John in 1965 – the best ever?

Imagine, if you will, that in 1965 Paul McCartney hit a writer’s block and George Harrison hadn’t yet found his feet as a songwriter. The Beatles were dependent on John Lennon compositions, plus the occasional cover. Brian Epstein kept a rabid EMI and, in the US, Capitol at bay by insisting the group would issue only one LP that year, as well as a couple of spin-off singles. Yes, I know Paul, George and Ringo massively enhanced John’s songs with their ideas and instrumental contributions. And I know that Macca played a key role in creating many Lennon originals during this period (though it cut both ways – for every McCartney-burnished ‘In My Life’, there was a Lennon-bolstered ‘Michelle’ or ‘We Can Work It Out’). Of course, collaboration was fundamental to achieving what they did, especially in this most glorious of Beatles years. I’m just urging you to focus on John’s creativity that year. Because I think there’s a case to be made that 1965 was Lennon’s artistic apex in the band, and captured him as the greatest rock star we’ve ever had.

A classic shot by Robert Whittaker

That’s not to say John wasn’t brilliant throughout his career. He dominated The Beatles’ 1964 output, for example, and had several other songwriting hotspots – the epic, mind-bending compositions of 1967, for example, 1971’s inspired Imagine  album and the array of great numbers he either created from scratch or polished off for his 1980 comeback recordings. In fact, he continued to evolve and develop throughout his life, refining his style and often reinventing it, and even his lesser years – say, 1969 or 1972 – are studded with great tunes. But there’s something about his songs for Help! and Rubber Soul, and their accompanying singles, which find a really sweet spot and capture him at the very peak of his considerable powers. Don’t believe me? Okay, let’s have a look at the track list for The Beatles’ 1965 Lennon-led album:

Help!

You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away

You’re Gonna Lose That Girl

Yes It Is

Ticket to Ride

It’s Only Love

Norwegian Wood

Nowhere Man

The Word

Girl

In My Life

Run for Your Life

(*Day Tripper, a co-write, could be the non-album single)

It’s all a matter of opinion, of course, but I think ‘Help!’, ‘Girl’ and ‘You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away’ are the best songs he wrote with The Beatles. And ‘Ticket To Ride’ and ‘In My Life’ are pretty close behind. And ‘It’s Only Love’ is one of the most underrated of all Fabs tunes. And ‘Norwegian Wood’ and ‘Nowhere Man’ aren’t bad, either. See what I mean? The power and consistency of his writing (and singing) here is phenomenal. And, like a supremely confident boxer, he’ll take you down any which way want – dazzling you with his technique, battering you with a barrage of body blows or leaving you breathless with his speed, dexterity and audacity. So you have angst-ridden introspection (‘Help!’, ‘Nowhere Man’); wounded, flailing romanticism (‘Ticket’, ‘It’s Only Love’, ‘Hide Your Love Away’); dreamy, conflicted meditations on the past (‘Yes It Is’, ‘Norwegian Wood’, ‘In My Life’), and impatient, frustrated relationship demands (‘Lose That Girl’, ‘Run For Your Life’). And, in the miraculous ‘Girl’, he somehow covers all four of these themes at once. And it’s not just the subject matter he plays around with. Stylistically, he switches from power pop to folk to jangly rock, all the while adding instrumental flourishes (flutes, sitar, harmonium, guitar volume pedals) which took rock music in to new areas. Looking for a more harder-edged Lennon? Well, he outdoes the Rolling Stones at their own game on ‘Run For Your Life’, and also leads the band through two ferocious covers of Larry Williams songs, ‘Bad Boy’ and ‘Dizzy Miss Lizzy’.

Recording ‘Rubber Soul’, autumn 1965

Why was he so good in this year? I think there are lots of factors behind it. Firstly, while still tied to an insanely busy work schedule, The Beatles had a little more time to breathe in 1965 and enjoy the fruits of their labours. At this point,  the mania whirlwind hadn’t yet begun take its toll; there was still an element of freshness and excitement, of new frontiers to conquer and undiscovered worlds to explore. For John, I think it was the first time he had the chance to take stock and reflect on what had happened to him, to savour his stardom and success, before the madness of it all became oppressive and the incessant attention began to chafe. From being an art school drop-out and Scouse ne’er do well, he was now a globally fêted multi-millionaire, heading up the biggest entertainment and cultural phenomenon of the century, hailed as a genius (which he had always thought he was, anyway) and mixing with the UK’s Swinging ‘60s cultural elite, some of whom he had loved and admired while growing up. As the memoirs of wife Cynthia and childhood pal Pete Shotton attest, he loved it – and, as with the other Fabs, it fuelled rather than stifled his creativity.

At the same time, while the previous year’s ‘I’m A Loser’ had hinted at his insecurities, the endless chart triumphs must’ve made him feel supremely confident. Rather than play it safe and stick to a winning formula, John’s character was such that it would have encouraged him to take more risks and see what he could get away with, to challenge his audience and test their adoration. The success in 1964 of his ‘In His Own Write’, his first book of sketches and language-mangling poetry, doggerel and short stories, had proven he could enjoy artistic success on his own terms. This not only resulted in a slightly darker, more twisted second book, ‘A Spaniard in the Works’, in 1965, but also encouraged him to take a more literate, personal approach to his songwriting. Contrary to what he later said, his early lyrics had often revealed a lot about the inner workings of his psyche (going back to ‘There’s A Place’ on Please Please Me), but this undoubtedly became more overt and sophisticated in 1965. Bob Dylan is often cited as a key influence here, but I suspect Lennon saw him as someone he wanted to put in his place, a rival, rather than an artist he aspired to be like. John never wanted to be anyone other than himself, and he always wanted to be top dog.

From teddy boy to teddy bear

But the insecurities remained. Much has been made, not least by John himself, of the pain and tragedy of his early life, and how it provided the engine for his artistic expression. It undoubtedly found more of an outlet in his work after hooking up with Yoko in 1968, culminating in the tortured ‘primal screams’ of John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band in 1970, and echoing through much of his solo work in the decade that followed. Those feelings were obviously buried during the prime Beatlemania years, but they were still there, bubbling away from day one. In 1965, we can see now they were starting to come to the surface, ripping through the carefully composed moptop canvas in the most forceful of ways – none more so than in the song ‘Help!’, nominally a catchy toe-tapper but also a shard of self-realisation. His 1965 songs are not only more mature and eloquent, they showcase the aching sensitivity hidden beneath his mocking, sometimes caustic public persona. Nonetheless, his internalised hurt was balanced out by the positive influences in his life. His pain may have been a driving force, but it didn’t overwhelm or define him. While he was just beginning to explore and articulate past traumas, and coming to understand that success, his marriage to Cynthia and even Beatlehood would not ultimately satisfy his innermost cravings,  he was smart enough to know he was living out a life most people could not even dream of.

And this is reflected in the Lennon we see interviewed during that period. He never whines or preaches or over-intellectualises, or plays the showbiz game. The burning intelligence and biting wit is there, but he seems comfortable in his own skin and with his status, unfazed by adoration or criticism. He’s a shade more grown-up than before, but as playful as he ever was and, possibly, ever would be again. He was already a spokesman for his generation, but didn’t see himself as that (though ‘The Word’, on Rubber Soul – in particular, the line ‘I’m here to show everybody the light’ – betrays the first flickerings of a messiah complex). He was cheeky, cocksure and irreverent, absolutely, but utterly charming, funny and irresistible. Watch him at the Shea Stadium concert. The world is literally a puddle of hysteria at his feet, and he thinks it’s hilarious. Look at the cover of Rubber Soul – while the others are scanning far horizons, he staring directly at you, challenging, engaging you, with an enigmatic, Mona Lisa-style smile. Maybe he knows something more than you do. Or maybe he doesn’t. But you instinctively know it will be fun finding out. Oh, and he looks so cool (though arguable even more so in 1966).

Never one for a typical showbiz pose

Drugs also started to seriously come into play in 1965,  notably LSD. While The Beatles almost never wrote or recorded under the influence – by all accounts, it was pretty much impossible to produce anything worthwhile in such a state – the experience began to find its way into their music, and John’s in particular. LSD represented another way of tearing down social restrictions and conventions, feeding his insatiable desire for something new and novel while also connecting with the surreal view of the world he had nurtured since childhood. Crucially, though, the heavy use, the thousands of ‘trips’, the days of “eating acid for breakfast” (as he later described it), didn’t come until later. In 1965, it was just another stimulant, alongside music, sex, booze, pot, fame. He was still very much in command of his faculties, still razor sharp, still in full control, and still very much the leader of the biggest band in the world. The drug-induced ego disintegration of 1966-67, when Paul became ascendant, was still a way off.

