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

The Beatles on ‘Parkinson’

My earliest memory of watching a TV interview with one of The Beatles involves Ringo’s appearance on the UK’s Parkinson show, to promote his Stop and Smell the Roses album in December 1981. It’s curious that it stayed in my mind, as I didn’t have much interest in pop music at that time (and Ringo had long since vacated the singles charts by that point); I think it was partly down to the fact that my initial interest in the Fabs had been piqued in the wake of John’s death, and partly down to the screening of the video for ‘Wrack My Brain’. A stroll through a haunted house populated by the likes of Dracula and Frankenstein’s Monster (albeit cut-price versions) was sure to grab the attention of my 12-year-old self. I’ve occasionally looked online for this clip over years without success, so was thrilled (such is my low threshold for excitement during lockdown) when a friend told me it had recently appeared on YouTube. And that got me thinking about a clutch of interesting Beatle guest spots on the show stretching over more than 30 years.

Paul’s appearance on the show in 2005

Fabs fans outside the UK are probably most aware of Michael Parkinson through his presence on the cover of the Band On The Run album, but in this country he’s most famous as the doyen of chat shows. Certainly in the 1970s, he was the nation’s top celebrity interviewer (though, looking back, I can’t actually remember too many others) and his late-night Saturday slot on BBC-1 was often must-see TV. He regularly bagged conversations with Hollywood legends like James Cagney, Orson Welles, John Wayne and Bette Davis, alongside more contemporary superstars like Muhammad Ali, Raquel Welch and Peter Sellers, and it wasn’t always just about plugging their latest project. Cultivating a  plain-speaking, man-of-the-people persona mixed in with vague aspirations of intellectual sparring, Parky – as he came to be known – was pretty good at teasing out worthwhile answers and meaty stories from his illustrious guests, at least in those days. He struck just the right balance of showing respect without being reverential, of intimating friendliness without being fawning. It was a far cry from the host-as-comedian format of today, with the guests lined up just to push product and supply punchlines for an endless stream of self-serving gags.  While he started to believe his own myth in later years, when it came to thoughtful, headline-grabbing showbiz parleys back then, Parky was the master.

His first stint on the BBC ran for more than a decade, and among the guests during his very first series in 1971 were John and Yoko. Long thought lost (though I’m sure I’ve seen snippets over the years), the full 20-minute segment from this show turned up recently and was broadcast on the UK ‘pop-up’ channel Lennon at 80 last October. It seems the couple were there to promote the reprint of Yoko’s book Grapefruit, and Parky wastes no time in telling her that he finds its contents incomprehensible. It’s a little churlish, but it’s also kind of refreshing (and now very rare) to see a star challenged so directly, and continues when the host goes on to tell John that the pair’s outrageous antics over the previous three years have alienated many people who used to love him. John calmly rebuts this, arguing (not entirely convincingly) that the negativity is all down to skewed media coverage – and he does make a valid point about the press’s treatment of Yoko, in particular. It’s not until the midway point of the interview that The Beatles are brought up, and this triggers one of the highlights of the clip, as John reminds his interrogator of his promise that any Fab Four questions would have to be asked from inside a black bag (one of John and Yoko’s avant garde japes from their early days together). Parky is a good sport about it, and it is laugh-out-loud funny to watch him try to continue the interview while completely covered.

Yoko reads out a poem to John and Parky, 1971

When discussing the break-up of The Beatles, it’s obvious John has nothing but fondness for, and pride in, his former band. Dismissing the suggestion that Yoko caused the split (“nobody could break us up….we broke ourselves up”), he compares his decision to end the group with the story of Japanese holy man who built a golden temple everyone loved; the man could not bear the thought of it falling into decay, so he eventually burned it to the ground. And even though it would’ve been around this time that he was recording his notorious anti-Macca diatribe ‘How Do You Sleep?’, there is no trace of animosity when he talks about Paul, just disagreement. He even says that after the business stuff is sorted out, they would go back to being friends within a year (and he was pretty much right), though he swats away the inevitable reunion question by saying it would be “like going back to school”. It’s all over far too quickly, but is still a great interview – while some of Yoko’s answers meander, John is relaxed and amusing throughout, and looks very cool. The whole thing hasn’t surfaced on YouTube yet, but hopefully will at some point. And when it does, you’ll be amazed at how John is not only smoking throughout, but also lights up cigarettes for Yoko and Parky so they don’t miss out.

