The Beatles Unseen Archives (2001)

The Beatles Unseen Archives (2001) is one of those photo collections which turns up in low-cost bookshops every so often, proclaiming to tell the Fab Four’s story with “rare and never-before-seen” images, all strung together with a bit of basic biographical text. I got it as a Christmas gift years ago and, after a cursory flick-through, put it on the shelf where it remained until recently. On closer inspection, however, it’s an enjoyable visual whistle-stop tour through some of the more public aspects of their career, eschewing many of the familiar images we’re used to in favour of shots and situations you probably haven’t seen – or, at least, may not have known the context of.

Drawn from the archives of London’s Daily Mail and compiled by Marie Hill and Tim Clayton, it features 600 black and white images (200 of which were previously unpublished), mainly taken by the paper’s own photographers or freelance snappers. Starting in 1963, it is divided into years up to and including 1971, with a generous section on the solo years thereafter. There aren’t that many photos from 1963, in fact, reflecting how slow the mainstream press was in cottoning on to the phenomenon of Beatlemania, which had been building throughout the year. But 1964 and ’65 more than make up for that, accounting for the thickest chapters by far, highlighting both the band’s huge workload during that period and the insatiable, almost insane public desire for information about them. The pace begins to slow a little from 1966 onwards, but it’s clear that their every movement or utterance remained newsworthy – not least because their journey became weirder as the decade progressed.

The bulk of the images are your typical paparazzi shots, taken at personal appearances, photo calls, location filming, film premieres, nights out and on holidays (there are numerous airport photos, always a stock in trade of the tabloid press). There are no images from the recording studios, and very few from live concerts. It’s very much ‘The Beatles in public places’, often on their way to doing something else. Some of the photos (particularly from the ‘60s) are a little grainy, and someone – either at the time or when compiling this book – has clearly drawn lines on to add definition in a few places, which looks ridiculous. That aside, the fact that many of the photos aren’t posed or overly staged gives them a nice authenticity and immediacy, and provides an intriguing window on their world.

Certain things leap out at you when perusing the book. In the early/middle ‘60s sections in particular, the Fabs look modern and relatable to 2020 eyes, but the world around them often doesn’t. Whether it’s cars, buildings or people, the band members look out of time in comparison – which, in many respects, they were. It’s like everyone and everything else is pedalling furiously to catch them up. When you see them at some swish Mayfair party in 1963 or charming a slightly bewildered America in 1964, it’s like the buttoned-up, musty post-war world is finally starting to let its hair down (literally). Nowhere is this better represented than some shots of them being feted by the principals at Oxford University’s Brasenose College in 1964 (you can only imagine what the intellectual but anti-establisment Lennon made of that). Or by soon-to-be Prime Minister Harold Wilson at the same year’s Variety Club of Great Britain Awards (again, the photos of John sipping tea and exchanging small talk with Wilson’s wife Mary, who looks about 102, are priceless).

I say, old chap….The Fabs hobnob at Oxford University

There are also some great snapshots of their fans, either gathering in their thousands outside a (what would today be considered an absurdly small) concert venue or actually getting to meet the band. Whether mingling with them on a Miami beach or chatting with them at autograph-signing sessions in Edinburgh, it shows how easy it was to interact with them – something unimaginable with today’s superstars.

Lots of images feature their wives and girlfriends. While John and Ringo married their Liverpool sweethearts, George and Paul took the more traditional rock star route of pairing up with a model or actress. It’s easy to forget that Pattie Boyd and Jane Asher were real ‘English rose’-style babes of their day, and they lend a real degree of glamour to some of the photos. And though Yoko and Linda were less obviously beautiful, they could nonetheless be striking to look at, as captured in a few of the portraits here.

George and Pattie on their wedding day, 1966
Golden couple: Paul and Jane Asher, circa 1966

Other interesting pictures abound. Highlights include Paul and Ringo in their morning suits on their way to Buckingham Palace to collect their MBEs; a corny but fun photo call to mark Paul’s 23rd birthday; the band relaxing while filming Help! In the Bahamas; their return to Germany in 1966 as four uber-cool, budding psychedelic dandies, and John and Paul in full flower-power gear returning from the group’s holiday in Greece during 1967’s Summer of Love. These middle-‘60s chapters are filled with fun, knowing grins, insouciance, boundless charm and a palpable sense of comradeship. They were newly-crowned kinds of the world, and most of the time they loved it. 

