2020 vision – what will happen to the reissues?

As I write, most of world remains in various stages of COVID-19 lockdown, and the entertainment industry – much like everything else – is still in limbo. And this includes a slew of confirmed and potential Beatles releases, most of which are aligned with the pivotal 50th anniversary of the band’s split and the birth of four solo careers. So, among slightly more important questions about the future direction of mankind, where does this leave those of us hankering for a fresh Fab Four fix?

I find the whole approach to reissues and catalogue management by Apple and the four individual camps to be a bizarre mixture of the brilliant and the bewildering, an on-going lesson in how not to give your fanbase what it wants – highlighted by the occasional bullseye which demonstrates the art of the possible. I’ll assess the successes and failures of each case in more detail in future posts, but for now let’s just survey the wreckage of 2020 and see if anything is likely to be salvaged.

The first victims of the release schedule shutdown were ones planned for Record Store Day on 18 April, including the vinyl edition of Ravi Shankar and George Harrison’s project Chants of India, the half-speed mastered McCartney and the “Ultimate mix” of John’s ‘Instant Karma!’ single. I have to be honest, none of these hold any interest for me. I know lots of fans love their vinyl, and I totally get that, but it’s just not that important for me. And in terms of these records, I have Chants on CD somewhere and never listen to it; I already own five versions of McCartney (one cassette, one LP, three CDs) and am not hungering for another, half-speed or not, and am perfectly happy with the mix of ‘Instant Karma!’ I’ve lived with until this point. But what richer fruit may have dropped from the tree this year (and still might)?

1970’s John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band album

The recent announcement of a new book coming later this year about John’s Plastic Ono Band album seems to indicate a 50th anniversary deluxe reissue is on the cards, like we had for Imagine in 2018. Again, I can’t get too excited about that. Multi-disc box sets breaking down a single album into demos, early takes, remixes and the like are worthwhile, no question, but have generally limited appeal to me. They’re the sort of thing I might dig out to listen to every ten years or so, out of curiosity, but otherwise leave on the shelf (the Beatles’ Anthology set is about about my limit for that kind of thing, and I don’t even listen to much of that material very often). And as we’ve had two remastered versions of this album in the past 20 years, I’m not sure what the new one will have to offer – particularly as there are no more than three instruments and vocals on any of the tracks. Are we really likely to hear it in a new way? Imagine was a more layered album, and I couldn’t really detect much of a difference in the ‘Ultimate Mix’ of that.

I appreciate there’s not much stuff to mine from John’s solo catalogue, and that this is a widely acknowledged ‘classic’ album which people will want to further analyse and pour over, so I’ve no problem with this coming out. But, bearing in mind a clutch of demos and outtakes from these sessions have already been released on The John Lennon Anthology and Acoustic collections, I’ll pass on this one.

George’s ‘proper’ solo debut, All Things Must Pass

On a similar tack, the Harrison estate has strongly hinted of a expansive anniversary release of George’s most famous and acclaimed album, All Things Must Pass, with archivists apparently unearthing “hours of unreleased material and unheard songs” from those sessions. If so, that could be a more interesting affair. But, again, we have had two remastered re-releases of this in the past two decades, the first overseen by George himself and not exactly crammed with bonus goodies. Are Olivia and Dhani now considering putting stuff out he didn’t deem worthy when he was alive?

I’m not necessarily against that. Artists sometimes have strange views on material they didn’t release when it was recorded, often hoarding great stuff, and – being a big Bob Dylan fan – George may have looked at the ongoing success of Dylan’s Bootleg Series and changed his mind had he lived. And it would be great to have pristine quality versions of the guitar demos he recorded for the album which found their way out on the Beware of Abkco bootleg in the 1990s (though of the unreleased songs on that, I’d say ‘Window, Window’ is the only real keeper). However, as with Plastic Ono Band, outtakes of songs we already know don’t do much for me. I know some fans really want to hear a stripped back, de-Spectorised version of the album, without the grandiose ‘Wall of Sound’ production which adorns many tracks. But, to me, that’s one of the things which makes the album what it is. Harrison archive releases have become rarer than hen’s teeth, though, so I guess we’ll take whatever we can get.

Sentimental Journey: Ringo does the standards

One possible anniversary release (or set of releases) which no-one’s talking about but which I’d love to see would be a long-overdue package of Ringo’s debut solo albums, Sentimental Journey and Beaucoups of Blues. These were last issued 25 years ago, and are badly in need of remastering. There’s also scope for bonus material – we know there were at least a couple of tracks (like ‘Stormy Weather’) which didn’t make the cut on the former, while rumours abound there is a whole album’s worth of leftovers for the latter. A two-disc package for each, with the obligatory booklet, surely isn’t too much to ask?

