My Top Ten cover versions by solo Beatles

While cover versions of their favourite songs were a staple of most early Beatles albums, by late 1965 the Fabs were focusing solely on their own material. This would continue for the remainder of their recording career, though the Get Back/Let It Be sessions in early 1969 showed they never needed any prompting to run through beloved tunes from their youth whenever there was a lull in making a new album. This was an itch which needed to be scratched after they went their separate ways, too. The first fully-fledged solo album of “real” songs was Ringo’s Sentimental Journey, a collection of pre-rock standards in 1970, and more often than not he would include an oldie or two on the albums which followed. Most of George’s solo outings also featured a cover of some sort, while John went the whole hog in 1975 with his Rock ‘n’ Roll album. Paul followed suit – twice – in 1988 and 1999, before taking a leaf out of Ringo’s book with 2012’s Kisses On The Bottom, mostly made up of jazz-flavoured ‘Great American Songbook’ numbers.

John listening to a playback during the sessions for ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll’, 1974

 I don’t begrudge them revisiting the music which inspired them in the first place. The problem is, their own material (particularly in the case of John, Paul and George) usually has more depth, sophistication and invention than the tunes of yesteryear; one of the main reasons for their impact  (and perhaps why they have endured) is that they tore up the Tin Pan Alley rulebook, wrote songs with emotional reality which articulated feelings way beyond Moon/June romantic clichés,  and expanded the horizons of pop music far beyond what was conceivable even just a few years before. For that reason, hugely enjoyable though they are, none of their ‘covers’ albums would feature high up in my rankings of their strongest solo work. Nonetheless, their best interpretations of other people’s material inject palpable energy, wit and passion, elevating them to the same level as some of their own compositions. The following list showcases my favourites.

Promotional image for ‘Run Devil Run’, 1999

For the sake of this run-down, I am arbitrarily limiting it to stuff before 1970, ie. songs they grew up with. I should also give honourable mentions to some great tracks which haven’t made the list but are still well worth a listen: John’s take on ‘To Know Her is to Love Her’, recorded with Phil Spector in 1973; Ringo’s ‘I Keep Forgettin’ from Old Wave (1982), and George’s 1987 mega-hit ‘Got My Mind Set On You’ (from Cloud Nine). There many other decent ones, but here are what I consider to be the toppermost of the poppermost.

10. ‘Slippin’ and Slidin’’ – John Lennon

Paul bagged almost all the Little Richard songs The Beatles performed in their early days, so John must’ve relished the chance to get stuck into this one when he recorded 1975’s Rock ‘n’ Roll album. It certainly sounds like it – the pounding piano and wailing saxophones capture the ‘50s vibe perfectly, and buoy up his exuberant vocal. After his draining battle with the US immigration authorities for the previous few years (and which was still going on when he taped this), I wonder whether he injected a little extra venom into the line “you know you better surrender” in the third verse. Either way, it’s a cracking track.

9. ‘More I Cannot Wish You’ – Paul McCartney

This beautifully tender reading of an obscure song from the original Guys and Dolls stage musical was – apart from the McCartney-penned ‘My Valentine’ – the best track 2012’s Kisses On The Bottom. Paul’s ageing voice is perfectly suited to the lyric of a parent ruminating on the future of his child (he admitted he was thinking of his daughter Beatrice, then eight, when he sang it). The low-key arrangement, including some subtle strings in the second half, and languid pace also combine to help make a very elegant, moving confection.

8. ‘Baltimore Oriole’ – George Harrison

George was a big fan of old school tunesmiths like Hoagy Carmichael, and recorded two of his numbers for 1981’s Somewhere in England. But while ‘Hong Kong Blues’ was a rather awkward mix of synth-driven early-80s pop and 1930s songwriting sensibilities, ‘Baltimore Oriole’ was a masterful update of the genre. The stylish, smoky arrangement, with piano and saxophone to the fore, provide the perfect backdrop for George’s understated guitar and vocal, as he croons the tale of a lovelorn man missing his songbird partner who’s left him for adventure and warmer climes. His dreamy backing vocals are also excellent.

