Zooming in to Ringo’s new EP

Remember the sleeve notes of 1964’s Beatles for Sale LP, written by their press officer Derek Taylor? He predicted that the “kids of AD 2000” would still be grooving to Beatles music, and – as that  year saw the release of the multi-zillion selling 1 compilation – he wasn’t wrong (though his vision of said “kids” being radioactive and picnicking on Saturn were slightly less accurate). I assume his claim was probably greeted by mockery by wide sections of society at the time, but I wonder if even he – or anyone else – would’ve given much credence to the idea that Ringo would still be recording and releasing new pop music in AD 2021, at the age of 80. It would probably have been pushing it to say Paul would still be active (never mind topping the album charts), but at least he was a front man and a songwriter with a few big hits already behind him. But Ringo? The drummer, with “limited” vocal range, who was allowed to sing one track per album? At the time, even the Fabs thought anyone over the age of 30 was past it, and could never have dreamed any of them would be making music in a far-flung future when we would presumably be using flying cars, rocket ships and teleportation as our preferred means of transport.

Okay, not many people are actually still buying Ringo’s releases, but that’s kind of beside the point. What matters is, are they still any good? Well, I guess it depends on what yardstick you choose to measure them by. There are those who don’t bother with any of his solo stuff because, well, it’s “only” Ringo. Those of us who have continued to follow his career have been rewarded with some genuinely good stuff, particularly during the 1990s and early 2000s, when he hooked up with some well-suited collaborators and enjoyed a real hot streak. Over the past decade or so, it’s been more of a mixed bag. Eschewing outside producers, Ringo has opted to take sole charge of his records and downsized somewhat, making them all at home with a roster of familiar rock star pals. His usual approach has been to come up with a song idea, lay down a rough backing track, and then invite people over to help build the tune on top of it. His first stab at this, 2010’s Y Not, was solid enough, but the follow-up Ringo 2012 was hugely disappointing, a lazy effort which marked a real low point. 2015’s Postcards from Paradise offered only a modest improvement, but he then came back with his most consistent album in years, Give More Love (2017).  His last release, 2019’s What’s My Name, was decent too but, generally speaking, he’s been playing it safe in recent times – the same way of working, in the same place, with the same people, producing samey results (even the album covers are barely distinguishable from each other). I guess at his time of life he’s entitled to do whatever he likes, and it’s not as if anyone expects Sgt Pepper any more. Still, he is a Beatle, and I want to see him step outside his comfort zone from time to time.

The first Beatle release of 2021

Which brings us to his latest offering, Zoom In. For some reason, Ringo has decided that What’s My Name is to be his last album, and he will make only EPs from now on. Not quite sure what the thinking is behind that – especially when you consider he’s planning to release a second EP later this year, so he’s effectively putting out two halves of an album a few months apart. Go figure. Anyway, Zoom In features five tracks recorded last year which, on the face of it, follow the usual Ringo modern-day pattern: made in his home studio, with a little help from famous friends, with a cover trumpeting his peace-and-love credentials (though the bouffant lockdown hair cut is new – where does an octogenarian get all that hair?). However, while not radically different, he does ring a couple of changes this time out, to good effect. First, he’s given full sway to outside writers – in fact, he co-wrote just one number – which gives the material a different feel. And while he is still co-producing with regular crony Bruce Sugar (apart from on one song), he’s gone for fresh approach here. There were hints of it on What’s My Name, but the generous helpings of horns, organ, female backing vocals and the like help to create a fuller, richer ambience than usual; a throwback to the 1970s, in some cases. He hasn’t sounded this good for quite a while. And some of the songs are pretty strong, too.