A brief snippet from the John and Yoko interview

A couple of years later, Paul asked Parkinson to be one of his celebrity ‘prison-break’ gang on the cover of Band On The Run. Parky agreed, on condition that Paul would one day appear as a guest on his show. It would prove to be a very long wait. It’s funny, considering that John liked to describe Macca as the world’s greatest PR man, that while Lennon regularly guested on prime time talk shows on either side of the Atlantic during the first half of the 1970s (even co-hosting the Mike Douglas Show in the States for a week), Paul – to the best of my knowledge – didn’t appear on a single one. George kept a similarly low profile during the decade, and Parky wouldn’t get another Beatle on his show until the aforementioned Ringo episode at the end of 1981. By this point, though his show was now something of a British TV institution, the host was looking for pastures new, and the end of the show was in sight (something Ringo mischievously alludes to during the interview).

Ringo appeared alongside his then-new bride Barbara Bach, lyricist Tim Rice and Liverpudlian comedian Jimmy Tarbuck (who went to primary school with John Lennon and had met Ringo during their days at the Butlins holiday camps in the early ‘60s). The Starr man seems quite, ahem, well-oiled (and he appropriates a glass of wine from Tarbuck soon after arriving on stage), but is on fine form. Maybe tries to cram in too many gags, but enough of them land, so it’s not an issue. The questions touch on his acting career, his early attempts at songwriting (with the familiar story of him presenting tunes to the other Fabs which they instantly spotted as re-writes of old songs) and the beginnings of his solo career with Sentimental Journey – leading to some nice banter with Tarbuck about old-fashioned Liverpool parties. There’s even a lengthy discussion about the pros and cons of the British weather, while Barbara owns up to a complete lack of musicality and a poor sense of rhythm (Ringo: “I’ve seen a fly with more time.”) Curiously, there are no questions about The Beatles or John’s death just a year earlier (it probably wouldn’t have fitted with the jovial nature of the show), though Ringo does keep winking at the camera at one point, inferring it’s an in-joke with Paul and George. The programme ends with Parky and guests performing the ‘50s hit ‘Singing The Blues’ (later to be covered by Paul on Unplugged). It’s great to see Ringo on drums for this, though when he steps out front to take the mic he cheerfully admits he doesn’t know the words. Classic.

Ringo and Barbara on the show, 1981

Parkinson came to an end in April 1982, with the host going off to – among other things – present a similar show in Australia (you can see Ringo’s appearance on that, later that year, on YouTube). Nonetheless, Parky remained a prominent figure in British showbiz in the years that followed, even hosting his own show on BBC Radio 2, on which Macca guested in 1997. But it wasn’t until 1998, after some bright spark at the BBC thought it might be a good idea to revive his original Saturday night chat show, that he returned to what many felt was his rightful place, with considerable fanfare. However, the celeb interview format had changed a great deal in the intervening years, and so had he. There was a much softer, more chummy feel to the show; it was more of a glossy love-in. Parky’s professional Yorkshireman schtick quickly grew tiresome, and led to one critic memorably describing him as a “self-regarding old bore”. Ouch. There were guests who seemed to appear on the show every other week (Judi Dench, Billy Connolly, etc.) and while he still pulled in big names, they didn’t seem as big as they used to be. Perhaps because they often appeared on lots of other talk-fests at the same time

There was still the occasional show-stopping, high profile edition, though, and one such was an entire show dedicated to Paul in December 1999, as Macca finally fulfilled the promise he made 26 years earlier. I was visiting my parents when it was screened and – taking them as the barometer of Joe Public – they seemed very interested in the occasion. It was the first big TV interview he had given since Linda’s death the previous year, and the opening questions tackle that head-on. Paul seems quite composed in his answers, and you get the feeling he had thought them through in advance to help navigate what must still have been very raw feelings.