7. ‘I Got Stung’ – Paul McCartney

1999’s Run Devil Run, recorded with a band of seasoned pros (including Pink Floyd’s Dave Gilmour), was Paul’s first release since Linda’s death the previous  year. It’s easy to read too much into that, but there is something genuinely life-affirming and restorative about the way he attacks the rock ‘n’ roll songs of his 1950s youth which make up most of the album. And never more so than on this Elvis number, which he tears into right from the opening lyric. It’s a breathless performance – you feel like you’re clinging onto a runaway train for dear life – which climaxes with  a frenzied vocal wig-out in classic Macca fashion.

6. ‘Stand By Me’ – John Lennon.

I have to be honest, I’ve never been a fan of the Ben E. King original. But John Lennon’s voice can work wonders with just about anything, and so it is here on this stand-out from the Rock ‘n’ Roll album. The way he lets rip when he gets to the first chorus is phenomenal, transforming the song into a gut-wrenching plea in the face of an apocalypse, bearing his soul, as ever. I also love the swampy backing and draggy beat, a sort of ‘Wall of Sound’ in miniature, and the twin guitar solos are just great.

5. ‘Matchbox’ – Paul McCartney

I can count on one hand the number of Beatles songs I don’t like, and their 1964 version of Carl Perkins’ ‘Matchbox’ is one of them. It’s so lacklustre and half-hearted, on the part of both the band and George Martin, it has a feeling of “we need one more track for this EP – let’s knock this one off quickly so we can get to the pub”. Their 1962 version from Live at the Star Club, with John on lead vocal instead of Ringo, has more fire in the belly but is still not much more than ‘okay’. But this Macca rendition, recorded during a soundcheck during his 1989/90 world tour and included on Tripping the Live Fantastic, is a different beast altogether. Right from the snarling opening guitar chord, Paul and his band rock the life out of it, throwing in two scorching guitar solos (from Macca and Robbie McIntosh), synth horns and a piano break from keyboardist Wix, and a raw, throaty lead vocal. It’s still not much of a song, but the groove is irresistible.

4. ‘Bring It On Home To Me/Send Me Some Lovin’’ – John Lennon

John cleverly melded Sam Cooke’s 1962 hit with a Little Richard b-side for what is probably the best number on Rock ‘n’ Roll. The opening part of the medley, with its taut, chugging piano-led rhythm, is good, but it goes up a couple of notches in the second half, with some meaty horns and more peerless Lennon vocals, full of yearning. Listen to the way he effortlessly apes Buddy Holly and Little Richard at various points. Incidentally, Paul also recorded ‘Bring It On Home To Me’ (for 1988’s Choba B CCCP) and there is a cleverly blended edit of their versions on YouTube. They sound great together, as always.

3. ‘She Said Yeah’ – Paul McCartney

Another high-speed adrenalin rush from Run Devil Run, Paul is in his element on this Larry Williams number. Aided by crunchy, visceral production, the band performance bristles with energy (including a glorious piano solo) and Paul sings it with a real lusty swagger. The combined effect is like going 12 rounds with a heavyweight boxer in just two magical, punch-drunk minutes. And as one reviewer wrote at the time, no one sings the word “yeah” quite like Paul McCartney.

2. ‘Aint That A Shame’ – Paul McCartney

John also recorded a fine version of this Fats Domino classic for Rock ‘n’ Roll, but Paul’s more muscular rendition just edges it. The best track on 1988’s Choba B CCCP, a collection of covers cut live in the studio the previous year and originally released only in the Soviet Union, it’s a pounding, powerhouse performance which builds in excitement as it goes along. There’s some fine lead guitar from Macca and his voice is thing of wonder, squeezing every last drop of pathos from the uncomplicated lyric. I got to see him perform this live a few times in 1990, and it was a thumping joy.

1. ‘Angel Baby’ – John Lennon

Inexplicably omitted when John compiled the final track listing for Rock ‘n’ Roll, this didn’t see the light of day until the 1986 posthumous release Menlove Avenue. Recorded in 1973 with Phil Spector, this take on the 1960 hit by Rosie and the Originals (one of Lennon’s “all-time favourite songs”, as he says on the intro) is just spellbinding. The sparse doo-wop style of the original is replaced with the full Spector Wall of Sound treatment, and John delivers towering, achingly fragile vocals to match. Like many of the tracks on this list, it’s a very simple song – the kind of number he or the other Beatles would have heard booming out of fairground speakers when they held hands or nervously fumbled for a first kiss with the girl of their teenage dreams – but he finds the inherent emotion in it to produce a swooning romantic epic for the ages. It stands comparison with some of his greatest solo work, and it’s good to see it finally getting some recognition by being included on the new Gimme Some Truth Lennon ‘best of’ compilation album. It’s more than worthy.

