, we have precious few of those. And third, despite its authorised, slightly airbrushed nature (which is inevitable given the context of the time and the life he was leading), it still reveals a lot about what made Brian tick, his relations with the band and how their partnership swept all before it in an absurdly short space of time. In December 1961, Brian was literally the only person on the planet who believed The Beatles would become “bigger than Elvis”; a little over two years later they were bigger than pretty much everything, and then some.

The edition I picked up in the 1980s

The book opens with the key plank in that startling ascent, and perhaps its defining moment – ‘Operation USA’, the group’s epochal first trip to the States. Those mad few weeks, coming so soon after the JFK assassination, have been recalled and analysed endlessly since, but this account has that first-hand freshness, mixed with incredulity, from the man who masterminded the whole audacious enterprise. Of course, the Fabs’ talent and charisma were what conquered the American public, but it was Brian who put them in the best possible position to deliver the knock-out blow. And, as the book then backtracks to his childhood and subsequent development, you begin to see the scale of this achievement – how a drama school drop-out turned manager of a provincial record store had, by the age of 30, had the entertainment world at his feet and  literally begging for a piece of the Beatle pie.

The chapters on his troubled childhood and youth are fairly frank. An academic under-achiever and loner, he was expelled from a number of private schools, and the book makes no attempt to disguise his unhappiness at failing to fit in or please his bewildered parents. His National Service stint in the army was a predictable disaster, ending in early discharge; more surprising was his rapid disenchantment with the acting world after he enrolled at RADA in London. He always ended up going back into the family retail business in London, where he was at least able to channel some of his theatrical flair and creativity though inventive store lay-outs and window displays – first in the furniture arm of the business, then in records. A far cry from managing the biggest rock band in the world, perhaps, but these chapters do illustrate what he had in common with The Beatles. He was a misfit, a non-conformer, with an unfulfilled, compelling creative urge; he was a few years older and a very different character, of course, from a totally different social background, but was in some respects a kindred spirit. They must have picked up on that when deciding to let him manage them.

Brian with “the boys”

He also had vision. Not only did he instantly spot what was magical about the band when he first saw them swearing and sweating their way through a lunchtime set in the Cavern, he saw where this magic might take them and how he could help them get there. He didn’t just get lucky; his vision, passion and total commitment to the band was vital to making it all happen. This comes shining through when he writes about his early days with the band, and you can almost feel his dejection when record company exec after exec turns them down, his frustration at not being able to persuade them of his certainty, and his guilt at letting “the boys” down. Likewise, you sense his elation when he is ultimately proved right, surely beyond even his wildest dreams. When you look at the photo of Brian by the side of the stage at Shea Stadium in 1965, the high watermark of their touring years and the world’s first real stadium rock concert, you can only wonder what was going through his mind.

At Shea Stadium, New York, in 1965

Of course, the book is almost as important as much for what it doesn’t say as what it does. Considering it was still illegal in the UK at the time, there is no mention of his other compelling passion: his homosexuality. Keeping this a secret must have been a strain in itself, but his penchant for ‘rough trade’ meant that he found himself on the end of both violence and blackmail threats on more than one occasion (allegedly, he even missed their final show at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park in 1966 because he was dealing with one such incident). His fear of being publicly exposed, and letting the boys down on a whole other scale, must have been overwhelming.

The problem with a book like this is that it has just been overtaken by time. For example, Brian’s account of his first meeting with George Martin, then a little known A&R man at Parlophone Records, in early 1962 is very straightforward. Martin was intrigued by the recordings of The Beatles Brian played him (made during the band’s failed audition for Decca a few months earlier), and invited them in for a recording test a short time afterwards. Simple. But Mark Lewisohn’s exhaustively researched biography Tune In revealed that, while Martin may have been mildly curious, he still gave Brian the same answer as all the other London record company execs: “no thanks”. According to Lewisohn, the producer was forced to rethink only when parent company EMI came under pressure from music publishers keen to secure the rights to some early Lennon-McCartney compositions. We’ll never know the exact facts of this, and I’m certainly not saying Brian was lying, but it goes to show how the truth is often much more complicated than it first appears – or is recollected by those involved. It certainly wouldn’t have made good copy at the height of Beatlemania that the band’s fabled producer needed to have his arm twisted to give them a chance in the first place.

The Beatles’ guiding lights – Brian and George Martin

By the time A Cellarful of Noise was published, of course, Epstein was head of the Merseybeat empire, managing not just the Fabs but a slew of other successful acts, including Gerry and the Pacemakers, Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas and Cilla Black (though only Cilla would go on to have long-lasting success). There are a smattering of pages devoted to them, but you’re left in no doubt that The Beatles are the centre of his world. And the chapter focusing on his relationships with each member, entitled ‘Them’, is the best one in the book.

He’s very perceptive about who they are and how they operate. Comparing them to the Three Musketeers who became complete when they brought in D’Artagnan (in their case, Ringo), he identifies they are “slightly outside society….non-conformist” – something I feel is crucial about their make-up, but which is often overlooked. Brian clearly understood this from the start, and didn’t even attempt to mould them into something they were not. He’s also not shy about discussing his conflicts with them. He recounts the famous moment at Abbey Road when he made a suggestion about a song they were recording, to which John curtly replied: “We’ll make the record. You go on counting your percentages.” And the time early on in his management of the band when Paul declined to play a gig because Brian – who was picking him up from home – had refused to wait for him while he finished getting ready. It’s a hilarious story looking back, but at the time it made Epstein briefly reconsider whether or not to stick with them.

His comments on Paul are fascinating. He describes him as being “temperamental and moody and difficult to deal with” at times, but also says: “I know him very well and him me.” In other words, he knew Macca was his chief ally in steering the group towards structure, organisation and professionalism. You only have to look at how the group slowly splintered and drifted after Brian’s death to understand how important the McCartney/Epstein axis was. Likewise, he recognises John as “the dominant figure in a group…without a leader”, and describes him as an exceptional human being. Whether he had sexual or romantic feelings towards Lennon, as has been often speculated, we’ll never know, but he clearly adored him. He admits not being keen on Ringo at first, and that he was unable to understand what the others saw in him. He has least to say specifically about George, though he shrewdly pegs him as “the business Beatle”. For all his later mystical, anti-materialistic leanings, George always seemed the one who was most wary of being ripped off financially – and, ironically, was the one who did lose large sums following the collapse of HandMade Films in the 1990s.

A Cellarful of Noise seems rather quaint now, and you may find much of it has been regurgitated in other Beatles books you have read. I guess like The Beatles themselves, it’s the downside of being first to do something – you get plundered and rehashed by those who come later. But it still has a few nuggets of information and, most importantly, that first-hand, insider’s take on the band’s rise to unparalleled success, from the eye of the hurricane. Brian must’ve been as bemused by the magnitude of it all as anyone, despite his unerring faith in the Fab Four. And even he couldn’t have dreamed of the heights they still had to reach – nor how he would leave their story so tragically early, almost certainly hastening their demise as a group. From the vantage point of that giddy, carefree A Hard Day’s Night summer of 1964, the book’s final line becomes unbearably poignant: “Tomorrow? I think the sun will shine tomorrow”. I give A Cellarful of Noise a 6.