After that, Parky runs through the usual tropes in chronological order – asking him about his childhood, meeting John (“What was he really like?”), forming The Beatles, Beatlemania, songwriting, Wings (“By 1976 we were a shit-hot little band”) and so on. It’s all pretty predictable fare, but Paul’s charisma is on full power and he manages, for the umpteenth time, to breathe new life into some very old, oft-told stories. What’s really interesting about the show, however, is the amount of music it features – some of which is quite unusual. Sure, when he’s strumming on an acoustic guitar we get ‘Twenty Flight Rock’ and the inevitable ‘Yesterday’, but he also illustrates how he wrote the melody for ‘When The Wind is Blowing’, a tune which didn’t get an official release until the Ram Archive reissue in 2012. Likewise, when he moves to the piano, he sings not only ‘The Long and Winding Road’, but also the (then) recently composed ‘Your Loving Flame’, which didn’t come out for another two years on Driving Rain, the Frank Sinatra reject ‘Suicide’ (finally issued in 2011) and the cabaret-style ‘The New York Song’, which remains unreleased to this day. He also performs raucous versions of ‘Honey Hush’ and ‘All Shook Up’ with his band from Run Devil Run (including Pink Floyd’s Dave Gilmour), and even finds time to squeeze in a clip of ‘My Love’ from his latest classical music venture, Working Classical. What a pro!

The rehearsals for the 1999 Macca special, followed by the full show

In 2004, Parky and the show were lured lock, stock and barrel to commerical network ITV, serving only to diminish their prestige even further. It was now just another chat show, and a rather quaint one at that. But there was time for one last Beatle appearance, when Paul returned for a headline 20-minute slot in December 2005 (bizarrely, scheduled directly against his Chaos and Creation at Abbey Road special on BBC-2 at exactly the same time). It is another multi-plugging tour de force, with Macca managing to promote Chaos and Creation in the Backyard, his new live DVD The Space Within Us and self-penned children’s book High in the Clouds. In general, though, it’s a pretty unremarkable interview, with Paul seeming a little subdued by his standards. We now know that his marriage to Heather Mills was floundering by this point, which may have had something to do with it (though he still drops in a plug for her website when discussing animal cruelty in China!). There is a nice moment when he demonstrates how a little guitar piece he and George Harrison played as kids eventually evolved into ‘Blackbird’, but – as he was doing that during every show he appeared on that year – even that feels a little rote. His hair is tidier than on his previous Parkinson appearance, although he was well into his bad hair dyes by this point.

The 2005 Macca guest spot

Parky brought the curtain down on the show in 2007, with a final edition bringing together some of his favourite guests (yes, Judi Dench and Billy Connolly were there). I presume Paul was dyeing his hair that night. The programme was well past its sell-by date by then, but in earlier times it did give us some fun, charming Beatle chats which are well worth checking out.

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.

Memories of December 1980

It’s become something of a cliché that people can always remember where they were when they heard news of a major historical event. When I was growing up, people always talked about President Kennedy’s assassination, or the Moon landing. And, as I got older, I realised that – as with a lot of clichés – there was some truth in it. For my generation, learning about Princess Diana’s fatal car crash or the 9/11 attacks were occasions that remain burned in the memory. And I think they stay with you more as an adult, as you are more aware of the import of what has happened. You feel the shockwave that (metaphorically, at least) rolls under your feet and resonates in the world around you. Yet the first time it happened to me was as a child – and years before I became interested in The Beatles – with the death of John Lennon.