‘A Cellarful of Noise’ by Brian Epstein (1964)

It’s strange to think, in these days when you could probably fill a small library with volumes about or relating to The Beatles, that there were only a handful of books about the group published in the ‘60s. It’s a pity, because books written without the benefit of hindsight are particularly useful in helping us scratch away some of the myth which has grown up in the intervening years. On the other hand, the nature of the time and the fact that most of these efforts were “authorised” accounts meant that some truths were edited out or watered down, so as not to besmirch the group’s image. This was partially true of Hunter Davies’ official biography in 1968 (though not as much, I suspect, as some would have us believe) and certainly the case with Brian Epstein’s autobiography, A Cellarful of Noise, which came out four years earlier. We know a lot more about The Beatles, and Brian himself, than would ever have been allowed into print at the height of Beatlemania; yet for anyone looking for an insight into those scarcely believable days, I’d say it’s still well worth a look.

Why? Well, first, at just 119 pages it is a short, breezy read. Second,  though ghost-written by long-term Beatles publicist/ally Derek Taylor, these are effectively Brian’s own words and reflections. As he died just three years after the book’s publication, we have precious few of those. And third, despite its authorised, slightly airbrushed nature (which is inevitable given the context of the time and the life he was leading), it still reveals a lot about what made Brian tick, his relations with the band and how their partnership swept all before it in an absurdly short space of time. In December 1961, Brian was literally the only person on the planet who believed The Beatles would become “bigger than Elvis”; a little over two years later they were bigger than pretty much everything, and then some.

The edition I picked up in the 1980s

The book opens with the key plank in that startling ascent, and perhaps its defining moment – ‘Operation USA’, the group’s epochal first trip to the States. Those mad few weeks, coming so soon after the JFK assassination, have been recalled and analysed endlessly since, but this account has that first-hand freshness, mixed with incredulity, from the man who masterminded the whole audacious enterprise. Of course, the Fabs’ talent and charisma were what conquered the American public, but it was Brian who put them in the best possible position to deliver the knock-out blow. And, as the book then backtracks to his childhood and subsequent development, you begin to see the scale of this achievement – how a drama school drop-out turned manager of a provincial record store had, by the age of 30, had the entertainment world at his feet and  literally begging for a piece of the Beatle pie.

The chapters on his troubled childhood and youth are fairly frank. An academic under-achiever and loner, he was expelled from a number of private schools, and the book makes no attempt to disguise his unhappiness at failing to fit in or please his bewildered parents. His National Service stint in the army was a predictable disaster, ending in early discharge; more surprising was his rapid disenchantment with the acting world after he enrolled at RADA in London. He always ended up going back into the family retail business in London, where he was at least able to channel some of his theatrical flair and creativity though inventive store lay-outs and window displays – first in the furniture arm of the business, then in records. A far cry from managing the biggest rock band in the world, perhaps, but these chapters do illustrate what he had in common with The Beatles. He was a misfit, a non-conformer, with an unfulfilled, compelling creative urge; he was a few years older and a very different character, of course, from a totally different social background, but was in some respects a kindred spirit. They must have picked up on that when deciding to let him manage them.

Brian with “the boys”

He also had vision. Not only did he instantly spot what was magical about the band when he first saw them swearing and sweating their way through a lunchtime set in the Cavern, he saw where this magic might take them and how he could help them get there. He didn’t just get lucky; his vision, passion and total commitment to the band was vital to making it all happen. This comes shining through when he writes about his early days with the band, and you can almost feel his dejection when record company exec after exec turns them down, his frustration at not being able to persuade them of his certainty, and his guilt at letting “the boys” down. Likewise, you sense his elation when he is ultimately proved right, surely beyond even his wildest dreams. When you look at the photo of Brian by the side of the stage at Shea Stadium in 1965, the high watermark of their touring years and the world’s first real stadium rock concert, you can only wonder what was going through his mind.