Hot stuff? The ‘Flaming Pie’ home demos

Demos of songs are funny things. Some people love ‘em. They say they give us an invaluable insight into an artist’s creative process, illustrating how a song was developed from its initial inception, and can sometimes provide us with a ‘purer’ version of the writer’s original vision before a tune is rehearsed, recorded and produced within an inch of its life in the studio. Which may occasionally be true, to a point. But here’s the thing – I have little interest in watching a half-finished film without special effects or finished dialogue. Or reading a rough draft of a book with lots of pages crossed out and no ending. And so it is with songs. Yes, it was great to hear John Lennon strumming ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ just on acoustic guitar, but is anyone seriously claiming it is better than the finished Beatles studio version? And yes, you could argue it’s not better, just different, and there is room for both. But if I want to listen to the song, it’s the majestic completed version I reach for, almost without exception. As I’ve written before, I rarely listen to the bulk of the Beatles Anthology demos and outtakes – maybe once in a decade – because the regular versions of these songs are invariably better. Much better. Their judgement of how their songs should sound hardly ever faltered.

Since he launched his Archive Collection series a decade ago, Paul – or his “people” – has had a very peculiar and erratic attitude to the inclusion of demos in his revamped, expanded album sets. The early releases didn’t feature any, most notably Ram, even though there is apparently a motherlode of around 30 songs taped in the summer of 1970 which later surfaced on that album and others that followed. With a couple of exceptions, demos clearly weren’t considered as bonus audio for the re-releases until 2015 when both Tug of War and Pipes of Peace came with a set of 1980 demos for tracks which eventually made their way onto both albums.  What made these demos (which had already been widely bootlegged) more worthwhile than previous ones is hard to say, unless MPL simply didn’t feel they had enough other material to fill out the bonus discs. As with so many other things about the Archive series, we’re just left to scratch our heads and wonder why. The 2017 reissue of Flowers in the Dirt did gave us more demos, in the form of the songs Paul wrote with Elvis Costello in 1987. Despite also having appeared on the bootleg market 20 years before, these were worth hearing – partly because Paul has never released studio versions of some of the songs, partly because they are duets with Elvis (and so have a different flavour to many of the finished recordings), and partly because the songs were complete when the pair laid down the demos.

The original photo the ‘Flaming Pie’ album cover was based on

Demos were again largely absent from the 2018 Archive releases of Wild Life and Red Rose Speedway, but on this summer’s reissue of 1997’s Flaming Pie Macca has gone demo mad. We get early versions of all the songs which appear on the album (apart from the two that emerged from studio jams, ‘Used to Be Bad’ and ‘Really Love You’) and, in some cases, two or three versions. And if you’re a fan of ‘Beautiful Night’, this set has four takes for you to pick your way through. I have to be honest, though, I find this kind of thing hugely frustrating. Putting on a few interesting demos is fine, but I’d much rather hear unreleased songs (and we know there are some from these sessions) rather than yet more sketchy run-throughs of tracks I already have. I’ll look at the mystifying decision-making processes, or lack thereof, behind the Archive releases in a future post, but for now let’s just focus on what we have been given here. Are these slices of Pie – before they went into the oven, as it were – very tasty?

It was the last album Linda sang on

Most of the songs were recorded at home and feature just Paul on acoustic guitar, sometimes with a bit of family chatter or other noises in the background (at one point you can hear what seems to be either a vacuum cleaner or a jet engine – it’s hard to tell which). ‘The Song We Were Singing’ home demo is pretty close to what’s on the finished album, though he hadn’t got the second verse at this point and the chorus is more low key. However, there is a faster-paced middle eight section absent from the completed song; it might have been worth keeping, as the final tune does get a bit repetitive (good though it is). He’d have had to change the lyrics though, as the words about “a love that won’t run away” don’t fit with the hazy reminiscences of the rest of the song. ‘The World Tonight’ is also missing a verse, but is otherwise complete – though it has a more downbeat, folky feel and the riff which drives the song doesn’t appear until he gets to the chorus. Likewise, ‘If You Wanna’ is mainly there at this stage, apart from the middle eight section, which had yet to be added.

Probably the most “finished” of all the demos is ‘Somedays’, which has almost all of the core song in place, even down to some of the vocal phrasing he used on the studio version. He just needed to sort out some of the rhymes at the end of each verse. It’s interesting that this jewel – one of his greatest late-career songs – was gleaming from a very early stage, and just needed a little polishing and framing in the form of Paul’s Spanish guitar lines and George Martin’s gorgeous string arrangement. ‘Young Boy’ is next, and is perhaps the most compelling of the home recordings. It’s played at a slower pace, is about a ‘poor boy’ rather than a young boy, and has a completely different middle section. The more dynamic one he eventually came up with was much better, but it’s still intriguing to hear his initial approach. The home demo of ‘Calico Skies’ has probably the poorest audio quality here – Paul sounds a bit distant – and is missing the middle verse, but that is offset by some nice family banter in the background (there is a further, cleaner studio take of this song as well, but it’s inclusion seems pretty pointless to me). The ‘Flaming Pie’ demo, with Paul on piano, is short and sweet, missing the “Everything I do….” section.

The early version of ‘Heaven on a Sunday’ is a full studio demo, with Paul playing keyboards over a drum machine. It’s a little faster than the final rendition we know, but – apart from the guitar solos – all the components are in place. A nice recording of a lovely song. Paul switches back to acoustic guitar for ‘Souvenir’. It’s okay, but this is a track which cries out for the full arrangement of the album version. By contrast, ‘Little Willow’ more than holds its own on solo guitar, and all the words were pretty much there by this stage. It’s interesting to note also how many of these tunes he wrote around a guitar arpeggio (playing a chord one note at a time, instead of all at once). It must’ve been his “thing” in the mid-‘90s. It’s back to the piano for ‘Beautiful Night’, which he’d first written and recorded in 1986, albeit not to his satisfaction. The basic structure and words remained the same in 1995 (he was still toying with the ‘row boat’ lyric, which was eventually lobbed overboard), so it was clearly the arrangement he was searching for – and found, the following year, with the help of Ringo, Jeff Lynne and George Martin. The solo performance here has a nice vocal, but is inessential; likewise a studio run-through with just Paul and Ringo in 1996. Note to compilers: you can have too much of a good thing.

Which leaves us with ‘Great Day’. As he wrote this one in the early ‘70s (you can actually hear him picking through the chords on the The Back Yard Tape bootleg from Abbey Road in 1975), I’m not sure when this one was recorded. Like ‘Calico Skies’, the sound quality is lo-fi, and there’s even more family chatter on this. Linda – or perhaps one of their daughters – joins him on the vocal here and there. It captures the home-made, relaxed vibe of the album which Paul talked about on its release in 1997 and, again, the basic song was largely complete at this stage (though, to my ears, it seems about to teeter over into his 2001 film soundtrack number ‘Vanilla Sky’ on a couple of occasions). It is fun to listen in as the McCartney family go about their business, possibly discussing dinner, shopping, nights out or whatever (it’s hard to make out the exact conversations) while Dad – a.k.a. the world’s most successful songwriter – sits in the corner casually running through his latest compositions. What a surreal scenario for the rest of us.

