Macca’s MusicCares tribute show, 2012

When it comes to Beatles cover versions, I have to hold my hands up – I’m generally not much of a fan. True, not all of them are terrible and, yes, occasionally they can be interesting (usually when someone takes the song in a completely new direction). But, really, when you’ve got the originals, why would you bother with counterfeit goods? They’re never going to be as good. If you’re the person who wrote the song, though, I guess you see it differently, and the Fabs have always been appreciative of other people interpreting their songs, Paul especially so. Which is just as well, as he’s been the subject of a number of gala tributes over the past 15 years or so, where other musos line up to tug their forelocks and perform his material. One such event was the MusiCares tribute in February 2012 in Los Angeles.

 MusiCares is a US charity which helps out musicians who’ve fallen on hard times,  and every 12 months honours a ‘Person of the Year’ at a star-studded black-tie fundraising bash in LA. Previous honourees include Stevie Wonder, Pavarotti, Paul Simon and Brian Wilson, and in 2012 – conveniently, a few days after the release of his Kisses On The Bottom album – it was Macca’s turn. An audience of the great and the good – including David Crosby, Smokey Robinson, the inevitable Tom Hanks and, er, Piers Morgan – sipped champagne while a bunch of famous faces dipped into the McCartney songbook, including the man himself. The resulting show was released on DVD in 2015 (why the long delay, I have no idea), and is available on YouTube. My recollection was that it was the proverbial curate’s egg but, watching it again recently, it was better than I gave it credit for. Or maybe I’m just becoming more forgiving in my old age.

A stylish Paul gets things moving

After some fiendishly clever whirling and twirling acrobatics from the The Beatles Love Cirque du Soleil cast sets the scene, Paul and his touring band kick things off in fine style with ‘Magical Mystery Tour’ and ‘Junior’s Farm’. The latter is particularly good, a zestful performance with Macca’s bass high in the mix. Then he returns to his table to catch up on the canapés while a succession of guest artists (often backed by Paul’s band) take to the stage to pay homage. And what a curious bunch they are. First up is Alicia Keys with ‘Blackbird’. It’s okay, though I feel her bombastic vocal style pulls, stretches and batters what is meant to be a delicate song to within an inch of its life, while the piano backing curiously makes it seem much more repetitive than it ever sounds on guitar. By contrast, Norah Jones’s reading of ‘Oh! Darling’, also on piano, is more understated and so much more effective. As usual, she also looks very cute as well. And while I wasn’t very familiar with Alison Kraus and Union Station, their lilting, blue-grass version of ‘No More Lonely Nights’ is one of the highlights of the evening. You’d have thought it might have reminded Paul what a truly great song it is and encouraged him to tackle it in his live set but, sadly, it wasn’t to be.

Norah Jones flutters her (lovely) eyelashes during ‘Oh! Darling’

Then it’s time for some old stagers. Paul must’ve enjoyed one of his heroes, Duane Eddy, pick his way through ‘And I Love Her’ though, unless I’m missing something, any half-decent guitarist could have done exactly the same. And he undoubtedly loved seeing long-time pal Neil Young and his band Crazy Horse perform ‘I Saw Her Standing There’, though I really can’t share his enthusiasm. Apologies to any Young fans, but I found this quite painful — a bit like watching a half-cut, eccentric uncle doing karaoke at a family wedding. By the time it got to the second guitar solo, I’d almost lost the will to live. This is followed by Sergio Mendes’ easy listening take on ‘Fool On the Hill’, and it’s like he’s beamed in from another dimension — or, at least, from a happy hour in a cocktail bar on the Costa del Sol. Just bizarre.

Neil Young and Crazy Horse — a real endurance test

I’m not a fan of Coldplay but, after that last segment, their workmanlike acoustic version of ‘We Can Work It Out’ is something of a relief. Then it’s time for more ‘60s/’70s backslapping as James Taylor enters the fray. I’ve never seen what the fuss is about with him, either, and his ‘Yesterday’ is pretty mundane, bringing nothing new or interesting to the table. He’s backed on piano by Diana Krall, and he then returns the favour, accompanying her on guitar as she delivers a low-key but decent ‘For No One’. Her chuckle at the end does somewhat spoil the mood, though.

