‘The Beatles: The First U.S. Visit’

What with all the hoo-hah about the new Get Back documentary, I recently went back to another fly-on-the-wall Fab Four film, which was shot almost exactly five years earlier. The Beatles: The First U.S. Visit was born out of footage recorded – like it says on the tin – during the band’s now legendary Stateside debut in February 1964. JFK, Murray the K, Ed Sullivan, the Washington Coliseum and all that. A supernova explosion of Beatlemania, captured on 16mm black-and-white celluloid. In one of those benign quirks of fate which thankfully fleck the group’s story, UK regional TV company Granada – which covered The Beatles’ home turf in the north west of England – made a last-minute decision to commission film-making brothers Albert and David Maysles to follow the Fabs on their two-week east coast odyssey. The pair grabbed their equipment and raced to JFK Airport, where thousands of fans were awaiting the band’s arrival. The resulting film – subsequently intercut with TV and concert performances during the visit – is not only a slice of modern history, a ringside seat at an event which seemed to usher in the 1960s as we know them today, but also a total joy to watch.

The cover of the DVD

It is remarkable (and remarkably lucky for us) that the Maysles brothers were granted such intimate, unfiltered access at such a key moment, and they certainly made the most of it. Using what were, at the time, cutting-edge hand-held cameras and sound equipment, the compact two-man set-up allowed them to nimbly follow the band (almost) everywhere and unobtrusively record whatever was going on. They were at the eye of the hurricane with The Beatles, not only bringing us closer to them but also giving us their perspective on the hysteria raging all around them. So we get to see the Fabs in their hotel rooms at The Plaza Hotel, watching reports of their arrival on the evening news and taking never-ending calls from local radio stations; visiting Central Park for a photoshoot (minus George, who was in bed with a sore throat) and in their limo chased by screaming fans, and enjoying a night out at The Peppermint Lounge club. Then we hitch a ride with them on the train to Washington DC, where they perform a magnificent concert at the Coliseum amid a cauldron of screams and jelly beans, and join them at their Miami Beach hotel, where they record another Ed Sullivan Show segment, before heading home to England where they are greeted like all-conquering Caesars. Along the way, we also get snippets of Brian Epstein, ecstatic fans thronging the streets of Manhattan, and perhaps even more excitable middle-aged DJs proclaiming all manner of Beatle exclusives and approvals.

The mayhem begins – touching down at JFK Airport
Fans gather outside The Plaza Hotel

The whole thing comes across like a dry run for A Hard Day’s Night. The Fabs seem more bemused than anyone by the reactions they stir, and yet take it all in their stride with total insouciance. There’s a fantastic scene in their car, when Paul (who has a transistor radio glued to his ear in the early part of the film) hears one DJ announce that the band will be on air reading their own poetry that evening. “Eh? Really?” he says, looking bewildered, before a deadpan “We ain’t writ no poetry.” John smirks at him. A moment later, their vehicle is besieged by wide-eyed, bellowing young females; Paul plays it cool with a “Hi girls,” while John cries: “They’ve all gone potty!” As soon as their driver manages to put some distance between them and the advancing mob, and a policeman on horseback provides a sliver of protection, they make a mad dash for the hotel entrance. Glorious stuff. Even in their private suite, they have little respite, with people constantly buzzing around them like flies. There’s a marvellous moment when you see them preparing to head off to make their American TV bow, chivvying each other up but still unbelievably laid back ahead of a performance which would be beamed into more than 70 million homes and make or break their career.

With Ed Sullivan, who must’ve been sooooo pleased he got the scoop on their US TV debut

Some of the best scenes come on the train journeys to and from Washington, where they mingle with fellow passengers and entertain the ever-present press corps. You see Ringo’s sweet-natured banter with a young fan, Paul taking the piss out of the relentness nature of US TV commercials, and the whole band commandeered into yet another photo opportunity with the limpet-like DJ Murray the K (they seem to view him with cordial amusement, but you can only imagine what they really thought of a man twice their age who christened himself the “fifth Beatle” in an attempt to woo teen listeners). George and Ringo do most of the clowning around in these segments; Paul seems uncharacteristically subdued on the trip back to New York, though their antics do eventually tease a smile out of him. “I’m not even in a laughing mood,” he says. He is much more playful during the sequence in their Miami hotel room, where he, George and Ringo (John was off with Cynthia) lark about non-stop. Some of it is quite abstract, and you get the feeling lots of private ‘in-jokes’ are in play, but their humour is totally natural and very infectious. I also love the bit where Paul asks George to help him close his rammed suitcase. They may have been crowned the biggest stars on the planet, but they had no lackeys to do their packing for them. As always, they relied on each other.

Taking it all in on the train ride to Washington DC

All these moments give us an insight into their individual characters at that time. George, though the only one of them who had visited the States before, seems boyish and wide-eyed, almost unbelieving of what is going on, but dealing with it in his usual droll fashion. Ringo appears to be having the time of his life, lapping up every second and shining in the spotlight (many polls rated him the most popular Beatle with US audiences at the time). Paul is so charming, smooth and in control it’s laughable, managing the press men and photographers with nonchalant ease, like he was born to it. John, by contrast, is a more distant figure, watching things unfold with a sardonic eye, a cat-like observer until he needs to spring into action. He’s probably the one who says the least in this. However, the chemistry and camaraderie between the four is palpable, factors I always feel were (and are) so fundamental to their appeal. It’s so cool to have a peek inside their world, a gang of mates on an adventure beyond their wildest dreams – and when it was all still new and fresh.

While some of the original film was cut to make way for the music performances, I think they are an invaluable addition – certainly for UK audiences (I don’t think I’d ever seen any of the Ed Sullivan clips before this DVD came out in 2004). The music is the centrepiece and ultimate cause of all the mania, after all. The clips across the three TV appearances cover the hits you would expect – ‘ I Want to Hold Your Hand’, their breakthrough single and first US #1, is unsurprisingly played twice, and we get ‘She Loves You’, ‘From Me To You’, ‘All My Loving’ and all their other early stompers which were flooding American radio at the time. But, as on their big British TV showcases a few months earlier, they also cannily included the sweet show tune ‘Till There Was You’, not only wowing girls eager for as much doe-eyed Paul as they could get, but also showing older, more sceptical viewers that they could turn their hands to “real music” as well (I suspect the uber-melodic ‘This Boy’ performed a similar function in winning people round). Just three songs are included from their great Washington Coliseum concert, but they include a thrilling rendition of ‘I Saw Her Standing There’ and a raucous Ringo singing ‘I Wanna Be Your Man’ (George’s lead vocal on ‘Roll Over Beethoven’ is sadly nowhere to found on this disc).

In full flow at the Washington Coliseum

For some reason, I never got around to watching the bonus disc until recently, which was a criminal oversight on my part, as it weaves in interesting interview recollections from Albert Maysles with acres of outtake footage from the brothers’ time with the band. And much of it is wonderful. Highlights include an exuberant, rather “merry” Macca returning to the Plaza Hotel after their night out at The Peppermint Lounge, John slyly quipping “We’re all on drugs!” during an interview, an in-car chat with Brian Epstein as he is being ferried through the frosty streets of Manhattan, and an utterly charming scene on the train to Washington where the Maysles explain how their equipment works to four fascinated Fabs. The brothers may not have been allowed to shoot inside the Ed Sullivan TV theatre when the band made its historic first appearance, but their decision to drop into a nearby family apartment and film some mesmerised children watching the broadcast was sheer genius. There’s even a brief clip of the boys’ reception at the British Embassy in Washington, where one aristocratic society woman infamously snipped a lock of Ringo’s hair, causing John to storm out in disgust. We don’t get to see that, but the pandemonium which surrounds them (involving upper crust middle-aged types, not screaming teens) suggests that the hysteria portrayed in A Hard Day’s Night was, if anything, underplayed.

I first saw excerpts from the documentary back in the mid-1980s, when Granada TV put together its own special, The Early Beatles: 1962-65, using various gems from its archive treasure trove. Stateside fans got the whole thing when it was released on VHS in the early 1990s, and Apple finally got its act together with a worldwide DVD release in 2004. If you haven’t got it, I’d strongly recommend picking it up – as an up-close snapshot of the Fabs when their fame and influence went stratospheric, it’s hard to beat. And, intriguingly, I seem to recall that Granda TV show containing scenes which didn’t make the final Maysles brothers cut (in particular, a phone conversation between George and BBC DJ Brian Matthew back in England). And as the bonus disc shows, there was plenty of other stuff filmed during those weeks which ended up on the cutting room floor. Who  knows, perhaps some enterprising, Oscar-winning director will one day be let loose on the original reels of tape to produce a remastered, re-edited eight-hour version for TV? The 60th anniversary of the visit is coming up….

‘All You Needed Was Love: The Beatles after The Beatles’ (1981)

The saga of The Beatles, as a group, has been described by one podcast as “the greatest story ever told”. And, without wishing to trigger another ‘Beatles are bigger than Jesus’ furore, it is – certainly in terms of popular music, or 20th century entertainment. No? Tell me one that’s better, has more ingredients or is more complete, or which is broadly known by millions of people the world over. Don’t believe me about that last point? Well, how come the script of the biggest money-spinning film of the past decade, Avengers: Endgame (which was aimed primarily at the under-30s), included a joke comparing the Avengers’ break-up to that of The Beatles, a group which had been defunct for 50 years? The Fabs didn’t just forge the blueprint on which so much modern music is based or evaluated against, they also set the career template which every rock ‘n’ roll band has aspired to ever since. The raw beginnings transitioning into global boy band mania, films and stadium rock, and then increasingly ambitious musical expansion and artistic growth; the screaming fans, the groupies, the drugs, the mysticism, the business problems; the dating of super-models and actresses, the controversies, the internal rivalries/collaborations and, ultimately, the acrimonious split. It’s all there – a tale so rich and layered and fascinating that it never gets old, with new threads constantly emerging which make headlines around the world and keep people like me writing endless articles about it.

By contrast, what happened to the band members after 1970 is generally not granted such attention or accorded such prestige. I think this is partly because the superheroes of the earlier story are revealed to have feet of clay, with all of them making missteps in their solo careers and falling from public favour at one time or another, and inevitably unable to exert the same epochal influence on world culture that they managed as a team of young men. It’s also a more messy, complicated and fractured narrative, a harder story to tell and provide an overview of; not least because, in two cases, it’s still unfolding. And yet, it’s worth noting that they’ve enjoyed far and away the most commercially successful solo careers of any band which has ever existed (try to think of any Mick Jagger or Robert Plant hits, in comparison). Not only that, but the different trajectories their lives took after disbanding form a tapestry just as vibrant and engrossing as the one which played out when they were together. It has more than its share of triumphs, tragedies, stumbles, interactions, fall-outs, reconciliations, weird detours and grand statements; it’s just not been written about as much. One of the few books, and perhaps the first, to tackle the subject was 1981’s All You Needed Was Love: The Beatles After The Beatles.

The eye-catching original cover for the book

Written by John Blake, pop columnist and tabloid journalist (and future editor of the Sunday People newspaper), it was one of a glut of Beatle books which came out in the wake of John’s 1980 murder. Like many of them, it was a pocket-sized paperback, with 228 pages and a clutch of black-and-white photos in the middle, the sort of thing you’d find on a newsstand rack back in the day. I picked it up the best part of a decade later, drawn in by the rareness of its solo Beatles content and also by the fantastic cover, which features a poignant illustration of Paul, George and Ringo wearing both their Sgt Pepper outfits and the ravages of time, while a forever-youthful John looms in the background (a subsequent reprint cover was garish, bland and nowhere near as effective). The back cover boasted of recently conducted “exclusive” interviews, though I’m not convinced there was much of that, in truth. It smacks of a cut-and-paste job, with Blake making good use of newspaper and music press cuttings files at his disposal rather than getting bogged down with too much fresh research. But for all that, and in spite of the obvious haste with which it was produced, it still makes for a lively and informative read.