Which brings us back to the nonsensical fantasy I painted at the beginning about John dominating The Beatles in 1965. What makes his output that year all the more astonishing – and perhaps also partially explains it – is that Paul was just a hair’s breadth behind him in his stratospheric development. Indeed, you could argue in that in 1966, in pure songwriting terms, he overtook him (and I could make an equally strong case for Macca being the ultimate rock star from mid-1965 to mid-1966). In fact, if you see him as the junior parter in the 1964 Lennon-McCartney team, Paul’s progress during this period is even more startling – he recorded ‘I’m Down’, ‘I’ve Just Seen A Face’ and ‘Yesterday’ in just one day, for heaven’s sake – and it undoubtedly impacted on John. The intense rivalry and collaboration between them would’ve push John further, faster and more fervently into new realms of accomplishment. Add in the input from George (whose own writing was starting to blossom at this point), Ringo and George Martin, and his wonderful tunes were able to reach fantastical fruition. The John Lennon of 1965 could never have existed without the support and impetus provided by his best friends.

His talents were in full flower during 1965

Despite all that, I still think John was a remarkable creative force that year. As I said earlier, he was always great, and one of the things that made him so was his quest to keep moving and changing. The critic David Hepworth, in an article written last year to mark what would’ve been John’s 80th birthday, said Lennon remains the gold standard for anyone who picks up a guitar. And I think his work in 1965 raised the bar to an almost impossibly high level. If music truly is a universal language, and an advanced alien race with time travelling capabilities arrived and invited the Earth to enter a single person into an intergalactic musical contest, I’d say send for John during the Rubber Soul sessions. He’d probably think it was a right laugh, and the extra-terrestrials would be disarmed, wooed, amused, jolted and ever-so-slightly intimidated. I’d fancy our chances to win.

‘Lady Madonna’: a first glimpse inside the studio

I wrote last year how I’ve long felt ‘I Feel Fine’ has become a little overlooked in The Beatles’ early run of hit singles. By the same token, it strikes me that 1968’s ‘Lady Madonna’ was perhaps the least celebrated of their later 45rpm blockbusters, certainly in years past (‘The Ballad of John and Yoko’ is perhaps less valued or recognised these days). This was probably due to its relatively modest success by Fab Four standards – it sold ‘just’ 250,000 or so copies in the UK, making #1 for ‘only’ two weeks. In the US, it peaked at a measly #4 (though was still another million-seller). But I think it’s also partly down to the fact that it didn’t ‘fit’ in any particular part of their oeuvre; not just a standalone single, it was divorced from any wider album sessions (unusual in the second half of their career) and while it was trumpeted in the music press at the time as the band getting back to their rock ‘n’ roll roots, it didn’t really herald any new direction for them. While it was a definite shift away from the layered psychedelia of their 1967 output, it bore little resemblance to anything recorded for the White Album later that year. Rather – as was their wont – they simply tried on a new style, had fun playing around with it, and then immediately discarded it to move onto something else.

The sleeve for the US single – replicating a typical publicity pose from five years earlier

That’s not to say that ‘Lady Madonna’ is not utterly brilliant, because it was and remains so. A lot is made in some circles of the fact that Paul borrowed the initial piano lick from a 1950s trad jazz hit called ‘Bad Penny Blues’ by Humphrey Lyttelton – you know, like The Beatles never ever nicked something from a tune they liked as a start point for a new song. In fact, it’s real inspiration – as Macca happily admitted – was  New Orleans rocker Fats Domino, one of the band’s original rock ‘n’ roll heroes. But, as with the Chuck Berry homage ‘Back in the USSR’ cut a short while later, their verve and imagination elevated the song onto an altogether different plain than their idol would ever have been capable of. Paul’s boogie-woogie, ‘walking’ piano and deliriously dynamic bass line, supported by Ringo’s artful mixture of deft brushes and pounding, low-end drums, move the number along at a rollicking, irresistible lick. On top of that, you’ve got Macca’s deep, deep vocal (I thought it was Ringo singing when I first heard it), harmonised with John on the ‘see how they run’ bit, and some snaking, distorted guitar parts from John and George. And then you’ve got a battery of saxophones to reinforce the jazzy feel (including a silky solo by British jazz stalwart Ronnie Scott), as well as a typically impish, slightly satirical bit of scat singing from John, Paul and George imitating the horn players. And did I mention the powerful kitchen-sink lyric eulogising motherhood? It all seems so effortless, and comes and goes within a ridiculously economical two minutes and 16 seconds.

Another noteworthy aspect of this release was that its accompanying promotional film gave us the first real glimpse of the band at work in the studio. Okay, the ‘All You Need is Love’ global TV satellite clip was broadcast from Abbey Road the previous year, but it was a semi-live performance, with much of the backing track already laid down. They were just showcasing their latest single in the recording studio, rather than on a TV set or concert stage. And while the film for ‘A Day in the Life’ captures (in rather hallucinogenic fashion) the famed orchestral overdub session in February 1967, I don’t think this was seen by the wider public until many years later. So ‘Lady Madonna’ represents the first real footage of The Beatles in their Studio 2 home actually recording a new song. Perversely, it just doesn’t happen to be the one that’s on the soundtrack.

John and Paul in the ‘Lady Madonna’ film. While recording a different tune entirely

The band had cut ‘Lady Madonna’ in early February 1968 as something to keep things ticking over during their extended trip to see the Maharishi in India, starting later that month. Realising they would need a promo film to sell it in their absence, they decided to return to Abbey Road on 11 February to perform it for the cameras. Somewhere along the line, though, they opted to use the time more productively and were instead filmed recording a new Lennon composition, ‘Hey Bulldog’ (coincidentally, another terrific ensemble piece built around a heavy piano riff). So what we finished up with was a snapshot of The Beatles recording in 1968, which just happened to have ‘Lady Madonna’ as its soundtrack. But, oh, what a snapshot it is. We have so little film of them like this (before the Let It Be sessions, at any rate), that it’s just priceless. And it’s in colour!

So we get Ringo, rock solid as ever, on drums; Paul lost in the creative zone as he figures out his bass line; a solemn George, characteristically precise and studious on his guitar; and John, showing off some outrageous lamb chop sideburns, larking about on the piano and at the microphone. There’s marvellous film of Lennon and McCartney having a whale of a time together at the mic, sometimes split into four, as if to give us a bug’s eye view (it must’ve been a ‘60s thing, I guess). In fact, the best bits are when you see two or more of them playing or singing in tandem – there’s even a blink-and-you-miss-it shot of John and George on guitars backed by Paul on drums – giving us a rare glimpse of them literally making the magic happen. For some reason, the clip also incorporates a bit of footage (notably during the last 20 seconds) from Paul’s recording session with Cilla Black when they worked on her single ‘Step Inside Love’ in November 1967.

Snapshots from the promo film

Compared to their multi-coloured dandy attire of the Summer of Love just a few months earlier, the Fabs are neatly, soberly dressed and – John’s sideburns aside – clean shaven. In fact, this may have been the last time the public ever saw them as something resembling the loveable moptops that they had cherished for the past five years or so. The band even plays up to that image with the smiley promotional photos taken to promote the track, with music press ads (and the US picture sleeve for the single) mimicking a pose used to publicise the ‘Please Please Me’ single from February 1963. The film may also capture the last time they were so fully cohesive, all pulling in the same direction and joyously bouncing off each other as in days of yore – before the trip to India (which biographer Mark Lewisohn pinpoints as the key turning point in their story), before John’s infatuation with Yoko and subsequent descent into heroin, before the business chaos of Apple.  Sure, they recovered that vibe of brotherhood many times afterwards, but it was always under pressure from outside forces and distractions, and was more difficult to sustain. They were rarely as carefree and so totally focussed on one another again.

Still 100% fab – a promotional shot from February 1968

When I first became a Fabs fan in the mid ‘80s, sightings of this film were rare. I first came across a bit of it on the 1982 The Compleat Beatles documentary, though I had no idea what it was (bizarrely, it was played over audio of ‘Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite’ in the section about Sgt Pepper). I think I first saw a grainy copy of the full clip at some Beatles convention, possibly the annual Liverpool one in 1990. It was still rare enough to make me very excited when it was included in the Anthology TV series in 1995 and the home video releases a year later. The picture changed significantly in 1999, though, when Apple – eager to find something new to promote the re-release of the Yellow Submarine film – had the footage recut to match the song the group was actually recording that day, ‘Hey Bulldog’ (which features on the Submarine soundtrack, of course). While it was thrilling to have the film and music finally synched properly, it does mean the ‘Lady Madonna’ clip has lost some of its shine as a result. When you’ve heard what they are actually performing, it seems odd to have a different song layered on top.

Nonethless, it was good to have the original film included, in pristine quality, on The Beatles 1 DVD promo film collection in 2015. Over time, I think ‘Lady Madonna’ has acquired much of the prominence it deserves as part of the golden run of Beatles singles – helped, no doubt, by its inclusion on the best-selling 1967-70 and 1 compilation albums. The fact it has become a mainstay of Paul’s concert set lists since 1993 has also helped its cause, I reckon, as it always goes down a storm with audiences. And rightly so. If this doesn’t get you up on your feet and grooving, nothing will. The fact they can make you dance, sing, feel happy and think about the world around you, all at the same time, is one facet of what makes The Beatles so special. And another reason I’m fond of this song is that I’ve tinkled the ivories that Paul plays on it. But I’ll save that story for another time.