The first track, ‘Here’s to the Nights’, released as a single (or what passes for one these days) just before Christmas, is the one you may have heard. Penned by veteran songsmith Diane Warren (who’s provided a bewildering array of hits for everyone from Aerosmith to Lady Gaga), it’s a big, bombastic anthem about breaking rules, having fun and, er, getting blind drunk. Okay, there’s nothing subtle about it and the lyrics could’ve been lifted from a greetings card, but it’s an uplifting, instantly memorable tune with a slick, stylish arrangement. It’s the kind of track Ringo hasn’t attempted for some time (it’s particularly nice to hear a big string section on one of his records again), and it fits him like a glove. For the booming chorus, he enlists a, ahem, starry list of guest vocalists, including Dave Grohl, Sheryl Crow, Lenny Kravitz and our very own Paul McCartney, though the end result is so megalithic you may struggle to tell the individual contributions apart without the video to help you. Ringo’s own voice is, probably for the first time, showing signs of age on this, but even that adds to the wistful, nostalgic glow of the song. And he still manages to hold an impressively long note at the end (seemingly much to his own amusement, judging by closing chuckle).

The video for ‘Here’s to the Nights’, with some nice clips of Macca alongside Ringo

I didn’t care much for ‘Zoom In Zoom Out’ to begin with, but it’s a real grower. It starts off a little like Davie Bowie’s ‘Jean Genie’ but then settles into a shuffling, relaxed groove behind another surprisingly catchy melody. While repeating the standard ‘love is what it’s all about’ message, the lyric is actually quite clever, managing to be cosmic and commonplace at the same time (who’d have thought we’d get to hear him sing a line like ‘Shift your paradigm’?). Laced with some nice bluesy guitar from The Doors’ Robbie Krieger and featuring a crafty false ending, it’s a good track, full of Ringo’s characteristic bonhomie and optimism. His grandad dancing in the accompanying video is best forgotten, though.

Next up is ‘Teach Me To Tango’. As with ‘Better Days’, one of the stand-out tracks on What’s My Name, it was written by Sam Hollander, who’s provided hits for Katy Perry, One Direction, Panic! At The Disco and many more. And Ringo should definitely keep him on speed dial, because this is another winner. After a rumbling, drum-heavy intro, it powers into a hook-laden tune which rocks along for a rollicking, invigorating three minutes. The chorus will lodge in your brain and the tasty arrangement – topped off with a sizzling guitar break – is enough to get anyone on their feet. A perfect party tune, this is exactly the kind of thing Ringo should be doing these days, and it’s possibly the best number here.

One Starr that’s still shinging bright

The remaining two songs are not quite so good, but still far from write-offs. Co-written by Ringo, ‘Waiting for the Tide to Turn’ is one of his occasional ventures into reggae, and – alongside the obligatory reference to Bob Marley – he makes some big claims for the music’s healing power in these troubled times. “Just play some reggae music and it will be a better day”, apparently. Be that as it may, there’s not much of song here, but it does have a definite Caribbean vibe to it and a certain hazy charm. Again, the meaty production really gives it some heft. I think ‘King of the Kingdom’, the reggae work-out on Give More Love, was a stronger composition, but it’s not bad.

Ringo was persuaded to record ‘Not Enough Love in the World’ by the sentiment of the title alone, which makes you wish he’d be a bit more stringent when choosing his material. Written by former Toto guitarist and long-time All-Starr Band member Steve Lukather, it’s a bouncy, bright bit of mid-tempo pop, with a 1960s/70s feel. The lyrics are as hippie-ish and as daffy as the title suggests, sung with the carefree attitude you’d expect of a multi-millionnaire living in Los Angeles, though there’s a nice nod to our current situation in the middle eight (“I’ve lived a pretty crazy life/And I now I have to stay inside, oh my”). There’s nothing wrong with it – it’s pretty catchy, and Lukather supplies some fine guitar in it – it’s just the kind of thing we’ve heard many times before.

All in all, though, Zoom In is a pleasant surprise and rewards repeat listens. Ringo sounds spry, vital, and full of intent. It has no real clunkers, no heavy-handed references to The Beatles, and none of the air of going through the motions which has marred a few of his tracks in recent years. It shows the benefits of using outside writers and material tailored specially for him – like John, Paul and George used to do, in the old days – and of a bigger, more punchy production ethos. It certainly whets the appetite for the follow-up EP later this year which, considering Ringo will be 81 when that comes out, is surely more than we have any reasonable right to expect. I doubt not even Derek Taylor, with his radioactive kids picnicking on Saturn, would’ve predicted that.

