‘The Beatles on Record’ documentary (2009)

Quite why Apple is so parsimonious about allowing the use of Beatles content on television or YouTube, or even making it available to buy, is one of life’s great mysteries. The airwaves and Amazon aisles are crammed with cheaply made, unofficial ‘Beatles Story’ documentaries, stringing out unlicensed newsreel footage, home movies and third-hand reminiscences from fringe players and clueless commentators, padded out with tinny ‘60s-style muzak in lieu of actual Fab Four recordings. But authorised film of the band is still bafflingly hard to find. I can only speak for the UK, but when was the last time you saw Help! or Magical Mystery Tour in the TV listings? To my knowledge, the Anthology series has never been repeated since the 1990s, and sundry other Apple-authorised specials (like The First US Visit, for example) rarely show up on the schedules. While I’m not in favour of licensing Beatles music for adverts,  surely it’s a good idea to ensure TV and social media channels have access to a good supply of Fabs films and programmes to help keep the band in the public eye and encourage newbies to explore their work? Many an obsession is stirred by stumbling across a late-night documentary.

A case in point is The Beatles on Record, an hour-long tour of their back catalogue shown on the BBC in 2009 to coincide with the re-release of their albums in remastered form. Basically, it stitched together edited versions of the mini documentaries which accompanied each album that year (and which were themselves made up of excerpts and off-cuts from the mammoth Anthology series in the mid-90s). Anthology director Bob Smeaton blends them together into a seamless whole, which tells the story of their recording career, from Please Please Me to Abbey Road, in the words of John, Paul, George, Ringo and George Martin.  Their voices overlay archive photographs from recording sessions, plus snippets of promo films, TV appearances and live performances. And, in one of its major plus points, the film is liberally peppered with studio chatter from all phases of their career. Apart from a brief introduction, there is no independent narrative of what’s going on, or context, so it does assume a degree of knowledge of who The Beatles were. But it doesn’t really matter, as the music – and its phenomenal progression over seven short years – speaks for itself.

The mini documentary for ‘With The Beatles’

Having the story crammed into 60 minutes does emphasise the speed at which everything moved. One minute they are tearing into ‘Twist and Shout’ on an austere-looking black and white British TV show, then they are on Salisbury Plain filming Help! in glorious Technicolour, and then revelling in their role as the psychedelic overlords of Swinging London in the avant garde footage for ‘A Day in the Life’. Soon after we see them seeking spiritual enlightenment by the River Ganges in India, then they’re on the Apple roof, and before we can catch our breath it’s all over. The breathless pace at which they did it all never fails to amaze.

The narration will be familiar to anyone who has seen the Anthology or read any of the interview content which has been endlessly mined and rehashed ever since. So we hear how Ringo learned to play chess while the others painstakingly added overdubs to the basic tracks during the Sgt Pepper sessions; how George views Rubber Soul and Revolver as basically volumes I and II of the same album, and how Paul passionately refutes any suggestion that the White Album should have been cut back to a single disc, arguing the diversity of the record is what makes it so cool. Disharmony or more difficult phases of the band’s career are largely skirted over. We hear Paul make a slightly bitter reference to Allen Klein’s interference in the production of Let It Be (alongside a clip which segues the original live rendition of ‘The Long and Winding Road’ into the lush, Phil Spector-produced version which made it onto the finished record), and how – ironically – John told George Martin that they didn’t want any of his “production crap” at the start of the very same sessions. But they are the only notes of discord present.

An early session with George Martin, late 1962

George Martin is, quite rightly, given a lot of airtime on this. As well as playing an integral role in the band’s development, he also offers a semi-independent overview of it. That said, I’m not entirely sure I agree with his claim that the early albums were just made up of material which was not considered good enough for a single. While he may have initially approached it that way – and there’s no doubt singles were the main currency of pop music in the first half of the 1960s (as opposed to today, where we tend to view it through the prism of album releases) – I think The Beatles were intent from the get-go on making albums which were every bit as good as their flagship 45s. They would’ve been burned too many times themselves, as fans, by the filler which padded out so many LPs rush-released to cash in on one or two hit singles. And it’s hard to view songs like ‘I Saw Her Standing There’ or ‘It Won’t Be Long’, or the vast majority of their early album tracks, as inferior. There’s also a nice contemporary interview with George Martin I don’t recall seeing before, where he explains how he started learning to play the guitar in order to better communicate musical ideas with ‘the boys’ in the studio, only to find they’d picked up piano playing much more quickly and so made his strumming irrelevant.

