‘Tune In’ (2013) – the best Beatles biography? (part two)

Last time out I waxed lyrical about Tune In, the first volume of Mark Lewisohn’s mammoth Beatles biography, which was published in 2013. It richly deserves all the bouquets and plaudits which have come its way, and I have no doubt it will come to be seen as the ‘Bible’ on the band (not that I am comparing The Beatles to Jesus Christ as a person or God as a thing in any way whatsoever, you understand). But is it perfect? It comes staggeringly close but, no, I do have a handful of gripes with it. It may be that some of them are addressed in the extended (double-length) ‘author’s cut’ of the book. And, as it is, they don’t cast any real blemish over the regular, 840-page version. But Lewisohn sets such high standards, you can’t help but notice if he falls short once in a while or leaves some questions unanswered. It’s a little like Revolver having ‘Yellow Submarine’ on it – it’s still a majestic album, but not quite a flawless one (in my opinion). So here are a few nits I couldn’t help picking while reading Tune In.

John with mum Julia in the 1940s

In the course of his unparalleled research and forensic analysis for the book, Lewisohn came to question and, ultimately, revise some aspects of the band’s story which had been routinely accepted as fact down the years. And when the book came to be published, it’s ‘myth-busting’ credentials formed a key part of its marketing strategy, with its author credited as setting the record straight and correcting falsehoods. But, while there is no doubt it brings us closer to the truth and has thrown up a wealth of important information people didn’t even know existed,  I can’t subscribe to the same feeling of certainty Lewisohn attributes to his re-telling of some events. For example, the moment in 1946 when the infant John Lennon was forced to choose between his warring parents, the heart-breaking tug of love which – legend has it – scarred him forever. As told in numerous bios, magazines and documentaries, it plays like a scene from a Hollywood weepie. Spirited away to Blackpool by this errant father Freddie, John was set for emigration and a new life in New Zealand, until his mother Julia turned up and begged him to stay with her. John initially chooses his dad but, at the last moment, bursts into tears and runs back down the street into his mum’s arms. Cue some of the lifelong inner torment and anguish which eventually erupted 24 years later on the John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band album.

But, according to Lewisohn, this never happened. Instead, after speaking to Billy Hall, the merchant navy pal Freddie was staying with, he paints a likely more realistic picture of both parents sitting down – with Julia’s new partner – in the house in Blackpool to calmly discuss what was best for John’s future, and coming to an agreement that he would stay with Julia in Liverpool. John may not even have been in the room. As I say, this sounds a more credible version of events, but how can we be sure? In interviews, Lewisohn likes to make a point that people’s memories – particularly of events decades ago – are not always reliable, and that he puts much greater emphasis on written documents made at the time. That being the case, he places an awful lot of weight on the veracity of Billy’s recollections, some 60 years after the fact. Yes, he may be the only living witness to the proceedings, but his memory seems unusually vivid about something which didn’t even concern his own family. This could well be how it went down, but how do we know what John’s reaction may have been? Or whether his parents – both volatile, mercurial people – might have been less composed when the moment came to finally part and, in Freddie’s case, leave John behind for good? Many myths contain a sliver of truth, after all.

Paul and John at The Cavern, 1961. Playing live but, apparently, not writing any songs at this time

Then there is the matter of John and Paul’s songwriting output from 1960 until late 1962 – or, rather, the lack of it. According to Tune In, they wrote virtually no songs during this period, together or separately. This despite the many numbers the pair came up with during sessions in each other’s homes during their early days together from 1957-59. Well, apparently, they just stopped. For two whole years. And then suddenly turned the tap back on when they landed a record deal. I’m sure Lewisohn would have based this claim on something – like I said in my last post, he’s not one to speculate, guess or assume – but it’s not clear what. After all, no-one outside of Lennon-McCartney would’ve cared what they were doing at that time, much less been slavishly keeping notes. How does he know that no material was started and finished later, or just scrapped altogether? It may have been a fallow period for them, but I just find it very hard to believe they would’ve lost interest in writing altogether. Paul, in particular, was a compulsive composer since the age of 14, and remains so to this day. But he just downed tools for two years, when he had a band he (and John) could write material for? It doesn’t quite ring true to me. And if it is, I’d like to know why.

The revelation I have the biggest issue with, however, is how The Beatles got their record deal with EMI. The accepted story has always been that, after the group was rejected by pretty much every record label in the land, George Martin at Parlophone spotted something all the others had missed and decided to take a punt. And we all lived happily ever after. Not so, according to Tune In. It claims (spoiler alert) that Martin had also turned them down sight unseen, and that EMI’s hand was eventually forced by persistent pressure from a record ‘plugger’ called Kim Bennett on behalf of the company’s music publishing arm Ardmore and Beechwood. Bosses there had apparently taken a liking to the three Lennon-McCartney originals performed at the band’s failed audition for Decca Records in January 1962, which were featured on the acetate disc Brian Epstein was hawking around London in a vain attempt to impress record company executives. Ardmore and Beechwood was apparently so keen to secure publishing copyrights to these songs that it kept chipping away at EMI management until they caved in and agreed to sign the unknown Liverpool beat group. And they then decided to foist the band on Parlophone as a way of “punishing” George Martin over his long-running extra-marital affair with his secretary Judy Lockhart Smith (who later became his second wife).

George Martin with the Fabs at an early Abbey Road session in 1962. Were they really forced on him?

Lewisohn deserves massive credit for uncovering these extra, significant layers to the story, which undoubtedly add more complexity to the sequence of events and bring us closer to the truth of what actually happened. But I think he overplays his hand in claiming as undisputed fact that The Beatles’ big break was solely due to these factors. Why? Well, if the main aim of Ardmore and Beechwood was to get their hands on the potentially lucrative ‘Love of the Loved’, ‘Like Dreamers Do’ and ‘Hello Little Girl’, why wasn’t the group compelled to record them when they finally got to Abbey Road? None of theses songs were ever performed for Martin at their early recording sessions or, by all accounts, even considered. The Fabs may have preferred ‘Love Me Do’, but that would surely have been less appealing to a music publisher and, in any case, they weren’t in a position to call the shots at that stage. Martin even made them record a different song (‘How Do You Do It?’) from an entirely different music publisher, which doesn’t fit Lewisohn’s narrative at all. I may be missing something, but it just doesn’t add up in my mind. And as for Martin being forced to take on the band because his bosses took a dim view of his love life, well, I know strict moral values played more of a part in early-1960s British life, but is that really how a major corporation would make its business decisions? For once, there’s no explicit evidence offered in the book about this, we just know the hierarchy didn’t approve of the relationship. I think it’s a bit of a leap.

