Revisiting McCartney’s ‘Press to Play’ 35 Years Later

Bill King takes another look at the 1986 album that Macca has all but disowned due to its lack of success.

Paul McCartney was not really in a good place, creatively or careerwise, in late summer 1986, when his “Press to Play” album was released.

Although the album drew some critical praise for McCartney’s efforts to move in a new musical direction, the overall reception was mixed (even among fans), and its sales were off considerably from Paul’s usual showing (peaking at No. 30 on Billboard’s album chart and selling only 400,000 copies in the U.S.)

Not surprisingly, Macca in later years would dismiss “Press to Play” as “not very successful,” and, when he returned to touring three years later, he didn’t include any songs from the album in his set list. He still doesn’t.

A bit of backstory: After having critical and sales success with 1982’s “Tug of War,” on which he had reunited with George Martin, McCartney had tried to replicate that success by continuing to work with the former Beatles producer.

However, 1983’s “Pipes of Peace” was not as big a sales success (despite having a smash hit single in his teaming with Michael Jackson on “Say Say Say”) and, critically, was dismissed by many as “Tug of War” leftovers.

And, while the “Give My Regards to Broad Street” soundtrack album had some superb musical moments, the film from which it came was a resounding flop at the box office and with reviewers. The album didn’t sell as well as usual, either.

Eric Stewart is seen with Paul and Linda.

Licking his wounds, Macca decided to look for a different producer (or producers) and began a period of flailing about creatively that wouldn’t end until the close of the decade, when he put together a touring band and released the album “Flowers in the Dirt” (which, even then, utilized more than a half dozen different producers).

The year after “Broad Street” saw him working for the first time in his own studio (located in an old mill near his home) and partnering with former 10cc member Eric Stewart, who had played and sung on the past couple of albums and had appeared in Paul’s videos (and in the “Broad Street” film band). The two spent most of 1985 cowriting songs, and together they began work on what would become Paul’s 1986 album release. Unfortunately, Stewart was given the idea he was co-producing the new album with Macca, while Paul, who had worked with Phil Ramone (Billy Joel’s producer) and Hugh Padgham (The Police, Phil Collins) on a standalone movie-theme single, “Spies Like Us,” decided to include Padgham in the sessions for the new album. And, what started out as an engineering gig for Padgham soon became co-production, as Macca sought to give his songs a more “contemporary” sound.

Stewart was disappointed, and ended up leaving the sessions before the album was completed, though he did play in a one-shot band Macca put together that November to perform “Only Love Remains” from the album at the Royal Variety Show.

When interviewed by Ken Sharp for Beatlefan in 2003, Stewart was fairly diplomatic in explaining how he came to have a credit on “Press to Play” for “special contribution,” rather than being one of the producers:

“I contributed to the production side of the album in many ways, but because MPL had a written deal with Hugh Padgham as ‘producer,’ they decided to give me a ‘special contribution’ credit,” Stewart told Sharp.

“Hugh is a great engineer, one of the best in the world,” he said, “but a ‘producer,’ I personally don’t think so. For me, a good ‘producer’ is somebody who can come up with musical directions, change harmonies, suggest different instrumentation, etc., like George Martin, or myself, for that matter.”

The picture sleeve for the “Press” single showed Macca’s illustration of the sound mix.

As for why his songwriting partnership with McCartney came to an end, Stewart said, “Paul and I didn’t continue writing after ‘Press to Play,’ I think initially, because the album was not very successful. …

“I feel the project dragged on far, far too long, after I had left it, and the production direction changed many times …. I feel it had lost its way long before it hit the streets. It was a very different album from the one I had thought I was going to record with Paul, and, in retrospect, I can see the flaws quite clearly now.”

Stewart was more direct in a 2017 interview with Super Deluxe Edition, calling the album “a pile of crap. … It was ghastly, it was ghastly, and I really felt very sorry that I’d got myself involved and then was told to walk away from it when it was going so bloody well before Hugh got involved in the production side. I think he would admit himself now it was a grave mistake.”

McCartney took some of the blame in discussing past collaborations in his 1990 tour book, saying that his work with Stewart on the “Press to Play” album “didn’t really work out as well as I wanted it to, although we did a couple of nice things. But, it wasn’t a very successful album. It all got a little bit sticky, because he thought I’d wanted him to co-produce the album with me, and I must have led him to believe that. But, it all got a little bit dodgy because, then I said, Oh, we’re getting so and so to produce it, and he went into shock. So that fell through mainly because of that production misunderstanding.”

For his part, Padgham told classicbands.com that, after being invited into the project by McCartney, “I went home incredibly excited to listen to a cassette of those demos that he had done with Eric Stewart from 10cc and I can honestly tell you now that I was underwhelmed when I heard those songs.”

At the time, he said, he thought maybe he was just failing to see the songs’ true merit, but, he added, if he’s “completely honest,” it “wasn’t a very good album.”

Padgham not only clashed with Stewart, he also said he found McCartney “quite annoying” in the studio.

And, he told Q magazine, “I don’t think he was in an era of writing good songs.”

A portrait of McCartney taken by George Hurrell, who also shot the album cover.

Although critical appraisals would grow less enthusiastic as the years passed, initially “Press to Play” was one of Macca’s better reviewed albums of the time, with some early raves from prominent critics.

The Chicago Tribune’s Lynn Van Matre called it “McCartney’s most rocking album in ages” and said, “Much of it’s catchy, most of it’s fun, and it’s superior to McCartney’s efforts of recent years.”

In Rolling Stone, Anthony DeCurtis called it “one of the sturdiest LPs of McCartney’s post-Beatles career.”

DeCurtis went on to note: “The last time McCartney weighed in credibly was on 1982’s ‘Tug of War,’ an album fired by its central image of struggle, a reunion with Beatles producer George Martin and the need to address the artistic legacy left by the recently slain John Lennon. If ‘Pipes of Peace’ marked a return to pap and 1984’s ‘Give My Regards to Broad Street’ represented a retreat into Beatles revisionism, ‘Press to Play’ plants McCartney firmly in the present.”

The critic praised both the songs (“Stewart pushes McCartney in some new directions”) and Padgham’s production, saying the latter supplied the album with an “electronically dense contemporary sound that fleshes out McCartney’s melodies and gives the LP rhythmic kick.”

Ironically, some fans weren’t as quick to embrace the album. I remember when I first opened my review copy and put it on the turntable, a good friend who is a major Maccamaniac was with me. I kind of liked the new album; my friend didn’t like it at all.

Macca is seen in the studio during the making of “Press to Play.”

That critical divide over the album continues to this day in fandom. When I decided to take a 35th anniversary look back at “Press to Play,” I asked some of Beatlefan’s editors for their thoughts on the album, pro or con.

Al Sussman, who gave the album mostly a thumbs-up in 1986, now feels “it hasn’t aged terribly well.”

While Al thinks there’s a good amount of “McCartney-worthy” material among the songs, “this was really the first time that Paul allowed a producer, Hugh Padgham, to impose his signature sound on a McCartney project (going on the theory that George Martin didn’t have a signature production sound). For instance, ‘Stranglehold’ sounds as if Phil Collins, not Macca, should be doing the vocal. Similar problem with ‘Press.’ It just doesn’t sound like a Paul McCartney record, though the song is a good one.”

And, Al said, “experimental tracks like ‘Talk More Talk’ and ‘Pretty Little Head’ have never done much for me, much like the first two Fireman records. Overall, I’d put ‘Press to Play’ somewhere in the middle of the post-Beatles McCartney canon — not a big misstep like ‘Driving Rain,’ but not in the ‘Band On the Run’/‘Tug of War’/‘Flaming Pie’/‘Chaos and Creation’ pantheon.”

Brad Hundt has a soft spot for the album, saying it “brings back memories of the summer of 1986, when I was 20 and a college student, so I feel a sentimental attachment to it. At the time I really liked it, appreciating McCartney’s effort to show his more experimental and adventurous side. And, let’s not forget, it netted McCartney some of his best reviews in years when it came out.”

While McCartney himself doesn’t appear to think much of it, and Padgham doesn’t hide his contempt for the album, Brad feels that, like “Pipes of Peace,” “it’s better than its reputation.”

Brad also rates “Press to Play” “somewhere in the middle of McCartney’s solo canon.”

McCartney in the studio with Pete Townshend and Phil Collins.

Kit O’Toole remains a fan of the album. “While I understand that ‘Press to Play’ was a departure from Paul McCartney’s typical sound, I’ve felt this album has gotten a bad rap over the years. I applaud him for taking a risk and trying more experimental sounds and composition styles. … Not every song works on the same level, but I still enjoy ‘Press to Play’ as a welcome departure from McCartney’s typical style.”

Back in 1986, in my review of the advance single “Press,” released six weeks before the album, I said that if one could judge by that tune and the others included on the extended 12-inch single, it seemed fairly certain that the album would take chances. Musically, I said, there’s not much more you could ask of McCartney at this point.

As it turned out, I said in my review of “Press to Play” in Beatlefan #47 (August-September, 1986), that pretty well summed up the album.

“It’s definitely a different sort of album from what McCartney fans have gotten used to,” I wrote, “but that, to me, is its strength. Instead of churning out another batch of patented, instantly recognizable potential singles, McCartney has tried out some new sounds and approaches.

“The result is a bit too inconsistent to be called a really great McCartney album. And, some of the stylistically varied music may be so alien to the McCartney mainstream that its charms won’t be evident on first listen.

“But, ‘Press to Play’ is a welcome addition to the catalog because it boasts an energy and creativity indicative of an artist once more exploring the boundaries of contemporary music, rather than a craftsman simply turning out variations on previous great works.”

Recently, I went back and listened to the album and its associated B-sides, to see whether my original generally positive evaluation still stood.

McCartney the dreamer.

Originally, the album came out with 10 songs on the vinyl LP (then still the standard mode of release) and three extra songs on the compact disc (a format that was relatively new at the time, and which many fans didn’t yet have).

Here’s my track-by-track comparison of what I said in 1986, and what I think 35 years later:

The album opened with “Stranglehold,” one of the eight songs on it cowritten by McCartney and Stewart, which I said in 1986 was “a hard-edged rocker with a nice sax solo. The processing on McCartney’s vocal may leave some casual listeners under the impression they’re listening to someone else.” Listening to it in 2021, I was considerably less impressed, not finding much of interest for me in the track.

In my original Beatlefan review, I wrote: “The next four songs are the LP’s best,” starting with “Good Times Coming/Feel the Sun,” which I described as “a catchy ode to a summer holiday, complete with a bouncy reggae beat. The vocal this time is high and breathy, and the second half sports a feel-good chorus that will have you singing along in no time.” As opposed to the opening track, I like this one even more now. To me, despite the fact that it sounds at times very much like The Police, it’s classic McCartney, with its hooky earworms and catchy chorus. I’m still humming it a day later.

“Talk More Talk,” I wrote in 1986, “is an elaborate production number that brings to mind a musical meeting of McCartney and The Police. There are snatches of spoken dialogue interspersed throughout this midtempo rocker, and the backing relies heavily on drum machines and synthesizers, definitely showing the influence of Padgham. The chorus’ hook is pure McCartney, however.” Now, I find this one sounds awfully dated. The best McCartney recordings are ageless; this isn’t one of them.

The two prettiest tunes on the album, I said in 1986, are “Footprints” and “Only Love Remains.”

The former, another McCartney-Stewart effort, “paints a poetic picture that’s complemented by the track’s shimmering sound. McCartney sings it with a slightly husky voice, which fits right in with the lyric’s tale of an ‘old hand.’ A Spanish guitar also is well used here,” I wrote. Listening now, I really like the slightly Latin beat, the shimmering backing and the Spanish guitar solo. One of the best tracks on the album, I think.

“Only Love Remains,” I said in 1986, “is one of those beautiful love ballads at which McCartney always has excelled. It’s lushly but tastefully produced, with an orchestral backing arranged by Tony Visconti.” Al said he thinks this is still one of Macca’s greatest love songs, and I’m inclined to agree.

A U.K. advertisement for the album.

Back in the day, the vinyl LP’s second side opened with “Press.” In my review of the single, I had said that it showed a bit of hip-hop influence in its danceable percussion and scratching, and was “one of his most energetic — and interestingly different — recordings in quite a while. The mixture of drum machines, synthesizers, sequencers and electric guitar is quite upbeat, and wears well with repeated listenings.” In my album review, I said of the track: “People seem either to like it very much or dislike it completely. Its chart action [it peaked at No. 21 in the U.S. and No. 25 in the U.K.] indicates the latter group predominates. I like it more and more, as time goes by, however.” And, I still like it.

The rest of the second side of the 10-song LP was devoted to four more McCartney-Stewart songs. “Unfortunately,” I wrote back then, “they fail to live up to their potential.”

I described “Pretty Little Head” as “the album’s strangest cut,” and said it was “an attempt to re-create musically the atmosphere of a science fiction novel. Its mix of vibes, tom-toms and synthesizers is interesting, and the ‘Ursa Major, Ursa Minor’ chorus is quite hummable, but the whole thing doesn’t hang together very well.” Listening in 2021, I liked the track’s use of vibraphone and neo-psychedelic feel, but not the overly processed vocal.

“Move Over Busker,” the name-dropping lament of a street musician with greater aspirations, starts out promisingly, I said then, but “degenerates into a run-of-the-mill rocker reminiscent of mid-’70s boogie bands.” Now, I find myself liking this one much more. It would have been great to hear it performed in concert.

“Angry,” I said originally, “is a big disappointment. I expected a track featuring Pete Townshend on guitar and Phil Collins on drums to be a little special, but it’s a rather unremarkable punkish rocker. The best thing about it is its high energy level.” I had exactly the same reaction on listening to it again recently.

The last track on the original LP was “However Absurd,” which I characterized then asan overly orchestrated plodder with mostly nonsense lyrics. This one never really gets going.” Looking at the notes I took on my recent listen, before I’d gone back and read my original review, I find that I had the same reaction: “plodding, never really gets going.”

As I noted in my 1986 review, the compact disc featured three extra tracks. “It’s Not True” had been the B-side of the “Press” single I’d reviewed in the previous issue, and I’d described it as “a ballad sung in a rather high voice and spiced up with a harder, more midtempo chorus.” Obviously, it didn’t impress me much, and I don’t have much to add to that now.

One of the official publcity photos from “Press to Play.”

“Write Away,” I described as “a jazzy, Al Jarreau sort of number with some very nice singing by McCartney.” Listening now, I find it upbeat, bouncy and with some very nice, jazzy guitar. Not bad.

“Tough on a Tightrope,” I wrote, was “a midtempo McCartney song that rambles on too long and sounds too familiar.” And, I had the same reaction all these years later.

Finally, another track from the sessions, appearing only as a B-side on the 12-inch vinyl single of “Press,” was “Hanglide,” an instrumental written by McCartney and Stewart. Back then, I wrote that it was “an intriguing number built around a constant backing of clapping and percussion that has a definite jungle feel to it. Laid over this is a mix of synthesizers, strings, woodwinds and guitar. The whole thing sounds like movie soundtrack music.” Now, I’d amend that slightly to mediocre soundtrack music.

