‘From Me To You’ – Lennon & McCartney arrive

In the summer of 1986, during a TV interview with David Frost, Paul McCartney was asked if he could pinpoint the moment he felt he had “arrived” as a composer. He recalled the time he had arrived home from a (very) late night at a club and heard the early morning milkman whistling ‘From Me To You’. You can only imagine how satisfying that must’ve been to a songwriter who was barely into his 20s. And though all their early singles played a key role in fostering Beatlemania, in one way or another, ‘From Me To You’ is perhaps the one which really lit the fuse, and signified The Beatles were more than just a flash in the pan. ‘Love Me Do’, though different from what all their contemporaries were doing, wasn’t especially good – George Martin only reluctantly agreed to release it because he felt the band had nothing better at the time. ‘Please Please Me’ was, of course, a major leap forward and topped most of the British singles charts, but could have been a freak; one-hit wonders were, and are, a dime a dozen. But when ‘From Me To You’ came out in April 1963 and did even better than its predecessor (this one topped all the singles charts, and for a long time), people must’ve thought this was a group with something to offer. Even more importantly, its success surely convinced John and Paul they knew what they were doing as writers, and instilled a burgeoning confidence which never really left them. ‘She Loves You’ followed in rapid order and the rest, if you’ll forgive the well-worn understatement, is history.

The cover of the 1983 20th anniversary re-issue of the single

Famously written on a coach during The Beatles UK tour supporting teen pop chanteuse Helen Shapiro during February 1963, it was inspired by the title of the NME’s letters page, ‘From You to Us’, and continued the trend of including the first-person words “I”, “me” and/or “you” in the titles of the band’s early singles. But when it came to be recorded at Abbey Road on 5 March, there was nothing formulaic in its execution. While sharing a harmonica intro, harmony vocals and a similar tempo, it sounded quite different to ‘Please Please Me’, yet was equally catchy and irresistible. Paul has since described it as a pivotal song in his and John’s development as writers and is particularly proud of the middle-eight (“I got arms that long to hold you…”) section, saying  it could have been part of an old rag-time tune. I share his enthusiasm. It tends to get a bit over-shadowed now by their other hits from the period, but when I was first discovering The Beatles – partly through a copy of the 1962-66 compilation album we had at home – it was probably my favourite of their 1963 singles. There’s such an uplifting quality to it, and that middle-eight really is special. I love how they manage to retain the wide-eyed boyishness of the verses it but also slyly inject some earthy sensuality when they sing “I got lips that long to kiss you/…and keep you satisfied.” The “ooohs!” that follow are like a knowing wink – it’s a dead clever, and a little bit naughty. Then there’s the call and response bit during the harmonica break, and the way they repeat the intro at the end, but with a different chord to finish on. It all flows so well. I might give the edge to ‘Please Please Me’ as the best early single now, but ‘From Me To You’ remains a two-minute blast of pop perfection.

John and Paul in 1963

Released in April 1963, it hit the top spot in May and stayed there for seven weeks, becoming the band’s first ‘official’ (ie. on what has become the authoritative singles chart) number one in the UK. For many people, it would have been their first exposure to The Beatles. The US was a lot slower to catch on though, as its release on minor label Vee Jay sold fewer than 4,000 copies and failed to chart anywhere. Interestingly, though, it became the first Lennon-McCartney tune covered overseas, when Del Shannon – who had heard The Beatles perform it while sharing a concert bill with them at the Royal Albert Hall – unleashed his version on Stateside audiences in June. Even his star power couldn’t push it any higher than #77 on the Billboard charts though, and while it did generate a few more sales for the Fabs’ original (particularly in the Los Angeles area, where it picked up some radio airplay), the song remained largely cold-shouldered by American audiences. Even when Beatlemania exploded there in early 1964, it surfaced only as a b-side to ‘Please Please Me’, and never cracked the top 40 in its own right. It’s strange to think that in the flood of Beatle hits which dominated the US charts that year, such a gem fell by the wayside.

That’s not to say the fans didn’t love it, though. You have only to look at the excitement which greeted the band’s performance of the tune during their landmark gig at the Washington Coliseum that February, their first gig after touching down in North America. It’s a great rendition, turbo-powered by Ringo’s drumming and with John and Paul singing in close harmony at one microphone. But that brief introductory visit to the States marked the end of the song’s life in the band’s concert setlists. Such was the rapid rate of their musical progression, and turnover of new material, ‘From Me To You’ was soon viewed as passé by its creators and – like much of their early 1963 material – permanently discarded from their live performances. That’s entirely understandable; as good as it is, it wouldn’t have sat comfortably next to more mature numbers like ‘A Hard Day’s Night’, ‘Things We Said Today or ‘ You Can’t Do That’. Even mega-hits like ‘She Loves You’ and ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’ were culled soon afterwards. They had moved on – the collarless suits, cherubic wholesomeness and more innocent tunes had to go.

Performing the song at the Washington Coliseum, February 1964

Nevertheless, as the first of their many #1 singles, ‘From Me To You’ has enjoyed a stellar afterlife. It features on the best-selling 1962-66 and 1 compilations, which feature in millions of homes around the world. Pop promo films hadn’t been invented in April 1963, of course, but on the DVD counterpart of the 1 album released in 2015, Apple chose to represent the song with a live version taken from the band’s celebrated appearance at the Royal Variety Performance in November ‘63. It was their first number of the night and, watching it now, you can detect a hint of nervousness at the start, though I may be mistaking that for the giddyness they must’ve been feeling at coming so far in such a short space of time (less than a year earlier, they were still unknowns playing in Hamburg’s red light district). I especially love the cheeky grin from George to someone in the audience about 40 seconds in. They were a well oiled machine by this point, though the bare, gimmick-free nature of the clip might have today’s kids wondering what all the fuss was about. It reminds me of what my Mum said to when I first got into the band during the glitzy MTV age of the mid-1980s: “It all seems looks so ordinary now, but at the time people thought they were the best thing since sliced bread.” There was nothing ordinary about them, though – even in something as straightforward as this, you can’t take your eyes off them.

In 2018, some 54 years after he last played it, Paul McCartney added ‘From Me To You’ to his concert set list. He’s shied away from the teeny-bopper, head-shaking moptop singles over the years (he’s never done ‘She Loves You’ or ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’ live, for example) but this was a seamless addition his repertoire. And after this performance in Copenhagen, you can hear him reiterating the importance of the song in The Beatles’ development. ‘From Me To You’ may now be viewed as one of the lesser lights in the band’s dazzling firmament, but it was crucial in turning on the power in the first place – a key rung in the ladder which took them to ‘the toppermost of the poppermost’. And it still sounds great today.

‘From Me To You’ at the 1963 Royal Variety Performance

‘Strawberry Fields Forever: John Lennon Remembered’ (1980)

In the year or so after John’s death, newsstands and book stores were predictably flooded with printed epitaphs and biographical potboilers. There were thrown-together magazines, with a heavy emphasis on photographs; straight reprints of earlier books with an updated introduction or epilogue, and hastily compiled new paperbacks rehashing his life and times, often with cheery titles like Death of a Dream. With no internet back then, it was the only way to feed the voracious public appetite for all things Lennon in the wake of his awful demise. Many of these publications were still around on the second-hand market when my passion for The Beatles began to build a few years later and I was picking up anything about them I could get my hands on. It quickly became apparent many of these books were just quickie cash-ins, which offered little information beyond the basics (and even that was sometimes riddled with errors and omissions or skewed towards Lennon deification at the expense of the other Fabs). There were a couple worth holding onto though. Surprisingly, one of the first to hit the market (even before 1980 was out) was also one of the most readable: Strawberry Fields Forever: John Lennon Remembered, by Vic Garbarini and Brian Cullman (with an interview segment by Barbara Graustark).

One of the first books to hit the shelves after John’s death

The compact, pocket-sized paperback covers John’s life in 177 brisk pages, and has a raft of photographs in the middle. Unsurprisingly, considering it’s hot-off-the-press origins, the book’s opening chapters deal with John’s murder, and the stunned reactions it generated across the globe. ‘Sometime in NYC’ then traces John and Yoko’s love affair with the city, before the narrative backtracks to the start of the story. ‘All The Lonely People’ revisits his Liverpool upbringing and the birth of The Beatles; ‘Strawberry Fields’ charts the band’s soaring success, alongside their staggering artistic growth, before the inevitable split, and ‘The Plastic Ono Band’ recounts John’s highs and lows as a solo artist. There’s also a lengthy chronology of key dates in his life (very common in such books back then, though the usual discography is missing) and, best of all, the full transcript of an interview Lennon gave just before his death. It’s the book’s main selling point, and I’ll come back to it later.

The first two chapters – ‘The Dream is Over’ and ‘Seven Days in December’ – understandably reflect the immediacy and shock of the tragic events which unfolded on 8 December. When the book went to print, remember, this had all just happened. There’s no historical filter or wise, after-the-fact perspective. It’s just raw reactions and reportage, ripped direct from the headlines of the day. So we get full details (as they were known at the time) of the circumstances surrounding John’s murder, the events leading it up it, and the police investigation which followed. There is a vivid summary of the outpouring of grief which greeted the news, from the great and the good as well as some of the ordinary fans who descended on the Dakota Building in Manhattan to pay their respects and share in the acutely-felt, communal sense of loss. There’s part of a heartfelt tribute piece written by respected rock critic Robert Christgau for the Village Voice magazine, plus a reproduction of Yoko’s official statement released in the wake of the tragedy. And it reports on the remarkable vigils which took place the following Sunday in New York and Liverpool, as well as other cities around world,  mass showings of public affection and mourning. It all seems a long time ago now, but the book takes you right into the heart of that very dark December.

Crowds gather outside the Dakota building on 9 December, 1980

The chapter on John’s time in New York trots through the usual touch points – his dealings with the radical underground and subsequent battle to avoid deportation by a paranoid, reactionary government; the split with Yoko and drunken detour to Los Angeles; their eventual reconciliation and retreat from the public eye following the birth of their son Sean in 1975, and the fateful re-emergence with the Double Fantasy album five years later. Most of us know the story, of course, but it’s engagingly told and (for the time) well informed. If anything, the chapters on John’s childhood and The Beatles are even better. Rather than just regurgitate the very familiar sequence of events (which are in any case covered in the chronology section at the back), they try to provide a bit of insight into his character and how various things helped make him the man he was. So, for example, it looks at the impact of his mother’s death during his teenage years, and how it affected him in later life (as well as how the similar tragedy in the McCartney household brought him closer to Paul). It’s the sort of thing explored in much more detail in later books, but the authors deserve credit for including it here, when they really didn’t have to. While the book won’t tell you anything you won’t already know, the facts are covered concisely and pretty accurately, supported with some well-chosen interview snippets – and not just from John, with Paul quoted a number of times during the recounting of The Beatles’ years. And there’s none of the Macca-bashing which some other books of the time were guilty of.

The coverage of John’s musical output, with The Beatles and solo, is somewhat erratic. Sgt. Pepper and the White Album get several pages, whereas Abbey Road merits barely a sentence (though I like the turn of phrase that the band’s final musical statement mirrors the bright and intense colours of a sunset) and Let It Be is cursorily written off as “dismal”. Likewise, the Plastic Ono Band and Imagine albums get track-by-track breakdowns, whereas his later work is largely skimmed over – Mind Games gets a paragraph, for example, and even the recently-released Double Fantasy receives scant attention (the authors cite Yoko’s contributions as the ones which “give it life”). This reflects an unbalanced view of John’s solo career (albeit one which he aided and abetted in his final interviews) which was becoming set in stone even then, and which remains hard to shake in some quarters today. Nonetheless, the analysis of his songwriting that we do get is pithy and thoughtful, with the authors joining the dots between John’s life and art pretty well. The chronology section also seems pretty reliable. Skimming through it, the only howler I could see what the claim that John met Paul in the summer of 1955, two years ahead of time, though they weren’t the only writers to get that wrong before the actual date was established beyond doubt by Mark Lewisohn in the mid-‘80s.

Fresh from their ‘hair cut for peace’, 1970 – one of the photos in the book

Undoubtedly, though, the main reason to get hold of the book is the 40-page interview section. John and Yoko gave a string of fascinating interviews to publicise their comeback in the autumn of 1980, notably to Rolling Stone, Playboy and the BBC, and the one included here – expanded from an original version published in Newsweek magazine – is no exception. Entitled ‘Two Virgins’ (though the lion’s share of the responses come from John), the discussion delves deep into a whole range subjects it’s hard to imagine coming up in pop star one-to-ones today. For example, Graustark asks him if he thinks he has any shortcomings; his regrets; what friction in his life powers his creativity, and even how he thinks male and female fantasies differ. It’s quite heady stuff in parts, and John rises to the challenge, giving long, lucid and typically frank answers.