A little featurette on the making of the EP

‘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.

My Top Ten Ringo drumming performances with The Beatles

My appreciation for Ringo’s contribution to The Beatles as a drummer grows every year. When I first got into the band it was quite fashionable to mock or traduce his role in their success, with lots of people quick to single him out at the weak link or claim he just got lucky and rode on the coattails of the others’ brilliance. I think the fact that his own music career had dried up at that point and that he was more famous for narrating children’s show Thomas The Tank Engine probably had a lot to do with that attitude, along with general ignorance and a perhaps understandable search for some mortal aspect of the group’s all-conquering, almost super-human prowess. Part of Ringo’s appeal had always been that he was the ‘everyman’ in their ranks, the bloke next door who didn’t write an endless flow of astonishing songs, whose singing wasn’t all that removed from what you’d hear in your local pub, and who kept his feet on the ground while the others were seduced by psychedelia, Transcendental Meditation, LSD, avant garde art and the like (as John once said: “When I feel my head start to swell, I look at Ringo and know perfectly well we’re not supermen.”) It may be that people just started to assume that he probably couldn’t drum very well either, but they were wrong. Boy, were they wrong.

At Abbey Road, around the time of ‘Rubber Soul’

Over the years, as each new remaster or remix of the group’s music has made the drums more prominent and players from Phil Collins to Dave Grohl have lined up to praise his talent and enduring influence, Ringo’s cachet has slowly grown. Of course, there are still some lazy, ill-informed assumptions, but gradually facts are coming more to the fore. Mark Lewisohn’s brilliant biography Tune In makes it absolutely clear that Ringo was undoubtedly the best drummer Liverpool had to offer in the early 1960s, which is one reason why the city’s biggest band wanted him. Recalling the moment he first played with The Beatles, Paul later said: “I remember the moment, standing there and looking at John and then looking at George, and the look on our faces was like, fuck you. What is this? And that was the moment, that was the beginning, really, of The Beatles.” Ringo played on solo records by John, Paul and George after the split, and even when he wasn’t there his influence was still keenly felt, with Lennon regularly telling session drummers in the studio to “play it like Ringo”. He didn’t stumble into this group by accident.

You have only to listen to The Beatles’ (failed) audition tapes for Decca Records at the start of 1962 and compare it with their performance at the Star Club in Hamburg just under 12 months later to understand what the Starr man brought to the table. I’m not here to trash Pete Best, but the difference is colossal. Even allowing for the fact they were in an unfamiliar recording studio on a chilly winter’s day (as opposed to a sweaty club filled with well-oiled admirers), the band on the Decca recordings sounds tentative, stuck in a low gear; the drumming basic, samey, even tepid at points. On the Star Club album, by contrast, it’s a different beast altogether. A snarling, persuasive, confident beast, driven relentlessly forward by a dynamic, dynamite set of rhythms pumping out of the drum kit. The band’s startling synergy was now in place and would remain ever after, as Ringo kept pace with the others’ spiralling musical aspirations and effortlessly dealt with whatever was thrown at him over the next seven years. Indeed, there’s an argument that he didn’t even peak until their final recording sessions, so crammed is Abbey Road with fluid, memorable drum parts.

During the ‘Let It Be’ sessions, 1969

I’m no expert when it comes to drumming, but I thing Ringo’s qualities are pretty evident. He was versatile, inventive, reliable. He has a recognisable sound, a “feel”, and yet could turn his hand to just about anything – from ‘When I’m 64’ to ‘I Am The Walrus’. He’s not a flash, busy player, like The Who’s Keith Moon was, for example. It’s all about what the song needs, what the band needs. He’s selfless, a team player who provides that steady centre, the anchor which allows the others to go on their incredible flights of fancy and return safely to earth. In fact, most of the The Beatles’ recordings are such fine ensemble pieces, with each member providing an important piece of the jigsaw, it’s hard to take Ringo’s contributions out of context. Nonetheless, what follows are ten of my favourite drumming performances in their catalogue – moments of real Starr quality, if you like, exceptional even by his superlative standards. I’ve opted to do this list in chronological order, to illustrate the way he developed over the years.