Then our boy Paul bounds on stage to collect his award with a short and suitably gracious speech, before taking the musical spotlight once more. Backed by Krall on piano and Eagle (and Ringo’s brother-in-law) Joe Walsh on guitar, he sits on a stool to sing ‘My Valentine’, his delicate love song to wife Nancy which was then brand new. Its a lovely, heartfelt performance, though as usual Paul doesn’t seem to know what to do with his hands when he’s not playing an instrument. He soon remedies that, however, by moving to the piano to lead the band through a rollicking ‘Nineteen Hundred and Eighty Five’. He’d only recently added this to his concert setlist (around 2010, I think), which is a real head-scratcher; it’s got such an amazing groove and is a highlight of Band on the Run, his most popular solo album, so you can only wonder why it took 37 years to make the cut. It’s certainly a show-stopper here — the band really cooks and Paul nails the vocal. On any other night, with any other performer, it would made an awesome show closer. But this is McCartney.

Reaching ‘The End’ with Joe Walsh and Dave Grohl

I did like the ‘Sgt. Pepper/The End’ mash-up which he used to close his concerts from 2002 onwards, but I am glad he returned to the full ‘Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight/The End’ medley in more recent years. It’s the perfect finale — poignant, passionate, rocking and celebratory, satisfying in every way. And so it is here, with Paul singing his heart out at the piano, before slinging on his guitar for the customary exchange of solos with wing men Rusty Anderson and Brian Ray to complete the last lap. But, this being a tribute kinda show, they are joined by fellow axe heroes Walsh and Foo Fighter Dave Grohl, so the guitar battle now becomes a five-way affair, each man taking a few bars of fretboard frenzy. It’s all a bit much, to be honest, and certainly brings out the ham in Macca. But no matter — it ticks the event’s showbiz boxes, and makes for a rousing conclusion to proceedings.

While most of the guest acts focused on predictable Fabs favourites for the show, Paul went commendably off piste for his choices. Two Beatles numbers, yes, but one from an EP and the other(s) from an album, plus two Wings tracks most of the audience would have forgotten or never heard of, and a brand new song which stood up well in esteemed company. If nothing else, it showed that a 60-minute showcase like this barely touches the sides of his phenomenal canon of material. And he performed his set with real gusto, confirming once more that when you’ve got a Beatle singing their own songs, there’s usually little to be gained hearing anyone else do them.

Little Richard and the scream that fired The Beatles

If I had to draw up (a very long) list of things I love about The Beatles’ music, the sound of John and/or Paul hollering their heads off while rampaging their way through a rock song would probably feature pretty high. There’s a sense of slightly unhinged abandon about it which is just irresistible. It captures the frenetic energy of that side of their output, and I’m not sure it would’ve happened in quite the same way without Little Richard.

Little Richard in his ’50s pomp

Richard – who died in May at the age of 87 – was of course one of the key ‘50s pioneers who inspired The Beatles, and countless others, to abandon scruffy skiffle and dive headlong into the glamorous glories of rock ‘n’ roll. All of these rockers were ahead of their time, that’s why they had such a seismic impact on that generation. The smouldering, sensual swagger of Elvis; the chugging rhythms and wry urban poetry of  Chuck Berry; the perky, quirky pop of Buddy Holly; the shrill sex sermonising of Jerry Lee Lewis; the heavenly harmonies of the Everly Brothers, and so on. Nobody had heard stuff like this before. Even listening to it 60 years or so years later, you can still smell the whiff of sulphur it all must have generated. And I don’t think anyone could have been more arresting, or downright shocking, than Little Richard.