It’s also worth noting that this was the era when Paul really got into releasing multiple mixes and edits of songs in different configurations. For example, “Press” had a 3:21 version called the “video edit,” a 4:41 edit played on MTV (with some longer percussion breaks and a couple of extra spoken lines) and the 6:28 “dub” version from the 12-inch single, which had most of the vocals removed and made it more of a dance track.

A couple of other notes of interest: McCartney’s cousin, Kate Robbins, provided some of the album’s backing harmonies, and his son, James, was among the speakers on “Talk More Talk.” Paul followed up the album by working on the “Cold Cuts” collection … which still hasn’t come out. And, by the end of 1986, Paul was talking about putting a band together for touring (it wouldn’t happen until 1989) and was planning for Phil Ramone to produce his next album. (They did work together, with some of the tracks used as future B-sides on CD singles, but Ramone did not produce the next album.)

Overall, I found that, in 2021, I liked six of the 14 tracks on “Press to Play,” and wasn’t that fond of the other eight, which is slightly more negative than I was about it in 1986. And, in most cases, that was because I didn’t really like Padgham’s cluttered, gimmicky overproduction and processed sound.

So, Al was right: There is some worthy material here, but the album hasn’t aged all that well. And, in the overall picture, he and Brad have it pegged correctly: definitely middle-of-the-pack McCartney.

— Bill King

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The Beatles and Motown

The Beatles with Mary Wells.

The Fab Four and Hitsville USA made a great combo, as Kit O’Toole recounts in this expanded version of an article published in Beatlefan #250.

When The Beatles first conquered the U.S. in February, 1964, they forever changed American music.  British groups impacted the charts like never before, folk artists like Bob Dylan “went electric,” and psychedelia later would infiltrate pop. The formidable songwriting team of Lennon-McCartney, as well as George Harrison’s rapidly growing composing skills, also signaled a new era for rock: self-contained bands, or artists who composed their own music. This posed a threat to the Brill Building writers and other professional songwriters who, until The Beatles’ arrival, had dominated the American market. Yet one label managed to compete with The Beatles during the 1960s, becoming not only the most successful independent record company in history, but also the most successful Black-owned business in America.

Motown, founded by songwriter and entrepreneur Berry Gordy, broke down barriers between R&B and pop music by fusing various music genres, such as symphonic elements, jazz, rock, psychedelia, funk and pop; writing lyrics with universal meaning that were clever, intelligent and memorable; and emphasizing strong beats, using percussion and bass (foreshadowing disco and hip hop).

The Beatles learned from the Motown Sound, covering their early songs and emulating Smokey Robinson’s smooth singing style and eloquent songwriting techniques. In turn, Motown artists thanked The Beatles for their support by covering their songs.  Motown, founded in 1959, and The Beatles would prove to have a symbiotic relationship. 

The Birth of Motown

By the fall of 1957, Gordy had tried several careers: boxer, owner of a jazz record store, and an employee at the Ford motor plant. With a wife and kids to support, he needed to settle on a lucrative profession, and fast. His true passion remained music, specifically songwriting.  Fortunately, he lived in Detroit, which was experiencing a musical renaissance in the 1950s; thanks to acclaimed music programs in high schools and a plethora of music clubs and theaters, the city teemed with talent and enthusiastic audiences. 

Gordy frequented many of those clubs, hoping to find artists willing to record his compositions. One such venue, the Flame Show Bar, offered him a unique opportunity to mingle with artists and their managers: his sisters, Anna and Gwen, headed the photo and cigarette concession stands.  Gordy would become friendly with Flame house band members Maurice King and Thomas “Beans” Bowles, Earl Van Dyke and James Jamerson — all of whom later would lbecome Motown studio or touring musicians.

But, another connection would prove key in starting Gordy off on his music career: Al Green, Jackie Wilson’s manager. Chatting with Green at the Flame, Gordy pitched his songs; the manager told Gordy to stop by his office the next day.

That meeting resulted in the pairing of Gordy with another songwriter, Roquel “Billy” Davis (who wrote under the pseudonym “Tyron Carlo”), and they would go on to pen the Wilson classics “Reet Petite” and “Lonely Teardrops.” 

It was during this time that Gordy developed his songwriting formula, as outlined in Gerard Early’s “One Nation Under a Groove: Motown and American Culture”:

  • Always use present tense
  • Never overdo the hook
  • Make sure the song has a hummable melody (something faintly resembling an already familiar melody)
  • Find originality in the song’s concept, how the lyrics are phrased, and in its rhythm
  • Singer should serve the song, the song should not serve the singer

While writing for Wilson, Gordy also met another aspiring songwriter and performer who auditioned for Green: Smokey Robinson, who brought his group the Miracles. Green turned them down, but Gordy was taken with their sound and felt Robinson held great potential as a songwriter. The two would form a lifelong friendship and become business partners, as Gordy transitioned from songwriter to business owner.

While Gordy enjoyed these early successes, he learned a hard truth: as a songwriter, he earned a fraction of the money the main performer, the producer and the label owner made. At first, Gordy believed he could profit more as a producer, so he would rent studio space, record artists, and broker deals with record labels for distribution. Once he learned that he still earned little money, Gordy (with Robinson’s encouragement) decided to form his own company. In 1959, with an $800 loan from his family trust, he formed the Tamla label, based on his experience working at the Ford plant; namely, production could be organized efficiently and automated for the highest quality. Everyone would have their own roles and, with few exceptions, never would overlap (e.g. composers wrote songs, producers produced, and artists recorded their vocals and played their instruments).  Gordy also founded a publishing company, Jobete, to ensure ownership of the songs. As the label grew, he formed the subsidiary label Motown, shifting groups there and retaining solo artists on Tamla. By 1960, Gordy incorporated the company as the Motown Record Corp. 

The record credited with kicking off Motown is Marv Johnson’s “Come to Me,” first issued on Tamla in 1959 and marking Berry’s debut as songwriter and producer. It became a Top 30 pop hit, and peaked at No. 6 on the R&B charts, a very promising beginning for the upstart label. The company’s next single, however, would make a much bigger dent on the charts (and set the tone for the Motown sound): “Money (That’s What I Want),” the Barrett Strong track that peaked at No. 2 on the Hot R&B Sides chart and No. 23 on the Hot 100 chart. While Tamla released the record locally in 1960, “Money” was distributed nationally via his sister Anna Gordy’s label, Anna Records, through a deal with Chess Records. Gordy and Strong wrote the majority of the song, although, according to Gordy’s 1994 autobiography “To Be Loved,” his then-secretary, Janie Bradford, contributed the lines “Your love give me such a thrill / But your love don’t pay my bills.” 

Around this time, Berry said, the distinctions between “white” and “black” music were becoming fuzzier. R&B was black, pop was white. But, with the rock explosion and Elvis Presley’s popularity, that difference began to change, and “Money” represents that shift.

As Tamla/Motown grew, so did its talent roster. The Funk Brothers, its formidable house band, drew from the local talent playing in Detroit jazz and blues clubs. Hank Cosby (saxophone), Benny Benjamin (drums), Jamerson (bass), Van Dyke (piano), Eddie “Bongo” Brown (percussion), and Robert White, Joe Messina and Eddie Willis (guitars), are just some of the many names that comprised the group that played on every recording. Playing in what they called the “snakepit” (the basement studio of Hitsville, USA in Detroit), they were expected to crank out three to four songs during every three-hour session. An average workday consisted of two of these three-hour sessions, occasionally three or four.  Due to their vast expertise, they could handle songs thrown at them at such a rapid rate, even though they often had no prior knowledge of the tracks’ titles or their intended performers.

Motown’s assault on the charts began in 1960, when “Shop Around” by Robinson and the Miracles became the label’s first million-seller and peaked at No. 2 on the pop charts. Co-written by Robinson and Gordy, the track (originally intended for Strong) showcased Robinson’s silky voice and clever lyrics, and the Funk Brothers’ trademark sound.  The following year proved even bigger, with the Marvelettes’ “Please Mr. Postman” zooming all the way to No. 1 on the pop charts. From then on, the label boasted an enviable amount of talent: Mary Wells, the Supremes, the Temptations, the Four Tops, Marvin Gaye, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, and Stevie Wonder. The in-house songwriters proved to have an ear for making hits, with the legendary team of Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Eddie Holland, as well as Norman Whitfield, Ashford and Simpson, and, of course, Robinson, penning classics that competed with — and even influenced — the British invasion groups.

Motown’s original headquarters.

What Is “The Motown Sound”?

The “Motown Sound” also became a key element of their success, and much of it resulted from budget constraints, adapting to a small space, and transistor radios. For starters, Studio A’s live room was just a simple rectangle, with ceilings only slightly taller than average — not exactly a cavernous space like Abbey Road’s Studio 2. The Steinway grand piano dominated the space, leaving relatively little room once mics, chairs and music stands were set up, and the numerous cables dangling from the ceiling earned this space the nickname “the snake pit.” But, despite its relatively modest facility, Motown kept up with the cutting edge of recording technology. Starting off with a primitive two-track setup, Hitsville graduated to a three-track format in 1961, before moving to eight-track in the mid-’60s and 16-track by the end of the decade.

The move to more tracks did a lot to shape the Motown Sound, and the difference can be heard clearly by comparing an early song like “Heat Wave” by Martha & The Vandellas with the fuller sound of “Cloud Nine” by the Temptations. Track limitations on the former required the tambourine, snare and hi-hat all to share a single mic, while the latter features dedicated tracks for auxiliary percussion, multiple guitars and backup vocals. Due to space limitations, there was no room for a vocal booth, so they made one out of the hallway that led from the control room to the stairs that took you into the studio. There were no windows, so they couldn’t see the singer, and had to communicate via microphones. They had to place the first echo chamber in the downstairs bathroom, so a guard was positioned outside the door, so no one flushed during recording. Later they adopted an attic area for an echo chamber, which made the voice sound fatter and gave the recording a bigger sound. Later, a German electronic echo chamber called EMT was installed in the basement. 

In addition, because there was no room for large amps in studio, the guitars and bass were plugged right into the console and were heard through the room’s one speaker. Before a session, the guitar players would adjust their volume to a level they were never to exceed. These necessary adaptations led to the prominent sound of Jamerson’s bass, as well as the rhythmic guitars, both signatures of Motown records. 

Another factor involved consumer technology. By 1965, more than 12 million transistor radios were being purchased a year. In addition, in 1963 about 50 million radios had been installed in car dashboards. Shrewdly, Gordy geared his music toward these mediums. Chief engineer Mike McClain built a small, tinny-sounding radio designed to approximate the sound of a car radio. The high-end bias of Motown recordings can be traced partially to this technique, thus adding another dimension to the label’s distinctive sound. 

Overall, Dennis Coffey, a guitarist who joined the Funk Brothers later in Motown’s history, summarized the essential elements of the instrumental sound in his 2004 autobiography “Guitars, Bars, and Motown Superstars”:

  • Percussion: occasionally using two drummers with gospel tambourine and bongos
  • Guitar backbeat: sharp-sounding guitar part played high up on neck along with snare drum (beats two and four)
  • Funky, melodic bass sound
  • Songs themselves: innovative, jazz-style chords, melodic chord changes
  • Lush orchestra with horns and strings
  • Vocalists have a slick, urban sound
The Beatles with Berry Gordy.

Motown Invades the UK and Encounters the Beatles

While Motown records were not distributed under their own label n the U.K. until 1965, Gordy struck a deal with Decca’s London American imprint to release records as early as 1959’s “Come to Me.”  Thus, The Beatles heard and purchased 45s such as “Money” and “Shop Around,” although these singles initially had little impact on the British charts.  They did, however, receive airplay on pirate radio stations, where The Beatles and members of the Rolling Stones were listening keenly to American records.

Before Gordy could sign a better distribution deal, The Beatles were about to introduce the British public to Motown. On March 7, 1962, the group recorded their radio debut on a BBC show, entitled “Teenager’s Turn — Here We Go,” at the Playhouse Theatre in Manchester, the first time The Beatles appeared on BBC radio. In front of 250 people, the band performed three songs: “Dream Baby,” “Memphis” and “Please Mr. Postman.” When the group launched into the final song, it marked the first time the song — or any Tamla Motown song — was played on the BBC.  The Beatles may not have realized it at the time, but the group broke the Motown Sound to the wider British listening public. 

Because of that, Gordy could negotiate for a better distribution deal. After a short-lived deal with Philips’ Fontana imprint, Gordy signed a longer term agreement with Oriole Records in September, 1962, under which 19 singles were released over a yearlong period, including “Do You Love Me” by the Contours, “Fingertips” by Stevie Wonder and “Stubborn Kind of Fellow” by Marvin Gaye. 

After Gordy had established Motown and several subsidiary labels, he signed what he hoped would be a more lucrative deal, licensing his labels to EMI for U.K. distribution.

One of The Beatles’ first indirect brushes with Motown, interestingly, was through Geoff Emerick; as he detailed in his autobiography “Here, There, and Everywhere.” One of his earliest jobs was remastering American records sent to EMI for U.K. distribution. “My job was especially demanding when Tamla Motown material came in. I was always striving to match their full, bass-rich sound, but I found that I couldn’t ever do it successfully, which was quite frustrating,” Emerick wrote. “It took me a long while to realize that the reasons had to do with the equipment we had at EMI, which was not up to the standard of American equipment.”

Back on American soil, Gordy welcomed a special visitor to Hitsville in early 1964: Brian Epstein. As he described in “To Be Loved,” Epstein wanted to tell Gordy how much he and The Beatles loved the Motown Sound, “telling us of the great influence it had had on them.”

A few months later, Gordy received a call from a representative for Epstein. The Beatles wanted to record three Motown tracks for their second album: “Money,” “You Really Got a Hold on Me” and “Please Mr. Postman.” While Gordy was pleased to hear this, he was not thrilled with the offer: a discounted rate on the publishing royalty. Rather than pay Motown the standard 2 cents per song, Epstein’s office offered 1.5 cents. At first, Gordy turned down the offer flat, but the same man phoned the next day, stating Gordy had until noon to decide on the discounted publishing royalty rate. Gordy called Robinson, national sales and promotion manager Barney Ales and siblings Robert and Loucye Gordy into his office. After vigorous debate, Gordy reluctantly agreed to the discounted rate, deciding the potential sales were worth it. 

“Everybody was jubilant that I had given in, including me — until about 2 o’clock that same day, when we got the news,” Gordy wrote. “Capitol Records had the albums in stock at their distributors and were, at that very moment, sending them out to radio stations and stores. The Beatles’ new album with our three songs on it, had already been recorded, mixed, mastered, pressed and shipped.”

Gordy may not have been pleased initially with the royalty rate, but the decision proved be a savvy one.

After failing to achieve more hits, Motown finally achieved a U.K. hit with Mary Wells’ “My Guy,” the single peaking at No. 5 in June, 1964. The Beatles declared themselves fans, calling Wells “their sweetheart,” and inviting her to open for them on their brief British tour from Oct. 9 to Nov. 10. A key element to Motown’s success in England proved to be The Beatles, whose Motown covers on “With The Beatles” further exposed British audiences to the label. To capitalize on the success, Gordy sent the label’s biggest stars — Wells, the Supremes, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, the Miracles and the Temptations — on a promotional tour of the U.K. in October of that year. The Supremes’ November “Top of the Pops”appearance propelled “Baby Love” to No. 1, finally bringing Motown its first massive U.K. hit.

