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.