The Tony Sheridan recordings – “savage young Beatles”?

In June 1961, during their second tour of duty in Hamburg, The Beatles – John, Paul, George and Pete Best (recently departed bassist Stu Sutcliffe was apparently also there to offer moral support) – entered a proper recording studio for the first time. Well, it was actually a civic hall, but they were being professionally recorded by famed German band leader and producer Bert Kaempfert. He had signed them up to back fellow Brit Tony Sheridan on a handful of songs designed to bring a slice of the British rock ‘n’ roll fever sweeping Hamburg’s seedy nightclubs to the German masses. Singer-guitarist Sheridan was already a veteran of the city’s St Pauli “entertainment” scene, had enjoyed a fleeting brush with fame in the UK, and was viewed by Kaempfert (and record label Polydor) as having star potential. He had played with the Fabs many times in venues like the Kaiserkeller and Top Ten Club, and the band was well established by this point as the most popular music act in the Reeperbahn red light area; so I guess it seemed like the perfect fit.

Tony Sheridan onstage in the Top Ten Club with George and John

Make no mistake, though, the group was definitely the support act. On the resulting record they were even re-named The Beat Brothers, as ‘Beatles’ sounded too close to ‘peedles’, the German slang for male genitalia. As it transpired, of course, the record did little to boost Sheridan’s flaccid recording career but ultimately (if indirectly) acted like Viagra on The Beatles’ fortunes. They were still a way off becoming the band which would take the world by storm over the next couple of years, though – before moptops, before suits, before Brian Epstein, before Ringo. A sort of pre-Fab Four, if you will.  However, it was around this time that their raucous, proto-punk stage act had comprehensively conquered the clubs and dance halls of Liverpool and Hamburg, a period later dubbed as that of the ‘savage young Beatles’. But, listening almost 60 years on, how well did this translate to record?

The Beatles in 1961, around the time of the Bert Kaempfert sessions

The Beatles recorded five songs backing Sheridan, and two on their own (another couple of tracks were taped in similar circumstances the following year, though only one – ‘Sweet Georgia Brown’ – survives). There are a couple of important things to note. First, the venue was a very different setting from the sweaty, rammed clubs where the group usually plied their trade, and there was no beered-up audience to feed off. Not only that, but – according to Mark Lewisohn’s Tune In biography – Kaempfert quickly realised that Pete Best’s drumming style and erratic timekeeping were not up to scratch, and opted to remove his bass drum and tom toms. By all accounts, the booming bass drum was an integral part of the band’s live sound at this point, and now it was gone from their armoury. Second, the choice of material was very different from their usual setlists, with Kaempfert obviously feeling that hoary old pre-rock ‘n’ roll chestnuts like ‘My Bonnie Lies Over The Ocean’ and ‘When The Saints Go Marching In’ would have more of a chance of landing with German record buyers than the contemporary American stompers which wowed the punters on the Reeperbahn. But even when the band was allowed to record two songs of their own – for what they thought could have been their debut single, remember – the picks are real head-scratchers. Instead of a favourite number from Elvis, Little Richard or Chuck Berry, they opted for ‘Ain’t She Sweet’ – which had been recorded by Gene Vincent, true, but the tune dated back to the 1920s. A song their parents might have danced to. And rather than tackling one of the Lennon-McCartney originals they already had in the bag, their other choice was ‘Cry For a Shadow’, an instrumental throwaway John and George had put together as a piss-take of The Shadows.

Cry For a Shadow‘, the sole official Lennon-Harrison composition

Nonetheless, both tracks are fine. ‘Ain’t She Sweet’ rattles along at a fair lick, a tight band performance topped off with a playful, slightly lusty Lennon vocal. And ‘Cry For a Shadow’ (originally dubbed ‘Beatle Bop’) is good fun, led by some deft lead guitar from George and some rangy rhythm strumming by John. John and Paul also inject some screams and yells into the fiery middle sections, to good effect. But it has to be said both songs are a world away from the powerhouse, crunching rock which fills the Live at the Star Club album, recorded in Hamburg 18 months later. It’s all a little bit too clean, too clinical, compared to their stage act.