Beaucoups of Blues: Ringo does country

Okay, these aren’t the best albums ever made, and EMI may consider there isn’t much commercial mileage in a ‘Ringo-does-big-band-and-country’ episode from 50 years ago. But both albums have undergone a bit of a critical re-evaluation in recent times (with Beaucoups rated particularly highly by some people), and – as part of that batch of early Beatle solo efforts – are historically important. Journey made the UK top ten, lest we forget, and sold more than half a million copies in the US in its first two weeks of release. I think that, with a bit of care and the right promotion, ardent Fabs fans (who might not bother with his modern-day releases) would snap them up. Alas, therein lies the rub – Ringo himself seems to have zero interest in rehabilitating his back catalogue, or even making it available in good quality for today’s listeners. A real pity.

Macca’s critically acclaimed 1997 offering

What had been all but confirmed for the summer, unofficially at least, was the remastered edition of Flaming Pie, the latest release from the utterly random, stop-start McCartney Archive Collection. While I would have much preferred MPL to finish the Wings story by putting out London Town and Back to the Egg instead of jumping ahead 20 years (such things are clearly far too obvious and logical for Paul and his ‘people’), this was nonetheless a very tantalising prospect. What I value most about the Archive series, along with the remastering of the original albums and b-sides, is the prospect of getting our hands on some unreleased McCartney songs, and there are at least a few that we know of from those mid-90s sessions.

Expensive boxes full of glossy photos and alternate mixes I can take or leave (and invariably leave), but unheard material always gets my juices flowing. And the last Macca reissue, Red Rose Speedway, provided plenty of that in the standard two-disc edition. However, it may well be that this year’s events have put paid to a re-heated Flaming Pie, at least for a while. Cruelly ironic, bearing in mind the Archive series releases already come around about as often as Halley’s Comet.

Of course, the main course in this year’s Beatles banquet was always going to the new Get Back film, and its attendant music/book/DVD spin-offs. Stitched together by Oscar-winning director Peter Jackson from hours of unused footage from the Get Back/Let It Be sessions in January 1969, this is apparently going to set the record straight that this period was nowhere near as miserable and discordant for the band as history portrays (or indeed, as the individual members have all described it). And I suspect a fresh, more positive depiction of these events was the only way of lifting the veto over the release of the original Let It Be film held by Olivia Harrison and/or Yoko Ono. Whatever the politics, I’m not complaining. Although I have a copy of Let It Be, I seem to have been waiting all my life for a cleaned-up, official release which also delves into the kind of unseen footage we had glimpses of in The Beatles Anthology and elsewhere. The prospect of two hours or so of ‘new’ film showing the Fabs rehearsing, recording, joking, chatting and generally being themselves, unscripted, is just mouth-watering.

Having a good time? The Fabs, plus Yoko, in January 1969

Last we heard, the film was still scheduled for release in September, though it’s hard to say if that date will remain in place. A tie-in book is also planned, and I would assume – in line with Apple’s other 50th anniversary deluxe sets in recent years – a revamped version of the Let It Be album, with all the usual bells and whistles. Quite how that will be handled will be fascinating to see, bearing in mind the album’s chequered history and the long-standing Macca antipathy to Phil Spector’s production work on it. I must say I’m somewhat dubious they will come up with much in the way of buried gold from those sessions, beyond what we’ve already heard on Anthology 3 and Let It Be…Naked. My memories of the Sweet Apple Trax bootlegs from the 1980s don’t extend much beyond sluggish jams, half-hearted run-throughs, endless rehearsals and unfinished snippets of tunes which emerged further down the line (or were never heard of again). But we’ll see.

For once, though, the music probably isn’t the main focus, but the film itself. And we’re promised the divisive Let It Be film will also see the light of day in official form, most likely on a DVD (who knows, perhaps with extras) which I’m guessing had been pencilled in for the Christmas market. All that must be up in the air now, though, and your guess is as good as mine as to how all the major corporate entertainment schedules will be reordered as the world comes out of lockdown. And whether some people will be in a position to spend much money on it all. On the other hand, what better way to emerge back into the light and re-establish some kind of normality than with some fresh Beatles product? It would be a perfect pick-me-up. In the meantime, let’s just stay safe and make sure we’re around to enjoy whatever – eventually – comes our way.

Flying high: Paul’s ‘Off The Ground’ video

‘Off the Ground’, the title track from Paul’s 1993 album, came out at the tail-end of Paul’s hit-making career. While he’d been struggling to hit the Top 10 singles chart (as opposed to the Top 30) for a little while, that year marked the start of a generational shift, as MTV and (in the UK) Radio One began to focus on a much more ‘yoof’ oriented audience. The radio I had grown up with, which played oldies alongside chart hits and didn’t seem to care how old the people releasing records were, gradually became more closed off to anything which wasn’t hip and happening. By 1995/96, The Beatles’ reunions singles could barely get any Radio One airplay at all, something which would’ve been unthinkable a short time earlier, and one of its periodic “All Time Top 100 Singles” run-downs placed ‘Hey Dude’ by flash-in-the-pan raga rockers Kula Shaker higher than ‘Hey Jude’. MTV followed suit, with older artists being pushed onto VH1. While the radio refugees, both acts and DJs, eventually found their way to Radio Two in the UK, the charts became a much a much harder nut to crack for most rock veterans. And inevitably, many of the people who would’ve bought a Paul McCartney single in the past had given up buying singles (which were now almost exclusively in the CD format) altogether.

