‘The Beatles After The Break-Up, 1970-2000’ (1999)

One of the curious aspects of fandom – not just pertaining to The Beatles, but to any major act – is that unquenchable desire to know stuff, to learn more. To find out little details about the people who created the work that we’ve come to love so much. Over the years, I’ve tried not to get too drawn into the minutiae of what George liked to put on his toast or John’s favourite trousers, never mind the label variations of the band’s early US singles or the subtle differences between takes 73 and 88 of ‘Not Guilty’, for example. I know there are people who salivate over this kind of stuff but I’ve only got so much capacity in my brain, and I’d rather not fill it with that level of trivia. Nonetheless, The Beatles’ story is such that there is a continent of rich terrain to explore before you get to the edge of that particular cliff and, once you start reading about their lives, it’s difficult to find your way out of the jungle again. Let’s face it, to any normal person, a 631-page book outlining the day-to-day activities of the Fab Four in the 30 years after they split might seem a bit excessive. But, if you’re anything like me, Keith Badman’s The Beatles After The Break-Up, 1970-2000 remains a glorious, compelling read – a feast of Beatle titbits that will have you licking your lips for months. 

The original 1999 edition

Subtitled A Day-by-Day Diary, the hefty tome was first published in 1999 and fulfilled its remit in sumptuous style. Kicking off at the start of April 1970, just before The Beatles’ split was announced, it is divided into calendar year sections filled not only with the dates of recording sessions, single and album releases, concert performances and TV appearances but also….well, pretty much anything and everything Badman managed to uncover in the course of his extensive research. So we get notable court cases, video shoots, press conferences, interviews, film roles, business meetings, public appearances and holidays, plus a sprinkling of reviews, prominent press rumours, chart placings and awards. And he doesn’t just stick to the individual careers of the now ex-Fabs, but also charts the steady growth of the band’s herculean afterlife, from early ‘70s radio retrospectives and the rushed release of the 1962-66 and 1967-70 compilation albums through to the huge multi-media Anthology project of the 1990s, and beyond. The whole book is testament to the view of people like me that The Beatles’ story didn’t end when its constituent members went their separate ways, but instead just entered a different phase – one which was just as eventful, interesting and entertaining as what came before. 

If the diary format sounds a little dry, it really isn’t. For the most part, Badman fleshes out the sequence of events with well-chosen interview quotes, reactions, background details and other nuggets of insight which bring the history to life. You could use After The Break-up as a reliable reference work, but reading it from cover to cover is a great way to chart the ebb and flow of their solo careers, as they happened. This is particularly true in the first half of the 1970s, as they all raced out of the blocks to establish their individual identities (all the while trying to disentangle themselves from the rotting Apple Corps situation), while the world was still reeling from the fact that their collective partnership was no more. All four were going at full tilt, and – as the book demonstrates – crammed in an extraordinary amount of activity. As well as all of them pumping out singles and albums on a regular basis, you had John and Yoko dabbling in radical New York politics, Ringo forging a low-key film career, George striving to support humanitarian work in war-torn Bangla Desh and Paul putting in the hard yards to establish Wings as a musical force. Plus plenty more besides. Whether scoring big hits, appearing in court, selling out concerts or sniping at each other through the pages of the music press, they were rarely out of the headlines or off the airwaves. For all the ongoing trauma of the split and its ensuing fall-out, it must’ve been a fabulous time to be a Beatles fan.  

George with Ravi Shankar, promoting an Indian music festival in London, 1974

As a noted collector of film and video material (as the book reveals, he was invited to help assemble footage for the Anthology TV series), Badman is especially good on detailing TV appearances and the production of promotional clips, including some items which never actually saw the light of day. And, as this book was published before the advent of YouTube and archive material was rarely seen outside of bootleg VHS tapes and screenings at fan get-togethers, he also transcribes sections of notable broadcast interviews, such as John’s and George’s guest spots on the US Dick Cavett Show in the early 1970s. His exhaustive documentation of the Fabs’ promotional activities also sheds light on some of the priorities of their individual careers – Paul, for example, seems to have popped up on every TV and radio show known to man to promote his Give My Regards to Broad Street film in 1984/85 (sadly, to little avail), whereas the usually publicity-shy George went into promotional overdrive to successfully plug his ‘comeback’ album Cloud Nine in 1987/88. And the book is a goldmine when it comes to recording Beatle interactions during these years, with Badman’s research throwing up some headline-grabbing discoveries at the time of publication. For example, it contains the first-ever published photograph of John and Paul together after the split, when the McCartneys visited John in Los Angeles during his so-called ‘lost weekend’ separation from Yoko (and while one or two other photos have since emerged from this event, it remains the only time we know they were definitely captured on camera together after 1969). And the author also somehow got hold of a message of support George and Olivia Harrison sent Paul when he was incarcerated in a Tokyo prison cell in January 1980. Similarly, he’s very good at picking out instances of the Fabs talking about each other – so we know that George liked ‘That Would Be Something’ and ‘Maybe I’m Amazed’ (if little else) on the McCartney album, and that Paul thought George’s 1973 ‘Give Me Love’ single was “very nice….The guitar solo is ace.” I can’t get enough of stuff like this, and the book is full of it. 

John and Paul (with Keith Moon and Linda) in ’74 – the last known photograph of Lennon and McCartney together

Again, while After The Break-up is not written like a conventional biography, it nonetheless reveals an awful lot about the Fabs’ evolving attitudes to their collective legacy and the omnipresent press enquiry about whether they would ever reunite. John, after adopting a scorched earth policy in his infamous ‘Lennon Remembers’ 1970 interview with Rolling Stone which basically trashed everything and everyone connected with the Beatles’ years (the book also reproduces a scathing letter he wrote to Melody Maker in 1971 about George Martin), was by 1975 singing a very different tune. “I’ve lost all that negativity about the past….I’d do ‘Hey Jude’ and the whole damn show,” he told Melody Maker. But, true to form, when 1980 rolled around he had revised his opinion yet again; while happy to discuss his Fab Four experiences with all and sundry, he told Newsweek that anyone expecting them to revive the Beatle brand and its concordant magic would be “out of their skulls…..I was never one for reunions. It’s all over.” George, by contrast, was happy to keep the door open to a reunion at the dawn of the 1970s, but by 1974 was telling the world he wouldn’t be in a band with Paul McCartney and in the early 1980s seemed somewhat irritated, even bitter, by the relentless media focus on the past (“They’re not interested in me as a human being, they are only interested in The Beatles – what guitar I played on Sgt Pepper and all that crap,” he told the Sunday Times in 1983). While this resentment would continue to flare up from time to time, his stance did soften, and he shared many fond recollections when promoting Cloud Nine in the late ‘80s or contributing to the Anthology project a few years later.

Ringo seemed the most relaxed about his Fabs heritage, at least until the early 1980s, when he began to weary of reporters skimming over questions about his latest record in a rush to ask about the last time he’d seen Paul or George or his take on Beatlemania – interviewed on US TV show Entertainment Tonight in 1981, for instance, he said: “It’s more exciting for me to talk about my records than Beatles records, ‘cos we’ve been talking about them for 20 years.” Paul, of course, carried out the biggest U-turn. While it’s something of a myth that he rarely answered questions about The Beatles in 1970s, it’s true that he adopted a rather testy bearing towards such queries in the early part of the decade, when his legal battle with the others was raging and he was striving to get Wings off the ground (when asked about a comment John had made by a Melody Maker reporter in 1972, he replied: “John who?”). As the book repeatedly demonstrates, however, by the time the 1980s were in full flow Paul had become the cheerleader for all things Beatles, invoking their name at the drop of a hat and actively engineering the reunion which eventually came to pass in the 1990s. 

Ringo promoting ‘Shining Time Station’ (the US equivalent of ‘Thomas The Tank Engine’) in 1989

I certainly learned loads reading the book, from unreleased songs recorded by Ringo during the 1970s through to the seemingly endless number of litigation cases brought by or against the Fabs which spread through their post-Beatles lives like the tendrils of a particularly noxious (albeit fascinating) vine. It also turns up some incredibly detailed stuff on George, including films he borrowed (before the days of home video) to watch at Friar Park, his flights abroad and even his tax returns for a few years. And it was enormous fun retracing my gradual immersion in the Beatles world, putting dates and context around my earliest memories of the band and its constituent members and then the record releases, TV spots and other events I began to devour in earnest from the mid-1980s onwards. Sadly, however, it’s at that mid-way point where After The Break-up starts to run out of steam a little bit. While the attention to detail in documenting the surviving Fabs’ every move continues to astound, the well-chosen interview excerpts dotted through the first half of the book become much thinner on the ground; likewise the level of detail afforded certain projects in the 1970s and early ‘80s diminishes later on (compare the two pages or more devoted to 1973’s James Paul McCartney TV special with the couple of paragraphs covering Macca’s Put It There documentary in 1989, for example). A few topics, such as Paul’s landmark 1989/90 world tour and the build-up to the Anthology series in 1995, receive a decent bit of attention and it remains a great read, but I felt Badman’s enthusiasm waned a little in the second half of the book, which becomes more of a run-through of dates, places and headlines. Maybe he felt John’s absence made the on-going story less interesting; maybe there were simply more TV, radio and concert appearances to cram in at the expense of more colourful, deeper information, or maybe – in the case of the more sparse interview material – he was saving stuff for his follow-up volume, the solo interviews collection Off The Record

Paul gives it the big fist pump at Live Aid, Wembley Stadium, 1985

While Badman may have had an editor or publisher urging him to rein stuff in as the book grew and grew, I would question a few of his content choices which did make the final cut. Information about Yoko tours and art exhibitions in the 1980s and beyond seems a little superfluous to me, as does the extensive coverage he gives to Eric Idle’s spoof The Rutles. His decision to include repeated mentions of Britpop band (and wannabe Beatles) Oasis and their retorts to George’s comments about them in the late 1990s hasn’t aged well, either, and listing TV screenings of Help! or A Hard Day’s Night gets somewhat tiresome by the book’s end. And while it’s fun to read when George took his family off on jaunts to Australia or the US, do we really need to know what time their planes touched down or how much the flight tickets cost? There are refreshingly few mistakes for such a gargantuan, meticulously researched undertaking, and the ones there usually occur when something accidentally pops up in the wrong year – John is listed as mixing his Some Time in New York City album months before he is reported as actually recording it, for example. What bugs me more is a slight lack of consistency over what is included, and where. Chart placings are given for some singles and albums, and not for others; and when they are listed, it’s sometimes when the record is released, and sometimes when it reaches its chart peak. Likewise, while the author relies heavily on Beatle interviews with the UK’s music weeklies, New Musical Express and Melody Maker, major, front page chats with heavyweight US journals like Rolling Stone and Musician (as well as Q and MOJO magazines in Britain) are largely ignored. I know it seems a little churlish to complain when there’s already such a wealth of information between the covers, but I think if you’re going to do something like this you might as well go all in. And it’s probably just me, but I don’t like the tendency to put exclamation marks in some of the interview transcriptions and attach weighted terms like “he ranted” to perfectly measured statements. It adds a slightly cartoonish, tabloid quality to their words which isn’t necessary (and can be somewhat misleading). 

John and Yoko in New York’s Central Park, autumn 1980

These are minor gripes, however. If you’re anything like me, when you reach the end of the chapter on 1999 you’ll be regretting the book has not been properly expanded and updated in the years since. When it was first published, George was still with us; Paul had yet to marry Heather Mills (let alone Nancy Shevell) and form the tour band which still backs him on concert stages around the world to this day; Ringo still had almost half of his solo music catalogue to record, and the bonanza of Apple-sanctioned Beatles archive releases which kicked off in the 2000s remained the stuff of fan fantasy and speculation on the nascent internet. True, there was a paperback edition early in 2001 (with an amended title of The Beatles Diary Vol. 2, so that it dovetailed in with a similar volume covering the group years by Barry Miles, also published by Omnibus Press), but it simply added a few extra pages to bring the story into the 2000s. It’s interesting to note the things he predicted in the final pages of the first edition which did materialise soon afterwards, such as The Beatles 1 compilation, Paul’s Wingspan documentary and the Gimme Some Truth film showcasing the making of John’s Imagine album. Other products, like CD releases of the Live at the Hollywood Bowl and the original Get Back album, took a lot, lot longer, while we are of course still waiting for the Let It Be film and a collection of rare and unreleased material from George’s archives. Plus ça change.