British audiences received Motown groups enthusiastically; in turn, the Supremes demonstrated their mutual admiration by releasing the album “A Bit of Liverpool” and posing for promotional photos imitating The Beatles’ “Please Please Me” album cover.

Still frustrated with Motown’s slow growth in the U.K., Gordy requested a meeting with a meeting with Tamla-Motown Appreciation Society founder and journalist Dave Godin in Detroit to discuss how to make better inroads with Britain. Godin suggested a specific brand to distinguish Motown; thus, Gordy launched the Tamla Motown label under the EMI umbrella in 1965. To coincide with the launch, as well as the release of the new label’s single, the Supremes’ “Stop! In the Name of Love,” the Motown Revue embarked on a 21-date leg of their package tour.  A “Ready Steady Go!” special, entitled “The Sounds of Motown,” hosted by Dusty Springfield, featured the Supremes, Robinson and the Miracles, Stevie Wonder, the Temptations, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas and Gaye.

It was during the Motown Revue package tour that Gordy finally met The Beatles in person. As Gordy describes in “To Be Loved,” he took his father and kids to meet the group. “While taking photographs together, I told them how thrilled I was with the way they did our three songs in their second album.  They told me what Motown music had meant to them and how much they loved Smokey’s writing, James Jamerson’s bass playing and the big drum sound of Benny Benjamin,” he said. Gordy appeared impressed by their knowledge of all the Motown artists, noting how John Lennon pronounced Marvin Gaye’s name as “Guy” In his Liverpudlian accent. While Gordy’s kids remained starstruck, Gordy’s father was less so. “Pop pulled two of the Beatles aside, telling one of his stories about how hard work pays off. I tried to rescue them by telling Pop we had to go, but they said they wanted to hear more,”

When Wells departed the label, Brenda Holloway initially was groomed to be the next “first lady” of Motown (soon to be displaced by the Supremes). Her first hit, 1964’s “Every Little Bit Hurts,” launched her career. By 1965, her hit-making prowess had faded a bit, but her single “Operator” performed well enough to earn her a spot opening for The Beatles on their 1965 U.S. tour (a recording of her performance is part of the Shea Stadium show).

At just 19, Holloway clearly appreciated the opportunity.  In a Sept. 25, 1965, interview with KRLA Beat, Holloway enthusiastically proclaimed her love for the group. “[They are] real nice. They’re down to earth. They’re just people — that’s why I like them. They’re very friendly and I like them a whole lot!” 

She shared some amusing anecdotes: “Ringo borrowed my hairdryer to do his hair.  We had pillow fights. George usually started them and then everyone joined in. And Ringo would walk down the aisle of the plane saying: ‘Fasten your seat belts. Only doing my job!’” 

Holloway added that “Ringo’s hair is the prettiest. He doesn’t have too much to say to anyone. Except one night he and the drummer from the King Curtis Band got into a long discussion on God and religion.” 

After the tour ended, she said, “If they’d been crabs or mean I wouldn’t have enjoyed it. I miss them now that the tour is over.” 

The tour would prove to be the highlight of her performing career; Holloway found more success as a backing vocalist and songwriter. 

McCartney with the Supremes.

The Supremes Meet The Beatles

Despite The Beatles’ enormous popularity, Motown managed to hold its own in the 1960s. The Supremes, the label’s most successful act, proved to be The Beatles’ biggest competitor, in terms of No. 1 hits.  In an Aug. 28, 2019, interview with Gold, Mary Wilson described a friendly rivalry. “I didn’t really think about it much then, but sometimes they would be No. 2, and we would be No. 1. Sometimes they were No. 1, we were No. 2,” she said.  “So, we did have this thing going on. It was never really, as you said, a competition between us. Maybe our producers and all. I think they may have said, ‘Oh, boy, this female group is No. 1. We better get another hit record out there.’”

Wilson said the Supremes met The Beatles briefly during their first 1964 London visit, but their 1965 New York encounter proved much more memorable.

While in New York to tape an “Ed Sullivan Show” appearance, a meeting with The Beatles was arranged.  “We wore smart, elegant day dresses, hats, gloves, high heels and jewelery, as well as fur jackets, Flo (Florence Ballard) in chinchilla, me in red fox and Diane (Diana Ross) in mink,” Wilson recalled. “We entered The Beatles’ suite, perfectly poised. Apparently, other people had been up to visit them earlier, including Bob Dylan and The Ronettes. The first thing I noticed was that the room reeked of marijuana smoke, but we kept on smiling through our introductions.” 

Wilson felt unwelcome, that The Beatles were largely distant. “Paul was nice, but there was an awkward silence for most of the time. Every once in a while, Paul, George or Ringo would ask us about the Motown sound, or working with Holland-Dozier-Holland, then there would be silence again. … John Lennon just sat in the corner and stared.”  The Supremes couldn’t wait to leave. 

Years later, while Wilson visited Harrison in England, he told her, “We expected soulful, hip girls. We couldn’t believe that three black girls from Detroit could be so square!’”

McCartney with Estelle Bennett of the Ronettes.

Motown’s Influence on The Beatles

As previously noted, The Beatles most likely first heard Motown records as early as 1959, when Decca first issued early singles such as “Come to Me.” Ringo Starr stated in the “Anthology” documentary that “when I joined The Beatles, we didn’t really know each other, but if you looked at each of our record collections, the four of us had virtually the same records.  We all had the Miracles, we all had Barrett Strong and people like that. I supposed that helped us gel as musicians, and as a group.” 

As McCartney learned the bass, he listened to the melodic bass lines of Jamerson, even though he didn’t even know his name for many years. Jamerson’s jazz-influenced playing and distinctive bass lines in tracks such as the Temptations’ “My Girl” expanded the possibilities for bass players, teaching McCartney to avoid stagnant, clichéd lines (for examples of Jamerson’s inventiveness, listen to Gaye’s “What’s Going On” or the Four Tops’ “Standing in the Shadows of Love”). 

As Mark Lewisohn notes in “Tune In: The Beatles All These Years,” when Ronnie Spector first met the group, she was shocked at how they “knew every Motown song ever put out.”

Robinson and the Miracles were a particular influence, as demonstrated on the “Please Please Me” track “Ask Me Why.” From Lennon’s falsetto to the backing vocals to the dramatic bridge (“I can’t believe it’s happened to me / I can’t conceive of any more misery”), Robinson and the Miracles’ style resonates throughout the track. 

Indeed, as George Martin said in “Anthology,” “In the early days, they were very influenced by American rhythm-and-blues. I think that the so-called ‘Beatles sound’ had something to do with Liverpool being a port  …  They certainly knew much more about Motown, about black music, than anybody else did, and that was a tremendous influence on them.”

The Beatles would prove it with the B-side of the U.K. “I Want to Hold Your Hand” single, “This Boy,” a close-harmony track that Harrison described as ”a song John did that was very much influenced by Smokey. … If you listen to the middle eight of ‘This Boy,’ it was John trying to do Smokey,” he told Timothy White in “George Harrison Reconsidered.”

However, “With The Beatles” demonstrates not only their love of Motown, but their ability to cover and make the songs their own. “Please Mr. Postman” features a harder beat and Lennon’ raspy, harder-rock vocal, yet retains its R&B roots. “Money (That’s What I Want)” also receives a harder treatment, once again utilizing Lennon’s hard-charging style. Yet, the similar bluesy piano remains, as does the essential soul of the original. While “You Really Got a Hold on Me” has a slightly harder-rocking sound than the Robinson original, The Beatles’ largely remained faithful to the arrangement.  As Ian Mac Donald wrote in “Revolution in the Head,” “Lennon offers a passionate lead vocal, which makes up in power what it wants for nuance beside the exquisite fragility of Smokey Robinson. If the final score is a draw, that is remarkable tribute to The Beatle’  versatility as interpreters.” 

To demonstrate their mastery of the Motown sound, “All I’ve Got to Do,” with Lennon’s soulful lead vocal and Harrison and McCartney’s backing harmonies, has all the makings of a perfect girl-group, Marvelettes-like track. 

“A Hard Day’s Night” finds them exploring more sounds, with the Motown influence lingering in the opening drumbeat and chords of “Tell Me Why.”  In “The Beatles as Musicians: The Quarry Men through Rubber Soul,” musicologist Walter Everett notes that the “Help” track “You’re Going to Lose That Girl’ owes a lot to the Motown Sound, particularly in its “Motown-based responsorial backing vocals by Paul and George.” He cites Jacqueline Warwick’s analysis of backing-vocal girl groupisms, where she fantasizes Motown choreography for the song: “It’s easy to picture Paul and George shimmying and wagging their fingers if only they hadn’t instruments to contend with.” 

Also, in a 1980 interview, Lennon described “When I Get Home” as “another Wilson Pickett, Motown sound … a four-in-the-bar cowbell song.”

While known primarily as a folk-influenced album, “Rubber Soul” does contain some elements of Motown.  McCartney once described “You Won’t See Me” as “very Motown-flavored. It’s got a James Jameson feel,” according to Keith Badman’s “The Beatles: Off the Record.”  Indeed, the “la la” backing vocals could come straight out of a Supremes record.  And, “Drive My Car” contains the kind of clever lyrics that Robinson or Gordy might have written. 

The Beatles also wanted to emulate the Funk Brothers’ sound, specifically the deep bass.  Emerick recalled McCartney approaching him with a special request during the “Paperback Writer” sessions. “Paul turned to me. ‘Geoff,’  he began, ‘I need you to put your thinking cap on.  This song is really calling out for the deep Motown bass sound we’ve been talking about, so I want you to pull out all the stops this time. All right, then?’” 

Emerick described how often he and McCartney would meet in the mastering room to listen to “the low end of some new import he had gotten from the States, most often a Motown track.” He then brainstormed an idea: using a loudspeaker as a microphone. “I was able to achieve a good bass sound by placing it up against the grille of a bass amplifier, speaker to speaker, and then ruling the signal through a complicated setup of compressors and filters.”

While “Paperback Writer” may not seem to be derived from Motown, the bass sound was inspired by it.

One of the most obvious Motown tributes, “Got to Get You into My Life” on “Revolver,” represented The Beatles diving head-first into soul. In a 1968 interview with Jonathan Cott, Lennon described it as “our Tamla Motown bit. You see, we’re influenced by whatever’s going. Even if we’re not influenced, we’re all going that way at a certain time.”  The horns, the lush production — all reflected Motown at its best. 

“Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” may have been firmly rooted in the psychedelic age, but as Steven Stark notes in “Meet the Beatles: A Cultural History of the Band That Shook Youth, Gender, and the World,” all the album’s songs follow one element of Gordy’s songwriting — all are in the present tense, a tactic that directly engages the listener.  While that may not have been intentional, it might have resulted from years of listening to Motown lyrics.

In turn, Motown songwriters and producers were listening to The Beatles’ 1967 psychedelic sounds, and songs like the Supremes’ “Reflections” and the Temptations’ “Cloud Nine” soon followed. 

During the recording of the White Album, while recording a take of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” the version broke down when Harrison tried to emulate Robinson’s falsetto vocals. “It’s OK,” he laughed. “I tried to do a Smokey, and I just aren’t Smokey.”

Motown was present elsewhere, however: McCartney’s melodic bass on the irregular time changes of “Happiness Is a Warm Gun” would make Jamerson proud. 

Motown also clearly was on their minds during the “Get Back” sessions. Among the many song fragments The Beatles performed were such Motown hits as Gaye’s “Hitch Hike,” the Miracles’ “I’ve Been Good to You,” “You Really Got a Hold on Me,” and “The Tracks of My Tears,” the Shirelles’ “Love Is a Swingin’ Thing” and Strong’s “Money (That’s What I Want).”

Years later, McCartney revealed during a 2015 talk at the Liverpool Institute for the Performing Arts that Motown also taught him what to avoid in music. “I mean, you’d hear like the Supremes and Motown, Diana Ross’ group, those records are very similar,” McCartney said. “‘Stop! In the Name of Love’ or ‘Baby Love,’ they’re all very similar things. We wanted to avoid that. So, I think that was one of the good things for us, because we just kept on going and never sort of did the same song twice.” 

While Motown did change its sound in the late 1960s and early 1970s — Whitfield served as an essential catalyst — the production-line model Gordy adapted from the Ford motor plant clearly did not suit The Beatles.

McCartney with Stevie Wonder.

An Enduring Love Affair

Numerous Motown artists covered Beatles hits, although none had as much success as Wonder with his soulful rendition of “We Can Work It Out.” Appearing on his 1970 album “Signed, Sealed, Delivered,” it was released as a single in 1971. The single reached No. 13 on the Billboard Hot 100, earning him his fifth Grammy Award nomination in 1972, for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance. Almost 20 years later, Wonder would perform that version as McCartney was presented with a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1990. As he gave his acceptance speech, McCartney noted how “Fingertips” inspired The Beatles back in the early 1960s. 

Wonder performed his cover again when McCartney was awarded the Gerswhin Prize by the Library of Congress in 2010, and once more at the Grammys Beatles tribute in 2014.

After The Beatles disbanded, the group still expressed their love of R&B. Harrison’s admiration for Robinson never dimmed, illustrated by “Ooh Baby (You Know That I Love You),” the “Extra Texture (Read All About It)”track intended as a companion piece to “Ooh Baby Baby.” His most compelling tribute, “Pure Smokey,” from “33 1/3,” outlines why Harrison held Robinson in high regard: “I wrote ‘Pure Smokey’ on ‘33 1/3’as my little tribute to his brilliant songwriting and his effortless butterfly of a voice,” he told White.

On “Cloud Nine,” Harrison gave Robinson one more shoutout on the track “When We Was Fab,” singing, “And you really got a hold on me.”  Starr covered “Where Did Our Love Go?” for his 1978 “Bad Boy”album, and “Money (That’s What I Want)” for 2019’s “What’s My Name.” 

Lennon may not have recorded Motown covers, but his personal jukebox included “First I Look at the Purse” by the Contours and several tracks by the Miracles: “The Tracks of My Tears,” “Shop Around,” “Who’s Lovin’ You,” “I’ve Been Good to You” and “What’s So Good about Goodbye.” 

As for McCartney, not only did he cover Gaye’s “Hitch Hike” during his 2010 concert at New York’s Apollo Theatre, he visited the Motown Museum in Detroit in 2011 and volunteered to pay for refurbishing the studio’s 1877 Steinway grand piano. After work was completed in August, 2012, McCartney and Gordy played it together during a September charitable event at Steinway Hall in New York City. The piano now sits in Studio A at Hitsville USA in Detroit.  McCartney also collaborated with two Motown artists: Wonder, on both “Ebony and Ivory” and “What’s That You’re Doing,” as well as a guest appearance on Wonder’s 2005 album “A Time to Love”; and Michael Jackson, on the “Thriller” duet “The Girl Is Mine” and the “Pipes of Peace” tracks “Say Say Say” and “The Man.” 