The cover for the US single.

‘Off The Ground’ was one of three tracks Paul had clearly eyed as single material from the album, and he made videos for each. But after ‘Hope of Deliverance’ stalled at a modest #18 (despite being massive in many other countries) and follow-up ‘C’Mon People’ had failed to make the Top 40 at all, plans for a third UK single – if there ever were any – were quietly dropped. In the US, things were even worse. After ‘Hope of Deliverance’ peaked at a measly #83, ‘Off The Ground’ was, I believe, released as the second single, and didn’t chart. FM radio, it seems, had lost interest in Macca by this point. According to Wiki, the single did hit #25 in Canada, but that was about as good as it got.

To be fair, even if the pluggers and airplay arbiters had been more kindly disposed to him, I don’t think it would’ve been much of a hit at that time. I’ve always liked it, though — a catchy, crunchy slice of guitar pop, brimming with his trademark sunny romantic optimism, topped off with tasty slide playing by Robbie McIntosh and some terrific harmonies. Maybe not top-drawer McCartney, but it features lots of things he’s so effortlessly good at. It’s very Paul.

As it never saw the light of day over here, I wasn’t able to pick up a copy of the single (and the precious bonus tracks it contained) until September 1993, when I went to London to see Paul play at Earl’s Court, one of only three UK dates during that year’s world tour. I bought an import copy at the Tower Records megastore in Piccadilly – those were the days. The first I saw of the accompanying promo video had been in April that year, when behind-the-scenes footage and a few snippets of the finished film were included in the Moving On documentary, which was belatedly shown on Channel Four to promote the album. But it must’ve been a couple of years later, mostly likely during an MTV or VH1 ‘Paul McCartney Day’, before I actually saw it in its entirety. And I think it’s that residual rarity value which probably makes me fonder of the video than I otherwise would be.

Paul obviously wanted to make a splash with it, calling in George Lucas’s Industrial Light & Magic effects wizards to give a literal interpretation of the song’s theme. The gist of it is basically this: Macca is strumming his guitar in some swish high-rise apartment when suddenly the window blows open (triggering some characteristically dodgy ‘acting’) and his Hofner bass mysteriously lifts up into the air. Paul himself soon follows suit, and finds himself soaring over rolling countryside, the sea, English castles, Niagara Falls and the like, before returning to the city he left from. All this is intercut with film of him performing the song with his 1989-93 tour band who, by the video’s end, also start to levitate and join Paul up in the air for a slightly awkward but still neat recreation of the album’s ‘feet in the sky’ cover art.

The concept was based on a dream Paul had (as we know from ‘Yesterday’ and the like, he’s even creative in his sleep), in which, while lying down, he found that if he stretched his arms out in a certain way he started to levitate. Watching it now, it’s interesting to note how creaky the ‘flying’ scenes are, even for their time. Terminator 2 and its groundbreaking CGI had come out a year or two before, but this is closer to Christopher Reeve’s Superman in 1978. You can’t quite see the strings, but almost. Some nice backdrop scenery though, and Paul glides well.

Is it a bird? Is it a Beatle?

The performance stuff is typical MTV fare of its time, super-glossy with lots of quick cutting and interchanges between colour and faux grainy black-and-white (a style which really started to grate when employed in the Live in the New World concert film the following year). Hamish Stuart’s tiresome tomfoolery threatens to capsize the whole enterprise early on, but thankfully the director keeps that to a minimum thereafter. There’s some sort of joke going on about Wix and drummer Blair Cunningham knitting to alleviate the boredom during their master’s absence, but it’s never really explained or developed.

Robbie McIntosh and Paul on guitar duties

Paul is as winning as ever, every bit the boyish Beatle pop star adored by the camera, even though he was into his 50s by this point. Despite frequent shots of his Hofner, he plays electric guitar throughout this and is clearly having a blast. And it’s great to see Linda, smiling and laughing. You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone.

Off The Ground isn’t one of his best videos but it’s a fun watch, a throwback to a more innocent time in many ways. Paul is obviously fond of it, as it was one of the clips which made the (very random) cut on his McCartney Years DVD promo collection back in 2007. His commentary on that made me laugh out loud when he reveals the director had told him he would need to be in good shape in order to hold his body correctly during the wire suspension sequences, prompting Paul to think: “Uh-oh……the game’s up.” He acquits himself well, though. And for someone of my vintage, it’s quite sobering to think this came out nearer the beginning of his solo career than the point where we are now. Gulp.