The ‘Lady Madonna’ clip

Beatles for sale? An ad man’s dream

It was at my 50th birthday party, shortly before COVID-19 hit. As part of my ‘intro playlist’, to welcome guests to the venue, I had chosen Paul’s 1976 Wings smash, ‘Let ‘Em In’ (clever, eh?). While it was playing, a friend of mine who’s not a massive follower of pop music said: “Ah. I know this one. It’s the Postcode Lottery song.” For those of you who don’t live in the UK, the tune is indeed licenced by Macca’s company MPL for TV ads promoting the People’s Postcode Lottery. The 1977 hit cover version by Billy Paul plays in the background while people are shown, erm, knocking on doors and ringing bells to give winners the good news. It made me laugh that this was how my mate recognised the tune, but it did get me thinking – was that recognition a good thing, or should I be appalled that he (and presumably other, younger guests) associated it with a tacky, cheesy advert?

They always agreed using their songs in commercials was a no-no

The Beatles’ stance on using their music in advertising, along with my own views on it, used to be pretty clear cut. No, no, and thrice no. The band always seemed dead set against it, arguing that it would tarnish the integrity of the work if their songs were repurposed to sell fast food, underwear, sofas, cars, package deals or whatever. As a fan, I was always proud of that position, and stood full square behind it. I’m sure mutual back-scratching between pop and advertising was going on before, but the corporate cash-in seemed to begin in earnest during the 1980s. Inspired by MTV and Miami Vice, the money men saw the tie-in potential and the dollar signs, and began to exert a grisly grip on the music scene – often aided and abetted by some of its leading lights. Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston and Madonna all gleefully hitched their wagons and lent their tunes to the lucrative soft drinks juggernaut, adding more millions to their bulging bank accounts (I don’t begrudge anyone making money but, seriously, how much did they need?). At the same time, hits from yesteryear were dredged up to flog everything from insurance to jeans, and put people like Marvin Gaye, The Hollies and Nina Simone back in the charts (in the UK, at least). Fizzy drinks all round.

Of course, The Beatles represented the fattest cash cow of all. Their music was already embedded in public consciousness across the globe, and the wildly successful relaunch of their back catalogue on CD in the late 1980s reaffirmed their timeless, cross-generational appeal. Quite literally, they represented the gold standard in popular music. But monetising that love for the band proved tricky. People of a certain age will probably recall the furore which greeted Nike’s decision to use ‘Revolution’ in a 1987 commercial for its sports shoes. It was the company’s first major TV ad (so my research tells me), and certainly made a splash – coincidentally or not, sales doubled over the next two years, the ‘brand’ took hold and Nike was soon established as the market leader.

The infamous Nike ad. Other sports shoes are available

The backlash, however, was huge. I think what stuck in the craw was not only that John’s brilliant counter-culture rallying cry had been commodified and turned into a symbol of big business avarice, but that they had the cheek to use the actual Beatles recording as well. Instead of advising you to “change your head”, John Lennon was now urging you to go out and buy some new trainers. As Time magazine wrote: “Mark David Chapman killed him. But it took a couple of record execs, one sneaker company and a soul brother to turn him into a jingle writer.” Although Yoko had given her consent for the ad, The Beatles’ own company, Apple, filed a lawsuit over the use of the track. Apparently settled out of court, it ensured that no recording by the group would ever again be used to sell product without permission. In 1987 George said: “If it’s allowed to happen, every Beatles song ever recorded is going to be advertising women’s underwear and sausages. We’ve got to put a stop to it in order to set a precedent.” And, during his promotional rounds for Flowers in the Dirt two years later, Paul also reiterated his opposition to the band’s music being commandeered for commercial purposes, saying it would “devalue the whole thing”.

Paul discussing his unhappiness with Beatles ad licensing in 1989

The problem was, of course, that they had lost control of the publishing/licensing rights to almost all their songs at the end of the 1960s. It’s too long and convoluted a story to go into here, but British TV company ATV acquired majority shares in the band’s Northern Songs catalogue in 1969. And, in 1985, ATV’s owners famously sold it off to Thriller cash-rich Michael Jackson for a little over £24 million. You may have thought a fellow musician would’ve been happy just to let the royalties from this little goldmine continue to flow in, but the Nike episode showed Jacko wanted his acquisition to ‘work’ for him a little more strenuously. Worse was to follow in 1995. Clearly all that money he’d acquired from those 1980s soft drinks ads had not been enough to pay for the continued upkeep of the exotic animals on his Neverland ranch or the latest accessories for his pet chimp, as a now cash-strapped Jacko sold half his stake in ATV to corporate giant Sony Music Publishing. And there was no way the people running that weren’t going to maximise their Fab Four asset.

Sure enough, in 2008, it was announced that the band’s back catalogue was up for grabs to advertisers (though, thankfully, not the original recordings), and the use of ‘All You Need Is Love’ to sell a brand of nappies effectively, er, opened the floodgates. More and more Beatles songs have found their way into ad campaigns in the years since – though, to be fair, I haven’t noticed market saturation, at least not here in the UK. In recent years, I can recall seeing ads featuring ‘Do You Want To Know A Secret’, ‘Real Love’, ‘Drive My Car’ and ‘Come Together’, but not too many others. Maybe the Sony money men realise that a little goes a long way.

The Lennon estate seems a lot more relaxed about this kind of thing. Despite the uproar about the Nike ‘Revolution’ commercial, Yoko allowed them to use John’s 1970 single ‘Instant Karma!’ soon afterwards. The shit really hit the fan, though, in 2010 when she gave car manufacturer Citroen permission to use actual (dubbed) footage of John in an ad for its DS3 motor. Responding to the inevitable avalanche of criticism, Sean Lennon said she took the decision not for financial reasons, but to keep John in the public consciousness and give him exposure to younger generations.

The 2010 Citroen ad. The worst thing is the dreadful ‘scouse’ voiceover

Which brings us to the concept of ‘legacy’. A lot of time has passed since The Beatles were a functioning band (for a 15-year-old today, 50 years is ancient history), and two of them are long since dead. Isn’t advertising just one way of keeping their music alive? I remember reading an interview with Brian May and Roger Taylor of Queen a few years’ back in which they said Apple was missing a trick by not utilising the commercial market to generate interest in the the Fabs’ back catalogue (something which has certainly paid healthy dividends for Queen). And maybe that argument eventually led Macca to a change of heart as, a few years ago, it was quietly announced that his solo work was available for licensing – hence the joys of the People’s Postcode Lottery (though the only other McCartney song I can recall being used in this way was ‘We All Stand Together’, in a Christmas ad for department store Debenhams). So what happened to his staunch resistance to such exploitation? And, in this day and age, does it matter?

First of all, I have no objections to The Beatles earning as much money as they can off their work. The idea (which holds strong in some minds) that the band were somehow anti-materialistic is preposterous. Yes, they never equated money with happiness (it can’t buy you love, after all) nor as an end in itself, and tried to be altruistic with it as much as they could (resulting in the ill-fated early aspirations of Apple). But becoming wealthy and independent was always pretty high on their list of ambitions. As Paul once said: “John and I literally used to sit down and say, ‘Now let’s write a swimming pool.’…For the first time in our lives, we could actually do something and earn money.” And by 1980, John had overcome his earlier guilt about being wealthy (“I worked for money and wanted to be rich….What would you suggest I do? Give everything away and walk the streets?”) Hell, by the mid-’80s, Ringo – admittedly at something of a loose end in his life – was even starring in a series of TV ads. But, crucially, they didn’t involve either his or The Beatles’ music. And for me, that’s the key point.

One of Ringo’s Japanese TV ads in the 1980s. I think he was on something stronger than apple juice when he agreed to do this

My attitude to this, perhaps like Paul’s, is probably no longer as black and white as it used to be. If it does turn some younger people on to their music, that can’t be a bad thing. I remember being in a cinema once when a rocking rendition of ‘Come Together’ was promoting something or other to a youthful demographic, and I actually felt a sliver of pride that the Fabs’ music is still seen as a way to win hearts and minds, and make money. There’s also an element of just having to accept that it’s the way of the world we live in, and will probably only happen more over time. As musicians make barely any money from sales or streaming any more, the line between hits and jingles will probably become more blurred. As long as it’s not in my face all the time, I can probably live with it. After all, the use of Phil Collins’ ‘In The Air Tonight’ to sell chocolate (with most people under a certain age now equating it with a gorilla playing drums) hasn’t stopped that being a great song; nor has Lloyds Bank’s appropriation of The Carpenters’ ‘We’ve Only Just Begun’ diminished that number – perhaps because, amazingly, it actually started out as a TV commercial tune before it was ever a hit.