Clearly, The Beatles and Motown owe a great deal to one another in terms of musical influence and exposure to wider audiences.  In a “Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever”DVD reissue, Robinson and original Temptations member Otis Williams discussed the relationship between Hitsville USA and the Fab Four. “They were the first huge white act to admit, ‘Hey we grew up with some black music. We love this,” Robinson said. Wilson added, “We knocked down those barriers, and I must give credit to The Beatles. It seemed like at that point in time white America said, ‘OK if the Beatles are checking them out, let us check them out.’” 

As for The Beatles, Motown influenced them as songwriters, vocalists and instrumentalists, as a group and as solo artists — truly a two-way relationship. 

Kit O’Toole

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More on Our Favorite Solo B-Sides

Quite a few unique tracks have shown up on the flip side of solo Beatles singles through the decades. In Beatlefan #248, we flipped over many solo singles and presented some of our contributors’ favorite B-sides. However, due to space limitations, we weren’t able to run everyone’s complete comments. Here is an expanded version of what they had to say, including some second and third choices!

Brad Hundt:

George Harrison: “Isn’t It a Pity” is a highlight of “All Things Must Pass,” and that has to be considered his strongest B-side. A majestic song that ranks among Harrison’s best. In his solo career, George did put out some B-sides that were not included on albums at the time, but unfortunately most of them were throwaways, along the lines of “I Don’t Care Anymore” or “Zig Zag.” However, “Deep Blue,” the B-side to “Bangla Desh,” is an endearingly simple acoustic number written in the wake of his mother’s death in 1970. It’s a treat.

Ringo Starr: “Snokeroo,” the B-side of “No No Song” in the United States, was such a good tune it was released as an A-side in the U.K. — probably not a bad call, considering that it was written by Elton John and Bernie Taupin, who were at the zenith of their popularity in 1975. After that, Ringo’s best B-side would have to be “Early 1970,” which detailed Starr’s feelings about his bandmates just after The Beatles’ split.

John Lennon: Many of John’s B-sides were Yoko compositions, and, in many instances, the B-sides showcased some of her best work. A prime case is “Sisters O Sisters,” the flip side of 1972’s “Woman Is the N***** of the World.” A feminist anthem set to a reggae beat, it’s one of the best tracks on John and Yoko’s “Sometime in New York City.” Another top-tier Yoko track that ended up on a Lennon B-side is “Listen, the Snow Is Falling,” on the flip side of 1971’s “Happy Xmas (War Is Over).”

Of the Lennon B-sides that feature a Lennon composition, “What You Got,” the flip side of “#9 Dream,” would not have sounded out of place at all on the radio in 1975. Considering that some promotional singles were pressed for “What You Got,” it seems likely that Lennon himself and the powers that be at Capitol/EMI in those days recognized its commercial potential.

Paul McCartney: There are so many McCartney B-sides, it’s hard to narrow it down. The overall best would have to be “Let Me Roll It,” which was the B-side of the “Jet” single in 1974. Classic solo McCartney, it’s been a mainstay of Paul’s setlists through the years. In the 1970s, McCartney and Wings put out a series of top-notch B-sides that were not released on albums, including “Sally G,” “C Moon,” “The Mess,” “Little Woman Love,” “Daytime Nighttime Suffering” and “Country Dreamer.”

Later on, the CD-single bonus tracks that accompanied “Off the Ground” were, in many cases, superior to the songs that ended up on the album. “Long Leather Coat,” the animal rights offering that was on the “Hope of Deliverance” B-side, is a foot-stomping McCartney rocker in the tradition of “Hi Hi Hi” and “Junior’s Farm.” 

Wings, circa 1979.

Simon Rogers:

Paul McCartney always has kept in mind The Beatles’ work ethic of giving value for money by offering exclusive B-sides. For me, the tracks “Girls School” and “Sally G” stand out, but, in the U.K., “Girls School” was a double A-side with the track “Mull of Kintyre.” 

So, for me, there really was no  contest for my fave McCartney B-side and, in fact, one of my favorite McCartney songs of all time, “Daytime Nighttime Suffering.”

The song was the result of a bet Paul made with the members of  Wings — whoever could write the best song over the weekend would get the B-side of his next single. Paul, of course, won, with this slice of power pop.   

Recorded in January, 1979,  it is pure class, and it simply beggars belief that this was a B-side. It’s also amazing that “Daytime Nighttime Suffering”/“Goodnight Tonight” were not included on the album “Back to the Egg.” This B-side features some simply wonderful vocals from Paul and some great melodic bass playing.

George with Ravi Shankar.

For George Harrison, “What is Life.” George has some really great B-sides, such as “Writings on the Wall,” “Deep Blue” and “Miss O’Dell.” But, for me, the standout is “What Is Life.” The song has some very personal memories. I was lucky enough to see George play his only U.K. concert at the Albert Hall on the 6th April, 1992. I managed to fight my way down to the front of the gig just as George started playing “What Is Life.”

What amazed me was the fact that, after reading for years that George hated touring, when I made eye contact with him, how much he was actually enjoying singing this song. I will always remember his smile as he sang.

Certainly, it’s one of the highlights of his “All Things Must Pass” LP.

For Ringo Starr, “Early 1970.” Ringo sometimes is overlooked, but, if you look closely, there are some great and some frankly strange Ringo B-sides. From the spaghetti Western-themed “Blindman” to the disco romp of “Devil Woman” to the live favorite “No No Song.”

But, I must admit I really have a soft spot for the tongue-in-cheek “Early 1970,” which sums up Ringo’s feelings for his fellow bandmates just after the breakup. It originally was recorded under the title of “When Four Knights Come to Town” in October, 1970, during the sessions for the “Plastic Ono Band” album. 

Ringo seems closest to George and John, with Paul coming very firmly third. Any record that features Ringo showing his prowess on the guitar and piano must be worth a listen. A track that always seems to put a smile on my face.

For John Lennon, “Move Over Ms. L.” There is no contest for what my favorite Lennon solo B-side, and it’s this wonderful rocker. Recorded for John’s LP “Walls and Bridges,” it was supposed to fit between “Surprise Surprise (Sweet Bird of Paradise)” and “What You Got” on the second side of the LP.

John decided to remove it from the track listing just before the album went to press. He later rerecorded it in October, 1974. It has the honor of being the only Lennon nonalbum B-side. Keith Moon, drummer of The Who, would record a version for his “Both Sides of the Moon” LP.

John and May Pang.

Al Sussman:

John Lennon, “Move Over Ms. L.” An enjoyable rocker from the “lost weekend” era. 
George Harrison, “Deep Blue.” The bluesy B-side of “Bangla Desh” stems from a sad time in George’s life (the death of his mother) but is still an enjoyable listen.
Ringo Starr, “Early 1970.” Ringo’s musical “state of the (dis)union” commentary, which was the B-side of “It Don’t Come Easy.”
Paul McCartney, “Daytime Nighttime Suffering.” The B-side of “Goodnight Tonight” was a typical piece of expert Macca songcraft that Mark Lewisohn reported is one of McCartney’s own favorites. 

Clint Ard:

John: “Move Over Ms. L.” This one wins by default, as it was the only nonalbum B-side of John’s career.  However, it is a fine rocker, with some pointed lyrics toward Yoko: “Well, now to err is something human and forgiving so divine / I’ll forgive your trespasses, if you forgive me mine / Life’s a deal, you knew it, when you signed the dotted line.”

Fortunately, John and Yoko did forgive each other’s trespasses and were reunited for the last six years of his life. This was the B-side of John’s cover of “Stand By Me,” but it failed to make either the “Walls and Bridges” or “Rock and Roll” albums. Strangely enough, Keith Moon recorded a cover version!  

Paul and Linda and the Wings tour bus.

Paul: “Daytime Nighttime Suffering.” So many great B-sides from Paul (& Wings), but this one sticks out for me. The B-side of the disco-flavored “Goodnight Tonight,” I felt this song better foreshadowed what was coming on the “Back to the Egg” album. Still, I can’t really imagine it on that album, either. It truly is an original song, meant to be heard all on its own. It opens and closes with great harmonies from the band, and, in between, really delivers a terrific tune. A great bass line and fine guitar work by Laurence Juber and Denny Laine. My favorite lyric is “Come on river, flow through me.  Don’t be stopped by insanity.”  Many claim that Paul released better quality songs on his B-sides than on his albums. This song is a perfect example of that. 

George: “Miss O’Dell.” A real charmer of a song from the B-side of “Give Me Love (Give Me Peace On Earth).” I really enjoy the lightness of the tune, and how George did not take it too seriously. In fact, he ends up laughing in the middle of the verses more than once. It features some quirky lyrics, such as “And the smog that keeps polluting up our shores is boring me to tears.”  A nice acoustic song, with rhythm backing by Klaus Voormann and Jim Keltner.  More cowbell!  

Ringo: “Down and Out.” The B-side of one of Ringo’s greatest songs, “Photograph.” Not included on the 1973 “Ringo” album, but it sure sounds like it would fit right in. A very catchy tune that is easy to sing along to, and gets stuck in your head. The lyrics aren’t particularly meaningful, but I’ve always wondered what fire Ringo was looking at here: “Looked in the fire, what did I see? I saw someone looking at me.” A little spooky, actually. Gary Wright contributes some nice piano and even gets a shout-out from Ringo. The horns add a nice punch to the song, as well.    

Steven Prazak:

John: “Beef Jerky.” Although a throwaway track to some, it’s actually one of the most composed and complex Lennon tracks, even without a lead vocal on top of it. Love all the time signature shifts, the quasi-“Cold Turkey” guitar riff transitions, the horn charts, and, hands-down, the funkiest refrain ever laid down by a Beatle. The flip side of “Whatever Gets Thru the Night,” I played “Beef Jerky” countless times on Waffle House jukeboxes throughout the South. 

Paul: “Secret Friend.” Ten and a half minutes of arpeggio’d and pitch-shifting piano loops, rhythm box and speed-accelerated Macca vocals that sound like they’re coming from deep within a jug of water. A beguiling little melody that fits somewhere in the “ambient” scheme of things. So many fans speak disparagingly of this track, but I love it! Pretty daring for 1980, too! Suffice it to say, I spun this tune quite a bit more than its “Temporary Secretary” A-side.

George: “Isn’t It a Pity.” My personal favorite from “All Things Must Pass,” and as luck would have it, all 7+ minutes are replicated on the flip of “My Sweet Lord” (here in the colonies, that is). What a melody, and a PERFECT production from both George and Phil Spector. And, it’s all verses, too — no chorus or refrain. Another “Waffle House” favorite!

Ringo: “Just a Dream.” The disco-flavored “Ringo the 4th” is no one’s favorite Ringo album, and this non-LP B-side (the disco-flavored flip side of both 1977’s “Drowning in the Sea of Love” and “Wings” 45s) probably won’t change anyone’s mind of that best-forgotten LP. But, there’s no denying that “Just a Dream” is a really great song, despite all the disco trappings heaped on it. Much like the Bee Gees’ disco-era songs have been reappraised for their composition and craftsmanship, I think Ringo’s “Just a Dream” deserves a similar revisit.

John in 1975.

Kathy Urbanic:

John: My favorite John Lennon solo B-side is “Beautiful Boy” (1981, A-side “Watching the Wheels”). The song, written for Sean, is one of the most touching in John’s catalog and a tribute to the loving father he had become. The lyrics on the verses are simple and childlike, as father talks to son and calms his fears. On the chorus, they change perspective, as John marvels at the life he has helped create. The bridge, with a reference to his sailing trip to Bermuda, is poignant now, expressing his happiness at the thought of watching Sean come of age. The melody moves from a nursery-rhyme quality on the verses to a joyful chorus and bridge, beautifully arranged with the sounds of a Tibetan wishing bell, a steel drum, and ocean waves. It’s no surprise that both Paul McCartney and Yoko Ono picked “Beautiful Boy” as the one Lennon song they would take to a desert island.

In second place is “Woman,” released in 1981 as the B-side to “Starting Over.” John wrote many love songs for Yoko, but “Woman” rises above the rest, conveying a depth of emotion and a maturity about relationships. He himself said the song was “the grown-up version of ‘Girl.’”  Words, music, and arrangement work together seamlessly, creating a Motown/early Beatles feeling with one of John’s most affecting vocals.

Paul: Among the dozens of songs Paul McCartney has released as a solo artist, my favorite B-side is “Mamunia” (1974, A-side “Jet,” released prior to the “Jet”/“Let Me Roll It” pairing, also released in 1974). Any of the songs on Paul’s acclaimed “Band on the Run”would make a fine single release, but “Mamunia” has a special charm. Inspired by a visit to Tunisia, it weaves lyrics ostensibly about rain around an Arabic word meaning “safe haven.” Like John Lennon’s “Rain,” “Mamunia” uses rain as a metaphor for life’s problems. Taking, as usual, a lighter approach than John, Paul creates an infectious melody, with African echoes and bright harmonies that make this a great singalong. “Mamunia” is one in a long line of underrated McCartney gems.

Second for me among Paul’s B-sides is “Let Me Roll It” (1974, A-side “Jet”). Its dramatic, bass-fueled opening pulls the listener into a fine vocal that rises in strength and intensity. On their own, the lyrics are unexceptional, but they fit the sensual feel of the music.  “Let Me Roll It” has shown up frequently in Paul’s concert set list, and rightfully so. (The song is just one example of the ways in which the solo Beatles inspired one another; Paul lifted the title phrase from a line of George Harrison’s “I’d Have You Anytime.”)

George: The George Harrison B-side that wins my vote is “Apple Scruffs” (1971, A-side “What Is Life”), his ode to the devoted fans who kept vigil outside Abbey Road Studios. Of the four Beatles, George took the kindest interest in them, sometimes stopping to have a word or taking tea out to them on cold days. His tribute to the girls who braved wind, rain and security guards for a glimpse of a Beatle is whimsical and affectionate, punctuated by a harmonica that evokes street music. As many times as I’ve heard the song, I always wipe away a tear when George sings the last verse: While the years they come and go / Now, your love must surely show me /That beyond all time and space / We’re together face to face, my Apple Scruffs.” Like so many first-generation fans, I was an Apple Scruff in spirit, hanging out at Abbey Road in my heart.

Second to “Apple Scruffs,” I love George’s B-side “Miss O’Dell” (1973, A-side “Give Me Love”). The song is a delight, with clever lyrics and a playful arrangement, featuring harmonica, acoustic guitar and a cowbell. Each verse paints a different scene, from Bangladesh to an ocean-front home in California, as George waits for an overdue call from former Apple employee Chris O’Dell. Midway through, he dissolves into giggles and laughter, guaranteed to raise a smile on any listener. At the close of the song, he leaves a telephone number — Garston 6922 — that was Paul McCartney’s number on Forthlin Road in Liverpool. “Miss O’Dell” is George at his cheekiest. 

Ringo: “Early 1970” (1971, A-side “It Don’t Come Easy”) is my favorite of Ringo Starr’s B-sides.  One of his own compositions, the song features George Harrison on slide guitar and, according to some researchers, John Lennon also participated in the recording session. The tune has the country music vibe often identified with Ringo, and the lyrics are a charming sketch of his three former bandmates: Paul raising sheep on his farm in Scotland, John organizing bed-ins for peace with Yoko, George and Pattie settling in at Friar Park. With its autobiographical lyrics, “Early 1970” foreshadows compositions to come, such as “Liverpool 8” and “The Other Side of Liverpool.” When it was released, it brought hope to fans reeling from The Beatles’ breakup, assuring us that Ringo, at least, wanted to keep making music with the other three.