Their numbers backing Sheridan generally suffer from the same problem, but they are not without hints of future Fabness. Uptempo tracks like ‘The Saints’ and (especially) ‘Sweet Georgia Brown’ really swing, while on Sheridan’s own lovelorn ballad composition ‘Why?’ George’s delicate guitar fills and the wordless Lennon-McCartney backing vocals provide a small signpost to the miraculous beauty of ‘Here, There and Everywhere’ five years later. Overall, the band’s sound is starting to come together. Even though he had switched to the instrument only a few months earlier, Paul’s bass playing is remarkably fluid and assured. George’s distinctive, concise lead guitar work is beginning to emerge, and John’s urgent rhythm playing drives the band forward. Even Pete Best, denuded of some of his kit, acquits himself passably well on the drums – though comparison to any of Ringo’s playing shows up his limitations.

A couple of the slower numbers do not work so well. ‘Take Out Some Insurance On Me’ is a threadbare effort, with Sheridan’s attempt at a sultry, smoky vocal teetering on the comical. And while George had obviously thought out a decent solo, it sounds like he is twanging away on a rubber band. ‘Nobody’s Child’ is a real howler, in more ways than one. A dreary song to start with, the arrangement just plods along and Sheridan’s anguished yelps on the chorus are just embarrassing. Curiously, George would return to the song almost 30 years later for a charity single with The Traveling Wilburys; in truth, their version is little better.

‘My Bonnie’

Sheridan was a fair enough rock ‘n’ roll singer, though, and he leads the band through the undoubted highlight of the sessions, ‘My Bonnie’. Although The Beatles would soon, like a ten-pin bowling ball, shatter expectations of what a British rock record could be, this would surely have passed muster in 1961. After a slow, slightly cheesy, intro, it soon kicks into gear. With John and Paul providing handclaps and enthusiastic backing vocals, and Sheridan (rather than George) delivering a storming guitar solo, it fizzes with energy, carrying at least some of the charge they would’ve been giving off in the Top Ten Club at this time. Understandably, it was chosen as the single, and proved to be a minor hit in the German market. But the record’s real impact came as copies were exported back to Liverpool and snapped up by local fans who were delirious to finally hear The Beatles on vinyl. The demand for the single brought the band to the attention of local record store owner Brian Epstein and the rest, as they say, really is history.

The 1961 single. Whatever became of The Beat Brothers, I wonder?

Once the band made it big, Polydor was inevitably eager to exploit the handful of Beatles recordings they had, and so began a long history of repackaged re-releases. Never, in the field of human recordings, has so much effort been given to selling so few songs. In the throes of Beatlemania anything with their name on it sold well, and a single of ‘Ain’t She Sweet’ hit the US Top 20 and the UK Top 30 in 1964 – much to the chagrin of the band members, who were by this time faintly embarrassed by such embryonic efforts. Thereafter, the eight songs would periodically reappear every few years on a new-look, newly-titled album, usually padded out with tracks from acts who had no connection to The Beatles at all. I picked up my copy in the autumn of 1986. It was hardly a revelation, but – I guess like fans 20 or so years before – I was just thrilled to get my hands on recordings by the group I hadn’t heard before.

A curious cover, but my first introduction to the Sheridan songs

In 1995, the three key songs – ‘Ain’t She Sweet’, ‘Cry for a Shadow’ and ‘My Bonnie’ – finally made it out onto an official Beatles album, in the form of Anthology 1, Apple acknowledging the important role they played in the group’s early story. But they and the other five songs continue to be available through various Polydor channels, and are worth getting for any serious fan of the band. Though probably the least essential, musically, of the early, non-EMI recordings (the others being the Quarrymen tapes, the Decca audition session and the Star Club live album), they provide the only aural snapshot we have of The Beatles in 1961. And, as long as you’re not expecting ‘Ticket To Ride’ or ‘Back in the USSR’, they remain a fun – if rather quaint – listen.