So those are the demos. Are they worth hearing? Well, yes….but only out of curiosity. For my money Flaming Pie is (with the possible exception of 2007’s Memory Almost Full) the last McCartney album which came within touching distance of greatness, so it’s mildly interesting to hear its songs in embryonic form. But it wasn’t a multi-layered, big production album like Sgt. Pepper or Tug of War; most of the tracks ended up with fairly simple arrangements which weren’t that far removed from the bare-bones versions we get here, so they don’t offer up any real revelations or fresh insights. I may give them another listen in a few years’ time. But chances are I’ll continue to opt for the fully-realised splendour of the finished album instead.

Rockabilly cats – George and Ringo in ‘Carl Perkins & Friends’

I fell in love with the Fab Four in 1985, which turned out to be one of the quietest Beatles years on record, with a dearth of new product or noteworthy appearances. After failing to agree on the feverishly-anticipated Sessions album of unreleased material the previous year, EMI and Apple didn’t issue any group material, new or old. George and Ringo seemed to have retired from music making altogether at this point, while Paul – perhaps licking his wounds from the critical and commercial failure of the Broad Street film in 1984 – busied himself with making a new album (though the ‘Spies Like Us’ single did emerge just before Christmas). The fifth anniversary of John’s death was a marked with a couple of semi-authorised TV shows, but generally it was pretty slim pickings for Fabs fans in 1985. Then, out of the blue, the UK tabloids reported that autumn that George AND Ringo were to appear to a TV special paying tribute to ‘50s rocker Carl Perkins, to be broadcast over the festive season.

At that stage, I didn’t really know a lot about Carl Perkins, other than that The Beatles had recorded a few of his songs. But in truth, such was his low public profile at that time, I didn’t really know much more about George. Being a film fan, I vaguely remembered him being interviewed about HandMade Films on the BBC’s Film programme a couple of years earlier, but that was about it. I didn’t know any of his solo songs (only one of which, ‘All Those Years Ago’, had cracked the UK Top 20 since 1973), and this was his first TV or concert performance in almost a decade. I’d seen Ringo on chat shows and in the occasional acting role, while the success of his Thomas the Tank Engine TV readings had kept his name in the news and he was often pictured in the newspapers with Barbara at some party or other. But George was something of a mystery, and he was treated as a bit of a hermit by the press. Indeed, I half expected his appearance in the upcoming TV special to feature the solemn, gaunt, long-haired mystic look from the early ‘70s that I most associated him with – a  sort of cross between Catweazle and Gandalf with a guitar. The reality was to be very different.

Carl Perkins – one hairy rockabilly cat

The producers of the show obviously knew they had pulled off a major coup by persuading two Beatles to appear. They are top of the bill on the opening credits, which also feature a lovely embrace between the pair backstage. The show proper, recorded at London’s Limehouse Studios, begins with a couple of songs from Perkins himself, backed by Dave Edmunds and his band. Though a contemporary of both Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash at the famous Sun Studios in Memphis during the dawn of rock ‘n’ roll (he wrote and recorded the original version of ‘Blue Suede Shoes’). the same level of superstardom eluded Perkins. Nonetheless, his early rockabilly records were an enduring influence on the beat boom kids of the 1960s, in the UK in particular, and The Beatles regularly covered his songs in their stage act.  The 1985 Perkins is clearly thrilled to celebrate his legacy with some of the “rockabilly cats” he inspired, and is a genuinely humble, likeable presence throughout the show – though his unfeasibly shaggy hairpiece seems to have been borrowed from William Shatner’s T.J. Hooker wardrobe.

After Perkins opens proceedings, it’s Starr-time, as Ringo takes to the drum stool and performs his Beatles For Sale showcase, the Perkins-penned ‘Honey Don’t’. While this must have been around the peak period of Ringo’s alcoholism (he checked into rehab three years later), he looks and sounds terrific. I think his main problem for much of the ’80s was that he had too much time on his hands, and also wasn’t making much music, so he must have relished this chance to return to the stage with a few old pals. Perhaps it even sowed the seeds for the All-Starr Band concept which emerged in 1989. Either way, it’s always great to see him singing from behind the drums (and it’s one of the few Fabs songs of his he hasn’t really done much on his subsequent tours). He also lobs in a couple of droll one-liners which inexplicably reduce Perkins to tears of laughter – though to be fair, Ringo laughs at them too, which make them seem much funnier than they actually are.

Then it’s time for a little more stardust, as Eric Clapton joins them for another tune covered by The Beatles, ‘Matchbox’. The three take it in turns to sing the verses, with Clapton and Perkins trading guitar solos. Like George, Clapton was on the cusp of a major career revival at this time, and his appearance here was certainly a step up from his guest slot on Chas & Dave’s Christmas Knees-up three years earlier. Ringo then takes a breather and a fairly forgettable interlude follows, including a couple of songs from Rosanne Cash (sporting very big ‘80s hair and shoulder pads). But no matter, as the main event is just around the corner.

George is back!

Perkins’ introduction acknowledges that “some people thought he’d retired”, and the rapturous response which greets George as he walks on stage reflects the sense of anticipation. I recall being pleasantly surprised how contemporary – and well – he looked, sporting a cool grey suit and black shirt, clean shaven and his hair brushed back into a quiff. Not an orange robe or Hare Krishna bell in sight. Even better, he launched into a fantastic version of his Beatles For Sale number, ‘Everybody’s Tryin’ To Be My Baby’, including a note-perfect solo. Of all the Beatles, George was probably the biggest Perkins fan – often singing lead on those covers, and massively influenced by his twangy guitar style. When most of the group chose aliases to mark their first professional tour (of Scotland, in 1960), remember, George became “Carl Harrison”. And he clearly loves every second of playing alongside his hero on this show.

It’s interesting that Paul McCartney – who recorded a duet with Perkins on 1982’s Tug of War – wasn’t involved in the special too. But then the whole thing would undoubtedly have become an out-of-control ‘Beatles reunion’ bullet train and overshadowed the whole point of the exercise, so I wonder if there was some mutual agreement for Paul to politely decline. One Perkins song that Macca did sing with The Beatles, ‘Your True Love’, is next up in the show, with George, Carl and Dave Edmunds sharing out the lead vocal. It’s wonderful, joyous performance of one of Perkins’ best tunes. Another lovely moment follows when George coaxes Carl to finger-pick his way through ‘The World is Waiting for The Sunrise’, another song beloved by The Beatles and taped when they were still The Quarrymen, at home in Liverpool in 1960.