The film makes good use of available film of the Fabs performing their songs, but – inevitably in a whistle-stop tour such as this – there are some glaring gaps. Early on, it seems like standalone singles will be featured (with a fun clip of them singing ‘From Me To You’) but, if this was the plan, it was quickly ditched to make room for all the albums. So, for example, there’s no ‘We Can Work It Out’, ‘Paperback Writer’ or even ‘Hey Jude’. This seems particularly curious when, presumably in the non-negotiable interests of four-way balance Apple is so obsessed with, George’s ‘Blue Jay Way’ is featured. Which brings me to another gripe. I know Magical Mystery Tour is now regarded as a canon album, even though it though it was a US Frankenstein-style creation which augmented a British EP with a bunch of singles tracks, and I see the logic of rounding up all their 1967 material for release. But it was never intended as an album, and it jars on here to see ‘Strawberry Fields’ and ‘Penny Lane’ discussed after Sgt Pepper, even though they were effectively recorded before it. And while I’m nit-picking, it was a bit lazy to use photographs which are clearly from the Revolver sessions to illustrate the segment on Rubber Soul. There are plenty of pictures from the making of that album they could have used.

An actual shot taken during the ‘Rubber Soul’ sessions

Studio banter is used very effectively in this programme. Although lots of it has leaked out over recent years via the Rock Band computer game, the Cirque de Soleil Love show and the recent 50th anniversary editions of their late ‘60s albums,  it’s always a real buzz to hear the band talking off the cuff and without any inhibitions as they work their magic in Abbey Road. Whether it’s Paul giving John a supportive pep talk before a take (“Don’t be nervous John.” “I’m not.”) or George ordering a sandwich for their next break, they always sound like they’re having fun and larking about, in total contrast to the wonderfully intense, committed and focused performances they gave whenever the red recording light went on. The ‘fly on the wall’ disc which accompanied 2003’s Let It Be…Naked notwithstanding, I’m surprised Apple and EMI haven’t considered some kind of release which just pulls together the most entertaining and insightful audio of The Beatles just talking to another while at work. Okay, it might have limited widespread commercial appeal, but I’m sure the (substantial) hardcore fan base would lap it up.

But therin lies the rub. I’m not really that surprisd Apple hasn’t released something like that, because they haven’t even made this documentary available since it was broadcast more than a decade ago. Apart from a showing on the History Channel later that year, I don’t think it’s been seen or heard of again. You can’t watch it on BBC iPlayer or find it on You Tube, and it’s never been made available to buy. Okay, if you’ve got the mini-documentaries which came with the 2009 discs, you don’t really need it, but to be honest I’d rather watch this in one sitting rather than mess about with 13 DVDs each offering five or six minutes of footage (and while we’re on the subject, why was Apple so stingy there? Surely there was enough interview and performance material to warrant a good 20-30 minutes for each album, Yellow Submarine excepted?).

Recording ‘All You Need Is Love’, 1967

It’s not really about committed fans, though. It’s about making this kind of stuff available for floating voters and the uninitiated. How many people discovered The Beatles by watching a TV showing of  A Hard Day’s Night or Help!, an episode of the Anthology or even the recent Eight Days A Week film? Alas, opportunities like that seem increasingly scarce. It’s silly though, because something like The Beatles On Record would act as a perfect primer for people who don’t know much about the music and would almost certainly whet their appetite to find out more. Not everything needs to be behind a pay wall, especially in this day and age. Making stuff like this available would help sustain the band’s legacy and attract yet more next generation fans, who would inevitably spend money to feed their new passion. Did you hear that Apple? Apple?? APPLE??? Oh well, never mind.

The making of ‘Beatles For Sale’

Uncut Legends: Lennon (2005)

Beatles historian Mark Lewisohn noted recently that  John Lennon’s image is no longer viewed with the reverence of old in some quarters. Putting aside the fact that the lionisation which occurred after his death was (perhaps inevitably) largely rose-tinted and unbalanced, I guess we shouldn’t be surprised that his character is being re-evaluated in this more sensitive, delicate and easily offended age. At a time when there is a rush to judge events of the past by the virtue-laden standards and moral absolutes of today, some people are going to struggle with John’s drawings and impersonations of the disabled, the attitude he showed towards women during his youth, or the fact that he suggested Brian Epstein’s autobiography should have been titled “Queer Jew”. Indeed, many people would recoil in horror at such things, which is all a bit ironic considering Lennon was also a torch-bearer for many of the causes – civil rights, sexual equality, anti-war protests, vegetarianism and so on – which are viewed as sacred now.