The Beatles in Q magazine

The recent announcement about the demise of Q magazine, after 34 years, brought mixed feelings for me. On the one hand, a metaphorical shrug, as I can’t remember the last time I bought a copy and when I have briefly flicked through it, it was full of acts I’d either never heard of or had zero interest in. Or, even worse, was built around tedious ‘Best Ever’ lists of bands, albums, songs, gigs, publicity stunts and so on; with ‘Ever’ meaning, for the most part, after 1990. But the news also triggered fond memories of its glory days in the 1980s and ’90s, when it was the best music mag around and featured a host of fabulous, exclusive Beatles content which had me scuttling home from the shops with almost the same level of excitement as if I was holding a new album.

It’s hard to explain the impact Q had when it first appeared in 1986; there was nothing really like it in the marketplace. If you were a serious music fan in the UK, your options back then were pretty limited. You had glossy fare like Smash Hits, which was aimed squarely at the teen/bubblegum market. While it did have a sense of humour, its main aim was to furnish young pop fans with song lyrics, silly quotes and smouldering posters of A-ha, George Michael and Bananarama. At the opposite end of the spectrum, you had the smudged-ink, irreverent cool of the music weeklies – NME, Melody Maker and Sounds – pitched firmly at students and the wannabe rock intelligentsia. In other words, real music fans. And real music meant indie, alternative and a small number of mainstream acts who the editorial staff felt had somehow managed to retain a sliver of authenticity (the usual suspects of Bowie, Neil Young, Van Morrison et al). Everyone else – which was the bulk of the pop music scene – was treated as a joke and, to be fair, that was a big part of the weeklies’ appeal. Some of the writing was genuinely hilarious, with any and all pomposity shredded with delicious, childish aplomb and scathing wit. But if you wanted balanced reviews of mainstream rock, and interviews with its leading stars, you’d be disappointed. As for coverage of The Beatles, well, the group (and, to a certain extent, John) would get a modicum of respect and a few passing mentions, but anything from Paul, George and Ringo would invariably be treated with ridicule and outright contempt. I guess Rolling Stone was the nearest thing to Q, pre-Q, but it wasn’t available where I lived (you’d usually find it on sale only in big cities) and, even then, its US-focused style, content and concerns made it a pretty alien, and largely irrelevant, proposition to someone in the UK of the mid-1980s.

Q was different. It was glossy. It was monthly. It was written for grown-ups by grown-ups (though it still took the piss when required, abeit more gently than the weeklies). It wasn’t obsessed with being hip, and it covered everything under the broad umbrella of rock and pop music – new acts, genre favourites, oldies, cult acts, they were all thrown into the mix. Most of all – and very in keeping with the times – it embraced success, interviewing all the leading lights of the music firmament, whether they were deemed cool or not. And, with perfect timing at the birth of the CD boom, it celebrated the glories of rock’s past, with extensive articles tracing bands’ histories and output, while each issue also had a chunky review section featuring all the latest shiny new albums alongside buffed-up re-releases emerging for the first time onto the bright glare of digital compact disc (with each one subject to a 1-5 star rating). Oh, and the people who ran the magazine (notably its founders Mark Ellen and David Hepworth) really loved The Beatles.

Want to launch a new mag? Get McCartney on the cover!

I remember picking up the very first issue from my local newsagents on my way home from school in the late summer of 1986. Macca was its cover star, in a very 1980s outfit, giving an extensive interview (nine pages, though it seemed longer), to ostensibly promote his then-new album, Press To Play. However, this was barely mentioned as he was drawn into lengthy, frank and revealing reflections on his time with The Beatles. This was around the time he began to more publicly accept and acknowledge his Fab past, after years of shying away from it, and you got the feeling he had a lot to get off his chest following the tidal wave of Beatles books and commentaries which came in the wake of John’s death – and which were often steeped in Lennon hagiography. While it wasn’t quite as biting as John’s infamous ‘Lennon Remembers’ interview with Rolling Stone in 1970, it pulled no punches and found Paul opening up about things he hadn’t really discussed up to that point. Certainly, in the early throes of my Beatles obsession, it was like gold dust, and I think it still stands as one of the landmark McCartney interviews. It was even released on a semi-official interview disc, which you can hear on YouTube.

It was 33 years ago today…..