Ringo and George reunited onstage for the Prince’s Trust Concert in London, 1987

A revised version bringing the story up to date would be very welcome, but maybe Badman figures that – with Paul and Ringo still in good health and very active – it would become instantly obsolete as soon as it hit the shops. Or maybe he simply can’t face trawling through another 22 years’ worth of Beatles ephemera to keep us all clued up on their every movement and utterance. Frankly, he deserves a medal for doing it first time around. He undoubtedly succeeds to demonstrating that The Beatles’ second act was just as engrossing and exciting as their first, even if it didn’t have the same social impact or enduring, all-conquering popularity. And on that level, as this book amply demonstrates, they only really suffer in comparison to their earlier selves – all four Fabs achieved individual success that most acts could only dream of, and even their misfires have been rarely less than captivating. If you love the solo ventures, or want to learn more about them, After The Break-Up is a must-have. I give it an 8.

‘The Beatles and India’

For me, The Beatles’ excursion to India in the spring of 1968 has always been one of the most fascinating – and yet under-explored – chapters in the band’s story. I remember when I first began reading up on the Fabs and looked wide-eyed at photos of them bedecked in flowers sat at the feet of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, seeking spiritual enlightenment in the shadow of the Himalyas. Pretty much all of their career seemed like an impossible fiction, but that episode seemed really far out. It was all so crazily exotic; as well as showing how far they were prepared to go in pursuing their interest in Transcendental Meditation (inadvertently helping to pivot Western spiritual focus away from traditional Christian norms, for young people at least), I think I’ve always really loved the fact that it was another wild adventure for the still-united gang of four (and their partners), who – in spite of their money, fame and freedom – felt the need to do everything together. The fact that their stay in Rishikesh produced the bulk of the songs which made up the White Album later that year adds to the intrigue, as does the view held by some that the trip may have sown some seeds which ultimately led to the group’s disintegration. The wonderful home movie footage from that period was among the highlights of The Beatles Anthology series, and we were treated to even more of it during 2021’s Get Back documentary. But I’ve always wanted to know more – a gap in knowledge which was filled, to some degree, by the 2021 film The Beatles and India

The artwork promoting the film

Directed by Ajoy Bose (who wrote the 2018 book Across The Universe: The Beatles in India) and Peter Compton, the film takes a look at the Fabs’ entire love affair with Indian culture and not just the Rishikesh sojourn, starting with the initial interest stirred by George’s first encounter with a sitar on the set of Help! in 1965. As the documentary received no official support or authorisation from Apple, the filmmakers were unable to make use of actual Beatles recordings or the 1968 home movie footage, but it didn’t really hamper the project at all. There’s a wealth of newsreel film, radio recordings and archive photographs on show, alongside modern-day interviews with people involved in the story as well as with Indian musicians inspired by The Beatles – reflecting the cultural cross-fertilisation the band’s interest in the country helped to ignite. British authors Mark Lewisohn and Steve Turner provide some biographical context to the tale, and there’s no shortage of Beatle interview excerpts to keep the pot boiling (we also get reminiscences from Pattie Boyd and a rare interview clip from the time with Jane Asher). And to seal the deal, there’s plenty of film showing the Maharishi’s ashram compound as it looks today, nicely woven into the footage captured during the band’s stay. It’s all pieced together in fairly traditional documentary style and, for the most part, works really well.

The story begins at the height of Beatlemania, and the band’s burgeoning musical ambition showcased with the incorporation of a sitar on ‘Norwegian Wood’, from 1965’s Rubber Soul. We hear from George about his growing love of Indian music, and so it’s no surprise that the Fabs made a point of stopping off in Delhi during their 1966 world tour. This part of the film yields some great footage and anecdotes, including how future James Bond actor Kabir Bedi (who played a memorable villain in 1983’s Octopussy) blagged his way into The Beatles’ hotel room and got to hear some of the forthcoming Revolver album. The sons of two music store owners also recount how the Fabs bought a host of Indian instruments during their visit and how, during a demonstration of a sitar, they first heard the name of Ravi Shankar. Soon afterwards, we get an eyewitness account of George’s first meeting with the sitar maestro at a dinner party in London (interestingly, Paul was also present, though he apparently felt left out of the conversation and ended up smoking a lot of cigarettes instead). George, accompanied by wife Pattie, subsequently travelled to India to study sitar with Shankar, though even here he couldn’t escape the attention of the media or obsessive fans. One woman who managed to get into his Delhi hotel suite without permission recounts his “rude” reaction on finding her there, as if he was supposed to be happy about unauthorised intruders into his personal space (he still signed an autograph for her, though).

George demonstrates the sitar to the others during their stopover in Delhi, 1966

With George leading the charge, The Beatles’ interest in all things Indian expanded considerably with the arrival of the Maharishi on the scene in the summer of 1967. Charmed by his chirpy insights into the attainment of divinity, the band followed the ‘giggling guru’ (copyright: the UK press) to a meditation retreat in Bangor, north Wales, an unlikely setting for celestial awakening if ever there was one. The shock of Brian Epstein’s unexpected death cut short their stay, but their enthusiasm for spiritual development remained undimmed and the scene was set for their extended visit to the Maharishi’s ashram the following year. It’s always puzzled me, though, that in the meantime (October 1967) Paul and George felt the need to travel to Sweden and ask their guru to stop using The Beatles’ name for his own PR purposes (there’s even a brief excerpt from a TV interview with them during this trip, which I’d never seen before, included here). The filmmakers’ attitude towards the Maharishi is also somewhat conflicted, though. Journalist Saeed Naqvi, who managed to gain access to his ashram during The Beatles’ stay by posing as a disciple, describes the content of the Yogi’s lectures as “absurd” and “arcane nonsense”, while there’s a very odd segment when a female student describes her disappointment after the Maharishi sent her to a prayer room to recite a mantra and promised a life-changing experience, which then failed to materialise. The inference, from these two testimonies, was that the whole meditation thing was a scam of some kind, yet elsewhere in the film he is treated like a revered holy man (notably the solemn still which notes his death in 2008). Perhaps it was an attempt at balance, but it comes over as very superficial.

The Fabs, and partners (from left: Maureen, Jane, Pattie and Cynthia) pay homage to the Maharishi at his Ashram in Rishikesh

Either way, The Beatles’ faith in the Maharishi’s teachings was clearly strong as they travelled to Rishikesh in February 1968, joined by other pop culture luminaries such as actress Mia Farrow, Beach Boy Mike Love and folk troubadour Donovan, and with the world’s media in hot pursuit. This is the real meat of the documentary, populated with glorious, high-quality footage from the time, a tour of the retreat as it looks today – run down, but still recognisable – and some terrific stories from those who were there. We get to hear from the wife of the compound’s manager, the Maharishi’s publicist and an English visitor who was present for the party thrown in honour of Pattie Boyd’s 24th birthday. There’s even an interview with the pilot of the helicopter flight over the nearby countryside when John famously managed to bag the sole seat next to the Maharishi, in the hope that, while they were alone, “he would slip me ‘the answer’”. And, of course, there is discussion of how – relaxed and free from drugs, business pressures and the relentless spotlight engendered by their extraordinary fame – new songs poured forth from John, Paul and George, usually written while basking in the sunshine atop the roofs of their apartments. You get the feeling it must’ve been a special time for them – certainly, in retrospect, it seems like their last great shared venture before everything began to unravel.

The Fabs lead a sing-song on the banks of the River Ganges

They all seemed to have a different take on the experience, though. Ringo – apparently praised by the Maharishi for being all about “feelings and heart”, whereas the other Beatles let their brains get in the way – famously left the ashram with spouse Maureen after ten days, unable to cope with the spicy food there and also missing their young children. Paul, in customary fashion, took what he needed from the meditation camp, recharged his batteries and headed home with Jane Asher after a few weeks. John and George, the most committed, eventually quit in acrimonious circumstances in April, amid rumours of less-than-sacred dalliances between their guru and young female disciples. The films delves deeply into this tale, questioning the veracity of these claims but also postulating that the two remaining Fabs may have been equally disillusioned with the Maharishi’s plans to commericially exploit his Beatles connection via a US TV special and the like. Interestingly, though, while Lennon later recanted his belief in Transcendental Meditation (and even skewered the Maharishi in song, via the White Album’s thinly-veiled ‘Sexy Sadie’), the documentary features an interview clip of him describing the Indian experiences as “the biggest trip of my life”. For his part, George deeply regretted their abrupt departure from the retreat and poor treatment of the Yogi, later apologising to him and retaining his belief in meditation, and Eastern spirituality, for the rest of his life. It’s no surprise that Harrison is the Beatle featured most prominently in the film, and he has lots of interesting stuff to say.

John and Paul compose some new tunes as Ringo watches on

For all the documentary’s strengths, I wish some things had been done differently. The exploration of the White Album material they came up with during their visit, and the influence of their surroundings on the songs, is pretty scant. Likewise, there is curiously little about what actually lured them there in the first place – the meditation practices and the benefits they brought. Okay, I wouldn’t want a lengthy transcendental treatise slowing the pace down too much, but it’s pretty central to the theme of film and I didn’t really come away knowing much more about it. Also, while it’s great to see what the ashram looks like today, I still didn’t get much of a feel of it’s geography, how big it was/is, and where it was in relation to Rishikesh. The compound is open now as a tourist attraction (friends of mine visited it during a holiday in India), so maybe one day I’ll go and take a look myself. And while the directors make artful use of the archive film at their disposal, there are one or two shots of people traipsing around the Himalyas which outstay their welcome. I’d have also liked to have heard more from Mark Lewisohn about the importance of the Indian episode in The Beatles’ life cycle – he’s on record as saying the band which went to Rishikesh was very different to the one which came back – though maybe he wasn’t asked, or was saving his thoughts for a future book. My biggest bugbear, though, is a section revolving around ludicrous claims The Beatles’ visit was part of some kind of Soviet plot, designed to indoctrinate Western youth with passivity and inaction, and so help Russia gain the upper hand in the Cold War. It’s frothy nonsense and should’ve been cut to make way for more relevant content.

Inside the main hall at the ashram, as it looks today

Overall, though, The Beatles and India is a very watchable examination of this component of the band’s career, uncovering lots of absorbng nuggets which cast new light on their story. The closing section includes contributions from Indian musicians, past and present, who discuss the influence of The Beatles on them – highlighting the dichotomy of how, while undertaking a pilgrimage to the subcontinent to find new meaning and experiences, the Fabs inadvertently inspired people there who wanted to learn from them. The enduring impact of India on The Beatles themselves is reflected with a couple of nicely-used latter-day brief interview clips, one from the 1990s with George and Ravi Shankar and another with Paul from the early 2000s, talking about how he had taken children Stella and James to see the Maharishi in the Netherlands in 1998 (which I’m thinking, interestingly, would have been soon after Linda’s death). It all makes a nice postscript, underlining – as George wrote about in ‘Within You, Without You’ – how everything is connected, and nothing ever really ends. I saw the film when it was screened by Channel 4 here in the UK last year; I think Britbox North America has also screened it, and you can pick up a DVD copy anywhere. I’m hoping the third volume of Lewisohn’s mammoth All These Years Beatles biography will eventually answer all my questions about the Rishikesh interlude and its fall-out but, as we haven’t even got volume two of that project yet, I would certainly recommend The Beatles and India to be going on with in the meantime.

My Top Ten solo McCartney guitar solos

I don’t know about you, but I love a good guitar solo. There’s something about the way it breaks up a song, adding a splash of beauty or a burst of fire, sometimes emphasising or expanding the theme of the track and sometimes taking you on a detour from it, giving you a breather before plunging you back in. When played well and used judiciously, it can be an integral part of a song, so much so that you can’t imagine it without the solo. The Beatles were masters of the guitar break, even when their musical palette began to extend beyond their original two guitars/bass/drums format. Usually performed by George, but occasionally by Paul or John, their solos were often perfectly pitched components of their material, usually avoiding the flashy pyrotechnics of contemporary guitar heroes such as Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton or Jimi Hendrix. The Fabs’ guitar parts were there to service the song, not the other way around, and there are scores of great examples throughout their catalogue, from ‘I Saw Her Standing There’ to ‘Free as a Bird’. And powerful solos remained a feature of their solo work, with Macca’s output producing more than its fair share of sublime six-string moments.