At least this was an ad for their music

And yet, using Beatles music for adverts still doesn’t sit well with me. They are a special case, though I guess anyone who loves a particular band or artist could say that. I just think their songs carry such meaning to so many, it’s hard to swallow hearing them being reduced to earworm advertising clickbait. Paul was right to begin with – using them in adverts does cheapen the brand, and can strip a little bit of value away. I’m not saying they’re sacred texts or anything like that, but does everything have to be viewed through the prism of sales value? More to the point, from a legacy point of view, they don’t really need it. While we should never take anything for granted (and I’m sure the marketing people at Apple and EMI never will), The Beatles’ canon of work is uniquely saturated into world culture. As someone once said to me, their songs now seem part of everyone’s DNA, new generations included. And, thanks to the internet, there are so many more opportunities for young people to discover them. Is hearing some crummy cover version on a hackneyed detergent ad ten times a day likely to send them scurrying to Spotify to listen to Revolver?

I understand that Paul might think, after years of unfair critical battering, radio apathy and lazy assumptions, that his solo work might be more easily forgotten. But, again, is the People’s Postcode Lottery really going to change that? Playing more solo songs in his concerts and having more cohesive, properly promoted greatest hits packages over the past 20 years would have probably been a better strategy. But, either way, I don’t think he needs to worry. Long after we’re all gone, Beatles songs (including their best solo material) will still be in people’s minds and on their lips, and I’ll wager their power and honesty will withstand whatever the advertising world can throw at them. People will always need nappies, true, but they will need a song like ‘All You Need Is Love’ just as much.

Spector at the feast? The Beatles and Phil Spector

Phil Spector. The name alone is likely to make some Beatles fans choke on their cornflakes or gnash their teeth in a fevered frenzy as they rail against his production of Let It Be. Indeed, when his death was announced recently some people on social media seemed to have more of an issue with his alleged blight on The Beatles’ recorded legacy than with the fact that he was a convicted murderer. But, putting value judgements to one side, is such antipathy really justified? After all, this was a musical magician whom all the Fab Four idolised. Who was invited to help salvage the Let It Be tapes when no-one else wanted to, and whose most contentious production job on it resulted in a US #1 single and a standard which remains one of the best-loved Beatles recordings. A man who co-produced three of the most acclaimed Fabs solo albums (two of which were also among the most commercially successful), and who was Lennon’s go-to guy for half his solo career. The brains behind the sound of ‘The Long and Winding Road’, ‘My Sweet Lord’ and ‘Imagine’. Before losing his marbles, did he really do such a terrible job?

Let me say, first of all, that I’m not here to discuss Spector’s criminal misdemeanors or defend them in any way. I understand how difficult it can be to distinguish the artist (and the art) from the human being (cf. Michael Jackson), and if you feel his offence and general behaviour cannot be separated from his musical achievements, then read no further. What I would say is that this post concentrates purely on his direct association with The Beatles from 1970-73, decades before his murder trial and subsequent imprisonment. It’s true his dangerous instability and declining mental health had already started to manifest themselves during this period (notably when he fired a gun into the ceiling during one of the recording sessions for John’s Rock ‘n’ Roll album, and subsequently made off with all the tapes), but the terrible consequences of later years were still some way off. What I find hard to fathom, if you will forgive the analogy, is why Spector is so often put on trial for his work with the Fabs and usually found guilty.  I guess, ultimately, it’s a matter of taste and changing fashions, but is it a fair judgement? Let’s consider the evidence.

John and Cynthia with Phil Spector during The Beatles’ first flight to the USA, 1964

Spector made a big impression on The Beatles right from the off. The debut single he wrote for his band The Teddy Bears in 1958, ‘To Know Him Is To Love Him’, became a mainstay of The Beatles setlist (albeit with a change to “her” in the title), performed at their 1962 Decca audition and appearing on both the Live at the Star Club and Live at the BBC albums. It was such a favourite of John’s, in particular, that he returned to it for his Rock ‘n’ Roll album in the 1970s. They were also fans of early ‘60s girl groups like The Ronettes and The Crystals, with whom Spector honed his famous ‘Wall of Sound’ production techniques, laying instruments upon instruments upon instruments to create a dense, monolithic sound. Or, as he put it, “little symphonies for the kids”. Though their paths crossed socially – Spector was on the flight to New York with them in February 1964 when they subsequently conquered America – they never worked together, though Macca did tell biographer Mark Lewisohn in 1988 that the band so admired his work on the magnificent Ike and Tina Turner single ‘River Deep, Mountain High’ that they did consider it. They never departed from George Martin, though, and I don’t think they ever would have. They trusted him, and – I think – instinctively recognised that he was fully committed to (and brilliantly adept at) helping them realise their vision in the studio, rather than imposing his own. Which might not have been the case with Spector.

The BBC recording of ‘To Know Her Is To Love Her’

Nonetheless, when 1970 rolled around, the group was virtually defunct, and John was first out of the blocks in exploring new directions. In January, apparently at George’s suggestion, he asked Spector to produce his solo single ‘Instant Karma’. And the American did such a fine job, updating the old rock ‘n’ roll sound to perfection without resorting to lots of overdubs, Lennon and Harrison subsequently invited him to work on The Beatles’ long-delayed Get Back/Let It Be recordings, made over a year earlier. Previous mixes had been rejected by the band but now, with the accompanying film scheduled to hit cinemas in the spring, time was pressing to get an LP ready for release. You probably know the rest – Spector overhauls the album; McCartney hits the roof over his unauthorised arrangement of ‘The Long and Winding Road’; the group breaks up amid a welter of claims, counter-claims and lawsuits, and the reputation of the album is tarnished forever after, with Spector invariably held responsible by commentators, critics and fans alike. Paul even approved a “de-mixed” version of the record in 2003, Let It Be…Naked, which stripped away Spector’s changes and also used a completely set of recordings into the bargain.

So, what was wrong with Spector’s version of Let It Be? Well, not a lot, in my opinion. If you don’t believe me, seek out one of the early mixes made by engineer Glyn Johns.  The one I’ve heard is terrible – the band sounds sluggish, sloppy and lethargic. There are some great songs, but no sparkle, no energy. The back-to-basics, “let’s record live in the studio like we used to” ethos of the sessions was a good idea, but the end results weren’t always up to scratch, particularly in the fractious early sessions at Twickenham film studios. If this early incarnation of the album had been released, it would’ve unquestionably been the low point in their recording career. Yet the finished version has Beatles magic in abundance. Quite simply, Spector saved the album – he chose better takes, made some clever edits, polished up the sound and added some trademark orchestral overdubs (where the song lent itself to a grander sound – it’s not as if he ladled strings all over ‘Dig A Pony’ or One After 909’). Those overdubs are, of course, the real bone of contention, but are they really so out of kilter with the group’s oeuvre? I concede that they lack the subtlety George Martin would have brought to the table, but I think they’re great, nonetheless. The score for  ‘I Me Mine’ is deliciously dramatic and if the song had been released on George’s All Things Must Pass later in the year, critics would’ve been hailing it a masterpiece. For my money, his additions give ‘Across The Universe’ a suitable celestial feel and improve on The Beatles’ earlier version of the track, and – whisper it– I also prefer his full-on, all-guns-blazing  take on ‘Let It Be’ to the more restrained single version produced by George Martin.

The chart-topping single, produced by Spector

Which leaves us with his most controversial reworking of all, ‘The Long and Winding Road’. Paul really resented the addition of harps and a female choir, in particular (the changes actually featured in the High Court proceedings about the legal dissolution of The Beatles, with Macca citing them as unauthorised interference with his work), and I completely get where he was coming from. It was his song, after all, and he should have had complete control over how it was presented. The irony was, of course, that Spector’s embellishments surely enhanced the song’s commercial appeal. It stormed to #1 when released as a single in the US, and has become a global standard, a staple of Paul’s concert setlists, and one of the most popular (and covered) Beatles songs of all. No less a personage than Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys says it is his favourite Fabs track. So for all the moaning by some fans and critics, millions of people love it exactly the way it is – and I’m one of them. In fact, it was one of the songs which first drew me to The Beatles, and remains the one I probably love the best. I can see why some feel it is over-produced (and, indeed, overblown), but for me it’s just majestic. The orchestration swells and soars in all the right places, cranking up the inherent emotion in the music and squeezing out every last drop of pathos from the lyric. While’s Paul’s exquisite live rendition on Wings Over America may just shade it as the best version, the Spector take is certainly a big step up from the original, unadorned performances later released on The Beatles Anthology 3 and Let It Be…Naked (the latter boasting a horrible, truly inappropriate organ solo by Billy Preston).