One of the final photos, December 1980

I hadn’t long turned 11 when 9 December, 1980 dawned. Then, as now, I would’ve been reluctant to get out of bed on a cold, gloomy morning (I don’t like getting out of bed any morning, in truth) and trudge my way to school. But Christmas was coming, so my spirits would’ve been high, nonetheless. My brother and sister had long since left home, so it was just my parents and I by that point. As usual, my Dad was first up and had called several times to raise me from my slumber. I eventually made my way downstairs to join him in the kitchen, where the radio was on, as usual (breakfast television in the UK was still more than two years away). It was invariably tuned to the cosy banter and easy listening tunes of Terry Wogan on BBC Radio 2, but it sounded very different today. There was a lot of very serious talking, involving a man on a very crackly phone line. Still, I carried on oblivious, prattling away as I stood at the sink getting a glass of water or sorting out a bowl of cornflakes. Until my Dad said: “Ssshush! I’m listening.”

“Why? What’s happened?” I said, as obedient and selfless as ever.

“John Lennon’s been shot. He’s dead.”

“Who’s he?” I asked.

“He was one of The Beatles.”

“Oh. Right.”

Contrary to what some people will tell you now, The Beatles were already a cultural touchstone. I can’t really compare their status then as opposed to now, as I wasn’t old enough to fully understand it, but I certainly knew who they were, even though music didn’t really play a big part in my life at that time. I probably knew they had been the biggest pop group there ever was, were from Liverpool and had funny haircuts, and was almost certainly familiar with some of their songs, even then. But I was less clear on the individual components. I knew Paul, of course – then, as now, everyone knew who Paul was. I can vividly remember hearing on John Craven’s Newsround in 1978 that ‘Mull of Kintyre’ had become the biggest selling UK single of all time, and Paul remained a fixture in the charts, in the newspapers and on TV, though his fame already transcended any of that. Although he was no longer a regular in the charts, Ringo also had a high public profile, and I was well aware of him. George, on the other hand, hadn’t registered in my consciousness. He’d released only one album since 1976, and done precious little to promote it. And John was even less visible. He’d been in semi-retirement and out of the public eye altogether since early 1975 – half my life at that point. And I certainly had no idea he’d just embarked on a comeback. I had only a passing interest in pop music, dipping in and out of Top of the Pops once a week and the chart run-down on Sundays. My main musical memory from that period is the release of Abba’s ‘Super Trouper’ (we were big Abba fans in our house). I have no recollection of John’s ‘(Just Like) Starting Over’ single, it just wouldn’t have been on my radar.

Nonetheless, when my Dad explained what they were talking about on the radio, I shut up and listened. From his reaction, and that of my Mum when she came downstairs a few moments later, I knew John Lennon was someone important. My parents weren’t Beatles fans, per se, but I could tell he meant something to them. I don’t recall any of details of what was said on the radio, beyond the emerging facts of his murder and the reaction to it. Certainly, having grown up on a TV diet of Kojak and other New York cop shows, I wouldn’t have been remotely surprised that someone had been gunned down in the city. It seemed like the Wild West to me (and, compared to the crime rates there today, probably was). Still, this was a real person. A pop star. Why would anyone want to shoot a pop star?

A BBC-TV news report from 9 December

When I got home from school later in the day, it dominated the TV news, obviously. The BBC screened Help! that evening as a tribute. Although intrigued, I was still more preoccupied by playing with Star Wars action figures or reading my latest Marvel comics to watch much of it. Still, I have vague memories of the scene in the pub, and the climactic silliness on the beach. And I noted that my parents did watch some of it, which – again – was unusual. They weren’t normally interested much in pop stars, at all. What was it about this guy? The newspapers were full of nothing else for the next week or so. The Daily Mirror was our paper of choice, for some reason, and it was around this time that I’d started reading it in detail once my parents had done with it. The main thing I remember from the coverage was the reaction of the other Beatles, and speculation over what would happen next. I can’t be sure, but I wouldn’t be surprised if people were already touting some sort of band reunion in John’s memory.