Playing his favourite Les Paul guitar onstage, 1989

In compiling a list of my favourites, I’ve opted to draw on the best solos featured on his post-Beatles records, regardless of who played them. And Paul has worked with a number of great guitarists, both regular collaborators in Wings and his other backing bands, and via occasional hook-ups with famous pals like Dave Gilmour, Pete Townsend and Steve Miller. All of these have contributed some excellent work but, of course, McCartney’s a none-too shabby player himself and has just as often handled lead guitar duties. For all his prowess as a bassist, it’s something he really loves – as he said when discussing the bluesy track ‘C Link’ on 2018’s Egypt Station: “I’m still thrilled with having the privilege of being able to go up to an amp, turn it on, get my guitar, plug it in and play it very loud. It’s a thrill, and it’s never stopped being a thrill.” His playing is very distinctive and quite different to George Harrison, who was known for painstakingly crafting his guitar parts and practicing them until they were as good as could be. Paul is more someone who goes for ‘feel’, improvising, relying on his musical impulses and aiming for spontaneity. And when it comes off, as we shall see with some of the examples below, he’s more than capable of capturing lightning in a bottle. It’s ironic, considering one or two bandmates down the years have accused him of overbearing prescriptiveness about what he wanted them to play; I imagine they were probably also a little peeved that he was ultimately often better at their job than they were.

Still a guitar freak in 2020

When considering the effectiveness of a guitar solo, it’s impossible to ignore the context of the arrangement it sits within – another thing Macca excels at. Most solos in his music, but especially the best ones, are nestled within a perfectly complementary musical setting. The song tees up the lead guitar to have the maximum impact; it’s not just another part of the track, it’s often the core of it, the moment where the number explodes into life or is elevated to another level, helping to build emotion and sometimes squeeze out even more pathos as the song draws to a close (although it doesn’t make my list, check out Gilmour’s performance on 1989’s ‘We Got Married’ as a terrific example of all this). Context is everything, as I will discuss. There are many great solos from throughout his career which didn’t quite make the cut – honourable mentions (all played by the man himself) include the dippy, dreamy part in ‘Man We Was Lonely’ (1970), the stinging, all-too brief sequence which closes out 1973’s ‘No Words’, the stylish acoustic performance in ‘Dress Me Up As A Robber’ (1982) and the playful, irresistible break in ‘Press’ (1986). But – air guitars at the ready – here are the ones, in order, I consider to be the best.

10. ‘Biker Like An Icon’ (Paul is Live, 1993)

Robbie McIntosh, who worked with Paul from 1988-93, is my favourite of the lead guitarists from McCartney backing bands down the years, and he was probably at his best in the live arena (he even had solo spotlight moments in the two world tours he was part of). Nowhere is this more evident than on this rocking Off The Ground number, which really came to life on stage. Robbie’s growling slide part drives the entire song, but when he cuts loose for the solo, the effect is just exhilarating. It’s an edgy, snarling performance which cranks up the drama of the lyric, and ends with a delightful Harrison-esque flourish which sets up Macca to scream his heart out on the final choruses. Fabulous.

9. ‘The Note You Never Wrote’ (Wings at the Speed of Sound, 1976)

This is a curious track all round, a eerie, elusive story-song written by Paul but sung by Denny Laine over a desolate, low-key arrangment. Low-key that is, until to you get to its brilliant centrepiece, a dazzling solo by Wings Mk.2 guitarist Jimmy McCulloch. In fact, the whole number seems to be geared around that moment, especially the middle section which slowly, wordlessly builds up to it. But, boy, is it worth the wait – a yearning, emotional tour de force, with some of those unexpected, heart-rending notes Jimmy could often pull out of his back pocket (another example is coming up). You see Paul playing lead guitar on a clifftop in his 1987 video for ‘Once Upon A Long Ago’, but – with this tune’s coastal-flavoured lyric – that’s also the perfect visual setting for the haunting, windswept solo here.

8. ‘Good Times Coming/Feel The Sun’ (Press to Play, 1986)

Regular David Bowie collaborator Carlos Alomar plays lead on this, and it’s so good. Awash with 1980s production values, this track mixes loose, reggae-style verses and an infectious, galloping chorus before falling into a hazy, dreamlike middle section. You wonder where it is going, and then the solo erupts out of nowhere, like a sharp stab of reality intruding on proceedings – a theme echoed by the warning in the final verse which follows (“That was a golden summer/Before the war…”), brilliantly undercutting the bouncy optimism of the earlier lyrics. It’s expert songcraft, and Alomar’s deftly-played, swooping-and-climbing solo is key to its success.

7. ‘Letting Go’ (Venus and Mars, 1975)

Another shining moment for Jimmy McCulloch, perhaps his best on a Wings record. Compared with offerings from other axe heroes of the day, it’s a tight, economical performance, and yet he manages to express so much in it. He perfectly captures the romantic-yet-raunchy swagger of the song, and the final pulsating notes when the horn section powers in behind him are jaw-droppingly good. On the live version of the track (available on 1976’s Wings Over America) he also gets to reprise and extend his solo over an extended finale which, along with Paul’s astonishing vocal, ranks among the highlights of Macca’s live career.

6. ‘The Man’ (Pipes of Peace, 1983)

I’ve previously described Paul’s solo in this as joyous, and it really is. We get a taste of it in the intro section, but the fun really begins when it returns midway through the song. Heralded, as at the start, by a stirring burst of strings arranged by George Martin, it’s a perfect fit for the upbeat, life-affirming nature of the tune. Macca’s playing is so fluid and super-melodic, and I love the Isley Brothers-style tone he gets out of his guitar. It’s a giddy, sparkling bit of music in its own right, guaranteed to lift you up on the darkest of days.

5. ‘Maybe I’m Amazed’ (McCartney, 1970)

This had to be in here. It may not be a particularly complex guitar break, the best recorded or the most technically proficient, but it oozes heart and passion. Arriving quite early in the song (like he can’t wait to express himself), it seems to encapsulate the sense of wonder and freedom he had discovered with Linda and the kids away from the madness of The Beatles. As with his vocal on this track, there’s something really deep and primal about his playing, but it also provides a breather before the second pass at the gut-wrenching “Maybe I’m a man…” passage. And, as if to seal the deal, he repeats and then expands the solo during the song’s glorious coda. Magical. All of his regular live guitarists have done this magnificent part justice in concert, but none have ever truly matched it.

4. ‘Too Many People’ (Ram, 1971)

Released at the height of the public spats between the now ex-Beatles, this saw Macca take aim at – among other things – John and Yoko’s “preaching practices”. But the anger and resentment he clearly felt at this time isn’t confined to the lyric and his impassioned vocal; it really boils over into his guitar playing. The strident solo at the centre of the song is good, but he unleashes all his fury and frustration into the lengthy closing section (starting just after the three-minute mark) with some extraordinary extemporisation, his instrument becoming almost like a weapon. Matched by the scratchy, spiky tone he gets from his guitar, it’s a brilliant instance of how music can articulate feelings without a word being sung.

3. ‘My Love’ (Red Rose Speedway, 1973)

An example of where Paul didn’t know best. At a recording session with a live orchestra on standby, this famously saw Wings’ first lead guitarist Henry McCullough request to change the solo he had been playing (presumably at Macca’s instruction) for months on stage and in rehearsal. He thought he could come up with something better and, if you listen to that original live version from 1972, there is no question that he did. It’s simple but beautifully constructed, stretching out the song’s core melody in tender, graceful fashion, in perfect harmony with the lush strings cradling it. It’s a solo worth humming in its own right, it’s so good. McCullough’s bluesy style probably wasn’t generally a great fit with Paul (he left Wings not long after this was released), but his presence in the band was justified by this performance alone.

2. ‘No More Lonely Nights’ (Give My Regards To Broad Street, 1984)

While I’ve never been a big fan of Pink Floyd, I’ve always liked Dave Gilmour’s guitar playing, and he brings something special to this classic McCartney ballad. You may have seen the fireworks which light up the London night sky in the video for the song; to me, Gilmour’s solo delivers a similar effect in the tune’s middle section, his soaring, elegant playing lifting the whole enterprise up towards the heavens. But, like ‘Too Many People’, his masterful performance on the extended ‘outro’ is perhaps even better. It helps take things in a different direction altogether, adding muscle and grit, and bringing out the melancholy quality lurking at the heart of the song.

1. ‘House of Wax’ (Memory Almost Full, 2007)

It’s remarkable that Paul produced what I think is his greatest solo guitar performance so late in his career; and, not only that, he gave us two for the price of one. This brooding masterpiece sets its stall out from the opening, disquieting piano chords, and slowly builds with a menacing, string-laden arrangement, obscure lyric and tortured vocal. By the time you get to the first guitar break, the intensity is almost unbearable, and his raw, jagged playing is like lighting bolts tearing through a storm at sea. But when he returns later for a second run at it, he sounds almost unhinged, and the effect is near apocalyptic. It blew my mind when I first heard it, and still does today. For me, ‘House of Wax’ remains Macca’s best song of the 21st century (to date), and his astonishing guitar part on it is among the main reasons why. Don’t take my word for it, just listen.

Standing solo – why their post-Beatles careers deserve more love

I’ve written on these pages before about the scourge of ‘received wisdom’ when it comes to The Beatles. The viewpoints and opinions which, after hearing or reading them enough over time, have become entrenched in many people’s minds as fact, blithely accepted without question and trotted out endlessly at dinner parties and the like. You know the sort of thing – Ringo was a mediocre drummer who got lucky; Let It Be is a poor album; Yoko broke up the band; Lennon was the genius and McCartney was the lightweight hack, and so on. The kind of lazy, uniformed nonsense some fall back on to demonstrate a shorthand knowledge of the band, secure in the knowledge that probably no-one will challenge them because, you know, everyone says that…so it must be true. Time, perspective and fresh voices are starting to clear away some of the weeds surrounding the band’s legacy and these kind of fallacies, but one baffling tenet still holds sway among many, even devoted fans. Which is that The Beatles, as a group, represents untrammelled genius, a flawless catalogue and universal appeal; whereas The Beatles as individual solo artists are, well, not really worth your time. Their talent and magic apparently evaporated overnight, as soon as they decided to go their separate ways, with the 50 years (and counting) of music they have subsequently put out markedly inferior to what came before. At best, some grudgingly concede there was a splurge of creativity amid their early solo efforts, but it had all fizzled out by 1974, at the latest. It’s a train of thought I have never really understood, and bemuses me more with each passing year.

The Fabs, 1965 – the ‘four-headed monster’

Let me start by saying that, of course, The Beatles were a once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon, an incredibly rare synthesis of personalities and talents that produced music people will still be playing and singing for centuries to come. They were more than the sum of their considerable parts: as well as being four absurdly gifted, creative individuals, their special chemistry – the way they complemented each other, balanced out weaknesses, enhanced strengths and spurred one another on – made them an even greater force in tandem. Their group unity and dynamics were, and remain, an integral part of their appeal and success. If you’re reading this blog, I probably don’t need to labour that point. So I completely accept that when you segment those four people, take them out of the collective, you will lose a bit of the magic. Factor in, too, the huge impact they had not only in music but across wider society, in countries around the globe. Whether they instigated the social changes they are sometimes credited with is neither here nor there; they undoubtedly symbolised them, characterised them, amplified them. If you mention the 1960s, almost everyone automatically thinks of The Beatles straightaway. And the music they produced as hungry young men, idolised by a generation like never before, is now as engrained in our culture as hymns and nursery rhymes, almost universally recognised as the greatest body of work in the history of popular music. How could four older, ex-members of the group come close to topping that? But, I would argue, how could anyone? Should we write off anyone who isn’t as good as The Beatles?

Paul flying high with Wings, 1976

More than that, however, some people who love The Beatles actively avoid the solo output, almost as an unconscious protest that they had the temerity to split up. Quite often over the years, when I’ve been talking to people about music and I declare my passion for The Beatles, their eyes will light up and they’ll echo my praise. But when I go to say how great some of their work as solo artists is, a look of bemusement, incomprehension and near embarrassment will pass over their faces – as if their brains are telling them: “This does not compute, everyone knows the Fab Four instantly became rubbish as soon as they broke up.” Even in online music forums and social media groups dedicated to the band, you’ll frequently see statements such as “I have no interest in their solo careers” or “Nothing they ever did separately comes remotely close to anything they did together”, as if it all should be avoided like the plague. Which I find bewildering. As a teenager, once I’d hungrily gobbled up all their group recordings, I was insatiable for more and soon turned my sights on their solo careers. And I discovered that, contrary to what many music critics, snooty biographers and schoolyard know-alls were telling me, much of their individual music was very good, and some of it quite brilliant. All the constituent elements which made me fall in love with The Beatles were still there in Lennon/McCartney/Harrison/Starr releases – how could they not be? For me, it’s all one huge body of work, all part of the same on-going musical saga. Albums like Brainwashed, Band on the Run and Beaucoups of Blues are just much part of the group’s canon as Beatles for Sale.