So I think Spector gets a seriously bum rap for his work on the final Beatles album. Yes, he seriously strayed from the original “live” intention for the album (on some tracks), but the band had already veered away from that by overlaying new parts to a few of the tunes at subsequent sessions. Let’s remember Spector was asked to get involved, that previous, more ‘raw’ mixes had been rejected, and that the band members were already focused on solo projects by this point and showed little interest in revisiting what were – for them – quite old recordings. It also wasn’t Spector’s fault that George had opted to withdraw some really strong songs (notably ‘All Things Must Pass’) midway through the original January 1969 sessions,  and that John hadn’t really turned up with much in the way of new material in the first place. Had Spector been able to include the best Lennon number from that period, ‘Don’t Let Me Down’ (already released the b-side of ‘Get Back’ a year earlier), I think it would’ve pushed the album into top tier Beatles – certainly on a par with Abbey Road. Or, as John put it in less laudatory terms: “Phil did a great job….when I heard it, I didn’t puke.”

Spector with a particularly hairy George during the sessions for ‘All Things Must Pass’

John and George must’ve been happy with the finished result, as they both placed themselves in Spector’s hands to launch their post-Beatles careers. In George’s case, it was effectively a straight continuation of the American’s work on Let It Be. Everything but the kitchen sink was thrown at some numbers, such as the thunderous ‘Wah Wah’ and the epic ‘Isn’t It A Pity’, imbuing with them with a sweeping, grandiose sound which Rolling Stone magazine aptly described as “music of mountain tops and vast horizons”. Other tunes had a more rootsy, low-key approach, such as the country-flavoured ‘Behind That Locked Door’, while the likes of ‘What Is Life’ and ‘My Sweet Lord’ represented expertly-honed pop perfection. There’s more of a variety of styles here than many would have you believe, and it all sounds great to me. Yes, some of the individual musicianship is sacrificed in the blur of the overall sound on occasion – hence we’re being treated to the inevitable remix when the album is re-released later this year, as I discussed in a recent post. But I can’t get too excited about that; for me, the original more-is-more Harrison/Spector production is an intrinsic part of the album’s appeal. George did switch to a more scaled-down approach for the rest of his solo career, perhaps wisely not trying to outdo his own magnum opus, but it’s telling that the best track (for me) on his follow-up, 1973’s Living in the Material World, is ‘Try Some, Buy Some’ – the one produced, in typically lavish style, by Phil Spector.

One of the many production-heavy, but brilliant, tracks from ‘All Things Must Pass’

By contrast, John chose to rein in Spector’s extravagances on his debut solo album, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band. In fact, it is almost the polar opposite of a typical Wall of Sound production, a raw, bare bones record with no more than three instruments on any one track and seemingly so little in the way of studio polish you wonder why Lennon employed the American at all. But then you listen to the way those instruments fill out the sonic landscape, and the co-producer’s fingerprints become more apparent. He really makes his mark on the sonorous ‘Mother’ and, in particular, on the spectacular ‘God’, which sounds as monumental as anything on All Things Must Pass, despite featuring only bass, drums and a couple of pianos. Thereafter, Lennon gradually began to release the brake on Spector’s natural inclinations. Their next collaboration, 1971’s Imagine, struck the perfect balance between Spector’s ornamentation and Lennon’s minimalist tendencies at that time. While still relatively sparse in make-up, the songs were fleshed out with more instrumentation, including strings and saxophones, and possess a generally richer, warmer feel. George Martin later said he would have loved to have worked on this album, but it’s hard to see how even he could have done a better job, particularly on tracks like ‘Jealous Guy’, ‘Gimme Some Truth’ and ‘How Do You Sleep?’, which all sound faultless.

The shift towards the Spector way of doing things continued on the glorious ‘Happy Xmas (War is Over)’ single, which had all the (sleigh) bells and whistles one would expect from the man who gave us the legendary Phil Spector Christmas Album. And it was also evident on John’s next collection, 1972’s Some Time in New York City – in fact, Spector’s work is one of the saving graces of a hugely disappointing album. He particularly shines in helping to conjure up the booming, impassioned agitpop of ‘Woman is the Nigger of the World’, the nightmarish, swampy sound of ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’ and the yearning atmosphere of ‘Angela’ (though his sickly sweet arrangement for ‘Luck of the Irish’ is one of many missteps in an unbelievably dire creation).

Recording the vocals for ‘Oh Yoko!’ during the ‘Imagine’ sessions, 1971

It was on the ill-fated 1973 sessions for John’s Rock ‘n’ Roll oldies project, however, that Spector was given carte blanche to rebuild his famous Wall of Sound, and did so with total abandon, employing whole battalions of brass and string players to breath new life into the vintage material. Unfortunately, his own increasingly erratic behaviour and the licentiousness of the sessions (John was entering his infamous ‘Lost Weekend’ separation from Yoko at this point) saw the album run aground amid a fog of booze, drugs and soaring studio costs. Spector scarpered with the master tapes and, by the time they were retrieved the following year, a more sober, focused John decided to finish the record without him. The resulting album, which came out in 1975, is dominated by more simple Lennon-led productions, though a few of the original Spector tracks did make the final cut – notably a full-blooded take on Chuck Berry’s ‘You Can’t Catch Me’. What is mystifying, however, is that the best numbers from the Spector sessions didn’t see the light of day until after Lennon’s death. Maybe John felt he wasn’t fully in control of his faculties when he sang them but, either way, there’s a heartfelt, naked emotion about his performances on ‘Angel Baby’ and two Spector co-compositions, ‘Be My Baby’ and ‘To Know Her Is To Love Her’. These tracks capture both artist and producer somewhere near their best.

The 1973 version of ‘Be My Baby’, not released until ‘The John Lennon Anthology’ in 1998

For Spector, however, this was the end of his association with The Beatles and, with a couple of exceptions, pretty much his last major throw of the dice in the music business. He became an increasingly reclusive reclusive and bizarre figure, bedeviled by various health issues and crazed behaviour, culminating in the murder of actress Lana Clarkson in 2003 and his eventual imprisonment. It’s a tragic story which is hard to understand. But one thing I think he is categorically not guilty of is harming or spoiling The Beatles’ recorded work. On the contrary, I think he brought a huge amount to the table and has suffered from simply being the right man in the wrong place at the wrong time when it came to Let It Be, getting dragged into the mire of the band’s break-up through no fault of his own. His contributions to their work, as a band and as solo artists, were much more diverse than he’s given credit for; and while his “little symphonies for kids” may not be to everyone’s taste, they added yet another rich shade to The Beatles’ collective palette that I, for one, will always treasure.

‘The Beatles In Their Own Words’ (1978)

Imagine a world where reliable information on The Beatles is a little hard to find. There are some salacious biographies doing the rounds, with varying degrees of accuracy and questionable balance, the odd book of photos, and a fair few ‘cut and paste’ volumes recycling old newspaper reports or out-of-print tomes like Hunter Davies’ official biography. And you may or may not be able to pick up a couple of these at your local bookshop. Such was the situation for serious Fab Four fans in the early 1980s, though the flood of written works that would fill an entire library today was well underway by then. One book you would usually find on the shelves, though, was The Beatles In Their Own Words. Surely this would be a must-have? One that every student of the band could glean precious facts and insights from, right? Well, not exactly. In fact, if could be described as a disappointment then, it comes off as downright feeble reading it again now.

The edition I picked up in the mid-1980s

The Beatles In Their Own Words, first published in 1978, was part of a series of books from Omnibus Press which pulled together interviews and other quotes from rock stars of the day. There were similar volumes for the likes of Bob Dylan, David Bowie and the Rolling Stones, plus separate editions covering the wisdom of John Lennon and Paul McCartney, as well as a belated follow-up (in 1991) dealing with The Beatles after the break-up. The 1978 book was compiled by Barry Miles, who looms large in Fabs lore as co-owner of the Indica Gallery, where John met Yoko, and the man who helped facilitate Paul’s avant garde adventures in Swinging London’s artistic underground. And, of course, he later penned Macca’s authorised account of his life in the 1960s, Many Years From Now. This book also features excerpts from exclusive interviews Miles conducted with Lennon and McCartney during the late-60s. So far, then, so good.

The first thing you notice, however, is that it’s quite a slim volume (128 pages) and that many of the pages are taken up with photographs. So you don’t really get that many of their words for your money. And then there’s the curious structure of the book. It’s divided up into sections covering ‘The Story’, ‘Press Conferences’, ‘Songwriting’, ‘The Songs’, ‘The Films’, ‘Drugs’ and ‘Politics’ – quite a strange grab bag  of themes. And the one on politics runs for all of three pages, almost as if it was thrown in as an afterthought. The content of some chapters also leaves you scratching your head. ‘The Story’ scarcely touches upon the Hamburg years, the trip to Rishikesh, Apple or Allen Klein. Stu Sutcliffe, Pete Best and Brian Epstein are each dealt with and despatched in little more than a paragraph or two, while the break-up receives the equivalent of a page. Similarly, some well-known songs are allotted a sentence or nothing at all,  while the Help! and Let It Be films barely get a mention. It all feels a little thrown together at random.