John and Yoko, with activist Michael X, donate their hair to some cause or other, 1970

Starting off with a vivid couple of pages detailing the January 1969 rooftop concert, it looks like we’re going to dive straight into the turmoil of their final year as a band. Alas, as with so many other volumes, it rewinds back to the start of their recording career, and we get the usual run through the moptop mania and psychedelic years. We don’t get to John’s famous demand for a “divorce” in September 1969 until page 86, or Paul’s coded announcement of the actual break-up the following April until page 109. So even in a book purporting to be about “The Beatles after The Beatles”, almost half of it is taken up with “The Beatles while they were The Beatles”. Frustrating. And some bits of it aren’t even about The Beatles at all – there are several pages on the infamous Beverly Hills murders orchestrated by Charles Manson, for example, a psychopath whose link to the band (basically, a twisted interpretation of some of their songs) was tangential, at best. And yet, Blake’s pithy, sparky tabloid writing style keeps the familiar tales interesting. The rooftop gig, for instance, finds the four “high with the joy of being The Beatles once again”, while on their first trip to Abbey Road to meet George Martin, they turn up “with all the cockiness and excitement of a gang of kids on a school outing.” The book’s full of memorable little vignettes like that.

Ringo on the set of the 1971 western movie ‘Blindman’, with soon-to-be ex-Beatles manager Allen Klein. An image loaded with metaphor, if ever there was one

It really hits its stride in the second half, though, when it delves into the unfolding solo careers. And once it does, you quickly realise how much ground there is to cover. In the early 1970s alone (putting aside their prodigious music output for a moment), you had John and Yoko’s indoctrination into so-called ‘primal scream’ therapy’, their battle to gain custody of her daughter Kyoko, their move to New York and subsequent head-first plunge into radical politics; George’s move to the palatial-yet-quirky surroundings of Friar Park, his involvement with the Hare Krishna movement, the Concert for Bangla Desh, and the developing love triangle between him, his wife Pattie and Eric Clapton; and then there was Paul’s retreat to his Scottish farm, his reluctant decision to sue the other Beatles, his new family and his struggles to overcome critical approbation and get Wings off the ground. Even Ringo, who is afforded fewer pages than the others, was busy making an eclectic roster of films, jet-setting around the world and carving out a super-successful music career almost on the side, all while his marriage to Maureen began to deteriorate. When it’s put together like this, you see how the pace of their lives didn’t really start to slow down for a long time – and that’s without mentioning the on-going business and emotional fall-out from their split, which loomed large over all of them during this period.

Blake navigates all these plot points at a fair lick, in concise, colourful tabloid style, dodging back and forth between short chapters focusing on each Beatle. And I use the term plot points advisedly, because the book is written almost like a novel. In particular, he has a habit of dramatising key moments in the story with imagined (i.e. made-up) conversations and comments, slipping them in among actual interview quotes. There’s certainly no way he could have been privy to John’s therapy sessions with Dr Arthur Janov, for example, or the moment Paul learned that two members of Wings had walked out on him on the eve of the band’s commercial breakthrough. This approach won’t be to everyone’s taste, but I don’t mind it so much. To be fair, Blake only extrapolates from stuff that was on the record, and the words or reactions he occasionally attributes to the Fabs do kind of ring true, in many cases. There’s nothing that makes you howl in disbelief.

Wings in 1977, circa ‘Mull of Kintyre’

What is a weakness with the book is the lack of attention paid to their actual music, without which the narrative wouldn’t be half as interesting. Even the more prominent works, such as John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band and All Things Must Pass, merit only a page or two; Ringo’s second solo album, Beaucoups of Blues, gets a couple of sentences, while I’m not sure Paul’s London Town is even mentioned at all. It’s a pity that the creative choices they made after breaking up – surely the foundation on which any exploration of their careers is built – is given such short shrift. If you want a more in-depth look at their music from 1970-80, you’d be better off picking Bob Woffinden’s book The Beatles Apart, which also came out in 1981.

The latter half of the 1970s, perhaps inevitably, is not covered in so much detail, although some omissions are puzzling. For instance, once you get past Band On The Run, Wings’ heyday from 1974-78 is skipped over in three or four pages. John’s fallow ‘retirement’ years of 1975-79 receive more coverage, though it’s all stuff you’ll probably know. Probably the best, most revealing chapter of this section – and one which does actually seem to feature some “exclusive” interviews – is the one on George’s life at this time, recounting his growing interest in motor racing, his marriage to Olivia and the birth of their son Dhani. Inevitably, the awful events of 1980, which began with Paul’s Japanese drug bust (and subsequent brief imprisonment) and ended with John’s death, get plenty of space. The book ends with the various reactions of Paul, George, Ringo and Yoko to the tragedy, which gives it a sorrowful sense of coming full circle (though, of course, we now know there were still plenty of major Beatle events left to unfold). Interestingly, the final paragraphs touch on the-then 18-year-old Julian Lennon making his first strides in the music business, presaging the burst of chart success he enjoyed just three years later.

George with Formula One world champion and pal Jackie Stewart in the late 1970s

All You Needed Was Love has its faults. It certainly would’ve made a better book focusing almost entirely on the solo careers, as its premise suggested, and giving their musical output much more prominence. And given the author’s predilection for mysteriously eavesdropping on private conversations, you may want to take bits of it with a pinch of salt. In addition, the story of The Beatles’ ‘afterlife’ has moved on a great deal in the 40 years since, with plenty of lows (George’s death, Ringo’s alcoholism, Linda’s demise and Paul’s marriage to Heather Mills) and highs (many terrific albums, triumphant tours, the Anthology reunion and so on). But this book remains a riveting read and, as a potted guide to the only period when all four solo Beatles were still alive and active, it’s a good place to start. I’d rank it a 7.

Rocketing skywards: Paul’s ‘With A Little Luck’ video

When Paul McCartney was mulling over (no pun intended) his first single release of 1978, he must have been in a bit of a quandary. On the one hand, his last 45 had produced the biggest hit of his entire career in the UK, with ‘Mull of Kintrye’ shattering even The Beatles’ sales records, shifting more than two million copies and topping the charts for two months either side of Christmas 1977. It enjoyed similar success elsewhere, hitting the top spot in nine other countries. So any follow-up would struggle to avoid coming off as a damp squib in comparison. However, in the US – where ‘Girls’ School’ was promoted as the A-side – the single stiffed, limping in at #33. This was an unexpectedly dismal showing for Wings, who had enjoyed almost non-stop success in the American charts for the previous five years, and so in that territory Macca needed something big to recover his footing and get the band back on track. Alongside those considerations, the pop landscape was really starting to change at this point, under a two-pronged assault from feisty newcomers riding the waves of punk/new wave and disco. Some people buying records now would barely remember The Beatles. Even in the markets where ‘Mull’ did well, its quirky appeal and omnipresence on the radio would have alienated as many people as it charmed. For all sorts of reasons, Paul must have been thinking: “How do I follow that?”

The cover of the ‘With A Little Luck’ single

Contrary to what you may have read, however, it wasn’t all snarling punk and disco dancing in the late-70s charts. Melodic pop and soft rock still accounted for a massive share of the market, and this was the general field that Macca opted to venture into. London Town, the album he spent most of 1977 and early 1978 working on, proved to be – despite its stylistic variations – one of his most relaxed and smooth efforts. Its lead-off single, ‘With A Little Luck’, epitomised that approach, and yet didn’t really sound much anything else on the market at that time (that I’ve heard, anyway). It’s fairly unusual in Paul’s own catalogue, in fact. Awash with synthesisers and keyboards, there is no guitar except for McCartney’s prominent bass. The full version (later edited down for radio play) comes in a little short of six minutes and features a lengthy instrumental passage in the second half, forming one of his occasional mini pop suites (a multi-part song genre – also favoured by contemporaries such as 10cc, Supertramp and ELO – I like to think of as ‘progressive pop’). The tune is pure Macca, though, full of deft little twists and turns, and is adorned with the trademark Wings harmonies, as well as an especially soulful lead vocal which really kicks up a notch towards the end. The lyric initially seems one of his less consequential efforts, and yet – as is so often the case – makes perfect sense in the context of the song. The guileless romantic optimism makes it feel like a younger brother of ‘We Can Work It Out’, and I like how he knits together completely random lines like “The willow turns its back on inclement weather”, “We could bring it in for a landing” and “don’t you feel the comet exploding” (?) into a sort-of cohesive whole (no sign of this one in his new The Lyrics book, though).

So, in some respects, a curious song to put out as a single, but what a song it is. The synth sounds are a perfect match for the “inclement weather” of the lyric, conjuring up a drizzly, windswept feel (as portrayed on the cover of London Town), and the earworm tune sways between chirpy hopefulness and sober, ‘if-only’ yearning. And the instrumental bit builds brilliantly, slowly amassing a wall of gloomy keyboards, which Paul punches through with an impassioned, defiant vocal when the chorus returns for a final pass (coming in for a landing, perhaps?). Like so many Macca songs, it’s quite deceptive – when I first heard it in 1986, thanks to a friend who taped his copy of Wings Greatest for me, I thought it was merely okay; solid, but nothing more. Time has revealed its charms though, and I’ve grown to love it in the years since. Seriously, who else would write something quite like this?

‘With A Little Luck’ was unleashed on the world in March 1978, and supported with a promotional video which can only be described as very ‘70s. Very, very ‘70s. Directed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg (yes, the same guy who did the Let It Be film, as well as a few Beatles promo clips), it’s a pretty simple affair which can’t have tested his film-making skills to any great extent. In fact, it could have been filmed on the set of any low-rent TV show of the era. Paul, Linda and Denny Laine (who completed London Town as a trio following the departures of guitarist Jimmy McCulloch and drummer Joe English) are simply shown performing the radio edit version of the tune before a dancing audience. We also get a glimpse of the newly-recruited drummer Steve Holley, even though he didn’t actually play on the record, with Macca obviously keen to integrate him into the band’s visual identity as quickly as possible.

Delivering the Wings harmonies in the video

Otherwise, the camera simply roams around the set, focusing on the dancers and revealing some hairstyles, make-up, facial hair and fashion choices which wouldn’t be out of place at a fancy dress party today. I feel an extra, complicit twinge of embarrassment watching it, as the little boy in the red tank-top who first appears around the 37-second mark looks eerily like I did at that exact same time (although, sadly, I have no recollection of ever taking part in a Paul McCartney video shoot). He’s one of several children shown grooving or simply running wild during the clip, lending it a general air of a family wedding reception in a community centre (although the make-up of the crowd is unusually diverse for those days). The curious thing is, it’s not really the kind of record which would ever fill the dancefloor at any party or club I’ve ever been to, so heaven knows why Hogg went down this route for the video. The expressions of the dancers themselves range from unfeasibly enthusiastic to camera conscious to just plain bored.

The band are also not helped by being back-lit by an orange glare that wouldn’t have been out of place on an alien world in the original 1960s Star Trek TV show. Still, Paul looks as winsome and camera-friendly as ever, though his hair seems trapped at the midway point between his lustrous 1976 mullet and the sharp cropped look he adopted in 1979, and so is neither fish nor fowl. Linda also has some hair issues in this, the unflattering back light pointing up more than a few split ends and static strands. The Farrah Fawcett look it is not. Denny Laine, as usual, seems to have made little or no effort, seemingly rolling up for the shoot following an afternoon at the pub. And no, I’ve no idea what he’s wearing.