 In the early 1990s, keen to hear some of the sounds that influenced the Fabs, I picked up one of those rock ‘n’ roll compilation albums. They were all on it (apart from Elvis), but it was notable that the whole collection was top and tailed with songs by Richard. His outrageous stage persona – complete with bouffant hair-do, heavy make-up, shiny suits and coyly ambiguous sexuality – must’ve been hard enough for many people in the austere, post-war ‘50s to get their head around (never mind that he was also black). But the music itself was the real stick of dynamite. The pounding piano, earthy saxes, banging drums and wry, outré lyrics delivered by that shrieking, full-blooded, visceral voice….wow. It’s like punk, 20 years early. Just listen to ‘Good Golly Miss Molly’. I’ve heard it many times, but the ferocity of that scream which heralds the sax solo still give me a jolt every time. Heaven knows what those four boys in 1956 Liverpool, used to cosy chart fare by the likes of Frankie Laine, Johnny Ray and Doris Day, must’ve made of it.

Yowza! Stand well back….

Actually, we do have an idea what they made of it. John later recalled: “The first time I heard ‘Long Tall Sally’ it blew our heads. We’d never heard anybody sing like that in our lives…..It used to make your hair stand on end when he did that long scream into the solo.” Paul was equally besotted, and rapidly became skilled at impersonating his new hero. “I could do Little Richard’s voice, which is a wild, hoarse, screaming thing, it’s like an out-of-body experience.” he said. “You have to leave your current sensibilities and go about a foot above your head to sing it.” Paul loved Little Richard so much that this became his party piece — he chose to sing ‘Long Tall Sally’ for his first ever stage appearance, at Butlins holiday camp in 1956, and also his serenaded fellow pupils at the Liverpool Institute with that and ‘Tutti Frutti’ on the last day of one school term, climbing onto a desk with his guitar and no little self-confidence.

And while everyone knows the story of Paul impressing John with a word-perfect guitar run-through of Eddie Cochrane’s ‘Twenty Flight Rock’ when they first met at the Woolton Church Fete in July 1957, it’s not so widely discussed that Paul then switched to piano and launched into his well-practiced Little Richard routine. As Mark Lewisohn so memorably puts it in his peerless Fabs biography Tune In, “Paul couldn’t have known it, but by slipping into ‘Long Tall Sally’ he was sliding into John’s main artery….No matter how much John affected an air of coolness, his insides had to be leaping.”

George was also a big fan and, as the Quarrymen slowly evolved into The Beatles, their setlists invariably featured at least one Richard number. And, in the same way as Chuck Berry songs were mostly sung by John, Little Richard ones were always sung by Paul. Macca had mastered not only his growling timbre and frenzied screams but also his high pitched, gospel-inflected whoops. Richard’s material would remain a fixture in their live shows, right until the very end; they closed their last-ever concert, at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park, with ‘Long Tall Sally’. You can only imagine the thrill they felt when they got the meet the man himself, and perform on the same bill in both Hamburg and Liverpool, in 1962. The picture of them taken backstage at the Tower Ballroom in New Brighton in October of that year says it all.

Meeting their their hero, late 1962

The Beatles recorded two Richard songs for EMI during the 1960s, ‘Long Tall Sally’ (for the 1964 British EP of the same name) and ‘Kansas City/Hey Hey Hey Hey!’ for that same year’s Beatles For Sale LP. Curiously, I don’t feel either of these tracks really capture the heat generated when the band tackled his material; they’re a little too polished for my taste. If you want the real fireworks, you need to go to the Live at the Star Club album (1962) and the BBC radio sessions in 1963. The version of ‘Kansas City’ on the former is more muscular and uninhibited, while the same record’s breathless race through ‘Long Tall Sally’ is astonishing, building to an incendiary climax every bit as compelling as ‘A Day in the Life’ would be five long years later. The pile driving rendition of ‘Lucille’ on Live at the BBC Vol. 2 features one of the all-time great McCartney vocals, while the band just goes berserk on ‘Ooh! My Soul’ (from Live at the BBC Vol. 1), a mini musical blitzkrieg.