The 1969 boardroom tape – a new beginning, or a dead end?

To coincide with the 50th anniversary release of Abbey Road, Mark Lewisohn – pre-eminent Beatles historian of our times – undertook a tour of the UK last autumn with a stage show exploring the making of the album.

Mixing archive footage, photos, memorabilia, interview recordings and audio purloined from the sessions (but remixed and/or stripped down courtesy of the 2009 ‘Rock Band’ game), he told the story not just of the band’s final collective endeavour but of all the events going on in their lives which fed into it and swirled around it.

I caught the Southampton show and, apart from a few technical issues at the start, it was a hugely enjoyable couple of hours, with Lewisohn’s forensic but engaging style bringing to life a (relatively) less pored-over period of the Fabs’ career. An evening with the world’s foremost Beatles expert talking solidly about The Beatles – what’s not to love?

But what really made headlines was his use of a little-known tape of John, Paul and George meeting to discuss the band’s future, soon after the album was finished. I had heard talk of such a tape, and claims of what was on it, on music forums but had been exceedingly sceptical of its existence. After all, why on earth would they record such a meeting, particularly at a time when relations between them were becoming so frayed? And they had all but broken up by this point, so what possible future would they have been discussing, right?

Not for the first time, I was completely misguided in my disbelief. They had indeed taped such a meeting at Apple, for the benefit of Ringo, who was in hospital at the time. Not only that, but a concrete reference to the tape’s existence had been made as far back as 1976 in the book ‘One Day at a Time’, written by John’s former personal assistant Anthony Fawcett. But it was Lewisohn who brought the recording firmly into the wider public gaze, using it to promote his stage tour during an interview with the Guardian last September.

Chewing the fat at Tittenhurst Park, August 1969

To summarise, the juicy talking points of the trio’s meeting were thus:

  • They were considering making a new album, plus a Christmas single
  • Recognising George’s recent ascendancy as a songwriter, John argued that all future albums should be divided democratically — four songs each for the three main writers, plus one or two for Ringo “if he wants them”
  • John also suggested Paul gave his more fruity songs, like ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’, to other artists rather than force the band to record them
  • Paul was having none of the last two suggestions. And was apparently a bit stoned.

Lewisohn claimed in his interview that the tape “rewrites everything we knew about The Beatles”, in particular the widely-accepted belief that John was the one looking to break up the band at this point, and also that they had recorded Abbey Road knowing that it was to be their final album. But, fascinating though the tape is, does it, really?

Accepting that Lewisohn was taking a leaf out of the Lennon-McCartney promotional handbook and somewhat massaging the facts in order to sell tickets for his show, this statement just doesn’t hold water at all. And I’d also have to take issue with Lennon’s ‘road map’ for the future of the band. Here’s why.

First, while it has been widely assumed over the years that The Beatles intended Abbey Road to be their swansong (if only because it ends so perfectly with, er, ‘The End’), I don’t think there’s much evidence to support this. I feel that, subconsciously, they may have felt the end was nigh while recording it – a wistful, valedictory feeling does inarguably seep through into some of the songs, particularly the medley section – but I don’t believe it was ever intended to be their last will and testament. The fact that they were still discussing possible touring options even later in 1969 (when John dropped his “I want a divorce” bombshell), something we’ve known about for years, shows that. And Ringo confirmed as much during an interview to promote the album’s reissue last year.

Despite that, my view is that John’s departure – and thus, the end of the band – was inevitable from the point he hooked up with Yoko, and could have happened any time after the completion of The White Album. It could have been triggered by the apathy he felt during the Twickenham sessions for Let It Be in January 1969; the increasing hostility of the British press; his preoccupation with his and Yoko’s peace campaign, or the huge success of ‘Give Peace a Chance’ that summer. Up until 1968, his primary focus had always been the band, above everything else — even his family. Once he hooked up with Yoko, however, all that changed. There couldn’t be room for two all-consuming passions in his life. Especially as she encouraged him to give free rein to any artistic impulse that came into his head, whereas The Beatles inevitably represented compromise in comparison. And John’s natural inclinations were never really about compromise. As he explained in 1980, “the old gang of mine was over the moment I met her. I didn’t consciously know it at the time, but that’s what was going on. As soon as I met her, that was the end of the boys.”

By the spring of 1969, many Beatles photos featured five members

That being the case, I think it’s a sign of John’s profound connection with the others that it took him so long to make the break. Even though tensions had begun to mount during that period, their brotherhood was wound tight. He would still have felt joined at the hip. And, when they were all focused and in sync, they still made peerless music together. They got off on each other, and the buzz must have been hard to relinquish. You only have to see the sparks flying and the giddy exchange of looks during the marvellous rooftop gig at the end of the Let It Be film.