We also get the inevitable questions about The Beatles, his relationship with Paul, his marriage, parenthood and his new music, and he is just as engaged and provocative on these topics. Some of his answers about the Fabs are cast through a disparaging lens. He credits Yoko with helping to rescue him from a gilded palace filled with “sycophants and slaves”, and claims the other Beatles are “still in a state of shock” about the group’s dissolution. He describes Paul’s most recent album, McCartney II, as “empty” (it’s telling that he’d listened to it, though) and, when asked why Macca turned up at the Dakota once with a guitar in hand, he says: “Paul got what he wanted, which was total control. Maybe he then got bored with total control, because total control is isolation.” While rubbishing the prospect of a Beatles reformation (“I was never one for reunions”), he nonetheless expresses regret over the way the group broke up, saying it “left a bad taste”. And there’s definitely a sense of pride when he recounts how his son Sean came home from watching Yellow Submarine at a neighbour’s apartment and excitedly asked him: “Daddy, are you a Beatle?”

At the start of recording sessions for ‘Double Fantasy’, August 1980

As was almost always the case with John, it’s a lively, thought-provoking interview. He runs the usual gamut of being funny, caustic, nostalgic, dippy, profound, snappy and charming. Perhaps the most poignant section comes towards the end when he talks about wandering around Hong Kong at dawn, alone, during a recent visit to the Far East, and reconnecting with the feelings of wonder he had when walking the mountains of Scotland as a child. He obviously still had so much to say – though it’s worth remembering, as with all his interviews, it just reflects how he felt on that particular day. He was mercurial to the end and, considering his relatively young age and abrupt end, nothing should ever be taken as his definitive last word. But it’s a lot of fun to read, and I guess we’re lucky to have such snapshots of his state of mind during his final days.

And, taken as a whole, Strawberry Fields Forever works as an unvarnished snapshot of the Lennon legacy. If you want detail, analysis and some sort of historical overview, you’re better off looking elsewhere; the biographical content has certainly been much more thoroughly explored in other books and magazines. But, in a way, that’s not the point. This book reflects how John’s life and work was viewed at the time, when the wounds felt by his loss were still raw, and so has a contemporaneous value – bolstered by the lengthy interview chapter. If you wanted to give someone a potted, introductory history of John Lennon, informed by his own words, that they could read in a couple of days or so, you could do worse than this. I rate it as a 6.

Paul’s ‘Bruce McMouse Show’ – a real cheese-fest

Paul McCartney has an unfortunate habit of tinkering with his live concert film presentations, embellishing them with all sorts of fripperies in a bid to hold the viewer’s attention. In most cases, he seems to think that a straightforward document of the show is too, well, straightforward. So the films which captured his early ‘90s tours (Get Back and Paul is Live in the New World) were variously mangled with quick cuts, stodgy studio re-enactments, grainy black-and-white filters, totally unrelated (and unnecessary) film overlays, out-of-sequence set lists and clumsily-placed, pointless Beatles footage. The comparable DVD releases in the 2000s (Back in the US and The Space Within Us) were similarly wrecked, only this time by editing songs and breaking them up with endless backstage banter, audience shots, extraneous fan footage and interviews with the great and the good telling us how very important Paul is. Yet his best and most popular live presentation, by a country mile, is Rockshow, which recreates an entire concert from the 1976 Wings US tour simply and brilliantly. There are no gimmicks at all – it just gives you a front row seat at a fantastic gig, letting skilful but unfussy camera-work and Macca’s effortless stage magnetism (backed by a great band) do all the heavy lifting. While I haven’t watched it in a while, I think the DVD which accompanied 2009’s Good Evening New York live album also greatly benefited from a kindred no-frills approach. Paul’s natural urge to do things differently constantly serves him well when making music; when it comes to the arena of concert films, though, such instincts often produce frustrating, messy and occasionally incoherent results.

And it transpires that this tendency to over-egg the pudding goes right back to the dawn of his solo career, soon after he first started treading the boards with Wings. And back then, his aspirations were even more extreme. For, while band’s first European tour in the summer of 1972 was filmed for posterity, Paul felt that something extra was needed to augment the footage. Or as he told the NME the following year: “We decided that it might be boring to watch a group in action for an hour or more.” I’m not quite whether that reflected a lack of confidence in his new band’s stage presence or a blithe ignorance of the widespread popularity of rock concert films, even then.  Either way – perhaps while playing with his kids and/or smoking some herbal cigarettes – he came up with a wheeze which he must’ve thought was a surefire way of livening things up and keeping people interested. The film would show Wings in action, sure, but this would be interwoven with animation depicting the story of….a family of mice living beneath the stage. And thus The Bruce McMouse Show was born. Ever the self-sufficient renaissance man, Macca sketched out some cartoon rodents and the briefest outline of a plot, and handed it all over to animator Eric Wylam to do the rest. However, while almost certainly designed to promote 1973’s Red Rose Speedway album, the film wouldn’t see the light of day for another 45 years, eventually released as part of an archive box set for that very same album in 2018.

The first concert films from Wings

During its years in limbo, it acquired a near mythical status (among fans, at any rate) which surpassed other unreleased Wings projects like the One Hand Clapping film from 1974 and the Cold Cuts album of outtakes, because hardly any of it leaked out into the public domain. The only glimpse we ever had of it was via a couple of snippets included in the McCartney TV special aired to coincide with the release of Press to Play in 1986. I watched that just as my Beatles obsession was beginning to take hold, and it was thrilling to see partial performances of ‘Wild Life’ and ‘Hi Hi Hi’ from that era (it was the first time I’d even heard the former at all). But there was no sign of any cartoon mice, or references to the full film. So it remained under wraps for another 32 years until EMI/MPL wanted to flog a few copies of the Red Rose Speedway set. True, there were some (very) limited cinema screenings of the film in selected countries during January 2019, but otherwise you cough up for the pricey box set to get it. It’s a real pity it wasn’t released as part of a standalone package (like Rockshow was in 2013), perhaps in tandem with the Wings Over Europe CD which was available only in the uber-expensive Wings 1971-73 box which appeared around the same time. I’m sure EMI could have made a tidy profit on such a release without forcing fans to pay through the nose but, hey, I guess that’s why I’m someone sat writing a blog and not a marketing man driving a Ferrari.

Paul introducing the film, and modelling a look for the ages

So, if you haven’t bought the box, seen the excerpts which sporadically pop up on YouTube or acquired it through, ahem, ‘other’ means, what is The Bruce McMouse Show like? Well, it begins with a clip of Wings in a dressing room, with Paul explaining directly to the camera what we’re about to see. Filmed in early 1973, long after the concerts it depicts, Macca is wearing flared dungarees over a garish multi-coloured checked shirt and sporting the haircut from hell, a straggly feather-cut mullet which is shocking even by 1970s standards. Always the least capable actor in The Beatles, the sequence also exposes his thespian limitations, and includes a very curious reference to his group as “The Wings”, something later echoed by one of the animated McMouse family. The rest of “The Wings”, meanwhile, sit around otherwise engaged or just looking bored/faintly embarrassed. It’s not an auspicious start. The opening titles then play out (backed by the Thrillington arrangement of ‘Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey’) over animation of a town and a concert hall in particular, where we switch back to ‘real’ time-lapsed footage of a stage crew preparing for a show. The camera pans below the stage (back into the animated world), and we’re introduced to the McMouse family.

Bruce McMouse with his wife and kids

It’s a pretty thin premise. Bruce seems to be an old theatrical impresario, forever boring his family with tales of his glory days in the entertainment business. His wife does the washing up and the housework. His kids get excited when they get word of the show about to take place above their heads (“The Wings are comin’!”). And there’s a spider dangling from a web, whose presence is never really explained. Despite his showbiz background, Bruce doesn’t seem to have heard of Paul McCartney, but gradually takes an interest as the gig gets underway and we keep cutting back underground to see members of his family grooving and generally larking around to the music going on above their heads. Fascinating fact: Deryck Guyler, the actor who voices Bruce, appeared as the Police Sergeant in A Hard Day’s Night and holds a unique place in theatrical history, as a recording of his voice has been used in every single UK stage performance since 1952 of Agatha Christie’s play….The Mousetrap. It’s a small world.

But what’s happened to The Wings, you may ask? Well, the show begins in strange style with them miming to the studio recording of ‘Big Barn Bed’ – a song the band never played in 1972, and it’s clearly filmed around the same time as the aforementioned intro segment in 1973, in a non-live setting. Paul included similarly staged ‘live’ clips in 1991’s Get Back as well, and they never work. Everything is a little bit too airbrushed and choreographed, especially when compared to the actual sweaty concert footage. Thankfully, apart from a few between-song segments, everything we see thereafter was recorded during real shows (in Germany and the Netherlands, apparently) in front of real audiences – and pretty great stuff it is, too.

Singing ‘Big Barn Bed’, obviously staged for the cameras

I’ve always had a soft spot for that first incarnation of Wings (Paul, Linda, Denny Laine, drummer Denny Seiwell and guitarist Henry McCullough). There was a raw, ramshackle quality to the line-up which fitted perfectly with Macca’s back-to-basics approach at the time and canny refusal to return to the stage within the comfy confines of a hand-picked supergroup (as George had done at the Concert for Bangla Desh). Paul wanted Wings to work their way up from scratch and earn any success they had, and you certainly get the impression they are still finding their feet as a unit in these shows. That even applies to their setlist for the tour. Filled with covers, unreleased (at that point) material and tracks from their under-performing debut album Wild Life, most of the songs would’ve been unfamiliar to audiences; and the nearest you get to a Beatles number is the encore performance of ‘Long Tall Sally’. But that’s part of the charm – the songs chosen are largely the polar opposite of the safe, hit-filled selections which have made up his shows over the past 30 years. It’s fantastic to see Paul perform relative obscurities like ‘Eat at Home’, ‘I Am Your Singer’, ‘The Mess’ and even the much-maligned ‘Bip Bop’. Unfortunately, nine songs from those concerts (almost half the set) are omitted from the film and, even worse, some the ones which are included are abridged versions (another mistake he would go on to repeat, on the 2002 Back in the US live DVD). Also, in comparison to a bootleg I have from that 1972 tour, it seems to my ears that the soundtrack possibly had some post-production studio ‘sweetening’. This later happened with the Wings Over America album and Rockshow film, of course, but it stands out more here, with some of the band’s endearingly rough edges polished up a little too much.

The cartoon content thankfully dips somewhat in the middle of the show, and we instead get to see some of the film content playing behind the band during the actual gigs. This is particularly effective during ‘Wild Life’, where clips contrasting mankind’s ever-expanding industrialisation and development needs with vulnerable animal habitats really lend weight and power to the song. And sticking with the nature theme, ‘Mary Had A Little Lamb’ features more of the footage of Paul and Linda on their Scottish farm used to promote Ram in 1971, which I’d never seen before – including, appropriately enough, shots of them herding some sheep into a pen, helped by their daughter Mary (geddit?).

But the band is very watchable in itself, aided by some truly eye-popping fashion choices. We get to see them in a variety of outfits (often during the same song), each more bizarre than the last – the men opting to wear jackets over bare chests is just one of the treats for our eyes, while Paul also wears some white trousers at one point which seem to have unfinished stitching and fall several inches short of his ankles. The two Dennys are solid, if a bit subdued, presences (Laine’s songs are among those which were cut), while Linda acquits herself pretty well, considering she was still pretty much a musical novice at this time. She would be much more confident by the time the world tour rolled around in 1975. The real surprise is Henry McCullough, who shows a real penchant for mugging for the camera – a mantle later gleefully (and more gratingly) taken up by Hamish Stuart in Paul’s 1989-93 backing band. But this is Macca’s show, all the way. Stepping out on a formal tour for the first time since The Beatles’ final jaunt around the States six years earlier, clutching his Rickenbacker bass, hair brushed back like in his early Beatle days and singing his heart out, he looks energised, happy and ready to take on the world once again. And judging by the periodic shots we get of the ecstatic crowd, the world was more than ready to be taken.