I kind of understand the argument that, without having the other Fabs to balance them out and keep their excesses in check, the individual Beatles could occasionally wander down creative cul-de-sacs and become a little self-indulgent. John could be more strident, self-obsessed and naive in his posturings; George could stray into preachiness and musical conservatism, and Ringo sometimes lacked not only consistently brilliant songwriters to provide great material for him but also musical innovators to keep his drumming juices flowing. Paul, being the most proflific of the four, perhaps suffered from isolation most of all. His judgement of his own material has occasionally been flawed; the absence of an artistic peer to say “no” means he hasn’t always worked hard enough to sharpen a lyric or bring a song to full fruition, and his whimsy has run out of control from time to time. And it’s not only the want of collaboration which impacted on their solo efforts, but also demand for increased quantity. I think it’s often overlooked that the three main writers went from offering up a handful of their best compositions each year to having to fill an entire album on their own, without the quality control imposed by the others. This certainly affected some of John’s and Paul’s early albums, and began to impact George in the mid-1970s too.

George during a rare live performance, for the Prince’s Trust charity, 1987

But here’s the thing. Even when their LPs are a little erratic, or they maybe lurch from a great one to a not-so-great one, there are still lots of great songs to enjoy. Look at the early ‘70s alone – it’s all down to personal taste, of course, but if you tell me ‘Love’, ‘Maybe I’m Amazed’, ‘All Things Must Pass’, ‘It Don’t Come Easy’, ‘Oh My Love’, ‘Tomorrow’, ‘Living in the Material World’ and ‘Photograph’ are not up there with the best tunes released by The Beatles, I’d say you are listening with cloth ears or an unhealthy dose of prejudice. Indeed, as the recent Get Back documentary has shown, many early solo numbers (and a few later ones) were born when the band was still together, so I’m not sure how they fit in with the narrative that their songwriting powers immediately waned after 10 April, 1970. Maybe they’re not as consistently great on their own, but they’re still great. Even lesser songs on their individual records (and let’s not kid ourselves, not every song The Beatles recorded was a gem) are, more often than not, entertaining or at least interesting. Why should we hold them to the impossibly high standards they set as a group? I’ve recently been listening to George’s Thirty-Three & 1/3 and Paul’s London Town – albums I would put in the middle rank of solo releases – and they are hugely enjoyable collections in their own right. I’m not just sitting through them, gritting my teeth and forcing myself to like them because I love The Beatles. They are full of gorgeous tunes, clever lyrics, inventive arrangements and top-drawer performances. Fabs fans who write off their solo work are missing out on so much.

I think branding is a major factor in the disparate views many people hold about the two phases of the band members’ career. Stuff released under The Beatles banner tends to be impervious to criticism and enjoy guaranteed status, whereas the individual catalogues are routinely scorned and/or ignored. Even some Macca singles and albums that sold bucketloads in their day are now largely forgotten (it doesn’t help, of course, that Paul himself is more inclined to put weaker Beatles numbers or even Lennon-penned tunes into his live setlists than mega-selling solo hits like ‘With A Little Luck’ or ‘No More Lonely Nights’, as if even he has bought into the received wisdom nonsense). Yet this seems to me arbitrary, and wholly artificial. Consider the songs ‘Blackbird’ and ‘Bluebird’, McCartney ballads with an avian theme written five years apart. The first, released on the White Album in 1968, is a standard known by just about everyone and universally hailed as masterpiece; the second, even though it features on Paul’s most successful solo album Band on the Run, is largely unknown by the public at large (even though I think it’s comfortably the better song of the two). But if ‘Bluebird’ had been released by The Beatles and ‘Blackbird’ had been a Wings album track, what’s the betting their public standing would be completely reversed? I don’t think there’s any doubt about that. There are scores of other similar examples I could give (indeed, many numbers on the White Album are themselves direct precursors of the paths the four would tread when striking out on their own). I’m not in any way decrying the quality of The Beatles’ material, simply pointing out that they continued to produced many equally fine songs individually but which are not viewed the same way because they carry the ‘stigma’ of being solo Beatles records.

John recording ‘Double Fantasy’, 1980

Even some of those who concede some of the early solo albums weren’t bad claim it all dried up pretty quickly thereafter. Again, it all comes down to personal taste, but I struggle to understand why people who love the group output wouldn’t enjoy some of the wonderful tracks John laid down during his final recording sessions in 1980. I am in the minority (even among solo Beatle diehards), but I reckon 1987’s Cloud 9 was George’s best solo album and that Macca’s most consistently brilliant post-Beatle period was 1982-97. Even Ringo enjoyed his best run of satisfying records in the 1990s and early 2000s. The point is, far from being a wasteland, there is more than half a century of individual Beatles music out there to explore and savour, and much of it is fantastic. Yes, there are a few duds, a few missteps, but that’s all part of the journey. It’s fascinating to hear them find their own voices as solo artists, to hear their development, to contrast their evolving styles, themes and concerns to those of their younger selves. Paul’s most recent album, 2020’s McCartney III, isn’t among my favourites of his, but it still houses some terrific material and the fact that he continues to make vital, vibrant music more than 60 years after he, John and George first set foot in a makeshift Liverpool recording studio to cut their first disc as The Quarrymen is little short of miraculous.

Still the Starr-man – Ringo onstage in the 2000s

There are signs that Beatles solo material is gaining a little more acceptance than when I first got into the band in the 1980s. A younger generation of writers and critics have come along who aren’t blighted by the traditionally narrow view of the group’s achievements, and who are prepared to judge records on their own merits. While they will never enjoy the broad public adoration of The Beatles’ back catalogue, Macca albums like Ram and Chaos and Creation in the Backyard at least enjoy widespread critical esteem these days, and his entire solo canon is now viewed in a more favourable light. The ecstatic reception to his Glastonbury set last year and the recent publication of books such as The McCartney Legacy are both signs that his work on his own is finally getting the appreciation it deserves, at least in some quarters. The release and warm reception given to John’s Gimme Some Truth and George’s All Things Must Pass 50th anniversary reissue over the last couple of years gives hope that their solo efforts will also continue to endure. Ringo will always face more of an uphill struggle, of course. It would help if he actively reissued and promoted his older albums; the fact that – much to my amazement – 2007’s hits compilation Photograph made the UK top 30 shows that even he may be in line for a bit of a critical re-evaluation.

The individual Beatles will always be revered, first and foremost, for what they achieved together in the 1960s. And rightly so.That lightning-in-a-bottle interplay of talents produced a unsurpassable body of work and changed the way we view pop music. Nobody wanted that to end, but the split was surely inevitable – and, in many ways, a good thing. Their catalogue was brilliant from start to finish, there was no hint of decline, and their legend continues to burn brightly to this day. But, as John once noted, the break-up also gave us four solo acts to enjoy. If you’ll forgive the metaphor, I see Beatles music as being like a tree, with an impossibly sturdy trunk that branches off in four directions, with rich, evergreen foliage forever stretching outwards and upwards. And two of those branches still occasionally sprout new leaves. You may find parts of those branches a little prickly or threadbare, but there’s plenty of delicious fruit if you go looking for it.

Some of the many fine solo Beatles albums worth a listen

‘From Us To You’ – re-doing the hits, BBC-style

When Live at the BBC came out in 1994, it was seismic moment in Beatles history. Although now a little overshadowed by the launch of the Beatles Anthology multi-media behemoth 12 months later, it represented the first official release of ‘new’ Fabs material since Live at The Hollywood Bowl in 1977, and the first time we’d had any unheard songs for almost a quarter of a century. True, hardcore fans had heard most of the tracks on the 1988 BBC radio series The Beeb’s Lost Beatles Tapes but to actually be able to go to your nearest record store (how quaint!) and buy a double-CD set crammed with unreleased recordings….well, in this age of plenty when Apple/EMI are opening the vaults every year it might not seem much but, let me tell you, back then it was really something. The primary appeal of the album, of course, was the 29 cover versions of songs never recorded for EMI, along with a Lennon-McCartney original (‘I’ll Be On My Way’) and a reworking of ‘Honey Don’t’ so radically different from the Beatles For Sale track it might as well have been a new song. This extremely generous helping of fresh tracks (eventually topped up with a few more rarities on 2013’s On Air – Live at the BBC Vol. 2) effectively forms a double album which sits snugly alongside their 1963 work and has been part of my regular Beatles playlist ever since – so much so that I’ve scarcely listened to the other 24, more familiar, songs which make up the rest of the album. Until now.

The sepia-tinted cover shot which adorned the album’s original 1994 release

It’s easy to forget (for me, at any rate) that, as well as revisiting lots of tunes from their clubland days that never came near to a proper recording session, they also used their BBC radio appearances (on shows like Saturday Club, Pop Goes The Beatles and the like) to promote their singles and albums from Please Please Me through to Help! In doing so, they gave us modified versions of the songs we’re accustomed to hearing; in fact, a lot of the hype when the album came out was that (as its title indicates) this was our chance to hear The Beatles perform live, like you would in a concert hall, only without the screaming. I’m not too sure about that – laying a song down straight onto tape in a recording booth, usually without an audience present, is not quite the same playing before a crowd, without all the added atmosphere, energy and slightly fuzzy sonics that a real gig brings with it (and, if I’m not mistaken, there are overdubs on some of the late-1964/early-1965 tracks). If you want to sample a true ‘live’ Fabs experience, I would recommend the Star Club or Hollywood Bowl albums every time. Nonetheless, the BBC sessions do allow you to hear them play songs you know and love in a slightly different way. The arrangements are pretty much identical, but a little rougher, lacking the polish they and George Martin would apply at Abbey Road.

So what have we got? A couple of stand-outs are numbers which were taped before an audience of excitable fans – a gritty, spirited take on the B-side ‘Thank You Girl’ and a quite wonderful sprint through ‘I Saw Her Standing There’. This was always one of their best live tunes, and like other renditions from that period, it features a wilder, more spicy solo from George and dispenses with the second “My heart went boom…” section which follows it on the Please Please Me recording. By contrast, another couple of numbers from the same early period, ‘Love Me Do’ and ‘A Taste of Honey’, offer nothing new, just some variations of vocal phrasing here and there. There is a nice performance of ‘Baby It’s You’, though even that sticks note-for-note to the official recorded version (apart from a marginally longer solo and ending on a very typical Harrison guitar chord rather than fading out as on the record). Apple certainly rated it, as it was the plucked off Live at the BBC and released as a single early in 1995, hitting #7 in the UK charts (although only a lowly #67 in the US). They also put together a new promotional video for it which, alongside familiar photos and footage of the Fabs from 1963-65, featured some fantastic home movie-style film of them goofing around outside the BBC studios in Regent Street, London (presumably the same spot where the fabulous Live at the BBC cover shot by Dezo Hoffman was taken).

The 1994 promo video for ‘Baby It’s You’

I’ve occasionally read that some people prefer this take of ‘Baby It’s You’ to the album version but, good though it is, for me it epitomises the difference between BBC settings and the superiority afforded by EMI studio equipment and engineers, plus George Martin’s production expertise. The Please Please Me rendition is crisper, fuller; the drums, in particular, have more presence. These differences are even more apparent on other tracks, particularly the 1963 and early 1964 numbers. While you can always hear what a tight, intuitive and exciting band they were, sometimes they come over like they’re playing inside a tin can. Ringo occasionally sounds like he’s hitting a cardboard box, George’s guitar can be thin, twangy and brittle, and Paul’s bass rather muffled. A prime example is ‘You Really Got A Hold On Me’ – compare the rather muted BBC recording here to the monstrous, gut-wrenching version on With The Beatles. No comparison. Other picks from their second album, like ‘All My Loving’ and ‘Roll Over Beethoven’, are likewise solid but unspectacular, though ‘I Wanna Be Your Man’ has a certain ramshackle charm and it’s nice to hear an all-electric performance of ‘Till There Was You’ (which is how they always played it onstage), with George expertly reproducing the tricksy solo on his Gretch Country Gentleman guitar.