The core Wings trio in 1978

In the UK, the video premiered on a music show hosted by actor Paul Nicholas called Paul, a short-lived programme I have absolutely no memory of. I doubt either the film or the song would have wowed New Wavers or other cool kids of the time, but the general public lapped it all up, elevating the single to #5 in the charts, a more than creditable follow-up to ‘Mull of Kintyre’. In the States it did even better, hitting the top spot and thus giving Paul his fifth post-Beatles #1. That strange Scottish waltz and the rude rocker which came before were forgotten, and it was blockbusting business as usual for Wings. Later that year it appeared on the aforementioned Wings Greatest compilation, and has featured on every McCartney hits collection since. Strangely, though, Paul has never played ‘With a Little Luck’ live to this day, one of the many solo smashes he routinely ignores in favour of scraping the bottom of the Beatles songbook barrel. Baffling.

I don’t recall seeing the video for this song until I picked up a bootleg collection of all Macca’s promo films at the annual Liverpool Beatles convention in 1990. It was a bit of a curio even then, and it didn’t get an official release until The McCartney Years DVD in 2007. It’s funny how time changes your perception of things. When I first saw the clip, I thought it was something of a cringe fest which didn’t do the song justice. Now I tend to view it as something quite innocent and rather sweet; a little naff, sure, but a relic of simpler, less complicated times.

Another kind of podcast – unravelling the Lennon/McCartney dynamic

During lockdown I discovered a variety of Beatles podcasts, which I continue to enjoy for their interviews, insights and (often) interesting opinions. I’ll cover the pros and cons of the ones I like best another time, but I’m particularly indebted to a friend for flagging up one that I might otherwise have skipped past. Now split into two sister podcasts, entitled Another Kind of Mind and One Sweet Dream, they offer a very different take on the band’s story and their relationships (the Lennon/McCartney axis in particular), challenging the established narrative we’ve all grown up with and taken for granted. Now if you’re just a casual fan who simply likes spinning/streaming their tunes and watching their videos, you might find them a bit heavy, or overly-speculative. They do delve very deep. But if, like me, you can’t get enough of exploring the band’s internal dynamics and how their interlocking personalities played out in their music and career choices, they might be worth a listen. As one of the hosts says, the more you dig into The Beatles’ story, the more interesting it becomes – and, as the various episodes show, not necessarily in the ways that you might think.

The basic mission statement of both shows – hosted by a bunch of US-based, mainly female fans – is this: many of the existing assumptions, facts or portrayals of the band laid down since the split 50 years ago are riddled with bias, errors or misconceptions, and need a thorough re-examination. The shows seek to challenge the orthodoxy on The Beatles, as it were, debunk myths which have grown up over the years, and take a much closer, more nuanced look at the story and its main protagonists. They cite Cynthia Lennon’s comment, about how biographers may have got the facts right but have the emotions all wrong, as the key to their approach. In particular, they are keen to deconstruct and challenge traditional views on the relationship between John and Paul, which they feel are over-simplified, hopelessly lopsided and just plain wrong – invariably to Macca’s detriment. Some of this is down to interpretation and opinion, of course, but they usually back up their arguments with a forensic gathering of well-chosen quotes and a “ridiculous and obsessive” (their words) amount of research. Another Kind of Mind studies a broad range of Beatle topics through this lens, from the content of their music to “bad behaviour” to the influence of outsiders like Yoko. One Sweet Dream, on the other hand, broadly (but not exclusively) focuses more heavily on band relationships, particularly during the period leading up to, during and immediately after their collective disintegration. As the ladies say, it’s a rabbit hole you can spend an inordinate amount of time in – as their 14-part “break-up series” illustrates.

I haven’t had time to venture too far down the rabbit hole yet (so many podcasts, so little time), but I’ll focus here on three episodes I think give a good flavour of what the shows are all about and make for a great listen. In ‘Who’s The Boss: The Fluidity of Leadership Within the Lennon/McCartney Dyad’ (don’t let the titles put you off), on Another Kind of Mind, Phoebe Lorde and Thalia Reynolds set out to demolish what they see as the false tropes and truisms which have grown up about roles John and Paul played both in The Beatles, and in each other’s lives. They argue that, in the wake of the break-up in 1970 and then John’s death ten years later, macho male journalists elevated John to rock ‘n’ roll sainthood, while at the same time relegating Paul second-class status, devaluing his importance and talent, impuning his motives and crucifying his character. Fuelled by some of John’s own self-serving interviews after the split, they claim these writers and subsequent Lennon-worshippers – or ‘jean jackets’, as they amusingly refer to them – portray him as impossibly cool and in control, and the undisputed leader and tortured genius of the group, who ditched Paul with nary a second thought to pursue an unfettered solo career. Macca, on the other hand, is routinely dismissed as a talented but shallow hack who needed/loved John far more than John needed/loved him, and whose endless manoeuvring and manipulations to gain control of The Beatles spectacularly backfired when Lennon famously demanded a divorce in the autumn of 1969.

John and Paul at the dawn of their friendship, 1957

Not so, say Phoebe and Talia. They claim it was a partnership of equals from the get-go, that they both determined the course the group would take – sometimes with one more to the fore than the other (much like their songwriting alliance), but always in collaboration. Even in the early Quarrymen days, they point to Paul’s gradual weeding out of John’s non-musical pals from the group (and, of course, the introduction of his friend George), his idea to forge their joint visual identity through similar outfits, and his drive to play their own material instead of just other people’s songs. They reflect on how biographers pore over the impact on John of losing his mother at an early age, but virtually ignore the fact that Paul suffered the exact same trauma (most likely because he dealt with it in a very different way). They contend that both men loved the other fiercely and deeply, and possessed equal (but different) genius which pushed each other on to ever greater heights, an interaction that continued even after the break-up. And so on. They also feel that depicting John in this way makes him a less sympathetic figure and robs him of his humanity.

It’s a compelling argument, and one which you might think is obvious. Yet it certainly wasn’t the way the story was told when I got into The Beatles in the 1980s. John’s version of events had been accepted as gospel by most, particularly by influential cheerleaders such as Rolling Stone editor Jann Wenner and Shout! author Philip Norman, and became somewhat set in stone after his death. By the time Paul began to put his side, he was playing serious catch-up and had to be wary of being seen to “walk on a dead man’s grave”, as he put it. I think, over time, a more balanced view of their relationship has begun to predominate, and McCartney has started to receive some of the kudos which is rightfully his. And yet, I would agree that a feeling persists, even in books such as Mark Lewisohn’s masterful Tune In biography, that The Beatles were “John’s band”. I even tend to think like that myself, but is that because I’ve read it expressed in those terms so often?

A classic David Bailey shot from 1965

In the first two parts of the “break-up series” on One Sweet Dream, Phoebe and Diana Erickson expand on this theme, as they investigate the roots of the split – as they see them – in 1968. In their minds, the established telling of how the band ultimately ceased to be has never been accepted or believed, which is why the world continues to ask why to this day (and you only have to note recent headlines which Paul’s comments about John instigating the “divorce” to see the truth in that). They zero in on comments by John and Cynthia Lennon made in Hunter Davies’ official biography, published that year, that John needed the other Beatles more than they needed him, and that he even needed to see them regularly to remind himself who he was. They claim this was especially true of his bond with Paul, and speculate that something may have happened during the band’s trip to Rishikesh, prompting Macca’s early departure and leaving Lennon feeling hurt and abandoned. Paul’s subsequent hook-up with Linda Eastman, they believe, exacerbated the problem and accelerated John’s drift towards, and eventual obsession with, Yoko Ono – opening up a rift and setting in train the protracted mind games which ultimately spiralled out of control and led to the group’s collapse less than two years later. They are adamant this was never what John had intended, despite what he avowed in countless interviews afterwards, claiming that he was then trying to save face and give the impression he had been in control all along. John himself often said that what he told journalists on any given day simply represented how he felt at that moment (and may not even have been the truth then), and shouldn’t be held against him as his definitive view. Or, as Paul put it more succinctly in a recent interview, “John talked a lot of bullshit”.

There’s a lot more to the analysis in these podcasts, I’m cherry-picking bits and simplifying, but you get the picture. Whether you agree with the hosts or not, their arguments are very passionate and opinionated, and the way they tear into the long-established Beatles narrative is often amusing and insightful. They also bring a distinctly female perspective to the table, which is really refreshing – when you think about it, the vast majority of Fab Four lore has been set down by men, so a different take on it all is long overdue. They tend to view John and Paul through the prism of a love story, “as beautiful as it is tragic”, even though the protagonists themselves would never have expressed it in those terms (Phoebe and Diana do briefly touch on a possible homoerotic angle, but thankfully don’t spend too long down that particular rabbit hole). One especially strong point they make, I think, which is often overlooked, is that Lennon and McCartney were the centre of each other’s worlds for over a decade (or, as John put it in 1968’s ‘Glass Onion’, “you know that we’re as close as can be, man”). The late teens and the twenties are key, formative years for everyone, but in their case they also formed a band and creative partnership which conquered the world during that period, enjoying unimaginable success and cramming more in more experiences than most of us would manage in a couple of lifetimes. John was undoubtedly closer to Paul (and the other Beatles) than to his own wife Cynthia, or anyone else. I’m not one for reading most of their songs as coded messages to each other (this podcast claims, for example, that the White Album’s ‘I’m So Tired’, among other tracks, was Lennon singing to McCartney) but, when you really think about it, maybe there’s a kernel of truth in that. Sometimes.

In 1968. They were always after the birds

Where the hosts occasionally come unstuck is when they push the point too far, and effectively come off sounding much like the ‘jean jackets’ they scorn – only in reverse. They repeatedly say how much they admire and respect Lennon, but can fall into the trap of tearing him down as a means of elevating McCartney. He’s sometimes referred to as weak, needy and almost unhinged, whereas Paul is invariably the grown-up in the relationship, and the one calling most of the shots. That can’t be true, either, or there’s no way Macca would have looked up to him in the way he so evidently did. Likewise, I think the podcasts sometimes misread and misunderstand, John’s behaviour in certain situations. Occasionally being rude to other celebrities or randomly pouring a drink a drink over someone’s head were not necessarily an expression of his deep-rooted insecurities and fear of rejection; to me, they are just examples of Lennon being prepared to do anything for a laugh. Whether you find them funny or not is another thing, but there are countless instances of this throughout John’s life, in print and on film, and in many cases I doubt they are a psychological manifestation of anything other than him wanting to make himself and his mates roar with laughter.

On the whole, though, the episodes I’ve heard on these podcasts so far represent a laudable, entertaining and sturdy attempt to come at The Beatles’ story from a different angle. You may not agree with all the hypotheses the hosts come up with, and there are moments of overkill. As I continue listening, I may find the dive a little too deep. But they are generally full of invigorating stuff which will make you ponder why you’ve always taken the accepted history at face value and never thought to question things a little more. And it’s a testament to that story, and the players within it, that it becomes more fascinating as we continue to peel the layers back and zoom the magnifying glass in ever closer.

You can listen to Another Kind of Mind and One Sweet Dream on Apple, Spotify, Podbean and many other platforms.

Getting ready for ‘Get Back’…the long and winding road is almost at an end

The recent unveiling of the trailer for the forthcoming The Beatles Get Back series was among the most exciting moments in the Beatle world I can remember, certainly since the Anthology bonanza of 1995. The showreel that director Peter Jackson put out just before Christmas last year really whetted the appetite, but the actual completed trailer was something else. This is intimate, upbeat, enthralling stuff – most of which we’ve never seen, and in pristine quality – which promises to paint an altogether different picture of the events of January 1969 as depicted in the grainy, often gloomy 1970 film Let It Be. Apart from the unadulterated thrill of watching The Beatles so obviously enjoying each other’s company and making music together (at a time when we’ve always been led to believe – even by the main participants – that they were at each other’s throats), two main thoughts occurred to me. First, the delicious realisation that we’ve got a whole six hours (!) of this to look forward to in a few weeks’ time. And, second, how on earth has none of this seen the light of day in 50 years? Even allowing for the post-split legal issues of the 1970s and ‘80s, and Apple’s sloth-like, lackadaisical attitude towards mining the band’s legacy, it’s astonishing that we’ve had to wait this long. I hate to use the cliché of it being a long and winding road, but it’s really unavoidable in this instance.