In the spring of 1987, Q hit the bullseye again. Just ahead of the album’s much-trumpeted 20th anniversary release on CD, it ran a two-part, seriously in-depth feature on the genesis, recording and release of Sgt Pepper. This was really meaty stuff, possibly the best piece of Fabs scholarship I’d read up to that point – certainly in a magazine. They interviewed lots of players in the story, and artfully conveyed a real sense of the the album’s inspirations and impact. Great photos, too. Curiously, the CD managed only a measly four stars (courtesy of pretentious hack Charles Shaar Murray) when reviewed in their re-releases section, which made them look a little silly. Each to their own, I suppose.

George returns, 1987. So long ago, Suzanne Vega was still popular
Paul reclaims his cover spot, 1989

Later that year, George marked his big comeback with what was now dubbed ‘The Q Interview’. While not as revelatory as Paul’s the previous year, his chat was even longer (14 pages) and was another enjoyably relaxed, freewheeling piece which asked some worthwhile questions (did George feel in competition with Paul? No, he “didn’t have time for that”.) The interview was partly conducted in a pub, at George’s behest, which added another interesting angle to the write-up. Paul returned to the front cover for his comeback in June 1989, promoting Flowers in the Dirt and the world tour which followed. This time the interview was accompanied by a run-down and rating of all his previous solo albums (Q was good at stuff like that, and would repeat the trick eight years later). And the main content was again very good stuff, with Paul tackling oft-voiced claims and criticisms (forcing Stu Sutcliffe out of The Beatles, his alleged tight-fisted way with money, cutesy solo songs and so on) head on.

The magazine continued to devote generous column inches to Macca during the course of his world tour through to the autumn of 1990, including a feature on his British concerts and another cover appearance – this time to mark Q’s 50th edition and herald his live album Tripping the Live Fantastic. And to mark his return to the live stage with his All-Starr Band, Ringo made his interview debut in the magazine just a few months later. Sadly, this was followed in 1992 with a poison-pen effort when he was the subject of the mag’s infamous ‘Who The Hell Does xxxx Think He Is?’ feature, designed to ridicule and deflate the egos of its interviewees. Which was fine when they were dealing with the likes of Jimmy Savile, Jeffrey Archer and Robert Maxwell, but why they felt the need to needle Ringo with tiresome questions about whether he felt sorry for Pete Best and so on, I’m not sure. A case of ‘legendary drummer has temerity to release new album and must be taken down a peg or two’ syndrome, I guess. Coincidentally or not, it then all went a bit quiet on the Beatle front in Q for the next few years, perhaps reflecting a change in editorial leadership. But, come 1995, they realised what was almost certain to add a few noughts onto their sales figures. And no one had a bad word to say about Ringo this time.

Wow. Just wow

I don’t think I’ve been so excited to see a magazine on a shelf (no, not even on the top shelf) as the autumn ’95 Q trumpeting The Beatles’ Anthology reunion. Official photos of Paul, George and Ringo together had started to appear in the press a week or two before, but the joyous Linda shot of The ‘Threetles’ which adorned the front of this issue was the kind of thing I’d been dreaming of for a decade or so. Even the magazine seemed to acknowledge the importance of the occasion, unusually omitting photos of anyone else from the cover. The tagline of “their only interview” wasn’t quite borne out by the feature inside – it wasn’t a collective interview, but rather a Paul one (as per usual, he did most of the heavy lifting for the band during the Anthology PR campaign) augmented with short, separate chats with George and Ringo. But no matter, it spilled the beans on the reunion, and was marvellous to read. And the success of the Anthology was one of the main talking points when Macca returned as cover star a little over 18 months later to promote Flaming Pie. He was also asked about modern-day Beatles disciples like Oasis (the magazine’s tiresome, endless obsession with the Gallagher brothers was already well underway), living up to his own legacy and being made a knight. The staff also had another go at rating and reviewing his Beatles and solo albums. Curiously, despite being in his thrall since issue one, they couldn’t bring themselves to give any of his solo works five stars, if they were fearful of being reported to the Cool Police and the Received Wisdom Bureau. A couple of years later, they put together a list of the greatest music stars of the 20th century. John and Paul were first and second, respectively, with Ringo 24th and George curiously lagging behind in 36th place. Still a pretty decent showing though, overall.