Mice to see you – Bruce gives the band a few pointers during the show

Towards the end of the film, however, our cartoon friends reappear – and how. By now, word has got around the rodent community, and a small army of mice has assembled to watch the show. Not only that, but Bruce McMouse decides to take to the stage and share some of his crowd-pleasing wisdom with the band. What follows is either quaintly sweet or jarring and cringeworthy, depending on your point of view, as Paul scoops him up and the band have a quick chat with him. The concert itself does at least have a strong climax, though. Though still unreleased at this time, ‘My Love’ is almost-but-not-quite in its glorious final form here – Linda’s vocal response on the chorus was wisely dropped, and (as Paul has recounted many times) Henry came up with a much better guitar solo at the song’s studio recording session. His solo on ‘Hi Hi Hi’ here is even worse, painfully out of tune, but it’s a rollicking, rip-snorting version of the number nonetheless, which really gets the crowd moving. And ‘Maybe I’m Amazed’, with Macca on electric piano, was already established as a show-stopper, even then. The set closes with a stomping run through ‘Long Tall Sally’ though, alas, that is faded out to make way for more live action/animated shenanigans back in the dressing room where we came in. And that’s your lot: 52 minutes, thank you and good night.

Belting out ‘Maybe I’m Amazed’

The length of the film and its final image – which closely resembles the cover of the Red Rose Speedway album – do, I believe, provide clues about the original plan for The Bruce McMouse Show and also why it took so long to surface. Wings were well into the recording sessions for Speedway when they embarked on the 1972 gigs, and many of the songs performed were intended for the album (though only ‘My Love’ made the final cut). So my guess is that Paul thought that film of a live show would be a perfect way to promote the album when it eventually surfaced. But, to give it wider appeal (and presumably stop people getting bored, as he put it), he decided to adorn it with some family-friendly cartoon capers, thus making an ideal TV special for the Christmas or Easter schedules, in the vein of the Disney Time specials which were hugely popular in the UK in the 1970s and ‘80s (Paul and Linda even presented the Yuletide 1973 edition). From what we know, however, the animation took much longer than expected, and when Speedway did appear in the spring of 1973, it was instead publicised via a different TV special, James Paul McCartney (which also kicks off with band performing ‘Big Barn Bed’ – a coincidence?). By the time Bruce McMouse was completed, sometime in the mid-70s, Wings’ credibility was much more firmly established and they were flying high, critically and commercially, with a different line-up and a raft of freshly-minted hits under their belt. It probably seemed a massively retrograde to issue such a film at that point.

Quality control must also have come into play. Even for its time, the animation is adequate rather than great. Combined with the rather heavy-handed humour, it’s hard to imagine anyone over the age of six enjoying those segments very much, while people just wanting to watch Paul performing live would surely have found them irritating and unnecessary. While the Rupert and the Frog Chorus was aimed squarely at younger audiences (and their parents), this is a bit of an awkward mish-mash which most likely wouldn’t have pleased anyone. In the early ‘70s, Wings’ reputation was already reeling from the poor reception to Wild Life, Linda’s inclusion in the band, ‘Mary Had A Little Lamb’ and the more showbizzy sections of the James Paul McCartney special. Putting out The Bruce McMouse Show as well could have shredded it altogether and mired the band permanently in middle-of-the-road, cutesy pop territory (can you imagine what John Lennon would’ve made of it?). As Paul’s career progressed, the prospect of releasing it probably became less attractive and worthwhile with each passing year.

It’s fantastic to finally have it, though. Viewed today, it can be enjoyed as quirky period piece, one of Paul’s attempts to be all things to all men which didn’t quite pass muster. And there is a lot to enjoy in it, in the straight concert sequences at least. What would be much better, of course, is if someone revisited the original footage from those shows and re-cut a new film documenting an entire Wings 1972 concert from start to finish – without mice. Sadly, that’s not likely to happen any time soon, certainly not in my lifetime. At the rate MPL likes to do things, perhaps it’s an idea for a centenary holographic release in 2072?

The first of the recent trailers for the film, featuring part of a terrific performance of ‘The Mess’
A second trailer, this time with an excerpt of ‘My Love’. Some full songs from the show are also available on YouTube at the time of writing – just search ‘Bruce McMouse Show’

Schau and tell: visiting The Beatles’ Hamburg

Perhaps the most famous photo of The Beatles in Hamburg, taken by Astrid Kirchherr at the Hamburger Dom fairground in November 1960

I must have read dozens of accounts of The Beatles’ exploits in Hamburg, and the story never fails to enthrall me. The gruelling musical apprenticeship which, almost without them realising, transformed them into a unrivalled, unstoppable live act. How they were plunged into a sea of licentiousness far from home and learned to ride the waves of sex, drugs and violence which could easily have overwhelmed them. Their outrageous stage antics, and how they lived on their wits, charm and togetherness to not only survive, but flourish. And their pivotal encounter with admiring art college intellectuals, whose friendship and influence would resonate through the rest of their years together. The group came of age in Hamburg (in George’s case, in more ways than one) and – like so many other aspects of their career – their time there has taken on an almost mythic quality. So, when arranging to visit my German friend and fellow Beatles fan Ulrich in the summer of 2018, we decided it was about time we saw it for ourselves.

When we arrived in Hamburg (at the very same railway station where Stu and Astrid packed off an exiled, under-age George in 1960, and where John and Paul welcomed their visiting girlfriends the following year), it was no doubt a very different place to the one The Beatles found almost exactly 58 years earlier. Back then, though Germany’s post-war economic miracle was well underway, the city would still have born scars of the Allied bombing raids just 15 years earlier. And, alongside its thriving port, its reputation largely hinged on the inordinate amount of vice and criminal activity there, making it the ‘sin city’ of Europe. By contrast, the Hamburg of today is a bright, clean, modern, spacious city, dotted with parks and waterways and boasting impressive architecture, culture and cuisine. If there was much vice, it seemed largely confined to the Reeperbahn area, and even that appeared fairly tame (not that I’m an expert on such things, you understand). But I actually think that’s the main reason why the city doesn’t really make that big a deal of its Beatles connection – it’s like one massive reminder of its sleazy past (I found the same in Chicago, where the tourism folks really don’t want to talk about the whole gangster/prohibition era, even though visitors always want to know about it). Still, I quite liked the fact they don’t go overboard on Fab Four paraphernalia. It would run the risk of sanitising it all, and it allows the pleasure of seeking stuff out for yourself.

Ulrich (left) and I in the lobby of our hotel on the outskirts of the St Pauli district. A good choice
The hotel bar made the most of the local Beatles connection, too

Not that the hotel we stayed in shied away from Beatle tourism though, with a huge image of the group in the lobby and its bar using the Star Club iconography. That’s understandable, as it was on the outskirts of the St Pauli area and only a short walk from the beating heart of Hamburg’s clubland (and the band’s escapades there) , the Reeperbahn itself. When we got there, two things struck me about it – first, it’s not as long as you might think (a little over half a mile, perhaps) and it’s definitely a lot less seedy than in days of yore. Yes, it still has its fair share of strip joints and other adult emporiums, but there is rather more in the way of regular shops, bars, restaurants and clubs that you don’t need a dirty raincoat to enter. A little like London’s Soho, changing tastes, social mores and laws have seen the area clean up its act to a large degree, something reflected in its patrons, including lots of women and teenagers – surely unimaginable back in the early ‘60s. Grosse Freiheit, the side street near the western end of the Reeperbahn, is also not what you might expect. Sure, there are still a few ‘colourful’ venues there, but it’s a surprisingly narrow and short throughfare (I guess everything is bigger in your imagination). Yet this was prime Beatle territory, particularly during their first and last visits, and is the one spot clearly marked as such for tourists in the rather curious form of five hollow steel statues (representing the Fab Four plus original bassist Stuart Sutcliffe) at the entrance to the street. They stand in the middle of circular paved area (the Beatles-Platz), apparently based on a vinyl record, with many of their most famous song titles engraved into the stones. I couldn’t decide whether I liked it or not, but at least it lets you know where you are.

Making shapes with the Fab Four at Beatles-Platz (am not sure the couple behind me were such avid fans)
Grosse Freiheit, as it looked in August 2018
One of the more colourful inhabitants of Grosse Freiheit

But what of the original buildings enshrined in those salty Hamburg tales, I hear you ask, are they still around? Well, yes and no. Three of the four clubs where they played were all just yards apart on Grosse Freiheit, which gives you an idea of the condensed geography of the story, but only two of them remain. The Indra, the first venue they performed in on arriving in August 1960 and where they learned to ‘mach schau’ for hard-to-please audiences, is a tiny place at the far end of the street, well away from the main hubbub. They really did start on the bottom rung of the clubland ladder, and if they managed to pull crowds in there, they really must have had something. Sadly, despite signs saying it would be open during our visit, the doors remained resolutely closed; a real pity, as I would have loved to look inside. The club The Beatles were promoted to in October 1960 (and where they played alongside Ringo’s Rory Storm and The Hurricanes), the Kaiserkeller, is also still an active music venue – though, again, I don’t think any bands were playing while we were there. Vintage posters around the entrance proudly proclaimed its Beatle heritage, though. Alas, the most famous of their Hamburg homesteads, the Star Club – where they enjoyed a number of headlining residences during their final trips in 1962 – was destroyed in a fire during the 1980s. There is a fairly substantial plaque commemorating the site in a little courtyard, however, and I got a bit of a buzz walking around the very spot where the Live at the Star Club album was recorded. As for The Top Ten Club, on the main drag of the Reeperbahn where they played many times during 1960-61 (and lived, in an upper floor room), there is still a building there but it’s not a club and there is nothing to connect it to its illustrious past. Aside from understanding the geographical location, there’s nothing to see.

Ulrich outside of the Indra
The view from opposite the Indra back up Grosse Freiheit, giving you an idea how far away from the main action The Beatles were when they first started playing in Hamburg
Yours truly at the Kaiserkeller. Grosse Freiheit, right, leads back to the Reeperbahn
Ulrich next to all that’s left of the Star Club

You have to venture a little further afield to hunt out other famed Beatle locations. The site of the Seaman’s Mission, where the fledgeling Fabs famously lived on endless bowls of cornflakes, is a few minutes’ walk away, down by the river. The Mission itself is long gone, replaced by a distinctly post-modern block of offices/apartments, but the imposing overpass across the street and the nearby docks give you a bit of a flavour of how it might looked 60 years ago, if you use your imagination. A short walk from the Reeperbahn in the other direction, north, is the notorious Bambi Kino – and you’ll really need to use your imagination there. This, of course, was the grubby cinema where The Beatles “lived” during their first visit, in tiny, dirty, windowless storerooms situation behind the big screen and next to the public toilets. The building itself is still there, but has been converted into apartments. The only trace of its celebrated previous existence is a speck of memorabilia and an illustration of Bambi on some garage doors. A pity.

The front of what was the Bambi Kino cinema back in 1960, which provided a “pigsty” home to The Beatles during their first visit

Keep going in that general direction, however, another 20-30 minutes or so, and you come to another key landmark in the Hamburg odyssey which doesn’t appear to have changed at all – Astrid Kirchherr’s family home. An elegant, four-storey terraced house in a leafy, well-to-do part of town, this was where the group received precious home comforts (including hot meals and warm baths) and bohemian stimulation during their first visit, as student photographer Astrid befriended them all and fell in love with Stuart Sutcliffe. Stu eventually moved in there and quit the band to study art full-time in the city, and John, Paul and George continued to hang out there up to and beyond his tragic early death in April 1962. I tend to think the genteel, middle-class property, and the artsy, avant garde ideas Astrid and her ‘existentialist’ friends Klaus Voormann and Jürgen Vollmer would have shared with the band there, played just as important a role in their Hamburg experience as the rough-and-tumble of the Reeperbahn clubs. Even today, you can envisage the sanctuary and nourishment (physical and mental) their visits there would have provided.

Astrid Kirchherr’s family home in the early 1960s, where she lived with Stuart Sutcliffe and regularly welcomed the other Beatles

We didn’t venture to the Hamburger Dom fairground where Astrid took her most famous photos of The Beatles in November 1960, as it would have looked completely different from those days. However, there was one other notable spot made famous by camera lens that we very keen to track down: the site of Jürgen Vollmer’s classic shot featuring a cocksure John Lennon leaning in doorway with out-of-focus, ghostly images of Paul, George and Stu passing by in the foreground. One of John’s favourite pictures from this period, he later chose it to adorn the cover of his 1975 Rock ‘n’ Roll album. But, let me tell you, it wasn’t easy to find. Though we located the street (again, a short distance from the Reeperbahn), none of the doorways looked remotely like the one in the photograph. We were stumped. Luckily, there was a record shop there – surely the guy there would know, right? Ulrich had a word and, sure enough, we were quietly tipped off where to look. Because the image wasn’t taken in one of the street-facing doorways, but in a courtyard/alleyway behind one of them. And, as there seemed to some sort of removal work going on there, it was our lucky day as the gate into said courtyard/alleyway was open.

The ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll’ doorway where John’s legendary album cover photo was taken by Jürgen Vollmer
Standing opposite the doorway, this was the view looking left…
…and this is the view looking back up towards the entrance (the doorway is on the upper left)

The environs were a little down-at-heel, in truth, filled with bits of graffiti and lots of flotsam and jetsam, as you can see on these photos. But the buildings themselves still look pretty sturdy, and the famed doorway – just on the right as you walk in – was instantly recognisable. I didn’t venture too far inside it (it was someone’s home, after all), but with no one around, we couldn’t resist recreating the Lennon pose. I must have looked at this image far too much, as the resulting picture came out really well. Walking in The Beatles’ footsteps was fun throughout the three days we were there, but that moment was a real highlight.

John – with Paul, George and Stu in the foreground – pictured in that doorway, 1961…
…and yours truly in that very same spot, 2018 (with a moody black-and-white filter)

But, overall, Hamburg provided plenty of highlights. We got lucky with the weather, and it’s a pleasant city just to stroll around. There is also an excellent selection of restaurants, and none of the ones we chose disappointed. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend the harbour cruise – normally I like such things, but the tour of interchangeable container ships accompanied by a droning, overly-detailed commentary represented an hour of my life I wish I could get back. Nonetheless, even without The Beatles connection, Hamburg was a nice place to visit, but for those of us of a Fabs persuasion, St Pauli and the Reeperbahn is undoubtedly the main event. Ulrich and I discussed The Beatles deep into the early hours in the very bars (or, at least, the same street) which had been the band’s playground during those crucial visits which saw them grow into the act which would eventually conquer the world. True, there were some cloth-eared troubadours ruining Beatles songs in the vein of Oasis. But one of the better live performers we saw gave a more sensitive reading of a track from George’s All Things Must Pass album, one of those curious little echos which will surely continue to ring down the Reeperbahn for as long as it remains standing.

Back in the big time – Ringo’s ‘Act Naturally’ video

When Ringo emerged from rehab at the start of 1989, shaking off the drunken lethargy which had weighed him down in recent years, he was eager to kick-start his career and rediscover a sense of purpose in doing what he loved. This intent reached full fruition, of course, in the summer of that year when he inaugurated the first of his All-Starr Band tours, which – incredibly – continue to keep him busy to this day. But people tend to forget that, before that, he made two tentative steps back into the limelight. The first was an appearance on children’s TV show Shining Time Station, effectively the US version of the Thomas The Tank Engine series which had won him plaudits from new young fans, and opprobrium from some older ones, in the UK a few years earlier. However, forays into acting would now be increasingly rare – music was very much the thing from now on, and he eased back into that sphere by revisiting his Beatles past (a sign of things to come) by re-recording ‘Act Naturally’ with the man who had originally made it famous, Buck Owens.

An advert for the collaboration

The Fab Four cut ‘Act Naturally’ in June 1965 towards the end of the sessions for Help!, after abandoning an earlier attempt at the ‘Ringo song’ for the album, the Lennon-McCartney number ‘If You’ve Got Trouble’ (a pity, as I think a bit more work on that would’ve made it the better option). The tune was a US hit for Owens in 1963 (making it the only song the band ever covered which was released after they became famous), and was apparently suggested by country and western fanboy Ringo. While it’s probably my least favourite number on Help!, it’s not bad – it just suffers a bit in comparison with the illustrious material surrounding it, and has a bit of a ‘filler’ feel. Still, it suits Ringo’s sad-eyed everyman persona to a tee (especially as his acting had so impressed in A Hard Day’s Night and was about to take centrestage in Help!), and it also benefits from a fine harmony vocal from Paul and some nice, suitably twangy guitar playing by George. It’s not Ringo’s best song with the group, but it’s far from his worst, and was to become a fixture in their 1965 concert setlists (they played it at Shea Stadium that year). It also had even more exposure as the b-side to the mega-selling ‘Yesterday’ single in the States.

I’m not sure whose idea it was but in March 1989 Ringo decided to make his first post-rehab venture into the studio (at Abbey Road, no less) by recording a new version of the song, as a duet with Owens. It probably made sense at the time – a new take on an old favourite and all that, which would get him back in the record business six years after his last album. In purely musical terms, it was a pretty futile exercise. A note-for-note facsimile of The Beatles version (and Owens’, for that matter), it simply added ‘80s production values, ramped up the country element and slotted in a forgettable, run-of-the-mill lead guitar part. And even though it’s a duet, the pair mainly trade lines rather harmonising, and your ear naturally reaches out for Paul’s missing back-up vocal when Ringo’s singing. I’m not a massive fan of c&w – modern or otherwise – so I guess its appeal to me was always going to be limited. But, as a way of reintroducing Ringo to music-making without much fuss after a long spell away, it did the job.

Recording the track in Ringo’s old stomping ground, Abbey Road studios

Of more interest is the accompanying music video. In keeping with the MTV style of the time, it has a kind of story to it, albeit a somewhat confusing and half-hearted one. Ringo and Buck are two bumbling, gun-slinging desperados who ride into a windswept Wild West town and tie up their horses outside the local saloon. A rifle-wielding cowboy perched atop a nearby building takes aim at the duo, only for Ringo to shoot first and take him down (their actions are wildly out of sync, though, which is explained later on). They then enter the bar, brush sackfuls of dust off their shoulders (one of the clip’s better gags, though I’m not sure they needed to repeat it a couple more times) and demand two whiskeys, a drink which sets Ringo’s throat on fire. At this point, the director enters the shot to ask for a retake, and it transpires we’re watching the making of a mini-Western, rather than the mini-Western itself – hence the mis-matching gunshot sequence. Why? I’ve no idea and, as the song finally kicks in, the concept of the video sprawls all over the place. So we get to see Buck emerge from a trailer singing and strumming a tacky-looking red, white and blue guitar (a particularly cringeworthy moment), before Ringo swoops down on a camera crane to join in. They then try to elbow each other out of the way in order to take the spotlight while singing direct into the camera. A moment later they are back in cowboy character in the saloon, Ringo playing cards with a mean-looking varmint while Buck (rather unbelievably) wows a couple of showgirls with his own hand of cards. Here and there you also get snippets of outtake footage, of the kind that used to play out over the end of various dire Burt Reynolds comedies in the 1970s. The video doesn’t so much break through the fourth wall as demolish it, with no apparent goal in mind. Structurally, it’s a bit of a mess.

Cowboy clowning in the video

But that’s not to say it’s not passably entertaining. Ringo looks cool in his all-black outfit (perhaps channelling Yul Brynner from The Magnificent Seven, albeit with rather more hair), and seems to be enjoying himself as he runs through his favourite song and dance moves. And the sequence where he gets into a brawl with his burly card sharp opponent is a real hoot – it’s a pity there wasn’t more knockabout fun like that elsewhere in the video. The end shot of Ringo pretending to ride a horse is also nice, recalling his childhood desire to imitate his silver screen cowboy heroes. Buck Owens is pretty much the straight man through all this, and doesn’t have much to do apart from sing along and demonstrate a woeful lack of acting chops in the saloon scene. But it doesn’t matter – it’s not meant to be Shakespeare, or even Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, it’s just there to help sell the record. And while it could’ve been better, it serves its purpose.

While not troubling the mainstream charts (an unlikely event for either artist by 1989), the single did well, cracking the top 30 of the US country charts and even earning a Grammy nomination for Best Country Vocal Collaboration in 1990. And the video was one of three Ringo appeared in that summer, alongside ‘Too Much To Lose’ by Jan Hammer of Miami Vice soundtrack fame and, more notably, Tom Petty’s ‘I Won’t Back Down’ (also featuring a certain George Harrison). It all served to up his media profile in a positive way, after the unsavoury headlines of the previous year, and lay the groundwork for the main event, the first ever All-Starr Band tour of the US, which kicked off that July. ‘Act Naturally’, inevitably, featured in the set and has been a mainstay of his concerts ever since, one of the tunes which has become most associated with him. The shows were sell-out successes, and the second phase of his solo career was now well underway. While greater glories lay ahead, particularly during the 1992-2005 period, the wannabe Western escapade of ‘Act Naturally’ (later included on his 2007 ‘best of’ compilation Photograph) had nonetheless played a small but significant role in helping him get back in the saddle.

The ‘Act Naturally’ video

Cockamamie business: a brief history of Harrison hits compilations

All the fuss about the umpteenth reissue of George’s first proper solo album, All Things Must Pass, has reminded me how poorly served we have been by Harrison solo compilations over the years. As I wrote in my post on the various Lennon collections we’ve seen over the past half century, everyone has a different opinion on what constitutes an artist’s best work, so the simplest and most sensible approach to any compilation is to stick to the hits, plus the singles which may have at least penetrated the consciousness of the wider public through radio airplay or video screenings. ‘Best of’ albums are generally aimed at the floating voter rather than the hardcore fan, after all, so you should really aim to supply what the market demands. It worked pretty well for The Beatles’ 1 CD, didn’t it? George didn’t enjoy the same number of hits as John or Paul, but still had more than enough to build an album around. You’d have thought it would be a fairly straightforward task but it’s proved to be insurmountable for the parties involved, leaving us with three horribly botched efforts – two of which George had no control over and which traded unforgivably on his Beatles material.

The first out of the traps was 1976’s The Best of George Harrison. Paul aside, the other Fabs were coming to the end of their contracts with EMI by late 1975, and so the record company took the opportunity to compile ‘hits’ collections and capitalise on the chart success enjoyed by all three during the first half of the decade. However, unlike John and Ringo – who were still nominally Apple/EMI artists and so had a degree of input into their compilations – George still had one final studio album to deliver for the label in the autumn of that year, Extra Texture, and so the release of his collection was delayed until 1976. By that time he had signed for another label, and so surrendered any remnants of control over its content and presentation. And that’s where the problems began, because when The Best of… finally emerged in November, EMI had decided to devote half the disc (seven of its 13 tracks) to George’s Beatles material – a real slap in the face for his credibility as a solo act, if ever there was one.

The terrible cover of 1976’s ‘The Best of George Harrison’

I can kind of see their reasoning. By 1976, George’s stock had fallen far from the heady days of 1971 when ‘My Sweet Lord’ and All Things Must Pass topped singles and album charts, respectively, around the world and he pulled together the first-ever rock superstar benefit show, The Concert for Bangla Desh. His previous two releases, Dark Horse and Extra Texture had received a pasting from the critics and enjoyed only middling sales, while his 1974 US tour – the first by a solo Beatle – had also been on the end of negative, damaging reviews (despite healthy ticket sales and enthusiastic audience reactions). By all accounts, he was viewed as a dour, preachy figure, out of step with the new wave of fun-loving, hedonistic rock stars. So, in the light of a fresh wave of Beatlemania in 1976 triggered by the big-selling Rock ‘n’ Roll Music compilation and the wildly successful Wings world tour, the record execs probably felt they were hedging their bets by topping up George’s hits collection with the likes of ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’, ‘Something’ and ‘Here Comes The Sun’. And, to be fair, the six solo tracks which did make the cut pretty much covered all of his big hits to that point (the only real omission was ‘Ding Dong, Ding Dong’, and even that had only just scraped into the lower reaches of both the US and UK top 40 charts).