But you know what? While it’s impossible to predict (as many people regrettably do) what a modern-day John Lennon would have thought or felt about anything – not least because he changed his mind so frequently – I think I’m on fairly safe ground by claiming that if he were still around, whatever was said about him on Twitter, web forums, 24-hour news stations or elsewhere, he just wouldn’t give a fuck. It’s one of the things I like most about him. Yes, criticism often riled him, spurring him to dash off a vituperative letter, caustic song or scathing interview soundbite. But it rarely changed his behaviour one jot. He was who he was, and sod what anyone else thought.

The contradictions and complexities of his life, personality and work were explored in a special edition of UK magazine Uncut, published to mark the 25th anniversary of John’s death in 2005 (my, how time flies).  In the early 2000s, long before it launched its now regular ‘Ultimate Music Guide’ series, the makers of the magazine produced a number of spin-offs themed around “rock’s ultimate icons”, entitled Uncut Legends. Unlike the Ultimate Music Guides, which rely heavily on archive interview material, these were filled with brand new articles from a number of different contributors, and so it was with the Lennon issue. The 148 pages offer a rich smorgasbord of content – a chronology of his life, a run-down of his 30 greatest songs (as chosen by famous fans, writers and contemporaries), interviews with his partners (Cynthia, Yoko and mid-70s beau May Pang),  a batch of photo spreads with commentaries from the people who took them, reviews of his solo albums and short profiles looking at different (often contradictory) aspects of his character. The core of the magazine,  however, is made up of in-depth essays looking at the key phases of his life: the young rocker period, Beatlemania, the early days with Yoko, the ‘primal scream’ episode, his fight against deportation from the US, the ‘lost weekend’ separation from Yoko in 1973/74, and his re-emergence from househusband duties to record Double Fantasy in 1980.

An Astrid Kirchherr shot during the making of ‘A Hard Day’s Night’

The first thing to say is that the magazine is beautifully put together and laid out. A lot of care and attention to detail clearly went into it. It touches most of the important bases in his story and career, with a host of well-chosen photographs to illustrate them. Indeed, the three sections given over completely to photography are especially strong. There are the classic Astrid Kirchherr images from Hamburg (plus some great shots when she visited the band on the set of A Hard Day’s Night), along with selections from British showbiz snapper Tommy Hanley (including famous shots from Tittenhurst Park during the 1971 Imagine recording sessions) and Bob Gruen, who took some of the defining photos of John and Yoko after they moved to New York in the 1970s. Gruen’s close friendship with the couple is reflected in the relaxed, candid nature of his pictures, some of which I’d never seen before. Particularly striking is one of a hung-over, remorseful Lennon prostrating himself before Yoko on an icy Manhattan morning after an episode of public infidelity the night before.

The ‘Loves of Lennon’ interviews make for an interesting contrast. Cynthia, in keeping with her excellent book John published the same year (2005), pulls no punches about her relations with Yoko and Lennon’s Aunt Mimi, nor about her former husband – though her criticisms of him are mixed in with warm reminiscences, too. May Pang is more wholly positive, coming over as being little removed from the starry-eyed, smitten young woman who lived with John for more than a year during his hiatus from Yoko. Curiously, her favourite memory of their time together was when they spotted a UFO from their New York apartment in 1974; though John also liked to tell this story, so it must’ve been quite the experience. The Yoko Q&A seems altogether more guarded and bland, though in fairness the questions focus more on her role as custodian of his legacy (she’s even asked about meeting Liam Gallagher at one point, for heaven’s sake) than about her role as wife and lover.

At Apple, 1969 (taken by Tommy Hanley)

The Top 30 Lennon Songs – with contributors ranging from Elbow’s Guy Garvey and Lemmy from Motorhead to Paul Weller and Garbage singer Shirley Manson – is a fun read. You won’t be surprised to learn ‘Imagine’ comes in first spot, while ‘All You Need Is Love’, ‘Strawberry Fields’, ‘Across The Universe’ and ‘Mother’ make up the rest of the top five. It’s always interesting to see other people’s takes and interpretations on the music you love, and learn why they like it so much too. For my money, though, any Lennon ‘best of’ list that doesn’t include ‘Girl’, ‘You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away’ and ‘Love’ is seriously lacking credibility.