Rocking on the roof, January 1969

Despite the growing business aggravations gathering outside, the Abbey Road sessions proved that magic was still in full flow. I suspect John enjoyed making it – and would’ve been particularly pleased at how songs like ‘Come Together’ and ‘Because’ turned out – and knew they had made something good. It’s also true that The Beatles were probably a comfort blanket for him. Despite everything he had achieved, he almost certainly had nagging insecurities about his viability as a solo artist, and so the band would have been an infallible safety net as he took his first tentative steps towards independence.

So I believe that he probably woke up on the morning of 8 September 1969 in a sunny, optimistic mood, feeling that he could have his cake and eat it. That he could still lead the biggest band in the world, while pursing his peace campaigning and more avant garde musical projects with Yoko. But John was a mercurial character. He changed his mind as often as he changed his socks, and I don’t for one minute believe this stance was anything more than a fleeting fancy. Deep down, he knew the end was coming. And the outcome of his discussions with Paul and George that day most likely confirmed the inevitable – spurred on by new “rules” he sought to put in place for future Beatles albums. If The Beatles were about anything, it was about not following rules.

On the surface, dividing up the bulk of the songwriting contributions three ways made sense. George had truly arrived as a writer on Abbey Road with two of the best, and certainly most commercial, tracks on it. And by this point he had also stockpiled many of the wonderful numbers he would unleash on All Things Must Pass the following year. But how would this carve-up have worked, in practicality? What if John writes eight brilliant numbers, but has to drop four of them to make way for sub-standard McCartney/Harrison songs, or vice-versa? What happens if they suddenly end up co-writing again, where do those numbers fit into the scheme of things? Say they record lots more tracks than they need, who decides which of the allocated four songs each makes it onto the final record? And wouldn’t this push them even further towards being each other’s backing band rather than a fully cohesive, collaborative unit?

In addition, how far would John’s enthusiasm stretch to recording the others’ songs? He hadn’t shown much interest in some of George’s compositions in recent years – he didn’t feature at all on ‘Savoy Truffle’ or ‘Long Long Long’ from The White Album, for instance, and had been more interested in dancing with Yoko when the others ran through ‘I Me Mine’ during the Let It Be sessions. It’s telling that in the alleged transcript of the 8 September meeting in Anthony Fawcett’s book (reproduced in Roger Stormo’s excellent Daily Beatle blog), when George complains of a lack of interest in his material from his bandmates, John can cite only ‘Don’t Bother Me’ to refute this – a song recorded six years earlier.

At Apple, the spring of 1969

And what if Paul shows up for the next album with more songs like Maxwell’s Silver Hammer? I know most critics and many fans like to use this track as a stick to beat McCartney with, but I’ve never had a problem with it and don’t understand the hate. Okay, I wouldn’t want an album full of them, but songs like this and Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da (one of my favourites from The White Album) are as much a part of the Fabs’ oeuvre as ‘I Am The Walrus’, ‘Helter Skelter’, ‘The Inner Light’ or anything else. For me, one of the things I love most about The Beatles is that there were no barriers, they never stayed in one box, they could do anything and everything, and do it brilliantly. To put arbitrary limits on that would’ve been wholly wrong – and, again, who would’ve defined what constituted a Beatles song, or what criteria needed to be met? Because surely ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’ was as least as worthwhile as, say, ‘Revolution #9’ or ‘What’s The New Mary Jane’. If that was the only kind of material Paul was bringing in, John might have had a point, but it wasn’t (the fact that Paul sometimes “drove the others into the ground”, to use John’s words, recording endless takes of such songs might have been a more valid point for consideration).

It all strikes me as way too regimented an approach for the band, and could never have worked in practice. We all fantasise about what the next Beatles album could have been like and there was no shortage of great songs ready to go (or at least partly written), even at this point. But maybe, hard though it may be to accept, the group setting wasn’t necessarily the best place for them anymore. After all, John seemed to have no problem recording something like ‘When I’m 64’ just a couple of years earlier, but now – post-Yoko – things had irrevocably changed. While I think they could have always conquered new musical frontiers, they were heading in different places as people. For example, John would soon offer up ‘Cold Turkey’ as the band’s next single, and it was rejected by the others. And probably rightly so. Anything Paul and George would have added would most likely have inflected John’s deeply personal statement and burnished the jagged, harsh nature of the final product. True, they may have helped make it a better, more accessible record — but it wouldn’t have been what John had intended. Likewise, can you really hear John and Paul singing idolatry “Hare Krishna” backing vocals on ‘My Sweet Lord’?