The newspaper I would have read on 10 December

I was in my last year at primary school and, by sheer coincidence, our class project that term was for each of us to produce our own newspaper. I enjoyed doing it so much (and won a pen for my efforts), it planted the seeds which eventually led me into a career in journalism. I was just putting the finishing touches to it when the news came through of John’s death, and it ended up being the final story in my publication – following on from the likes of Steve McQueen’s death, the Iran-Iraq War and the latest Yorkshire Ripper murder. Gruesome times, though I did try to lighten things up with football scores, some jokes, a report on Miss Germany winning the Miss World competition and a fictional story about rats (no, I’ve no idea why). I probably plundered the Mirror for most of the facts about John, though I do remember asking my Dad when The Beatles had broken up. He was never very good on dates, much to my chagrin. I plumped for 1971, which wasn’t too far off.

My hot-off-the-press report. I’d give myself marks for use of apostrophes and spelling Hawaii correctly, but missing the ‘C’ in McCartney and the second ‘r’ in Starr is unforgivable

I can recall bits and pieces from the weeks that followed. My family talked about it over Christmas lunch. My Mum reiterated her view (shared by many in the UK, I’m sure) that John had “gone crazy” after meeting Yoko and embarking on his peace bed-ins, nude album covers, avant garde musical excursions, political protests and the like. Think she also may have commented on how thin he looked during his last days (though that may have been something she said years later) – I don’t think she saw Yoko as a particularly positive influence. In the new year, ‘Imagine’ was at #1 in the charts for what seemed like forever. I don’t think I had a strong opinion about it as a song, but do remember watching the video on Top of the Pops and thinking there was something very sad about it, in light of what had happened to him. Bizarrely, I also thought that – at the beginning of the clip, when you see John and Yoko strolling through the gardens at Tittenhurst Park – John still had his long hair from 1969 (probably the shadow cast by his hat), but then had it chopped off before they filmed him at the piano. The vagaries of an 11-year-old mind.

A still from the ‘Imagine’ clip, which came to define John in early 1981

I guess my curiosity started to fade after that. I have no recollection of ‘Woman’ topping the charts soon afterwards, though it’s now one of my favourite Lennon songs. Like I say, music wasn’t high on my list of priorities back then. But I do wonder if my interest in The Beatles – as a modern myth, perhaps, rather as creators of dazzling music – first began to germinate at that time. We had a taped copy of The Beatles’ 1962-66 compilation album in the house, and I may have started playing it from time to time in the months that followed. It would be a few more years before the love affair with the band really began to take root, but the memories of that horrible (and for my young self, horribly fascinating) day in 1980 never left me. It’s strange to think that John’s now been gone for as long as he was here. And for me, it’s almost as strange to realise that 40 years after I first wrote about him and The Beatles, I’m here doing it again (hopefully in a slightly more informed way). As he once sang: “You know the more it change/The more it stays the same.” He was a pretty cool fella, John Lennon. It’s such a pity we lost him so soon.

The day L.A. stood still: Ringo’s ‘Only You’ video

When it came to making promotional films, Ringo was the quickest Beatle out of the blocks after the group disbanded in 1970. John never really made any bespoke videos for his singles, and George didn’t get in on the act until 1974. Paul joined the fray in mid-1972, by which time Ringo had made not one, but two, promos for his first solo single, ‘It Don’t Come Easy’, and another for its follow-up, ‘Back Off Booglaoo’. Apart from a rarely seen clip for ‘Photograph’, though, there were no promos for his 1973 smash hit album Ringo. When he finished work on its successor, Goodnight Vienna, he put that right by making a TV ad for the album and a sister film for its lead single, ‘Only You’.

The cover of the ‘Only You’ single

‘You’re Sixteen’, from Ringo, had topped the US charts and been a hit around the world, so it made sense to record another tune from the salad days of rock ‘n’ roll for his next LP. And it was John Lennon who suggested that he tackle ‘Only You (And You Alone)’, the classic 1955 song by The Platters. Listening to the original, with the high pitched vocal intro, it would seem an off-the-wall choice for Ringo, but John came up with a very different arrangement which was more suited to the inimitable Starr style (John’s guide vocal for the track was eventually released on 1998’s John Lennon Anthology box set).