Runner-up in my affections among Ringo’s B-sides is “Step Lightly” (1974, A-side “Oh My My”), from the marvelous “Ringo”album. Another of his compositions, the song is light and bluesy, embellished on the instrumental bridge by the sound of tap dancing (credited to “the dancing feet of Richard Starkey, MBE”). Ringo’s songs are not covered often, but “Step Lightly” has been recorded by David Hentschel (1975) and the Beatles cover band Suburban Skies (2015). After the success of this single, and two others from the album, John Lennon sent Ringo a telegram: “Congratulations. How dare you? And please write me a hit song.”

Richard S. Ginell:

George: “I Don’t Care Anymore.” The title says it all — the lackadaisical spoken intro, the hoarse voice, the bored delivery, the goofy jaws-harp over the guitar, the raw sound quality, the publishing company (Oops Publishing Ltd.). For candor alone, this one is in a class of its own. It was the B-side of “Dark Horse” in the U.S. and “Ding Dong” in Europe, which is where I found a copy last year in Oslo, Norway.

John: “Do the Oz.” This weird little screamer is a B-side, but not for a Lennon single per se; rather, it’s the companion piece for Bill Elliot and the Elastic Oz Band’s “God Save Us.” While Lennon leaves the vocal to Elliot on the A-side, that’s John yelling over a lumbering heavy metal drone laced with Yoko’s electronically treated caterwauling. It’s just credited to the Elastic Oz Band, and it sank unnoticed somewhere below the Hot 100 in 1971.

Paul: “The Mess.” While most record buyers and McCartney fans of 1973 swooned to the No. 1 hit A-side “My Love,” I flipped the single over and rocked on to the unsung B-side, “The Mess.” It’s the first edition of Wings unleashed live in Antwerp, grinding through several changes of pace in hard rock fashion as Paul treats his voice with echo delay. That’s as far as the track got until it finally turned up in the archive CD edition of “Red Rose Speedway” more than 40 years later — and, for me, it beats anything on the originally-released album.
“Secret Friend.” The third single from “McCartney II” was not released in the U.S.; it came out in Britain as a 12-inch single. So, Americans never heard this wonderful, sprawling electronic samba that occupied the B-side of the goofy “Temporary Secretary.” Paul found an irresistible groove on his drum machine and just let it run for over 10 1/2 minutes, pasting a compressed vocal on top. It resulted in one of his longest, and certainly most offbeat inspirations — not to be heard in the U.S. until it wound up on the “McCartney II” archive CD edition. It was a memorable pickup for me, since I bought it at a flea market in Birkinhead, England, right across the Mersey from Liverpool.

“Check My Machine.” Another bit of solo Beatle lunacy in the spirit of “You Know My Name” — with Yosemite Sam thrown in. McCartney once said that “You Know My Name” was his favorite Beatles song, and this is the closest thing I can think of as a sequel. Again, nowhere to be found on an album until the “McCartney II” archive edition came out, and running twice as long there.

Ringo: “Coochy Coochy.” The B-side of the title track of “Beaucoup Of Blues,” Ringo’s 1970 excursion to Nashville, is a swinging jam session with the crack Nashville sidemen assembled by Pete Drake, whose pedal steel guitar figures in the mix. It didn’t make its way onto the album until the CD edition in the 1990s, yet for me these 4 minutes and 48 seconds of exuberant Ringo vocals and joyous jamming eclipse anything on the LP. Of all of the solo Beatle B-sides, this is my favorite. A 28-minute version of “Coochy” is rumored to exist; I anticipate hearing that just as many Beatles fans are lusting after the 27-minute version of “Helter Skelter.”

Bruce Spizer:

John: It is a bit of a problem to pick favorite John B-sides, because so many of them have Yoko on the flip side. “Move Over Ms. L” was the B-side to “Stand By Me.” This track is an all-out rocker reminiscent of Larry Williams’ “Bony Moronie” (unlike the recording of the song on Lennon’s “Anthology” set, which has a Western swing feeling). And, for those wanted to get up and dance, there’s always “Do the Oz,” which was the B-side to “God Save Us” by Bill Elliot and Elastic Oz Band. The B-side features John singing and Yoko wailing. 

Paul: Paul McCartney has put out many quality B-sides pulled from albums, but I limited my choices to outright B-sides. “Oh Woman, Oh Why” was the flip side to and opposite of the carefully crafted pop tune “Another Day.” It developed out of a studio jam with lyrics that are “Hey Joe” in reverse, with the singer getting shot, instead. I also like “Girls School,” which is a silly rocker that was the B-side to “Mull of Kintyre” in the U.K. (although the A-side in the States). 

George: My favorite George B-side is “Miss O’Dell,” a delightful throwaway song, with George laughing through parts of his vocal and giving out Paul’s old phone number at the end (Garston 6922). It makes for a perfect pairing with “Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth).” His worst is a tune whose title appears to describe George’s attitude toward recording this particular B-side, “I Don’t Care Anymore,” which was on the back of “Dark Horse.” 

Ringo: His most interesting and charming B-side is “Early 1970,” with Ringo singing about his bandmates and his own limited musical abilities on guitar, bass and piano (“if it’s in C”). This B-side to “It Don’t Come Easy” was written during the time The Beatles were breaking apart. At its end, Ringo sings “When I go to town, I want to see all three.” His worst B-side is “Blindman,” which was the flip side to “Back Off Boogaloo.” I doubt many people flipped the disc over to hear this muddy-sounding dirge more than once. 

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Previewing Ringo’s ‘Zoom In’ EP

Ringo Starr has a new five-track EP, “Zoom In,” due out March 19 from Capitol/Universal. Here, Bill King provides a preview. …

When Ringo Starr released his most recent album, “What’s My Name,” in 2019, he said he thought it probably would be his last, but that he wasn’t giving up recording.

True to his word, Ringo hasn’t done an album since, but he has joined Paul McCartney and others in issuing recordings made during the pandemic, releasing the self-produced “Zoom In,” consisting of five new tracks. He’s calling it an EP.

Is half a new Ringo album better than none?

Yes, of course. It’s always good to hear from Ringo again. But, does this new release rank with his best solo releases?

No, it does not.

Still, it’s a pleasant, if all too brief, outing, and it does have a couple of moments that stand out, with the opening and closing tracks being the strongest.

That first track is “Here’s to the Nights,” which was issued as a digital single just before Christmas. The track, running 4:05, is

an ode to friendship written by Diane Warren (“Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now”).

Joe Walsh is among the friends joining Ringo on “Here’s to the Nights.”

Ringo is joined by a host of famous guest vocalists (who can be seen in the music video): Paul McCartney, Joe Walsh, Corinne Bailey Rae, Eric Burton (of Black Pumas), Sheryl Crow, Finneas, Dave Grohl, Ben Harper, Lenny Kravitz, Jenny Lewis, Steve Lukather, Chris Stapleton and Yola.

(It’s worth noting that McCartney only occasionally is audible in the mix. It’s also noteworthy that one of Ringo’s most frequent musical partners of recent years, Dave Stewart, is absent this time around.)

The track is a stately, string-backed pop number that features some tasty guitar from Lukather, and a catchy singalong from the celebrity chorus: “Here’s to the nights we won’t remember with the friends we won’t forget.”

A favorite moment for me is at the very end, where Ringo, not primarily known as a vocalist, sustains the final note longer than you’d expect, before finally laughing, as if to say, “You didn’t expect that, did you?”

Next on the EP, which was recorded at Starr’s Roccabella West home studio in Beverly Hills, CA, between April and October, 2020, is the title track, “Zoom In Zoom Out,” a midtempo song that lopes along with a slightly bluesy backing. The 3:57 number was written by Jeff Silbar and Joe Turley.

It’s another message song, with the message this time being “we’re all in this together” and “love is what it’s all about.” As Ringo sings, “Zoom in to get a new perspective / Zoom out to see we’re all connected.”

The lyrics are a little out of the ordinary: Not many pop songs mention Galileo, or include a couplet like this: “Shift your paradigm / Seek and you will find.”

The EP’s third track, running 3:07, is “Teach Me to Tango,” written by Sam Hollander and Grant Michaels, with Ringo also getting a composing credit. He added a drum fill, along with his vocal, to a pre-recorded track the team sent him.

It starts out with a Latin flavor, as the title might lead you to expect, but, unfortunately, it’s mostly a pretty pedestrian midtempo rocker. Not much of a message here, other than “You gotta live it up / Until you get what you want, my friend.” The track comes to an abrupt ending.

Next up is “Waiting for the Tide to Turn,” a 3:54 track with a laid-back reggae beat. It was written by Ringo and his longtime engineer and co-producer, Bruce Sugar. The lyrics are a bit on the nose, as in “just play some reggae music and it will be a better day.” It also includes mentions of Bob Marley, Toots Hibbert and Burning Spear.

The EP winds up with another summation of Ringo’s philosophy, “Not Enough Love in the World,” a midtempo pop-rock number written by longtime All Starr Band member Lukather and Joseph Williams, who also arranged it. The longest track, at 4:16, it has a pretty catchy chorus that will stay in your head afterward, and a nice guitar solo by Lukather.

Ringo recorded his new EP in his home studio in Beverly Hills.

Overall, this is not a scintillating collection, but it is an enjoyable listening experience.

In explaining that he didn’t want to do another full album, Ringo has said that he wanted to get away from co-writing all the songs. Whereas on the best of his post-Mark Hudson albums, 2015’s “Postcards From Paradise,” Ringo co-wrote every number — teaming up with the likes of Lukather, Joe Walsh, Todd Rundgren, Richard Marx and Van Dyke Parks — he takes only two co-writing credits on “Zoom In.”

It’s not the lack of Starkey writing credits that’s holding this mini-collection back, though; it’s the fact that none of these songs truly is memorable. That may be because the writers involved are a level down from some of his past collaborators.

For example, Ringo also did a reggae number, “King of the Kingdom,” on his “Give More Love” album, and it was much superior to the reggae track on this EP. The difference is that, on the earlier number, he was writing with Van Dyke Parks, rather than Sugar.

If Ringo wants to continue doing EPs, rather than full albums, but doesn’t want to work that hard at coming up with new songs, I think he’d be better off re-recording some of his older material, as he did on “Ringo 2012” and in the bonus tracks for “Give More Love.”

Or, perhaps he could tackle some of the oldies from his youth, as he’s also done occasionally in the past.

I’d also love to see him explore the blues-based material that he flirted with on “Give More Love” with the track “Standing Still” and others, or renew his old love affair with country music, as he did with “So Wrong for So Long” on that album.

In fact, a five-track Ringo country EP sounds like a great idea.

I hope this doesn’t come across as a slamming of “Zoom In,” because I have enjoyed listening to it quite a few times. It’s an amiable, respectable effort — just not very exciting.

We know Ringo can do better, but the bottom line is that it’s good to have him still putting out new recordings, even if they’re not breaking any new ground. As long as he’s still at it, there’s always a chance he’ll come up with something that matches his best work from the past.

William P. King

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Catching Up With Macca

Paul and some of his guitar collection. (Mary McCartney)

Paul McCartney did a lot of press to promote his recent “McCartney III” album. Here are highlights of some of those interviews. …

Talking with the BBC, Macca addressed his off-and-on gray pandemic beard, saying, “what I do is, I grow it for a couple of weeks and then I get fed up with it ’cause it gets itchy, so I shave it off.”

Asked about working alone, he said: “If you’re on your own, you can have an idea and then very quickly play it. Whereas, with a band, you’ve got to explain it. Sometimes that’s great… but when you’re just noodling around on your own, there’s just a sense of freedom.”

Considering the undertain future of live concerts, he was asked had he thought about the possibility he might never be able to play live again. “Yes, definitely,” he said. “I look back at the last gig I did, which was at Dodger Stadium in LA, and we didn’t have a very good night. I must say, I was thinking ‘Uh-oh, what if that was the last gig?’

“But it would be great, wouldn’t it, to be in a crowd and be able to go crazy and listen to a live band again. I was imagining that the other day — instead of doing the songs, you’d just be standing there going ‘This is great, isn’t it?’”

McCartney was asked whether any of the new songs are informed by the pandemic. “Yeah, I think so, a couple of the newer songs,” he answered. “There’s one called ‘Seize the Day’ — that had echoes of the pandemic kind of thing when the cold days come, we’ll wish that we had seized the day, kind of thing. So that was just reminding myself and anyone listening that yeah, we better grab the good stuff and, you know, try and get on through the pandemic. But it certainly helped me, you know.”

Of his wider feelings about the worldwide crisis, he reflected: “I hate it. You know when you turn on the news, the lead story is going to be how many people died. That’s depressing, after a while. But in truth, what kind of saw me through a lot of this was, I remembered that my parents, my mum and dad, Jim and Mary were in World War II.

“They survived — they survived the bombing and the losing people left, right and center and yet they came out of it with incredible spirit and so us kids in Liverpool, we grew up with this really, you know ‘Let’s have a good time, let’s roll out the barrel,’ with this great sort of wartime spirit that all the people had, because they’d had enough. And so I was brought up in a lot of that, so it’s kind of good to draw on that and think well, if they could do it, I can do it.”

Asked about his thoughts on Sir Peter Jackson’s forthcoming “The Beatles: Get Back” film, Macca said: “I love it. I said to him when he was going to trawl through all the footage — like about 56 hours or something — I said ‘Oh God, it’s going to be boring’ because my memory of the [original 1970] film was that it was a very sad time, and it was a little bit downbeat, the film.

“But he got back to me he said ‘No, I’m looking at it,’ he said, ‘It’s a laugh – you guys, it’s just four guys working, and you can see you making up songs.’ George wondering about the lyrics of ‘Something in the Way She Moves’ or me trying to figure out ‘Get Back’ and he’s shown me little bits and pieces of it and it’s great, I love it, I must say because it’s how it was. It just reminds me of — even though we had arguments, like any family — we loved each other, you know, and it shows in the film. It’s a very warm feeling, And, it’s amazing just being backstage with these people, making this music that turned out to be good.”

Macca in the studio. (Sonny McCartney)

In his interview with Loudandquiet.com, McCartney was asked if he could write a song every day if he wanted to. “I think so,” he said. “The secret for me is having a bit of time. This afternoon I haven’t really got anything on, and my guitar is sort of sat here looking at me, saying, ‘Why am I over here?’ But it’s time. I think if I was stuck and needed to write a song every day, maybe I could. 

“I kind of play every day, one thing or another. A mate of mine said, ‘Guitars is best.’ I mean, they are. They’re great. You can form a good friendship with a piece of wood and metal. I was always lucky as a kid to have one, and when the world was against you, you could go off into the corner with your guitar and you could make things right. It’s the magic of music, because it comes out of nowhere. It does strike me occasionally — I’ll think, ‘This is great, because I’ve really learned chords, and I can really go between them.’ I can remember a really long time ago finding it really difficult to go between E and A and B, and don’t even talk to me about B7. I was just thinking the other day, “No, I can move between chords. I’m getting pretty good at this.”