‘Oh! My Soul’ at the BBC, 1963

But it wasn’t just on their covers of Richard’s own songs where his influence was keenly felt. They adapted and incorporated his whoops into several of their early trademark hits – ‘I Saw Her Standing There’, ‘Twist and Shout’ and, most famously, ‘She Loves You’ – and kept returning to the well throughout their collective career. Listen to John’s lusty screams which punctuate their three Larry Williams covers, ‘Slow Down’, ‘Bad Boy’ and ‘Dizzy Miss Lizzy’. Or how Paul effectively writes his own Little Richard song, ‘I’m Down’, which closed many of their live shows in 1965/66. Later still, John opens ‘Revolution’ with a familiar, demonic cry, while Paul goes full-on Richard for a vocal tour de force on Abbey Road’s ‘Oh! Darling’. And, of course, several of his songs featured when they ran through their favourite rock ‘n’ roll oldies during the Get Back/Let It Be sessions in January 1969 (you can hear a snippet of ‘Rip It Up’ on Anthology 3).

After the break-up, it was a similar story. John covered four Richard tunes on his 1975 Rock ‘n’ Roll album – a giddy medley of ‘Rip It Up’/’Ready Teddy’, plus fantastic versions of ‘Slippin’ and Slidin’ and ‘Send Me Some Lovin’’. Paul, in turn, played Richard songs live with Wings in 1972, ‘73 and ‘79, and while there were no such covers on the mammoth Wings Over the World 1975-76 tour, you have only to listen to the Wings Over America album to hear the man’s spirit writ large over barn-storming performances of songs like ‘Beware My Love’, ‘Hi Hi Hi’ and ‘Soily’. And it wasn’t just on the uptempo rock numbers where Richard’s legacy was apparent in their work, as it often helped to power some of their most personal, introspective material. When John came to unleash the results of his so-called primal scream therapy on 1970’s Plastic Ono Band album, I suspect the screams owed more than a little to a certain flamboyant black R&B shouter from the southern United States. Likewise Paul’s startling vocal volcanic eruptions on songs like ‘Back Seat of My Car’ (1971) and ‘The Pound is Sinking’ (1982), two career high points, drew deeply on that same well of inspiration.

John channelling Richard in 1975

When Paul returned to the live arena for the 1986 Prince’s Trust concert after seven years away (Live Aid excepted), it was somehow inevitable that he chose ‘Long Tall Sally’ – 30 years after Butlins – as one of the three songs to ease himself back in. And was equally unsurprising that the covers album he cut the following year and initially released only in Russia, Choba B CCP, feature two old Richard chestnuts, ‘Kansas City’ and ‘Lucille’. Yet the years without touring, combined with his age and (probably) earlier years of heavy smoking, had taken its toll on that part of his vocal range – the fire was still there, but he sounded a little more raspy, more gale force than the full-blown hurricane of yore. The McCartney voice is a remarkable instrument, however, and it underwent a renaissance in the late ’90s/early ’00s – just in time for his second rock ‘n’ roll covers collection, Run Devil Run (1999), which featured a powerhouse reading of a soulful, lesser-know Richard number called ‘Shake a Hand’. And he rode that wave into his next album of originals, Driving Rain (2001), tearing it up on loose, garage band-style rockers like ‘Lonely Road’ and ‘About You’, not forgetting the end-of-the-world scream which tops off the epic closer ‘Rinse The Raindrops’.

Paul’s fabulous Richard cover, 1999

Little Richard’s run of hits may have been short lived, but it’s impact continues to echo down the generations. And not just through the Fab Four – James Brown, Mick Jagger, David Bowie, Prince and many others have acknowledged his influence. But The Beatles remain perhaps his leading torch-bearers. There’s been a lot of debate about the state of Paul’s voice during concerts over the past decade or so, and whether it’s still up to scratch. I can see both sides of the argument, but the last time I saw him live, at London’s O2 in 2015, it sounded in pretty good nick to me – and never more so than during the encore. When he launched into savage, throat-shredding renditions of ‘Hi Hi Hi’ and ‘Helter Skelter’, I swear he shook the arena to its very foundations. Nearly 60 years on, he was still “doing his Little Richard”.

Come and get him: Ringo in ‘The Magic Christian’

I must admit I’m not fully cognisant with Ringo’s forays into the film world, although I have seen a few. I sat through the whole of Sextette (1978) – not an easy task, let me tell you – for just one, admittedly fun, Starr scene. I rented Frank Zappa’s 200 Motels (1970) once, which was even worse. Caveman (1980) was watchable, but still didn’t come anywhere near the wonderful That’ll Be the Day (1973), the undisputed high watermark in his solo cinematic ventures. The Magic Christian (1969), however, has always been a source of fascination and disappointment for me, though for reasons nothing to do with Ringo. I saw it a long time ago, but when it surfaced on UK schedules recently I felt it was time for another look.