The articles which make up the bulk of the magazine are a real mixed bag.  Most of the one page examinations of his different traits (rock ‘n’roller, wit, fighter, romantic, radical) are fairly dismissable. They are either too short or fail to provide any fresh insights into his character; for example, one rightly cites him as changing the idea of romance in pop, but then offers no real explanation or analysis of how he did it, barely even touching on any of his songs after 1964. Even worse, the ‘fighter’ profile reports as fact a rumour that John brutally attacked Stuart Sutcliffe and ended up kicking his friend in the head, when there is zero evidence this ever happened (Lewisohn, in his exhaustively researched biography Tune In, doesn’t even mention it).  A couple of the longer articles take an awful long time to say not a great deal. ‘How John and Yoko Quit The Beatles’ is actually more a run-down of the pair’s avant garde art activities at the end of the ‘60s, while the piece about their famed primal scream therapy in 1970 and the impact on the music they produced immediately afterwards offers little that is new (to his credit, Dr Arthur Janov respected John’s patient confidentiality throughout his life).

Displaying their wedding certificate for Tommy Hanley, at Tittenhurst Park in 1971

While the need to put down McCartney while praising Lennon has happily abated somewhat among writers since the 1980s, there are still traces of it here. The article on John’s youth basically implies John and Paul were more work colleagues than real friends, which is utter nonsense; even at the height of the bitter fall-out following The Beatles’ break-up in 1971, John still referred to Paul as his best friend, and elsewhere in this very magazine Bob Gruen recounts a joyous evening in the mid-1970s when Paul and Linda visited the Lennons at their Dakota Building apartment in New York. Then there’s a sly dig which points out that at the very time John embarked on soul-searching psychological therapy to help tackle deep-rooted neuroses, Paul was buying the rights to Rupert Bear, thus setting in train the differing paths of their solo careers (Lennon being the deep artist, and Macca the facile entertainer). Apart from the absurdity of pigeonholing McCartney’s entire career around one project (for children) released 14 years later, the author conveniently overlooks that, at the same time John was seeking professional help, Paul was experiencing a breakdown of his own, isolating himself at his Scottish farm and drinking heavily as he struggled to come to terms with The Beatles’ split. It’s all a bit lazy, and completely unnecessary

There is some fine writing elsewhere in the magazine, however. Chris Ingham, Beatles author and regular contributor to magazines such as MOJO, pens an excellent article looking at John’s remarkable growth as an artist from 1962-67. He also contributes the best of the album reviews, cogently championing 1973’s woefully underrated Mind Games. Other stand-outs include an engrossing piece on John’s self-proclaimed ‘Lost Weekend’ when separated from Yoko in the mid-70s, charting that period’s strange mixture of self-destructiveness, fruitful creativity and mending of broken bridges before he inexorably drifted back to this wife. And I really enjoyed the detailed story of his 1980 comeback, in particular the fateful trip to Bermuda which helped to kick-start a return to concentrated music-making. Both articles have lots of fascinating recollections from people around him at the time.

A Bob Gruen shot taken at a New York cafe, 1975

As for the album reviews, well, you pays your money and you takes your choice. Ultimately, as always, it comes down to personal opinion, though some of the critics here argue their cases better than others. I guess I’m in the minority of people who don’t consider Plastic Ono Band a masterpiece (as the review here claims), though I do understand why some find flaws in Imagine – even though I love it to bits. When someone describes a wonderful song like 1974’s ‘Nobody Loves You (When You’re Down and Out)’, as “utterly cloying”, though, I am left scratching my head. Still, I always enjoy music reviews, and they’re all interesting in their own way. In particular, it was nice to read a positive reappraisal of Double Fantasy.

As I write this, there’s lots of stuff going on in the media and online to celebrate what would have been John’s 80th birthday. Even though he’s now been gone for as long as he was alive, you can’t argue it wasn’t a life well lived. That extraordinary journey is, for the most part, well documented in Uncut Legends. If you can find a copy on eBay or somewhere, it’s well worth picking up.

A bullseye? Paul’s ‘Arrow Through Me’ video

The summer of 1979 must’ve been a strange time for Paul McCartney. He’d recently signed an eye-watering deal for Columbia Records to release all his work in the USA, had just enjoyed yet another transatlantic chart smash with ‘Goodnight Tonight’, and was about to receive an unheard-of rhodium disc from the Guinness Book of Records to coronate him as the most successful songwriter in history. On the other hand, his first album with Columbia, Back To The Egg, hadn’t set the charts alight in the same way previous Wings efforts had, while the lead-off singles in both the UK and the States had failed to create much of a stir. In later years he would say his enthusiasm for Wings began to wind down around this time, and the fact that he retreated to his home studio to start recording new tracks on his own (to be released as McCartney II the following year) is perhaps an indicator of that.