Joshing for the cameras on Paul’s 23rd birthday, 1965

The book also reflects the great shift that had happened by the decade’s end. After 1967, there are hardly any pictures of the group together, as the four retreated into the studio and began pursuing different interests when outside of it. Not only that, but the lovable, clean-cut moptops who had been happy to pose with children and little old ladies just a few years earlier were now replaced by earnest, hairy hippies hanging out with Hare Krishna devotees or promoting banners proclaiming ‘Britain murdered Hanratty’. Looking back with jaundiced, 2020 eyes, one can only imagine the seismic impact this change must have had on a previously adoring public, with many people falling out of love with the band around that time (my Mum always considered John went “crazy” after he hooked up with Yoko, and I doubt she was alone in that view). One can also see, by contrast, how Paul’s marriage to Linda sent countless teenage girls into paroxysms of grief – he is outrageously good-looking in some of the 1969 photos captured here, his earlier cherubic features giving way to more mature masculinity.

1969, and George goes Hare Krishna – but keeps his hair
A dashing Paul outside the Apple offices, 1969

There is a healthy section covering the solo years, though hardly any images of John after he moved to the US in 1971, and very few of the others at all after 1990, despite a lengthy accompanying write-up of that decade’s Anthology reunion project. The early ‘70s inevitably showcase some fashion disasters – there are some particularly gruesome shots of Ringo, with wife Maureen, and (separately) Paul and family, en route to Mick Jagger’s St. Tropez wedding in 1971. Paul rocks the bearded look but otherwise looks like he’s just finished mucking out some cows back on the farm. And the tartan suit he wears at the Wings launch party later that year is just unforgivable. George and Ringo don’t cover themselves in glory elsewhere in the decade either, when they both dally with curly perms, but such snaps are part of the book’s appeal. Other curios include Paul being awarded a Rhodium disc by the Guinness Book of Records to recognise his unmatched song-writing success (for some obscure reason, Dallas actress Victoria Principal was also in attendance) and, in 1980, picking up an Ivor Novello Award from Yul Brynner. Most bizarre of all is a shot of Macca from a mid-‘80s Buddy Holly Week where he looks like an Elvis impersonator who has wandered onto the set of Miami Vice. There are some lovely shots I hadn’t seen before from Ringo’s wedding to Barbara in 1981, and a sweet one from yet another awards bash, in 1988, of Paul and Linda with fresh-faced daughter Mary – the same Mary who is now in her 50s. Eeek. It concludes with a selection of images from Paul’s triumphant return to the concert stage in 1989/90.

The Wings launch party, 1971 – not Paul’s coolest moment

The text which accompanies each chapter is generally sound, if unimaginative, though some of it is a little questionable (was Beatlemania really on the wane by 1965? The pictures here alone indicate not). The real value is in the captions, which usually provide a bit of invaluable context for the images. The odd mistake creeps in here and there, usually around the chronology, but on the whole they seem pretty reliable. The most egregious caption is for an early Wings photo, which mistakes guitarist Henry McCullough for Linda. Ouch. Okay, they both had long blonde hair, but really…..

The odd bit of sloppy proof-reading and drawn-on lines aside, Unseen Archives is a surprisingly worthwhile collection of Fabs photos, documenting most of their career together and a fair bit of the solo years. Most importantly, it shines a light on some less obvious moments in lives lived in the glare of the public eye, and provides some intriguing little insights how they were shaped by the world around them – and how they helped to shape it, in return. I’ll give this one a 7.