Macca interview in 2015

That was pretty much the last knockings of the old-style Q, as it followed the UK’s Radio One and MTV in slowly moving away from the classic pop/rock genre, abandoning that ground to new mags like MOJO and Uncut, and chasing the ‘yoof’ market instead. Nothing wrong with that, per se, except that their target audience was also abandoning the print format for the internet and perhaps (I am generalising here) weren’t into bands in the same way as earlier generations were. It didn’t help either that the content over the past decade or so seemed to me to become more vapid, glossy and repetitive (another list anyone, or perhaps one more sneering Gallagher cover?). Beatles-wise, there was the odd cover story – anniversary articles on both the band and John, plus sporadic Paul interviews – reflecting their enduring cross-generational appeal.  But Q itself seemed to lose its identity, and sales went with it. COVID-19 applied the finishing touch.

Full-on Fabs, and a great end result

There was one last great hurrah. In 1999, with the millennium and all that involved fast approaching, Q put out a special 164-page limited edition entitled The Beatles – Band of the Century. Bringing together some of their previous coverage (such as the aforementioned epic Sgt Pepper history and the Anthology interviews) with a raft of new articles, chronologies, eye-witness reports, album reviews and a terrific array of photographs, it told the group’s collective story from formation to 1970 end (plus the 1990s reunion) in superlative style. There are some especially good pieces on the Fabs’ astonishing development and growth in 1966, and the making of all their albums from Revolver on (though sadly little on earlier efforts). While much more historical detail has emerged in the years since, and similar ground has been covered by the likes of Record Collector, MOJO, Uncut, Rolling Stone and many others, it’s still possibly the best single-issue edition of its kind. It’s well worth picking up, and shows what Q was capable of in its heyday.

Lennon’s on sale again: the “hits” albums

In these days of downloads and streaming, the greatest hits album has become largely redundant. Yes, you still get a steady flow of new or repackaged ones, aimed at the supermarket-shopping crowd. And the most famous ones remain a reliable fall-back for those of us who still bother to buy albums, as the UK charts testify (though I’m amazed there is still anyone left to buy Queen’s Greatest Hits who hasn’t already got it). But the days of Abba Gold, The Eagles’ Greatest Hits or, indeed, The Beatles’ 1 are slowly fading into history.

In a way, it’s a shame, as such compilations often provide the gateway into an act’s rich and varied back catalogue. Many people are happy just to have the hits, to be sure, but for some listeners it just gives you a taste for more. I came to The Beatles via 1962-66 and The Beatles’ Ballads albums, for example (though it transpired many of their other songs were already hardwired into my psyche). And for a long time, singles have effectively been marketing tools to encourage you to buy the album that spawned them. In recent years, there has been shift towards collections mixing singles with other material picked by someone or other – sometimes the artist(s) themselves, but as often as not record company executives. The most recent McCartney and Harrison compilations have taken that approach, but I’m really not a fan. These collections are essentially designed to appeal to the casual fan or to attract newbies, and so should surely be based around hits and other radio-friendly singles which people are most familiar with. For one thing, someone’s subjective judgement on what an artist’s “best” songs are is just that – subjective. We all have different ideas on what makes a great song, and there is no determining yardstick or criteria we all adhere to (certainly some of the selections on the aforementioned Paul and George collections, Pure McCartney and Let It Roll, are highly questionable). And it doesn’t make any commercial sense, either – if you’re looking at a ‘best of’ tracklist which is half full of songs you don’t know but missing a couple of singles you really liked, chances are you won’t buy it.

John’s solo catalogue offers particular challenges to compilers. He was active only from 1969-75 and in 1980, so there is a limit to how much you can shuffle the pack. That said, there are a decent number of singles to work with, and a fair number of genuine hits, which have given his compilations a degree of consistency over the years and prevented his work being cannibalised too much or too often. Though even that hasn’t prevented the record companies from making some very strange choices.