Unbelievably, the North American cover was even worse

Even so, I think it was poor decision by EMI and one which ultimately backfired (or, at the very least, did little to enhance sales). They could have easily kept a solo-only tracklisting by adding ‘Ding Dong’ and (although it breaks my singles-only rule) one of the many stellar songs from All Things Must Pass which had secured a lot of radio airplay, such as ‘Isn’t It A Pity’ or the title track. And, to lure in serious fans, they could also have stuck on George’s three non-album b-sides from that period – ‘Deep Blue’, ‘Miss O’Dell’ and ‘I Don’t Care Anymore’. As it was, George was furious with the collection, understandably aggrieved that (unlike John’s and even Ringo’s compilations) it leaned on Beatles tracks, and immediately disowned it. The fact that he put out and heavily promoted a brand new album at almost exactly the same time, Thirty-Three & 1/3, probably did little to help its chart chances either, while a further handicap came in the form of not one, but two dreadful covers (for some reason, North America, Australasia and France had a different sleeve to the rest of the world). While allegedly achieving gold status, the record stiffed at #31 in the US chart and failed to crack the UK top 60 at all. EMI added insult to injury in the early 1980s when they reissued it with yet another cover, this time using George’s photo included in The Beatles’ White Album artwork in 1968. Jeez, talk about burning your bridges. Nonetheless, I have fond memories of this album, as it was my introduction to George’s solo work – borrowed on cassette from a friend in the summer of 1986 – and I still remember the thrill of hearing ‘What Is Life’ and ‘You’ for the very first time. Incredibly, the later compact disc iteration remained the only place you could find the ‘Bangla Desh’ single on CD until 2014. More on that later.

By 1989, George had effectively come to the end of his deal with Warner Brothers and, basking in the 1987-88 ‘comeback’ success of Cloud Nine and The Traveling Wilburys, it must’ve seemed the perfect time for a fresh compilation focusing on the successes of his post-Apple career. The Best of Dark Horse 1976-89 duly appeared in October, and this time George was heavily involved in the song selection – something which proved to be a mixed blessing. While big hits like ‘All Those Years Ago’ and ‘Got My Mind Set On You’ were present and correct, much of the tracklisting was devoted to lesser-known album cuts, plus three brand new songs. While some of the choices were excellent – ‘Here Comes The Moon’ and ‘Life Itself’ are among my favourite songs from his solo career – they would have meant little to the casual buyer. Yet ‘This Song’, a catchy US top 30 hit from 1976, was nowhere to be found. Singles like ‘Faster’ and ‘Teardrops’ were also missing in action. And what about ‘This Is Love’, the third single from the hugely successful Cloud Nine, which got heavy rotation play on MTV and rock radio? Nope, that wasn’t included either.

Yep, another cover design to put off as many potential buyers as possible

Even the new songs wouldn’t have pulled in many people – particularly as Harrison devotees could pick up two of them, ‘Cheer Down’ and ‘Poor Little Girl’, on a double-A sided single released simultaneously. And that in itself represented another wasted opportunity to market the album. ‘Cheer Down’ was the closing song on the soundtrack of one of the year’s biggest cinematic hits, Lethal Weapon 2, and as such could have garnered significant attention had George bothered to promote it. But, as was his wont with certain releases, he demonstrated a curious contempt for promoting the music he had worked so hard to create. There was not even a video to accompany ‘Cheer Down’ and, as far as I’m aware, no interviews to raise awareness of that or the album it came from. It’s hard to feel much sympathy with George’s occasional grumbles that releases from John and Paul received more attention from the media than his own, when he often made zero effort to publicise them. The dull, dismal cover of The Best of Dark Horse surely sealed the deal, and both it and ‘Cheer Down’ sank almost without a trace (unless you call #51 on the Japanese album chart, and #132 in the US, a success).

It was to be many moons before we had another Harrison compilation – 20 years, and a full eight years after George’s death, in fact – and when it came, it was another big disappointment. Let It Roll: Songs by George Harrison was released in June 2009 by EMI, the company which had so royally screwed him back in 1976. Nonetheless, the track selection was apparently chosen by George’s widow Olivia (no doubt with input from their son Dhani) and you can only shake your head at the thinking behind it. For, while great play was made of the fact that this was the first-ever career-spanning collection, it was nothing of the kind. With two exceptions (‘Blow Away’ and ‘All Those Years Ago’), the period between 1973 and 1987 was completely ignored. That includes four whole albums (almost half of his entire solo output) and no fewer than five US hit singles. Not only that, ‘Bangla Desh’, the charity single and 1971 hit so closely associated with one of his biggest solo triumphs, also mysteriously failed to make the cut. Instead, the album was largely filled with album tracks from All Things Must Pass and 2002’s posthumous Brainwashed, plus the hits from Cloud Nine. It’s almost as if the Harrison estate was saying: “He made all his good stuff at the beginning and end of his solo career – you don’t need to bother with much of the music in between.” The authorised 2011 Martin Scorcese documentary, Living In The Material World, took a similar tack, and you can’t help but wonder what George would’ve made of his solo work being sold so short in this way.

The posthumous ‘Let It Roll’ collection. Apparently, they couldn’t find any photos of him after 1970

But that wasn’t even the worst of it. For the album also included his three most popular Beatles songs (live versions of ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’, ‘Something’ and ‘Here Comes The Sun’ from the Concert for Bangla Desh), the very thing which had made George so angry in 1976. Putting aside the fact that, in my view, live versions have no place on any ‘best of’ collection, the compilers are effectively saying “hey, even if you don’t like much on this, you’ve still got the tried-and-trusted Fab Four hits to fall back on”. To rub salt in the wound, another uninspired cover was dominated by a 1968 Beatles photo of George, taken long before any of this music was ever recorded. It all served to devalue his solo catalogue once again, and the mind boggles as to why Olivia and Dhani agreed to it. Yet, bizarrely, there was nothing featured from his ‘other’ band, The Traveling Wilburys, despite the fact that George was its driving force.

A short film to promote ‘Let It Roll’. No explanation as to why so many of his albums were ignored

On the (very meagre) plus side, the album did offer a couple of rarities – George’s hard-to-find 1980s cover of Bob Dylan’s ‘I Don’t Want To Do It’, and ‘Cheer Down’ from the long since out-of-print Best of Dark Horse collection. Their inclusion was the only thing which persuaded me to buy it. Nonetheless, coming hot on the heels of a chart-topping Travelling Wilburys reissue package a couple of years earlier and supported by a hefty (if someone misleading) marketing campaign, Let It Roll became easily the most successful of his compilation efforts, hitting #4 in the UK and #24 in the US. It filled a yawning gap in the market, to a certain degree, but could have been so much better. If there is ever another single-disc collection of his work in this age of downloads and streaming, I hope the compilers just keep it simple and go for something like this:

  • My Sweet Lord
  • What Is Life
  • Bangla Desh
  • Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth)
  • Ding Dong, Ding Dong
  • Dark Horse
  • You
  • This Song
  • Crackerbox Palace
  • Blow Away
  • All Those Years Ago
  • Got My Mind Set On You
  • When We Was Fab
  • This Is Love
  • Cheer Down
  • Any Road

That offers 15 bona fide UK or US hits, plus a song from a blockbusting film. All bar one of his albums are covered, and it gives you a pretty good taster of his back catalogue. And there’s no Beatles. It’s a little light on ballads, perhaps, so you could add in something like ‘Isn’t It A Pity’ – and, as a sop to fans, how about the gorgeous, unreleased original version (from the Shanghai Surprise soundtrack) of ‘Someplace Else’?

I can’t see it happening any time soon, though. It’s coming up 20 years since George’s death, and the Harrison estate seems curiously disinterested in finding new audiences (and appeasing old ones) for his solo work, whether it’s promoting his best known songs or putting out little-heard or unreleased material. It’s now a decade since the Early Takes Vol.1 disc, for example, and we’ve yet to get any sign of a volume two. All Olivia and Dhani seem to want to do is repackage and re-sell us All Things Must Pass. While that is undoubtedly his most popular and best-regarded album (and, to be fair, they have opened the vaults to give us a healthy selection of demos and outtakes this time round), there is much more to George’s solo catalogue than that. Isn’t it a pity, to coin a phrase, that we don’t have a decent, comprehensive compilation which properly showcases it and encourages potential new fans to dig a little deeper?

My Top Ten underrated Beatles songs

Is there such thing as an underrated Beatles song? I guess it’s a moot point. As the dominant musical act of the global mass communication age (perhaps there was a troupe of wandering minstrels who inspired scenes of hysteria in medieval times, and we just don’t know about them), they must have more songs known and loved by more people around the world than anyone else. Even aside from the eye-watering sales of records, tapes, CDs, videos and DVDs over the past 60 years, you also have to consider radio play, TV spots, films, videos, cover versions and concerts. And with the advent of digital downloads, streaming and YouTube opening up their catalogue to anyone with an internet connection, Beatles music has surely achieved a level of saturation unlike anything else, certainly in Western culture. And it goes way beyond song royalties, sales figures and download stats; their tunes seemed to be ingrained into our consciousness, with each new generation aware of them almost from birth. Not everyone likes them, perhaps, but they know a lot of them. More than 50 years after their break-up, their music is everywhere – in fact, the whole story of Danny Boyle’s 2019 film Yesterday was built on that premise, asking us to imagine a world where it wasn’t woven into the fabric of our lives. You can’t. It’s impossible. That world would be a very different place.

Even so, while any cross-generational survey would almost certainly be able to identify more stuff from the Fabs catalogue than anyone else’s, not everyone would know every song. Sure, most people would be familiar with most, if not all, of the singles. Then there are the many album tracks which have become equally popular through airplay, popular cover versions, or inclusion on  iconic records like Sgt Pepper or huge-selling compilation albums such as the ‘Red’ (1962-66) and ‘Blue’ (1967-70) collections. But that leaves lots of numbers which the famous ‘person in the street’ might scratch their heads at and mutter “Hmm, I don’t think I know that one.” And yet an awful lot of those are equally deserving of the adoration and fabled status of their better-known stablemates, and certainly deserve more attention than dreck (by Beatles standards) such as ‘Love Me Do’ and ‘Yellow Submarine’. For some reason, they just haven’t garnered the love from the masses (or indeed, from music critics) that they should have.

Looking down on their ‘lesser’ material? Filming ‘Help!’ in 1965

It’s all subjective, of course, but for my list of the most underrated Fabs songs (originals, not cover tunes), I am going to lay down some criteria. First, no singles released during their 1962-70 heyday. I’m sure there are some people who don’t rate ‘Eleanor Rigby’ or ‘Hey Jude’, but I’m guessing they’re in the minority. I’m going to also discount anything from their two best-selling albums, Sgt Pepper and Abbey Road. I know there are those who aren’t keen on ‘Within You, Without You’ or ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’, but they’re often seen as being part of a flawless whole. I’ll rule out the album tracks, EP songs and b-sides featured on the ‘Red’ and ‘Blue’ albums; I remember when I first bought the latter as a 16-year-old, it seemed like I subliminally knew everything on it (apart from George’s ‘Old Brown Shoe’). Last, I will also omit a whole bundle of other songs which – by dint of cover versions, regular inclusion on Macca’s concert setlists or just a general seeping into the public consciousness – qualify as ‘much-loved’ (‘I Saw Her Standing There’, ‘Blackbird’, etc.), or which have been deemed unsurpassably cool by endless flotillas of fans and critics over the years (‘Tomorrow Never Knows’, Happiness Is A Warm Gun’, etc.).

Even following those rules, I have struggled to get my list down to a final ten. Honourable mentions go to ‘There’s A Place’, ‘I Don’t Want To Spoil The Party’, ‘Not Guilty’ and ‘Real Love’. And I could go on, which proves that even the world’s best-known body of pop music has plenty of hidden treasure. But these are the forgotten gems I think sparkle the brightest.

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

Recorded at the height of George’s ‘Indian’ phase during the summer of 1967, this is comfortably his best song from this period but is scandalously overlooked. This is because it didn’t get a proper release until early 1969 on the Yellow Submarine soundtrack, the lowest selling of all original Beatles albums – partly because, with just four new songs on it, it barely constitutes an album at all, and partly because that material tends to be seen as sub-standard leftovers. Yet had this song been included on Sgt Pepper or Magical Mystery Tour people would be raving over it, and rightly so. A glorious, full-on psychedelic epic, it’s both profound and playful, crammed with twists, turns, ideas and invention, with powerhouse contributions from all four Fabs and George Martin. Only The Beatles could give away something this good for a contractually-obliged cartoon.

9. I’ll Be Back (A Hard Day’s Night, 1964)

Preceding Arnie’s famous catchphrase by 20 years, this gorgeous tune was tucked away at the end of the A Hard Day’s Night album (in the UK) and didn’t make the film soundtrack. It also contrasts sharply with the ebullience of much of the material around it, being a melancholy take on longing and regret, carried by fragile acoustic guitars and a heart-wrenching Lennon vocal. One of John’s most sophisticated, mature songs up to this point, I think it’s every bit as good, if not better, than his more celebrated ballad earlier on the album (and which did make the film), ‘If I Fell’.