Even so, it’s still a bit of a gear shift for Ringo. His low-key, high-register vocal is in contrast to his usual, more exuberant approach, but he pulls it off admirably. And his deadpan spoken-word section in the middle, in heavily-accented Scouse, is just class. The whole recording is very simple – again, a move away from the more busy material  on Ringo. As well as playing the chugging rhythm guitar which drives the track, Lennon ropes in his and Ringo’s boozing buddy of the time, Harry Nilsson, to join him in providing dreamy backing vocals. And that, along with drums, bass and some little keyboard and lead guitar flourishes, is pretty much all there is to it. It’s not the best thing ever recorded, but it’s an effective remake and quite winning in its own way.

Perhaps echoing the 1950s theme, the parent album paid homage to the 1951 film The Day The Earth Stood Still in its cover artwork. An early sci-fi classic, it’s a cautionary tale of aliens visiting earth to warn mankind off its atomic age, Cold War rush towards self-destruction. Its key scene features a flying saucer (seen as the only respectable method of interstellar travel in those days) landing in Washington D.C., and opening up to reveal the extraterrestrial visitor, Klaatu (Michael Rennie), and his accompanying protector, a giant robot called Gort. Goodnight Vienna depicts this image, only superimposing Ringo’s face over Rennie’s and adding a big white star onto his outfit. No idea why, as there’s nothing remotely space age about the album, but it does make for a memorable cover.

Ringo reaches for the star(r)s

Wisely, the marketing men riffed on this image when the album was released in November 1974. They made a glorious TV commercial which begins with Ringo in his space suit joining a marching band somewhere in Los Angeles (playing the drums, naturally), before a flying saucer makes a somewhat shaky landing in the same street. It’s not quite on the same scale as the one from The Day The Earth Stood Still, it has to be said, but it’s big enough for Ringo to clamber inside. The craft (steam-powered, by the looks of it) then takes off and soars through the L.A. skyline, before coming to rest atop the famous Capitol Records building, where Ringo waves to the assembled Earth people below. All this plays out to snippets of songs from the album and a marvellous, playful narration by Ringo and John Lennon (Ringo returned the favour by voicing the TV ad for John’s Walls and Bridges album, released a couple of months earlier).

The TV ad for the album

The film for ‘Only You’ picks up roughly where the commercial left off. You see the spaceship coming in to land (it’s not exactly Star Wars level of special effects, though I really can’t see the wires) and then Ringo singing the tune on the roof of the Capitol building. There, he is joined by Harry Nilsson, who spends half the clip sitting in a deckchair, smoking a fag and reading a music paper (albeit one with Ringo on the cover). Still, it could have been worse. Considering how high up they were, I’m presuming the director was keen to get all the footage in the can before the bars opened.

Ringo with a, ahem, relaxed Harry Nilsson

The video isn’t the most dynamic, in truth, though they do inject some humour to try to liven it up. It’s pretty hokey, variety show-style fare – Ringo pulls the ‘arrow through the head’ gag during the spoken word section, and then they do the ‘form a long line by ducking under the camera as the camera pans past’ routine (none too convincingly). But, as ever with Ringo, it’s done with such guileless charm that you can’t help but smile. Best of all, during the fade-out, we get shaky but quite impressive aerial shots of the pair swaying to the music on the roof, plus a glimpse of Gort, the robot from the film and album cover, alongside them. This incarnation of Gort must be at least three times the size of the spacecraft he’s supposed to have travelled in but, hey, who are we to question alien technology?

The old ones really are the best

‘Only You’ was released at the height of Ringo’s chart powers, and continued his amazing run of US Top Ten hits, reaching #6. It also made the Canadian top 20, and gave him what proved to be his last Top 30 hit in his homeland (where the video was shown on Top of the Pops and, I would imagine, must have seemed quite a glamorous affair to mid-’70s Britain). The promo film finally had an official release on a DVD accompanying the 2007 greatest hits compilation, Photograph: The Very Best of Ringo Starr. He has made better videos in his career but it’s still a nice visual relic from a far-flung time when Ringo Starr, solo artist, was quite literally top of the world.

‘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’