So, no, I don’t believe this tape changes everything we knew about The Beatles’ break-up, nor did it set out a credible way forward for a continuation of the band. It is a precious insight into the tumultuous events of 1969 and the state of band’s dynamic, and we can only hope the whole thing will find its way into the public domain before long (Lewisohn said he was heavily leaned on – presumably by Apple – not to play more than a brief excerpt during his autumn shows). But while it offers a tantalising detour and glimpse of what might have been, it doesn’t alter the main narrative. Without John’s heart-and-soul commitment, The Beatles were finished. And just five days after this meeting, following his first full concert appearance away from the band at the Toronto Rock and Roll Revival Festival, he was finally ready to make the break. On 20 September, during another meeting at Apple, he announced unequivocally that he “wanted a divorce”.

And in the end…..

For all the inherent problems in the ‘road map’ for future activities he had put forward earlier, John’s overarching instincts – to break up the band – were right. They had already created the definitive road map for every rock group to follow, and would end their collective career still at an unassailable peak. The Beatles would never decline, never blemish their remarkable achievements. They would embark on four solo careers, often brilliant and rarely less than engrossing, and their legend would only grow over time. Some 50 years later, and we’re still wishing they had done more together. Surely that’s the best legacy of all.

It was (just over) 30 years ago today…….Losing my live Macca virginity

When I arrived at Birmingham NEC on the evening of 3 January 1990 to see Paul McCartney, I was slightly miffed.

At the time I ordered my ticket through the Wings Fun Club months earlier, this was to have been his first full concert date in the UK in more than a decade — and, hey, I was going to be there.

Alas, demand for tickets meant that another show was squeezed into the itinerary the day before, so this was merely going to be his second gig since 1979. And who cares about that? On the other hand, reviews of the opening night performance had hit the national papers, and were pretty stellar. “Mac-nificent!” shrieked the Daily Mirror. “ Make no mistake, people will remember this as one of the concerts of the decade!”

As if I needed my anticipation stoking.

Since I had been engulfed by my Beatles adulation some four or so years earlier, seeing one of them live had become something akin to the Holy Grail, and about as likely as finding that. The careers of George and Ringo were in limbo, to put it kindly. John had gone, of course, and even Paul hadn’t toured since the days when I was still playing with Action Men and pretending to be Spider-Man. Beatle gigs just weren’t done, it appeared.

However, following his barnstorming appearance at the Prince’s Trust Concert in the summer of 1986, Macca had clearly caught the bug again, and began to talk up the prospect of returning to the stage. I was always hopeful it would happen, but as the years dragged by and I toiled at school and then university, the idea sometimes seemed as far away and as fantastical as Pepperland. But with the release of Flowers in the Dirt in the summer of 1989, he got serious. He now had a band, and tour dates — TOUR DATES! — were announced soon afterwards. Sure enough, a letter came through the post (remember that?) from the fan club offering me the chance to buy tickets for shows in Birmingham and London. I filled in a postal order (remember them??) that same day, and the dates were set.

An actual ticket to see a Beatle

And when 3 January rolled months later, it was almost like I was going on a date (heaven knows, I had precious few of those). Certainly I had showered, washed my hair, and put on my best shirt and trousers. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t have any of those kind of aspirations, but this was my idol. I had eaten, slept, breathed and dreamed The Beatles for the past few years, and now I was actually going to be in the same (admittedly rather large) room as one — my favourite one, too. So I had to look my best. I didn’t know anyone at that point who loved them as much as I did, so I went on my own. But that was more than okay. I kind of knew I was going to lose my shit, big time, and it was probably best to do that in the company of strangers.

I had a decent-ish seat, mid-way up on the left-hand side, and fairly close to the stage. This was by far the biggest concert I had been to, and was feeling pretty overawed….and that was before the lights went down and the opening chord of ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ rang out. Gulp.

The short film which opened the show was a masterstroke. Starting at 1964, it galloped through Beatles, Wings and solo hits, juxtaposing clips of Macca in action alongside footage of weighty contemporary historical events, from Vietnam through to the then-recent Tiananmen Square uprising (my already addled mind was thinking, “Wow, I must get a copy of this….” I still haven’t). As a potted music/history lesson designed to remind you that a not inconsiderable 20th century figure was about perform before you, and to raise the goosebump quotient, it was damn near perfect. By the time the word ‘NOW’ stretched across the giant screens and a portentous synth note rang out, I was one giant goosebump. Ready to pop.

As Paul led the band on stage, the first thing I noticed was how long his hair was. And how grey. But he looked great. He must’ve done, because I was screaming at the top of my voice, and he hadn’t even played a note yet. He soon put that right, strapping on his awesome Wal 5-string bass and steaming into ‘Figure of Eight’ (sadly, the last time he ever opened concerts with ‘new’ material). It was a good, punchy start, and we were off.