 1.  I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Cry (Over You)  (Live at the Star Club, Hamburg, 1962)

As I mentioned earlier, the lo-fi live album recorded in Germany in late December 1962 is a great showcase for Ringo’s power and precision, demonstrating how he instantly moved the band up to another level. The primitive nature of the recording means the drums are really in your face here, and the energy of the playing on tracks like ‘Sweet Little Sixteen’ and ‘Red Sails in the Sunset is exhilarating, like proto-punk (but with more musicality). He can be loose and lithe when the material calls for it, too (his playing on the lilting ‘To Know Her Is To Love Her’ is just achingly right), but on the more rocking numbers he really delivers fireworks – none more so than on this Elvis cover. The song careers around wildly on his frantic beat and rapid-fire fills, but he never loses control. Quite showy, by Ringo standards, but brilliant. The first version I had of this album in the mid-1980s (on cassette) erroneously featured an old shot of the band with Pete Best on the cover. My Dad duly assumed he was the man behind the kit and, when this song came on, said: “Well, there’s nothing wrong with this drumming, is there?” He wasn’t wrong.

2.  Twist and Shout (Please Please Me, 1963)

After a shaky start in his first recording session with the band at Abbey Road, which led to George Martin booking a session drummer as insurance when they came to record debut single ‘Love Me Do’, Ringo quickly found his feet in the studio, as his fantastic playing on their follow-up, ‘Please Please Me’, demonstrates. Likewise, their first album is laced with terrific drumming, notably on ‘I Saw Her Standing There’ and ‘Anna’. But he saved the best until last, on this classic cover of the Isley Brothers’ hit. The drums are such an integral part of its appeal, and it sounds like he’s smashing through brick walls at some points. But what I really love is the way he tracks and underpins the vocals, helping the others build to a frenzy during the climbing harmonies section, and supporting John’s rasping lead. The rat-tat ending is just right, too. Magic.

3.  Little Child (With The Beatles, 1963)

This isn’t one of their finest early compositions; in fact, I’d say it’s the weakest track on their second album. What saves it, however, is the performance – and Ringo’s playing, in particular. There’s nothing especially clever about it, especially during the regular verse/chorus sections. But during the instrumental break in the middle it explodes, as he bashes the hell out of his kit amid a flurry of cymbals (he’s always great on his cymbals). It meshes fantastically with the piano and harmonica parts, and by the time John starts singing again, you feel quite giddy.

4.  Ticket to Ride (Help!, 1965)

While the drums are quite prominent on their first two albums, by Beatles For Sale at the end of 1964, they seem to have been downgraded a little, buried in the mix. However, this tune – their first release of 1965 – returns them to centrestage, and is unquestionably one of Ringo’s finest moments with the group. While it was apparently Paul who came up with the quirky rhythm which propels the song, as Ringo likes to say, it’s all about the fills (the bits where drummers veer off from the song’s main beat to do their own thing) – and the fills here are extraordinary. In keeping with The Beatles’ creative ethos, every time John sings “a ticket to ri-hi-hide” on the chorus, Ringo comes up with something different, keeping the listener on their toes. And, after a series of drum rolls, the way he echoes the sense of emotional exhaustion and resignation in John’s voice on the final chorus with just a single hit of the skins is genius.

5.  You Won’t See Me (Rubber Soul, 1965)

This has long been one of my Fabs favourites, and if any Beatles numbers can be said to be criminally underrated, this is surely it. Listening to it again recently, I realised how the drumming is so integral to its charms. Right from the opening crash, Ringo’s playing is artful, direct and elegant, once again perfectly in tune with the needs of the song. The core beat is decorated with subtle cymbals and endless fills, and the way he leads the band into the middle eight part (“Time after time…”) keeps everything flowing so naturally, you don’t notice how clever it is.