A suitably gaudy promotional poster

 It was Ringo’s second film without the other Fabs, following on from Candy (also an adaptation of a novel by Terry Southern) the previous year. But unlike that one, which featured him in a glorified cameo, The Magic Christian gave him a full-blown starring role, alongside Peter Sellers. Ringo plays a vagrant who is adopted by the world’s richest man, Sir Guy Grand (Sellers), who then proceeds to demonstrate how money can corrupt anyone, from waiters and traffic wardens to art dealers and sportsmen. That’s roughly the plot, anyway, as it makes several deviations for no apparent reason. For this is one of those trippy, free-form, pop art satires so in vogue in the late-60s/early-70s (like Casino Royale, Head, Tommy and – to a certain extent – Magical Mystery Tour). You know the sort of thing – lots of quirky camera angles and tight close-ups, a sprinkling of animation, plenty of pokes at tradition and ‘the Establishment’, a flash or two of nudity, some random anti-war messaging, a few famous cameos and the occasional surreal sequence which can only be filed under “drug inspired”.

Ringo with his screen ‘dad’, Peter Sellers

 The script features contributions (plus appearances) from John Cleese and Graham Chapman, just before the launch of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, and it has something of the same anarchic feel to it. And there’s plenty of star power on board – Christopher Lee, Spike Milligan, Yul Brynner, Richard Attenborough, Roman Polanski and Laurence Harvey all crop up at various points, sometimes in the most bizarre fashion. And if you are from the UK and of a similar vintage to me, you’ll enjoy the fleeting appearances of old TV favourites like Alan Whicker, Harry Carpenter, John Le Mesurier and Michael Aspel. There’s also a point late on in the film where you are supposed to believe John and Yoko make a cameo, but I’m pretty sure they are just lookalikes. Might have been more effective if they had filmed two figures arriving in a bag.

I’m guessing Ringo got the role because the producers wanted an emblem of the counter-culture, to give the enterprise even more hip credibility, and he was the Beatle who had started to dip his toe into the acting world. As it turned out, they got two Fabs for the price of one, as Paul agreed to write the film’s theme tune, ‘Come and Get It’, loosely based on the theme of the story and recorded by Apple protégés Badfinger. Sticking closely to Paul’s demo recorded during the Abbey Road sessions and produced by Macca himself, the song duly served up a top ten hit on both sides of the Atlantic. Played over the opening and closing credits of the film, the tune is also effectively rearranged as background music for some scenes in between.

 To be honest, Ringo has very little to do other than accompany Sellers from scene to random scene looking surprised, doleful or amused, and occasionally say something like “that’s right, Dad” or “the old values are crumbling.” He does pull a series of funny faces during the scene with Spike Milligan, but to no great effect. His best moment comes when he suggests writing a “dirty, filthy” book but leaving blanks where all the rude words should go, to allow people to insert their own (so to speak). It’s a pretty forgettable part, really. But he does look quite handsome – I’ve always thought the 1969 ‘tache and long hair look really suited him – and gets to wear some natty outfits, from posh hunting tweeds (compete with deerstalker) to a tuxedo.

A dapper Ringo on set

 The film itself isn’t very memorable, either. I do like the late-winter/early-spring shots of 1969 London – just about still swinging – and there are a few laughs here and there. The Sotheby’s art auction scene is very funny. But most of it is just too heavy handed and pleased with itself to make much impact (the finale, if you can call it that, involves the leads filling a vat with animal blood, urine and excrement, chucking money into it, and inviting greedy city workers to wade in and get the cash. Yes, it’s that subtle). It’s one of those exercises of just throwing lots of ideas against the wall and seeing what sticks, nowhere more so than during the completely bonkers final reel when famous and wealthy passengers assemble for what they think is a pleasure cruise across the Atlantic. The script goes full-on hallucinatory (and indeed, nonsensical) at this point, throwing in homoerotic body builders, a drag singer, someone in a gorilla suit (always a plus, in my book) and Christopher Lee as a waiter-cum-vampire. But it also features the undoubted highlight of the film: Raquel Welch as The Mistress of the Whip.