I wrote last time how well the book understands the individual characters of The Beatles and brings you closer to them. That said, I don’t think Lewisohn gets under the skin of Paul quite as well as the others. Which is curious, considering he never met Lennon and worked for McCartney over several years, interviewing him many times. To be fair, Paul has always been the most guarded and (I think) difficult to fathom of the four but, even so, there are a couple of points in the book where you just need to know more.  For example, close school pal Ian James says he couldn’t understand what (aside from music) drew Paul to George, who was younger and decidedly more abrasive than Macca. Lewisohn doesn’t really explore or try to explain that. Indeed, while John and George had quite similar temperaments and world views, Paul was different in many ways, and I’d have liked the book to dig a little deeper into what attracted – and ultimately bound – them to each other. Likewise, while Lewisohn is generally very fair and balanced in the way he portrays each member of the band, he does seem a trifle more forgiving of John’s foibles than Paul’s. For example, if Macca (who was raised in a frugal household where money was scarce) is reluctant to stand his round at the pub, he’s portrayed as tight-fisted; whereas if John (from a much more affluent background) actively steals from other people, well, that’s just that the rascally, cheeky Lennon of lore.

I also regret that some characters so prominent earlier in the story fade into the background after Brian Epstein comes onto the scene and the band’s career begins to take off. I guess it’s inevitable, but it would’ve nice to learn more about how John’s Aunt Mimi, Paul’s dad Jim and Cynthia Lennon reacted to the group’s growing momentum during 1962, though that may be covered in the extended version of the book. Similarly, I would’ve thought the author might have made use of some great stories about this period revealed in Cynthia’s book John, as well as in the memoir of John’s childhood friend Pete Shotton. But, as they’re available elsewhere, it doesn’t really matter that much.

Lewisohn signing copies of ‘Tune In’. When will he be signing off volume two?

In fact, none of my quibbles really detract from what is a remarkable achievement by Lewisohn. Most critics and fans felt the same when Tune In was published, eight long years ago, to rave reviews – so much so that it has become a victim of its own success, with the author fending off constant (and increasingly impatient) questions about when volume two will appear (it looks like 2023, at the very earliest). It’s become as fervently awaited as the next deluxe anniversary Beatles album reissue from Apple. I can understand the frustrations, particularly among older fans. Some people have literally waited all their lives for a biography like this, and are worried they may not live to read the concluding parts (you also have to wonder about Lewisohn’s own mortality – he’ll be in his mid-60s by the time the next part comes out, and if he allows 12-15 years for volume three, he might be pusing his luck). That said, I completely see his point: it’s a huge undertaking, and if you’re going to devote a big chunk of your life to something like this, you want to do it properly. The Beatles deserve no less.

So, what have we got to look forward to? Lewisohn did say at one fan convention that he planned to take the story up to 1974, presumably the point when the (ex) Fabs signed the papers which formally dissolved their legal partnership. I would love to see the books go deep into the solo years, but at other times he has intimated they will finish at the end of 1970, when the collective group story effectively ends. That being the case, volume two will feature the prime Beatlemania years of 1963-66, with the final book covering the grand studio era of 1967-70. Even though these are shorter time frames than that of Tune In, there is such a mountain of information to sift through, unravel, analyse and contextualise. The group crammed more into those years than most of us would managed in a couple of lifetimes; whereas Lewisohn probably had a real job on to find and validate information from their pre-fame years for volume one, I would imagine the polar opposite has been true for his subsequent research. After all, these were four lives lived under the glare of an public spotlight which has rarely shone so intensely, before or since.

Nonetheless, as the author likes to point out, many things about The Beatles have been misreported or misinterpreted down the years, or just missed out altogether. And I’ve no doubt we’ll get to learn oodles of new stuff about the band when the later volumes eventually do see the light of day. Personally, I’m most intrigued about the final years, and the events leading up to the split, which remain shrouded in distortion, conflicting accounts, wilful revisionism and just plain mystery – especially the period spanning late-1969 through to early-1970. I’m sure Lewisohn will delve deep into all this, and shed fresh light on a disintegration that many people still can’t seem to get their heads around to this day. But we’ve probably got a long wait on our hands until we found out. Luckily, there are plenty of other Beatles books to read in the meantime. But if the later volumes of All These Years are as good as the first one, you probably won’t need any other biographies on the band ever again. If you haven’t read Tune In already, don’t delay. Unless someone invents a time machine, I reckon this will be the best, most definitive account of their story we’re ever likely to get. I feel quite stingy just giving it a 9.5.

‘Tune In’ (2013) – the best Beatles biography? (part one)

Almost as long as I’ve been a fan of The Beatles, I’ve longed for a big, all-encompassing book covering every facet of their lives and careers. Ideally, this would also include the post-split story, but – as this would have to span more than 80 years and involve two solo careers which are still unfolding – I have begrudgingly accepted that a tome focusing just on their time together, the time when they changed not just music but the world, is more feasible and saleable. Still, for a long time, despite the wealth of biographical and musical material to  work with, no one seemed inclined or able to do it. Sure, there were plenty of books out there – since the early 1980s, the stream of Fab Four publications has turned into a gushing torrent, which shows no sign of drying up – but fully comprehensive, detailed bios? Not so much. The two go-to books when I first got into the band, and which remained so for many years, were Hunter Davies’ Authorised Biography, from 1968, and Shout!, the controversial best-seller by Philip Norman published in 1981. Both are very good and remain, despite criticisms in more recent years, key works on the band. But Davies’ book is authorised, with all the good and bad that entails, and incomplete; it ends in mid-1968, before the group began to fall apart. And, while compellingly written and featuring a lot of new material for the time, Norman’s book has too many prejudices and half-baked theories, and – worst of all – is astonishingly light on the actual music. Neither book brings the factual meat, in-depth insights and level of minutiae the band deserves and which us obsessives demand.

Mark Lewisohn obviously agreed. After being featured in Shout! as a young superfan of the group, he made his own mark in the Fabs literary world in 1986 with the publication of the scholarly The Beatles Live!, with none other than Paul McCartney soon pronouncing it his favourite book on the band. This led to EMI opening up their tape archive to him, resulting in the landmark The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions in 1988, which may still be my favourite Fabs book to this day. Soon afterwards, he went to work for Macca and, subsequently, for Apple as The Beatles Anthology project began to take shape in the first half of the 1990s. Despite playing a key role in that, a strange – and, of the face of it, very unfair – falling out with the Harrison and Ono/Lennon camps curtailed his association with The Beatles’ organisation, and he moved on to other, unrelated work. His love for the band never went away though and, in 2003, he embarked on the mammoth task of researching and writing what he wanted to become the definitive biography, in three parts, under the umbrella title of The Beatles: All These Years. Lewisohn has often said that, while their story has been told many times, it has never been told properly, and it has repeatedly been told inaccurately. His goal was put that right, establishing the facts in a balanced, objective fashion, without fear or favour, and giving their history the weight and attention it deserves. The first volume, Tune In, finally published in 2013, pretty much succeeds on every level – and then some.