‘Get Back’ promises to be a much happier take on the January 1969 sessions

The release of the original Let It Be film seems to have always been just around the corner ever since I became a Fabs fan in the mid-1980s. Sure, it had come out on home video (and good old laserdisc) in 1981/82, but these were unobtainable just a few years later. My first real sighting of anything from it came when the BBC screened the wonderful The Compleat Beatles documentary at Christmas 1985, which closed with footage of the group performing the title song. The video of A Hard Day’s Night was available in the shops by that time and Yellow Submarine was still regularly shown on UK TV, so it seemed only a matter of time before their other films surfaced in one way or another. Frustratingly, however, this proved not to be the case. I think I first saw a scratchy copy of Let It Be in the large video room (are they even a thing anymore, now we have YouTube?) at the 1987 Liverpool Beatles Convention in the Adelphi Hotel. And at that same event, I picked up a copy of a bootleg Beatles/solo video compilation drawn from the Rage music show in Australia, which included four precious songs from the film – albeit in black and white, for some reason. Never mind, I thought, Apple surely won’t let this potential money-spinner go to waste for much longer.

When the Imagine: John Lennon documentary hit cinemas in late 1988, Let It Be’s release didn’t seem far off. It featured a glorious excerpt from the fabled rooftop January ’69 concert of the Fabs performing ‘Don’t Let Me Down’, and the quality of the print was notably better than what had been circulating before, indicating some kind of clean-up/remastering of the original footage. Alas, when 1990 rolled around and saw the arrival on home video (for the first time) of Help! and Magical Mystery Tour, the band’s final celluloid excursion was nowhere to be seen. Funnily enough, though, this was the year I did manage to obtain a copy, thanks to the goodwill of a customer in the record store where I worked. He had recorded the film when it was last shown on TV in the early ‘80s, and kindly agreed (ssshhh) to make a copy for me. The quality was surprisingly good and made me a very happy bunny; 31 years on, remarkably, it’s still my go-to version.

The original ‘Let It Be’ trailer from 1970. Strangely, no actual footage included

Hopes of an official product were raised again in the mid-1990s, when the Anthology series and videos emerged. Not only did the final episode feature some numbers from the film (again, clearly spruced-up compared to what we had seen before), it also had tantalising snippets of outtake footage from the sessions, notably the scene where John and Paul (suddenly on their best behaviour, as wryly noted by George 25 years later) warmly greet the arrival of keyboard player Billy Preston, brought in at George’s behest. Various Apple insiders confirmed that Let It Be had indeed been cleaned up to satisfy modern viewing standards and that, yes, it would be coming out. At some point. As time went on however, and the release of a remastered Yellow Submarine came and went in 1999, that “point” began to resemble an event horizon – the point within a black hole beyond which nothing can escape. In 2003, Apple released the Let It Be…Naked disc, the Macca-instigated re-presentation of the original album, stripped of the contentious Phil Spector orchestral overdubs and featuring different mixes or recordings of the songs. Surely, this was the optimum occasion to put out the accompanying film, right? Er, no. We did get some newly assembled promotional clips for ‘Get Back’ and ‘Don’t Let Me Down’ (again, featuring unseen footage from the sessions, some of which distinctly showed the band having a good time), but that was it.

In the (18) years since, the saga has almost become a running joke. During countless interviews Paul and Ringo were asked “When is Let It Be coming out?”, to which they usually replied something along the lines of “It’s coming”, “we’re talking about it” or “hopefully soon”. But, from what we know now, no-one was working on it at all, not really. Even though the actual film footage has been scrubbed and readied for an audience more times than a West End theatre, there never seems to have been a coherent plan to do anything with it. In 2007, shortly before he stood down as Apple head honcho, long-time Beatles aide Neil Aspinall said: “The film was so controversial when it first came out. When we got halfway through restoring it, we looked at the outtakes and realised: this stuff is still controversial. It raised a lot of old issues.” And that seems to have been the crux of the issue – despite the events in the film taking place a year before the band actually split, it seemed to have become emblematic (at least in the minds of the Fabs themselves) of the break-up and the bad feeling around it which apparently lingered for decades afterwards. In short, it seemed to represent a wound which none of the four camps were in a hurry to re-open.

Recording at Apple, as the project started to come together

Opposition to the release has been attributed to all four, and it may that each of them had reservations over time. Overall, though, I really can’t believe Paul or Ringo would’ve wanted to block it; Paul intimated as much in 2016 when he said: “I keep bringing it up, and everyone goes, ‘Yeah, we should do that.’ The objection should be me. I don’t come off well.” Likewise, I seriously doubt John would’ve told Yoko before his death that Let It Be must never come out – he was always one for warts-and-all truth, after all. Which leaves us with George, or at least his executors, in the form of wife Olivia and son Dhani. We know that the January 1969 sessions, at least early on, did not constitute a happy time for him. There was the famous scene in the movie with him and Paul arguing during rehearsals at Twickenham (although, in truth, it’s pretty mild stuff); his implacable opposition to the group returning to live concerts; his frustration with the apathy (mainly from John) which greeted the new songs he brought to the project, and his decision to actually quit the band mid-way through filming. He eventually returned, of course, and seemed much happier during the later portion of the film shot at Apple Studios, but his recollections of the experience years later always seemed pretty sour, perhaps conflagrated with his struggles to gain greater parity with John and Paul during the band’s final days. And he certainly had a track record of vetoing anything he wasn’t fully on board with, Beatles-wise, whether that be the release of their 1967 avant garde recording ‘Carnival of Light’ on the Anthology 2 album, the recording of John’s song ‘Now and Then’ as the third ‘Threetles’ single in 1996, or any aspects of the Anthology series he felt were “too McCartney”. You could view his attitude over such things as a desire for balance and quality control or just as plain grumpy truculence, but it was there, nonetheless.

Performing ‘Two of Us’ on the last day of the sessions

Whoever was the main objector, though, it made absolutely zero sense. Apart from a very select few, no one has ever heard ‘Carnival of Light’, and it may well be a piece of self-indulgent rubbish which is unworthy of The Beatles’ canon. But the Let It Be film, like it or not (and I love it), is firmly established as part of their output. It had a cinema release (and, lest we forget, won an Oscar). It had a home video release. It must be one of the most bootlegged films of all time. It has been seen, in varying degrees of quality, by millions of people. Whole books have been written about it. If the idea around preventing its official release was to stop the public from seeing the band in a fractured, fractious light, well, that boat sailed a long time ago. Denying us a DVD is the equivalent of someone shutting their eyes, sticking their hands in their ears and shouting “la la la” at the top of their voice when confronted by an uncomfortable truth. It happened, guys – why not give us a high quality version to enjoy, and make some money out of it? And maybe put it all in context and re-frame the narrative at the same time?

Which is the other bizarre aspect to all of this. Since DVDs became a thing, if not before, fans have expected any release to be accompanied by a generous helping outtakes from the finished film. As we now know, around 57 hours of footage was filmed at Twickenham and then Apple that month, of which only 80 minutes appeared in Let It Be. And the line we are now being fed as the Get Back publicity machine cranks up that this film was sat gathering dust in a storeroom for 50 years is patent nonsense. As already discussed, someone clearly went through at least some of it during work on both the Anthology series and Let It Be…Naked (as well as for Ron Howard’s 2016 Eight Days A Week touring years documentary, which featured new camera angles for a couple of the Apple rooftop gig performances). So why on earth didn’t someone say to the Apple hierarchy, “hey guys, you should really have a look at this, it’s not as bad as you think, there’s loads of stuff showing you getting on and having a good time…it might even make a new documentary all on its own”? Peter Jackson did say earlier this year that when he first had contact from Apple (about another project entirely), he was told they were “thinking” about such a documentary, but you can only wonder how long it would have taken to come to fruition had he not thrown his hat into the ring to do it for them. A single collective thought at Apple seems to have the gestation period of an elephant.

During the exhilarating live rooftop finale

So, what have we to look forward to when Get Back hits Disney+ in late November? I wrote last year about my concerns that it could be the most extreme example of Apple revisionism yet, whitewashing any discord between the group members and re-framing the famous “winter of discontent” (as George remembered it) as just another set of fun Fab Four frolics. Jackson insists he hasn’t sanitised anything or been pressured to remove any scenes, so I guess we’ll have to wait and see (he insists the aforementioned row between Paul and George is the worst the cameras caught, and that his cut will provide much more context around what was actually going on). What we have in the trailer, though, is amazing, and gives the lie to subsequent claims by the Fabs – mainly John and George – that the sessions were unrelentingly miserable and ill-tempered. It shows, as Ringo said recently, that this version will put the joy back into the story. There’s so much to love in it, not least the way the relaxed interactions – the little asides, smiles and knowing glances, the way they’re helping one another learn musical parts, discussing the way forwards or facing up to problems. They look like people very happy to be together, a band at the peak of its powers. Or, as Paul has said: “It just reminds me of – even though we had arguments, like any family – we loved each other, you know, and it shows in the film.” I also really like how Jackson is setting it up almost as a real-life drama, with The Beatles plunging into a project without preparation (or enough songs), running aground due to internal strife (John’s drug use, Yoko’s presence, George’s departure, the inability to agree on a concert plan), and then rallying their forces, drawing on their musical super powers and bonds of brotherhood, to turn it all around and produce yet another burst of Beatles magic, culminating in the triumphant rooftop performance.

It’s beyond exciting, and I can’t wait to see it. I know some people have griped about the decision to switch the project from a theatrical release to a three-part series on a subscription channel but, really, isn’t six hours worth of material on the small screen better than two hours in the cinema? It doesn’t cost that much to subscribe to Disney+ (especially when you consider what mutliplexes are charging these days), and I’m sure the whole thing will come out on DVD (who knows, maybe with even more footage) eventually. That does pose another question though. When the original Get Back film was first announced, we were promised Let It Be would finally be released as a companion piece, most likely as a DVD bonus disc. But since the move to TV as the chosen format, it’s all gone quiet on that front. Is Apple hoping that people will be so bowled over by the happy togetherness and positive vibes of Get Back that they will stop clamouring for its more sombre predecessor? Who knows? Perhaps Let It Be may remain in the shadows for a little while longer.

The thrilling trailer for ‘The Beatles Get Back’

Ringo’s ‘Change The World’ EP

When I reviewed Ringo’s Zoom In EP back in the spring, I wrote how nice it was not just to have new music from Ringo at this late stage in the game, but to have music worth hearing. Three of the numbers on it were pretty strong, and the other two not bad. Six months on, and he’s back with his second EP of the year (I don’t know why he’s developed this sudden aversion to putting out albums, though I guess spacing songs out in this way gives us hardcore devotees more to look forward to), Change The World. There are just four tracks this time around, running at a rather lean 13 minutes or so, but I guess it’s all about quality rather than quantity. So does the new release maintain the standards set by its surprisingly good predecessor? Well, yes and no. On first listen, I thought the new batch was something of a step down but, while nothing here matches the best moments on Zoom In, repeated listens reveal another solid, worthwhile effort.