At Shea Stadium, New York, in 1965

Of course, the book is almost as important as much for what it doesn’t say as what it does. Considering it was still illegal in the UK at the time, there is no mention of his other compelling passion: his homosexuality. Keeping this a secret must have been a strain in itself, but his penchant for ‘rough trade’ meant that he found himself on the end of both violence and blackmail threats on more than one occasion (allegedly, he even missed their final show at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park in 1966 because he was dealing with one such incident). His fear of being publicly exposed, and letting the boys down on a whole other scale, must have been overwhelming.

The problem with a book like this is that it has just been overtaken by time. For example, Brian’s account of his first meeting with George Martin, then a little known A&R man at Parlophone Records, in early 1962 is very straightforward. Martin was intrigued by the recordings of The Beatles Brian played him (made during the band’s failed audition for Decca a few months earlier), and invited them in for a recording test a short time afterwards. Simple. But Mark Lewisohn’s exhaustively researched biography Tune In revealed that, while Martin may have been mildly curious, he still gave Brian the same answer as all the other London record company execs: “no thanks”. According to Lewisohn, the producer was forced to rethink only when parent company EMI came under pressure from music publishers keen to secure the rights to some early Lennon-McCartney compositions. We’ll never know the exact facts of this, and I’m certainly not saying Brian was lying, but it goes to show how the truth is often much more complicated than it first appears – or is recollected by those involved. It certainly wouldn’t have made good copy at the height of Beatlemania that the band’s fabled producer needed to have his arm twisted to give them a chance in the first place.

The Beatles’ guiding lights – Brian and George Martin

By the time A Cellarful of Noise was published, of course, Epstein was head of the Merseybeat empire, managing not just the Fabs but a slew of other successful acts, including Gerry and the Pacemakers, Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas and Cilla Black (though only Cilla would go on to have long-lasting success). There are a smattering of pages devoted to them, but you’re left in no doubt that The Beatles are the centre of his world. And the chapter focusing on his relationships with each member, entitled ‘Them’, is the best one in the book.

He’s very perceptive about who they are and how they operate. Comparing them to the Three Musketeers who became complete when they brought in D’Artagnan (in their case, Ringo), he identifies they are “slightly outside society….non-conformist” – something I feel is crucial about their make-up, but which is often overlooked. Brian clearly understood this from the start, and didn’t even attempt to mould them into something they were not. He’s also not shy about discussing his conflicts with them. He recounts the famous moment at Abbey Road when he made a suggestion about a song they were recording, to which John curtly replied: “We’ll make the record. You go on counting your percentages.” And the time early on in his management of the band when Paul declined to play a gig because Brian – who was picking him up from home – had refused to wait for him while he finished getting ready. It’s a hilarious story looking back, but at the time it made Epstein briefly reconsider whether or not to stick with them.

His comments on Paul are fascinating. He describes him as being “temperamental and moody and difficult to deal with” at times, but also says: “I know him very well and him me.” In other words, he knew Macca was his chief ally in steering the group towards structure, organisation and professionalism. You only have to look at how the group slowly splintered and drifted after Brian’s death to understand how important the McCartney/Epstein axis was. Likewise, he recognises John as “the dominant figure in a group…without a leader”, and describes him as an exceptional human being. Whether he had sexual or romantic feelings towards Lennon, as has been often speculated, we’ll never know, but he clearly adored him. He admits not being keen on Ringo at first, and that he was unable to understand what the others saw in him. He has least to say specifically about George, though he shrewdly pegs him as “the business Beatle”. For all his later mystical, anti-materialistic leanings, George always seemed the one who was most wary of being ripped off financially – and, ironically, was the one who did lose large sums following the collapse of HandMade Films in the 1990s.

A Cellarful of Noise seems rather quaint now, and you may find much of it has been regurgitated in other Beatles books you have read. I guess like The Beatles themselves, it’s the downside of being first to do something – you get plundered and rehashed by those who come later. But it still has a few nuggets of information and, most importantly, that first-hand, insider’s take on the band’s rise to unparalleled success, from the eye of the hurricane. Brian must’ve been as bemused by the magnitude of it all as anyone, despite his unerring faith in the Fab Four. And even he couldn’t have dreamed of the heights they still had to reach – nor how he would leave their story so tragically early, almost certainly hastening their demise as a group. From the vantage point of that giddy, carefree A Hard Day’s Night summer of 1964, the book’s final line becomes unbearably poignant: “Tomorrow? I think the sun will shine tomorrow”. I give A Cellarful of Noise a 6.