Pure gold? Ringo’s ‘Rotogravure’ album

When Ringo’s Rotogravure was released in 1976, the man himself was still a bona fide chart rock star. Just a couple of years or so earlier, he’d topped the US singles chart (twice) and enjoyed a best-selling album (Ringo), while it’s follow-up (Goodnight Vienna) also did well and yielded yet more hits. There was no reason to suggest his latest record would break that run. As it turned out, however, Rotogravure struggled in comparison. While it and its lead single, ‘A Dose of Rock ‘n’ Roll’, still charted, they peaked much lower and their shelf-life was a lot shorter (in the UK, they didn’t chart at all). In fact, this was the last time Ringo would ever trouble the higher echelons of the charts with new material, and so it seems to be viewed as a pivotal record in his career by many fans and critics. It’s either seen as his last good one (usually by people who haven’t listened to much of what he’s released since) or the beginning of the end, a disappointing first step in a precipitous decline both in terms of quality and popularity. I think it is a pivotal album, but not necessarily for those reasons.

On paper, Rotogravure should’ve worked. It was his first album on a new record label (Atlantic in the US, Polydor elsewhere) and as such had a bit of money behind it; Ringo also did a fair bit of promotional work to support it, including making no fewer than three videos (though, curiously, not one for the lead single). It was produced by award-winning hit meister Arif Mardin. More importantly, it followed the same formula as its two predecessors, mixing perky, mid-tempo pop/rock with some ballads and a fun oldie, and featuring contributions from a host of famous pals. These included Peter Frampton (then scorching hot following the success of his Frampton Comes Alive album), Eric Clapton, Harry Nilsson, Dr John, Melissa Manchester and – crucially – all three of his fellow former Fabs. That year had seen a resurgence of interest in The Beatles, with the re-release of all their singles, plus the Rock ‘n’ Roll Music compilation album, not to mention the blockbusting Wings Over the World tour. So what went wrong?

A buzz-cut Ringo in 1976

While it undoubtedly falls short of the gold standard of Ringo, and is also a couple of notches down from the quality of Goodnight Vienna, I think the album was largely the victim of shifting marketplace tastes. By 1976, simply being an ex-Beatle doesn’t seem to have guaranteed the airplay and attention it would have done a few years earlier. The fickle wheel of pop was starting to turn, and I’m guessing Ringo must’ve seemed rather quaint to younger record buyers – especially in the UK, where punk was on the horizon. Ringo’s profile at that point was developing into one of a jet-set, middle-aged millionaire partygoer. Certainly, as a kid, I knew who he was but wouldn’t have known any of his records, and I doubt I was likely to hear any of them, either. Which is a pity, as I think Rotogravure and its breezy charms have been unfairly dismissed. It’s not great, but it’s not at all bad.

The first single – still pushing the magnifying glass motif

 ‘A Dose of Rock ‘n’ Roll’, the first single (#26 in the US charts), is a solid, pumping opener about the medicinal power of music which suits Ringo to a tee. Mardin produces it really well, too, with the brass parts leaping out of the speakers. He pulls off a similar trick on the next number, a brassy, drum-heavy version of Bruce Channel’s 1961 hit ‘Hey Baby’. Hopes were obviously high this could repeat the chart-topping success of Ringo’s earlier cover from the same era, ‘You’re Sixteen’, but it stalled at #74 in the US and died a death everywhere else. Considering the banal DJ Otzi dance interpretation of the song was a global smash in the early 2000s, the hit potential was clearly there. It’s a decent, if unremarkable, performance with a strong vocal, but I very much doubt you would have heard it a great deal over the airwaves in 1976. I wonder if being a member of an old ‘60s band was now starting to work against Ringo, rather than for him.

‘Las Brisas’ – down Mexico way

Something that’s generally forgotten about Ringo is that, being a member of that old ‘60s band, he usually explores a variety of styles on his albums, and such is the case here – particularly on the songs he co-wrote. The mournful country ballad ‘Cryin’’ (a commentary on his recently ended marriage to Maureen, perhaps?) sounds like an outtake from his 1970 Nashville album Beaucoups of Blues. And ‘Las Brisas’, written with then-girlfriend Nancy Andrews while on holiday in Mexico and recorded with a local Mariachi band, is like nothing else in his catalogue. Relaxed and romantic, it sounds like something you’d hear on the soundtrack of a 1960s Western set “south of the border”. The album’s closer (barring ‘Spooky Weirdness’, 90 seconds of pseudo-horror movie studio nonsense), the soft-rock ‘Lady Gaye’, has a similar laid-back groove and not a little charm. I’ve no idea who it’s about, but it’s a sweet-natured, well-constructed and unpretentious song of praise with some really nice guitar and (again) effective brass parts.