The British edition of ‘Tune In’

Where Lewisohn differs from many Beatles authors is that he’s not some hack paid to knock out a book to make some bucks, or someone trying to carve out a niche in the band’s bulging bibliography by shining a light on a specific corner of their lives or work. The Beatles are his passion, and he set out to write the Big One, on his own terms, which meant years of research before he even sat down to write (Tune In took a full decade from start to finish, and it looks like we’re in for a similar wait for volume two). Lewisohn approaches his subject like a historian, and loves getting into the level of deep investigation most writers wouldn’t have the time or the inclination to pursue. He clearly cares about getting it right, and so happily spends months of his life burrowed in libraries or scouring legal documents, contracts, letters and diaries, checking and cross-referencing until he’s exhausted every possible line of enquiry to get as close to The Truth as he possibly can. Likewise – while denied recent access to the Fab Four and their inner circle (more of which later) – he has interviewed scores of people who passed through the band’s orbit, on a major or minor level, and whose voices are rarely or never heard in most bios, to glean every possible perspective on the band’s emergence and development. Thus you get to hear from relatives, school and college friends, workmates and rival musicians, Hamburg associates and Cavern regulars, all providing testimonies which add vivid colour and breathy authenticity, filling in gaps and bringing the story to life. And, as Lewisohn has said, this is really the last time anyone will be able to reap that vital first-hand knowledge and experience.

Apart from a wonderful prologue detailing John and Paul’s first songwriting sessions together, and another chapter mid-way through on the early lives of Brian Epstein and George Martin, Tune In takes a straightforward chronological approach. It even begins by exploring the Lennon/McCartney/Harrison/Starkey family backgrounds in the century before their births, and painting a picture of the economically depressed, war-ravaged Liverpool they were born into. It then tracks their individual childhoods, the seismic repercussions of rock ‘n’ roll on their teenage lives, their coming together as friends and bandmates, their (surprisingly slow) rise up the ladder of the local music scene, and the jaw-dropping moments of good fortune at key points which eventually put them in a position to conquer the civilised world. By the time it finishes at the end of 1962 – ie. before the group had become famous outside of Liverpool – it clocks in at 840 pages (for the really hardcore, there’s an extended edition which runs double that length. I haven’t descended into that layer of obsession…..yet). If that sounds like overkill to you, you’re probably reading the wrong blog, because even if you have just a passing interest in The Beatles, I guarantee you’ll find this a gripping read. And if you love them anywhere near as much as I do, you’ll be positively foaming at the mouth. As well as unearthing a treasure-trove of information and anecdotes, Lewisohn breathes new life into the stuff we already know – or thought we knew – and somehow leaves you wanting even more.

A pre-Ringo Fab Four at The Cavern, 1961

So, what’s so great about it? Well, to begin with, it’s that level of granular detail, that has never really been seen in a Beatles biography before – at least, not one that I’ve read. Pretty much everything you’d want to know is covered here, and more. Every page is peppered with nuggets of information, and none of it ever seems extraneous or irrelevant. From Julia Lennon’s love life to Paul’s ongoing reluctance to cough up cash for a new guitar to Ringo’s experiences as an apprentice engineer, it all serves the story, helps to build up the story piece by piece and shed meaningful light on the main protagonists. Similarly, I really appreciate how Lewisohn has scooped up all the familiar touch points in the story and assembled them in the right order, clearing up all the misconceptions, assumptions and errors which have littered histories of the band since pretty much day one. This not only establishes a coherent, credible narrative but also illustrates how quickly everything happened. It must’ve seemed like an eternity to the Fabs at the time, but within a year of meeting Brian they went from topping the bill in Liverpool dance halls to releasing records on EMI and appearing on national TV and radio – pretty much unheard of for a provincial rock ‘n’ roll band at that time.

The book is also strong on providing vital context. The Beatles didn’t happen in isolation. You get a real sense of the austere, post-war England they grew up in and the meteor-like impact of rock ‘n’ roll which – for them – must’ve smashed it wide open. And Lewisohn guides us expertly through the records which inspired and shaped their sound, not only in the ground-zero explosion led by the likes of Elvis, Little Richard, Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly, but right through their early years as a band – noting, for example, the growing influence of US R&B and soul music on their development in 1961/62. And all this is supported by judiciously chosen quotes from John, Paul, George and Ringo themselves. While Lewisohn was denied access to Apple’s own archive of materials (an insane decision, but sadly typical of its control freakery over all things Fab Four), and Paul and Ringo declined to share their recollections with him for this project, you wouldn’t really notice. There are literally thousands of Beatle interviews out there, and the author seems to have poured over every single one to find the right quote for the right part of the story. Certainly, there are lots of first-hand remembrances from the four that I don’t recall seeing before – like, for example, Paul’s recollection that he and John seriously considered extending the Lennon-McCartney writing credit to include George at one point. Real skill and patience is required for that kind of thing, and thankfully Lewisohn seems to have it in abundance.

Ringo and his fellow Hurricanes (plus lady friend) enjoy some r&r while touring US air bases in France, 1962. The call from Brian Epstein is just a few months away

Perhaps the thing I like most about the book, though, is that Lewisohn really gets what The Beatles were about. The group dynamic, the personalities, the interactions and rivalries, the hierarchy, the similarities and differences, their astonishing closeness. I believe that one of the key factors behind the group’s enduring popularity, aside from the music, is that they formed an impossibly tight-knit gang that everyone would’ve loved to be part of. The way they meshed together so perfectly, complementing each other’s talents and shoring up any individual weaknesses, the way they struck sparks off one another, the endless in-jokes and the joy they so evidently had being in each other’s company. All so different, and yet joined at the hip – a “four-headed monster”, as Mick Jagger once memorably described them. As a fan, it’s something I can never get enough of, and Tune In explores this at length, with real flair. So you get to see how John came to admire the (relatively) much younger George because he wasn’t afraid to stand up to him; how Paul resented John’s close friendship with Stuart Sutcliffe because it temporarily returned him to the “back seat of the bus” alongside George, and how George was usually the one who buoyed the other two’s spirits whenever the band hit a dead end. And it shows, beyond a shadow of a doubt, how Pete Best’s tenure in the group was doomed from the start. People still wonder today why their first drummer got the boot but, really, there’s no great mystery. He wasn’t on the others’ wavelength, didn’t see the world the way they did, wasn’t ever truly part of the gang. And he wasn’t a good drummer. Ringo, on the other hand, most definitely was and – crucially – fitted right in from the get-go. And, by the point he joins the band late in the book, you’ll understand why.