The early part of the show

In those pre-internet days, I didn’t have the setlist to hand; I think I’d seen what he’d played in the autumn ‘89 leg of the tour, but hadn’t memorised it, wanting to retain a little mystery for the big night. In truth, the early songs — which also included ‘Jet’, Got To Get You Into My Life’ and ‘Band On The Run’ — almost felt like warm-up numbers. Not because there was anything wrong with them, they sounded fab, but more because I think I was struggling to take it all in. But when he let rip on the emotionally charged middle section of ‘We Got Married’, one of my (many) favourite songs from Flowers, the tingle in my spine spread to the rest of me, and I felt like I was levitating. This was it!

Performing ‘Fool on the Hill’

Ironically, emotional stupefaction returned as he then sang ‘Maybe I’m Amazed’ and ‘The Long and Winding Road’ — probably my two favourite McCartney songs — back to back, but it wasn’t long before the floodgates opened again, big-time. I’d read that he did ‘Sgt. Pepper’ in the show, and it sounded great, but I wasn’t prepared for the sudden tempo change at the end of the song as the band shifted gears and Paul joined Robbie McIntosh for a ferocious lead guitar duel. It seemed to last for about half an hour (in reality, about two or three minutes), with Macca — so often derided as a crooning balladeer and purveyor of frog-friendly fluff — rocking his nuts off, like I knew he could. I lapped up every second, bouncing around like a maniac and, by the time he brought it to an end with the ‘Sgt Pepper’ reprise, I was fizzing like an Ever Ready bunny.

The Hofner!

The rest of the gig was giddy rollercoaster. Stand-out memories — Robbie’s soaring, bittersweet guitar piece which closed out ‘Things We Said Today’ and teed-up ‘Eleanor Rigby’; Paul emerging from the shadows clutching the Hofner bass; the raucous reception which greeted ‘This One’ and ‘My Brave Face’, his most recent hit singles; the rock ‘n’ roll steam train of ‘Back in the USSR’, ’I Saw Her Standing There’, ‘Twenty Flight Rock’ and ’Coming Up’, one after the other; and a bald guy on the row in front of me (probably about the age I am now) who was trembling and crying out “Oh my God, oh yes!” as Paul picked out the opening notes of ‘Fool on the Hill’ and, later, ‘Live and Let Die’.

With guitarist Robbie McIntosh

What I think set this tour apart from his later ones is the thought he put into its structure and presentation. The show was divided in distinct sections and interludes, each building up to its own crescendo before easing (or hurling) you into the next one, cranking up the excitement and drama step by step. It was almost like a theatre show. The band even had a stage uniform. I guess some might find it a bit too structured, but I prefer it to the more casual, ‘let’s canter through a grab bag of random hits’ approach which has become the norm since. That said, Paul still knows when to wheel out his big guns and, on this night, the final tune of the main set had the impact of an atomic cannon.

It may have become (relatively) routine now, but this tour was the first time he’d ever sung ‘Hey Jude’ live and the whole thing — including the audience participation part — was still box fresh. It was like being in a dream, singing the ‘na-na-na-nah’s alongside the Beatle who wrote it and thousands of others, all on the same joyous trip as me. I knew it was coming, but it still blew me away. And does so every time I see him do it.

I was pretty much shot by that point but, being the clever sod he is, there was still another peak or two to climb. For the encore, he wheeled out ‘Yesterday’ — ‘Yester-fucking-day’!!! — a blistering ‘Get Back’ and the closing part of the Abbey Road medley. The latter, immaculately played by the band, was the stuff of fantasy, and made for the perfect finale. It also featured another extended guitar battle (three-way this time, with Hamish Stuart joining the fun), and I was in whacked-out, free-form dancing heaven once more. By the time the final note rang out, and Paul said “See ya next time!” before exiting stage left, I was a sweaty, burbling, exhilarated mess. I may have no longer looked my best, but I certainly felt at my best.

The gig was everything I had hoped for, and more. When I saw him again at Wembley Arena ten days later, I was able to process it all a bit better and enjoyed it even more (though my memories of that show are a lot less sharp). In total, I’ve seen Paul 11 more times since that heady night in Birmingham, and would rank some of those shows higher. But it’s true what people say, you never forget your first time. So forgive the hyperbole, but it was one of the nights of my life.

So glad to see you here.

Hello, and welcome to my Beatles blog, ‘Free as a Blog’. Hardly an original proposition, and not exactly a field that has been neglected and unploughed, but I was just keen to combine two of my passions — writing and the Fab Four — and thought, ‘what the hell’.