George, Eric Clapton, Rosanne Cash and Ringo in rock ‘n’ roll class

As the show hits the home straight, all the musicians gather onstage on a row of chairs for a “rock ‘n’ roll classroom”, with Perkins as the “teacher” at its head. It could’ve been terrible, but is actually really good fun, as the ensemble – with George clearly the head boy, and Ringo supporting on tambourine – romp through a bunch of ‘50s classics, including ‘Blue Moon of Kentucky’ and ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going’ On’. There’s a great bit where George leads the troupe into another Perkins song, ‘Glad All Over’ (also covered by the Fabs, and eventually released on Live at the BBC in 1994), and seems to know it better than its author. George shares lead guitar duties with Clapton, and is on fine form; it’s also a rare opportunity to hear him play something other than slide guitar during his post-Beatles career. Clapton is….well, Clapton. There’s no disputing his ability or the power of his playing, but it’s all a bit predictable, a little rote. Harrison may not be as slick, but I find him much more interesting.

Everyone gets back on their feet for the big finale, including a rousing rendition of ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ itself. Some of the audience who came in authentic Teddy Boy gear can hold back no longer and take to the floor, with their similarly ‘50s-clad partners, to move their Winklepickers and shake their greasy quiffs. The rest of the crowd are pretty pumped up too, and we get a shot of Olivia Harrison, Barbara Bach and Patti Boyd (George’s ex, of course, and then Mrs Eric Clapton) cheering on their hubbies. In fact, a very nice, uplifting vibe pervades the whole event, and after George has finished leading the band through a second take of ‘Blue Suede Shoes’, you believe an emotional Perkins when he announces that he’s never enjoyed playing the song as much.

Rock ‘n’ rolling back the years

‘Carl Perkins & Friends’ (available on DVD and on YouTube) is a fab little show, and I enjoy it even more now than I did when it was first screened. It’s always great to see two Beatles on the same stage, and performing songs which inspired them in the first place. George, in particular, looks to be having the time of his life. It’s like the years have fallen away, and the earnest young Quarryman who idolised rock ‘n’ roll stars and filled his school notebooks with drawings of guitars has reappeared, skipping over everything in between. He appears energised and refreshed after a break from the music industry and, though it wasn’t planned this way, this show represented the first step in his big comeback. He was the only person who emerged with any credit from Madonna’s HandMade Films fiasco of the following year, Shanghai Surprise, helping to dampen the British press feeding frenzy during filming and also supplying some well-regarded songs for the soundtrack. He also guested at a couple of high-profile fundraising concerts, and in 1987 recorded and released the hugely successful (and quite brilliant) Cloud Nine album, supporting it with an uncharacteristic publicity blitz. Macca suddenly had a rival as the World’s Most Popular Beatle.

The Tony Sheridan recordings – “savage young Beatles”?

In June 1961, during their second tour of duty in Hamburg, The Beatles – John, Paul, George and Pete Best (recently departed bassist Stu Sutcliffe was apparently also there to offer moral support) – entered a proper recording studio for the first time. Well, it was actually a civic hall, but they were being professionally recorded by famed German band leader and producer Bert Kaempfert. He had signed them up to back fellow Brit Tony Sheridan on a handful of songs designed to bring a slice of the British rock ‘n’ roll fever sweeping Hamburg’s seedy nightclubs to the German masses. Singer-guitarist Sheridan was already a veteran of the city’s St Pauli “entertainment” scene, had enjoyed a fleeting brush with fame in the UK, and was viewed by Kaempfert (and record label Polydor) as having star potential. He had played with the Fabs many times in venues like the Kaiserkeller and Top Ten Club, and the band was well established by this point as the most popular music act in the Reeperbahn red light area; so I guess it seemed like the perfect fit.

Tony Sheridan onstage in the Top Ten Club with George and John

Make no mistake, though, the group was definitely the support act. On the resulting record they were even re-named The Beat Brothers, as ‘Beatles’ sounded too close to ‘peedles’, the German slang for male genitalia. As it transpired, of course, the record did little to boost Sheridan’s flaccid recording career but ultimately (if indirectly) acted like Viagra on The Beatles’ fortunes. They were still a way off becoming the band which would take the world by storm over the next couple of years, though – before moptops, before suits, before Brian Epstein, before Ringo. A sort of pre-Fab Four, if you will.  However, it was around this time that their raucous, proto-punk stage act had comprehensively conquered the clubs and dance halls of Liverpool and Hamburg, a period later dubbed as that of the ‘savage young Beatles’. But, listening almost 60 years on, how well did this translate to record?

The Beatles in 1961, around the time of the Bert Kaempfert sessions

The Beatles recorded five songs backing Sheridan, and two on their own (another couple of tracks were taped in similar circumstances the following year, though only one – ‘Sweet Georgia Brown’ – survives). There are a couple of important things to note. First, the venue was a very different setting from the sweaty, rammed clubs where the group usually plied their trade, and there was no beered-up audience to feed off. Not only that, but – according to Mark Lewisohn’s Tune In biography – Kaempfert quickly realised that Pete Best’s drumming style and erratic timekeeping were not up to scratch, and opted to remove his bass drum and tom toms. By all accounts, the booming bass drum was an integral part of the band’s live sound at this point, and now it was gone from their armoury. Second, the choice of material was very different from their usual setlists, with Kaempfert obviously feeling that hoary old pre-rock ‘n’ roll chestnuts like ‘My Bonnie Lies Over The Ocean’ and ‘When The Saints Go Marching In’ would have more of a chance of landing with German record buyers than the contemporary American stompers which wowed the punters on the Reeperbahn. But even when the band was allowed to record two songs of their own – for what they thought could have been their debut single, remember – the picks are real head-scratchers. Instead of a favourite number from Elvis, Little Richard or Chuck Berry, they opted for ‘Ain’t She Sweet’ – which had been recorded by Gene Vincent, true, but the tune dated back to the 1920s. A song their parents might have danced to. And rather than tackling one of the Lennon-McCartney originals they already had in the bag, their other choice was ‘Cry For a Shadow’, an instrumental throwaway John and George had put together as a piss-take of The Shadows.

Cry For a Shadow‘, the sole official Lennon-Harrison composition

Nonetheless, both tracks are fine. ‘Ain’t She Sweet’ rattles along at a fair lick, a tight band performance topped off with a playful, slightly lusty Lennon vocal. And ‘Cry For a Shadow’ (originally dubbed ‘Beatle Bop’) is good fun, led by some deft lead guitar from George and some rangy rhythm strumming by John. John and Paul also inject some screams and yells into the fiery middle sections, to good effect. But it has to be said both songs are a world away from the powerhouse, crunching rock which fills the Live at the Star Club album, recorded in Hamburg 18 months later. It’s all a little bit too clean, too clinical, compared to their stage act.