Unfortunately, a couple of his other stylistic ventures are not so successful. ‘You Don’t Know Me At All’, swathed in syrupy synths and ‘shoo be doo’ female backing vocals, is pure cheese and chintz. Released as a single in some territories, and supported by bizarre video of Ringo showing off his newly-shaved head, it unsurprisingly tanked. And the Clapton-penned, calypso-flavoured ‘This Be Called A Song’ is barely a song at all. It just drifts by for three minutes or so, peppered with some trademark guitar licks from its author, without making any impact.

Cookin’ in the kitchen with John

Inevitably, the three numbers supplied by Ringo’s former bandmates are among the album’s highlights. Despite now being well into his five-year semi-retirement phase, John stepped away from househusband duties to write and help record a song for the third Ringo album in a row. ‘Cookin’ (in the Kitchen of Love)’ tends to get dismissed as the poor relation to ‘I’m The Greatest’ and ‘Goodnight Vienna’, but I’m not so sure. While nothing earth-shattering, it’s more fully fleshed-out than either of them, lyrically and musically, and is uber-catchy. The problem is, it just doesn’t sound as good as its predecessors, with Mardin’s production not punchy as it needs to be. Still a good track, though, and it’s great to hear John’s “2-3-4!” kick-start the song after it’s false ending.

Chilling in the studio with Paul

Macca’s ‘Pure Gold’ is better still. A sort of cross between a Tin Pan Alley old-school standard and a ‘50s doo-wop song, it has a yearning feel to it which is ideal for Ringo’s doleful persona. Paul and Linda lend backing vocals to the swoony, elegant piano-led arrangement – well marshalled by Mardin this time – and the whole thing is an airy, winning confection. George’s ‘I’ll Still Love You’, by contrast, is an altogether darker, more dramatic affair. Dominated by a big string arrangement and lead guitar work George would’ve been proud of, it’s a moody, affecting ballad which Ringo handles well. He really sounds desolate here, picking his way through such typical Harrison lyrics as: “When every soul is free/When every eye can see/I’ll still love you.” Strangely, George – who wasn’t involved with the recording – disliked it so much he even threatened legal action (to which Ringo gave the perfect riposte: “You can sue me if you like….but I’ll still love you.”) Maybe George envisaged the song differently, but I doubt he’d have done it any better. It’s probably the best song on the album.

Rotogravure did go Top 20 in a number of European countries, but peaked at (a relatively disappointing) #28 in the US and missed the UK charts completely. Even a free magnifying glass given away with initial copies of the record (!) failed to pull in many punters, and it was consigned to the bargain bins, literally and metaphorically, thereafter. It got a cursory release on CD in 1992, and that’s what we’re stuck with. Like all his albums from the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, it’s been pretty much left to rot. There’s been no remaster and re-release with bonus tracks (of which there were apparently several). It’s not on Spotify at all, though it is on iTunes and you can still pick up the creaky old CD online without having to re-mortgage your house.

Every home should have one

Like I said earlier, that’s a real pity. There’s nothing on here which will rock your world – it maybe lacks a couple of killer tracks that you can find on most Ringo efforts – and it’s not an especially profound listening experience. But it wasn’t meant to be, and it doesn’t need to be. Inadvertently, perhaps, this became a template for most of his future albums, in terms of both style and quality. If Ringo was what all successive Ringo albums strived to emulate, Rotogravure was more like what many actually are – a collection of tuneful, easy-going pop/rock songs (with a few sad-eyed ballads and quirky detours thrown in), all underscored by Ringo’s bearish, uncomplicated charm. Some offer significantly more than that, and a few fall short, but he almost always provides you with a good time.

People might say I wouldn’t bother with this album if it wasn’t recorded by a Beatle, and maybe there’s some truth in that. But I do know I’m glad I have it. It’s the aural equivalent of sinking into a warm, relaxing bath. Not every album has to be Sgt Pepper or All Things Must Pass. It’s just a fun, entertaining record. And sometimes that, along with love, is all you need.