Filming ‘Help!’ — something barely mentioned in the book

Worse, though, is the complete lack of context for any of the quotes chosen. We’re given no dates and – apart from the press conference section – don’t even know whether the comments were made during the band’s lifespan or after the split. And in some cases, particularly where key parts of their career or output are so scantily covered, that context is crucial. There are pros and cons of both contemporary recollections/thoughts from the ‘60s and more reflective/bitter/hazy look-backs from the vantage point of the ‘70s, but we aren’t given the dates to help inform our perspective. And occasionally it would have helped to have some more background about what they are discussing. There are also parts which cry out for a bit of editing. While some songs or events warrant only a few words, there are sections which ramble on for ages and go nowhere – especially John and George’s somewhat airy observations on the Maharishi and religion, which seem to have been included at length to fill out that part of the book. It’s just lazy.

Then there’s the bias. The book should really have been titled John Lennon In His Own Words (with the odd comment from his bandmates). I would estimate around 75% of the quotes come from John, which is just ridiculous.  George and Ringo barely get a look in – apart from eight words, the first Harrison contributions don’t appear until page 27, and even then it’s just a couple of sentences. It’s true John was probably the most entertaining interviewee, shooting more from the hip, even in the early days, and was always ready with a witticism or memorable soundbite (though it’s also true he could speak a lot of drivel on occasion). But this overwhelming focus on him does a huge disservice to the others, who also gave many fascinating, amusing and insightful interviews down the years. It also puts a Lennon slant on almost everything, as if John’s take on things was the gospel, the definitive version of events (and time has shown that it wasn’t – he had his agenda, and skewed memories, just like everyone else). The book’s heavy reliance on using extracts from his (in)famous 1970 ‘Lennon Remembers’ Rolling Stone interview is a case in point. Yes, it’s a great read, but was just a snapshot of how he felt at a particular moment in time – a trenchant and combustible moment, just after the band’s acrimonious split. Subsequent recollections were generally more considered and rounded, but books like this rehash it as if it were the last word on John’s feelings and the band’s history. Giving Paul, George and Ringo so little space deprives the book of balance and depth. As George once joked, “How many Beatles does it take to change a lightbulb? Four.”

Live on stage in 1963

Of course, as it is The Beatles in their own words, there is still lots of interesting copy in here, some of which you may be very familiar with, and a few bits you won’t. Paul gives a very precise reminiscence about the genesis of ‘Eleanor Rigby’, for example, and reveals how offended the band was when one reviewer described Sgt Pepper as “George Martin’s finest album”. It’s fun to read John recalling long-forgotten songs he wrote during their early days and realising they weren’t bad. There’s also some thoughtful stuff from John about his lyrical inspirations, heavyweight musical analysis (“it was quite flattering to hear all that crap about The Beatles, but I don’t believe it”) and how most of his songs “sound wrong” when transcribed to sheet music. And it’s intriguing to learn that Paul knew quite a lot about some of the obscure Indian gurus George chose to put on the cover of Sgt Pepper, reflecting how the four fed off each other throughout the 1960s.

The press conference section is good, bringing together lots of their off-the-cuff quips and put-downs, as well as highlighting the sheer banality of much of their questioning (Q: “What do you fear the most, the atom bomb or dandruff?” Ringo: “The atom bomb. We’ve already got dandruff.”). On a more serious note, there’s lots of space devoted to the 1966 ‘Bigger than Jesus’ controversy, and it’s gratifying to read how John – while clearly shaken by the tumultuous reaction it stirred in parts of the US – refused to retract or compromise on the meaning of what he had originally said. Some parts of the book, however, do remind you that even Beatles can spout complete cobblers from time to time. Paul’s metaphysical musings about the Sgt Pepper cover, for example, sound suspiciously like they were inspired by smoking some herbal cigarettes, while a couple of John’s political pronouncements are naive in the extreme (“I’m beginning to think Chairman Mao is doing a good job.”).

Curiously, for a book about words, one of its main strengths is the choice of photographs. There are some very familiar ones, obviously (the band at the Cavern, with Marlene Dietrich at the Royal Variety Performance, collecting their MBEs, at the Sgt Pepper launch party in Brian Epstein’s house), but some ones you don’t see as often. For example, there’s a great one of Paul, George and Ringo tucking into what looks like kippers for breakfast at (I think) the London flat the four briefly shared in early 1963, a windswept shot of John and Paul with director Dick Lester on the London set of Help!, a fine photo of them onstage in Munich during their 1966 world tour and a quirky one of Paul (alongside Jane Asher) pretending to hide from photographers in 1968. There are also some snaps of fans during the wild American tours, giving us an idea of the view looking out from the goldfish bowl at the centre of it all. But even here, the designers drop the ball by using some poor quality images or blowing certain pictures until they become grainy and distorted. A pity.

Recording ‘I Want You (She’s So Heavy)’ in February 1969

All in all, The Beatles In There Own Words is a missed opportunity. There are a few snippets here you might not have come across anywhere else (perhaps the quotes taken from Miles’ own chats with John and Paul), and it’s nice to have extended highlights of their press conference banter. But if you’re looking for an in-depth, personal overview of their career together and how they experienced it (and remember, there were only four people who did experience it from the inside), it falls well short. It’s too brief, too scatter-shot and too Lennon-centric. I’m not sure whether a definitive collection of Beatles quotes, mixing as-it-happened observations from the ‘60s with remembrances from later years, has ever been published, though The Beatles Anthology is obviously a prime place to start. Either way, this is a pretty flimsy effort which doesn’t really do the subject justice. I can’t give it more than 5.

Mixing a whole: the pros and cons of remixing The Beatles

Late last year,  the Harrison estate finally confirmed long-running speculation about the release of an expanded set to mark the 50th anniversary of George’s first post-Beatles album, All Things Must Pass. Details of what it will contain and when it will come out (we are already past the anniversary date) are still to emerge, but we do know that the original album has been remixed. This, of course, plays to the rather schizophrenic view of the album among some fans. I’m forever reading people saying that this is the best Beatles solo album of all, and others proclaiming (often in the same breath) that it sounds terrible. It’s that evil Phil Spector again. The producer many hold accountable for “ruining” the multi-million selling Let It Be album with his meddling and overdubs was apparently also responsible for masterminding the recording of George’s most successful and acclaimed work, while simultaneously making it sound lousy by swathing it in his trademark  lush, orchestral ‘Wall of Sound’. Hmm. Even the official announcement quoted George’s son Dhani as saying: “Making this album sound clearer was always one of my dad’s greatest wishes and it was something we were working on together right up until he passed.” Putting aside the fact that George did reissue the album shortly before he died and chose not to tinker with the mix, what do we have in store when this set does eventually appear (which I’m betting will be closer to the 51st anniversary than the 50th)?

The new mix of ‘All Things Must Pass’

As a taster, a remix of the title track (one of the greatest of all Harrisongs) was made available on streaming and download platforms in November. Like other recent Beatles revamps (which I’ll come onto shortly), it sounds louder, with the instruments more clearly defined (especially the strings), and the vocals and drums more prominent. I could certainly hear a couple of little nuances in George’s vocal which weren’t evident before. So, a little different to the version we’ve all grown up with, but better? Improved? I wouldn’t say so. You see, I love All Things Must Pass just the way it is, Wall of Sound and all. You may say it’s bloated, overstuffed and mushy; I’d say it’s rich, epic and rammed  with goodies. In fact, it’s Spector’s Wagnerian production touches which help bestow some of the songs with the sense of grandeur they deserve (and it’s only one aspect of the record – as with Let It Be, it’s often overlooked that many of the tracks have much sparser, more low-key arrangements, according to their needs). In my book, it’s always sounded great. If there’s a record which is better produced than ‘My Sweet Lord’, for example, I’ve yet to hear it. Yes, you could argue some parts could be mixed further forward – I do concede there is some fine guitar playing from George here and there which is a little buried – but it’s swings and roundabouts. The point is, this is how George wanted it to sound at the time he made it.

Remixing, it would appear, is the new frontier when it comes to managing and marketing The Beatles’ group and solo catalogues. After all, if you haven’t got much in the way of new material left to put out (though that is seriously debatable), what better way of making people buy what they already own again – and possibly attract new fans – than to tweak the recordings, and make them sound different? Remastering – in other words, giving them a sonic upgrade – no longer seems to be enough; now we’re wading into the more murky waters of changing the way the songs sound. Think of it as being similar to making the grass in a painting by Constable a darker green, or giving the lines in a Van Gogh a bit more definition. Or, even worse, removing something from a painting altogether. Based on what we’ve heard on recent Beatles and Lennon releases, my views on this are (excuse the pun) decidedly mixed. I don’t want to be a stick-in-the-mud reactionary who views their recordings as some sort of untouchable, Dead Sea Scrolls, to be preserved forever in aspic. But, for the most part, the changes I’m hearing sure as hell aren’t making them sound better. In fact, I’d say they are unpicking the painstaking stitching The Beatles employed when creating their intricate tapestries. Just because modern technology allows you to do something, it doesn’t necessarily mean you should.