Hot stuff? The ‘Flaming Pie’ home demos

Demos of songs are funny things. Some people love ‘em. They say they give us an invaluable insight into an artist’s creative process, illustrating how a song was developed from its initial inception, and can sometimes provide us with a ‘purer’ version of the writer’s original vision before a tune is rehearsed, recorded and produced within an inch of its life in the studio. Which may occasionally be true, to a point. But here’s the thing – I have little interest in watching a half-finished film without special effects or finished dialogue. Or reading a rough draft of a book with lots of pages crossed out and no ending. And so it is with songs. Yes, it was great to hear John Lennon strumming ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ just on acoustic guitar, but is anyone seriously claiming it is better than the finished Beatles studio version? And yes, you could argue it’s not better, just different, and there is room for both. But if I want to listen to the song, it’s the majestic completed version I reach for, almost without exception. As I’ve written before, I rarely listen to the bulk of the Beatles Anthology demos and outtakes – maybe once in a decade – because the regular versions of these songs are invariably better. Much better. Their judgement of how their songs should sound hardly ever faltered.

Since he launched his Archive Collection series a decade ago, Paul – or his “people” – has had a very peculiar and erratic attitude to the inclusion of demos in his revamped, expanded album sets. The early releases didn’t feature any, most notably Ram, even though there is apparently a motherlode of around 30 songs taped in the summer of 1970 which later surfaced on that album and others that followed. With a couple of exceptions, demos clearly weren’t considered as bonus audio for the re-releases until 2015 when both Tug of War and Pipes of Peace came with a set of 1980 demos for tracks which eventually made their way onto both albums.  What made these demos (which had already been widely bootlegged) more worthwhile than previous ones is hard to say, unless MPL simply didn’t feel they had enough other material to fill out the bonus discs. As with so many other things about the Archive series, we’re just left to scratch our heads and wonder why. The 2017 reissue of Flowers in the Dirt did gave us more demos, in the form of the songs Paul wrote with Elvis Costello in 1987. Despite also having appeared on the bootleg market 20 years before, these were worth hearing – partly because Paul has never released studio versions of some of the songs, partly because they are duets with Elvis (and so have a different flavour to many of the finished recordings), and partly because the songs were complete when the pair laid down the demos.

The original photo the ‘Flaming Pie’ album cover was based on

Demos were again largely absent from the 2018 Archive releases of Wild Life and Red Rose Speedway, but on this summer’s reissue of 1997’s Flaming Pie Macca has gone demo mad. We get early versions of all the songs which appear on the album (apart from the two that emerged from studio jams, ‘Used to Be Bad’ and ‘Really Love You’) and, in some cases, two or three versions. And if you’re a fan of ‘Beautiful Night’, this set has four takes for you to pick your way through. I have to be honest, though, I find this kind of thing hugely frustrating. Putting on a few interesting demos is fine, but I’d much rather hear unreleased songs (and we know there are some from these sessions) rather than yet more sketchy run-throughs of tracks I already have. I’ll look at the mystifying decision-making processes, or lack thereof, behind the Archive releases in a future post, but for now let’s just focus on what we have been given here. Are these slices of Pie – before they went into the oven, as it were – very tasty?

It was the last album Linda sang on

Most of the songs were recorded at home and feature just Paul on acoustic guitar, sometimes with a bit of family chatter or other noises in the background (at one point you can hear what seems to be either a vacuum cleaner or a jet engine – it’s hard to tell which). ‘The Song We Were Singing’ home demo is pretty close to what’s on the finished album, though he hadn’t got the second verse at this point and the chorus is more low key. However, there is a faster-paced middle eight section absent from the completed song; it might have been worth keeping, as the final tune does get a bit repetitive (good though it is). He’d have had to change the lyrics though, as the words about “a love that won’t run away” don’t fit with the hazy reminiscences of the rest of the song. ‘The World Tonight’ is also missing a verse, but is otherwise complete – though it has a more downbeat, folky feel and the riff which drives the song doesn’t appear until he gets to the chorus. Likewise, ‘If You Wanna’ is mainly there at this stage, apart from the middle eight section, which had yet to be added.