The cover of the new EP

As with all his other material in recent years, the EP was recorded at Ringo’s home studio in Beverley Hills with long-time collaborator/engineer Bruce Sugar, with various musician pals dropping in to add their contributions. Among the more notable guests this time out are Eagles star (and Ringo’s brother-in-law) Joe Walsh, Toto guitarist and Ringo regular Steve Lukather, renowned bassist Nathan East and New Orleans brass man Trombone Shorty. Three things stand out to me about the new set of songs. First, continuing in the vein of Zoom In and his 2019 album What’s My Name, they all sound very good. Ringo and Sugar have really got to grips with the mixing and production side of things – all the instruments and vocals knit together extremely well, while remaining crisp and clear, giving all the tracks a fat aural presence and some definite brio. They sound modern, but with a classic rock feel at the same time. Second, extending another recent trend in his work, the backing vocalists (men and women) are given a lot of prominence. In fact, in some places, they’re almost the lead vocalists, and certainly share the load with the Starr singer. I don’t have a problem with that though, it gives the tunes a different, almost soulful texture, and harks back to some of Ringo’s fine mid-’70s records. Last (but not least), his drumming is as solid as ever. He no longer has the songwriters around him to push him to the peerless heights he reached in the 1960s, but his playing is as perfectly judged and as instantly recognisable as ever. He can literally turn his hands to anything, and do it well.

Proceedings kick of with the title track, a jaunty, mid-tempo number with a low-key horn section (something else which has started to creep into his releases of late), a super-catchy chorus and a melody which sounds quite – yes – ‘Beatley’ in places. Lukather’s guitar solo quickly runs out of steam, but otherwise it’s a pretty decent track. Or at least it would be if we hadn’t had umpteen similar-sounding efforts from Ringo over the past decade or so which parrot the same peace-and-love platitudes (think ‘Peace Dream’, ‘Anthem’, ‘Give More Love’, ‘Send Love Spread Peace’, ‘Not Enough Love in the World’….you get the picture). Ringo has bemoaned on occasion people criticising him for constantly giving the peace sign, but you can see why some get fed up of it. While I admire his optimism and steadfast hippie principles, continually trotting out variations of the same wooly, sugary, greetings card-style theme, doesn’t always make for the most exciting music. There are worse messages, true, but he’s really labouring the point now. Still, if you can see past that or just take the song in isolation, it’s an enjoyable – if fairly lightweight – effort.

Ringo rouses the world’s youth in his new video

However, if you’re not into the bland sentiments of the lyric, you’re probably really going to struggle with the accompanying video. Made in collaboration with Kids In The Spotlight, a non-profit organisation that provides a visual platform for foster care children, it features a bunch of teens strutting their stuff next to Ringo’s peace sign sculpture in Los Angeles, joined by the man himself (wearing a CND T-shirt, naturally) towards the end. In between, some of the kids are let loose in the studio where Ringo sings against a backdrop of clips showing forest fires, wind farms, satellites, plastics in the ocean, public protests and, er, bullets and flowers. Subtle it is not. There’s even film of raindrops to accompany the line “like the rain washes over you”. Probably happy just to have a day off school, the youngsters are enthusiastic enough and there are peace signs aplenty, but there’s a cringeworthy Michael Jackson-style “children-are-our-future” vibe to the whole affair. I’m not entirely convinced they know who Ringo is, and I’d guess the chances of Greta Thunberg-types in their age group downloading or streaming the song must be in the region of net zero. Still, its heart is certainly in the right place and you can only marvel at Ringo’s spirit and perkiness. He does look remarkable for 81, and his new-found mane of jet black hair is surely a miracle of nature in its own right.

Back to the music, and ‘Just That Way’ is a full-blown reggae work-out, a sister song to Zoom In’s ‘Waiting for the Tide to Turn’ – it even includes a near-identical line telling us that playing reggae music will make everything turn out okay. Generally, though, the lyric is unusually love-lorn for a latter-day Ringo song, which makes for a refreshing change. It also has a really nice groove, and I particularly like the last part of the track when backing singers Zelma and Zho Davis really come into their own. It’s not a major effort, by any means, but it is growing on me.

‘Coming Undone’ is Ringo’s only co-writing credit on the EP, a collaboration with US singer-songwriter Linda Perry, formerly of the band 4 Non Blondes. A laid-back, rootsy shuffle with overtones of country and jazz, it’s a throwback to the more relaxed material which showed up on albums like Rotogravure and Bad Boy in the 1970s. The philosophical lyrics and amiable tune suit Ringo to a tee, and there’s a quite lovely trumpet solo (yes, you heard that right) from Trombone Shorty. It’s the best track on the record.

With long-time buddy Joe Walsh, who plays on the new EP

After Ringo’s bizarre, robotic take on the Motown classic ‘Money’ on What’s My Name a couple of years’ back, I feared the worse for his cover of the Bill Haley’s epochal ‘Rock Around The Clock’. Thankfully my concerns were unfounded, as he turns in a pretty decent version of the tune to round out the EP. It’s a straightforward, agreeably boisterous interpretation, featuring Joe Walsh on lead guitar, and reminds me a little of some of the tracks on Paul’s 1999 Run Devil Run collection of rock ‘n’ roll oldies. It’s a shame this is the only track without any kind of brass part, though, as I think a throaty saxophone break – as on the original – would’ve been a nice touch.

And that’s our lot, another four respectable additions to the ever-expanding Starr firmament. On the minus side, you could accuse him of treading water a bit, especially on the title track, and there’s nothing here which takes him anywhere near the outskirts of his comfort zone. It has the feel of a checklist: upbeat tune about peace and love? Check. Reggae number? Check. A little faux country? Check. Cover of an old rock chestnut? Check. It would be nice to hear him just changing the record a bit, rather than trying to change the world. But the bottom line is, taken on their own terms, all the tracks are enjoyable and fun to listen to. Put them alongside the (generally superior) contents of Zoom In, and you’ve got the makings of an above-average Ringo album. One can only wonder why he didn’t wait, record a couple more numbers, and put it all out as such. Perhaps it’s only a matter of time…

The video for ‘Let’s Change The World’

Not such a bad boy – Paul in the 1980s (part two)

So last time I outlined some of the reasons why I think Paul gets such a bad rap for his ‘80s output, the factors which may colour people’s judgement of how they remember it or how they should hear it for the first time. Biographers don’t help matters – in a standard McCartney book, you might get a few paragraphs on Press to Play, for example (using dwelling on its commercial failure), compared to whole chapters on his drug busts or divorce from Heather Mills – and neither does Macca himself. With the exception of ‘Here Today’ and ‘Temporary Secretary’ (and a one-off performance of ‘Ebony and Ivory’), he hasn’t played a single note of his 1980s back catalogue in live concerts for the past 18 years. Which is staggering when you think about it. Paul himself must have soaked up the ‘received wisdom’ about his career; in 2015, Manic Street Preachers front man James Dean Bradfield noted how suspicious Macca was when the singer told him how much he loved Pipes of Peace. It’s a real pity, because there are such unacknowledged riches in his releases from that decade (hell, even among the stuff he didn’t release) that are worthy of more attention. Why do I single out that period when most people prefer the 1970s or his albums from the last 25 years? Well, part of it may be down to the fact that the 1980s was my youth, and that was when I first fell in love with his music. But I think there’s a lot more to it than that.

Macca in 1984

Although I wouldn’t cite 1980’s McCartney II as Exhibit A in my case for proclaiming the ‘80s as the greatest period of Paul’s solo career – it’s too whimsical, sketchy and erratic for that – it is an important foundation stone for what was to follow. Recorded almost single-handedly at his home studio in the summer of 1979, while Wings was very much still an active act, it must have reminded him of the joys of working solo, unfettered by the strictures of the band format. We know that his enthusiasm for Wings, which had just undergone its umpteenth line-up change, was beginning to wane by this point, and the fun he had making McCartney II – plus the success it enjoyed when finally released in the spring of 1980 – most likely convinced him it was time to go it alone. There were still a few sporadic Wings recording sessions that year, but they pretty much represented the band’s last gasp. By the time he went started the sessions for what became Tug of War in the autumn, I’m pretty sure he intended it to be a fully-fledged solo album (despite the presence of Wings’ Denny Laine on a couple of tracks). And this marked a major shift in his approach to music making, for a number of reasons.

Recording ‘Tug of War’, 1981

To begin with, it allowed him to get off the pop star treadmill and take stock of his life and career. Since The Beatles’ split ten years earlier, he’d barely stopped, releasing nine studio albums, a live album and several standalone singles, as well as touring regularly. The only (slight) break in the schedule was when Linda was pregnant with James in 1977, and even then he spent some of that time recording London Town. To paraphrase John’s song about his own 1975-80 sabbatical, he stepped off the merry-go-round, possibly for the first time since 1962. After conquering the world all over again with Wings, he must’ve been wondering what mountains were left for him to climb. He was also rapidly approaching 40. It’s a big milestone in anyone’s life, but for someone who had once thought being a pop star at that age was a totally redundant proposition, even more so. With, by all accounts, Linda keen to give their young family some stability after years of gallivanting around the world’s concert stages and TV studios, his life priorities were shifting.

Two other events that year would also have massively impacted on his thinking and his creativity. First, the drug bust in Japan which saw him incarcerated for nine days, facing the prospect a long prison sentence and losing all he held dear. And, second, John’s murder that December. I suspect that, along with the inevitable fears for his family’s security and brutal realisation of his own mortality, losing his best friend and erstwhile songwriting partner in such a sudden, shocking manner triggered a major reassessment of who he was, as an artist. The prospect of one day reactivating the Lennon/McCartney partnership, something which was surely bubbling away at the back of both their minds, was now gone, forever; the competitive dynamic connecting them like an invisible umbilical chord, which still kept them on their toes, was severed, irrevocably. At the same time, the reputation and legacy of The Beatles grew enormously and cast an even bigger, deeper shadow. A mirror casting back to his younger, supremely gifted self, to whom he would always be compared and could never compete. And with hungry new competitors on the pop scene, spawned by new wave, disco, electronica and new romanticism, storming the gates of his castle, he had a lot to ponder. Was he still relevant? What did it mean to be the eternally-youthful Paul McCartney in his 40s?

A contemplative Paul, during sessions for ‘Flowers in the Dirt’

Consciously or not, all this had a big effect on his writing. Now don’t get me wrong, I love his 1970s work. It features many of his very best songs and some fabulous albums; even his weaker efforts are sprinkled with genius. But, for me, his material from 1980 onwards is generally more consistent, more mature and more complete. It has greater depth, and more care was clearly taken to bring his ideas to full fruition. While he was still writing and recording at a furious rate, he was more selective about what he released. Gaps between albums slowly grew longer – in contrast to the previous decade, he put out just five collections of new material (plus a handful of original tracks on the Broad Street soundtrack), and a mere three non-album singles. And it sounded quite different to what had gone before. Can you imagine the song ‘Tug of War’ on, say, Wings at the Speed of Sound? Alternatively, take the kinds of rockers he was turning out in the late ‘70s, like ‘I’ve Had Enough’ and ‘To You’. Fun and energetic, yes, but slight and repetitive, basically beefed-up riffs and not much more. Compare them with some of their ‘80s equivalents, fully-realised, fleshed-out belters like ‘Ballroom Dancing’, ‘No Values’ and ‘Move Over Busker’, and the difference is stark. Similarly, most of his ballads from the Wings era were fairly low-key, minimalist affairs – tunes like ‘I’m Carrying’ and ‘Warm and Beautiful’ are gorgeous, but sound a little under-developed to me. In the ‘80s, tracks like ‘Through Our Love’ and ‘Only Love Remains’ are full-blown romantic epics, while even smaller-scale numbers like ‘So Bad’ and ‘Loveliest Thing’ are filled with melody, thoughtful lyrics and little flourishes which betray a greater intent and attention to detail.