Promoting the 2017 ‘Pepper’ reissue

Aside from a some tasteful tweaks to some of John’s albums reissued in the early 2000s, the remixing juggernaut really got underway with the 50th anniversary re-release of Sgt Pepper in 2017. With the blessing of Paul, Ringo, Yoko and Olivia Harrison, George Martin’s son and protégé Giles was given carte blanche to give the album a make-over and, I guess, freshen it up for 21st century ears. Given his loyalty to what his father had achieved in the first place, and his long-standing connection to the Beatles family, he was probably the ideal choice – they obviously trusted him not to spray-paint the Mona Lisa, as it were. And I have to say that when I first heard it, I was pleasantly surprised. He had really beefed up the sound, not only making it louder but giving the instruments and vocals more definition and space, allowing them to leap out of the speakers and fill the room – creating a more panoramic, ‘Cinemascope’ effect. Considering the whole album was created on primitive (by today’s standards) four-track recording machines, this was no mean feat. He had breathed new life into it. Many of the songs were enhanced, and I still stand by that.

Except then I started to notice things that were missing, or that were somehow gelded by the new mix. The way John and Paul’s vocals slowly drifted from left to right over the stereo ‘picture’ during the middle section of the title track – gone. The giddy, groaning ending to ‘Lovely Rita’ had lost its zip. Paul’s scorching guitar solo in ‘Good Morning, Good Morning’ sounded de-clawed. Worst of all – and it’s a massive failing – the rumbling, ominous orchestral cacophony which roars out of ‘A Day in the Life’ sounded hollow. By giving more clarity to the 41-piece orchestra ‘freak-out’, Martin robs it of its power, and the song is fatally hobbled as a result. Sometimes that dense packing of instruments, the way they interconnect and mesh together, is an integral part of what makes them work.

Like this photo, the 2019 remix puts a different slant on ‘Abbey Road’

This problem is even more pronounced on the 2019 remix of Abbey Road. This was the album which George Martin saw as his masterpiece, from a production point of view, and is generally regarded as the most ‘modern’ sounding of all Beatles records. Playing around with the structure of the songs was always going to be risky, and so it proved. It’s typified by how Giles approached ‘Something’, one of the most beautifully arranged and produced of all Fabs songs, with all its constituent parts melding together like a perfectly crafted Swiss watch. By bringing everything forward and separating them out, he has disrupted that delicate harmony. The strings, for example, now sound disconnected from the rest of the track. The rhythm guitar part sticks out like a sore thumb instead of blending in with everything else, and the cranked-up vocals and drums overpower everything else in the middle-eight section. Elsewhere on the album you can hear little bits and pieces which may have been obscured or downplayed before, but I’m not sure they add much to the listening experience – just the opposite, in fact. In ‘Come Together’, for example, pushing John’s buzzing guitar higher in the mix unbalances the song in my opinion. And worse, part of his vocal during the fade-out seems to have disappeared altogether. In ‘I Want You (She’s So Heavy)’, as with ‘A Day in the Life’, the layering of guitars, synthesisers and white noise which builds up to a thundering crescendo has lost some of its visceral impact. And while it’s harder to put my finger on, the imperious suite of songs which makes up the second half of the record just doesn’t sound the same. The one notable exception to all this dubious tampering is the new mix of ‘Oh! Darling’, which actually carries more of a punch and sounds terrific.

Of course, the ‘problem’ may lie with me, rather than the shiny new mixes. I’ve been listening to this music for my entire adult life, and expect things to sound a certain way, with everything in a certain place. I guess it’s a bit like coming home after a holiday and finding someone has moved all  your furniture around, and even added some new curtains. It probably meets the trendy tastes of some interior designer, but isn’t what you’re used to or what you’re comfortable with. Maybe some people had the same reaction when music switched from mono to stereo (and some people still prefer mono mixes), I don’t know. Maybe it won’t even be noticeable on phones or small portable speakers, it may even make the songs sound better on those devices. But if you want to listen to the albums on big speakers or a decent pair of headphones, much of it just doesn’t sound right. Crucially – and I keep coming back to this – they don’t sound how The Beatles and George Martin intended.

This comes more sharply into focus when you get to the most recent Lennon reissues. When 1971’s Imagine album was reissued for the umpteenth time in 2018, we were given what was entitled the ‘Ultimate Mix’ – and, to be honest, it wasn’t half bad. In fact, I’d go as far as to say it’s the most most satisfying Beatles-related remix so far. Like the best moments on the Sgt Pepper revamp, the songs sound largely the same, just fuller, with more presence, space and depth. They have ramped up the sound without, for the most part, sacrificing any of the textures and elements we’ve come to know and love.

The recent Lennon remix album. Truth has got little to do with it

By contrast, last year’s Gimme Some Truth: The Ultimate Mixes compilation – overseen by John’s son Sean – is just horrendous. It’s so bad, I couldn’t even get all the way through it. Sticking with the art metaphor, it’s like they’ve scribbled on earrings, tattoos and a hipster beard onto the Mona Lisa in a bid to make her look more contemporary. Or to put it another way, by eradicating some of the blurring of the colours, they’ve made her look wan and washed-out. On tracks like ‘Mind Games’ and ‘#9 Dream’, the drums and vocals have been pushed to the fore, rendering the songs clunky and wrecking the subtlety of the original arrangements. ‘Whatever Gets You Through The Night’, which always had something of a messy production, sounds far worse now it’s been ‘cleaned up’ and sanitised. And, ironically, the more modern-sounding numbers from Double Fantasy – like ‘(Just Like) Starting Over’ and ‘Woman’ – have been stripped of their production sheen and just sound rougher. Like you’ve pulled off the cover of your laptop to reveal all the wires and circuits creating the magic which appears on its screen.

What is far more concerning and hard to swallow, however, is that some stuff has actually been removed by the remixing process. For example, the pulsating horns on ‘Steel and Glass’, a highlight of the song, are now nowhere to be found on the so-called ‘Ultimate Mix’. Unforgivable. And the 1973 Rock ‘n’ Roll album outtake ‘Angel Baby’ – which I’ve listed previously on this blog as my favourite cover by any of the solo Beatles – now sounds unrecognisable. From the removal of John’s charming spoken word introduction to the scaling down of the original huge-sounding brass arrangement (that man Phil Spector again), the track has been drained of life. Apologies for the metaphor overload, but it’s like a widescreen Technicolour epic has been reduced to a grainy, flickering home movie. A travesty. Even though John once said he would have liked to re-record every Beatles song, I struggle to believe he would have been on board with this. Changing the emphasis of a recording is one thing; taking out parts which the artist had put in there – in short, altering their vision of the song – is another entirely. What’s worrying is the guy behind this project, Paul Hicks, has also been in charge of overhauling All Things Must Pass. Be still my beating heart.

The new, de-horned verison ‘ Steel and Glass’. No, no, no.

Like it or not, I guess remixing is with us to stay, at least for the foreseeable future. As well as All Things Must Pass, this year is also set to bring new versions of John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band (which should be interesting, bearing in mind none of the songs feature more than three instruments) and, of course, Let It Be. Paul has yet to jump on the bandwagon with his reissues (with the exception of a modest remix of Tug of War in 2015), but I suspect it’s only a matter of time. I just hope the original versions do not disappear from view (though, if they do, I would imagine they will eventually be given a much trumpeted return – “the original mixes! As nature intended!”). Anyone discovering the band through these “ultimate mixes” will not only be given a distorted, inaccurate picture of what The Beatles created but – in many cases – be sold very short indeed. Cleaner isn’t always better. Sometimes music is meant to sound a little fuzzy and indistinct; sounds blending together to form something greater than the sum of their parts. And if people then start arbitrarily removing some of those parts as well, artistic integrity is one of the things which has passed away.

See yourself: George’s album covers, from worst to best

Rating album cover artwork is, in some ways, more difficult that explaining why you like music. Both are wholly subjective, of course, but at least with a song you can say, “I like the guitar solo”, “the melody sticks in my head” or “I can really relate to the words”. But the image on the front of a record? I guess you either like it or you don’t. You could argue that, in these digital days where even the concept of an album carries less and less weight, cover art doesn’t even matter anymore. It’s importance has probably been shrinking – quite literally – since the arrival of the CD. But the lasting iconography of The Beatles’ album covers (along with many others, from David Bowie and Pink Floyd to Fleetwood Mac and The Smiths) shows they can really make an impact if you get them right.