Probably the most “finished” of all the demos is ‘Somedays’, which has almost all of the core song in place, even down to some of the vocal phrasing he used on the studio version. He just needed to sort out some of the rhymes at the end of each verse. It’s interesting that this jewel – one of his greatest late-career songs – was gleaming from a very early stage, and just needed a little polishing and framing in the form of Paul’s Spanish guitar lines and George Martin’s gorgeous string arrangement. ‘Young Boy’ is next, and is perhaps the most compelling of the home recordings. It’s played at a slower pace, is about a ‘poor boy’ rather than a young boy, and has a completely different middle section. The more dynamic one he eventually came up with was much better, but it’s still intriguing to hear his initial approach. The home demo of ‘Calico Skies’ has probably the poorest audio quality here – Paul sounds a bit distant – and is missing the middle verse, but that is offset by some nice family banter in the background (there is a further, cleaner studio take of this song as well, but it’s inclusion seems pretty pointless to me). The ‘Flaming Pie’ demo, with Paul on piano, is short and sweet, missing the “Everything I do….” section.

The early version of ‘Heaven on a Sunday’ is a full studio demo, with Paul playing keyboards over a drum machine. It’s a little faster than the final rendition we know, but – apart from the guitar solos – all the components are in place. A nice recording of a lovely song. Paul switches back to acoustic guitar for ‘Souvenir’. It’s okay, but this is a track which cries out for the full arrangement of the album version. By contrast, ‘Little Willow’ more than holds its own on solo guitar, and all the words were pretty much there by this stage. It’s interesting to note also how many of these tunes he wrote around a guitar arpeggio (playing a chord one note at a time, instead of all at once). It must’ve been his “thing” in the mid-‘90s. It’s back to the piano for ‘Beautiful Night’, which he’d first written and recorded in 1986, albeit not to his satisfaction. The basic structure and words remained the same in 1995 (he was still toying with the ‘row boat’ lyric, which was eventually lobbed overboard), so it was clearly the arrangement he was searching for – and found, the following year, with the help of Ringo, Jeff Lynne and George Martin. The solo performance here has a nice vocal, but is inessential; likewise a studio run-through with just Paul and Ringo in 1996. Note to compilers: you can have too much of a good thing.

Which leaves us with ‘Great Day’. As he wrote this one in the early ‘70s (you can actually hear him picking through the chords on the The Back Yard Tape bootleg from Abbey Road in 1975), I’m not sure when this one was recorded. Like ‘Calico Skies’, the sound quality is lo-fi, and there’s even more family chatter on this. Linda – or perhaps one of their daughters – joins him on the vocal here and there. It captures the home-made, relaxed vibe of the album which Paul talked about on its release in 1997 and, again, the basic song was largely complete at this stage (though, to my ears, it seems about to teeter over into his 2001 film soundtrack number ‘Vanilla Sky’ on a couple of occasions). It is fun to listen in as the McCartney family go about their business, possibly discussing dinner, shopping, nights out or whatever (it’s hard to make out the exact conversations) while Dad – a.k.a. the world’s most successful songwriter – sits in the corner casually running through his latest compositions. What a surreal scenario for the rest of us.

So those are the demos. Are they worth hearing? Well, yes….but only out of curiosity. For my money Flaming Pie is (with the possible exception of 2007’s Memory Almost Full) the last McCartney album which came within touching distance of greatness, so it’s mildly interesting to hear its songs in embryonic form. But it wasn’t a multi-layered, big production album like Sgt. Pepper or Tug of War; most of the tracks ended up with fairly simple arrangements which weren’t that far removed from the bare-bones versions we get here, so they don’t offer up any real revelations or fresh insights. I may give them another listen in a few years’ time. But chances are I’ll continue to opt for the fully-realised splendour of the finished album instead.