6.  Rain (b-side, 1966)

One of Ringo’s personal favourites and among his most highly regarded efforts, the flip side of ‘Paperback Writer’ is an obvious choice. His performance is just dazzling. As the others brought in ever-more complex songs, he rose to the challenge time and time again. I can’t even tell you how he achieves some of this, it’s like he’s on another plain here. The drums are almost the lead instrument, and pull off the amazing trick of anchoring the song but somehow disorienting you at the same time. Kudos goes to George Martin’s production, Paul’s stupendous bass playing and (of course) John’s hazy, trippy song, but Ringo is the Starr of the show on this.

7.  A Day in the Life (Sgt. Pepper, 1967)

Another inevitable pick, I suppose.There is so much going on in this track, but it just wouldn’t be the same without Ringo’s contributions. He doesn’t even appear until almost 50 seconds in, but what an introduction – the deft little fill behind “He blew his mind out in a car”. Then the rhythm starts in earnest, leaning heavily on tom-toms to build the song as John ethereal observations gather momentum. His playing here is so skillful and sensitive, it’s like a little work of art in itself. The pace picks up for Paul’s bouncy middle eight, then it’s back to the original pattern for the final verse, only a little faster as the song nears its crescendo. Ringo’s work gives it all a deep, sonorous ‘bottom end’, yet is lively and articulate in its own right. It’s just perfect.

8.  It’s All Too Much (Yellow Submarine, 1967)

Ringo goes epic on George’s psychedelic tour de force, recorded in 1967 but not released until early 1969. It’s such a grandiose, powerhouse number, it needed drums to match or the whole enterprise would’ve collapsed under the weight of its ambitions. Ringo doesn’t disappoint, attacking his kit from the get-go with real vigour, and the whole thing bristles with energy. It’s one of his more muscular, busy outings, and he sounds like he’s having a blast. It’s certainly a long way from ‘Love Me Do’.

9.  Here Comes The Sun (Abbey Road, 1969)

The Beatles’ final recorded album might just be Ringo’s finest hour (or 47 minutes). It’s a masterclass of drumming, from the adroit rumblings of ‘Come Together’ to the simple but expertly executed solo which kicks off ‘The End’. I could’ve chosen almost any track here, but have gone for this Harrison tune because it illustrates, for the umpteenth time, how Ringo instinctively knew what his bandmates needed. His drums (intertwined with Paul’s bass) are like galloping horses pulling the song into sunlit uplands, giving it the joyful impetus the lyrics demand. And his dexterity and imagination are in full bloom during the “sun sun, here it comes” instrumental section, leading us on a merry dance before returning us home for the breezy finale. Breathtaking stuff.

10.  You Never Give Me Your Money (Abbey Road, 1969)

One thing that definitely showcases Ringo’s playing on this album is the production – he never sounded better. It highlights how good he was, and this number is another stellar example. Again, for the first minute or so, you hear only some delicate cymbals here and there, but when he comes in on the “out of college…” section, it’s just electrifying. And listen to the way he shifts gears slightly to set up the “one sweet dream…” part, and then dives into fill heaven during the extended fade-out, dropping cymbal bombs all over the place. It’s majestic. It’s awesome. It’s Ringo.

Honourable mentions: ‘You Really Got A Hold On Me’, ‘Wait’, ‘She Said, She Said’, ‘I Am The Walrus’, ‘I’m So Tired’, ‘Something’….. in fact, pretty much everything they recorded. He scarcely missed a beat during their entire career. Ringo didn’t get lucky getting into The Beatles. The Beatles got lucky getting him.

‘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.

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’

‘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.

Rockabilly cats – George and Ringo in ‘Carl Perkins & Friends’

I fell in love with the Fab Four in 1985, which turned out to be one of the quietest Beatles years on record, with a dearth of new product or noteworthy appearances. After failing to agree on the feverishly-anticipated Sessions album of unreleased material the previous year, EMI and Apple didn’t issue any group material, new or old. George and Ringo seemed to have retired from music making altogether at this point, while Paul – perhaps licking his wounds from the critical and commercial failure of the Broad Street film in 1984 – busied himself with making a new album (though the ‘Spies Like Us’ single did emerge just before Christmas). The fifth anniversary of John’s death was a marked with a couple of semi-authorised TV shows, but generally it was pretty slim pickings for Fabs fans in 1985. Then, out of the blue, the UK tabloids reported that autumn that George AND Ringo were to appear to a TV special paying tribute to ‘50s rocker Carl Perkins, to be broadcast over the festive season.