While there is an ocean of material here (one can only wonder what fills out the extended version), Lewisohn it all pieces altogether in an extremely well written, readable style. There are no sneak-peaks into the future (an “on this day five years later they would be playing Shea Stadium in New York” type of thing) or even hints about what is to come, it all unfolds in real time, as it were, and has the feel of a novel. There is the occasional knowing wink – for example, after surmising how the four most likely spent New Year’s Eve 1959, he ends the chapter with: “And when they all woke up the following morning, it was the Sixties.” Almost everyone reading the book will know what happens next, so it kind of works as a prequel, an origin story, in which the superheroes acquire their powers. Except, in a way which is scarcely believable, it all actually happened. The author also deserves huge kudos for scrupulously sticking to the facts and preserving the objective impartiality which so often goes astray in works of this kind as their writers succumb to favouritism, speculation and their own tastes or interpretation. For the most part it has a very balanced view of its four subjects, and – while it doesn’t gloss over any of their less attractive character traits or behaviours – you’ll probably end up loving them all even more by the end. You’ll certainly feel like you know them better. So many fascinating things emerge, like Paul’s endearing pose as a wannabe young intellectual, riding around Liverpool on the top deck of buses while smoking a pipe and reading Waiting for Godot; George’s dry charm, bluntness and dogged implacability; John’s cocktail of insecurities washing up against his cast-iron sense of self, and Ringo’s single-minded focus on making a career in showbiz and aiming for the ultimate pinnacle, an appearance at the London Palladium.

Ready to emerge from the ruins of post-war Britain – Liverpool, September 1962

Did his meticulous research uncover any big revelations? Well, yes, there are a few, but I’ll go into them in my next post. Because, for me, the highlights are the little things, the smaller details, where Lewisohn takes events which usually merit no more than a couple of paragraphs or even a footnote in other tellings, and expands them with delicious specifics. How each Beatle had one solid, close friend before joining the band. Their early romances – we even learn how Ringo lost his virginity, and I had no idea he was engaged to a girl while with Rory Storm and the Hurricanes. The chapter on the day John met Paul is mesmerising, as is the section on the band’s first semi-professional tour, of Scotland, backing singer Johnny Gentle. The Hamburg trips are brought to life like never before, as are the Cavern gigs and John and Paul’s pivotal trip to Paris for Lennon’s 21st birthday. You realise the importance of Brian Epstein’s intervention in their career, and how selfless and devoted he was to them. Their early recording sessions with George Martin at Abbey Road are brilliantly recreated, and convey the instant synergy between artists and producer. You learn how ‘I Saw Her Standing There’ was inspired by a flying visit to London Paul enjoyed with a beautiful redhead (shades of the future, there). I could go on and on.

Tune In is not without its flaws, which I will look more closely at in my next post, but – considering the scope and breadth of the book – there are precious few, they are minor ones, and they don’t really detract from its overall brilliance. If the remaining volumes reach the same standard, Lewisohn will effectively make most other straight biographies of The Beatles redundant. For, despite Apple’s disinterest and downright obstruction, this is the book which finally does the group justice.

Lewisohn promoting his book in 2013

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

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

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

The edition I picked up in the 1980s

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

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

Brian with “the boys”

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

At Shea Stadium, New York, in 1965

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

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

The Beatles’ guiding lights – Brian and George Martin

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

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

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

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

Will they ‘Let It Be’ real? Beatles revisionism

January 1969 is generally regarded – and often described by the band members themselves – as the period The Beatles were at their lowest ebb. The winter of discontent, as they struggled to recapture the camaraderie and joint sense of purpose of their early days. Paul’s plan for them to ‘get back’ to live performances, initially by rehearsing and recording new material for a televised concert show, crumbled amid apathy, arguments and acrimony. John, hooked on heroin and Yoko, was there in body, but not always in spirit. Frustrated by this disinterest and what he saw as Paul’s bossiness, George quit the band for several days (later referring to the period as “the low of all time”). George Martin felt increasingly redundant and disillusioned, later describing it as “the worst time”. John himself, in typically understated fashion, described the sessions as “hell”. And all this was captured on camera, eventually presented to the world 16 months later in the documentary Let It Be, released in the wake of their official break-up and regarded as a doom-laden celluloid epitaph.

But wait, what’s this? The brand new film assembled by director Peter Jackson from hours and hours of unseen footage, The Beatles: Get Back (its release now postponed until next year), is apparently going to tell a very different story. Things were actually much jollier than we’ve been led to believe. “The reality is very different to the myth,” Jackson says. “Sure, there are moments of drama – but none of the discord this project has long been associated with.” That’s right: none of the discord. Having seen the finished product, Paul recently said “we’re obviously having fun together”, while Ringo chimed in: “There was hours and hours of us just laughing and playing music… There was a lot of joy…I think this version will be a lot more peace and loving, like we really were.”

So, which is it?

Rehearsing at Twickenham Studios, January 1969

At first glance, this appears another step in Apple’s on-going bid to recast The Beatles’ story in softer hues, less fractious tones; to make us see that the whole glorious adventure took place on carefree, sunlit uplands, where love, peace and harmony ruled and nary a cross word was said. Where even the difficult bits have been grossly overstated and distorted. To paraphrase Aunt Mimi talking about on John’s childhood in The Beatles: The Authorised Biography, they were as happy as the day was long and sang themselves to sleep every night.

Revision is nothing new in Beatles history, with John and Paul among the main proponents, and it started very early on. In his famous 1970 Rolling Stone interview with Jan Wenner, immediately after the group’s split, John took a spray can and defaced what he saw as the cosy Beatles myth. He focused on everything he didn’t like about their journey together, viewing it through the increasingly bitter lens of the break-up and blowing all manner of feelings, events and disagreements out of proportion. The Fabs were “bastards”, who “humiliated” themselves and collapsed after Brian Epstein died, and so on. Though he recanted a lot of this in the decade that followed, pointing out that the interview was just a snapshot of how he was feeling at the time, much of it was taken as gospel by critics and biographers and has proved hard to shift.

In the years following John’s death and subsequent martyrdom, Paul began his own efforts to reshape The Beatles’ story and, specifically, his role in it. In particular, he was keen for everyone to know that he was just as avant garde and arty as John, and was at the forefront of all their most creative endeavours. Which was all true, of course, and was his attempt to rebalance other people’s skewed vision of their collective history. But the repeated emphasis, coupled with slightly more questionable claims of involvement in the writing of out-and-out Lennon songs like ‘Help!’ and ‘Being For the Benefit of Mr Kite’, probably didn’t do him any favours. More significantly, what did start to creep into his telling was a slightly rose-tinted view of events. This is reflective of his upbeat, positive personality, and something most of us succumb to as we get older – as Paul himself acknowledges, you tend to remember the good days more than the bad ones.

George was never one to for rose-tinted specs, though, and when the Anthology project rolled around in the 1990s, his more unflinching recollections provided a nice balance to the generally sunny perspective offered by Paul. And despite criticisms of it as something of an authorised whitewash, I actually think the Anthology offers a pretty rounded, frank remembrance of their time together, from all four members – particularly the book (the TV/DVD version does appear to have edited out some of the more contentious comments). Since then, however (and particularly after George’s death), Apple has been pushing a distinctly positive, almost airbrushed narrative. The first signs of it were on the Let It Be….Naked release in 2003, reframing the oft-criticised original album as the back-to-basics, unadorned collection which was originally intended and thus presenting as an overlooked, lo-fi jewel in their already bulging crown. Difficult sessions? No, that must’ve been a different band. The happy vibes were all over the 2005 Cirque de Soleil Beatles Love project, too, while Ron Howard’s 2016 documentary on the touring years, Eight Days A Week, was – quite rightly – a love letter to the Fabs’ enduring friendship and closeness during the Beatlemania years (Martin Scorsese’s 2011 film about George, Living in the Material World, also chose to look away when it got to some of the more challenging moments in the story).