8. That Means A Lot (The Beatles Anthology Vol. 2; recorded 1965)

No surprise that most people don’t know this one. After several stabs at recording their own version in early 1965 for Help!, the band eventually abandoned it and gave the song to P.J. Proby instead. Even his version barely scraped into the UK top 30 at a time when almost anything with the Lennon-McCartney branding on it was guaranteed success, and The Beatles’ cut didn’t surface until the second Anthology collection of outtakes in 1996. But when I first heard it, on a bootleg of the aborted Sessions album in 1988, it leapt out at me as the best of all their unreleased tracks from the 1960s. It has a big, fat, drum-heavy sound (verging towards something Phil Spector might have done), changes in tempo, muscular guitars, an unusual melody and classic Fabs harmonies. In short, it’s a real treat and illustrates what a golden year 1965 was for the band, when they could afford to ditch numbers as brilliant as this.

7. Free As A Bird (The Beatles Anthology Vol. 1, 1995)

I guess it was inevitable that whatever the reunited Beatles came up with for their first new single in 25 years was going to disappoint some people (“anticipointment”, as Paul dubbed it), and so it proved when this emerged just ahead of the Anthology TV series in November 1995. The less-than-subtle production from ELO’s Jeff Lynne didn’t help (if only they had used George Martin instead), but it still sticks in my craw that this doesn’t get more recognition. A haunting but incomplete tune John had laid down on cassette at home in 1977, Paul, George and Ringo did a wonderful job of finishing it off and polishing it up, and it makes for a beautiful, valedictory epilogue to their collective career. The second of the two reunion tracks, ‘Real Love’, is perhaps a better song, but ‘FAAB’ has more ‘wow’ moments and just sends a shiver down the spine.

6. You Can’t Do That (A Hard Day’s Night, 1964)

A classic snapshot of anguished, possessive, borderline-aggressive early Lennon, this is a terrific ensemble performance. You’ve got Ringo’s pile-driving drums, George’s memorable, insistent riff, Paul and George’s echoing backing vocals, and a gritty, snarling lead guitar solo from John. This was chosen as the b-side of ‘Can’t Buy Me Love’ and did make the 1976 Rock ‘n’ Roll Music compilation, but the sequence of the band performing it during the concert finale of A Hard Day’s Night was cut from the film, robbing the song of the wider audience it deserved. One of their greatest early songs.

5. I Will (The Beatles, 1968)

I guess there are just so many mesmerising McCartney romantic ballads that people just take them for granted (including Paul himself, who has rarely played this one live). Add in the fact that this is part of a lorry-load of songs to digest on the White Album, and is less than two minutes long to boot, and you can see why it gets lost in the mix. Yet it’s a practically flawless composition – a dreamy tune which sounds so effortless but is filled with clever, deft and seductive little touches. It breezes past like a summer’s day afternoon and makes off with your heart without you realising it. Paul at his most charming and guileless.

4. It’s Only Love (Help!, 1965)

Help! is an underrated album in general, and the lack of, er, love for this song is a case in point. Perhaps partly because of the close proximity of blockbusters like ‘Help!’, ‘Ticket to Ride’ and ‘Yesterday’ and partly because Lennon himself dismissed it as “lousy”, this track regular gets thrown on the scrapheap of Fabs numbers billed as sub-standard, throwaway or filler. Which is utter nonsense. One of several magnificant acoustic-flavoured tracks which pointed the way to Rubber Soul (in fact, in the US, this was on their version of Rubber Soul), it captures John at the peak of his powers.  Plaintive and yearning, it perfectly crystalises the insecurities, powerlessness and frustrations of loving someone a little too much.

3. The Night Before (Help!, 1965)

Another horrendously neglected tune from Help!, this is pop songwriting par excellence from Macca. When I was first discovering The Beatles as a teenager, my mind was continually being blown when I came across supposed ‘lesser’ tracks like this (I first heard it, bizarrely, on Rock ‘n’ Roll Music). Its constituent parts – the shuffling electric piano, towering vocal interplay, twinned guitar solos and pulsating middle section – blend together into a seamless, affecting whole. Paul never got around to performing this live until a series of shows in 2011-12 and dropped it thereafter, which indicates where it sits on his own Beatles pecking order. Luckily, I got to see him perform it at the 02 in London.

2. I Me Mine (Let It Be, 1970)

People always point to the holy trinity of ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’, ‘Something’ and ‘Here Comes The Sun’ as the pinnacle of George’s writing contributions to The Beatles, but I think this one is right up there. The final song recorded by the band (or at least, Paul, George and Ringo) before the break-up, it has been overlooked amid all the criticism aimed at their last album, Let It Be, which was partly due to the makeover producer Phil Spector gave to many of the tracks before their release. Yet I think his contributions to this – extending the brief original recording by another minute and adding dramatic orchestral and choral overdubs – greatly enhance what was already a fabulous tune. It has a tragic, almost Gothic air to it, with its ruminations on ego and selfishness perhaps also foreshadowing the group’s impending disintegration. It also gives a taste of what was to come when George teamed with Spector later in the year for the first Harrison solo album, All Things Must Pass, and so provides a rare reversal of the traditional group/solo axiom; if it had been released on that record, instead of the unfairly maligned Let It Be, it would have been regarded as the masterpiece it is.

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

A total of six tracks were chosen from Rubber Soul for inclusion on the 1962-66 compilation (plus ‘Day Tripper’ and ‘We Can Work It Out’ recorded during the same sessions), more than any other album across either of the ‘Red’ and ‘Blue’ collections spanning their career. And yet, incredibly, this song wasn’t among them. When I first heard it, I couldn’t understand why this didn’t have more kudos and wasn’t played on the radio all the time. I still can’t. It’s perfect – the swooping and soaring melody is dazzling, the arrangement is elegant and punchy, and the incisive, unflinching lyrics surely strike a chord with anyone who’s been through relationship problems. It has a wonderful feeling of flow and momentum and yet, like the troubled love affair it depicts, there’s no resolution, just on-going turmoil. Paul dusted this one off for a short European tour in 2004, and returns to it every now and again on stage, but it’s hardly one of his setlist stalwarts. In fact, many people won’t know it at all, which is staggering. For my money, it’s not just an underrated song, it’s one of the very best songs The Beatles ever made.

“What am I to do/If I don’t have you?” Paul’s post-Linda trilogy of grief, confusion and recovery

As I rule, I try to avoid reading too much into a song regarding the personal life of the person who wrote it. Of course, it’s fun to read about what inspired a particular tune, but I always think what it means to you – the person listening to it – is the most important thing. That’s one of the things that makes music so great, you don’t need to know the background, you can interpret it yourself. The disorienting dreaminess of ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’, for example, enchanted me long before I had a clue what was going through John’s head when he wrote it. And while John and George have been lauded for their deeply personal approach to songwriting, it can occasionally make their work a little harder to relate to (though that doesn’t make it any less special). Paul, on the other hand, is criticised by some for what they see as a more generic approach to lyrics, for hiding behind third-person characters or simply not often telling interviewers what was in his mind when he wrote such-and-such a track. This completely misses the point, of course, that this approach tends to give some of his material a more universal appeal – he has often said that he likes people to draw their own meaning from his songs, and not be too prescriptive about it. But that doesn’t mean the autobiographical content isn’t there; you just have to look a bit deeper for it sometimes.  And with a band as famous as The Beatles, when every detail of their lives has been reported, pored over and analysed for so long, and from so many different angles, even I can’t stop myself speculating and hypothesising  about what may have led to the creation of what, and is that tune really about that? I buy into the artists, as well as the art.

In Macca’s case, I do feel some people get a bit carried away by assuming a track clearly refers to this or that, particularly those who seem to think every other song Paul has written during the past 50 years somehow relates to John or The Beatles. But I do think there’s an awful lot of subtext to the music he produced in the decade following Linda’s death in 1998, in particular the three albums of original material released during that period – Driving Rain, Chaos and Creation in the Backyard and Memory Almost Full. In fact, I tend to see them as something of an unofficial trilogy charting Paul’s journey through grief, a late mid-life crisis and finding himself again, the music and (often) the lyrics reflecting his questing and sometimes tumultuous state of mind. Losing the love of his life affected him hugely, in ways which weren’t immediately apparent, but listening to those records now, I think they tell a fascinating story, the emotional arc of a ridiculously famous and talented man grappling with the biggest crisis of his life. It’s not always obvious – as I say, it rarely is with McCartney – but that’s the fun of extrapolating clues and joining the dots. So here’s my take on it.

One of the last public photos of Paul and Linda together, in late 1997

When Linda succumbed to cancer in April 1998, I wondered whether we’d ever again see the Paul McCartney we knew before. She’d been the anchor of his insane life for so long, the centre of his crowded, unreal world, his muse and partner in all his endeavours. Having all that taken away at such a relatively young age must – as for anyone losing a long-term partner – have been a shattering blow; the fact that he lost his mother to the same disease can only have twisted the knife still further. I doubted whether he would ever return to the public stage (though, I suspect like a lot of fans, also selfishly pondered what fantastic music the tragedy might inspire). Paul-and-Linda was such an established unit, indivisible in the public mind, it was hard to imagine him on his own. And for the first year or so afterwards, Macca kept an understandably low profile as he worked his way through the immediate shockwaves of his grief. Bar a webcast here and the opening of a paintings exhibition there, public appearances were rare. Then two things happened – he threw himself into making a cathartic rock ‘n’ roll covers album, Run Devil Run, which came out in October 1999, and he started dating a model-cum-TV-presenter-cum-campaigner, Heather Mills.

The latter was kept quiet for a while, but in retrospect it seemed to influence his promotion of the former. Suddenly, he was everywhere again, doing radio shows, TV spots, videos, concerts and interviews, bubbly and full of life. It was like he’d never been away. I just accepted it with little more than a raised eyebrow at the time but, looking back, I wonder if it was too much, too soon. Soon afterwards, when news broke of his new relationship, a few little changes became more apparent. Perhaps influenced by romancing a woman 26 years his junior, his use of hair dye went berserk, and some of his clothes choices seemed more youthful. In addition, the Paul who stayed on the farm enjoying private domestic bliss was gone; instead, he was pictured with Heather at numerous parties and public events, often with a drink in his hand, like he was the Beatle-about-town of the 1960s once more. Even his formal “coming out” with Heather, appearing on the low-rent ITV show Stars in Their Lives made in her honour in 2000, seemed a little out-of-character. I’m not going into the rights and wrongs of the relationship here; time has clearly shown it to a calamitous mistake on his part, which some people thought it was at the time (including, apparently, his own children).  I never warmed to Heather myself but assumed he knew what he was doing, perhaps not really understanding how Linda’s loss was still affecting him and his choices. Irrespective of that, Heather’s arrival on the scene undoubtedly had a profound impact on his life – and his music.

Paul with Heather at the 2002 Oscars

By the time they announced their engagement in June 2001, Paul was well into the recording of his next album, Driving Rain, which emerged in October of that year. That was also quite different from the McCartney people had come to expect – an often rough-and-ready, lo-fi collection of songs made with a trio of (markedly younger) American musicians. While there were moments of more typically layered, lushly-produced material, much of it had a garage band feel, with an emphasis on raw, ‘live’ takes, loud electric guitars and a minimum of overdubs. And vocally, Paul sounded like he’d been transported back to his Cavern Club days. He brought his usual grace and nuance to the ballads, but for the (many) rockers he sang like a man possessed, his voice full of fire and grit, and occasionally reconnecting with his fabled ‘Little Richard’ scream. We hadn’t heard him bellow like this on new material, in a sustained fashion, since 1979’s Back To the Egg.