Yang to the yin: George’s ‘Blow Away’ video

By the late ‘70s, George seemed to have largely given up on the idea of being a rock star. After a concerted promotional push in 1976 behind his first album for Warner Brothers, Thirty Three & 1/3, he took an unprecedented sabbatical. Over the next couple of years, he focused his time on starting a family (he married Olivia and they had their son, Dhani, during this period) and pursuing his passion for both gardening and motor racing. The music scene also changed a lot during this time, with the mainstream arrival of punk, new wave and disco – genres he never seemed very keen on. But it didn’t mean he had given up on making music, and in early 1979 he re-emerged with one of his best albums (and, indeed, one of the greatest of all Beatles solo albums), George Harrison. And the first single, ‘Blow Away’, was the jewel in its crown.

George in 1978, around the time of composing ‘Blow Away’

I always feel that if George sat down to purposely write a catchy hit (pure speculation on my part), the results could occasionally come over as competent but slightly forced – ‘Teardrops’ on Somewhere in England, for example, or Gone Troppo’s ‘Wake Up My Love’. But when the muse took him, he could craft punchy, powerful pop songs as well as anyone (‘What Is Life’, Cloud Nine’s ‘Fish on the Sand’), and ‘Blow Away’ is one of those, albeit a more mellow model. According to his book I Me Mine, George initially felt a bit embarrassed by the song because it was “so obvious”, but therein lies much of its charm. I have no recollection of it on its release, but when I first heard it in the mid 1980s, it felt like a tune I had always known. Cradled by a gentle backing, the hazy melody flows dreamily through the verses before springing into life in the joyous, upbeat chorus, perfectly capturing the spirit of renewal and optimism in the lyric. And the typically concise but expressive slide guitar solo, framed by a lush string arrangement, is just perfection. It’s one of those songs that just lifts the spirits, and I’d rank it among the best George ever wrote.

The US picture sleeve

On its release in February 1979, the song reached a more than respectable #16 in the US singles chart (and went Top Ten in Canada), though it stalled at #51 in the UK – continuing a pattern which saw his releases almost always do better in the States than in his homeland. Whether it’s chart performance was helped or hindered by its accompanying promotional video, I’m not really sure – though if I were a betting man, I wouldn’t have put much money on it adding to the final sales tally.

Compared to the humorous, colourful promos he put together for the three singles pulled from his previous album, ‘Blow Away’ is a pretty basic, half-hearted affair. A studio-bound George sings and strums over lots (and lots) of film of rolling clouds, in a pretty contrived and repetitive reflection of the words. He’s also shown, with the help of some rudimentary visual effects, singing inside a photo frame or mirror, where he is suddenly surrounded by forked lightning. Why? I have absolutely no idea, other than the director may have been keen to run with the weather theme.

No expense spared for the video

If so, that all goes out the window for the rest of the clip, as – unfathomably – George is then pictured performing with a batch of life-sized toys. Alongside a wind-up orange bath duck, inside a swan-shaped egg cup and atop a dog with a nodding head, to be precise. Again, one can only guess at the creative thought processes here. Never mind spiritual enlightenment, perhaps visits to his local toy shop were the things which helped George “be happy” (he did have a baby son at this time, to be fair). Or maybe his record company Warner Brothers were keen to make some inroads into the kindergarten market (I did once watch the video at a friend’s house and his two young boys were quite intrigued by it, so maybe it wasn’t a bad strategy after all). But don’t worry, we get more shots of rolling clouds before the end.

George must have had a very large bath at Friar Park

Of course, all this may be a sign that George wasn’t taking it all very seriously. And there are brief flashes of humour which support that idea – a manic grin during his first chorus close-up, and faux-Elvis dance steps here and there. He certainly wasn’t paying much attention to his wardrobe, a pretty grim beige suit/check shirt combo which can’t have screamed ‘rock superstar’ even in the late ‘70s, though he had a least ditched the horrendous perm he’d been sporting for the previous couple of years. But there’s a difference between deliberately taking the mickey, as in his earlier videos, and not really trying. This looks for all the world like someone just scribbled a few ideas on the back of a fag packet and presented them to George who, perhaps while doing something else, glanced at them and said, “Okay, let’s shoot it.” Like I said earlier, I don’t think George was very interested in the trappings of the music biz at this point, and probably saw promotional work as something of a chore (to the extent that he did virtually none for his next two albums).