Shaved Fish (1975)

The first Lennon hits album, and the only one released in his lifetime, was Shaved Fish in 1975. Released by EMI after his Apple contract expired and he went into semi-retirement, it brought together all of his US and UK solo singles to that point – almost. For some reason his most recent hit, the cover of ‘Stand By Me’, was omitted. And one of his most famous songs, ‘Give Peace A Chance’, is for presented in truncated form, a minute of the original recording opening the album and a short burst of a live 1972 version closing it. Bizarre. Nonetheless, it’s a decent effort, bringing together everything else including two US-only singles, ‘Mother’ from 1970’s Plastic Ono Band album and ‘Woman is the Nigger of the World’, a typically provocative number from 1972’s Sometime in New York City. Neither were hits, but their inclusion here makes the album a more rounded reflection of John’s early career. The cover, which features illustrations of each song, was also a nice touch. I first heard the album in the summer of 1986 when I borrowed it from a friend (along with Paul’s Pipes of Peace and The Best of George Harrison – happy days), and it was the first time I’d heard much of the material. While it worked as a good introduction, the abrasive nature of some songs made me yearn for some of the more melodic, relaxed numbers he recorded in 1980 to balance it out a bit.

The John Lennon Collection (1982)

The next compilation, 1982’s The John Lennon Collection, more than made up for that – probably too much so, in fact. Originally planned for 1981, soon after his death, it was delayed a year while EMI hammered out a deal with Geffen Records (which released his final album, Double Fantasy) to agree a full, career-spanning tracklist. Having done that, EMI made sure it got its pound of flesh, extracting no less than six out of the seven Lennon songs from Double Fantasy (‘Cleanup Time’ was the abandoned orphan) to include on the compilation, including ‘(Just Like) Starting Over’ and the posthumous hits ‘Woman’ and ‘Watching The Wheels’. To make way for these, it dropped ‘Mother’ and ‘Woman is the….’ and, more contentiously, ‘Cold Turkey’ (the album came out in the festive season and, its title notwithstanding, executives presumably thought a nightmarish song about heroin withdrawal wouldn’t make ideal family listening on Christmas Day). Elsewhere, the full version of ‘Give Peace A Chance’ was included and ‘Stand By Me’ added – along with 1970’s ‘Love’ and the following year’s ‘Jealous Guy’. It probably made sense to include the latter, as it was already well known and had been taken to #1 in the UK by Roxy Music following John’s death. But ‘Love’ feels out of place. Yes, it’s a wonderful song – one of the best he ever wrote, I think – but it wasn’t a hit single and was far too subtle to ever become one (as proved when EMI released it to promote this album and it failed to reach the Top 40). And the release of the Milk and Honey album 15 months later, featuring other songs John recorded in his final 1980 sessions (including the big hit ‘Nobody Told Me’), would soon make this tracklisting incomplete.

On the whole, though, The John Lennon Collection was a decent stab at a career overview. Featuring some great pictures of John taken by celebrated photographer Annie Liebovitz on the last day of his life, the album was a perfect package for a world still reeling from his murder two years earlier. It went to #1 in the UK, selling a million copies within a month, and went triple platinum in the US. It was the go-to compilation for a long time and, when EMI acquired full rights to the Double Fantasy material and reissued Collection on CD in 1989, it restored ‘Cold Turkey’ and added hard-to-find 1975 b-side ‘Move Over Ms. L’, making it an even better set.

Lennon Legend (1997)

By the time 1997 rolled around, John and The Beatles were benefiting from another generational awakening, thanks to the recent Beatles Anthology project and (in the UK, at least) being name-checked as a source of inspiration for many Britpop bands. EMI cashed in on this with Lennon Legend: The Very Best of John Lennon, featuring a fabulous Imagine-era shot of John on the cover, looking like he could have been a member of Oasis (oh, the irony). This new 20-track collection dispensed with a couple of the Double Fantasy numbers and brought in ‘Nobody Told Me’ and another Milk and Honey single from 1984, ‘Borrowed Time’. All his 1970-80 UK singles were present and correct, along with ‘Jealous Guy’. This time around, though, ‘Love’ was joined by another Plastic Ono Band album track, ‘Working Class Hero’. I guess it’s a reasonably well known song but, again, this is someone’s (or more likely a committee’s) idea of what constitutes John’s best work. It certainly isn’t mine, though, and I don’t think it has a place here. That quibble aside, however, I think this is probably the most satisfying and complete of all Lennon hits compilations and it did almost as well as its predecessor, hitting #3 in the UK and selling nearly two million copies in the States.