So far, so understandable. But with the arrival of 50th anniversary deluxe remixes of the band’s later albums, the soft focus approach has really gone up a gear. Recounting Sgt Pepper and the Summer of Love in 2017 wasn’t an issue, but the White Album the following year would pose more of a problem. After all, even Paul (in 1980) described this one as “the tension album”, the sessions where cracks really began to appear, when John said they started to become each other’s backing band rather than a fully integrated unit; where they sometimes ended up recording in different studios, in threes, twos or even just one.

However, during interviews for the anniversary release, project producer Giles Martin (son of producer George), who listened to all the original tapes, repeatedly stressed this was something of a myth, that he’d heard the group having a great time. For example, he told the BBC: “The biggest thing was I always believed the White Album was an unhappy and fragmented record made by four solo Beatles, all working in different rooms. And it wasn’t that. If you listen to the outtakes, it’s a hugely collaborative process.”

And yes, some of the outtakes he chose to release do indicate that. But remember, these allegedly happy-go-lucky sessions caused Ringo to temporarily quit the band, while George Martin and engineer Geoff Emerick also walked out at various points. And of the 30 tracks on the album, 13 feature just three Beatles or fewer – almost half. A happy experience with everyone pulling in the same direction?

The Let It Be sessions, convened so soon afterwards are generally believed to have been even more difficult, and the resulting film certainly seems to reflect some of that. The tone is largely sombre, particularly during the early section filmed at the chilly, cavernous Twickenham Studios. There is the infamous (albeit low-key) row between Paul and George (“I’ll play whatever you want me to play, or I won’t play at all….whatever it is that will please you, I’ll do it”), while John — with a silent, unsmiling Yoko constantly by his side — seems distracted, uncharacteristically subdued. The atmosphere does improve when they switch to recording at Apple HQ in Saville Row, with keyboardist Billy Preston in attendance, but an air of lethargy still prevails at some points. The dynamism and togetherness of earlier times seems to have largely evaporated, though the live rooftop finale does undoubtedly reignite that. It’s a film that has come to be seen as capturing a band in the middle of breaking up, which is perhaps why it has remained such a contentious sticking point between Paul, Ringo, Yoko and George/Olivia and has never had an official release since the early 1980s. Beatles historian Mark Lewisohn says that even in the 1990s, during the making of the Anthology project, the surviving Fabs still found it difficult discussing the events leading up to their split.

Near breaking point? At Apple Studios

And yet…..

Was another kind of revisionism about their final years at play much earlier? There is no doubt many writers have focused on the negatives to the exclusion of all else, simply because it’s an easier tale to tell and enables them to recycle the kinds of juicy stories about petty squabbles and bitter legal wrangles which a lot of people, perversely, enjoy reading. Fuelled by some damning interviews given after the split – as noted earlier, by John in particular – it became commonplace to portray the band as sliding into mounting, uncontrolled and unending rancour and resentment from the summer of 1968 onwards, stalled briefly by the harmonious truce of Abbey Road before exploding in the fireball of the public break-up in 1970. But that’s nonsense, too. Life is much more complex than that.

Listening to the White Album outtakes on Anthology 3 and the recent deluxe edition – as well as the album itself – it’s obvious they did have a lot of fun making it, some of the time at least. Some of their greatest band performances came out of these sessions, from ‘Helter Skelter’ to ‘Yer Blues’. The brief departure of Ringo, if anything, seems to have galvanised the others into taking a more focused, united approach. There is the joyous story of them nipping back to Paul’s house (five minutes’ walk from Abbey Road) one evening to watch beloved ‘50s rock ‘n’ roll film The Girl Can’t Help It and then, suitably inspired, returning to the studio to record ‘Birthday’. The sheer number of songs they were working through probably necessitated some of the split recording sessions, especially with an autumn release deadline looming, and they didn’t need any more than a lone acoustic guitar on numbers like ‘Blackbird’ and ‘Julia’. Even ‘Ob La Di, Ob La Di’, a source of contention as Paul made them run through umpteen takes in a quest for perfection, radiates ebullience and togetherness in its final version. They remained committed to the album for many months, and it’s interesting that John and Paul both later singled it out as their favourite Beatles release. And when you look at the ‘Hey Jude’ and ‘Revolution’ performance films from that time, or the so-called ‘Mad Day Out’ photo sessions in London to promote the album, they are clearly having a blast.

Having fun making the White Album

Let It Be is probably clouded by even more misunderstanding and myth. The film does have quite a few laughter-filled, upbeat sequences, especially once they’ve moved to the Apple basement studio and, later, are filmed performing on the roof. And when the Let It Be….Naked album album came out, it was accompanied by a new video for ‘Get Back’, cut-together from unseen footage showing all four members larking around and in good spirits. Even more tellingly, Eight Days A Week climaxed with excerpts from the rooftop concert using new shots and camera angles I hadn’t seen before, showing – among other things – George grinning, whereas the film portrays him as sullen and grumpy-looking throughout the gig. After listening to all 98 hours of audio from the sessions, Mark Lewisohn said recently he was surprised by what he had heard, describing it as “uplifting”. He pondered whether John’s and George’s memories of the month were coloured by the film (which was released, of course, in the wake of the split, just as things were starting to turn nasty), as the misery they later recalled was not evident on the tapes.

A lighter moment at Apple while recording ‘Let It Be’

The film was edited as the storm clouds had begun to gather around Apple, and it’s hard to believe that director Michael Lindsay-Hogg wouldn’t have been aware that a major rupture in the band was coming. In all likelihood, this influenced how he cut the film and the tone of the finished product. Had the Fabs patched things up and continued, it would probably have emerged quite differently. As it was, it must have set in stone some of the bad feeling which permeated their fractured relationships in 1970 and coloured how they – and many others – saw the later days of the group forever after. So maybe Peter Jackson’s new cut will, after all, restore some much needed balance and take down a few major misconceptions.

However, Apple should be wary of going too far with this. It wasn’t remotely all bad for The Beatles in January 1969, but we shouldn’t pretend it was all good, either. The truth, like with most things in life, probably lies somewhere in between. I suspect the dial was rather closer to the positive. The music from that period, and much of the existing film, reflects the sparks the sparks they still struck off one another, the pleasure they had in each others’ company; the love and deep friendship which was always there, right up until the very end. But to have us believe there was none of the discord later reported just doesn’t wash, and it does their story no justice. The bad bits don’t need to be whitewashed and repainted. Conflict is part of life, and was inevitable among four strong, creative people like them (or indeed, any band); moreover, it was there throughout their time together. It doesn’t mean they didn’t love each other, or make the history any less magical. On the contrary,it makes it even more incredible and engrossing.