Asked about his 8-minutes-plus track “Deep Deep Feeling,” recorded during lockdown when he was staying with daughter Mary and her family, he explained: “That was one of the songs that I’d actually started last year. If I’m lucky, I’ll have a bit of time when I’ll go into the studio and just make something up, and so I try to just do something that I haven’t done before. This was one of those that I didn’t finish. To me, what it was about was, sometimes — I don’t how it happens of even what it is — when you’re feeling real love towards someone, sometimes it can manifest in a tingling over your whole body, and it’s a pretty funny feeling, and you almost don’t like it — ‘What the hell is this?’ — like you’re about to be beamed up into a spaceship or something. On this song I was fascinated with the idea of that — that deep, deep feeling when you love someone so much it almost hurts. That was the start of that, but after I made it I thought, well, this isn’t for anything. It’s certainly not a 3-minute single. What became nice about working in the studio was that in the evening Mary would be cooking, because she loves to cook, and we’d be sitting around before dinner, and she’d say, ‘Well, what did you do today then?’ and I’d go, ‘Oh, OK, I’ll play it for you.’ And I always wanted it to keep going. I just wanted it to go on forever. It’s a bit indulgent, and I was a little bit worried about that — I thought I really needed to cut it down, but, just before I did that, I just listened to it, and I thought, ‘Y’know what, I love this, I’m not going to touch it.’”

Macca also elaborated on the closing track, “When Winter Comes,” recorded years earlier with Sir George Martin. “I made a track called ‘Calico Skies’ a while ago [for the 1997 album “Flaming Pie”], which George produced. And at the same time, because I was in the studio and had an extra minute or so, I had this other song, so I said, ‘let me knock this one off.’ That was ‘When Winter Comes’, and I mention George because it was on a George Martin-produced session, but it is just me on the guitar. It was nearly going to be a bonus extra that was going to be on a reissue of ‘Flaming Pie,’ but I’d just been reading that great book on Elvis, ‘Last Train to Memphis,’ and it mentioned a song and said you’ve probably never heard it because it was buried as a bonus on the B-side of an album. So, I thought, no, I’d rather have this one as a proper track. And we finished the album with it because it was the reason for doing the whole thing, because me and my mate Geoff Dunbar, who’s an animation director, were talking about making an animated film to that song.”

Asked if he’s still seeking to innovate, Sir Paul said, “There’s a lot of things in my life that I’m surprised at. People say, ‘After touring for all these years, don’t you just hate it? Aren’t you fed up?’ I’m like, ‘No, I’m not.’ I suppose I am still looking for something new, but it’s not that important. The more important thing for me is getting into a studio and thinking, what can we do now. It doesn’t have to be something new, it can be something old. And on this record, actually, I had a couple of guitars that I’ve not played much, and we got them out — this old Gibson, this beautiful thing — and I’m like, ‘How have I not played this!?’ and that led me into a track. But I still enjoy what I do very much, and it all comes out as clichés — ‘I feel very lucky’ — but it’s true. When I was a kid, all I wanted to do was plug a guitar into an amp and turn it up for that thrill, and it’s still there. So, it’s not so much that I’m looking for something new, more that I’m looking for something to do to keep me off the streets.”

McCartney conducted a media blitz for his “McCartney III” album. (Mary McCartney)

In an interview on paulmccartney.com, Paul was asked if he uses his phone to record song notes. “Yes, I do, a lot — and it’s embarrassing! To think, when we started off all those years ago, John and I had to remember everything! The only things available for home recording were the big Grundig reel-to-reel tape recorders, and of course you had to be very rich to have one, so we didn’t have them.

“We always had to remember what we’d written that day. We’d write the song, go away, and all we’d have is a little piece of paper with the words on, and then later on we’d have a drink and think, ‘What the hell was that song?! … Oh God! Forgotten it!’. I’d wait a minute, thinking John would probably remember, and often one of us would wake up first thing in the morning and luckily have the song in our head again. So, in the studio you were always playing something that you remembered, that you knew and that was finished. 

“Nowadays with iPhones, you put a little sketch of an idea or a little bit of a riff, maybe just two lines of a song and think ‘I’ll finish that later’. My phone is full of little sketches, some of which I pulled out during lockdown and thought ‘I’ve really got to finish these’. So, I did. 

“But yeah, I’m always on my iPhone, always putting ideas down. And the double-edged sword means it’s good because you can remember your ideas. But it’s bad because you don’t finish them. You’ve got to force yourself to come back and finish. Fortunately, I had an opportunity during this time to do just that.”

McCartney also told Britain’s Uncut magazine that “McCartney III” allowed him to explore his backlog of unfinished songs. “The problem with iPhones is that you can have an idea — “Doo do doo do come on bam bam” — and you think, ‘That’s good, I’ll finish this later.’ Then you realise you’ve got 2,000 of these ideas on your phone! ‘Oh, God! Am I ever going to get round to them?!’ So, lockdown allowed me to get round to a lot of them. Bu, I do have a list of songs that I started but didn’t actually finish or release.”

Asked if he ever mentally consults John Lennon, he replied: “Yeah, often. We collaborated for so long, I think, ‘OK, what would he think of this? What would be say now?’ We’d both agree that this new song I’m taking about is going nowhere. So instead of sitting around, we’d destroy it and remake it. I started that process yesterday in the studio. I took the vocal off it and decided to write a new vocal. I think it’s heading in a better direction now.”

Asked about George Martin, he said, “He was brilliant to work with. He was like a doctor when you’re ill. They have a way of not getting you angry. ‘Sure, let me just take your temperature.’ George was like that. I’d disagree with one of his ideas, and they were often very good ideas, and instead of having a barney, he’d say, ‘Maybe we could just try it and if you don’t like it, we’ll lose it.’ Then I’d go, ‘Oh, OK.’ He was clever that way. He’d get you to try things.”

“McCartney III” is informed by the pandemic, but radiates Macca’s innate optimism. (Mary McCartney)

He told NPR’s Mary Louise Kelly that while his wife Nancy would like to clean out the closets, as many people have done during lockdown, he’s “just short of a hoarder. What happens is, we’ll be going to throw an old book away and I’ll say, ‘Just let me check through it.’ And there, on the third page, will be the original lyrics I scribbled down to one of my songs. So, I say, ‘This is why I don’t throw things away!’ That’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it.”

In an interview with the Times of London, Macca was asked whether The Beatles ever experienced any mental health problems. “Yes, I think so,” he said. “But you talked about it through your songs. You know, John would. ‘Help! I need somebody,’ he wrote. And I thought, ‘Well, it’s just a song,’ but it turned out to be a cry for help. Same kind of thing happened with me, mainly after the break-up of the band. All of us went through periods when we weren’t as happy as we ought to be. Ringo had a major drinking problem. Now he’s Mr. Sober of the Year! But you know there were a lot of things we had to work through, but you’re right — you didn’t talk about mental health. It was something really that, as four guys, you were more likely to make fun of than be serious about. And the making fun of it was to hide from it. But having said all that, we were reasonably well adjusted, I think.”

In his interview with the New York Times Sunday Magazine, McCartney was asked if there are aspects of “McCartney III” that represent creative growth. “The idea of growing and adding more arrows to your bow is nice,” he said, “but I’m not sure if I’m interested in it. The thing is, when I look back to ‘Yesterday,’ which was written when I was 21 or something, there’s me talking like a 90-year-old: ‘Suddenly I’m not half the man I used to be.’ Things like that and ‘Eleanor Rigby’ have a kind of wisdom. You would naturally think, OK, as I get older I’m going to get deeper, but I’m not sure that’s true. I think it’s a fact of life that personalities don’t change much. Throughout your life, there you are.”

Asked how central to his life those 10 years as a Beatle are, he replied: “Very. It was a great group. That’s commonly acknowledged. … It’s like your high school memories — those are my Beatles memories. This is the danger: At a dinner party, I am liable to tell stories about my life, and people already know them. I can see everyone stifling a yawn. But the Beatles are inescapable. My daughter Mary will send me a photo or a text a few times a week: “There you were on an advert” or “I heard you on the radio.” The thing that amazes me now, because of my venerable age, is that I will be with, like, one of New York’s finest dermatologists, and he will be a rabid Beatles fan. All of that amazes me. We were trying to get known, we were trying to do good work and we did it. So to me, it’s all happy memories.”

Asked if his processing of Lennon’s death has changed over the years, he said, “It’s difficult for me to think about. I rerun the scenario in my head. Very emotional. So much so that I can’t really think about it. It kind of implodes. What can you think about that besides anger, sorrow? Like any bereavement, the only way out is to remember how good it was with John. Because, I can’t get over the senseless act. I can’t think about it. I’m sure it’s some form of denial. But denial is the only way that I can deal with it. Having said that, of course, I do think about it, and it’s horrible. You do things to help yourself out of it. I did an interview with Sean, his son. That was nice — to talk about how cool John was and fill in little gaps in his knowledge. So, it’s little things that I am able to do, but I know that none of them can get over the hill and make it OK. But you know, after he was killed, he was taken to Frank Campbell’s funeral parlor in New York. I’m often passing that. I never pass it without saying: “All right, John. Hi, John.”

The interviewer pointed out that, while McCartney frequently is asked about Lennon, he rarely is asked about George Harrison.

“John is probably the one in the group you would remember,” he said, “but the circumstances of his death were particularly harrowing. When you die horrifically, you’re remembered more. But, I like your point, which is: What about George? I often think of George because he was my little buddy. I was thinking the other day of my hitchhiking bursts. This was before The Beatles. I suddenly was keen on hitchhiking, so I sold this idea to George. … Exeter and Paignton. We did that, and then I also hitchhiked with John. He and I got as far as Paris. What I was thinking about was — it’s interesting how I was the instigator. Neither of them came to me and said, ‘Should we go hitchhiking?’ It was me, like, ‘I’ve got this great idea.’ … My theory is that attitude followed us into our recording career. Everyone was hanging out in the sticks, and I used to ring them up and say, ‘Guys, it’s time for an album.’ Then we’d all come in, and they’d all be grumbling. ‘He’s making us work.’ We used to laugh about it. So, the same way I instigated the hitchhiking holidays, I would put forward ideas like, ‘It’s time to make an album.’ I don’t remember Ringo, George or John ever ringing me up and saying that.”

Asked if he remembers the last thing he said to George, Paul replied, “We said silly things. We were in New York before he went to Los Angeles to die, and they were silly, but important to me. And, I think, important to him. We were sitting there, and I was holding his hand, and it occurred to me — I’ve never told this — I don’t want to hold George’s hand. You don’t hold your mate’s hands. I mean, we didn’t anyway. And, I remember he was getting a bit annoyed at having to travel all the time — chasing a cure. He’d gone to Geneva to see what they could do. Then he came to a special clinic in New York to see what they could do. Then the thought was to go to L.A. and see what they could do. He was sort of getting a bit, ‘Can’t we just stay in one place?’ And I said: ‘Yes, Speke Hall. Let’s go to Speke Hall.’ That was one of the last things we said to each other, knowing that he would be the only person in the room who would know what Speke Hall was. Anyway, the nice thing for me when I was holding George’s hands, he looked at me, and there was a smile.”

Asked if he could share a Beatles story that hasn’t been told before, he said, “So when we did the album ‘Abbey Road,’ the photographer was set up and taking the pictures that ended up as the album cover. Linda was also there, taking some incidental pictures. She has some that are of us — I think it was all four of us — sitting on the steps of Abbey Road studios, taking a break from the session, and I’m in quite earnest conversation with John. This morning I thought, I remember why. John’s accountants had rung my accountants and said: ‘Someone’s got to tell John he’s got to fill in his tax returns. He’s not doing it.’ So, I was trying to say to him, ‘Listen, man, you’ve got to do this.’ I was trying to give him the sensible advice on not getting busted for not doing your taxes. That’s why I looked so earnest. I don’t think I’ve told that story before.”

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In the Studio With George Harrison

Eoghan Lyng looks back at the recording of “All Things Must Pass” in this bonus to our 50th anniversary coverage of the George Harrison album. You can find much more about “All Things Must Pass” in Beatlefan #247. …

Though commonly disparaged by Beatles fans and Beatles themselves, especially Paul McCartney, “Let It Be” remains an epoch of a record. It was the first Beatles album of the 1970s, and was finished off by veteran producer Phil Spector.

Spector, whose fingerprints are all over The Beatles’ final studio release, had entered into their sphere by invitation of John Lennon. Delighted with the producer’s work on his fiery “Instant Karma,” Lennon invited Spector to sift through the chaotic residue that was The Beatles’ early 1969 recordings. Yet, it was George Harrison who had invited Spector to the “Instant Karma” sessions, having bumped into him at Apple’s offices, so it was no surprise that Harrison and Spector would work together on an album.

It was Harrison who had made the earliest moves to record a completely solo studio album within The Beatles’ group structure. An instrumental tapestry of Eastern and Western textures, Harrison’s “Wonderwall Music” was a worthy accompaniment to Joe Massot’s idiosyncratic film. And, then, there was 1969’s “Electronic Sounds,” Harrison’s blow-by-blow guide to the workings of a Moog-3 synthesizer. This experiment was considered solely an experiment, described by Harrison as “avant garde a clue” on future CD issues.

Harrison in the studio recording his debut solo album.

Whatever feelings he held for his odd 1969 release, his view of 1970’s “All Things Must Pass” was altogether more positive.

“I didn’t have many tunes on Beatles records,” Harrison admitted in 1992. “Doing an album like ‘All Things Must Pass’ was like going to the bathroom and letting it out.” 

Harrison had found The Beatles’ most recent recording sessions troubling. After the “Get Back”/“Let It Be” sessions, the guitarist channeled his feelings into the storming song “Wah Wah.” His fury, even in 1970, was palpable: “Everybody had gone through that,” Harrison said in the “Beatles Anthology.” “Ringo had left at one point. I know John wanted out. It was a very, very difficult, stressful time, and being filmed having a row, as well, was terrible. I got up and I thought, ‘I’m not doing this anymore. I’m out of here.’ So, I got my guitar and went home and that afternoon wrote ‘Wah-Wah.’”

Harrison had had a tough time pitching songs to The Beatles. Engineer Geoff Emerick recalled “Isn’t It a Pity” being passed over for “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” and again the song wound up rejected during the “Let It Be” sessions. “I’d Have You Anytime,” written by Harrison with Dylan’s help, had been a contender for recording by The Beatles since November, 1968.

Harrison hinted at the falling-out in his autobiographical book “I Me Mine,” writing that “It was that period — the problem of partnerships.”

Keyboardist Billy Preston had joined The Beatles’ 1969 sessions, bringing an influence Harrison thought comparable to Eric Clapton’s on the White Album. Together, Harrison and Preston collaborated on Doris Troy’s eponymous Apple album, released in September, 1970. Troy, discussing her work with author Simon Leng, could see the influence that gospel music had on Harrison: “I think he had been involved in soul music for years — he listened to it, he loved it, and that’s what made him want to do it. I wasn’t actually introducing him to the stuff; he already knew it. The Beatles as a whole listened to black music; a lot of their soul and feelings came from American music.”

Harrison spent April, 1970, in America, visiting Bob Dylan. Guesting on Dylan’s “New Morning” sessions, he added guitar patterns on the yearning “If Not for You,” a crisp rendition heard years later on Dylan’s “The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3 (Rare & Unreleased) 1961-1991.” Harrison, absent from the version heard on “New Morning,” would return to the song himself on his first solo album. His guitar playing had turned another leaf, as he developed a signature style that may have been inspired by Delaney Bramlett.