Their numbers backing Sheridan generally suffer from the same problem, but they are not without hints of future Fabness. Uptempo tracks like ‘The Saints’ and (especially) ‘Sweet Georgia Brown’ really swing, while on Sheridan’s own lovelorn ballad composition ‘Why?’ George’s delicate guitar fills and the wordless Lennon-McCartney backing vocals provide a small signpost to the miraculous beauty of ‘Here, There and Everywhere’ five years later. Overall, the band’s sound is starting to come together. Even though he had switched to the instrument only a few months earlier, Paul’s bass playing is remarkably fluid and assured. George’s distinctive, concise lead guitar work is beginning to emerge, and John’s urgent rhythm playing drives the band forward. Even Pete Best, denuded of some of his kit, acquits himself passably well on the drums – though comparison to any of Ringo’s playing shows up his limitations.

A couple of the slower numbers do not work so well. ‘Take Out Some Insurance On Me’ is a threadbare effort, with Sheridan’s attempt at a sultry, smoky vocal teetering on the comical. And while George had obviously thought out a decent solo, it sounds like he is twanging away on a rubber band. ‘Nobody’s Child’ is a real howler, in more ways than one. A dreary song to start with, the arrangement just plods along and Sheridan’s anguished yelps on the chorus are just embarrassing. Curiously, George would return to the song almost 30 years later for a charity single with The Traveling Wilburys; in truth, their version is little better.

‘My Bonnie’

Sheridan was a fair enough rock ‘n’ roll singer, though, and he leads the band through the undoubted highlight of the sessions, ‘My Bonnie’. Although The Beatles would soon, like a ten-pin bowling ball, shatter expectations of what a British rock record could be, this would surely have passed muster in 1961. After a slow, slightly cheesy, intro, it soon kicks into gear. With John and Paul providing handclaps and enthusiastic backing vocals, and Sheridan (rather than George) delivering a storming guitar solo, it fizzes with energy, carrying at least some of the charge they would’ve been giving off in the Top Ten Club at this time. Understandably, it was chosen as the single, and proved to be a minor hit in the German market. But the record’s real impact came as copies were exported back to Liverpool and snapped up by local fans who were delirious to finally hear The Beatles on vinyl. The demand for the single brought the band to the attention of local record store owner Brian Epstein and the rest, as they say, really is history.

The 1961 single. Whatever became of The Beat Brothers, I wonder?

Once the band made it big, Polydor was inevitably eager to exploit the handful of Beatles recordings they had, and so began a long history of repackaged re-releases. Never, in the field of human recordings, has so much effort been given to selling so few songs. In the throes of Beatlemania anything with their name on it sold well, and a single of ‘Ain’t She Sweet’ hit the US Top 20 and the UK Top 30 in 1964 – much to the chagrin of the band members, who were by this time faintly embarrassed by such embryonic efforts. Thereafter, the eight songs would periodically reappear every few years on a new-look, newly-titled album, usually padded out with tracks from acts who had no connection to The Beatles at all. I picked up my copy in the autumn of 1986. It was hardly a revelation, but – I guess like fans 20 or so years before – I was just thrilled to get my hands on recordings by the group I hadn’t heard before.

A curious cover, but my first introduction to the Sheridan songs

In 1995, the three key songs – ‘Ain’t She Sweet’, ‘Cry for a Shadow’ and ‘My Bonnie’ – finally made it out onto an official Beatles album, in the form of Anthology 1, Apple acknowledging the important role they played in the group’s early story. But they and the other five songs continue to be available through various Polydor channels, and are worth getting for any serious fan of the band. Though probably the least essential, musically, of the early, non-EMI recordings (the others being the Quarrymen tapes, the Decca audition session and the Star Club live album), they provide the only aural snapshot we have of The Beatles in 1961. And, as long as you’re not expecting ‘Ticket To Ride’ or ‘Back in the USSR’, they remain a fun – if rather quaint – listen.

The Beatles in Q magazine

The recent announcement about the demise of Q magazine, after 34 years, brought mixed feelings for me. On the one hand, a metaphorical shrug, as I can’t remember the last time I bought a copy and when I have briefly flicked through it, it was full of acts I’d either never heard of or had zero interest in. Or, even worse, was built around tedious ‘Best Ever’ lists of bands, albums, songs, gigs, publicity stunts and so on; with ‘Ever’ meaning, for the most part, after 1990. But the news also triggered fond memories of its glory days in the 1980s and ’90s, when it was the best music mag around and featured a host of fabulous, exclusive Beatles content which had me scuttling home from the shops with almost the same level of excitement as if I was holding a new album.

It’s hard to explain the impact Q had when it first appeared in 1986; there was nothing really like it in the marketplace. If you were a serious music fan in the UK, your options back then were pretty limited. You had glossy fare like Smash Hits, which was aimed squarely at the teen/bubblegum market. While it did have a sense of humour, its main aim was to furnish young pop fans with song lyrics, silly quotes and smouldering posters of A-ha, George Michael and Bananarama. At the opposite end of the spectrum, you had the smudged-ink, irreverent cool of the music weeklies – NME, Melody Maker and Sounds – pitched firmly at students and the wannabe rock intelligentsia. In other words, real music fans. And real music meant indie, alternative and a small number of mainstream acts who the editorial staff felt had somehow managed to retain a sliver of authenticity (the usual suspects of Bowie, Neil Young, Van Morrison et al). Everyone else – which was the bulk of the pop music scene – was treated as a joke and, to be fair, that was a big part of the weeklies’ appeal. Some of the writing was genuinely hilarious, with any and all pomposity shredded with delicious, childish aplomb and scathing wit. But if you wanted balanced reviews of mainstream rock, and interviews with its leading stars, you’d be disappointed. As for coverage of The Beatles, well, the group (and, to a certain extent, John) would get a modicum of respect and a few passing mentions, but anything from Paul, George and Ringo would invariably be treated with ridicule and outright contempt. I guess Rolling Stone was the nearest thing to Q, pre-Q, but it wasn’t available where I lived (you’d usually find it on sale only in big cities) and, even then, its US-focused style, content and concerns made it a pretty alien, and largely irrelevant, proposition to someone in the UK of the mid-1980s.

Q was different. It was glossy. It was monthly. It was written for grown-ups by grown-ups (though it still took the piss when required, abeit more gently than the weeklies). It wasn’t obsessed with being hip, and it covered everything under the broad umbrella of rock and pop music – new acts, genre favourites, oldies, cult acts, they were all thrown into the mix. Most of all – and very in keeping with the times – it embraced success, interviewing all the leading lights of the music firmament, whether they were deemed cool or not. And, with perfect timing at the birth of the CD boom, it celebrated the glories of rock’s past, with extensive articles tracing bands’ histories and output, while each issue also had a chunky review section featuring all the latest shiny new albums alongside buffed-up re-releases emerging for the first time onto the bright glare of digital compact disc (with each one subject to a 1-5 star rating). Oh, and the people who ran the magazine (notably its founders Mark Ellen and David Hepworth) really loved The Beatles.

Want to launch a new mag? Get McCartney on the cover!