Recording another BBC show in 1963

While constrained by some of the same audio limitations, it is fascinating to listen to all three of the covers which featured on 1964’s Long Tall Sally EP performed for the BBC many months earlier, in the summer of 1963. ‘Slow Down’ is subtly different – stripped of George Martin’s piano part, with a more intricate solo from George and some frenzied but clever drumming from Ringo, it’s probably closer to the way they played it in the Cavern. And ‘Matchbox’ (with slightly altered lyrics) is definitely more in line with Live at the Star Club version than the lackluster one recorded for EMI, with more intent, a meatier sound and a stronger vocal. ‘Long Tall Sally’, on the other hand, is – like the one cut later at Abbey Road – rather under-powered and tame compared to the fiery Star Club take from 1962, Macca’s storming vocal notwithstanding. The band cooks to much greater effect on the other Little Richard songs included here: ‘Lucille’, ‘Oh! My Soul’ and ‘Kansas City/Hey-Hey-Hey-Hey!’ (also heard here in 1963 form, almost identical to the one recorded for Beatles for Sale more than a year later).

Tunes laid down from the summer of 1964 onwards benefit from an uptick in sound quality. Another largely acoustic song, ‘Things We Said Today’, is turned electric here to decent effect, with Ringo’s aggressive drumming cutting through loud and clear during the middle sections. ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ also comes over well, though I’ve never understood the bizarre decision to drop in the EMI studio recording of the guitar solo onto this. I can only presume George made a hash of the BBC take, but it sticks out like a sore thumb. They were doing overdubs by this point, so I can’t figure why he just didn’t record it again – he plays it just fine on the Hollywood Bowl album, so it’s not like he couldn’t nail it. Certainly, his lead on ‘Can’t Buy Me Love’, taped at the BBC a few months earlier and included here, is spot-on.

Bantering with ‘Saturday Club’ host Brian Matthew. Some of their memorable verbal sparring is included on the album

Some of my favourite numbers on the album date from the Beatles for Sale period at the end of 1964, ironically around the time their sessions at the Beeb were becoming increasingly rare. ‘I Feel Fine’ and ‘I’m A Loser’ are terrific, fluent performances with excellent harmonies, while ‘She’s A Woman’ has a slightly looser groove than its B-side progenitor. That said, ‘Everybody’s Trying To Be My Baby’ and ‘Rock and Roll Music’ are standard duplications, although the latter is shorter and loses some its power without its studio augmentations. This is also apparent on ‘Ticket to Ride’ and, to a lesser extent, ‘Dizzy Miss Lizzy’, cut during their final BBC radio visit in 1965. Their progress in the studio was now far outpacing what they could effectively replicate in the cramped, relatively primitive confines of the Beeb, and they probably realised that attempting to do so no longer served any real purpose. The rock scene they had pioneered had become well established by this point and, as with their gradual reduction in live shows and introduction of promotional films, things would be done differently in Beatledom from now on.

For me, Live at the BBC is all about the treasure trove of otherwise unavailable songs which made up much of their pre-fame repertoire, and I’ll discuss those another time. None of the other tunes (with the exception of ‘Matchbox’) match up to their EMI studio counterparts, and none are substantially different enough to make me play them very often. And the sound quality, though perfectly fine for the most part, is never going to be as good – remember, these recordings were never meant to be played on big hi-fi units, but rather transmitted to old-fashioned radios, often crackly transistor sets. But, as a way of recapturing the vibe of what it must have been like as a young fan sat next to one of those radios on a Saturday morning or bank holiday just as the first thrilling wave of Beatlemania was breaking, the whole album (especially with the often hilarious introductions and banter which link some of the tracks) is worth its weight in gold.

‘John Lennon In His Own Words’ (1981)

Although he sometimes described Paul as being “about the world’s best PR man”, John Lennon was no slouch when it came to giving interviews. In fact, I’ll wager he spoke to the media much more than Macca from 1970-75 and, though he largely shunned the press during his ‘househusband’ period over the next five years, he certainly made up for lost time when he returned to the music fray with Double Fantasy in the autumn of 1980. He had lengthy, in-depth conversations with journalists from Newsweek, Rolling Stone, Playboy and the BBC, among others, to promote the album, and more were no doubt planned before the awful events of 8 December. And we’re lucky he was so chatty, because those interviews – alongside others dating back to the dawn of The Beatles’ fame in 1962 – give us a remarkable overview of (and insight into) his entire life, illuminating his views on just about everything or everyone who crossed his path. Many of his discussions with reporters and authors have since appeared in book form, in one way or another, but the first real attempt to stitch his quotes together into some form of coherent narrative was 1981’s John Lennon In His Own Words.

The 1994 reprint of the book

The 128-page paperback was published by Omnibus Press in the UK, which had put out a similar Beatles volume a couple of years earlier. As with that, this book was compiled by Barry Miles, close friend of the Fabs during the ‘Swinging London’ period of the mid-1960s and future author of Macca’s 1997 Many Years From Now memoir, and it shares some of the same flaws (I reviewed that one here a while back). But in some ways, it is an improvement. For a start, rather than carve up the reminiscences into arbitrary sections about different subjects, the Lennon edition takes a strict chronological approach – so it starts with recollections of his childhood, before taking us through his tearaway youth, the Beatles years and his solo career. This approach makes much more sense, and gives the book a logical flow. You do need to know some basic biographical detail, true, but for anyone familiar with the key touchpoints of his life, this provides John’s commentary of them as they unfolded. It lifts from a variety of sources, including headline-grabbing quotes from his days as a Beatle, reflections featured in Hunter Davies’ 1968 authorised biography of the band, fiery fragments from his infamous 1970 ‘Lennon Remembers’ tell-all with Rolling Stone magazine and a selection of (generally more measured) comments from the aforementioned 1980 interviews. I think I first read a library copy in the mid-1980s (I eventually bought a 1994 reprint), and found it a veritable goldmine of whip-smart Lennon wisdom.

All the famous quotes are featured – the “rattle your jewellery” line from the 1963 Royal Variety Performance, the inflamatory “bigger than Jesus” statement, the claim that The Beatles’ tours were “like Fellini’s Satyricon” film, how his 18-month separation from Yoko was his “lost weekend” and so on. In some instances, the book includes the original quote and then usefully supports it with his view of the same subject from years later, providing added depth and often illustrating the ever-changing Lennon mindset. Likewise, the range of sources and dates the text draws on captures the mercurial nature of the man, the tone switching from witty to bitter to proud to caustic to thoughtful to brutally honest, sometimes all within the same interview segment. His views were often fiercely intelligent and perceptive, sometimes surprisingly warm and sentimental, and occasionally pretentious, muddled or just plain daft. But he was rarely less than fascinating, and you can almost hear his rasping, unflinching Scouse voice flying off the page.

George, John, Paul and Stuart Sutcliffe during one of their early (pre-leather) nights in Hamburg

There are so many great lines which shed light on The Beatles and his wider life. For example, summing up the conundrum he faced after meeting Paul, on whether to invite him to join The Quarrymen: “I’d been the kingpin up til then. Now I thought, if I take him on, what will happen? But he was good. He also looked like Elvis.” Or how the band found their sound and style during the the gruelling 12-hour shifts in Hamburg nightclubs: “We had to try anything that came into our heads in Hamburg. There was nobody to copy from.” Or his scathing assessment of how Beatlemania began to sour: “It happened bit by bit, gradually until this complete craziness is surrounding you and you’re doing exactly what you don’t want to do with people you can’t stand – the people you hated when you were ten.” And I’ve always loved the way he articulated his conflicted feelings towards Paul and George over their (perceived) resentment of Yoko: “They insulted her and they still do…[they] really gave it to us. I’ll never forgive them…but I can’t help loving them either.”

There’s also a very interesting, and somewhat overlooked comment, about his early solo career: “When I first got out of The Beatles, I thought: ‘Oh great, I don’t have to listen to Paul and Ringo and George.’ But it’s boring yodelling by yourself in a studio.” Nonetheless, by 1980, he seemed to consign any thoughts of reuniting the Fabs to the dustbin: “The four guys who used to be that group can never be that group again, even if they wanted to be.” He discusses his love for his adopted 1970s home: “New York is at my speed…everything is much faster…with more traffic, more people, more nationalities, more of everything.” One of the few quotes dated in the book is a chillingly prophetic one from 1965: “What worries me is that one day a loony will come up and God knows what will happen then.” But by his final year, he said the fear of death “means less and less to me.” The poignancy of his optimism in December 1980, though, is inescapable: “I think that I’ve had two lives…as marvellous as the first one was, the new one will be even better, because I am more at peace with myself and with Yoko.”

On UK TV pop show ‘Ready, Steady, Go!’, 1964

The problem with the book, however, is not the content but rather how it’s presented. For a start, there is no listing of sources – we know what year John is talking about, but we don’t know when he said it. And that context is crucial because – as I’ve already noted – he changed his mind about things with bewildering rapidity. The stockbroker-belt, LSD-tripping, pre-Yoko Lennon interviewed by Hunter Davies in 1967/68, for example, was very different to the raging, politically-charged, angry ex-Beatle who vented his considerable spleen to Rolling Stone at the end of 1970. And that latter incarnation was a world away from the more conciliatory, relaxed John of the mid-1970s, with his talk of Beatles reunions and homesickness for England, while the bread-baking, sea-faring husband and father who surfaced in 1980 offered yet more variations on the theme. Too much weight is often given, I feel, to that 1970 interview. Fantastic and iconoclastic though it is, in many ways, it’s also a snapshot of John at a very singular point in his life – when The Beatles had just broken up, he was embarking on a new life with Yoko, had just undergone months of ‘primal scream’ therapy, and he was keen to clear the decks by trashing most of what had gone before. It no more represents John’s definitive views on anything than the contemporaneous John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band captures the ‘real’ Lennon more closely than, say, his work on Rubber Soul or Walls and Bridges.

Recording ‘Instant Karma!’ at Abbey Road, 1970

By the same token, I think the book relies too heavily not just on that interview, but on a core selection of sources (though, to be fair, I suspect Miles was commissioned to pull the content together pretty quickly in the wake of John’s murder). There is so much archive Lennon material out there, I think the “I don’t believe in Beatles”-style barbs should have been leavened a little more with other quotes which reflected even more the varied facets of his personality and the moveable feast of his opinions. Even the excerpts from his final interviews can’t really be defined as his last word on any subject; when he sat down with journalists, he believed he was starting out on a brand new phase of his life when, tragically, he was actually nearing the finishing line. In essence, I think a longer book with a broader range of source material, framed by an introduction, reference notes and linking bits of biographical text, would have done him more justice. Too many of the lines included here, and in other publications which came out in the years following John’s death, have become set in stone, lazily recycled by writers as implacable Lennon viewpoints and still regurgitated as internet clickbait to this day.

There’s also a lack of balance in terms of what’s covered. I guess it’s understandable that his childhood and Beatles career would take up around two-thirds of the book, but for the years 1972, ‘73 and ‘74 to merit just a single page each is woefully inadequate. The most glaring omission, however, is the lack of comments about his music. Beatles albums are ignored completely, and while there are a few paragraphs here and there about his songs on Plastic Ono Band, Imagine and Double Fantasy, it’s still pretty meagre stuff – a rather major failing in any book on John Lennon, surely. And, while there are plenty of good photos included from all periods of his life (maybe too many for a book about words), like the earlier Beatles volume the reproduction quality is often baffling poor, with many shots grainy or looking like they’ve been photocopied from old newspapers. It’s a shame, because they otherwise complement the text well and there are a few rare ones I’ve not seen anywhere else (including one of John and Yoko launching their dual Plastic Ono Band albums in the company of erstwhile Apple supremo and McCartney nemesis Allen Klein).

Promoting ‘Double Fantasy’ with Yoko, autumn 1980

On the whole, John Lennon In His Own Words falls well short of being the fully-fledged semi-autobiography it could have been. It’s too short, and lacks the variety or scope required. Nonetheless, as a starter package of Lennon insights – a kind of ‘greatest hits’ of his quotes, if you will – it works pretty well. It pieces them together in a way that gives a real flavour of the man, inconsistencies and all. I’d recommend delving deeper and delving deeper into the full-length interviews it lifts from but, if you have a basic grasp of his life story, this is a good place to start. As I said earlier, however, it is important to remember that no book like this can constitute John’s last word on anything. It’s mind-boggling to think what directions he would have gone in or stances he would’ve adopted in the past 40 years or so, had he lived. But the fact that so many of his comments featured here remain so rich and resonant today tells us it would defnitely have been a fun ride. I’d give this collection a 6.