Rockabilly cats – George and Ringo in ‘Carl Perkins & Friends’

I fell in love with the Fab Four in 1985, which turned out to be one of the quietest Beatles years on record, with a dearth of new product or noteworthy appearances. After failing to agree on the feverishly-anticipated Sessions album of unreleased material the previous year, EMI and Apple didn’t issue any group material, new or old. George and Ringo seemed to have retired from music making altogether at this point, while Paul – perhaps licking his wounds from the critical and commercial failure of the Broad Street film in 1984 – busied himself with making a new album (though the ‘Spies Like Us’ single did emerge just before Christmas). The fifth anniversary of John’s death was a marked with a couple of semi-authorised TV shows, but generally it was pretty slim pickings for Fabs fans in 1985. Then, out of the blue, the UK tabloids reported that autumn that George AND Ringo were to appear to a TV special paying tribute to ‘50s rocker Carl Perkins, to be broadcast over the festive season.

At that stage, I didn’t really know a lot about Carl Perkins, other than that The Beatles had recorded a few of his songs. But in truth, such was his low public profile at that time, I didn’t really know much more about George. Being a film fan, I vaguely remembered him being interviewed about HandMade Films on the BBC’s Film programme a couple of years earlier, but that was about it. I didn’t know any of his solo songs (only one of which, ‘All Those Years Ago’, had cracked the UK Top 20 since 1973), and this was his first TV or concert performance in almost a decade. I’d seen Ringo on chat shows and in the occasional acting role, while the success of his Thomas the Tank Engine TV readings had kept his name in the news and he was often pictured in the newspapers with Barbara at some party or other. But George was something of a mystery, and he was treated as a bit of a hermit by the press. Indeed, I half expected his appearance in the upcoming TV special to feature the solemn, gaunt, long-haired mystic look from the early ‘70s that I most associated him with – a  sort of cross between Catweazle and Gandalf with a guitar. The reality was to be very different.

Carl Perkins – one hairy rockabilly cat

The producers of the show obviously knew they had pulled off a major coup by persuading two Beatles to appear. They are top of the bill on the opening credits, which also feature a lovely embrace between the pair backstage. The show proper, recorded at London’s Limehouse Studios, begins with a couple of songs from Perkins himself, backed by Dave Edmunds and his band. Though a contemporary of both Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash at the famous Sun Studios in Memphis during the dawn of rock ‘n’ roll (he wrote and recorded the original version of ‘Blue Suede Shoes’). the same level of superstardom eluded Perkins. Nonetheless, his early rockabilly records were an enduring influence on the beat boom kids of the 1960s, in the UK in particular, and The Beatles regularly covered his songs in their stage act.  The 1985 Perkins is clearly thrilled to celebrate his legacy with some of the “rockabilly cats” he inspired, and is a genuinely humble, likeable presence throughout the show – though his unfeasibly shaggy hairpiece seems to have been borrowed from William Shatner’s T.J. Hooker wardrobe.

After Perkins opens proceedings, it’s Starr-time, as Ringo takes to the drum stool and performs his Beatles For Sale showcase, the Perkins-penned ‘Honey Don’t’. While this must have been around the peak period of Ringo’s alcoholism (he checked into rehab three years later), he looks and sounds terrific. I think his main problem for much of the ’80s was that he had too much time on his hands, and also wasn’t making much music, so he must have relished this chance to return to the stage with a few old pals. Perhaps it even sowed the seeds for the All-Starr Band concept which emerged in 1989. Either way, it’s always great to see him singing from behind the drums (and it’s one of the few Fabs songs of his he hasn’t really done much on his subsequent tours). He also lobs in a couple of droll one-liners which inexplicably reduce Perkins to tears of laughter – though to be fair, Ringo laughs at them too, which make them seem much funnier than they actually are.

Then it’s time for a little more stardust, as Eric Clapton joins them for another tune covered by The Beatles, ‘Matchbox’. The three take it in turns to sing the verses, with Clapton and Perkins trading guitar solos. Like George, Clapton was on the cusp of a major career revival at this time, and his appearance here was certainly a step up from his guest slot on Chas & Dave’s Christmas Knees-up three years earlier. Ringo then takes a breather and a fairly forgettable interlude follows, including a couple of songs from Rosanne Cash (sporting very big ‘80s hair and shoulder pads). But no matter, as the main event is just around the corner.

George is back!