I remember picking up the very first issue from my local newsagents on my way home from school in the late summer of 1986. Macca was its cover star, in a very 1980s outfit, giving an extensive interview (nine pages, though it seemed longer), to ostensibly promote his then-new album, Press To Play. However, this was barely mentioned as he was drawn into lengthy, frank and revealing reflections on his time with The Beatles. This was around the time he began to more publicly accept and acknowledge his Fab past, after years of shying away from it, and you got the feeling he had a lot to get off his chest following the tidal wave of Beatles books and commentaries which came in the wake of John’s death – and which were often steeped in Lennon hagiography. While it wasn’t quite as biting as John’s infamous ‘Lennon Remembers’ interview with Rolling Stone in 1970, it pulled no punches and found Paul opening up about things he hadn’t really discussed up to that point. Certainly, in the early throes of my Beatles obsession, it was like gold dust, and I think it still stands as one of the landmark McCartney interviews. It was even released on a semi-official interview disc, which you can hear on YouTube.

It was 33 years ago today…..

In the spring of 1987, Q hit the bullseye again. Just ahead of the album’s much-trumpeted 20th anniversary release on CD, it ran a two-part, seriously in-depth feature on the genesis, recording and release of Sgt Pepper. This was really meaty stuff, possibly the best piece of Fabs scholarship I’d read up to that point – certainly in a magazine. They interviewed lots of players in the story, and artfully conveyed a real sense of the the album’s inspirations and impact. Great photos, too. Curiously, the CD managed only a measly four stars (courtesy of pretentious hack Charles Shaar Murray) when reviewed in their re-releases section, which made them look a little silly. Each to their own, I suppose.

George returns, 1987. So long ago, Suzanne Vega was still popular
Paul reclaims his cover spot, 1989

Later that year, George marked his big comeback with what was now dubbed ‘The Q Interview’. While not as revelatory as Paul’s the previous year, his chat was even longer (14 pages) and was another enjoyably relaxed, freewheeling piece which asked some worthwhile questions (did George feel in competition with Paul? No, he “didn’t have time for that”.) The interview was partly conducted in a pub, at George’s behest, which added another interesting angle to the write-up. Paul returned to the front cover for his comeback in June 1989, promoting Flowers in the Dirt and the world tour which followed. This time the interview was accompanied by a run-down and rating of all his previous solo albums (Q was good at stuff like that, and would repeat the trick eight years later). And the main content was again very good stuff, with Paul tackling oft-voiced claims and criticisms (forcing Stu Sutcliffe out of The Beatles, his alleged tight-fisted way with money, cutesy solo songs and so on) head on.

The magazine continued to devote generous column inches to Macca during the course of his world tour through to the autumn of 1990, including a feature on his British concerts and another cover appearance – this time to mark Q’s 50th edition and herald his live album Tripping the Live Fantastic. And to mark his return to the live stage with his All-Starr Band, Ringo made his interview debut in the magazine just a few months later. Sadly, this was followed in 1992 with a poison-pen effort when he was the subject of the mag’s infamous ‘Who The Hell Does xxxx Think He Is?’ feature, designed to ridicule and deflate the egos of its interviewees. Which was fine when they were dealing with the likes of Jimmy Savile, Jeffrey Archer and Robert Maxwell, but why they felt the need to needle Ringo with tiresome questions about whether he felt sorry for Pete Best and so on, I’m not sure. A case of ‘legendary drummer has temerity to release new album and must be taken down a peg or two’ syndrome, I guess. Coincidentally or not, it then all went a bit quiet on the Beatle front in Q for the next few years, perhaps reflecting a change in editorial leadership. But, come 1995, they realised what was almost certain to add a few noughts onto their sales figures. And no one had a bad word to say about Ringo this time.

Wow. Just wow

I don’t think I’ve been so excited to see a magazine on a shelf (no, not even on the top shelf) as the autumn ’95 Q trumpeting The Beatles’ Anthology reunion. Official photos of Paul, George and Ringo together had started to appear in the press a week or two before, but the joyous Linda shot of The ‘Threetles’ which adorned the front of this issue was the kind of thing I’d been dreaming of for a decade or so. Even the magazine seemed to acknowledge the importance of the occasion, unusually omitting photos of anyone else from the cover. The tagline of “their only interview” wasn’t quite borne out by the feature inside – it wasn’t a collective interview, but rather a Paul one (as per usual, he did most of the heavy lifting for the band during the Anthology PR campaign) augmented with short, separate chats with George and Ringo. But no matter, it spilled the beans on the reunion, and was marvellous to read. And the success of the Anthology was one of the main talking points when Macca returned as cover star a little over 18 months later to promote Flaming Pie. He was also asked about modern-day Beatles disciples like Oasis (the magazine’s tiresome, endless obsession with the Gallagher brothers was already well underway), living up to his own legacy and being made a knight. The staff also had another go at rating and reviewing his Beatles and solo albums. Curiously, despite being in his thrall since issue one, they couldn’t bring themselves to give any of his solo works five stars, if they were fearful of being reported to the Cool Police and the Received Wisdom Bureau. A couple of years later, they put together a list of the greatest music stars of the 20th century. John and Paul were first and second, respectively, with Ringo 24th and George curiously lagging behind in 36th place. Still a pretty decent showing though, overall.

Macca interview in 2015

That was pretty much the last knockings of the old-style Q, as it followed the UK’s Radio One and MTV in slowly moving away from the classic pop/rock genre, abandoning that ground to new mags like MOJO and Uncut, and chasing the ‘yoof’ market instead. Nothing wrong with that, per se, except that their target audience was also abandoning the print format for the internet and perhaps (I am generalising here) weren’t into bands in the same way as earlier generations were. It didn’t help either that the content over the past decade or so seemed to me to become more vapid, glossy and repetitive (another list anyone, or perhaps one more sneering Gallagher cover?). Beatles-wise, there was the odd cover story – anniversary articles on both the band and John, plus sporadic Paul interviews – reflecting their enduring cross-generational appeal.  But Q itself seemed to lose its identity, and sales went with it. COVID-19 applied the finishing touch.

Full-on Fabs, and a great end result

There was one last great hurrah. In 1999, with the millennium and all that involved fast approaching, Q put out a special 164-page limited edition entitled The Beatles – Band of the Century. Bringing together some of their previous coverage (such as the aforementioned epic Sgt Pepper history and the Anthology interviews) with a raft of new articles, chronologies, eye-witness reports, album reviews and a terrific array of photographs, it told the group’s collective story from formation to 1970 end (plus the 1990s reunion) in superlative style. There are some especially good pieces on the Fabs’ astonishing development and growth in 1966, and the making of all their albums from Revolver on (though sadly little on earlier efforts). While much more historical detail has emerged in the years since, and similar ground has been covered by the likes of Record Collector, MOJO, Uncut, Rolling Stone and many others, it’s still possibly the best single-issue edition of its kind. It’s well worth picking up, and shows what Q was capable of in its heyday.

Lennon’s on sale again: the “hits” albums

In these days of downloads and streaming, the greatest hits album has become largely redundant. Yes, you still get a steady flow of new or repackaged ones, aimed at the supermarket-shopping crowd. And the most famous ones remain a reliable fall-back for those of us who still bother to buy albums, as the UK charts testify (though I’m amazed there is still anyone left to buy Queen’s Greatest Hits who hasn’t already got it). But the days of Abba Gold, The Eagles’ Greatest Hits or, indeed, The Beatles’ 1 are slowly fading into history.