This is basically somewhere I can share my thoughts, opinions and musings on The Beatles’ on-going story and body of work. I first got into the band in the mid 1980s, during my teens. Well, it was more like falling head over heels in love, and I remain smitten to this day. It wasn’t a particularly auspicious time to become a schoolboy fan; while The Beatles remained a major cultural touchstone for all ages, they seemed a little passe among the synthesisers, big hair and moon walks of the day. After all, they had pretty much broken up before I was born. John had died just a few years earlier, and the solo careers of the others were in the doldrums. But I didn’t care, I was lost in a musical adventure that was at once instinctively familiar and potently, inexhaustably new. It turned me onto music like never before, and drew me into what the band’s publicist Derek Taylor aptly called “the Twentieth Century’s greatest romance”. Although my youthful zealotry of trying to convert everyone else to the cause has somewhat abated, my fascination and adoration remains as strong as ever, even as I enter my 50s. In fact, I’d say it’s evolved and grown up with me. So here we are — with me still trying trying to convert everyone to the cause.

Young boys – The Quarrymen, 1958

I guess I should say, you’ll require a basic knowledge of The Beatles to enjoy this blog. It will cater mainly for well-versed fans, but if you have just a passing interest in the band or are a novice in knowing all about them, I hope it will broaden your horizons a little or point you in the direction of new things to explore. By the same token, I should also say that I have little interest in the collecting/memorabilia side of Beatledom, or the minutiae nestling among the footnotes of their world — catalogue numbers, first pressings, coloured vinyl editions, moptop merchandise, artists on their record labels, their children’s musical ventures and the like. If those kinds of things are what floats your Yellow Submarine, you’re probably in the wrong place.

For me, it’s all about the music. And their films and videos. And their ceaselessly interesting, engaging personalities. And their relationships, with each other and with those in their orbit. And the on-going trail they blazed together and apart, the roads taken and the roads swerved, the successes and the missteps. And how all this has been documented, analysed and interpreted by others. This blog will be a wander through the epic forest of albums, videos, TV specials, films, interviews, books and magazines which clog up my mind, internet browser and spare room. I’ll also reflect on on my own experiences as a fan over the years, weigh in with my own take on Beatles news, announcements and speculation, and published some of my own agonised-over lists from time to time.

The glorious 1966 look – cooler than Antarctica in the Ice Age.

But, like I say, it’s all based around the music. And I love pretty much all of it, solo output included. Okay, some songs and albums are better than others, but even their weakest solo offerings still have stuff to cherish. I must admit I don’t really bother with some of the more experimental work on the outer fringes of the catalogue — John’s and George’s Zapple efforts of the late 60s, or Paul’s Fireman albums and other dance-driven side projects. Or Ringo’s Christmas album. And, whisper it, I don’t really like The Traveling Wilburys very much. But, for me, their regular studio albums, singles, bonus tracks and bootlegs, and much of their live work, represents a treasure trove I never tire of. There’s very little of it I actively dislike; and even on an off-day, I think they’re still better than most (though I do love other acts too – I’m not someone who listens only to The Beatles).

Rocking out in the ’70s.

And when it comes to their work, I’m not really one for ‘received’ or conventional wisdom. My favourite band album, for example, is Help! (though Rubber Soul pushes it mighty close). I think Press to Play is among Macca’s greatest achievements; I love Ringo the 4th, and think that Mind Games is a far superior album to Plastic Ono Band. I don’t say any of this to simply be provocative, it’s just my opinion. We’re all different and there are no rules, right?

This blog comes from the start point of loving The Beatles, while maintaining a critical eye and not being too reverential. I’m dumbfounded when I go on forums or listen to podcasts and find so many people actively trashing a lot of their work, even stuff they did together. I find the concept of ‘McCartney apologists’, for example, absurd. He’s among the greatest songwriters of all time — what does anyone need to apologise for? Equally, there are people who cannot accept a word of criticism of their heroes, and go nuts if you say something they don’t agree with. I’m not here to denigrate or deify — I want to celebrate and speculate, offer the occasional brickbat among the bouquets, and have fun.

Along those lines, I have zero time for ‘x Beatle was better than y Beatle’ arguments. I hold my hands up, Paul is my favourite, but I genuinely love and admire all four. Again, I don’t understand why people have to talk up one of them by talking down one or more of the others. They each brought huge amounts to the table and, of course, their chemistry was the catalyst for everything that followed. They all had amazing (and sometimes very different) qualities, and a few flaws, which permeate their work and make it so interesting. It’s not about which one was ‘best’ (as if there is such a thing) — they were/are all great.

At last! Reunion in the ’90s.

Lastly, as you might have gathered, this blog will not just focus on the 1960s but on everything which has flowed from it since. If anything, I’ll probably focus a bit more on the solo careers than the group period, because there’s just a lot more of it and it hasn’t been scrutinised as much. For me, it’s all part of the same, on-going story. Paul and Ringo are still touring and releasing new material and, with archive editions still proving viable, it’s likely we’ll see a steady stream of old ‘new’ material for a good while yet. So, from the earliest scratchy recordings of The Quarrymen onwards, there’s more than 60 years of fab music and related activity to dissect and discuss.

That’s what this blog is here for. And remember, it’s only my opinion – yours is just as valid. Feel free to join in, and thank you for reading.