All in all, the video is a little lame and doesn’t do the song justice. But that in no way excuses the Harrison estate’s decision to exclude it from the Dark Horse Years DVD in 2004, meaning that the only way to see it is via low-definition, slightly blurry versions on You Tube or old VHS tapes. The track was a bona fide hit, and the only Harrisong from the 1974-80 period included on his allegedly “career-spanning” compilation Let It Roll in 2007, so his family are clearly conscious of its importance in his canon. He never played it live, so why deny us the only film available of him singing it? A case of instant amnesia, perhaps.

Will they ‘Let It Be’ real? Beatles revisionism

January 1969 is generally regarded – and often described by the band members themselves – as the period The Beatles were at their lowest ebb. The winter of discontent, as they struggled to recapture the camaraderie and joint sense of purpose of their early days. Paul’s plan for them to ‘get back’ to live performances, initially by rehearsing and recording new material for a televised concert show, crumbled amid apathy, arguments and acrimony. John, hooked on heroin and Yoko, was there in body, but not always in spirit. Frustrated by this disinterest and what he saw as Paul’s bossiness, George quit the band for several days (later referring to the period as “the low of all time”). George Martin felt increasingly redundant and disillusioned, later describing it as “the worst time”. John himself, in typically understated fashion, described the sessions as “hell”. And all this was captured on camera, eventually presented to the world 16 months later in the documentary Let It Be, released in the wake of their official break-up and regarded as a doom-laden celluloid epitaph.

But wait, what’s this? The brand new film assembled by director Peter Jackson from hours and hours of unseen footage, The Beatles: Get Back (its release now postponed until next year), is apparently going to tell a very different story. Things were actually much jollier than we’ve been led to believe. “The reality is very different to the myth,” Jackson says. “Sure, there are moments of drama – but none of the discord this project has long been associated with.” That’s right: none of the discord. Having seen the finished product, Paul recently said “we’re obviously having fun together”, while Ringo chimed in: “There was hours and hours of us just laughing and playing music… There was a lot of joy…I think this version will be a lot more peace and loving, like we really were.”

So, which is it?

Rehearsing at Twickenham Studios, January 1969

At first glance, this appears another step in Apple’s on-going bid to recast The Beatles’ story in softer hues, less fractious tones; to make us see that the whole glorious adventure took place on carefree, sunlit uplands, where love, peace and harmony ruled and nary a cross word was said. Where even the difficult bits have been grossly overstated and distorted. To paraphrase Aunt Mimi talking about on John’s childhood in The Beatles: The Authorised Biography, they were as happy as the day was long and sang themselves to sleep every night.

Revision is nothing new in Beatles history, with John and Paul among the main proponents, and it started very early on. In his famous 1970 Rolling Stone interview with Jan Wenner, immediately after the group’s split, John took a spray can and defaced what he saw as the cosy Beatles myth. He focused on everything he didn’t like about their journey together, viewing it through the increasingly bitter lens of the break-up and blowing all manner of feelings, events and disagreements out of proportion. The Fabs were “bastards”, who “humiliated” themselves and collapsed after Brian Epstein died, and so on. Though he recanted a lot of this in the decade that followed, pointing out that the interview was just a snapshot of how he was feeling at the time, much of it was taken as gospel by critics and biographers and has proved hard to shift.

In the years following John’s death and subsequent martyrdom, Paul began his own efforts to reshape The Beatles’ story and, specifically, his role in it. In particular, he was keen for everyone to know that he was just as avant garde and arty as John, and was at the forefront of all their most creative endeavours. Which was all true, of course, and was his attempt to rebalance other people’s skewed vision of their collective history. But the repeated emphasis, coupled with slightly more questionable claims of involvement in the writing of out-and-out Lennon songs like ‘Help!’ and ‘Being For the Benefit of Mr Kite’, probably didn’t do him any favours. More significantly, what did start to creep into his telling was a slightly rose-tinted view of events. This is reflective of his upbeat, positive personality, and something most of us succumb to as we get older – as Paul himself acknowledges, you tend to remember the good days more than the bad ones.