At that stage, I didn’t really know a lot about Carl Perkins, other than that The Beatles had recorded a few of his songs. But in truth, such was his low public profile at that time, I didn’t really know much more about George. Being a film fan, I vaguely remembered him being interviewed about HandMade Films on the BBC’s Film programme a couple of years earlier, but that was about it. I didn’t know any of his solo songs (only one of which, ‘All Those Years Ago’, had cracked the UK Top 20 since 1973), and this was his first TV or concert performance in almost a decade. I’d seen Ringo on chat shows and in the occasional acting role, while the success of his Thomas the Tank Engine TV readings had kept his name in the news and he was often pictured in the newspapers with Barbara at some party or other. But George was something of a mystery, and he was treated as a bit of a hermit by the press. Indeed, I half expected his appearance in the upcoming TV special to feature the solemn, gaunt, long-haired mystic look from the early ‘70s that I most associated him with – a  sort of cross between Catweazle and Gandalf with a guitar. The reality was to be very different.

Carl Perkins – one hairy rockabilly cat

The producers of the show obviously knew they had pulled off a major coup by persuading two Beatles to appear. They are top of the bill on the opening credits, which also feature a lovely embrace between the pair backstage. The show proper, recorded at London’s Limehouse Studios, begins with a couple of songs from Perkins himself, backed by Dave Edmunds and his band. Though a contemporary of both Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash at the famous Sun Studios in Memphis during the dawn of rock ‘n’ roll (he wrote and recorded the original version of ‘Blue Suede Shoes’). the same level of superstardom eluded Perkins. Nonetheless, his early rockabilly records were an enduring influence on the beat boom kids of the 1960s, in the UK in particular, and The Beatles regularly covered his songs in their stage act.  The 1985 Perkins is clearly thrilled to celebrate his legacy with some of the “rockabilly cats” he inspired, and is a genuinely humble, likeable presence throughout the show – though his unfeasibly shaggy hairpiece seems to have been borrowed from William Shatner’s T.J. Hooker wardrobe.

After Perkins opens proceedings, it’s Starr-time, as Ringo takes to the drum stool and performs his Beatles For Sale showcase, the Perkins-penned ‘Honey Don’t’. While this must have been around the peak period of Ringo’s alcoholism (he checked into rehab three years later), he looks and sounds terrific. I think his main problem for much of the ’80s was that he had too much time on his hands, and also wasn’t making much music, so he must have relished this chance to return to the stage with a few old pals. Perhaps it even sowed the seeds for the All-Starr Band concept which emerged in 1989. Either way, it’s always great to see him singing from behind the drums (and it’s one of the few Fabs songs of his he hasn’t really done much on his subsequent tours). He also lobs in a couple of droll one-liners which inexplicably reduce Perkins to tears of laughter – though to be fair, Ringo laughs at them too, which make them seem much funnier than they actually are.

Then it’s time for a little more stardust, as Eric Clapton joins them for another tune covered by The Beatles, ‘Matchbox’. The three take it in turns to sing the verses, with Clapton and Perkins trading guitar solos. Like George, Clapton was on the cusp of a major career revival at this time, and his appearance here was certainly a step up from his guest slot on Chas & Dave’s Christmas Knees-up three years earlier. Ringo then takes a breather and a fairly forgettable interlude follows, including a couple of songs from Rosanne Cash (sporting very big ‘80s hair and shoulder pads). But no matter, as the main event is just around the corner.

George is back!