Working Class Hero (2005)

In 2005, the company bosses decided to push the envelope and issue a two-disc set which really went for the subjective ‘best of’ angle. Yoko and EMI had released remastered and, in some cases, remixed versions of all John’s studio albums (with bonus tracks) in the early 2000s, so I guess it seemed an opportune time to promote them, along with more obscure parts of the Lennon catalogue. Working Class Hero: The Definitive Lennon had a whopping 38 tracks, including all his singles (US and UK) and selected songs from every studio album (though nothing from his late-‘60s avant garde masterpieces with Yoko, funnily enough). There was also his version of ‘Come Together’ from his otherwise forgotten posthumous Live in New York City album, and a couple of tracks from the 1998 John Lennon Anthology demos and outtakes set – including ‘Real Love’, one of the songs transformed into a fully-fledged Beatles single by Paul, George and Ringo in 1995.

It goes without saying there is loads of great stuff on this. ‘God’, ‘Oh My Love’, ‘New York City’ and ‘Scared’ are among the laudable choices made by the compilers (though with just one song, the Rock ‘n’ Roll album feels somewhat shortchanged). But definitive? Again, that’s just a matter of opinion. I would’ve said ‘Aisumasen’, from Mind Games, is easily among his best solo songs, but there’s no sign of it here. And John’s discography is so relatively small that, if you already like the singles, you may as well just get his albums rather than dally with this half-way house collection. It also loses points for rehashing the Andy Warhol interpretation of an photo of John that had already been used on the cover of 1986 release Menlove Avenue. Still, it did okay in the UK, reaching #11, though it barely made a dent in the US charts.

Power to the People: The Hits (2010)

The last Lennon hits album came in 2010, when – to mark what would’ve been his 70th birthday – EMI released all his studio albums once again, this time with their original mixes. Alongside these came Power To The People: The Hits, a streamlined, 15-track compilation, featuring a classic 1974 New York shot of John on the cover. Most of the usual suspects were here, though definite hit ‘Nobody Told Me’ was inexplicably omitted and ‘Gimme Some Truth’ – never even a single, much less a hit – was included. WTF? Again, it made the UK Top 20, but falling sales indicated this was both a case of going to the well once too often and a sign of an increasingly redundant album format.

If you’re reading this, chances are at the very least you own, or stream, all John’s hit singles anyway. If that’s all of his solo work you have, I’d urge you to exploring his albums too. I’ve always found his singles to be something of a mixed bag. Some – like ‘Instant Karma!’, ‘Imagine’ and ‘Woman’ – are timeless gems that stand among his best work, while tunes like ‘Give Peace A Chance’, ‘Power to the People’ and (to a certain extent) ‘Cold Turkey’ showcase John at his most strident but not his most persuasive or musically adept. Essential though they are, far greater wonders await you in the lesser-charted territory of his albums.

‘I Feel Fine’: the first Beatles promo film

On 25 November 1965, The Beatles went into Twickenham Studios to record – for the first time – a batch of promotional films. The aim was to assuage the overwhelming demand for TV appearances around the world. By this time, the band was much less inclined to accept every invitation for a guest slot which came their way, but understood the need to keep their faces on screens in every country where their records were released. Making promotional films must have seemed the perfect compromise – spending a few hours miming to their latest singles and sending the clips out on tour would save days or even weeks of travel and tiresome television work. And they could make money from the distribution rights, too. In doing so, they inadvertently created – albeit in embryonic form – the pop video format. 

During that day, they filmed black and white ‘performances’ of their upcoming single, ‘We Can Work It Out’/’Day Tripper’, as well their other 1965 hits ‘Help!’ and ‘Ticket To Ride’, which were no doubt still selling in various places around the globe. Curiously, they also recorded a clip for a song which was by then a full year old and so must’ve been increasingly distant in their musical rear-vew mirror – ‘I Feel Fine’.