Raquel and….um, there are other people in the photo?

I have to confess I was a Raquel Welch fan long before I was a Beatles fan. From a very early age, she was imprinted on my psyche as the perfect template for womanhood. So when I came across a photo in one of my early Beatles books of her with Ringo on the set of this film, dressed in such a revealing outfit, it was something I was pretty desperate to see. Alas, as it was hard to find on video and never shown on UK TV, I had a long wait, probably a decade or more. When I did finally get to see the scene, it didn’t disappoint; she may be surrounded by dozens of women rowers in the ship’s “engine room” who are completely naked, but you never take your eyes off Raquel’s lovely, statuesque dominatrix for a second. The downside is, she’s on screen for no more than 40 seconds. Which is pretty rich, considering promotional artwork for the film to this day leans heavily on her presence in it.

‘The Magic Christian’ – watch for yourself

So there you have it. The Magic Christian was an odd, undistinguished but somewhat typical choice for Ringo in what would be a chequered film career. I guess acting was never really his priority, hence his scattershot attitude towards scripts which came his way. Still, the whole film is on YouTube if you want to explore it for yourself. Or, if you’re so inclined, you could just drop in for the Raquel scene (it’s about the 1:23 mark).

The Beatles A-Z (1980)

In these post-Anthology, post-Lewisohn, post-internet days, where detailed information about what The Beatles had for lunch on any given day (and what the waiter thought about it) is available at the touch of a button, it’s interesting to look back on those books which used to be the key sources of information about the band back in the day.

As a fan growing up in the 1980s (I don’t know whether that makes me second- or third-generation, or even if that really matters), one such valued tome was The Beatles A-Z, a US publication which came out in 1980. I borrowed this from a school friend just as my new musical obsession was beginning to gather momentum, and it rapidly became something of a Beatles bible for me as I pored over every word. As the title indicates, it’s an encyclopedia of sorts, with information arranged in alphabetical order, from Apple to Zapple. Put together by journalist Sue Wenner with photographers Goldie Friede and Robin Titone, it also features 100 photographs — all in black and white, but many of which are very interesting indeed (more on that later). And, crucially, the book doesn’t stop in 1970 but includes just as many entries about the solo careers in the decade that followed (it stops short of McCartney II and John’s death, but does cover Paul’s Japan pot bust). Even in my early fandom days, I wanted everything.

It’s basically a cut-and-paste job, but a pretty accomplished and judiciously chosen one. And it’s fairly comprehensive for the time, covering all aspects of their collective and individual stories, output, performances, business decisions, fall-outs and unfinished projects, as well as many of the people who fluttered in and out of their orbit, from biographers to tour promoters. One thing I particularly salivated over (and still like) was the listing of every official song in their catalogue(s) from 1962-80 — who wrote and sang it, which albums(s)/single it appeared on and whether it was performed live or on film. Sometimes they are also accompanied by titbits of information, about their inspiration, recording or popularity (though chart performances are completely absent, which seems a strange oversight). It was here, for example, I first learned George was a big fan of ‘I’m Carrying’, from Wings’ London Town album

Information like this was gold dust to my sixteen-year-old self, and there are still snippets of trivia in it which catch the attention now. For example, the lovely telegram sent by John, Paul and George to Ringo just before he made his solo television debut on Cilla Black’s Cilla show in 1968, which said: “Big Brothers are watching and wishing you well. Love from all your Big Brothers”. Or that John reviewed a book of The Goon Show scripts for the New York Times in 1973, and Paul did likewise for a collection of Paul Simon sheet music in Punch magazine later that year. Or that the George V Hotel in Paris, where The Beatles stayed during their two-week residency in the city during January 1964, barred Paul 12 years later when one of his kids redecorated the wallpaper in their room with felt tip marker pens. Or that Peter Frampton’s wife Mary compiled a cookbook of Rock & Roll Recipes in 1980 which included contributions from George, Ringo, Linda McCartney and Pattie Clapton.