Talking of lyrics, he definitely ups his game in this area. The passage of time gives many of his songs a more reflective, pensive tone. There are bittersweet reminiscences (‘Ballroom Dancing’, ‘The Pound is Sinking’, ‘Here Today’, ‘Good Times Coming’), meditative musings on grown-up love and family life (The Man’, ‘Tough On A Tightrope’, ‘We Got Married’, ‘Put It There’), and abstract flights of fancy (‘Wanderlust’, Talk More Talk’, ‘However Absurd’). Even his lighter moments, like ‘Keep Under Cover’, ‘Not Such A Bad Boy’ and ‘Press’, have a disarming playfulness which in perfectly in keeping with the music. His penchant for whimsy is largely controlled and channelled in the right directions.

George Martin with Paul, during sessions for ‘Tug of War’

Another key factor in his 1980s renaissance is his yearning for collaboration. While he’d spent most of the previous decade working within a band, Wings was most definitely The Paul McCartney Show. He wrote most of the songs, was sole producer of nearly all their sessions, and exercised total control over how the material was arranged and performed. Yet, at the same time, he was locked into the strictures of band recording. Even before John died, he realised he needed fresh creative stimulation and challenge, and sought out George Martin to produce what became Tug of War. Martin even insisted on hearing the new songs before agreeing to do it, holding Paul to a quality standard no one had demanded of him since the 1960s. And when the sessions got underway, as well as adding a production sheen reminiscent of Abbey Road, you can bet he pushed Macca to make sure the finished recordings were as good as they could possibly be.

And the collaborations didn’t end there. Now free of needing to tailor his output to the needs of a working group, Paul could not only play parts himself until he got the sound he wanted, he could also bring in anyone he chose to add different flavours and textures to the music. This could be top rank session men like jazz bassist Stanley Clarke, drummer Steve Gadd or guitarist Carlos Alomar; big name pals like Ringo, Carl Perkins, Dave Gilmour or Pete Townsend, or even superstar peers like Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson. And after completing a trilogy of albums with Martin, he began seeking out other, more modern-sounding producers to keep him honest and interested, working with the likes of Hugh Padgham (Phil Collins, The Police), Phil Ramone (Billy Joel), Trevor Horn (Frankie Goes To Hollywood) and Mitchell Froom (Crowded House) before the decade was out. It’s an approach he continues to this day.

Recording with Elvis Costello, 1988

Perhaps even more significantly, he began writing other people – consistently – for the first time since John Lennon. He’d written the occasional tune with Denny Laine during Wings, true, but in 1985 he penned more than half the numbers for Press to Play with 10cc’s Eric Stewart. Paul spoke of his longing to get back to writing on two acoustic guitars, “eyeball to eyeball”, like he had with John. I think Stewart simply happened to be in the right place at the right time; he had played and sung on the George Martin albums, and was a proven hit-maker in his own right. However, while I thought the end results of their songwriting partnership were terrific, a falling out over production responsibilities and the album’s subsequent poor sales put paid to any further co-writes between the pair. Nonetheless, it obviously gave Paul a taste for it, and this time he consciously sought out a specific composing partner, in the form of Lennon accolyte and post-punk poet Elvis Costello. While it was hard to discern exactly what Stewart had brought to the party on Press to Play, Costello’s input was clear from the get-go: a more lyrical, spiky, literate edge to the traditional McCartney brand. And while that partnership too had a finite lifespan (another dispute over how some of the songs were produced, although the pair stayed friends), it produced an unfailingly marvellous batch of songs for Flowers in the Dirt (and 1993’s Off The Ground), including ‘My Brave Face’, ‘That Day is Done’ and ‘Mistress and Maid’.

The end results of all these influences were, for my money, the best albums (along with Band on the Run) of his solo career. I’ll focus on the individual records another time. But ignore the retrospective naysayers – Tug of War is every bit the masterpiece it was hailed as at the time, one of the best Beatles solo albums ever. And forget the nonsense that Pipes of Peace was just a collection of leftovers from that album. Only three of its 11 tracks were originally intended for Tug, and they may well have been omitted from the final selection because Paul felt they didn’t fit rather than because they weren’t good enough (some numbers recorded for Ram ended up on Red Rose Speedway, remember). And while a couple of woeful inclusions (‘Hey Hey’ and ‘Tug of Peace’) prevent it from reaching the dizzy heights of its predecessor, Pipes remains a dazzling example of Macca’s pop sensibilities in full flight. Give My Regards to Broad Street is a soundtrack collection rather than a full-blown new album but, if you can park your views on the film, there is so much to enjoy on it. Some people seem outraged that he re-recorded some Beatles songs, but why shouldn’t he? He wrote them. They’re not necessarily meant to be better, just different – I, for one, love hearing ‘Here, There and Everywhere’ with a brass arrangement, and ‘For No One’ with strings. And as well as applying a new lick of paint to old classics, he still had one eye on the future. The gorgeous ‘Eleanor’s Dream’ segment prefigured his forays into the classical music field, while the play-out version of ‘No More Lonely Nights’ gave us the first real taste of Macca dance music.

In the studio making ‘Press to Play’, circa 1986

He embraced the future head-on with 1986’s Press to Play, an album draped in all the trappings of hi-tech 1980s production techniques. It may have gone down a like a lead balloon with record buyers of the day, and so acquiring a bad reputation which dogs it even today, but I think it’s McCartney at his best – brimming with some of his most beautiful ballads, crunching rockers, irresistible pop tunes and accessible experimental work-outs. It’s lack of success must’ve been a rare blow to Paul’s self-confidence but, after retreating to the studio to figure out his next move (a fascinating period which saw him trying on various musical hats with different musicians and producers), he bounced back with the wonderful Flowers in the Dirt in 1989, another stellar collection of material which artfully balanced contemporary sounds with his timeless song craft. The resulting 1989-90 world tour marks the last time he felt brave enough to put half an album’s worth of new songs into his setlist, confident they would hold up to the Beatles and Wings evergreens around them. And, in my book, the resulting Tripping The Live Fantastic is a strong contender for his most satisfying live album

So that’s my take on Macca in the ‘80s. And I haven’t even mentioned singles like ‘We All Stand Together’ (sneered at by many, but rightly loved by millions of others), his last UK top ten hit ‘Once Upon A Long Ago’ or the ballad version of ‘No More Lonely Nights’, one of his greatest-ever songs. Or the stirring rock ‘n’ roll oldies album Choba B CCCP, recorded more or less live over two days in 1987, and still – for me – the pick of his three covers collections. Or the fact that even some of his unreleased work from this period, such as ‘Seems Like Old Times’, ‘Yvonne’ and ‘Return to Pepperland’ (plus a batch of Costello co-writes which didn’t seen the light of day until 2017), is also jaw-droppingly good. You may disagree, of course, and that’s fine. It’s just my opinion. But I’d still urge anyone to ignore the ‘received wisdom’ and seek out his 1980s output, or give it a fresh listen. You might be surprised to find that Beatle Paul was still alive and well, and firing on all cylinders.

Not such a bad boy – Paul in the 1980s (part one)

Ever since I first became interested in The Beatles, I’ve had to wade through an awful lot of “received wisdom”. You know the sort of thing – someone says something in book or article, someone else repeats it, and before long a particular viewpoint is treated as established fact. Newcomers accept it as such because, well, everyone says it, and others are reluctant to contradict it (even if their eyes, ears or common sense tell them something different) for fear of looking out-of-step or being seen to have bad taste. I guess it’s true of many things in life – we’re all guilty of using other people’s opinions as shorthand for own – but received wisdom certainly abounds when it comes to the Fab Four. You’ll have heard the kinds of thing people with a more casual interest in the band sometimes tend to trot out – that Ringo was a mediocre drummer who got lucky, for example, or that John was the tough, honest, poetic rocker while Paul was the soppy, shallow, showbiz balladeer. Or that the band couldn’t bear to be in the same room during their final years together. Most real fans know this kind of stuff is nonsense, of course, but even within the more devoted music community parts of The Beatles’ collective and individual careers are often viewed through the prism of “everybody knows that…” Thus many people are assured that Ringo’s solo music is of no value whatsoever (usually the same people who haven’t heard 99% of it). And almost as common is the negativity surrounding Paul’s work in the 1980s.

A nice montage of key McCartney images from the 1980s. Twitter does have its uses

If you sift through books, magazines, blogs, podcasts and forums, the recurring theme goes something like this. Macca’s ‘70s albums are peppered with greatness, especially the first two and Band on the Run, and certainly represent his solo commercial zenith. His latter day period, beginning with 1997’s Flaming Pie and running through to the present day, may not always have hit the same heights in terms of sales, but has yielded some of his best work and the consistent critical acclaim and respect which eluded him earlier in his career. But the ‘80s? Nah. Don’t bother, mate. Because the story here is that, after a quirky, experimental start with McCartney II (1980), he peaked early with 1982’s well-regarded Tug of War (though I increasingly read that even that isn’t as good as everyone thought it was at the time). After that, it was a creative wasteland until Paul’s songwriting collaboration with Elvis Costello kick-started a return to form on Flowers in the Dirt (1989). The accepted, oft-echoed view is that 1983’s Pipes of Peace is a schmaltzy, lightweight collection of tunes which weren’t good enough to make Tug of War; Give My Regards to Broad Street (1984) a pointless rehash of Beatles and solo material in service of an equally pointless and widely-derided film, and 1986’s Press to Play a disastrous attempt to modernise his sound for contemporary audiences which was dead on arrival. So artistically moribund and bereft of confidence was this part of his career, apparently, that he then spent the next year or two flailing around in the recording studio, working on an album which never saw the light of day, before getting back on track with the sessions for what became Flowers.

Promoting ‘Ebony and Ivory’ – a big hit, but now a key part of the case made against his ’80s work

Suffice to say, I completely disagree with this broad-brush, simplistic assessment. Now, I do understand that taste in music is completely subjective and all about personal preference. And I do kind of see why some people just don’t like much of Paul’s music from this era – they tend to regard it as too polished or too commercial or too, er, ‘80s. They find the Frog Chorus too cheesy, and the duets with Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson too calculated. I do get all that, but it’s just not how I hear it at all. In fact, I’d argue that 1982-90 represents the greatest period of his solo career. For my money, it produced many of his best, most consistently brilliant albums, the finest of his three covers collections, some fantastic standalone singles and possibly his rewarding live album. I’ll set out why I think that next time, but for now I want to explore why that’s such a minority opinion.

Viewpoints do change over time, of course; albums like Ram and (to a lesser extent) McCartney II have undergone major critical rehabilitation since I first became a fan, for example. But general opinion about Paul’s 1980s output seems fairly set in stone, even among some younger fans and critics who didn’t experience it firsthand. They seem to approach it with a set of preconceptions which started to take root at the time the music was first released, and which remained firmly entrenched today. As someone who was around then – indeed, I first ‘discovered’ Paul and The Beatles in the mid-1980s – my feeling is that it all boils down to a handful of key factors.

The sounds of the ‘80s

By 1984, the future had arrived – though it can seem a little quaint now

With the advent of CDs and advancements in recording technology, the 1980s marked a definite shift in the way pop music sounded – broadly speaking, a switch from analogue to digital. Computers came more to the fore, as did drum machines, synthesisers, sequencers and more processed sounds. At the time, as I recall, people just embraced this as what the hi-tech future was supposed to sound like. It was only later in the decade that some began to rail against this and call for a return to more organic, “natural” records, with the emphasis on real instruments rather pre-programmed effects. Over time, this antipathy has mushroomed in some quarters, with some people now unable to bear listening to anything which bears that unmistakable ‘80s sound.