Lyrically, I’d argue it’s one of his most direct, personal works. Dewy-eyed reminiscences of Linda (‘Magic’, ‘Your Way’ and, especially, the heart-breaking ‘I Do’) collide with lusty proclamations of love for Heather (‘Tiny Bubble’, ‘Driving Rain’, ‘Your Loving Flame’ and, er, ‘Heather’), sometimes even in the same song (‘Lonely Road’, and especially ‘From A Lover To A Friend’). There’s even a track called ‘Back in the Sunshine Again’, but images of Heather rescuing him from misery and hopelessness abound – “You come walking through my door…Letting sunshine in the darkest places” (‘Driving Rain’); “You can’t imagine just what I’ve been going through/I wouldn’t wish it on a soul, much less on you” (‘Tiny Bubble’); “You give me power to get out of bed/When in the morning I’m feeling dead” (‘About You’), and “You could be the one to chase my blues away” (‘Your Loving Flame’). Even in a more oblique number like ‘Spinning on An Axis’, you get lines like: “I watch the sun go down with some sorrow/And now I know it’s gonna come back tomorrow”. Overall, there’s a feeling of someone grasping at his first new love affair in more than 30 years like a drowning man clutching at branch floating in the middle of a turbulent ocean; rekindling youthful energies and optimism amid a furnace of passion, anger, despair and hope. It’s like he’s raging against the ravages of time, and sticking two fingers up to them as he rides off in a different direction, characterised by  the defiance of the extraordinary 10-minute closer, ‘Rinse The Raindrops’. But deep down, he knows it’s not that simple – in ‘Lonely Road’, he sings “I tried to get over you, I tried to find something new/But all I could ever do was fill my time/With thoughts of you.” And in ‘From A Lover…” he admits “How can I walk when I can’t find a way?” and – in probably the key line of the album – pleads: “Let me love again”.

Macca married Heather in June 2002, despite rumours of rows between the pair and growing family rifts in the McCartney clan. Heather’s ego, abrasive personality and economical approach to the truth was also making her a lot of enemies in the British media. Nonetheless, things seemed to go well to begin with. Paul made an all-conquering return to the global concert stage, relentlessly plugging his wife’s favoured Adopt A Minefield charity along the way, and the couple had a daughter, Beatrice, in 2003. But by the time the next McCartney album, Chaos and Creation in the Backyard, appeared in October 2005, we now know the marriage was in difficulties. And the tone and content of Chaos were certainly very different to its predecessor – almost the polar opposite, in fact. Past the deceptively up-tempo opening of ‘Fine Line’, most all the songs were slow, low-key and meditative. The virile, coltish energy of Driving Rain had almost entirely dissipated. The spiky electric guitars and crashing drums were replaced by acoustic guitars and pianos, and (apart from one number) Paul dispensed with his backing band and recorded most of the backing tracks alone – perhaps a sign of retreating into himself?

A contemplative shot around the time of ‘Chaos and Creation’, in 2005

There’s a melancholy, world-weary feel to the material, reflected in ‘Promise To You Girl’ and it’s opening line: “Looking through the backyard of my life/Time to sweep the fallen leaves away.” It’s as if he’s blazing emotions which fuelled Driving Rain have cooled, and he’s taking stock of his life. Since recording that album, George Harrison had died, while Paul had turned 60 and become a father once again. And there was his struggling marriage to a volatile woman. While there were still songs of adoration and gratitude (‘A Certain Softness’, ‘This Never Happened Before’ and ‘Follow Me’), other tracks pointed to discord, uncertainty and even anguish. There was the pep-talk to himself in ‘Too Much Rain’ (“Laugh, when your eyes are burning/Smile, when your heart is filled with pain”), a rare glimpse behind the thumbs-aloft facade in ‘At The Mercy’ (“Sometimes I’d rather run and hide/Then stay and face the fear inside”) and the very uncharacteristic, vitriol-laced ‘Riding To Vanity Fair’ (You put me down, but I can laugh it off/And act like nothing’s wrong/But why pretend, I think I’ve heard enough/Of your familiar song”). Whether that was a coded message to Heather is anyone’s guess, but I’ve long wondered if the words of ‘Friends To Go’ may have been referring to her well-documented tantrums (“I don’t know how long the storm is gonna to last, if we’re gonna carry on/I’ll be waiting on the other side, till your friends are gone”). He sounds like he wants to salvage their relationship if he possibly can (as in ‘Promise To You Girl’: “I gave my promise to you girl, I don’t wanna take it back”), and album closer ‘Anyway’ is nothing less than an impassioned appeal for reconciliation (“If we could be, closer longer/
That would help me, help me so much/We can cure each other’s sorrow”). But he probably knew it was beyond saving by that point.

In May 2006, just eight months after the release of Chaos, the couple announced their separation. As divorce proceedings unfolded, things became predictably ugly as the Mills camp leaked documents making wild and sometimes horrific claims about Paul’s behaviour during their marriage. Though, like many fans, I wanted Macca to defend himself against the accusations as the tabloids had a field day, he wisely kept his counsel and allowed the legal process to take its course. The flaky, delusional and spiteful nature of Heather’s allegations was duly exposed when the case came to court in early 2008, when she walked away with a much smaller financial settlement than she had demanded, with the presiding judge branding her evidence “inaccurate and inconsistent” and “less than candid”.

The whole experience of his private life being exposed to the public in such vindictive fashion must have been an awful one for Paul, but by that point he had already moved on. In June 2007, as the divorce process ground slowly forward, he had released Memory Almost Full, a relatively rapid follow-up to Chaos but, once again, a work which reflected a very different perspective and approach to the one which came before. It’s worth noting that about half of the album’s songs were recorded (or started) in 2003, before the sessions for Chaos, with the remainder largely laid down in 2006-07 – so it would wrong to interpret it as a fully ‘post-Heather’ record. And yet it has a vibe of liberation and playfulness missing from the earlier releases. The subdued, grey textures of Chaos were swapped for vibrant, largely upbeat tunes painted in bold, colourful strokes, incorporating a broad palette of instrumentation and contemporary production touches. It adroitly and confidently mixes moods and styles, but is laced with optimism and warmth. In short, unlike the two other albums made since Linda’s death, it sounds like a McCartney record.

Promoting ‘Memory Almost Full’ in 2007

For the first time in a while, there is whimsy (‘Dance Tonight’, ‘Nod Your Head’) and more than one traditional Macca story-song (‘Only Mama Knows’, ‘Mr Bellamy’), perhaps indicating a more outward-looking view. He continues to reflect on his past in a number of the songs, but this time often with a relaxed acceptance – as in ‘Vintage Clothes’ (“Don’t live in the past/Don’t hold on to something that’s changing fast”) – or a sense of wonder, shown in the joyful romp through childhood and teenage recollections in ‘That Was Me’ (“When I think that all this stuff/Can make a life/That’s pretty hard to take it in/That was me”). The two numbers believed to be about Heather, ‘See Your Sunshine’ and ‘Gratitude’, are wholly fond and positive, betraying no bitterness in the face of her attempts to publicly trash his reputation. There are more questioning, introspective moments, on ‘You Tell Me’ (“Were we there?/Was it real?/Is it truly how I feel?”) and the brooding ‘House of Wax’, which is darker than anything on Chaos. But, overall, Memory is the sound of a man who has cleared his head and is eager to make up for lost time – “I’ve got too much on my mind/I think of everything to be discovered” (‘Ever Present Past’) – and is unruffled by contemplation of his own mortality (‘The End of the End’). He’s no longer running from the advance of time, but embracing it (though he would continue with the hair dye for a few years yet). Overall, the music as much as the lyrics on this album speak of a man comfortable in his own skin again, and who has figured out where he wants to go in his life.

Paul and Nancy tie the knot in October 2011

A few months after the release of Memory, Paul began a relationship with Nancy Shevell. This was a union which was greeted with universal approval by his friends and family (Ringo said: “He’s very lucky”), and the pair married in 2011. “Now we are new” he sang breezily on the title track of 2013’s New album, as he sailed off on a calmer, happier, much more settled late-life adventure – older, a little bruised perhaps, but definitely wiser. Maybe he had to go through the crucible of the years following Linda’s death in order to get there. And maybe he knew that all along. As he sang on ‘I Do’ back on Driving Rain, “Days go by so quickly/When you’re having fun/But life is never easy/Even in the sun.”

‘How They Became The Beatles: A Definitive History of the Early Years, 1960-64’ (1989)

It’s always a risky strategy putting the word ‘definitive’ somewhere in the title of a book. Particularly when writing about The Beatles, where people are forever stumbling across something in their attic which casts fresh light on the Fab Four. Even Apple – with its forthcoming Get Back documentary series – has belatedly woken up to the 56 hours of footage from the Let It Be sessions which have been gathering dust in its vaults, a quarter of a century after it claimed to have given the last word on the band’s history with the Beatles Anthology project. There always seems to be something new lurking out there that we didn’t know about. So when How They Became The Beatles: A Definitive History of the Early Years, 1960-64 was published in 1989, it was an ambitious claim, even then. Mark Lewisohn’s Tune In biography, in particular, has given us a much greater, deeper understanding of those early years (at least, up to the end of 1962), so is there much point bothering with books like this anymore? Well, yes – to a point.

Published in 1989. I picked up my copy in a discount bookshop a couple of years later

How They Became The Beatles was a labour of love for its author, American Gareth L. Pawlowski. As he relates in his charming preface to the book, he began collecting rock ‘n’ roll memorabilia almost before it was a thing, when he discovered an up-and-coming young singer called Elvis Presley in the mid-1950s. He even got to see ‘the King’ live during his formative days at Sun Records, and the teenage Pawlowski was hooked. A few years later, in 1963, a similar love affair began when his local radio station in Los Angeles began playing a record by an unknown English group called The Beatles, some months before the band formally stormed the US barricades with ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’. The book relies heavily on the collection of press cuttings, concert programmes, adverts, correspondence and – above all – photographs which he compiled over the years that followed. But, as its title indicates, it’s the material from long before the group got anywhere near America which gives the 208-page volume its biggest selling point. And while sourcing this stuff during several visits to Liverpool, he also supplemented it by interviewing the likes of Pete Best, Brian Epstein’s mother Queenie and Allan Williams, The Beatles first ‘manager’ (of sorts), as well as several other, more fringe players who encountered the fledgling Fabs on the road to glory.

Unsurprisingly, the first half of the book, dealing with the pre-fame years, is much the stronger. While not really comprehensive, it does effectively zoom in on certain episodes and flesh them out with eye-witness detail and, crucially, photographic evidence. A good case in point is The Beatles’ audition for London music mogul Larry Parnes – the Simon Cowell of his day – in May 1960. Parnes had heard about the thriving beat scene in Liverpool, and headed there looking for a cheap support acts to back his latest would-be stars, Duffy Power and Johnny Gentle, on upcoming tours of Scotland. Williams, a wheeler-dealer and entrepreneur of some renown on Merseyside, invited a host of local bands to the event and hosted it as his (somewhat tatty-looking) Wyvern Social Club premises. While often held up as being not the most reliable of storytellers, Williams’ eye-witness account of the proceedings is fun, and it is supported by a host of images taken by the photographer for the day, the wonderfully-named Cheniston K. Roland.

John and Paul during the Larry Parnes audition in May 1960

Most books never show you pictures of the other bands who performed for Parnes, but this one does – so you get to see the likes of Gerry and The Pacemakers and Cass and The Cassanovas strutting their stuff. And what’s interesting about that is the contrast between them and the pre-Fab Four (John, Paul, George and erstwhile bassist Stu Sutcliffe, backed by temporary drummer Tommy Moore – possibly titled Long John and The Silver Beatles for this particular occasion). Their hair is piled up in the same mountainous quiffs sported by the other musicians, but everything else about them is different – they look younger, more scruffy, edgier, cooler. Perhaps less professional, too, but their raw charisma must’ve made up for it, as Parnes chose them for the Johnny Gentle tour and what proved to be their first truly professional gigs. All of Roland’s photos of the band are featured here, and they are glorious (there’s also a remarkable shot of John Lennon, not normally a starstruck sort, asking Parnes’ biggest star and Liverpool-lad-made-good Billy Fury for his autograph. Perhaps it was for Cynthia).

Likewise, a highlight of the 1961 section of the book deals with the first photo session Brian Epstein arranged for the band after becoming their manager in December that year. He employed local snapper Albert Marrion, who was more accustomed to taking wedding and portrait pictures for cosy family albums than promotional shots of cocky, leather-clad rock ‘n’ rollers, though I guess Brian’s options were limited on that score. The studio setting was certainly far from ideal and the situation wasn’t helped by The Beatles’ refusal to take the shoot seriously, with John and Paul ruining many of the negatives by pulling faces and generally larking about (the account of the session is hilarious, especially Lennon getting under Marrion’s skin by continually referring to the balding photographer as “Curly”). Nonetheless, 16 images were considered salvageable, and all are included here. The best one has become famous through its use on the cover of Merseybeat magazine’s ‘Beatles Top Poll!’ issue early in 1962, recycled a few times since on various albums containing their Hamburg recordings with Tony Sheridan, but the lesser-known shots from the day are fascinating. Although the staging is awkward and unimaginative, the images capture the group at the dawn of the Epstein era, when things started to get serious, and just two weeks before their ill-fated audition with Decca Records. They look ill at ease at times, but also insouciant, supremely confident and ready to explode. And, of course, Pete Best – maintaining his James Dean coiffure while the others have started combing their hair forward – sticks out like a sore thumb.