George was never one to for rose-tinted specs, though, and when the Anthology project rolled around in the 1990s, his more unflinching recollections provided a nice balance to the generally sunny perspective offered by Paul. And despite criticisms of it as something of an authorised whitewash, I actually think the Anthology offers a pretty rounded, frank remembrance of their time together, from all four members – particularly the book (the TV/DVD version does appear to have edited out some of the more contentious comments). Since then, however (and particularly after George’s death), Apple has been pushing a distinctly positive, almost airbrushed narrative. The first signs of it were on the Let It Be….Naked release in 2003, reframing the oft-criticised original album as the back-to-basics, unadorned collection which was originally intended and thus presenting as an overlooked, lo-fi jewel in their already bulging crown. Difficult sessions? No, that must’ve been a different band. The happy vibes were all over the 2005 Cirque de Soleil Beatles Love project, too, while Ron Howard’s 2016 documentary on the touring years, Eight Days A Week, was – quite rightly – a love letter to the Fabs’ enduring friendship and closeness during the Beatlemania years (Martin Scorsese’s 2011 film about George, Living in the Material World, also chose to look away when it got to some of the more challenging moments in the story).

So far, so understandable. But with the arrival of 50th anniversary deluxe remixes of the band’s later albums, the soft focus approach has really gone up a gear. Recounting Sgt Pepper and the Summer of Love in 2017 wasn’t an issue, but the White Album the following year would pose more of a problem. After all, even Paul (in 1980) described this one as “the tension album”, the sessions where cracks really began to appear, when John said they started to become each other’s backing band rather than a fully integrated unit; where they sometimes ended up recording in different studios, in threes, twos or even just one.

However, during interviews for the anniversary release, project producer Giles Martin (son of producer George), who listened to all the original tapes, repeatedly stressed this was something of a myth, that he’d heard the group having a great time. For example, he told the BBC: “The biggest thing was I always believed the White Album was an unhappy and fragmented record made by four solo Beatles, all working in different rooms. And it wasn’t that. If you listen to the outtakes, it’s a hugely collaborative process.”

And yes, some of the outtakes he chose to release do indicate that. But remember, these allegedly happy-go-lucky sessions caused Ringo to temporarily quit the band, while George Martin and engineer Geoff Emerick also walked out at various points. And of the 30 tracks on the album, 13 feature just three Beatles or fewer – almost half. A happy experience with everyone pulling in the same direction?

The Let It Be sessions, convened so soon afterwards are generally believed to have been even more difficult, and the resulting film certainly seems to reflect some of that. The tone is largely sombre, particularly during the early section filmed at the chilly, cavernous Twickenham Studios. There is the infamous (albeit low-key) row between Paul and George (“I’ll play whatever you want me to play, or I won’t play at all….whatever it is that will please you, I’ll do it”), while John — with a silent, unsmiling Yoko constantly by his side — seems distracted, uncharacteristically subdued. The atmosphere does improve when they switch to recording at Apple HQ in Saville Row, with keyboardist Billy Preston in attendance, but an air of lethargy still prevails at some points. The dynamism and togetherness of earlier times seems to have largely evaporated, though the live rooftop finale does undoubtedly reignite that. It’s a film that has come to be seen as capturing a band in the middle of breaking up, which is perhaps why it has remained such a contentious sticking point between Paul, Ringo, Yoko and George/Olivia and has never had an official release since the early 1980s. Beatles historian Mark Lewisohn says that even in the 1990s, during the making of the Anthology project, the surviving Fabs still found it difficult discussing the events leading up to their split.

Near breaking point? At Apple Studios

And yet…..

Was another kind of revisionism about their final years at play much earlier? There is no doubt many writers have focused on the negatives to the exclusion of all else, simply because it’s an easier tale to tell and enables them to recycle the kinds of juicy stories about petty squabbles and bitter legal wrangles which a lot of people, perversely, enjoy reading. Fuelled by some damning interviews given after the split – as noted earlier, by John in particular – it became commonplace to portray the band as sliding into mounting, uncontrolled and unending rancour and resentment from the summer of 1968 onwards, stalled briefly by the harmonious truce of Abbey Road before exploding in the fireball of the public break-up in 1970. But that’s nonsense, too. Life is much more complex than that.