While Paul was actually at the forefront of early forays into techno-pop (albeit in a low-key, do-it-yourself fashion) on McCartney II, his three albums with George Martin from 1982-84 were actually quite traditional affairs, filled with arrangements that wouldn’t have been out of place on Beatles albums. Nonetheless, they do sound cleaner and more polished than his ‘70s work, and have hints of that shiny digital approach that some people so abhor. But it wasn’t until Press to Play that Macca really took the plunge into the musical zeitgeist of the time. Working with Hugh Padgham – the hot-shot engineer/producer behind era-defining records by the likes of Phil Collins, Genesis and The Police – he made an album filled with many of the audio trappings of the time: synths, drum machines, a booming drum sound, heavily reverbed guitars, and so on (he also started turning out umpteen remixes of certain tracks on his singles, another very ‘80s practice). At the time, I don’t think anyone batted an eyelid at this – he was just updating his sound, and most of the usual McCartney elements remained in place (and many of his contemporaries, like the Stones, Bob Dylan, Elton John and David Bowie were following the same tack, though – I would argue – less convincingly). But it does now sound inextricably tied to the time that spawned it, which for some people, it seems, is unforgivable. Many of those same listeners are equally unimpressed with the production on 1989’s Flowers in the Dirt, despite its less computerised approach.

I guess that, again, it comes down to personal preference, but – as someone who came of age in the ‘80s – I love pop music from that era, so have no problem with Paul dipping his toes in those waters. I just don’t understand the argument that if he’s not strumming an acoustic guitar or tinkling piano keys, he’s somehow not being authentic (witness the shockwaves of horror in certain corners of Beatles fandom which greeted the release of the uber-modern ‘Fuh You’ in 2018). He’s never been like that, and never will be. One of Macca’s defining qualities is his eagerness to remain relevant and explore new sounds, and churning out the same kind of records he had made ten or 20 years earlier would have been an anathema to him. Lots of Beatle records, group and solo, sound of their time, it’s all part of the rich tapestry of the canon. And at the end of the day great songs are great songs, whatever production trimmings they are adorned with. If Press to Play had been a big hit, of course, it might be viewed differently. However…

Commercial failure

A pensive Paul, circa 1984, when his US chart fortunes began to take a downturn

Press to Play peaked at a lowly #30 in the US album charts, the worst-ever showing for a collection of new McCartney music. He’d topped the same charts just four years earlier with Tug of War, but sales had been on the slide Stateside thereafter, with Pipes stalling at #15 and Broad Street reaching just #21. Flowers bucked the trend, to a degree, hitting #21 and hanging around the lower reaches of the chart for almost a year, but it still wasn’t the blockbuster success of yore. In the UK sales held up much better (he actually enjoyed four #1 albums during the decade, and even Press reached #8, though it didn’t hang around for long), but in the world’s biggest music market it was the toughest period of his career and plays into the narrative that what he was producing can’t have been much good.

I guess when you’ve been as commercially successful as The Beatles have, you’re always going to be judged by your chart performance (and I think Paul does this himself, hence his negative view of Press to Play), but I’ve always found it a strange argument that quantity of sales somehow equals quality of product. By that benchmark, Garth Brooks must have been better than The Beatles, and Milli Vanilli one of the greatest acts of the late 20th century. Or, on a more localised level, Wings at the Speed of Sound would be among the best of all Beatles solo albums. My own view, certainly regarding Press, is that Paul’s face just didn’t at that time; in an era of glamour and glitz, Prince and Madonna, and Miami Vice-propelled adult oriented rock (AOR), Macca must’ve seemed very old hat, a throwback to the dreaded 1970s, and he certainly struggled to get the radio airplay that would’ve been a given in earlier times. He wasn’t alone in this – pretty much all of those contemporaries I mentioned earlier who had previously enjoyed untrammeled chart success also struggled to adapt to the MTV-dominated, post-Live Aid landscape. Mind you, Paul perhaps inadvertently set himself up for a fall with some of his career choices…

Mr Thumbs-Aloft

Even ten days in a Japanese jail couldn’t keep those thumbs down in 1980

In the first half of the 1980s, Paul had a run of massive hits on both sides of the Atlantic. Yet songs like ‘Ebony and Ivory’ and ‘We All Stand Together’, certainly in the UK, were hugely divisive. Like ‘Mull of Kintyre’ before them, they were loved and loathed in equal measure, and over time became sticks to beat him with – allegedly sappy tunes which critics claimed confirmed his essentially lightweight, frothy nature. After all, why would any serious rocker worth his salt write a song for children sung by a chorus of frogs? Even his collaborations with Michael Jackson – at that point, the hottest star on the planet – seemed to work against him in some quarters. And then there was the Broad Street cinematic debacle. Plenty of other rock stars came a cropper on the silver screen in that decade (including Paul Simon, David Bowie, Prince and Madonna), but Paul put such promotional heft behind his film that the kick-back from critics was all the louder and harsher. It was high profile failure which further tarnished his image at the time.

Let me tell you, becoming a McCartney fan in the mid-1980s was about the most uncool thing you do, this side of buying Cliff Richard records. Smash Hits – the best-selling weekly pop magazine mainly aimed at younger readers but written in a wry, ironic way to appeal to older music fans too – dubbed Paul ‘Mr Fab Macca Wacky Thumbs Aloft’. It was sort of a term of affection, but also seemed to sum up the way many people saw him at that time: a safe, cosy, family man who lived on a farm with his slightly eccentric wife (who fed their dogs vegetarian biscuits) and smoked dope, a purveyor of pretty but vapid pop tunes, a member of the rock establishment perennially pictured in a chummy, cheery, thumbs-aloft pose. Wings, now very much in the rear-view mirror, were a product of the ‘70s, and so deemed inherently naff; he was no longer touring, so there there was no rock ‘n’ roll edge to his image, and even his regular drug busts were seen more as the indulgences of a millionaire ex-hippy rather than a badge of outlaw credibility. He was a national institution and revered for his past, yes, but was generally seen as being out of touch, with little to offer either younger pop pickers or their older, AOR-loving, CD-clutching counterparts. Thus the ‘80s-makeover on Press to Play was doomed to failure. There was also one other factor which loomed large over public perceptions of him at this time.

The Lennon legacy

The Lennon-McCartney comparisons became more intense and unfair in the 1980s

Inevitably, in the rush to venerate John after his awful demise, an interpretation of The Beatles’ story which had been favoured by some snooty rock critics in the 1970s (and occasionally propagated by Lennon himself) began to acquire a wider acceptance. This was that John was The Beatles, the true creative genius of the band, and that the others were merely sidekicks who helped facilitate his talent. Philip Norman’s Shout! The True Story of The Beatles, the best-selling biography which emerged in 1981, set the tone which numerous other books and articles followed. In retrospect, it maybe isn’t quite as biased as it seemed back then, but it undoubtedly cast John as the main man; Norman himself proclaiming, in an interview to promote it, that Lennon was “75% of The Beatles”, as far as he was concerned. And in elevating John’s status and significance to almost mythic proportions, Norman and many others felt the need to denigrate and diminish Paul’s achievements, both in and out of The Beatles.

As a result, anything Macca released after 1980 emerged in the shadow of the new Lennon iconography. The likes of ‘Say Say Say’ and ‘Spies Like Us’ would be compared to ‘Imagine’ and ‘Instant Karma’. Anything which didn’t offer profound meditations on our very existence simply offered up more evidence that McCartney’s own gifts had shrivelled and died without his former partner to sustain them. Oh, he still had hits, sure, but he could always churn out catchy tunes, people said; all the major works had come from Lennon, right? Over time, this portrayal has largely (if not entirely) faded and a more balanced, nuanced view of the Lennon/McCartney axis predominates. But at the time, there’s no question it caused lots of damage to Paul’s reputation and distorted the way his 1980s work was greeted and perceived.

Of course, you may have just listened to Pipes of Peace and/or Press to Play a few times and simply decided they were crap, and that’s cool too. It’s all about personal taste and opinion, as I said earlier. There are those who think Garth Brooks is better than The Beatles, after all. But when I see the same comments bandied about, time after time, I can’t help but feel that there’s an unjustified stigma about Paul’s 1980s music which colours the way some people look back at it or approach it for the first time. Because I think that, if you like Beatle Paul, there is much to enjoy in this phase of his career. In fact, next time, I’ll explain why I think the 1980s finds Macca at the absolute peak of his powers.

‘From Me To You’ – Lennon & McCartney arrive

In the summer of 1986, during a TV interview with David Frost, Paul McCartney was asked if he could pinpoint the moment he felt he had “arrived” as a composer. He recalled the time he had arrived home from a (very) late night at a club and heard the early morning milkman whistling ‘From Me To You’. You can only imagine how satisfying that must’ve been to a songwriter who was barely into his 20s. And though all their early singles played a key role in fostering Beatlemania, in one way or another, ‘From Me To You’ is perhaps the one which really lit the fuse, and signified The Beatles were more than just a flash in the pan. ‘Love Me Do’, though different from what all their contemporaries were doing, wasn’t especially good – George Martin only reluctantly agreed to release it because he felt the band had nothing better at the time. ‘Please Please Me’ was, of course, a major leap forward and topped most of the British singles charts, but could have been a freak; one-hit wonders were, and are, a dime a dozen. But when ‘From Me To You’ came out in April 1963 and did even better than its predecessor (this one topped all the singles charts, and for a long time), people must’ve thought this was a group with something to offer. Even more importantly, its success surely convinced John and Paul they knew what they were doing as writers, and instilled a burgeoning confidence which never really left them. ‘She Loves You’ followed in rapid order and the rest, if you’ll forgive the well-worn understatement, is history.

The cover of the 1983 20th anniversary re-issue of the single

Famously written on a coach during The Beatles UK tour supporting teen pop chanteuse Helen Shapiro during February 1963, it was inspired by the title of the NME’s letters page, ‘From You to Us’, and continued the trend of including the first-person words “I”, “me” and/or “you” in the titles of the band’s early singles. But when it came to be recorded at Abbey Road on 5 March, there was nothing formulaic in its execution. While sharing a harmonica intro, harmony vocals and a similar tempo, it sounded quite different to ‘Please Please Me’, yet was equally catchy and irresistible. Paul has since described it as a pivotal song in his and John’s development as writers and is particularly proud of the middle-eight (“I got arms that long to hold you…”) section, saying  it could have been part of an old rag-time tune. I share his enthusiasm. It tends to get a bit over-shadowed now by their other hits from the period, but when I was first discovering The Beatles – partly through a copy of the 1962-66 compilation album we had at home – it was probably my favourite of their 1963 singles. There’s such an uplifting quality to it, and that middle-eight really is special. I love how they manage to retain the wide-eyed boyishness of the verses it but also slyly inject some earthy sensuality when they sing “I got lips that long to kiss you/…and keep you satisfied.” The “ooohs!” that follow are like a knowing wink – it’s a dead clever, and a little bit naughty. Then there’s the call and response bit during the harmonica break, and the way they repeat the intro at the end, but with a different chord to finish on. It all flows so well. I might give the edge to ‘Please Please Me’ as the best early single now, but ‘From Me To You’ remains a two-minute blast of pop perfection.

John and Paul in 1963

Released in April 1963, it hit the top spot in May and stayed there for seven weeks, becoming the band’s first ‘official’ (ie. on what has become the authoritative singles chart) number one in the UK. For many people, it would have been their first exposure to The Beatles. The US was a lot slower to catch on though, as its release on minor label Vee Jay sold fewer than 4,000 copies and failed to chart anywhere. Interestingly, though, it became the first Lennon-McCartney tune covered overseas, when Del Shannon – who had heard The Beatles perform it while sharing a concert bill with them at the Royal Albert Hall – unleashed his version on Stateside audiences in June. Even his star power couldn’t push it any higher than #77 on the Billboard charts though, and while it did generate a few more sales for the Fabs’ original (particularly in the Los Angeles area, where it picked up some radio airplay), the song remained largely cold-shouldered by American audiences. Even when Beatlemania exploded there in early 1964, it surfaced only as a b-side to ‘Please Please Me’, and never cracked the top 40 in its own right. It’s strange to think that in the flood of Beatle hits which dominated the US charts that year, such a gem fell by the wayside.