Wings – the 1979 version

However, Wings were still very much an active entity at this point, and in August Columbia  wanted a second single from the album. While the backbone of Back To The Egg was composed of hard rock numbers, it was a stylistically diverse set, even by McCartney standards. The heavy, guitar-driven ‘Old Siam Sir’ had stiffed as a single in Britain, so it was relegated to the b-side here and they opted for ‘Arrow Through Me’ instead – a song from the other end of the musical spectrum completely. In a real departure for Paul, there were no guitars at all on this, with even the bass line being played on a keyboard. Instead, we get a smooth slice of synth pop, blue-eyed soul with a hint of funk. Drummer Steve Holly came up with a great groove, and Macca delivers the obligatory sumptuous melody and polished vocal on top, casually dipping into seductive falsetto when he feels like it. I’d always thought the  horns which kick in half-way through were played on synthesiser too, but apparently the Wings brass section were involved. Either way, they are super catchy and add some punch to the song, giving it a bit of a Stevie Wonder feel. I’ve always liked the lyrics, as well – who else could write something like: “A bird in the hand is worth two flyin’/But when it came to love, I knew you’d be lyin’”?

Sheet music for the single. How quaint

Earlier that summer, Wings had recorded separate promotional films for seven tracks – half the album – something which was pretty rare in those pre-MTV days. These were welded together to form a short TV film, but if the point was to push the album to the widest possible audience, their marketing department was sorely lacking. The resulting special didn’t air on US TV until the end of the year, by which time Back To The Egg had fallen out of the charts, and wasn’t shown in the UK until 1981 – after the band had broken up. Paul did have form for this kind of thing in the ‘70s though. Wings Over The World, the TV documentary about the 1975-76 world tour, didn’t emerge until 1979, while the accompanying concert film Rockshow didn’t hit cinemas for a further two  years (by which time the musical landscape had changed almost beyond recognition). And some Wings film projects, like 1974’s One Hand Clapping, didn’t see the light of day for decades.

Nonetheless, the Back To the Egg film at least provided a raft of ready-made promo videos for any singles pulled from the album, and ‘Arrow Through Me’ was among them. It was the last clip to be filmed and, it has to be said, the least imaginative. No location trips to a castle or a beach (as with some of the other videos), this was all shot in a London studio against a black background, with the band just running through the song on a set of keyboards, plus drums. Paul looks quite dapper, though he hams it up a bit too much at a couple of points. Linda, guitarist Laurence Juber and a pretty shabby-looking Denny Laine also feature, though I don’t think they are actually on the record (possibly some vocal harmonies in the middle). Macca was clearly still keen for the world to recognise that Wings was a “real band”, not just a showcase for him. Perhaps realising they needed to make up for the rather bland setting, some slightly trippy visual effects were added. I doubt it was cutting edge fare, even for the time, and makes the clip look a little like an outtake from a particularly cash-strapped 1970s episode of Dr Who.

Macca at the mercy of 1970s ‘special’ effects

The video didn’t help ‘Arrow Through Me’ materialise very high on the US charts, with the single stalling at #29 – not a terrible showing, but not great by Macca standards of the era. It may have been that Wings were seen as somewhat passé by this point (though the fact that their live version of ‘Coming Up’ stormed to #1 the following year suggests otherwise). More likely, the song just lacked a certain something – maybe a big chorus – to make a big splash in a singles market now dominated by disco and new wave stompers.

Wings performed the song on what proved to be their final tour, a jaunt through British venues in late 1979, and then – as with so many McCartney solo numbers – it was filed away and forgotten about. Along with almost all the Back To The Egg videos, it was senselessly omitted from the McCartney Years DVD promo collection in 2007. However, the song did find its way on to the random grab bag of tracks which made up the Pure McCartney solo compilation album in 2016. But even then, Paul was quite dismissive when talking about it:

There are some songs that I just hadn’t heard literally since I recorded them. One was called Arrow Through Me. That is a kind of funky little thing. Interesting harmonies, interesting brass riff. As I say, something I recorded and then not listened to again.

It’s a shame so much of his post-1970 catalogue is viewed like this, whereas he treats even the most run-of-the-mill Beatles song with such reverence. Oddly, Paul McCartney is one of the least effusive proponents of his own music. Let’s hope an archive edition of Back To The Egg is not too far away, so that its songs and videos can gain a fresh appreciation. It may have a humdrum video, but ‘Arrow Through Me’ is still a fine piece of work.