We are all together – how ‘I am the EggPod’ unpacks Beatles fandom

One of the many side pleasures of being a Beatles fan (or, indeed, of really liking any creative artist) is learning what others think about them – not only biographers, critics or celebrities, but the humble people in the street who just happen to share the same passion as you do. Finding out what drew them to the band, their favourite this or that, the side they take in long-running arguments, and those uniquely personal stories which somehow also have a universal resonance for anyone who loves the Fab Four. Even if you disagree about lots of stuff, there’s still that underlying connection, the knowledge that this person spends part of their time living in the same slightly obsessive world – scrutinising the same album covers, reading the same books, furrowing their brows at the same decisions, squeezing meaning out of the same songs. The internet, of course, has made it so much easier to interact with fanboys and fangirls, via forums and social media outlets (and I have to be honest, that’s sometimes a bewildering experience) but also through videos and blogs, such as this one. During the pandemic, I also sank deep into the rabbit hole of listening to Beatles podcasts, and there’s one in particular that really captures this corner of the market – I am the EggPod.

The banner image for the show

Described as “a jaunty stroll through Pepperland”, EggPod is a British show hosted by Chris Shaw which was launched in 2018 and is still going strong, clocking up more than 100 episodes. A range of different guests – writers, broadcasters, comedians, actors and journalists – have been invited to hold forth on their Fabs fixations, usually focusing on a particular Beatles group or solo album. In recent times, the show has broadened out to include multi-part discussions on the Get Back documentary and Macca’s 80th birthday, as well as straightforward interviews with the likes of Let It Be director Michael Lyndsey-Hogg and Julia Baird, John Lennon’s half-sister. The core format, though, remains track-by-track dissections of the albums, invariably in a very light-hearted vein. Shaw compares it with sitting in the pub and chewing the fat with a friend, which is very much the vibe (though in truth, that would yield a lot more in the way of robust disagreement than you find here). And he makes a very affable host, his smooth, gentle tones carrying both wry humour and deep knowledge of his subject – so much so that he occasionally prefaces some of his factual interjections or embellishments with a faux-vague “I think…” or “didn’t they…?” to disguise his nerdy, granular familiarity with Beatles lore. Perhaps assuming a similar level of fandom among listeners, the shows I’ve heard (being a chronological kind of guy, I’ve started with the early ones which focus entirely on group records) also tend to avoid playing the versions of songs we all know, but rather extended snippets of weird mash-up mixes or early, unfinished takes. Your tolerance of this may vary, but it doesn’t really make much difference. Where EggPod stands or falls is on the quality of its contributors, and, while Shaw refers to them as “a delicious pot pouri of guests”, it’s fair to say the early line-up represented something of a, ahem, curate’s egg-pod.

Some of the guests who have featured on ‘I am the Eggpod’, including (bottom, centre) Kate Robbins with her second cousin Macca

In the first eight episodes, the stand-out guests are well-informed, passionate and erudite, bringing some interesting perspectives on the records while not being afraid to poke fun at their heroes. Satirical website B3ta founder Rob Manuel waxes lyrical about Rubber Soul and the femme fatales which populate many of its songs, as well as the ”ejaculatory” aspects of some musical passages; dramatist and author Don Reballato discusses the way Let It Be is perennially coloured by its contentious place in The Beatles’ history and its accompanying film (this was before the revelations of Get Back), while award-winning author and critic David Quantick relishes exploring the “creepy” material which he feels is such a big part of the White Album’s unique charm. They pull no punches in their views, either, and while you might not agree with them – I take real issue with Reballato’s dismissals of ‘I Me Mine’ and Phil Spector’s orchestral arrangement of ‘The Long and Winding Road’, for example – it’s usually intriguing to hear them explain why they feel as they do about various songs. Besides, the whole point is to hear different opinions, right? It would be pretty dull if we all liked exactly the same stuff. And there are some really good takes on their favourite tracks; Quantick’s critiques of ‘Honey Pie’, ‘Cry Baby Cry’ and ‘Revolution 9’, for instance, are especially good. Shaw also teases out of them how they discovered these records in the first place (like so many of us so-called ‘second generation’ fans, often through their parents’ collections or via school friends), which can lead to the discussions spinning off at amusing tangents as all kinds of random Beatles memories start spilling out. It’s no coincidence that all three have been invited back onto the show, more than once.

Another regular contributor is journalist Samira Ahmed, who delves into the joys of A Hard Day’s Night in show six. Her thoughts on the music aren’t particularly thought-provoking, perhaps, but the recollections of her fandom – such as watching the film once or twice every week when she arrive home from school or visiting all its main filming locations after buying a copy of The Beatles’ London in the 1990s – brings her love of the Fabs to life and makes for a fascinating listen. The episode on Sgt Pepper, featuring film director Ben Wheatley and James Bond podcaster John Rain, is entertaining enough but doesn’t offer anything noteworthy, the pair mainly riffing off a running joke about all the songs being inspired by drugs. One potentially fascinating guest is Kate Robbins, the singer, entertainer and second cousin to Paul McCartney, who opts to talk about Abbey Road. But, apart from a couple of interesting stories of visiting The Beatles at the studio while they were recording ‘Not Guilty’ in 1968 and an exchange between her daughter Martha and Macca during a family get-together in the 1980s, there’s not much that’s particularly memorable about her episode. It doesn’t help when she admits early on that she hasn’t listened to the album in years, and the show rambles to a close in under 40 minutes, one of the shortest to date. She seems nice enough but, to borrow a line from Abbey Road’s closing track, she doesn’t have a lot to say.

Contributor Samira Ahmed with show host Chris Shaw

But the show really stumbles badly when comedian and singer-songwriter Jay Foreman is invited to talk about Revolver. As I’ve said, ‘Eggpod’ takes a fairly irreverent tone in general, but Foreman – seemingly more interested in showing off his comedic “talents” than actually discussing the genius of The Beatles – takes this to a very dubious level. After hearing him trash Ringo, describe ‘Here, There and Everywhere’ as “twee”, declare that the Fabs were poor lyricists and perform his own composition ‘I’m Glad John Lennon Died’ (I kid you not), I had to bail on the episode a little over half-way through. That such a wonderful, landmark album is frittered away in such a tiresome fashion is especially egregious (remarkably, Foreman returns later in the series to review Help!, which I’ll give a wide berth). It’s a truly dire episode, and really not worth your time.

One of my overall beefs with the show, in fact, is the level of negativity shown towards so much of the band’s work. I’m not suggesting everything they ever did was unquestionably brilliant and, like I say, tastes will always differ. That’s fine, but for a show celebrating The Beatles and aimed at people who adore them, the amount of criticism it airs is odd – even Quantick, who says the White Album would be his desert island disc and has actually authored a book about it, seems to dislike almost half the songs on it. And Shaw is so slavish in his agreement with his guests most of the time, it occasionally borders on obsequious. There’s also an unseemly amount of George-baiting (apart from Ahmed, who names him as her favourite Beatle). Shaw tends to utter a half-hearted, apologetic “I suppose he was just learning his craft” when guests start bashing yet another Harrisong, but he later admits he doesn’t like much of George’s material either, and outright loathes ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ (at least he has the grace to admit he’s in the minority there). Another thing that winds me up in the way he and a couple of the guests smugly disparage some John’s lyrics or views as being not fit for modern-day sensibilities – in the Ahmed episode there’s a lot of “I love John but…”, while Manuel fears that if Lennon was still around he’d be doing something terrible, like following Donald Trump on Twitter (heaven forfend John Lennon should swim against the tide of prevailing establishment orthodoxy). I’ve written here before that I think taking 60-year-old Lennon lyrics out of context and judging them by 2020s standards is both pointless and foolish. And anyway, isn’t John’s sometimes twisted, conflicted view of the world part of what made him such an amazing artist? Or are people now supposed to create only when they are in a good mood, expressing safe, socially-acceptable feelings and subjects, and so producing bland, disposable, cookie-cutter art?

John — no doubt being woefully politically-incorrect — as the original Eggman

Despite all that, there’s still a lot to enjoy in I am the EggPod. The mockery is mainly good-humoured (most of the guests are British, and I guess it’s part of our psyche to knock things we like or even love), and the humour can sometimes be very funny. And, again, it’s just nice to visit other fans’ Beatles memory attics, survey their collections and hear what they treasure – or don’t – and why. It’s a simple format and, on the whole, pretty well executed. I’ll certainly stick with it, and am looking forward to episodes featuring the likes of broadcasting grande dame Annie Nightingale, author and music magazine guru David Hepworth, biographer Mark Lewisohn and others. It’ll also be nice to learn what people have to say about the solo albums, though considering some of the less-than enthused takes on the group efforts I’ve heard thus far, I fear some of those records could get a bit of a pasting. I hope not, though. If this show really is a jaunty stroll through Pepperland, by all means take the piss but let’s leave the Blue Meanies at the door – there are enough of them in the real world as it is.

You can listen to I am the Eggpod on Apple, Spotify, Podbean and many other platforms.

Give him a whirl – Ringo’s ‘Hey Baby’ video

I was listening to a podcast recently where the hosts were discussing the possible reasons behind Ringo’s fall from hit-making grace in the mid-1970s. Personally, I think there were a few key factors involved (though I don’t think a decline in quality was among them, even if it would take him a long while to match the consistent excellence of 1973’s blockbuster Ringo album). The Beatles’ aura which had guaranteed him media interest and radio airplay had begun to dissipate by that point, for example, and a new generation of record buyers were coming through who had no built-in allegiance to the Fab Four. There were also more and more new kids on the rock block vying for attention and sales, with genres like art rock, soft rock, disco and punk/new wave all coming into their own during this period. I’m not sure Ringo’s jet-setting playboy image would’ve stood him in good stead against such competition but, as much as anything, I believe it was the type of material he was recording – or at least, putting out as singles – which perhaps counted against him. Notwithstanding the brilliance of earlier songs like  ‘It Don’t Come Easy’ and ‘Photograph’, two of his biggest hits during 1974/75 were old-time rock ‘n’ roll covers: ‘You’re Sixteen’ and ‘Only You’. If not exactly novelty records, they were ever-so-slightly comedic tunes which  played into Ringo’s bearish persona, and had precious little to do with prevailing musical trends of the time. I wonder if younger pop-pickers began to tag him as “that jokey guy who re-does oldies”, the appeal of which would inevitably have a limited shelf life. And this seemed to borne out by his second single of 1976 – ‘Hey Baby’, the point at which his chart fortunes seriously began to wane.

A rather loud cover for the ‘Hey Baby’ single,with Ringo’s dour expression matching his crew cut hairstyle

‘Hey Baby’ was a million-selling smash for American singer Bruce Channel in 1962, topping the US charts and reaching #2 in the UK. It featured a prominent harmonica riff by Delbert McClinton which allegedly inspired John Lennon’s playing on ‘Love Me Do’ later that year. Either way, the tune must’ve stuck in Ringo’s head as he chose to record it for 1976’s Ringo’s Rotogravure, his first album after leaving EMI/Apple and signing a big-money deal with Atlantic Records (Polydor in the UK). I have to say that Channel’s original sounds very creaky to my ears, and Ringo’s version is a considerable improvement. Aided by master producer Arif Mardin, he really beefed up its sound, with some heavy-duty drums and a cleverly-arranged brass section which positively blares out of the speakers (oh, what I’d give for a modern-day remaster of this album). There’s nothing amazing about the song itself, but it’s supremely catchy and Ringo sounds like he’s having enormous fun singing it, especially during the lip-smacking fade-out. Notwithstanding its remoteness for what else was going on in the pop/rock scene of the time, it’s a great singalong party track and suits him to a tee.

A more conventional cover image for this version of the single

Unlike with the album’s lead-off single, ‘A Dose of Rock’n’Roll’, Ringo also chose to make a promotional film to bolster its chart chances. Along with Paul, he had been the Beatle to really embrace promo videos in the early 1970s and eventually ended up releasing a grand total of three in support of Rotogravure (although the other two songs, ‘You Don’t Know Me At All’ and ‘I’ll Still Love You’, were never released as UK or US singles – go figure). Sadly, the one which accompanied ‘Hey Baby’ was rudimentary, to say the least – even by standards of the time – but it’s not without its charms. The set up is this: on a suitably chintzy studio set, replete with swirling dry ice and chandeliers, Ringo appears (in black top hat and tails) atop one of two giant staircases. Courtesy of some “dazzling” special effects, he’s up and down them both in a couple of seconds as the song kicks in, and the rear staircase is suddenly adorned with a bevy of white-clad luscious lovelies, the kind you might see in a Miss World beauty pageant of the time, all awaiting his attention. And he doesn’t disappoint, slowly descending the stairs and belting out the lyrics to every one of them, making each girl the subject of his ardour. When he gets to the bottom there’s a quick costume change and he emerges wearing an all-white tuxedo to, er, mount the second staircase – which is now filled with yet more beauties, only this time all wearing black. Whether this reversal of colours is some kind of subliminal comment on the nature of duality I can’t say, but Ringo makes his way excitedly to the top in the same flirty fashion as before, only for all the women to vanish as quickly as they came. Our hero is left confused and alone, lifting his hat and scratching his head à la Stan Laurel, perhaps musing that life isn’t black and white after all.