“One time he asked me if I would teach him how to play slide,” Bramlett recalled, “and, later, George said I’d taught him how to play it. Well, he did make that statement — but I didn’t teach him anything. George already knew how to play guitar, he just wanted to know my technique, what I thought about it, and what I did. All I did was teach him my style of playing.”

Harrison had a backload of songs from his Beatles days.

Bramlett and Harrison had worked together in 1969 on a tour by Delaney & Bonnie, a group for whom Harrison had tremendous fondness.

For his solo recording sessions, Harrison had a producer in Spector who supported his songcraft. Spector traveled to Harrison’s Friar Park estate in early 1970 to hear Harrison’s demos, and was impressed by the material he had assembled.

“It was endless,” Spector admitted in the documentary “Living in the Material World.” “He had literally hundreds of songs, and each one was better than the rest. He had all this emotion built up when it was released to me.”

More artist than arranger, Spector’s production work was typified by a style known as “wall of sound.” The 1963 album “A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector” showed this indomitable style at its purest, as an array of vocalists, percussionists and musicians translated his ideas into massive soundscapes.

As it happened, Harrison also felt the need to work with an array of musicians, liberating the guitarist after 10 years of singing beside Lennon and McCartney. John Leckie, an engineer-producer whose later work with XTC, the Stone Roses and Radiohead was likened to The Beatles, thought the approach had a positive effect on Harrison.

“Phil Spector was fantastic,” Leckie told the website We Are Cult in 2018. “Very funny man, one of the first gigs I had. I think Phil brought a lot out of George Harrison, saying let’s have all our mates in, 24 people playing on it, rather than just four Beatles. Eric Clapton brought the Derek and the Dominoes guys along, so there were was a lot of great guitars and equipment, very peace and love. I don’t know who else could have produced it; maybe Chris Thomas, who did White Album stuff and was something like George’s assistant, but Phil was great.”

The sessions, beginning at the end of May, 1970, took place at Abbey Road Studios. Running over 100 minutes, the resulting triple album boasts 19 Harrison originals. Dylan is credited on two tracks, while writers Bill Martin and Phil Coulter were co-credited on the jaunty “It’s  Johnny’s Birthday,” since it was based their song “Congratulations.” Ringo Starr is credited on drums, alongside session players Jim Gordon and Alan White. Phil Collins — soon to join progressive rock band Genesis — recorded congas for “Art of Dying,” although his contributions were not used on the final track. Returning to the album in for a reissue in 2001, Harrison made a point of appreciating the drummer in the liner notes.

Spector encouraged Harrison to distance himself from the more direct textures of The Beatles’ milieu, and to position himself at the center of a production style that was broad in texture, tone and presence (Harrison later described the approach as “like Cinemascope.”)

George with wife Pattie in 1970

Spector penned Harrison a letter, dated Aug. 19, 1970, in which he suggested “strings and horns” for “Isn’t It a Pity,” and offered his opinion on what “Let It Down” was lacking: “The vocal group (Eric and Bobby) on the “Let it Down” parts sounded okay. The ‘Moonlight Bay’ horn parts should be out the first time and very, very low the second time they play that riff, I think. Perhaps at the end, near the fade, a wailing sax (old rock and roll style) played by Bobby Keys would possibly add some highlight to the ending and make it totally different from the rest of the song. It’s hard to explain, but some kind of a screaming saxophone mixed in with all that madness at the end might be an idea. Anyhow it’s something to think about.”

Harrison later expressed some reservations about how the album sounded, and remembered Spector with discerning criticism in years to come. Harrison was shrewd, stoic, workmanlike, while the mercurial producer — nominally a perfectionist who drove his artists to near artistic frenzies — found his time in England a more difficult period.

Recalling the process in 1987, Harrison praised the album’s sophisticated sound, but considered Spector’s drinking habit problematic.

“I literally used to have to go and break into the hotel to get him. I’d go along the roof and climb in the window, yelling, ‘Come on! We’re supposed to be making a record!’” Harrison recalled. “He’d say, ‘Oh! OK.’ And then he used to have 18 cherry brandies before he could get himself down in the studio. I got so tired of that, because I needed someone to help. I was ending up with more work than if I’d just been doing it on my own.”

“Phil was an incredible guy, a genius, but he is uncontrollable,” bassist Klaus Voormann agreed. “I think he broke his arm in the Apple control room — George was doing some overdubs, Phil came in and was completely drunk and just fell over backwards. And, in the end, George got irritated by it, and Phil sort of disappeared. So, George finished the album.”

Clapton was a frequent guest at the sessions. Joining Harrison on the elegiac “My Sweet Lord,” the guitarist is one of several acoustic players heard on the final mix. Badfinger frontmen Pete Ham, Tom Evans and Joey Molland each contributed guitar backing, over which Harrison could play his sharp slide guitar. Complete with a verse in Sanskrit, “My Sweet Lord” — inspired in part by “Oh Happy Day” — proved atypical among the rock singles released that year. For Harrison, the message was one that proved true to his heart and soul. More than that, the song epitomized the more spiritual tone of the album.

“He just lived by his deeds,” Spector recalled in 2011. “He was spiritual, and you knew it, and there was no salesmanship involved. It made you spiritual being around him.”

Spreading himself between the roles of singer, songwriter and musical director, Harrison opted to work very closely with the many musicians involved I the album.

“George would go around to each musician and make a point of showing each what he was doing,” Molland remembered in 2015. “He’d sing the arrangement to them and talk about the part they were going to play.”

An alternate version of the album cover shot.

John Barham, the album’s orchestral director, was impressed with the detail Harrison laid out for the work: “I stayed at Friar Park while we did the preparatory work for the orchestrations of ‘All Things Must Pass.’ We discussed arrangement details, as George wanted them to be finalized before the session. George didn’t want any surprises at the last moment in the studio — he didn’t like last-minute changes, and preferred things to be well thought out in advance.”

Still, spontaneity was evident in the sessions, particularly on the songs that appeared on the record’s third disc. Among those was an impromptu performance labeled “Jam 3” at EMI on July 2, 1970. Complete with Clapton’s guitar, Jim Price’s fiery saxophone and Bobby Whitlock’s placid keyboard, the song was renamed “Out of the Blue” on the finished product.

Cognizant of Lennon’s 30th birthday, Harrison also led his bandmates through a thunderous number designed to celebrate the event.

Harrison made an effort to maintain a relationship with Lennon, as his former bandmate was attempting to complete his own inaugural work in the fall of 1970.

“George Harrison had a Ferrari, a 330 GTC,” EMI engineer Andy Stephens recalled, “which was dark blue, with a cream interior, and it was parked out the front of the studio. And stuck to his windscreen he had a little vase holder with a little plastic flower in it. He took it out, walked into Studio 3 and said, ‘Happy birthday, John.’ He gave him the plastic flower and they had a hug. Yoko had brought in this present for John, which was a sensory box. It was about twice the size of a shoebox, with lots of holes in it. You had to put your finger in — one hole would be warm and mushy, one would be wet, one would have a pin in it. John had such a ball with it.”

No doubt influenced by the camaraderie he still shared with Lennon and Starr, Harrison posed for his album cover seated between four garden gnomes. He felt the album portrait gave his audience an alternative view of the Fab Four. As he put it: “Originally, when we took the photo, I had these old Bavarian gnomes, which I thought I would put there, like kinda … John, Paul, George and Ringo.”

Completing overdubs on the album in September, 1970, Harrison’s own musical contributions included slide guitar duties, lead guitar patterns and vocal performances. On “My Sweet Lord” were a shimmering collection of voices curiously credited to the George O’Hara-Smith Singers. It was, in fact, Clapton and Whitlock joining Harrison as the chorus.

Not long after the album’s release, Harrison was sued in February, 1971, for allegedly infringing on Ronnie Mack’s song “He’s So Fine” with “My Sweet Lord.” By 1976, Harrison was deemed guilty of “subconsciously” plagiarizing the melody. The accusation and the court proceedings were the basis for his tune “This Song,” which called into question the legitimacy of the lawsuit questioning his integrity. “It’s difficult to just start writing again after you’ve been through that,” Harrison admitted to Rolling Stone. “Even now, when I put the radio on, every tune I hear sounds like something else.”

However, Harrison nonetheless spoke highly of his triple album in 2001. Supervising a 30th anniversary remastering, Harrison penned an essay for the re-issue that summed up his feelings.

“It’s been 30 years since ‘All Things Must Pass’ was recorded,” he wrote. “I still like the songs on the album, and believe they can continue to outlive the style in which they were recorded. It was difficult to resist re-mixing every track. All these years later, I would like to liberate some of the songs from the big production that seemed appropriate at the time, but now seem a bit over the top with the reverb in the wall of sound. …

“Still, it was an important album for me, and a timely vehicle for all the songs I’d been writing during the last period with The Beatles. I began recording just months after we had all finally decided to go our separate ways, and I was looking forward to making the first solo album of ‘songs’ (as opposed to ‘Wonderwall’ and ‘Electronic Sounds’ which were instrumental).”

— Eoghan Lyng

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Paul’s pandemic album: Not top-drawer McCartney, but not bad

Beatlefan Publisher Bill King reviews Paul McCartney’s forthcoming “McCartney III” album. …

Photos for the new album were taken by McCartney’s daughter Mary.

I have to admit that the first time I listened to “McCartney III,” my reaction was not all that positive.

However, this is Paul McCartney — master of the stealth earworm that burrows into your head whether you want it to or not, so repeated listening sessions have upgraded the album in my estimation.

While not top-drawer McCartney, this third of his all-solo homemade collections is not bad.

Still, after just one hearing of the self-produced album, which Macca recorded earlier this year during lockdown (or “rockdown,” as he calls it), I initially told a few friends that, of the three “McCartney” albums, I would rank this one third, noting: It’s rockier than “McCartney II,” but the vocals and songs are less interesting. It’s about on the level of the first two Fireman albums, and nowhere near as good as most of “Egypt Station,” I said.

I thought the last third of the album — “The Kiss of Venus,” “Seize the Day,” “Deep Down” and “When Winter Comes” — was stronger than the rest. A couple of the other tracks have potential, I said, but they feel underdeveloped.

The front cover of the “McCartney III” album.

Basically, after that initial listening, I thought the main problem with the album was that it was missing the catchy/hooky melodies that always have been Paul’s strong suit, and I agreed with a couple of my friends who said they missed the rich harmonies that usually are a hallmark of McCartney albums.

A lot of “III” sounded like tracks made up as he went along, as opposed to recordings of properly written “songs.” Also, a couple of the lengthier tracks were in need of trimming — too repetitive. 

And, to me, the production was a little bit artificial/processed sounding. I knew it was all Paul on instruments and vocals, multitracked, but you can do that and still manage to make it sound like a song being performed by a group live in the studio. This mostly doesn’t sound like that. (UPDATE: When I reviewed this album, I did not have access to the credits. It turns out that McCartney was joined by guitarist Rusty Anderson and drummer Abe Laboriel Jr. of his tour band on one of the tracks, so this album is not 100% solo Macca.)

McCartney’s vocals on the album tend to be heavily multi-tracked or falsetto, but that’s not surprising, considering the current state of his voice.

There’s a lot of interesting music on the album, I told my friends, and nothing that’s awful, but also nothing that made my ears really perk up.

Of course, I noted, “it’ll probably grow on me with repeated listening sessions (most of his albums do).”

And, sure enough, it did.

After living with the album for not quite two weeks, my initial observation that it’s lacking any of those instantly hummable, beautiful McCartney melodies still stands.

But, rather than rank it a clear third among the “McCartney” albums, I’d now say that, while it lacks anything as instantly memorable or pretty as “Every Night,” “Maybe I’m Amazed,” “Waterfalls” or “One of These Days,” it never sinks as low as some of the forgettable instrumentals on the first album, or the electronic noodling on the second.

The strongest tracks on this new album can’t match the strongest tracks on the first two, but it’s the most consistent of the trilogy; the weakest tracks on “III” are not as weak as the worst tracks on “McCartney” and “McCartney II.”

The album opens with “Long Tailed Winter Bird,” a lengthy, mostly instrumental track that features a distinctive electric guitar riff and rhythmic playing of muted guitar strings. The main problem with this one is that it comes to a natural end point … and then continues self-indulgently for quite a bit longer. The 5:18 track would have been much better if trimmed by a couple of minutes.

Next up is the best of the early selections, “Find My Way,” an upbeat pop-rock number (somewhat reminiscent of “New”) in which Paul offers guidance for dealing with anxiety as he spouts familiar phrases like “We never close, I’m open day and night,” and “I know my way around …. I walk towards the light.” This track, which has a false ending, could have developed into something, but, here, it feels a bit like an elaborate demo.

One of the quirkier selections is “Pretty Boys,” a midtempo acoustic guitar number whose backing consists mainly of a repetitive riff, with not much of a melody. It appears to be an effort to flip the usual sexualizing of women by focusing on the titular “objects of desire,” whom the camera loves but who are treated like bicycles for rent. This one would not sound out of place on “Egypt Station.”

“Women and Wives” is a piano-based track sung in Macca’s “Lady Madonna” voice that implores, “Hear me women and wives / Hear me husbands and lovers / What we do with our lives / Seems to matter to others.” The song, unfortunately, won’t matter to many people, as it’s not a very memorable tune.

McCartney once again plays all the instruments on this album.

“Lavatory Lil” is a loosey-goosey, rougher number built on a bluesy guitar riff. It’s about a woman who appears to be a gold digger. Macca’s spokesman has denied British tabloid speculation that it’s about his ex-wife, Heather Mills, though Paul said in his Uncut Magazine interview that the subject is one of those people who “screw you over,” and he decided to write a song as revenge. With lyrics like You think she’s being friendly, but she’s looking for a Bentley” and “She’s acting like a starlet but she’s looking like a harlot / As she’s slowly heading over the hill,” this is a level of Macca bitchiness we’ve rarely seen. Still, it’s not a great number and, while some reviewers have found it reminiscent of the “Abbey Road” Side 2 medley, I don’t see that at all.

The album gets a bit heavier with “Slidin’,” a slow rocker with an insistent guitar riff and a lyric that appears to be about flying (or, perhaps, the common dream of flying). Played live onstage with his band, this one could be a powerful concert number. (UPDATE: This is the track where Paul is joined by Rusty and Abe.)

The album’s longest track, running 8:28, is “Deep Deep Feeling,” a rather haunting Fireman-esque mini rock suite. It does run on a bit, but mostly manages to stay interesting, as it keeps morphing, with lots of layered sounds and multitracked vocals. “Sometimes I wish it would stay / Sometimes I wish it would go away / Emotion” is the most memorable refrain. There’s another false ending, of course.

The strongest section of the album kicks off with “The Kiss of Venus,” a romantic acoustic guitar ballad sung mostly in a somewhat frayed falsetto. It has a memorable spinet/harpsichord-sounding keyboard element, too.