For me, I guess I’m looking for a striking image (it doesn’t have to feature the artist, though I tend to like ones that do) and/or something that somehow captures the mood of the music in some way. If it doesn’t have a photo of its creator(s), then the image needs to grab my attention in its own right. I know you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover (after all, what could you possibly glean from the White Album?), but it can put some people off. How many times have you listened to a duff album and then thought: “even the cover’s crap”? Did the lousy cover help to plant negative thoughts in the first place? And how often have you been pumped to hear an album because you thought the artwork was really cool? A strong cover won’t necessarily make an album sell more, but it won’t hurt. Or at least it didn’t, in the old days.

Beatle solo album covers are a pretty mixed bag (partly, I suspect, because there have been so many of them over such a long period of time), and George’s are no exception to that. He didn’t consistently hit the heights that John did, for example, but his artwork choices were generally solid. Crucially, they were identifiably him, mixing splashes of humour with spiritual earnestness – sometimes both at the same time. For the purposes of this list, I’m not counting his experimental  Wonderwall and Electronic Sounds albums, nor his live or compilation discs (which is just as well in the case of the dreadful Live in Japan and Best of Dark Horse covers, which seem to be designed to make it as difficult as possible for any potential buyers to make out that they are George Harrison records). I’m not sure he even had any say over the 1976 Best of George Harrison release, in any case. And I doubt he’d have been thrilled at the use of a Beatles-era photo to adorn 2007’s Let It Roll solo compilation, either. So what follows is just my ranking of the covers for his studio albums, from least to best.

10. Extra Texture

Some original versions of this 1975 album cut out the letters of the album title, allowing you to see a photo of George on the inner sleeve; others had an embossed design on the cardboard sleeve (‘extra texture’, get it?). They probably worked a little better than the later, ‘flat’ copies – like the one I have. But even so, considering this came out at a time when LP covers were approached as intricate and often grandiose works of art ( think Tales from Topographic Oceans by Yes or Led Zepplin’s Houses of the Holy), this just comes over as drab, cheap and uninspired. At a time when George’s output was starting to take a critical battering and his sales were falling, I doubt this did much to generate public interest, and it certainly isn’t worthy of the fine music contained inside.

 9. Brainwashed

I believe George left notes about his ideas for the cover of this album, which came out in 2002, a year after his death. And I get the point he was trying to make, reflected in the title track, about many people having their ideas and opinions dictated to them by the mainstream media (very prescient, considering where we are today). But I think this image of a family of crash test dummies clustered around a TV set is a little clunky and heavy-handed, to say the least. Nor was the less-than-subtle message it conveyed likely to endear itself to potential buyers. The song features a mixture of contempt and hope of spiritual salvation, but the cover leans much more towards the former. It’s interesting to note that EMI soon put a slipcase around the CD, featuring a nice photo of George taken in Hawaii during the 1990s, instead.

8. Gone Troppo

This one, from 1982, is better. Colourful and playful, it’s also based on the title track and reflects George’s decision to effectively step away from the maelstrom of the rock world and go on semi-permanent vacation. Hence the sand, sea, sun and sombrero imagery, and various tropical paraphenalia. However, from a visual point of view, it’s also a bit messy and unfocused – your eye doesn’t quite know where to look. The (slightly odd) photo of George, his name and even the title of the album tend to get lost in the mix. I’m not sure the cartoonish quality of it all entirely works, either, but it does have a certain charm.

 7. Dark Horse

I’m in two minds about this one, from 1974. On the one hand, the simplistic artwork and pallid colours make it look like a tatty ‘70s religious painting you might find gathering dust in a charity shop. But it is clever how the designers managed to take an old school photograph and frame it in a spiritual, vaguely-Himalyan setting. Adorning the stiff, buttoned-up 1950s teachers (or masters, as they would’ve been known) with funky 1970s logos (including the record labels of Apple and George’s own soon-to-launched Dark Horse Records) is a fun touch too. However, I’m not sure that having the youthful George (coloured in Krishna blue) above everyone else and nearest the godhead figure sends out a very likeable message to his former classmates, or the rest of the world for that matter

6. Living in the Material World

Sometimes less is more, and that is the case here. Perhaps reflecting a shift to a more pared-down sound after the heavily-layered glories of its predecessor, All Things Must Pass, or perhaps just another nod to his religious beliefs, this 1973 album featured just an eerie photograph of George’s hand, apparently holding a Hindu medallion. The image was obtained using Kirlian photography (the technique which captures something’s electrical, coronal aura), and was taken at UCLA’s parapsychology department. I must say the end result is more creepy than spiritual, looking like something you’d find in a book about weird paranormal phenomena, but – accompanied by George’s signature – it makes for striking, unusual cover art.

5. Somewhere in England

The original 1981 sleeve…
…and the one first intended, later restored on the 2004 reissue

This 1981 collection famously had its original cover (showing George’s head merging with an image of the UK) rejected by his record label, Warner Brothers, along with some of its songs. It was later replaced by a photo of George in front of a painting at the Tate Gallery in London, only to be swapped out again in favour of the first choice artwork when the album was re-issued in 2004. I like both, but actually feel the Tate gallery shot which adorned the record on its first release is the better one. It’s a more memorable image (and what could be more English than a curb-side yellow line?), and is nicely supplemented on the back cover as a grinning George reveals he wasn’t lying down on the pavement at all.

4. George Harrison

The self-titled 1979 album features George as his most relaxed and laid-back, and the cover shot perfectly captures that mood. It’s a beautifully executed photograph, from the out-of-focus flora in the foreground to the mottled sunlight effect on George’s face. He looks contemplative, absorbed, like his thoughts focused are on a far horizon. The effect is spoiled slightly by his less-than-transcendental ‘70s curly perm but, nonetheless, it’s a very elegant, easy-on-the-eye cover which reflects the warmth and depth of the music within. And, perm aside, it doesn’t look dated at all.

3. All Things Must Pass

The most famous of all his albums, the austere cover photograph taken in the expansive grounds of George’s (then new) Friar Park home in Surrey has become a classic rock image, and deservedly so. Capturing him at the height of his landed gentry hippy look in 1970, he again seems to be staring slightly off-camera, with a serious, sage-like expression. But the grandeur of his surroundings and pose is nicely undercut by the Wellington boots he’s wearing and, particularly, the gently mocking garden gnomes placed around him. It didn’t occur to me for a long time that the four figures might be representing The Beatles, which many believe. Certainly, their close proximity to him, and the wide open spaces beyond, may be sending a message about his break for freedom a solo act. When the album was reissued in 2001, the cover was coloured in, and its CD sleeves and booklet pictured an imaginary encroachment of the modern concrete world which George so disliked, adding high rise flats, a motorway flyover and jumbo jet to the scene. They were good, but the chilly, monochrome beauty of the original was rightly restored on all releases since.

2. Cloud Nine

I love this cover. After a five-year, self-imposed hiatus, George returned to the music scene in 1987 with a set of sparkling, upbeat – and undeniably commercial – songs, and this photograph shows a happy, revitalised man in step with the times and in touch with his muse. He’s starting straight at the camera this time (albeit from behind shades) and smiling, a far cry from the slightly bitter, almost grumpy figure we had seen at the start of the decade. Clutching the Gretch guitar he played during his early Beatles days, it also reflected someone at ease with his illustrious past (as did his thanks to John, Paul and Ringo on the inner sleeve), but the dreamy clouds in the background also signified the search for heavenly enlightenment hadn’t gone away.

  1. Thirty Three & 13

I’m not exactly sure what it is about this sleek 1976 cover I like so much, but it works on every level for me. A little like Cloud Nine, it shows George in cool, confident mood following a couple of difficult years when his critical and commercial standing had slumped. I love the double exposure on the photo – it’s colourful and dynamic, portraying forward movement. There’s the oligatory religious reference (the album title actually reads as Thirty Three & 1/ॐ, the final letter a spiritual symbol in Indian religions) but it’s a light, clever artistic touch which doesn’t come off as preachy. And any remotely serious tone is nicely dispelled by his silly sunglasses. All in all, one of the very best solo Beatle album covers.

‘The Beatles on Record’ documentary (2009)

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

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

The mini documentary for ‘With The Beatles’

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

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

An early session with George Martin, late 1962

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

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

An actual shot taken during the ‘Rubber Soul’ sessions

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

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

Recording ‘All You Need Is Love’, 1967

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

The making of ‘Beatles For Sale’

My Top Ten cover versions by solo Beatles

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

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

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

Promotional image for ‘Run Devil Run’, 1999

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

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

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

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

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

8. ‘Baltimore Oriole’ – George Harrison

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

7. ‘I Got Stung’ – Paul McCartney

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

6. ‘Stand By Me’ – John Lennon.

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

5. ‘Matchbox’ – Paul McCartney

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

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

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

3. ‘She Said Yeah’ – Paul McCartney

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

2. ‘Aint That A Shame’ – Paul McCartney

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

1. ‘Angel Baby’ – John Lennon

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

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

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

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

The edition I picked up in the 1980s

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

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

Brian with “the boys”

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

At Shea Stadium, New York, in 1965

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

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

The Beatles’ guiding lights – Brian and George Martin

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

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

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

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