The book also highlights the dizzying array of musicians George and Ringo (and, to a lesser extent, Paul) provided musical backing and/or production duties for during the 1970s — many of which I’m pretty sure you will never have heard of. Considering they were rock aristocracy by this stage (and pretty busy with their own careers), it’s interesting that they were still prepared to support any number of unknown or minor musicians. These are just brief entries, however. Far more attention is obviously given to the main players in the story, and there are lengthy, well-written sections on the life (and character) of each Beatle, though Ringo gets a scandalously shorter portrait than the others. These parts of the book are where many of the photos are, and the authors deserve kudos for using some rarely-seen images. There’s a ‘68 shot of George, for instance, sporting huge sideburns which I don’t recall seeing anywhere else.

Even better, there are several exclusive images, taken by Friede and Titone, of the solo Fabs on the streets of New York in the mid-late 70s. And they’re really good — glorified pap snaps, perhaps, but they do make candid portraits of each man on the cusp of middle age, just a few short years since the crazed excesses of Beatlemania. There’s also a lovely shot of Paul and Ringo together in Manhattan circa 1977, though I think I have seen that one elsewhere.

John, with Sean, outside the Dakota Building, NYC, 1976
Paul circa 1978
George in his BMW.
Ringo with girlfriend Nancy Andrews in the late ’70s

On the minus side, while the back cover boasts more than 3,000 entries in the book, many of them are pretty pointless. For example, “Bobby — a character in Paul’s song ‘C Moon’” doesn’t really add much to our Fab Four knowledge (and, in case you’re wondering, Patty from the same song also gets a mention). Likewise, there is precious little background information about some of the inclusions. We’re told that The Undertakers supported The Beatles on one of their 1963 British tours, for instance, but absolutely nothing else about them. And if you want to know more about, say, studio engineer Tony Vigars or any other of the many people listed here who worked on various solo albums, you’ll have to look elsewhere. Ringo’s co-writes with Lulu’s brother Billy Lawrie? Well, you get the titles, but that’s all. And so on. There’s an awful lot of filler like this which leaves you with more questions than answers. And I do think it’s a bit cheeky for the authors to include themselves in the roll-call of the Beatles story.

The book is largely accurate, though a few silly errors creep in here and there — there’s a mention early on, for example, of Magical Mystery Tour being filmed in 1968. What’s most eye-catching from today’s perspective, however, is how the authors take as fact rumours and hearsay that were subsequently shown to be nonsense. According to this, the group recorded scores of unreleased songs in the 1960s, including ‘Keep Looking That Way’ in 1962 and several Harrison compositions for Sgt Pepper, one called ‘India’ among them. The book also recycles media myths such as the one which claimed John, George and Ringo planned to continue the band without Paul after 1970, only with Klaus Voorman on bass and re-naming themselves as The Ladders. It wasn’t the only book from that period to feature stuff like this, but it would have added credibility if the authors had used the word ‘allegedly’ here and there.

There is a nice selection of album cover images at the back, though some of the US releases, many of the solo albums and all of the 70s compilations are inexplicably missing. On the plus side, though, there are reliable lists of all their group and solo tours, special one-off performances and noteworthy TV appearances up to 1980. Even though whole books have been written on these subjects since, offering acres of detail, it’s still nice to have at-a-glance lists all in one place.

Like many books from the 1970s and ‘80s, The Beatles A-Z has been rendered largely obsolete by the deluge of more informed publications in the years since, as facts have been clarified and hitherto unknown seams of detail tapped. But it stands up better than most efforts from those days, and still holds a special, nostalgic place in my library. At a time when reliable information on the band was still fairly hard to come by, this was something of a goldmine. It listed every song and where to find it; it included those ‘70s compilation albums which were the vital entry point for many of my generation, as well as those strange (for British readers) US albums; it provided a different, geeky approach to the standard biographies; it gave the ‘70s as much importance as the ‘60s, and told me all manner of things I didn’t know. And it still stands as a pretty decent shorthand encyclopedia on the first two decades of the Beatles story. It would’ve scored higher in the past, but I’d still give this book a nostalgic 6.