It’s a simple, uncomplicated video for a simple, uncomplicated song, filled with questionable ‘70s fashion choices. Indeed, the more zealous exponents of today’s #MeToo movement might find the whole thing dubious, as Ringo sizes up each of the women there for his pleasure and puts his arm some of them as he goes. In his defence, the clip is clearly meant to be a male fantasy dream sequence, and is pretty chaste by today’s standards. And a couple of the ladies involved look less uncomfortable and more bewildered by what’s going on, no doubt also concentrating on swaying to the music while avoiding falling down the stairs in the process. Ringo, though, approaches the whole thing with hilarious gusto, grinning like a Cheshire cat, punching the air and singing his heart out (he even takes his hat off at one point to belt out a line; thankfully his hair had started to grown back after his decision earlier in 1976 to shave his entire skull – even his eyebrows – or the girls would’ve had quite a fright). Some years ago, I read an excerpt from the memoirs of a music business insider (sadly, I haven’t been able to track it down online) who was present at the filming of the video, and who claimed Ringo “entertained” several of his female co-stars in his dressing room during the shoot. The life of a 1970s rock star, I guess. I can’t imagine he and Barbara dig this one out to watch very often.

Ringo in full flight (and sporting an unfeasibly large bow tie) during the ‘Hey Baby’ video

I’m not sure too many people would have seen it at the time it was released, either. By all accounts starved of airplay, ‘Hey Baby’ peaked at #74 in the US, his worst-performing single since ‘Beaucoups of Blues’ in 1970. It did marginally better in Canada, hitting #66, but missed the UK listings altogether. In fact, this single effectively brought the curtain down on the hit-making career, as he would trouble the charts on only a couple more occasions going forward. It did make his 2007 greatest hits compilation Photograph (although it’s been bumped from the current Spotify version of the album), but the video was omitted from the DVD which accompanied it – perhaps to spare Ringo’s blushes (and Barbara’s ire) about his dissolute days of wine and wenching. I first saw it on a bootleg VHS collection of his promo films which I picked up in the 1990s, and thankfully various iterations of it are now more widely available on YouTube (see below).

I think it would be unfair to blame this tune for the downturn in Ringo’s career which followed its release. As others have noted, if it had been released just a couple of years earlier it would most likely have been a big hit. Indeed, the global chart success that Austrian dance merchant DJ Ötzi had with the song in the early 2000s (a pretty dire record, true, but undeniably successful) shows that Ringo was definitely onto something in his choice of cover version. Alas, timing is all; it was not only the kind of record which swam against the chart tide at the time, but it also coincided with his own fall from favour with the music business’s movers and shakers. It just wasn’t cool to play Starr singles or sing their praises any more. That doesn’t change the fact, however, that ‘Hey Baby’ remains an entertaining (if undemanding) slice of good time rock ’n’ roll, and its video an amusing snapshot of a bygone era.

The video for ‘Hey Baby’ in all its gaudy glory

Chaos and not much curation – the strange case of Paul’s ‘7″ Singles Box’

A couple of years’ back, I wrote a three-part article here charting and bemoaning the state of Paul’s McCartney Archive Collection album reissue series, which at that point had been running – albeit at a snail’s pace – for a full decade. For all its plus points, including sumptuous remastering and a sprinkling of surprise bonus material, it seemed a frustratingly haphazard, painfully slow enterprise, muddled in its thinking and parsimonious (to say the least) in serving up unreleased goodies which some of us had been waiting decades for. It didn’t appear to operate to any kind of plan, other than ramping up the price tag for each successive release, and had so far left the McCartney back catalogue in a rather shambolic condition, with some albums effectively out of print and available digitally only in flat-sounding, woefully incomplete versions. And B-sides and hard-to-find tracks from those periods? Forget it. I ended by outlining my hopes for a change of approach by MPL/EMI, that they might adopt a regular schedule and cohesive plan for these releases, thus pleasing most fans (not just hardcore collecting obsessives), raking in the cash (while there’s still an audience willing to spend it) and eventually making Paul’s complete musical output available to all, across all mediums, in pristine condition.

Well, a fat lot of good that did. Since then, unbelievably, there have been precisely zero Archive Collection releases. What we have had is the release of Paul’s last album, McCartney III, in a dizzying range of configurations (not least a veritable rainbow of coloured vinyl options) and a sort of ‘remix’ version, McCartney III Imagined, featuring interpretations of its songs by various hip artists (again, available in pink and violet, if you were so inclined). We were also offered the chance to buy said album once again earlier this year, as part of a rather pointless box set also containing the McCartney and McCartney II albums – once more, available in a plethora of colours to brighten our dreary days. And that, barring the odd Record Store Day exclusive single, has been that….until now. The 7” Singles Box, released this month, has been greeted with something approaching ecstasy by some fans with deep pockets and an insatiable desire for repackaged product. But, while it’s not without its merits, for me it’s yet another baffling release which prizes style over (musical) substance and does precious little to advance the cause of exploring and enhancing the McCartney canon in the way it deserves. It simply offers another dose of chaos, when some of us are crying out for a bit of careful curation.

The new ‘7″ Singles Box’ – 80 platters, a booklet and a wooden box

In case you haven’t heard, The 7” Singles Box is a limited edition collection of singles spanning Paul’s entire career, compiling 163 songs across 80 vinyl records – all with picture sleeves – in a tidy (but presumably weighty) wooden box. Thankfully, all the tracks have been released on digitally download/streaming sites, but this release is mainly aimed at collectors who enjoy filling rooms with deluxe Beatles releases and memorabilia. That kind of thing has never really interested me, but I do understand the passion some people have for it. Even if, as I suspect, most people buying it never actually play any of the records and merely keep the box on a shelf, dipping into it once in a while to peruse the sleeves, I can see the fun in that. And it kind of ties with Macca’s oft-expressed love of the single as an art form (he waxes lyrical about his own collecting habits, as well as the jukebox he keeps in his London office, in the accompanying booklet), while putting out 80 singles as a special release in the year of his 80th birthday does have a nice symmetry about it. If you view the set purely on those terms, it makes a degree of sense.

But if you look at little closer, the box is riddled with the kind of arbitrary, logic-defying decision-making which so often mars McCartney releases. For example, if I were a collector splashing out hundreds of pounds/dollars on a what is essentially touted as a complete set of 7” singles released by McCartney through his career, I would be wondering why ‘Off The Ground’ and ‘Freedom’ are not included but ‘Love is Strange’ – planned, but never actually released as a 45rpm – is. And I’d wonder why ‘Temporary Secretary’, a 12” single release in the UK, features when all other 12”-only material is scrupulously avoided. For that matter, whoever compiled this has played fast and loose with the definition of a “single”, particularly with material from the past 20 years or so when the concept of a physical release (7” vinyl or otherwise) has largely evaporated. For example, I’m presuming four tracks from New been included because Paul made videos for them and/or sent out promos to radio stations – but if that’s the case, why are tunes like ‘We Got Married’, ‘Lonely Road’ and ‘Your Loving Flame’ (which meet exactly the same criteria) nowhere to be found? This is especially baffling when there are several tracks here from the Liverpool Oratorio which are not really Paul McCartney releases at all (if they are, why wasn’t 1995’s classical single ‘A Leaf’ included?). And if ‘(I Want To) Come Home’ and ‘In The Blink of an Eye’ are considered singles, then why not throw in similar soundtrack-only songs like ‘Maybe Baby’ and ‘Vanilla Sky’? Maybe I’m splitting hairs, but if MPL is going to do something like this, surely consistency should be valued over cack-handed revisionism and oversights. It’s really not that difficult.

A promotional poster showing all the single picture sleeves (including some brand new made-up ones)

Then there’s the remastering issue. The promotional blurb trumpets that the box was “remastered and cut at Abbey Road Studios”, but – according to that same PR material – it seems they took a pretty slapdash approach to it. Many of the songs already polished up for the Archive Collection releases over the past dozen years have not been touched; which is fair enough, as they will sound perfectly fine. But then why on earth does ‘Sally G’, for instance, get a 2022 remaster while its flipside ‘Junior’s Farm’ is left with the one it received in 2014? More incongruously, all the Band on the Run tracks are left untouched from their 2010 restoration, apart from ‘Helen Wheels’, which was remastered this year. And some tracks are not showing on Spotify as having any kind of remaster. Did the compilers forget, or just couldn’t be bothered to tell us? Who knows? It’s not a deal-breaker, I know, but it shows a strange lack of care for such a prestige project. The real elephant in the room, though, is the price of the physical box (it sold for a whopping £600 in the UK). Yes, I know it’s a deluxe release aimed at collectors, but – considering the current cost of living crisis, at least here in the UK – is this really the best time to putting out something well beyond the price range of many fans? I’ve seen some people online make the argument that, at around £8 per single, it’s actually a good deal; in a few instances, said people also recorded video clips proudly highlighting the original singles in their collections. Well, if you’re happy to buy shiny new versions of something you (largely) already own at £8 a pop, that’s up to you, but for many of us it all seems somewhat superfluous and more than a little extravagant. And don’t get me started on the environmental aspects of creating thousands of wooden boxes to house all this stuff.

The plus point of this set, for me anyway, is that it has put a bunch of previously unavailable tracks into the digital sphere. So we’re now able to download or stream B-sides and remixes from the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, as well as more recent rarities like the aforementioned ‘(I Want To) Come Home’ and ‘In The Blink of an Eye’. So when I next listen to 1999’s Run Devil Run album on Spotify, for example, I can add in the wonderful B-side ‘Fabulous’, which should really have been on the original record anyway. It’s also great to have the ‘finished’ version of ‘Mama’s Little Girl’, the flipside of ‘Put It There’ in 1990, which is superior to the work-in-progress available on the Red Rose Speedway reissue. And newer fans who never heard the original singles are having a great time discovering tracks like the brass-heavy remix of ‘Angry’ from 1986 or the 2005 B-side ‘Summer of ‘59’. Which is great…except they’re missing out on so much more, because this release has left Paul’s public discography in a real mess. A true dog’s dinner, in fact. Why? Well, consider this. If you’re a newbie exploring the McCartney catalogue and want to sample the Press to Play era, you can now enjoy its remixed singles and (some of) their B-sides online. But if you want to hear the original album, you will struggle to lay your hands on a physical copy of it, while the digital version is still the (relatively) crummy 1993 remaster. And other material released on its accompanying 12” singles, like ‘Hanglide’? Forget it. Likewise, if you want to listen to Off The Ground, you can stream sonically upgraded versions of ‘Hope of Deliverance’ and ‘C’Mon People’, plus their two B-sides, but the rest of the album is locked into 30-year-old sound quality. And the other seven tracks released as bonus material from those sessions? Completely unavailable through official channels.

The 2005 single ‘Jenny Wren’, which featured the B-side ‘Summer of ’59’, included in the new box

Give him time, I hear you say. He can’t do everything at once. Well, how much time does he want? We’re now 12 years on from the much-heralded start of the Archive Collection series and – as I wrote back in 2020 – more than half of his studio and live albums remain out in the cold. Even assuming he’s in no rush to spruce up his 21st century work, that still leaves some gaping holes in his canon from 1978-99. At the current rate, many of us won’t have the hearing faculties to enjoy them if and when they do finally appear….or may not even be around to pick them up. And if, as been suggested, re-releasing Paul’s work in dribs and drabs over many years is some sort of long-term investment plan for his grandchildren, well, good luck with that. The number of people who (a) want to buy physical music product and (b) are die-hard solo McCartney fans devoted to collecting it must be dwindling by the day. I suspect that in 10-20 years’ time the market for this sort of thing will be tiny, leaving Stella’s offspring and their cousins to get by on their meagre multi-million pound inheritance. Unless EMI/MPL ramp up the prices even more to compensate for the lower sales, of course….