Perkins’ introduction acknowledges that “some people thought he’d retired”, and the rapturous response which greets George as he walks on stage reflects the sense of anticipation. I recall being pleasantly surprised how contemporary – and well – he looked, sporting a cool grey suit and black shirt, clean shaven and his hair brushed back into a quiff. Not an orange robe or Hare Krishna bell in sight. Even better, he launched into a fantastic version of his Beatles For Sale number, ‘Everybody’s Tryin’ To Be My Baby’, including a note-perfect solo. Of all the Beatles, George was probably the biggest Perkins fan – often singing lead on those covers, and massively influenced by his twangy guitar style. When most of the group chose aliases to mark their first professional tour (of Scotland, in 1960), remember, George became “Carl Harrison”. And he clearly loves every second of playing alongside his hero on this show.

It’s interesting that Paul McCartney – who recorded a duet with Perkins on 1982’s Tug of War – wasn’t involved in the special too. But then the whole thing would undoubtedly have become an out-of-control ‘Beatles reunion’ bullet train and overshadowed the whole point of the exercise, so I wonder if there was some mutual agreement for Paul to politely decline. One Perkins song that Macca did sing with The Beatles, ‘Your True Love’, is next up in the show, with George, Carl and Dave Edmunds sharing out the lead vocal. It’s wonderful, joyous performance of one of Perkins’ best tunes. Another lovely moment follows when George coaxes Carl to finger-pick his way through ‘The World is Waiting for The Sunrise’, another song beloved by The Beatles and taped when they were still The Quarrymen, at home in Liverpool in 1960.

George, Eric Clapton, Rosanne Cash and Ringo in rock ‘n’ roll class

As the show hits the home straight, all the musicians gather onstage on a row of chairs for a “rock ‘n’ roll classroom”, with Perkins as the “teacher” at its head. It could’ve been terrible, but is actually really good fun, as the ensemble – with George clearly the head boy, and Ringo supporting on tambourine – romp through a bunch of ‘50s classics, including ‘Blue Moon of Kentucky’ and ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going’ On’. There’s a great bit where George leads the troupe into another Perkins song, ‘Glad All Over’ (also covered by the Fabs, and eventually released on Live at the BBC in 1994), and seems to know it better than its author. George shares lead guitar duties with Clapton, and is on fine form; it’s also a rare opportunity to hear him play something other than slide guitar during his post-Beatles career. Clapton is….well, Clapton. There’s no disputing his ability or the power of his playing, but it’s all a bit predictable, a little rote. Harrison may not be as slick, but I find him much more interesting.

Everyone gets back on their feet for the big finale, including a rousing rendition of ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ itself. Some of the audience who came in authentic Teddy Boy gear can hold back no longer and take to the floor, with their similarly ‘50s-clad partners, to move their Winklepickers and shake their greasy quiffs. The rest of the crowd are pretty pumped up too, and we get a shot of Olivia Harrison, Barbara Bach and Patti Boyd (George’s ex, of course, and then Mrs Eric Clapton) cheering on their hubbies. In fact, a very nice, uplifting vibe pervades the whole event, and after George has finished leading the band through a second take of ‘Blue Suede Shoes’, you believe an emotional Perkins when he announces that he’s never enjoyed playing the song as much.

Rock ‘n’ rolling back the years

‘Carl Perkins & Friends’ (available on DVD and on YouTube) is a fab little show, and I enjoy it even more now than I did when it was first screened. It’s always great to see two Beatles on the same stage, and performing songs which inspired them in the first place. George, in particular, looks to be having the time of his life. It’s like the years have fallen away, and the earnest young Quarryman who idolised rock ‘n’ roll stars and filled his school notebooks with drawings of guitars has reappeared, skipping over everything in between. He appears energised and refreshed after a break from the music industry and, though it wasn’t planned this way, this show represented the first step in his big comeback. He was the only person who emerged with any credit from Madonna’s HandMade Films fiasco of the following year, Shanghai Surprise, helping to dampen the British press feeding frenzy during filming and also supplying some well-regarded songs for the soundtrack. He also guested at a couple of high-profile fundraising concerts, and in 1987 recorded and released the hugely successful (and quite brilliant) Cloud Nine album, supporting it with an uncharacteristic publicity blitz. Macca suddenly had a rival as the World’s Most Popular Beatle.