One of the 1964 single picture sleeves

I always feel ‘I Feel Fine’ tends to get a little lost in the mix when people consider the band’s singles from 1964-66. Of course, it was #1 in almost every music chart around the world, sold squillions and became yet another pop standard which has resonated down the decades. But it just doesn’t seem to get quite the attention of, say, ‘Can’t Buy Me Love’ or ‘Help!’. I have to admit, it’s probably my least favourite single from that period, but I still love it to bits. It’s a perfect pop nugget – from the twangy riff which powers the tune to Ringo’s inventive drumming, and from the tight harmonies to John’s raspy lead vocal. And then there’s the pioneering blast of guitar feedback which drags you into the opening bars, plus a just-about-audible Paul barking like a dog during the fade-out. It’s playful, zestful and masterful.  That fact that their other singles from the mid ‘60s were even better shows what absurdly high standards they set.

Nonetheless, such was the speed of their musical development (Rubber Soul was in the can by this point), this track must’ve felt relatively antiquated by the time they came to make these films. It was still in their concert set list though, so maybe that’s why they decided to include it in the filming schedule that day. Even so, there is a slightly perfunctory feel about it –  the film reflects The Beatles of late 1965, rather than the (slightly) more serious, eager-to-please band which cut the record 12 months before.

No expense spared at Twickenham

The sets at Twickenham for all the promo films were pretty basic, to say the least, and ‘I Feel Fine’ was no different. For some reason, it features a set of randomly placed gym props – a punch ball, some dumbbells and an exercise bike (perhaps the idea being that a work-out will help you “feel fine”? Or perhaps I’m giving the director way too much credit). Into this curious setting stride John, Paul and George to mime to the opening verse. There’s a relaxed mood of larking around from the get-go, with George cheerfully chatting away when he’s supposed to be singing, and Paul nodding and laughing to someone off-camera. You wonder why they didn’t do another take – though it may have been that this was already take 23 (a whiff of marijuana was perhaps in the air). Then it’s time for Ringo to inject still more fun into the proceedings, as he capers on and jumps on the exercise bike, pedalling away and occasionally winking in our direction. John also mugs for the camera a couple of times, and before you know it the song is over.

Paul and John in jovial mood

I first saw the film in the spring of 1987, when Channel 4 music show The Tube showed excerpts from it and one of the ‘Day Tripper’ promo films to coincide with release of the first four Beatles albums on CD (neither track appears on any of them, of course, but I presume Apple thought any publicity was good publicity). ‘I Feel Fine’ isn’t their best video (it isn’t even the best one they made that day) – consider how much they had upped the ante with the stunning colour films for ‘Paperback Writer’ and ‘Rain’ just six months later. But, like almost everything else they did, it oozes charm. John and Paul look very cool in their black tops, while the hair – particularly John’s and George’s – was starting to look a little wild by this point. Again, you wonder whether a stylist – or just someone with a brush – was on hand when the biggest entertainment phenomenon of the century rocked up to make some films which would be shown to millions of people around the world. But, hey, that’s part of their appeal. It’s all very relaxed, fun without being forced. They are having a laugh at it all and we get to share in that, all the while marvelling at how effortlessly brilliant they were.

“Quick – let’s eat this before we go veggie!”

As if to emphasise the laid back feel, there is another version of the film – released on the 1 DVD video collection in 2015 – where they occasionally mouth some of the words while eating fish and chips. With their fingers. From paper wrapping. On the floor! It’s so English, so lovable, and so them. You can only speculate whether any third-rate fleeting pop act of today would even contemplate such low-grade culinary conditions while making their latest big-budget video, but The Beatles never seemed to give a monkeys about any of that. They were always true to themselves, in their art and in the way they lived, and I think that’s one reason why they remain the biggest selling rock band in the world. ‘I Feel Fine’, either version, didn’t need a glamorous location setting, lavish special effects, guest stars, high production values, a battalion of make-up artists or even much of a set. It had the Fab Four and that was – and still is – more than enough.