Struggling to keep a straight face during the Albert Marrion photo shoot, December 1961

The book covers their trips to Hamburg, but largely in the text – there are precious few pictures of their time in Germany, which is odd. It may have been that Pawlowski was unable to secure (or afford) permission to use prints from the likes of Astrid Kirchherr and Jürgen Vollmer, who may have asserted their rights more aggressively by this point, after years of people using their work without paying for it. It’s a pity, because the absence of those classic images is glaring in a book about The Beatles’ formative years. The exception is a handful of great colour shots of the band members allegedly at The Star Club in 1962 (the author states they were taken in December that year but, as Pete Best features, that has to be wrong). They’re the only known colour images from the Hamburg period, and it’s great to have them. There are also a few (black and white) pictures of the group at the club with Ringo, which would have been the December dates – showing us how they would have looked when the Live at the Star Club album was recorded.

A joyful-looking John, in colour, during one of their 1962 Hamburg trips

Back in Liverpool, and the 1962 chapter brings another clutch of fabulous photos. You get to see the band performing in suits for one of the first times, at the Odd Spot Club in March; the famed Fan Club Night at the Cavern that April, when they changed back into their leathers mid-show, for old times’ sake, and some images from their first professional photo shoot with Ringo in August. After another studio session again failed to produce the right results, photographer Peter Kaye took the band out to the Liverpool docklands and produced some fantastic images of the boys aboard a fireboat and amid the rubble which still scarred the cityscape 17 years after the end of World War II. These are among my favourite pictures of The Beatles from this time, and it’s a shame we get only four of them in the book.

The first half of the book also contains some intriguing memorabilia from the time, including an I.O.U. note signed by Sutcliffe and Macca for money loaned by Williams ahead of The Beatles’ first trip to Hamburg (cash he claims he never got back) and a copy of the contract (partially destroyed by fire) Williams arranged for that first foray into German clubland. It does lean somewhat heavily on reproductions of articles and adverts from Merseybeat but, if you don’t have a copy of editor Bill Harry’s 1970s book of Beatles material from the magazine, these too are a nice bonus. It’s interesting (and not a little ironic) that the cover of the issue which announced “Beatles Record” after their first visit to Abbey Road features a photo of just Pete Best singing into a microphone. And there is a sprinkling of non-Beatles photos which help to give a flavour of the early-1960s Liverpool scene, including some from Williams’ Jacaranda and Blue Angel clubs, where the Fabs were regular visitors and performers. Best of all is a terrific shot of Ringo onstage with Rory Storm and the Hurricanes during Liverpool’s first-ever stadium rock show in May 1960, headlined by Gene Vincent. John, Paul and George were nowhere near good enough to get on the bill at this stage and had to make do with watching from the audience.

The text accompanying all this material leads you through the story competently enough, but isn’t particularly exciting and seems a little sketchy compared to the detail we have now. The story of the Decca audition, for example, warrants less than a page. Williams is quoted extensively throughout and, bearing in mind the veracity of his own memoir The Man Who Gave The Beatles has been repeatedly called into question down the years, some of his recollections are perhaps best taken with a pinch of salt. Likewise, Pete Best’s description of how The Beatles adopted the mop-top hairstyle doesn’t accord with Mark Lewisohn’s painstakingly researched account in Tune In. Nonetheless, it’s nice to hear from some less well-known players in the story, such as the aforementioned photographers and a couple of Cavern Club regulars. One of them, Val Davies, recalls obtaining the signatures of John, George and Pete on a fan club photo one night but didn’t ask Paul because “he was such a show-off.” Hmm, I don’t think Val had a good grasp of showbusiness back in those days.

The programme cover for their summer 1963 shows in Bournemouth, just down the road from me

The second half of the book, covering 1963-64, is less memorable, mainly because – even by the time How They Became The Beatles was published – we’d heard it all before, and it brings nothing new to the party. The text trundles through the familiar chronology of the record releases, tours, radio shows, TV appearances, mounting Beatlemania and so on, but this time quoting widely-available sources like the NME, The Beatles Monthly Book and official press hand-outs. Similarly, the images are largely of record covers and labels, advertisements and magazines that you will probably have seen many times elsewhere. Pawlowski does delve into the record label shenanigans which went on after the band conquered the USA in early 1964, and how small label Vee Jay squeezed as much profit as possible out of the Fabs’ early US releases before EMI subsidiary Capitol regained full rights to the material. It’s mildly diverting but, again, the subject has been covered in more depth by other writers. In truth, the book would have been better served if it had focused entirely on the 1960-62 period, and gone deeper into that.

Ultimately, Pawlowski’s book is weighed down a little with its “definitive” subtitle. While he clearly put a lot of effort into getting his facts right, it lacks the forensic approach of books published since, and the memories of some of his main contributors are not always accurate. In addition, while many of the photographs included had not been published before, the advent of the internet means most of them are now readily available to look up online. But if you’re old fashioned, like me, and like to have pictures nicely laid out and compiled in a glossy, quality printed format, the book is worth having. Lewisohn’s Tune In may take you much closer to the heart of the band’s early adventures, but the images in How They Became The Beatles enable you to actually see something of that world, and so make it a useful companion work. For that reason, I’d give it a 6.

Never to be found? Paul’s ‘Stranglehold’ video

Singles charts and radio playlists have always been capricious things, and Paul McCartney found this out to his cost in 1986. After an almost unbroken run of hits stretching back well over two decades, the song ‘Press’ – his first single from a new album in two years and a supremely infectious one at that, fitted with all the peppy production trimmings of the day – stalled outside both the UK and US top 20. Like a lot of his 1960s/70s contemporaries who had been fixtures in the charts and on the airwaves, he ran into a curious impasse in the mid-1980s. It wasn’t so much his age, per se – after all, some of his peers who’d been in the wildness for years, like Paul Simon, Steve Winwood and, er, George Harrison enjoyed renewed success during this period. It was more, I think, that he suddenly seemed a bit passé. There was a new wave of megastars coming through, like Madonna and Prince, and a lot of the old guard (not to mention some of the younger guard, like Duran Duran) now seemed a bit old hat in the shiny new CD era. Being a teenager who had discovered the joys of Macca music at precisely this time, I was certainly painfully aware of how out of step I was with just about everyone else.

The cover of the US single ‘Stranglehold’, released in October 1986

With his new album Press to Play struggling, finding a successful second single was essential. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw the UK follow-up was to be the dreary techno-pop of ‘Pretty Little Head’, and was baffled why Paul and EMI hadn’t plumped for the album’s lead-off track, ‘Stranglehold’, instead. I loved ‘Stranglehold’ then, and I love it now. The first, and one of the best, of Paul’s short-lived collaborations with 10cc’s Eric Stewart, it signalled Macca’s embrace of full-on ‘80s sounds without sacrificing any of his songwriting craft. From the raspy rhythm guitars and snappy drums to crunchy power chords and soaring saxophone, it was more punchy, raw and direct than his (equally brilliant) work with George Martin earlier in the decade, but was still filled with hooks, twists and turns, plus very smart lyrics about navigating the eddies of instant attraction. It’s a dynamic, muscular track, near perfect pop-rock done with real swagger, and I thought it had a good shot of clawing Paul back into chart reckoning. It seems Paul’s US label Capitol thought likewise, as it did chose the song as the album’s next single. Unfortunately, Paul’s face just didn’t fit around this time, and the track received barely any airplay. But I don’t think the rather uninspired video did much to help, either.

Unlike the promo film for ‘Press’, a low-key, unadorned montage of Macca travelling on the London Underground (if people in the UK remember ‘Press’ at all, it’s more likely the video than the song), ‘Stranglehold’ opted for a more glossy slice of typical MTV fare. Paul even brought in Bob Giraldi, the man behind the excellent ‘Say Say Say’ film, to direct and – as was the style in those days – concocted a ‘story’ to bookend and frame the song. For some unfathomable reason, it has a Mexican/cowboy theme, which has nothing to do with the tune, and is set in a small town in Arizona where Paul and a bunch of unknown musicians are playing at the ‘Cactus Club’. To start with, they are performing ‘Move Over Busker’, a great rocker from Press to Play which it would’ve been terrific to hear live but, alas, we are treated to just the last few bars of the studio version. A boy in his early teens turns up at the club carrying a case which we later discover holds a saxophone, and attempts to sneak his way in without a ticket. A burly bouncer, doing his job lest we forget, is having none of it, but fortuitously Linda arrives at the same moment and asks the boy what the problem is. “I wanna see the band,” he whines, which is enough to get him free access to the venue and jump the line of paying customers queuing patiently outside. Hmmm. That said, the quick cut from Linda telling the doorman “He’s with me” to Paul singing onstage is probably my favourite bit of the video.

Performing the song ‘live’ at The Cactus Club

By this point, Paul and band have launched into ‘Stranglehold’, even though the song doesn’t sound remotely live. Macca’s on guitar, rather than bass, and while drummer Jerry Marotta played on the studio recording, the chumps on bass and lead guitar have clearly been imported purely for the video shoot, and it shows. They may have just been following the director’s instructions, but their attempts to throw rock star shapes – while they are on the same stage as the biggest rock star on the planet – are seriously annoying. Paul himself looks pretty good, sporting a cool metallic necktie, though I’m not sure about the denim look – nor why he’d even be wearing a denim jacket in small, packed club on a baking hot night in Arizona. It probably accounts for the sweat which is pouring off him throughout. Anyhow, the audience – a morass of big hair, ponchos and cowboy hats – is lapping it up, and gets progressively more hysterical as the performance progresses. Unfortunately, people’s whooping, hollering and clapping is turned right up, which only serves to drown out the music in places and distract your attention away from it. It all feels a little forced. And if that wasn’t enough, a couple of papier-maché piñatas hanging from the ceiling are exploded, disgorging sweets or something into the crowd. Seeing Paul McCartney play live a few feet away clearly wasn’t enough to keep some people entertained.

What happened to the young boy who got in without paying, you ask? Well, he’s clearly not getting enough attention, and so he unpacks his sax and starts tooting along. Macca spots him and, presumably with the hearing of a bat to be able to pick out his playing above the cacophony of the crowd, beckons him on stage. Our teenage friend needs no second invitation and, before you can say “precocious”, he’s up there with the band, hogging the limelight and wowing the audience with an unamplified saxophone they couldn’t possibly hear above the din. There’s even an extra little sax part he’s supposed to be playing near the end that isn’t on the record. Before we know it, the song is over and he’s palm-slapping with Paul while lapping up a wave of applause. The horn-playing Cinderella is out past his bedtime, though, and things round off with a totally superfluous scene of him scurrying home while church bells toll.

Paul spots young saxophonist, and preposterous finale ensues

As the song wasn’t released as a single in the UK, I stumbled across the video purely by chance while I was visiting my sister in Australia in early 1987, when it was screened on a Saturday morning pop music show. Any unseen footage of Paul was exciting back then, and it was a nice feeling knowing I’d seen something the vast majority of my countrymen hadn’t. It eventually appeared in the UK at the end of that year on Once Upon A Video, a very curious video EP which also featured clips of the then-current single ‘Once Upon A Long Ago’ plus’ ‘We All Stand Together’ and ‘Pretty Little Head’. And, to date, that is the only official release the film has ever had, as it failed to make the cut on 2007’s The McCartney Years DVD collection.

Unsurprisingly, the video did little to revive Paul’s flagging fortunes on the US singles charts, with ‘Stranglehold’ peaking at a dismal #81. It’s a murkily-shot film which just doesn’t feel very ‘Paul’ to me (although its storyline was apparently his idea), and certainly doesn’t suit the song. If anything, the tune gets lost in the mix amid the cheesy plotting and the over-the-top crowd nonsense. It’s notable for a couple of things: the live club setting clearly reflected Macca’s growing desire to get back to performing after seven years away from the touring circuit, and at about 3:42 you get a brief glimpse of nine-year-old James McCartney, next to Linda. No wonder he grew up wanting to be a musician if he got to witness this kind of thing during his school holidays. Ultimately, though, it’s not one of Paul’s better efforts. If the song certainly deserved much wider recognition, the promo film – the least memorable and well-executed of the four made for Press to Play – probably didn’t.

The ‘Stranglehold’ video in all its glory