That’s not to say the fans didn’t love it, though. You have only to look at the excitement which greeted the band’s performance of the tune during their landmark gig at the Washington Coliseum that February, their first gig after touching down in North America. It’s a great rendition, turbo-powered by Ringo’s drumming and with John and Paul singing in close harmony at one microphone. But that brief introductory visit to the States marked the end of the song’s life in the band’s concert setlists. Such was the rapid rate of their musical progression, and turnover of new material, ‘From Me To You’ was soon viewed as passé by its creators and – like much of their early 1963 material – permanently discarded from their live performances. That’s entirely understandable; as good as it is, it wouldn’t have sat comfortably next to more mature numbers like ‘A Hard Day’s Night’, ‘Things We Said Today or ‘ You Can’t Do That’. Even mega-hits like ‘She Loves You’ and ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’ were culled soon afterwards. They had moved on – the collarless suits, cherubic wholesomeness and more innocent tunes had to go.

Performing the song at the Washington Coliseum, February 1964

Nevertheless, as the first of their many #1 singles, ‘From Me To You’ has enjoyed a stellar afterlife. It features on the best-selling 1962-66 and 1 compilations, which feature in millions of homes around the world. Pop promo films hadn’t been invented in April 1963, of course, but on the DVD counterpart of the 1 album released in 2015, Apple chose to represent the song with a live version taken from the band’s celebrated appearance at the Royal Variety Performance in November ‘63. It was their first number of the night and, watching it now, you can detect a hint of nervousness at the start, though I may be mistaking that for the giddyness they must’ve been feeling at coming so far in such a short space of time (less than a year earlier, they were still unknowns playing in Hamburg’s red light district). I especially love the cheeky grin from George to someone in the audience about 40 seconds in. They were a well oiled machine by this point, though the bare, gimmick-free nature of the clip might have today’s kids wondering what all the fuss was about. It reminds me of what my Mum said to when I first got into the band during the glitzy MTV age of the mid-1980s: “It all seems looks so ordinary now, but at the time people thought they were the best thing since sliced bread.” There was nothing ordinary about them, though – even in something as straightforward as this, you can’t take your eyes off them.

In 2018, some 54 years after he last played it, Paul McCartney added ‘From Me To You’ to his concert set list. He’s shied away from the teeny-bopper, head-shaking moptop singles over the years (he’s never done ‘She Loves You’ or ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’ live, for example) but this was a seamless addition his repertoire. And after this performance in Copenhagen, you can hear him reiterating the importance of the song in The Beatles’ development. ‘From Me To You’ may now be viewed as one of the lesser lights in the band’s dazzling firmament, but it was crucial in turning on the power in the first place – a key rung in the ladder which took them to ‘the toppermost of the poppermost’. And it still sounds great today.

‘From Me To You’ at the 1963 Royal Variety Performance

‘Strawberry Fields Forever: John Lennon Remembered’ (1980)

In the year or so after John’s death, newsstands and book stores were predictably flooded with printed epitaphs and biographical potboilers. There were thrown-together magazines, with a heavy emphasis on photographs; straight reprints of earlier books with an updated introduction or epilogue, and hastily compiled new paperbacks rehashing his life and times, often with cheery titles like Death of a Dream. With no internet back then, it was the only way to feed the voracious public appetite for all things Lennon in the wake of his awful demise. Many of these publications were still around on the second-hand market when my passion for The Beatles began to build a few years later and I was picking up anything about them I could get my hands on. It quickly became apparent many of these books were just quickie cash-ins, which offered little information beyond the basics (and even that was sometimes riddled with errors and omissions or skewed towards Lennon deification at the expense of the other Fabs). There were a couple worth holding onto though. Surprisingly, one of the first to hit the market (even before 1980 was out) was also one of the most readable: Strawberry Fields Forever: John Lennon Remembered, by Vic Garbarini and Brian Cullman (with an interview segment by Barbara Graustark).

One of the first books to hit the shelves after John’s death

The compact, pocket-sized paperback covers John’s life in 177 brisk pages, and has a raft of photographs in the middle. Unsurprisingly, considering it’s hot-off-the-press origins, the book’s opening chapters deal with John’s murder, and the stunned reactions it generated across the globe. ‘Sometime in NYC’ then traces John and Yoko’s love affair with the city, before the narrative backtracks to the start of the story. ‘All The Lonely People’ revisits his Liverpool upbringing and the birth of The Beatles; ‘Strawberry Fields’ charts the band’s soaring success, alongside their staggering artistic growth, before the inevitable split, and ‘The Plastic Ono Band’ recounts John’s highs and lows as a solo artist. There’s also a lengthy chronology of key dates in his life (very common in such books back then, though the usual discography is missing) and, best of all, the full transcript of an interview Lennon gave just before his death. It’s the book’s main selling point, and I’ll come back to it later.

The first two chapters – ‘The Dream is Over’ and ‘Seven Days in December’ – understandably reflect the immediacy and shock of the tragic events which unfolded on 8 December. When the book went to print, remember, this had all just happened. There’s no historical filter or wise, after-the-fact perspective. It’s just raw reactions and reportage, ripped direct from the headlines of the day. So we get full details (as they were known at the time) of the circumstances surrounding John’s murder, the events leading it up it, and the police investigation which followed. There is a vivid summary of the outpouring of grief which greeted the news, from the great and the good as well as some of the ordinary fans who descended on the Dakota Building in Manhattan to pay their respects and share in the acutely-felt, communal sense of loss. There’s part of a heartfelt tribute piece written by respected rock critic Robert Christgau for the Village Voice magazine, plus a reproduction of Yoko’s official statement released in the wake of the tragedy. And it reports on the remarkable vigils which took place the following Sunday in New York and Liverpool, as well as other cities around world,  mass showings of public affection and mourning. It all seems a long time ago now, but the book takes you right into the heart of that very dark December.

Crowds gather outside the Dakota building on 9 December, 1980

The chapter on John’s time in New York trots through the usual touch points – his dealings with the radical underground and subsequent battle to avoid deportation by a paranoid, reactionary government; the split with Yoko and drunken detour to Los Angeles; their eventual reconciliation and retreat from the public eye following the birth of their son Sean in 1975, and the fateful re-emergence with the Double Fantasy album five years later. Most of us know the story, of course, but it’s engagingly told and (for the time) well informed. If anything, the chapters on John’s childhood and The Beatles are even better. Rather than just regurgitate the very familiar sequence of events (which are in any case covered in the chronology section at the back), they try to provide a bit of insight into his character and how various things helped make him the man he was. So, for example, it looks at the impact of his mother’s death during his teenage years, and how it affected him in later life (as well as how the similar tragedy in the McCartney household brought him closer to Paul). It’s the sort of thing explored in much more detail in later books, but the authors deserve credit for including it here, when they really didn’t have to. While the book won’t tell you anything you won’t already know, the facts are covered concisely and pretty accurately, supported with some well-chosen interview snippets – and not just from John, with Paul quoted a number of times during the recounting of The Beatles’ years. And there’s none of the Macca-bashing which some other books of the time were guilty of.

The coverage of John’s musical output, with The Beatles and solo, is somewhat erratic. Sgt. Pepper and the White Album get several pages, whereas Abbey Road merits barely a sentence (though I like the turn of phrase that the band’s final musical statement mirrors the bright and intense colours of a sunset) and Let It Be is cursorily written off as “dismal”. Likewise, the Plastic Ono Band and Imagine albums get track-by-track breakdowns, whereas his later work is largely skimmed over – Mind Games gets a paragraph, for example, and even the recently-released Double Fantasy receives scant attention (the authors cite Yoko’s contributions as the ones which “give it life”). This reflects an unbalanced view of John’s solo career (albeit one which he aided and abetted in his final interviews) which was becoming set in stone even then, and which remains hard to shake in some quarters today. Nonetheless, the analysis of his songwriting that we do get is pithy and thoughtful, with the authors joining the dots between John’s life and art pretty well. The chronology section also seems pretty reliable. Skimming through it, the only howler I could see what the claim that John met Paul in the summer of 1955, two years ahead of time, though they weren’t the only writers to get that wrong before the actual date was established beyond doubt by Mark Lewisohn in the mid-‘80s.

Fresh from their ‘hair cut for peace’, 1970 – one of the photos in the book

Undoubtedly, though, the main reason to get hold of the book is the 40-page interview section. John and Yoko gave a string of fascinating interviews to publicise their comeback in the autumn of 1980, notably to Rolling Stone, Playboy and the BBC, and the one included here – expanded from an original version published in Newsweek magazine – is no exception. Entitled ‘Two Virgins’ (though the lion’s share of the responses come from John), the discussion delves deep into a whole range subjects it’s hard to imagine coming up in pop star one-to-ones today. For example, Graustark asks him if he thinks he has any shortcomings; his regrets; what friction in his life powers his creativity, and even how he thinks male and female fantasies differ. It’s quite heady stuff in parts, and John rises to the challenge, giving long, lucid and typically frank answers.

We also get the inevitable questions about The Beatles, his relationship with Paul, his marriage, parenthood and his new music, and he is just as engaged and provocative on these topics. Some of his answers about the Fabs are cast through a disparaging lens. He credits Yoko with helping to rescue him from a gilded palace filled with “sycophants and slaves”, and claims the other Beatles are “still in a state of shock” about the group’s dissolution. He describes Paul’s most recent album, McCartney II, as “empty” (it’s telling that he’d listened to it, though) and, when asked why Macca turned up at the Dakota once with a guitar in hand, he says: “Paul got what he wanted, which was total control. Maybe he then got bored with total control, because total control is isolation.” While rubbishing the prospect of a Beatles reformation (“I was never one for reunions”), he nonetheless expresses regret over the way the group broke up, saying it “left a bad taste”. And there’s definitely a sense of pride when he recounts how his son Sean came home from watching Yellow Submarine at a neighbour’s apartment and excitedly asked him: “Daddy, are you a Beatle?”

At the start of recording sessions for ‘Double Fantasy’, August 1980

As was almost always the case with John, it’s a lively, thought-provoking interview. He runs the usual gamut of being funny, caustic, nostalgic, dippy, profound, snappy and charming. Perhaps the most poignant section comes towards the end when he talks about wandering around Hong Kong at dawn, alone, during a recent visit to the Far East, and reconnecting with the feelings of wonder he had when walking the mountains of Scotland as a child. He obviously still had so much to say – though it’s worth remembering, as with all his interviews, it just reflects how he felt on that particular day. He was mercurial to the end and, considering his relatively young age and abrupt end, nothing should ever be taken as his definitive last word. But it’s a lot of fun to read, and I guess we’re lucky to have such snapshots of his state of mind during his final days.

And, taken as a whole, Strawberry Fields Forever works as an unvarnished snapshot of the Lennon legacy. If you want detail, analysis and some sort of historical overview, you’re better off looking elsewhere; the biographical content has certainly been much more thoroughly explored in other books and magazines. But, in a way, that’s not the point. This book reflects how John’s life and work was viewed at the time, when the wounds felt by his loss were still raw, and so has a contemporaneous value – bolstered by the lengthy interview chapter. If you wanted to give someone a potted, introductory history of John Lennon, informed by his own words, that they could read in a couple of days or so, you could do worse than this. I rate it as a 6.