In a way, it’s a shame, as such compilations often provide the gateway into an act’s rich and varied back catalogue. Many people are happy just to have the hits, to be sure, but for some listeners it just gives you a taste for more. I came to The Beatles via 1962-66 and The Beatles’ Ballads albums, for example (though it transpired many of their other songs were already hardwired into my psyche). And for a long time, singles have effectively been marketing tools to encourage you to buy the album that spawned them. In recent years, there has been shift towards collections mixing singles with other material picked by someone or other – sometimes the artist(s) themselves, but as often as not record company executives. The most recent McCartney and Harrison compilations have taken that approach, but I’m really not a fan. These collections are essentially designed to appeal to the casual fan or to attract newbies, and so should surely be based around hits and other radio-friendly singles which people are most familiar with. For one thing, someone’s subjective judgement on what an artist’s “best” songs are is just that – subjective. We all have different ideas on what makes a great song, and there is no determining yardstick or criteria we all adhere to (certainly some of the selections on the aforementioned Paul and George collections, Pure McCartney and Let It Roll, are highly questionable). And it doesn’t make any commercial sense, either – if you’re looking at a ‘best of’ tracklist which is half full of songs you don’t know but missing a couple of singles you really liked, chances are you won’t buy it.

John’s solo catalogue offers particular challenges to compilers. He was active only from 1969-75 and in 1980, so there is a limit to how much you can shuffle the pack. That said, there are a decent number of singles to work with, and a fair number of genuine hits, which have given his compilations a degree of consistency over the years and prevented his work being cannibalised too much or too often. Though even that hasn’t prevented the record companies from making some very strange choices.

Shaved Fish (1975)

The first Lennon hits album, and the only one released in his lifetime, was Shaved Fish in 1975. Released by EMI after his Apple contract expired and he went into semi-retirement, it brought together all of his US and UK solo singles to that point – almost. For some reason his most recent hit, the cover of ‘Stand By Me’, was omitted. And one of his most famous songs, ‘Give Peace A Chance’, is for presented in truncated form, a minute of the original recording opening the album and a short burst of a live 1972 version closing it. Bizarre. Nonetheless, it’s a decent effort, bringing together everything else including two US-only singles, ‘Mother’ from 1970’s Plastic Ono Band album and ‘Woman is the Nigger of the World’, a typically provocative number from 1972’s Sometime in New York City. Neither were hits, but their inclusion here makes the album a more rounded reflection of John’s early career. The cover, which features illustrations of each song, was also a nice touch. I first heard the album in the summer of 1986 when I borrowed it from a friend (along with Paul’s Pipes of Peace and The Best of George Harrison – happy days), and it was the first time I’d heard much of the material. While it worked as a good introduction, the abrasive nature of some songs made me yearn for some of the more melodic, relaxed numbers he recorded in 1980 to balance it out a bit.

The John Lennon Collection (1982)

The next compilation, 1982’s The John Lennon Collection, more than made up for that – probably too much so, in fact. Originally planned for 1981, soon after his death, it was delayed a year while EMI hammered out a deal with Geffen Records (which released his final album, Double Fantasy) to agree a full, career-spanning tracklist. Having done that, EMI made sure it got its pound of flesh, extracting no less than six out of the seven Lennon songs from Double Fantasy (‘Cleanup Time’ was the abandoned orphan) to include on the compilation, including ‘(Just Like) Starting Over’ and the posthumous hits ‘Woman’ and ‘Watching The Wheels’. To make way for these, it dropped ‘Mother’ and ‘Woman is the….’ and, more contentiously, ‘Cold Turkey’ (the album came out in the festive season and, its title notwithstanding, executives presumably thought a nightmarish song about heroin withdrawal wouldn’t make ideal family listening on Christmas Day). Elsewhere, the full version of ‘Give Peace A Chance’ was included and ‘Stand By Me’ added – along with 1970’s ‘Love’ and the following year’s ‘Jealous Guy’. It probably made sense to include the latter, as it was already well known and had been taken to #1 in the UK by Roxy Music following John’s death. But ‘Love’ feels out of place. Yes, it’s a wonderful song – one of the best he ever wrote, I think – but it wasn’t a hit single and was far too subtle to ever become one (as proved when EMI released it to promote this album and it failed to reach the Top 40). And the release of the Milk and Honey album 15 months later, featuring other songs John recorded in his final 1980 sessions (including the big hit ‘Nobody Told Me’), would soon make this tracklisting incomplete.

On the whole, though, The John Lennon Collection was a decent stab at a career overview. Featuring some great pictures of John taken by celebrated photographer Annie Liebovitz on the last day of his life, the album was a perfect package for a world still reeling from his murder two years earlier. It went to #1 in the UK, selling a million copies within a month, and went triple platinum in the US. It was the go-to compilation for a long time and, when EMI acquired full rights to the Double Fantasy material and reissued Collection on CD in 1989, it restored ‘Cold Turkey’ and added hard-to-find 1975 b-side ‘Move Over Ms. L’, making it an even better set.

Lennon Legend (1997)

By the time 1997 rolled around, John and The Beatles were benefiting from another generational awakening, thanks to the recent Beatles Anthology project and (in the UK, at least) being name-checked as a source of inspiration for many Britpop bands. EMI cashed in on this with Lennon Legend: The Very Best of John Lennon, featuring a fabulous Imagine-era shot of John on the cover, looking like he could have been a member of Oasis (oh, the irony). This new 20-track collection dispensed with a couple of the Double Fantasy numbers and brought in ‘Nobody Told Me’ and another Milk and Honey single from 1984, ‘Borrowed Time’. All his 1970-80 UK singles were present and correct, along with ‘Jealous Guy’. This time around, though, ‘Love’ was joined by another Plastic Ono Band album track, ‘Working Class Hero’. I guess it’s a reasonably well known song but, again, this is someone’s (or more likely a committee’s) idea of what constitutes John’s best work. It certainly isn’t mine, though, and I don’t think it has a place here. That quibble aside, however, I think this is probably the most satisfying and complete of all Lennon hits compilations and it did almost as well as its predecessor, hitting #3 in the UK and selling nearly two million copies in the States.

Working Class Hero (2005)

In 2005, the company bosses decided to push the envelope and issue a two-disc set which really went for the subjective ‘best of’ angle. Yoko and EMI had released remastered and, in some cases, remixed versions of all John’s studio albums (with bonus tracks) in the early 2000s, so I guess it seemed an opportune time to promote them, along with more obscure parts of the Lennon catalogue. Working Class Hero: The Definitive Lennon had a whopping 38 tracks, including all his singles (US and UK) and selected songs from every studio album (though nothing from his late-‘60s avant garde masterpieces with Yoko, funnily enough). There was also his version of ‘Come Together’ from his otherwise forgotten posthumous Live in New York City album, and a couple of tracks from the 1998 John Lennon Anthology demos and outtakes set – including ‘Real Love’, one of the songs transformed into a fully-fledged Beatles single by Paul, George and Ringo in 1995.