Snapshots of different moods during filming

As Lewisohn often likes to say, The Beatles were fundamentally about truth, and that means showing all aspects of what happened, not just the bits you’d like the world to see. While blessed with some superlative abilities and qualities, they were just people at the end of the day, with tempers, insecurities and egos just like the rest of us. So they had rows, and occasionally fell out – so what? We’re grown-ups, we can handle it. The rough bits don’t need smoothing out, they’re an essential part of the wider picture. The Beatles’ story may seem like a fairy tale, but it’s the fact that it was anchored to real people in the real world that makes it so enduring and irresistible.

Little Richard and the scream that fired The Beatles

If I had to draw up (a very long) list of things I love about The Beatles’ music, the sound of John and/or Paul hollering their heads off while rampaging their way through a rock song would probably feature pretty high. There’s a sense of slightly unhinged abandon about it which is just irresistible. It captures the frenetic energy of that side of their output, and I’m not sure it would’ve happened in quite the same way without Little Richard.

Little Richard in his ’50s pomp

Richard – who died in May at the age of 87 – was of course one of the key ‘50s pioneers who inspired The Beatles, and countless others, to abandon scruffy skiffle and dive headlong into the glamorous glories of rock ‘n’ roll. All of these rockers were ahead of their time, that’s why they had such a seismic impact on that generation. The smouldering, sensual swagger of Elvis; the chugging rhythms and wry urban poetry of  Chuck Berry; the perky, quirky pop of Buddy Holly; the shrill sex sermonising of Jerry Lee Lewis; the heavenly harmonies of the Everly Brothers, and so on. Nobody had heard stuff like this before. Even listening to it 60 years or so years later, you can still smell the whiff of sulphur it all must have generated. And I don’t think anyone could have been more arresting, or downright shocking, than Little Richard.

 In the early 1990s, keen to hear some of the sounds that influenced the Fabs, I picked up one of those rock ‘n’ roll compilation albums. They were all on it (apart from Elvis), but it was notable that the whole collection was top and tailed with songs by Richard. His outrageous stage persona – complete with bouffant hair-do, heavy make-up, shiny suits and coyly ambiguous sexuality – must’ve been hard enough for many people in the austere, post-war ‘50s to get their head around (never mind that he was also black). But the music itself was the real stick of dynamite. The pounding piano, earthy saxes, banging drums and wry, outré lyrics delivered by that shrieking, full-blooded, visceral voice….wow. It’s like punk, 20 years early. Just listen to ‘Good Golly Miss Molly’. I’ve heard it many times, but the ferocity of that scream which heralds the sax solo still give me a jolt every time. Heaven knows what those four boys in 1956 Liverpool, used to cosy chart fare by the likes of Frankie Laine, Johnny Ray and Doris Day, must’ve made of it.

Yowza! Stand well back….

Actually, we do have an idea what they made of it. John later recalled: “The first time I heard ‘Long Tall Sally’ it blew our heads. We’d never heard anybody sing like that in our lives…..It used to make your hair stand on end when he did that long scream into the solo.” Paul was equally besotted, and rapidly became skilled at impersonating his new hero. “I could do Little Richard’s voice, which is a wild, hoarse, screaming thing, it’s like an out-of-body experience.” he said. “You have to leave your current sensibilities and go about a foot above your head to sing it.” Paul loved Little Richard so much that this became his party piece — he chose to sing ‘Long Tall Sally’ for his first ever stage appearance, at Butlins holiday camp in 1956, and also his serenaded fellow pupils at the Liverpool Institute with that and ‘Tutti Frutti’ on the last day of one school term, climbing onto a desk with his guitar and no little self-confidence.

And while everyone knows the story of Paul impressing John with a word-perfect guitar run-through of Eddie Cochrane’s ‘Twenty Flight Rock’ when they first met at the Woolton Church Fete in July 1957, it’s not so widely discussed that Paul then switched to piano and launched into his well-practiced Little Richard routine. As Mark Lewisohn so memorably puts it in his peerless Fabs biography Tune In, “Paul couldn’t have known it, but by slipping into ‘Long Tall Sally’ he was sliding into John’s main artery….No matter how much John affected an air of coolness, his insides had to be leaping.”

George was also a big fan and, as the Quarrymen slowly evolved into The Beatles, their setlists invariably featured at least one Richard number. And, in the same way as Chuck Berry songs were mostly sung by John, Little Richard ones were always sung by Paul. Macca had mastered not only his growling timbre and frenzied screams but also his high pitched, gospel-inflected whoops. Richard’s material would remain a fixture in their live shows, right until the very end; they closed their last-ever concert, at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park, with ‘Long Tall Sally’. You can only imagine the thrill they felt when they got the meet the man himself, and perform on the same bill in both Hamburg and Liverpool, in 1962. The picture of them taken backstage at the Tower Ballroom in New Brighton in October of that year says it all.

Meeting their their hero, late 1962

The Beatles recorded two Richard songs for EMI during the 1960s, ‘Long Tall Sally’ (for the 1964 British EP of the same name) and ‘Kansas City/Hey Hey Hey Hey!’ for that same year’s Beatles For Sale LP. Curiously, I don’t feel either of these tracks really capture the heat generated when the band tackled his material; they’re a little too polished for my taste. If you want the real fireworks, you need to go to the Live at the Star Club album (1962) and the BBC radio sessions in 1963. The version of ‘Kansas City’ on the former is more muscular and uninhibited, while the same record’s breathless race through ‘Long Tall Sally’ is astonishing, building to an incendiary climax every bit as compelling as ‘A Day in the Life’ would be five long years later. The pile driving rendition of ‘Lucille’ on Live at the BBC Vol. 2 features one of the all-time great McCartney vocals, while the band just goes berserk on ‘Ooh! My Soul’ (from Live at the BBC Vol. 1), a mini musical blitzkrieg.

‘Oh! My Soul’ at the BBC, 1963

But it wasn’t just on their covers of Richard’s own songs where his influence was keenly felt. They adapted and incorporated his whoops into several of their early trademark hits – ‘I Saw Her Standing There’, ‘Twist and Shout’ and, most famously, ‘She Loves You’ – and kept returning to the well throughout their collective career. Listen to John’s lusty screams which punctuate their three Larry Williams covers, ‘Slow Down’, ‘Bad Boy’ and ‘Dizzy Miss Lizzy’. Or how Paul effectively writes his own Little Richard song, ‘I’m Down’, which closed many of their live shows in 1965/66. Later still, John opens ‘Revolution’ with a familiar, demonic cry, while Paul goes full-on Richard for a vocal tour de force on Abbey Road’s ‘Oh! Darling’. And, of course, several of his songs featured when they ran through their favourite rock ‘n’ roll oldies during the Get Back/Let It Be sessions in January 1969 (you can hear a snippet of ‘Rip It Up’ on Anthology 3).