Listening to the White Album outtakes on Anthology 3 and the recent deluxe edition – as well as the album itself – it’s obvious they did have a lot of fun making it, some of the time at least. Some of their greatest band performances came out of these sessions, from ‘Helter Skelter’ to ‘Yer Blues’. The brief departure of Ringo, if anything, seems to have galvanised the others into taking a more focused, united approach. There is the joyous story of them nipping back to Paul’s house (five minutes’ walk from Abbey Road) one evening to watch beloved ‘50s rock ‘n’ roll film The Girl Can’t Help It and then, suitably inspired, returning to the studio to record ‘Birthday’. The sheer number of songs they were working through probably necessitated some of the split recording sessions, especially with an autumn release deadline looming, and they didn’t need any more than a lone acoustic guitar on numbers like ‘Blackbird’ and ‘Julia’. Even ‘Ob La Di, Ob La Di’, a source of contention as Paul made them run through umpteen takes in a quest for perfection, radiates ebullience and togetherness in its final version. They remained committed to the album for many months, and it’s interesting that John and Paul both later singled it out as their favourite Beatles release. And when you look at the ‘Hey Jude’ and ‘Revolution’ performance films from that time, or the so-called ‘Mad Day Out’ photo sessions in London to promote the album, they are clearly having a blast.

Having fun making the White Album

Let It Be is probably clouded by even more misunderstanding and myth. The film does have quite a few laughter-filled, upbeat sequences, especially once they’ve moved to the Apple basement studio and, later, are filmed performing on the roof. And when the Let It Be….Naked album album came out, it was accompanied by a new video for ‘Get Back’, cut-together from unseen footage showing all four members larking around and in good spirits. Even more tellingly, Eight Days A Week climaxed with excerpts from the rooftop concert using new shots and camera angles I hadn’t seen before, showing – among other things – George grinning, whereas the film portrays him as sullen and grumpy-looking throughout the gig. After listening to all 98 hours of audio from the sessions, Mark Lewisohn said recently he was surprised by what he had heard, describing it as “uplifting”. He pondered whether John’s and George’s memories of the month were coloured by the film (which was released, of course, in the wake of the split, just as things were starting to turn nasty), as the misery they later recalled was not evident on the tapes.

A lighter moment at Apple while recording ‘Let It Be’

The film was edited as the storm clouds had begun to gather around Apple, and it’s hard to believe that director Michael Lindsay-Hogg wouldn’t have been aware that a major rupture in the band was coming. In all likelihood, this influenced how he cut the film and the tone of the finished product. Had the Fabs patched things up and continued, it would probably have emerged quite differently. As it was, it must have set in stone some of the bad feeling which permeated their fractured relationships in 1970 and coloured how they – and many others – saw the later days of the group forever after. So maybe Peter Jackson’s new cut will, after all, restore some much needed balance and take down a few major misconceptions.

However, Apple should be wary of going too far with this. It wasn’t remotely all bad for The Beatles in January 1969, but we shouldn’t pretend it was all good, either. The truth, like with most things in life, probably lies somewhere in between. I suspect the dial was rather closer to the positive. The music from that period, and much of the existing film, reflects the sparks the sparks they still struck off one another, the pleasure they had in each others’ company; the love and deep friendship which was always there, right up until the very end. But to have us believe there was none of the discord later reported just doesn’t wash, and it does their story no justice. The bad bits don’t need to be whitewashed and repainted. Conflict is part of life, and was inevitable among four strong, creative people like them (or indeed, any band); moreover, it was there throughout their time together. It doesn’t mean they didn’t love each other, or make the history any less magical. On the contrary,it makes it even more incredible and engrossing.

Snapshots of different moods during filming

As Lewisohn often likes to say, The Beatles were fundamentally about truth, and that means showing all aspects of what happened, not just the bits you’d like the world to see. While blessed with some superlative abilities and qualities, they were just people at the end of the day, with tempers, insecurities and egos just like the rest of us. So they had rows, and occasionally fell out – so what? We’re grown-ups, we can handle it. The rough bits don’t need smoothing out, they’re an essential part of the wider picture. The Beatles’ story may seem like a fairy tale, but it’s the fact that it was anchored to real people in the real world that makes it so enduring and irresistible.