It goes without saying there is loads of great stuff on this. ‘God’, ‘Oh My Love’, ‘New York City’ and ‘Scared’ are among the laudable choices made by the compilers (though with just one song, the Rock ‘n’ Roll album feels somewhat shortchanged). But definitive? Again, that’s just a matter of opinion. I would’ve said ‘Aisumasen’, from Mind Games, is easily among his best solo songs, but there’s no sign of it here. And John’s discography is so relatively small that, if you already like the singles, you may as well just get his albums rather than dally with this half-way house collection. It also loses points for rehashing the Andy Warhol interpretation of an photo of John that had already been used on the cover of 1986 release Menlove Avenue. Still, it did okay in the UK, reaching #11, though it barely made a dent in the US charts.

Power to the People: The Hits (2010)

The last Lennon hits album came in 2010, when – to mark what would’ve been his 70th birthday – EMI released all his studio albums once again, this time with their original mixes. Alongside these came Power To The People: The Hits, a streamlined, 15-track compilation, featuring a classic 1974 New York shot of John on the cover. Most of the usual suspects were here, though definite hit ‘Nobody Told Me’ was inexplicably omitted and ‘Gimme Some Truth’ – never even a single, much less a hit – was included. WTF? Again, it made the UK Top 20, but falling sales indicated this was both a case of going to the well once too often and a sign of an increasingly redundant album format.

If you’re reading this, chances are at the very least you own, or stream, all John’s hit singles anyway. If that’s all of his solo work you have, I’d urge you to exploring his albums too. I’ve always found his singles to be something of a mixed bag. Some – like ‘Instant Karma!’, ‘Imagine’ and ‘Woman’ – are timeless gems that stand among his best work, while tunes like ‘Give Peace A Chance’, ‘Power to the People’ and (to a certain extent) ‘Cold Turkey’ showcase John at his most strident but not his most persuasive or musically adept. Essential though they are, far greater wonders await you in the lesser-charted territory of his albums.

‘I Feel Fine’: the first Beatles promo film

On 25 November 1965, The Beatles went into Twickenham Studios to record – for the first time – a batch of promotional films. The aim was to assuage the overwhelming demand for TV appearances around the world. By this time, the band was much less inclined to accept every invitation for a guest slot which came their way, but understood the need to keep their faces on screens in every country where their records were released. Making promotional films must have seemed the perfect compromise – spending a few hours miming to their latest singles and sending the clips out on tour would save days or even weeks of travel and tiresome television work. And they could make money from the distribution rights, too. In doing so, they inadvertently created – albeit in embryonic form – the pop video format. 

During that day, they filmed black and white ‘performances’ of their upcoming single, ‘We Can Work It Out’/’Day Tripper’, as well their other 1965 hits ‘Help!’ and ‘Ticket To Ride’, which were no doubt still selling in various places around the globe. Curiously, they also recorded a clip for a song which was by then a full year old and so must’ve been increasingly distant in their musical rear-vew mirror – ‘I Feel Fine’.

One of the 1964 single picture sleeves

I always feel ‘I Feel Fine’ tends to get a little lost in the mix when people consider the band’s singles from 1964-66. Of course, it was #1 in almost every music chart around the world, sold squillions and became yet another pop standard which has resonated down the decades. But it just doesn’t seem to get quite the attention of, say, ‘Can’t Buy Me Love’ or ‘Help!’. I have to admit, it’s probably my least favourite single from that period, but I still love it to bits. It’s a perfect pop nugget – from the twangy riff which powers the tune to Ringo’s inventive drumming, and from the tight harmonies to John’s raspy lead vocal. And then there’s the pioneering blast of guitar feedback which drags you into the opening bars, plus a just-about-audible Paul barking like a dog during the fade-out. It’s playful, zestful and masterful.  That fact that their other singles from the mid ‘60s were even better shows what absurdly high standards they set.

Nonetheless, such was the speed of their musical development (Rubber Soul was in the can by this point), this track must’ve felt relatively antiquated by the time they came to make these films. It was still in their concert set list though, so maybe that’s why they decided to include it in the filming schedule that day. Even so, there is a slightly perfunctory feel about it –  the film reflects The Beatles of late 1965, rather than the (slightly) more serious, eager-to-please band which cut the record 12 months before.

No expense spared at Twickenham

The sets at Twickenham for all the promo films were pretty basic, to say the least, and ‘I Feel Fine’ was no different. For some reason, it features a set of randomly placed gym props – a punch ball, some dumbbells and an exercise bike (perhaps the idea being that a work-out will help you “feel fine”? Or perhaps I’m giving the director way too much credit). Into this curious setting stride John, Paul and George to mime to the opening verse. There’s a relaxed mood of larking around from the get-go, with George cheerfully chatting away when he’s supposed to be singing, and Paul nodding and laughing to someone off-camera. You wonder why they didn’t do another take – though it may have been that this was already take 23 (a whiff of marijuana was perhaps in the air). Then it’s time for Ringo to inject still more fun into the proceedings, as he capers on and jumps on the exercise bike, pedalling away and occasionally winking in our direction. John also mugs for the camera a couple of times, and before you know it the song is over.

Paul and John in jovial mood

I first saw the film in the spring of 1987, when Channel 4 music show The Tube showed excerpts from it and one of the ‘Day Tripper’ promo films to coincide with release of the first four Beatles albums on CD (neither track appears on any of them, of course, but I presume Apple thought any publicity was good publicity). ‘I Feel Fine’ isn’t their best video (it isn’t even the best one they made that day) – consider how much they had upped the ante with the stunning colour films for ‘Paperback Writer’ and ‘Rain’ just six months later. But, like almost everything else they did, it oozes charm. John and Paul look very cool in their black tops, while the hair – particularly John’s and George’s – was starting to look a little wild by this point. Again, you wonder whether a stylist – or just someone with a brush – was on hand when the biggest entertainment phenomenon of the century rocked up to make some films which would be shown to millions of people around the world. But, hey, that’s part of their appeal. It’s all very relaxed, fun without being forced. They are having a laugh at it all and we get to share in that, all the while marvelling at how effortlessly brilliant they were.

“Quick – let’s eat this before we go veggie!”

As if to emphasise the laid back feel, there is another version of the film – released on the 1 DVD video collection in 2015 – where they occasionally mouth some of the words while eating fish and chips. With their fingers. From paper wrapping. On the floor! It’s so English, so lovable, and so them. You can only speculate whether any third-rate fleeting pop act of today would even contemplate such low-grade culinary conditions while making their latest big-budget video, but The Beatles never seemed to give a monkeys about any of that. They were always true to themselves, in their art and in the way they lived, and I think that’s one reason why they remain the biggest selling rock band in the world. ‘I Feel Fine’, either version, didn’t need a glamorous location setting, lavish special effects, guest stars, high production values, a battalion of make-up artists or even much of a set. It had the Fab Four and that was – and still is – more than enough.