Let’s be clear. I have no problem with Paul releasing stuff like this per se. I gather it has already sold out, so there’s clearly a market for it. What irks me, though, is that this kind of thing – along with the aforementioned multi-coloured vinyl ‘McCartney trilogy’ and other such nonsense – is taking precedence over the on-going restoration of his core catalogue via the Archive Collection series. I am eager to make generous donations to the Macca bank account if we get decent, well thought-out releases which give us something new, but I’m not going to fork out for botched cash-grabs like this. I’ve said before, I have no sense of entitlement just because I’m a long-standing fan; it’s Paul’s music, and it’s up to him to do whatever he wants with it. But I would say I’m definitely part of his target audience, the kind of person most likely to snap up stuff he puts out, and these kinds of sets don’t interest me in the slightest. I don’t think I’m alone in that, either.

The ‘McCartney trilogy’ box set (on white/cream vinyl). Do we really need stuff like this?

When Paul re-signed to EMI in 2016, we were promised a “comprehensive plan” for his catalogue. As time has gone on, though, that plan – if there ever was one – is looking as well conceived and executed as the charge of the light brigade. Considering that 2017’s reissue of Flowers in the Dirt was assembled before that deal was agreed, we’ve had just two new Archive Collection announcements (Wild Life/Red Rose Speedway and Flaming Pie) in more than six years. Is the series still even a going concern? MPL isn’t saying (it never does); but it’s hard to see what the hold-up is. The Macca fan community has, in particular, been waiting for the release of London Town and Back to the Egg, which would complete the Wings period of his career, but there’s not so much as a hint they are on the way. Some have blamed lockdown-related supply chain issues or a shortage of vinyl, but as these don’t seem to have affected the recent Revolver set – or any other reissues lots of other artists have been putting out – that really doesn’t wash. Others have muttered about legal problems securing permissions from the many stars who contributed to 1979’s ‘Rockestra’ recordings and live performance at the Concert for Kampuchea, though it’s hard to see why that would be an issue at this stage of the game. Even if that were the case, why don’t they give us other ‘missing’ albums like Give My Regards To Broad Street, Press to Play, Off The Ground or the two rock ‘n’ roll covers collections instead? Paul may not look back on those LPs very fondly, as they weren’t among his most successful, but there are plenty of us who love them. And anyway, his view of them is kind of beside the point; they exist, and he can’t now pretend they don’t. He has often batted off criticisms of his career by using the analogy of painters who produce work viewed at the time as substandard, but which is later re-evaluated and placed in higher esteem. By the same measure, shouldn’t that logic apply here?

The 7” Singles Box was apparently dreamed up and put together by Paul’s “people”. Let’s hope they will be directed back to the Archive Collection (or some other sensible substitute, like a proper rarities compilation) in 2023, rather than an over-priced, limited edition 12” Singles Box project or – please, no – yet another re-release of Band on the Run to mark its 50th anniversary. A London Town/Back to the Egg package would surely please just about everyone – giving collectors some hefty new boxes to put on the shelf, providing all of his fans with remastered audio of those albums (along with, hopefully, a smattering of unreleased material) on CD and digital formats, and making a few bob for Macca and his record company. At the end of the day, the absence of this kind of stuff is frustrating for me, but I’ll live with what I’ve got. I just feel for the people who are discovering Paul’s output for the first time, and are having to navigate the hotchpotch of what’s officially available. I can’t think of any other major artist who has their catalogue in such a sorry state. It’s a real pity, because it’s a body of work which deserves so much better.

The official ‘unboxing’ video for the new set

NME Originals – The Beatles (2002)

While some longstanding music periodicals have headed for the online-only hills or folded completely in recent years, mining content from the golden age of rock’s past remains a lucrative sideline for publishers. Rolling Stone, MOJO and Record Collector have all produced ‘definitive guides’ and ‘special editions’ focusing on individual acts or musical genres over the past decade, recycling and repackaging articles from old editions for new audiences (and collectors who have to have everything). Perhaps the most successful of these have been the ongoing ‘Ultimate Music Guides’ published since the 2000s by Uncut magazine, which not only reproduce content from the magazine’s own 25-year past (alongside brand new album reviews) but also from the rich and much more extensive archive of the New Musical Express (NME).  These compendiums serve as a nice blend of old and new, mixing interviews from across an artist’s career with modern-day reappraisals of their work. Before that, however, publishers IPC took a more straightforward cut-and-paste approach to the really vintage material in the form of a series of NME Originals in the early 2000s – the first issue of which, naturally enough, featured The Beatles.

Published 20 years ago

Before shifting entirely to digital in 2018, NME was the world’s longest-running music magazine, dating back to 1952 – when it also became the first publication to feature a singles chart, heralding the start of the pop/rock scene we (just about) still recognise today. Along with fellow weekly publication Melody Maker, it was effectively THE rock press in Britain until the 1980s, the go-to place for information about your chart favourites and up-and-coming bands. This was never more true than in the 1960s, when the country didn’t even have a dedicated pop music radio channel (officially, at least) until late in the decade. So when The Beatles exploded on the hitherto cosy and sedate British pop scene, and dialled record sales and public interest up to 11, it was inevitable that the NME would lap up their every move. And the glossy, 148-page NME Originals compiles all the key parts of the paper’s extensive Fab Four coverage, from a one-line mention about the release of ‘Love Me Do’ in September 1962 through to the rather disbelieving reports of the band’s split in the spring of 1970. And it’s a real goldmine, incorporating interviews, record reviews, exclusive photos, tour diaries, on-set film reports, front covers, fan letters, comments from their contemporaries and ads for all kinds of Beatle merchandise. All the key moments in the group’s history (if they happened in the public eye) are here, reported as they happened.

And that ‘as they happened’ aspect is the key selling point here. As I’ve written before, real time reportage of the Fabs’ progress gives us a precious insight into how events unfolded, how they were interpreted by an unsuspecting world and what the band members made of it all – all without the foggy filter of hindsight. It’s not necessarily more true, as you have to factor in the very different bounds of respectability and criticism people operated within back then, but it still offers a great deal to learn about their impact as a living, breathing group instead of a universally-lauded historical phenomenon and untouchable musical benchmark (though there was undoubtedly an awareness of their importance at the time). Likewise, the NME reflected the world the Beatles operated in, and the changes they wrought upon it. So a lot of early content (specifically the 1963/64 moptop period) here is devoted to relatively lightweight, fluffy fare – individual interviews to help map out their personalities, reports on what they did on holiday or at Christmas, and even accounts of their dreams. There was the obligatory ‘lifelines’ Q&A feature, asking them about their favourite drinks, hobbies, ambitions and so on (interestingly, in their ‘favourite actress’ choices, John was the only one not to pick Brigitte Bardot, despite him often citing her as his ideal woman; by contrast, all four selected the now barely-remembered French pin-up Juliette Gréco). That’s not to say this stuff doesn’t make absorbing reading, though. Because it’s The Beatles (often dubbed by the paper as ‘Liverpoplians’ during this early phase), the articles are anything but flimsy and forgettable. John even supplied a first-person report on Ringo’s wedding in early 1965.

A typical moptop-era NME cover

By the decade’s later stages, however, when the Fabs had grown up and ‘Merseybeat’ had long since been supplanted by folk rock, psychedelia, progressive rock and the beginnings of heavy metal, the tone, style and content of the coverage was quite different. Instead of discussing their favourite toothpaste in interviews, by 1967 George was stating that “man killing man is terrible”, while Paul revealed: “…I envy George’s faith…he seems to have found what we’ve all been searching for.” The following year, Ringo announced that “I need a psychiatrist”, and in 1969 John talked about his plan to burn hundreds of plastic baby dolls in the streets of London in protest about the use of napalm in the Vietnam war (not sure that jolly jape ever came to pass). You can also detect a change in the public’s attitude towards the hairier, more iconoclastic version of The Beatles, with near-universal adoration replaced by scepticism and downright bafflement in some quarters, forcing the paper into defensive manoeuvres on occasion. For example, there’s a lengthy piece in support of the heavily-criticised Magical Mystery Tour film, and a 1969 article entitled ‘Save Our Beatles – NME editor Andy Gray says stop attacks!’ Some readers remained unconvinced, however. One describes the ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’/’Penny Lane’ single as “drivelling nonentities of meaningless lyrics and elementary harmonies”, while another opines that the songs are “pseudo-intellectual, electronic claptrap”.

It’s also amusing to see the paper’s reviewers – usually Derek Johnson or Allen Evans – try to keep pace with the band’s rapidly-evolving musical development, which almost from the off surged far beyond the chummy Cliff Richard/Tommy Steele toe-tapping records music journalists were used to. Some of the critiques are a hoot. For instance, Johnson says ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’ “is repetitious almost to the point of hypnosis…and has some built-in hand clapping to help along the infectious broken beat.” He describes ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ as “a bouncy finger-snapper with an pounding beat”, ‘I Feel Fine’ as “a happy-go-lucky midtempo swinger” and ‘I’ve Just Seen A Face’ as “an up-tempo shuffler”. And as the music gets more sophisticated from Rubber Soul on, they’re all at sea. The sitar on ‘Norwegian Wood’ is interpreted by Evans as “Arabic-sounding guitar”, ‘Love You To’ is “Oriental-sounding”, and when he gets to ‘Strawberry Fields’ Johnson has to admit: “I really don’t know what to make of it.” Their attempts to assess the lyrics leave something to be desired, too. ‘For No One’ is “about a girl who has given up a boy who won’t believe it”, while ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’ is apparently “about a girl and a pier with electric lights”. Rock criticism has clearly come a long way since then, but they also make some inexplicable howlers about who sings what. Paul is credited with the lead vocal on both ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Music’ and ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’, for example. Were they listening with ear muffs on?

A shot from the legendary 1965 Shea Stadium gig, reproduced in ‘NME Originals’

The magazine generally repackages all the vintage content really well, but I do have some gripes. While everything is laid out chronologically, the use of some photos from the wrong era or setting is sloppy and becomes irritating after a while. There’s also a heavy weighting towards the first half of their recording career, with the pre-1967 period accounting for two-thirds of the content. And though the majority of the material is presented in a modern magazine format, some of it takes the form of reprinted cuttings from the original issues, in much smaller, more cramped lay-outs. I guess it was the only way they could cram everything in without adding a lot more pages, but the tiny print and smudged photos do make these pieces a more arduous read (especially for those of us whose eyesight isn’t quite what it was).

It’s a shame, really, as there are some really interesting articles in this. All their US tours are documented extensively, usually by Chris Hutchins, one of the accredited reporters who travelled with them (and who, in a piece from 1964, claimed to have arranged a phone call between the band and Elvis Presley, a year before their fabled meeting in Beverley Hills). There is the occasional report from a studio recording session, plus items about lesser-known byways in The Beatles story, such as John’s and Paul’s 1966 film work on How I Won The War and The Family Way, respectively, and a fascinating feature about Paul’s 1968 visit to Yorkshire to record the Black Dyke Mills Band for Apple (when he also stopped off in a pub to entertain regulars on the way home). And, of course, the interviews are always engrossing. In 1968, for example, a self-proclaimed “pleasantly insincere” Macca discusses a range of social issues as well as some of the songs he wrote for the ‘White Album’, while the following year Ringo drops some interesting insights into the state of The Beatles during a chat on the set of The Magic Christian film. With his Yoko-inspired peace campaign in full swing, John is also very talkative in 1969, whether promoting his avant garde art antics or revealing – in a curiously overlooked ‘exclusive’ at the end of the year – that “The Beatles are on the brink of splitting”. It’s also fun to read stuff about things which didn’t come to pass, such as the “virtually definite” 1968 live concert, the planned 1969 Get Back album and George’s hint that the band could reunite in to record a new LP in 1971.

A terrific 1968 photo used to open the penultimate chapter in the magazine

All in all, NME Originals provides a captivating window on the past, when the Fab Four were top dogs and the media infrastructure needed to properly document them and the scene they spawned wasn’t yet in place. In fact, you get the feeling the paper was clinging onto The Beatles’ coattails for dear life as the band led the charge into a new world, hurriedly adapting and constantly recalibrating its perception of what pop stars were supposed to be. It probably wasn’t until the 1970s, as new writers started to come through and the full impact of the Fabs and their contemporaries began to be felt, that a more mature, more heavyweight (but less deferential) style of rock journalism emerged in the pages of the NME and elsewhere. This is reflected in a follow-up collection of Fabs coverage focusing on the 1970-80 solo years, issued in 2005, which I’ll look at another time. But if you fancy revisiting the band’s epic 1960s odyssey through a more innocent lens, and seeing it all reported as contemporary events in the lingo and style of the time, NME Originals is well worth seeking out.