After the break-up, it was a similar story. John covered four Richard tunes on his 1975 Rock ‘n’ Roll album – a giddy medley of ‘Rip It Up’/’Ready Teddy’, plus fantastic versions of ‘Slippin’ and Slidin’ and ‘Send Me Some Lovin’’. Paul, in turn, played Richard songs live with Wings in 1972, ‘73 and ‘79, and while there were no such covers on the mammoth Wings Over the World 1975-76 tour, you have only to listen to the Wings Over America album to hear the man’s spirit writ large over barn-storming performances of songs like ‘Beware My Love’, ‘Hi Hi Hi’ and ‘Soily’. And it wasn’t just on the uptempo rock numbers where Richard’s legacy was apparent in their work, as it often helped to power some of their most personal, introspective material. When John came to unleash the results of his so-called primal scream therapy on 1970’s Plastic Ono Band album, I suspect the screams owed more than a little to a certain flamboyant black R&B shouter from the southern United States. Likewise Paul’s startling vocal volcanic eruptions on songs like ‘Back Seat of My Car’ (1971) and ‘The Pound is Sinking’ (1982), two career high points, drew deeply on that same well of inspiration.

John channelling Richard in 1975

When Paul returned to the live arena for the 1986 Prince’s Trust concert after seven years away (Live Aid excepted), it was somehow inevitable that he chose ‘Long Tall Sally’ – 30 years after Butlins – as one of the three songs to ease himself back in. And was equally unsurprising that the covers album he cut the following year and initially released only in Russia, Choba B CCP, feature two old Richard chestnuts, ‘Kansas City’ and ‘Lucille’. Yet the years without touring, combined with his age and (probably) earlier years of heavy smoking, had taken its toll on that part of his vocal range – the fire was still there, but he sounded a little more raspy, more gale force than the full-blown hurricane of yore. The McCartney voice is a remarkable instrument, however, and it underwent a renaissance in the late ’90s/early ’00s – just in time for his second rock ‘n’ roll covers collection, Run Devil Run (1999), which featured a powerhouse reading of a soulful, lesser-know Richard number called ‘Shake a Hand’. And he rode that wave into his next album of originals, Driving Rain (2001), tearing it up on loose, garage band-style rockers like ‘Lonely Road’ and ‘About You’, not forgetting the end-of-the-world scream which tops off the epic closer ‘Rinse The Raindrops’.

Paul’s fabulous Richard cover, 1999

Little Richard’s run of hits may have been short lived, but it’s impact continues to echo down the generations. And not just through the Fab Four – James Brown, Mick Jagger, David Bowie, Prince and many others have acknowledged his influence. But The Beatles remain perhaps his leading torch-bearers. There’s been a lot of debate about the state of Paul’s voice during concerts over the past decade or so, and whether it’s still up to scratch. I can see both sides of the argument, but the last time I saw him live, at London’s O2 in 2015, it sounded in pretty good nick to me – and never more so than during the encore. When he launched into savage, throat-shredding renditions of ‘Hi Hi Hi’ and ‘Helter Skelter’, I swear he shook the arena to its very foundations. Nearly 60 years on, he was still “doing his Little Richard”.

The 1969 boardroom tape – a new beginning, or a dead end?

To coincide with the 50th anniversary release of Abbey Road, Mark Lewisohn – pre-eminent Beatles historian of our times – undertook a tour of the UK last autumn with a stage show exploring the making of the album.

Mixing archive footage, photos, memorabilia, interview recordings and audio purloined from the sessions (but remixed and/or stripped down courtesy of the 2009 ‘Rock Band’ game), he told the story not just of the band’s final collective endeavour but of all the events going on in their lives which fed into it and swirled around it.

I caught the Southampton show and, apart from a few technical issues at the start, it was a hugely enjoyable couple of hours, with Lewisohn’s forensic but engaging style bringing to life a (relatively) less pored-over period of the Fabs’ career. An evening with the world’s foremost Beatles expert talking solidly about The Beatles – what’s not to love?

But what really made headlines was his use of a little-known tape of John, Paul and George meeting to discuss the band’s future, soon after the album was finished. I had heard talk of such a tape, and claims of what was on it, on music forums but had been exceedingly sceptical of its existence. After all, why on earth would they record such a meeting, particularly at a time when relations between them were becoming so frayed? And they had all but broken up by this point, so what possible future would they have been discussing, right?

Not for the first time, I was completely misguided in my disbelief. They had indeed taped such a meeting at Apple, for the benefit of Ringo, who was in hospital at the time. Not only that, but a concrete reference to the tape’s existence had been made as far back as 1976 in the book ‘One Day at a Time’, written by John’s former personal assistant Anthony Fawcett. But it was Lewisohn who brought the recording firmly into the wider public gaze, using it to promote his stage tour during an interview with the Guardian last September.

Chewing the fat at Tittenhurst Park, August 1969

To summarise, the juicy talking points of the trio’s meeting were thus:

  • They were considering making a new album, plus a Christmas single
  • Recognising George’s recent ascendancy as a songwriter, John argued that all future albums should be divided democratically — four songs each for the three main writers, plus one or two for Ringo “if he wants them”
  • John also suggested Paul gave his more fruity songs, like ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’, to other artists rather than force the band to record them
  • Paul was having none of the last two suggestions. And was apparently a bit stoned.

Lewisohn claimed in his interview that the tape “rewrites everything we knew about The Beatles”, in particular the widely-accepted belief that John was the one looking to break up the band at this point, and also that they had recorded Abbey Road knowing that it was to be their final album. But, fascinating though the tape is, does it, really?

Accepting that Lewisohn was taking a leaf out of the Lennon-McCartney promotional handbook and somewhat massaging the facts in order to sell tickets for his show, this statement just doesn’t hold water at all. And I’d also have to take issue with Lennon’s ‘road map’ for the future of the band. Here’s why.

First, while it has been widely assumed over the years that The Beatles intended Abbey Road to be their swansong (if only because it ends so perfectly with, er, ‘The End’), I don’t think there’s much evidence to support this. I feel that, subconsciously, they may have felt the end was nigh while recording it – a wistful, valedictory feeling does inarguably seep through into some of the songs, particularly the medley section – but I don’t believe it was ever intended to be their last will and testament. The fact that they were still discussing possible touring options even later in 1969 (when John dropped his “I want a divorce” bombshell), something we’ve known about for years, shows that. And Ringo confirmed as much during an interview to promote the album’s reissue last year.