Perkins’ introduction acknowledges that “some people thought he’d retired”, and the rapturous response which greets George as he walks on stage reflects the sense of anticipation. I recall being pleasantly surprised how contemporary – and well – he looked, sporting a cool grey suit and black shirt, clean shaven and his hair brushed back into a quiff. Not an orange robe or Hare Krishna bell in sight. Even better, he launched into a fantastic version of his Beatles For Sale number, ‘Everybody’s Tryin’ To Be My Baby’, including a note-perfect solo. Of all the Beatles, George was probably the biggest Perkins fan – often singing lead on those covers, and massively influenced by his twangy guitar style. When most of the group chose aliases to mark their first professional tour (of Scotland, in 1960), remember, George became “Carl Harrison”. And he clearly loves every second of playing alongside his hero on this show.

It’s interesting that Paul McCartney – who recorded a duet with Perkins on 1982’s Tug of War – wasn’t involved in the special too. But then the whole thing would undoubtedly have become an out-of-control ‘Beatles reunion’ bullet train and overshadowed the whole point of the exercise, so I wonder if there was some mutual agreement for Paul to politely decline. One Perkins song that Macca did sing with The Beatles, ‘Your True Love’, is next up in the show, with George, Carl and Dave Edmunds sharing out the lead vocal. It’s wonderful, joyous performance of one of Perkins’ best tunes. Another lovely moment follows when George coaxes Carl to finger-pick his way through ‘The World is Waiting for The Sunrise’, another song beloved by The Beatles and taped when they were still The Quarrymen, at home in Liverpool in 1960.

George, Eric Clapton, Rosanne Cash and Ringo in rock ‘n’ roll class

As the show hits the home straight, all the musicians gather onstage on a row of chairs for a “rock ‘n’ roll classroom”, with Perkins as the “teacher” at its head. It could’ve been terrible, but is actually really good fun, as the ensemble – with George clearly the head boy, and Ringo supporting on tambourine – romp through a bunch of ‘50s classics, including ‘Blue Moon of Kentucky’ and ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going’ On’. There’s a great bit where George leads the troupe into another Perkins song, ‘Glad All Over’ (also covered by the Fabs, and eventually released on Live at the BBC in 1994), and seems to know it better than its author. George shares lead guitar duties with Clapton, and is on fine form; it’s also a rare opportunity to hear him play something other than slide guitar during his post-Beatles career. Clapton is….well, Clapton. There’s no disputing his ability or the power of his playing, but it’s all a bit predictable, a little rote. Harrison may not be as slick, but I find him much more interesting.

Everyone gets back on their feet for the big finale, including a rousing rendition of ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ itself. Some of the audience who came in authentic Teddy Boy gear can hold back no longer and take to the floor, with their similarly ‘50s-clad partners, to move their Winklepickers and shake their greasy quiffs. The rest of the crowd are pretty pumped up too, and we get a shot of Olivia Harrison, Barbara Bach and Patti Boyd (George’s ex, of course, and then Mrs Eric Clapton) cheering on their hubbies. In fact, a very nice, uplifting vibe pervades the whole event, and after George has finished leading the band through a second take of ‘Blue Suede Shoes’, you believe an emotional Perkins when he announces that he’s never enjoyed playing the song as much.

Rock ‘n’ rolling back the years

‘Carl Perkins & Friends’ (available on DVD and on YouTube) is a fab little show, and I enjoy it even more now than I did when it was first screened. It’s always great to see two Beatles on the same stage, and performing songs which inspired them in the first place. George, in particular, looks to be having the time of his life. It’s like the years have fallen away, and the earnest young Quarryman who idolised rock ‘n’ roll stars and filled his school notebooks with drawings of guitars has reappeared, skipping over everything in between. He appears energised and refreshed after a break from the music industry and, though it wasn’t planned this way, this show represented the first step in his big comeback. He was the only person who emerged with any credit from Madonna’s HandMade Films fiasco of the following year, Shanghai Surprise, helping to dampen the British press feeding frenzy during filming and also supplying some well-regarded songs for the soundtrack. He also guested at a couple of high-profile fundraising concerts, and in 1987 recorded and released the hugely successful (and quite brilliant) Cloud Nine album, supporting it with an uncharacteristic publicity blitz. Macca suddenly had a rival as the World’s Most Popular Beatle.