Despite that, my view is that John’s departure – and thus, the end of the band – was inevitable from the point he hooked up with Yoko, and could have happened any time after the completion of The White Album. It could have been triggered by the apathy he felt during the Twickenham sessions for Let It Be in January 1969; the increasing hostility of the British press; his preoccupation with his and Yoko’s peace campaign, or the huge success of ‘Give Peace a Chance’ that summer. Up until 1968, his primary focus had always been the band, above everything else — even his family. Once he hooked up with Yoko, however, all that changed. There couldn’t be room for two all-consuming passions in his life. Especially as she encouraged him to give free rein to any artistic impulse that came into his head, whereas The Beatles inevitably represented compromise in comparison. And John’s natural inclinations were never really about compromise. As he explained in 1980, “the old gang of mine was over the moment I met her. I didn’t consciously know it at the time, but that’s what was going on. As soon as I met her, that was the end of the boys.”

By the spring of 1969, many Beatles photos featured five members

That being the case, I think it’s a sign of John’s profound connection with the others that it took him so long to make the break. Even though tensions had begun to mount during that period, their brotherhood was wound tight. He would still have felt joined at the hip. And, when they were all focused and in sync, they still made peerless music together. They got off on each other, and the buzz must have been hard to relinquish. You only have to see the sparks flying and the giddy exchange of looks during the marvellous rooftop gig at the end of the Let It Be film.

Rocking on the roof, January 1969

Despite the growing business aggravations gathering outside, the Abbey Road sessions proved that magic was still in full flow. I suspect John enjoyed making it – and would’ve been particularly pleased at how songs like ‘Come Together’ and ‘Because’ turned out – and knew they had made something good. It’s also true that The Beatles were probably a comfort blanket for him. Despite everything he had achieved, he almost certainly had nagging insecurities about his viability as a solo artist, and so the band would have been an infallible safety net as he took his first tentative steps towards independence.

So I believe that he probably woke up on the morning of 8 September 1969 in a sunny, optimistic mood, feeling that he could have his cake and eat it. That he could still lead the biggest band in the world, while pursing his peace campaigning and more avant garde musical projects with Yoko. But John was a mercurial character. He changed his mind as often as he changed his socks, and I don’t for one minute believe this stance was anything more than a fleeting fancy. Deep down, he knew the end was coming. And the outcome of his discussions with Paul and George that day most likely confirmed the inevitable – spurred on by new “rules” he sought to put in place for future Beatles albums. If The Beatles were about anything, it was about not following rules.

On the surface, dividing up the bulk of the songwriting contributions three ways made sense. George had truly arrived as a writer on Abbey Road with two of the best, and certainly most commercial, tracks on it. And by this point he had also stockpiled many of the wonderful numbers he would unleash on All Things Must Pass the following year. But how would this carve-up have worked, in practicality? What if John writes eight brilliant numbers, but has to drop four of them to make way for sub-standard McCartney/Harrison songs, or vice-versa? What happens if they suddenly end up co-writing again, where do those numbers fit into the scheme of things? Say they record lots more tracks than they need, who decides which of the allocated four songs each makes it onto the final record? And wouldn’t this push them even further towards being each other’s backing band rather than a fully cohesive, collaborative unit?

In addition, how far would John’s enthusiasm stretch to recording the others’ songs? He hadn’t shown much interest in some of George’s compositions in recent years – he didn’t feature at all on ‘Savoy Truffle’ or ‘Long Long Long’ from The White Album, for instance, and had been more interested in dancing with Yoko when the others ran through ‘I Me Mine’ during the Let It Be sessions. It’s telling that in the alleged transcript of the 8 September meeting in Anthony Fawcett’s book (reproduced in Roger Stormo’s excellent Daily Beatle blog), when George complains of a lack of interest in his material from his bandmates, John can cite only ‘Don’t Bother Me’ to refute this – a song recorded six years earlier.

At Apple, the spring of 1969

And what if Paul shows up for the next album with more songs like Maxwell’s Silver Hammer? I know most critics and many fans like to use this track as a stick to beat McCartney with, but I’ve never had a problem with it and don’t understand the hate. Okay, I wouldn’t want an album full of them, but songs like this and Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da (one of my favourites from The White Album) are as much a part of the Fabs’ oeuvre as ‘I Am The Walrus’, ‘Helter Skelter’, ‘The Inner Light’ or anything else. For me, one of the things I love most about The Beatles is that there were no barriers, they never stayed in one box, they could do anything and everything, and do it brilliantly. To put arbitrary limits on that would’ve been wholly wrong – and, again, who would’ve defined what constituted a Beatles song, or what criteria needed to be met? Because surely ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’ was as least as worthwhile as, say, ‘Revolution #9’ or ‘What’s The New Mary Jane’. If that was the only kind of material Paul was bringing in, John might have had a point, but it wasn’t (the fact that Paul sometimes “drove the others into the ground”, to use John’s words, recording endless takes of such songs might have been a more valid point for consideration).

It all strikes me as way too regimented an approach for the band, and could never have worked in practice. We all fantasise about what the next Beatles album could have been like and there was no shortage of great songs ready to go (or at least partly written), even at this point. But maybe, hard though it may be to accept, the group setting wasn’t necessarily the best place for them anymore. After all, John seemed to have no problem recording something like ‘When I’m 64’ just a couple of years earlier, but now – post-Yoko – things had irrevocably changed. While I think they could have always conquered new musical frontiers, they were heading in different places as people. For example, John would soon offer up ‘Cold Turkey’ as the band’s next single, and it was rejected by the others. And probably rightly so. Anything Paul and George would have added would most likely have inflected John’s deeply personal statement and burnished the jagged, harsh nature of the final product. True, they may have helped make it a better, more accessible record — but it wouldn’t have been what John had intended. Likewise, can you really hear John and Paul singing idolatry “Hare Krishna” backing vocals on ‘My Sweet Lord’?

So, no, I don’t believe this tape changes everything we knew about The Beatles’ break-up, nor did it set out a credible way forward for a continuation of the band. It is a precious insight into the tumultuous events of 1969 and the state of band’s dynamic, and we can only hope the whole thing will find its way into the public domain before long (Lewisohn said he was heavily leaned on – presumably by Apple – not to play more than a brief excerpt during his autumn shows). But while it offers a tantalising detour and glimpse of what might have been, it doesn’t alter the main narrative. Without John’s heart-and-soul commitment, The Beatles were finished. And just five days after this meeting, following his first full concert appearance away from the band at the Toronto Rock and Roll Revival Festival, he was finally ready to make the break. On 20 September, during another meeting at Apple, he announced unequivocally that he “wanted a divorce”.

And in the end…..

For all the inherent problems in the ‘road map’ for future activities he had put forward earlier, John’s overarching instincts – to break up the band – were right. They had already created the definitive road map for every rock group to follow, and would end their collective career still at an unassailable peak. The Beatles would never decline, never blemish their remarkable achievements. They would embark on four solo careers, often brilliant and rarely less than engrossing, and their legend would only grow over time. Some 50 years later, and we’re still wishing they had done more together. Surely that’s the best legacy of all.