One of the two strongest numbers is “Seize the Day,” which has the closest thing on the album to a typical McCartney chorus. This one sort of sums up Macca’s personal philosophy: “It’s still alright to be nice.” It also shows the 78-year-old getting a bit bittersweet and reflective, as he sings: “When the cold winds come / And the old ways fade away / There’ll be no more sun / And we’ll wish that we had held on to the day / Seize the day.”

My favorite selection on “McCartney III” is the sexy r&b track “Deep Down,” which has a slinky organ backing that’s bolstered by bashing drums and synth horns. (I think it would sound even better with real horns.) There’s not a lot to it lyrically (it’s mostly about wanting to “get deep down” and party), but it has one of the album’s better vocals (augmented by some seductive “woooos” in the background).

We get a brief reprise of the opening “Winter Bird,” followed by the album’s final track, “When Winter Comes,” an acoustic outtake from 1992 that Paul co-produced with the late George Martin. Although it has the album’s best vocal performance (no surprise, since it dates from 28 years ago), this one didn’t knock me out on first listen. However, it’s the selection that most gets into your head, and you might find yourself humming it afterward. Lyrically, it’s in “Ram” territory, a charming pastoral ode to farm life that you could just take at face value, or, at this late date (and as this particular album’s closer), it could be viewed as Paul coming to terms with aging. As he sings: “When summer’s gone / We’ll fly away and find the sun / When winter comes.”

Overall, it’s not an album you’re likely to fall in love with right away, but it is one that rewards return visits.

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More Pie!

Tom Frangione sends along this wrapup of the extra “Flaming Pie” stuff floating around out there that he did for Joe Johnson’s BeatleBrunch …

flaming pie box set

 

Well, if the five CDs and two DVDs in the newly released Archive Collection edition of Paul McCartney’s 1997 masterpiece “Flaming Pie” left you hungry for more, you’re in luck … If you know where to look!

As has become practice when these beautiful deluxe editions are released, it pays to keep an eye on Sir Paul’s official website, www.paulmccartney.com  As of this writing, there’ve been three bonus tracks posted and available for download:

  1. “Somedays”:the beautiful acoustic ballad, presented in stripped down fashion, without the orchestral backing
  2. “Calico Skies”:the complete song, performed beside a campfire (don’t worry, those aren’t vinyl crackles!) as seen in the DVD “In The World Tonight”
  3. “Beautiful Night”:the complete, six minute version of the song recorded with Phil Ramone and Billy Joel’s band in 1986. A shortened 4-minute version of this song is included in one of the “Oobu Joobu” spots on the “Flaming Pies” bonus disc in the box set.

Now, you’d think that’d be reward enough for the vigilant fans scouring the internet, but there’s one other track that was made available exclusively on rollingstone.com as part of the pre-release promotion for the new set. This time it’s an alternate instrumental version of the “Young Boy” B-side “Broomstick,” performed with Steve Miller.

Don’t worry … we’re not done yet. The next two are what detectives call “hiding in plain sight”.

Disc 2 of the box set ends with a home recording of the album’s original closer, “Great Day.” Or does it? Make sure you don’t eject the disc till the clock runs all the way down, and an additional 30-second instrumental of the song awaits.

Similarly, yet differently, the track list for Disc 3 shows a rude cassette version of “Heaven on a Sunday.” But, after some dead air comes an interesting minute and a half of Paul and Ringo vamping on the track “Beautiful Night.” Definitely worth the wait!

So, there’s at least six slices of additional pie out there for the ravenous. We’ll have to wait and see if any more get served up, but it’s worth pointing out that the DVDs contain loads of maddeningly short studio snippets of Paul demoing the album’s songs; but one — the title track — appears in complete form.

HEAT IT UP!

Tom Frangione

 

 

 

 

 

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When did The Beatles break up?

This is the complete, unedited version of Duncan Driver’s article excerpted in Beatlefan #243.

john george paul get back

‘… don’t you know that you can count me out, in.’

— Sung by John Lennon on the song ‘Revolution I’ (1968).

One of the most astute observations made by historian and biographer Mark Lewisohn is that ‘the Beatles began to break up the day they got together.’ As with many divorces, differences that would become irreconcilable were present from the very beginning of their union: the decision to freeze George out of the Lennon-McCartney writing credit; Paul’s tendency towards bossiness and his refusal to be bossed around by anyone (except, perhaps, by John); most especially John’s rush to embrace and haste to discard new fads and sources of inspiration. Equally true of relationships that fall apart was the fact that happy and hopeful periods occurred until the very end: whether that end really was the end remained uncertain until later than you might think. As Ringo confirmed in The Beatles: Anthology, ‘There was always the possibility that we could have carried on.’ The reasons why the Beatles broke up are complex and fascinating, but it is beyond the scope of this article to explore them in great detail. Instead, it investigates how and when they broke up, recognising the process as iterative and the reasons as ubiquitous.

The first incarnation of the band that called itself ‘the Beatles’ could easily have disintegrated in late 1960, when an under-age George was deported from Hamburg and Paul and Pete (Best) were jailed for arson. Despite such dramatic events happening in a single day, nobody from the band bothered to contact each other for a fortnight, Mona Best (Pete’s mother) stirring them to action with a series of new-year phone calls. Lewisohn argues in Tune In that another break-up was imminent just a year later: by late 1961 the Beatles had achieved all that Liverpool offered and they could easily have stagnated had Brian Epstein not entered their story, elevating their presentation and exposure to a professional level. On the brink of unprecedented success in 1962, John speculated in a television interview about how long the group might last, considering a ten-year lifespan unrealistically ‘big-headed’. Fast-forwarding to Christmas 1966, a reporter who buttonholed each Beatle arriving at Abbey Road (then EMI Recording Studios) was clearly concerned by potential signs of disharmony and lethargy, asking ‘Are the Beatles going to go their own way in 1967?’, ‘What’s all this about the Beatles are going to do less together in the new year?’ and ‘Do you foresee a time when, in fact, the Beatles won’t be together and that you’ll all be on your own?’ John, George and Ringo each dismiss these entreaties, confident (at least for the camera) that they aren’t yet tired of each other and that the British public need not be concerned about the demise of the band. Behind closed doors, things may have been a little different. Earlier that year Paul had stormed out of the final recording session for Revolver, leaving George to play bass guitar on ‘She Said She Said’. There may not have been any serious intention to quit attached to this fit of pique, but it presaged Ringo leaving sessions for The Beatles (the White Album) in 1968 and George doing the same nine days into recordings for what would become Let it Be.

It is these January 1969 sessions that many focus on when investigating the break-up of the Beatles. Better documented than any of their other projects (and so subject to more intense speculation), 150 hours of nagra audiotape recorded every joke, comment and argument for posterity, the subject of ‘divorce’ being raised more than once. On January 7 (just six days into sessions), the band discussed the sour atmosphere at their Twickenham location, George reflecting that ‘the Beatles have been in the doldrums for at least a year’ before admitting, ‘we should have a divorce.’ Paul, usually the most enthusiastic Beatle, agreed: ‘Well, I said that at the last meeting. But it’s getting near it.’ John – uncharacteristically withdrawn until this point – joked, ‘Who’d have the children?’, but it is Paul who supplied the punchline: ‘Dick James’ (their music publisher). The discussion is surprisingly frank: nobody sounds angry or bitter. Hearing their dialogue, you’d be forgiven for thinking this wasn’t the first time they’d explored going their separate ways. Even more surprising is how they chose to spend the rest of the day: working collectively and enthusiastically on ‘I’ve Got a Feeling’, one of the true Lennon-McCartney collaborations of this period.

george pattie get backThree days later, George spoilt a lunch break by announcing that he was ‘leaving the group.’ John’s single-word question isn’t ‘What?’ or ‘Why?’, but ‘When?’, again suggesting that George had re-opened an ongoing conversation. ‘Now’ is George’s answer, delivered in a drawl before the parting quip, ‘See you ‘round the clubs.’ The effect on John is galvanising. Despite what he’d say later about the misery of the Let it Be sessions and his own desire to escape them, George’s departure turned on John’s bandleader switch: ‘I think if George doesn’t come back by Monday or Tuesday we ask Eric Clapton to play on it … the point is if George leaves, do we wanna carry on the Beatles? I say yes.’ It’s left for Paul to become unusually quiet at this point, noodling away on the piano in the background. An emergency band meeting was held two days later (without the nagra tapes running) at which George re-affirmed his decision to leave. The band met again on January 15, George agreeing to re-join on the condition that sessions move from Twickenham to the Beatles’ own studio in the basement of their Saville Row building.

As with the marked swing from despondency to enthusiasm evident on January 7 when the band began rehearsing ‘I’ve Got a Feeling’, the move from Twickenham had an ameliorative effect on morale. Billy Preston’s arrival on January 22 also appears to have injected energy into proceedings, the arrangement for ‘Get Back’ (earmarked as the next single) coming together in just one day. Footage from these sessions included in the Let it Be film and in The Beatles: Anthology would appear to vindicate the claim that these late January sessions were a noticeably happy and remarkably productive couple of weeks, yielding not just the bulk of recordings issued as Let it Be but which also introduced the majority of songs from Abbey Road as well as some that would achieve fruition on future solo albums. So much for the claim that Let it Be documents a band breaking up: on the penultimate day of the month they can be seen enjoying every moment of live performance on the Apple office rooftop, decidedly passing their audition. Indeed, Paul was moved to send Ringo a postcard the next day on which was written (in block capitals), ‘YOU ARE THE GREATEST DRUMMER IN THE WORLD. REALLY.’

However close to ‘divorce’ they may have gotten in the early days of 1969, simple facts demonstrate that they did not break up at the time: less than a month after their rooftop performance they began recording ‘I Want You (She’s So Heavy)’, marking the beginning of the cohesive and focused Abbey Road sessions. A spanner was thrown into the works of what George Martin called ‘a very happy album’ on May 9, however, after a playback of material from the January sessions. An argument developed over the appointment of Allen Klein as the Managing Director of Apple Corps. Klein had wined and dined John (and Yoko) earlier that month, winning them over in the course of an evening; John had subsequently convinced George and Ringo to climb on board with Klein, but Paul had demurred signing the management contract. Paul remembers the argument in the Anthology this way:

The other three said, ‘You’ve got to sign a contract – he’s got to take it to his board.’ I said, ‘It’s Friday night. He doesn’t work on a Saturday, and anyway Allen Klein is a law unto himself. He hasn’t got a board he has to report to. Don’t worry – we could easily do this on Monday. Let’s do our session instead. You’re not going to push me into this.’

They said, ‘Oh, are you stalling? He wants 20%.’ I said, ‘Tell him he can have 15%.’ They said: ‘You’re stalling.’ I replied, ‘No, I’m working for us; we’re a big act.’ I remember the exact words: ‘We’re a big act – The Beatles. He’ll take 15%.’ But for some strange reason (I think they were so intoxicated with him) they said, ‘No, he’s got to have 20%, and he’s got to report to his board. You’ve got to sign now or never.’ So I said, ‘Right, that’s it. I’m not signing now.’

It’s hard not to see this from both perspectives. Paul raised real concerns about Klein’s motives and the Beatles’ bargaining power, while the accusation of ‘stalling’ appears legitimate: if Paul was happy to sign the contract on Monday, why not sign it on Friday? Reading between the lines of this, it would seem that the other three were forcing Paul’s hand, trying to get him to declare intentions he may have been cagey about. Speaking elsewhere of this three-against-one situation, Paul referred to it as ‘the crack in the liberty bell’, an excellent metaphor for The Beatles’ business differences that had begun to overshadow their music. Indeed, the metaphor is so strong that it’s worth extending to make a point about that music: the bell may have been cracked, but it had never produced a better sound.

ringo george john studioThere has been much discussion in recent years about the extent to which Abbey Road was the Beatles’ intentional swan-song, a final unified effort made possible because everyone involved knew it to be final. Allan Kozinn has written assiduously about this in issue #241 of Beatlefan, and so the arguments for and against the claim will not be resuscitated here. It is true that the album works well as a final artistic statement, ‘The End’ closing the Beatles’ career with the neatly Shakespearean couplet, ‘And in the end, the love you take / Is equal to the love you make’. What tends to be forgotten when this is pointed out, however, is that ‘The End’ is not how Abbey Road ends: after 17 seconds of silence, the final note of ‘Mean Mr Mustard’ is heard, before Paul sings his little ditty about ‘Her Majesty’. Famously, the final ‘D’ of this short piece of whimsey is cut, effectively ending the album on an unresolved note. The original track sequence for the album, moreover, identified Side B as Side A and vice versa: Abbey Road was going to end with ‘I Want You (She’s So Heavy)’, also a song that ends abruptly. For all the talk of Abbey Road tying a neat ribbon around the Beatles’ body of work, then, it must be acknowledged that the album’s aesthetic insists on that work as unfinished, perhaps even suggesting that the Beatles’ career is far from certain – neither continuing as before, nor completely over. As Ringo’s confirmed in the Anthology, the door was self-consciously open to ‘possibility’.

After completing Abbey Road and conducting what would be their final photo session on August 22, another suggestion of a 3-1 split in The Beatles (with Paul in the minority) may be the fact that John, George and Ringo attended the Isle of Wight concert together on August 30-31 and Paul did not. The grain of salt to take this with, however, is that Paul’s first child (Mary) had been born just two days earlier. Reading his absence as a sign of disharmony is speculative, especially as the band (minus Ringo, waylaid in hospital with an intestinal complaint) would meet on September 8 to discuss arrangements for their next album and a potential Christmas single. Given Ringo’s absence, the meeting was taped (and subsequently reproduced in Anthony Fawcett’s One Day at a Time: John Lennon). John chairs the meeting and proposes that he, Paul and George each bring their four best songs to the as-yet-unscheduled recording sessions. This, John admits, is an attempt at equality recognising George’s recent flowering as a songwriter and driven by guilt at how he and Paul had ‘carved up’ the Beatles’ extant empire between themselves. A meekly quiet Paul considers such strict rationing of album space to be ‘like the army’ before John and George begin a loaded exchange about effort expended on Harrison compositions in contrast to Lennon-McCartney offerings. John’s voice appears defensive and hurt as it claims that George tended to prefer the contributions of ‘Eric or somebody like that’ to those of his bandmates. There is a pregnant silence before Paul, almost inaudibly, whispers ‘When we get into a studio, even on the worst day, I’m still playing bass, Ringo’s still drumming, and we’re still there, you know.’

On September 12, the promotor John Brower phoned the Apple office to offer John and Yoko tickets to the Toronto Rock and Roll Revival festival scheduled for the following day. To his surprise, John accepted on the condition that he could perform at the event, a condition that Brower did not hesitate agreeing to. George recalls this in the Anthology:

When the Plastic Ono Band went to Toronto in September John actually asked me to be in the band, but I didn’t do it. I didn’t really want to be in an avant-garde band, and I knew that was what it was going to be.

He said he’d get Klaus Voormann, and Alan White as the drummer. During the last few years of The Beatles we were all producing other records anyway, so we had a nucleus of friends in the studios: drummers and bass players and other musicians. So it was relatively simple to knock together a band. He asked me if I’d play guitar, and then he got Eric Clapton to go – they just rehearsed on the plane over there.

Again, Paul may not have been asked on the understanding that his family were still adjusting to the arrival of a baby, and it is likely that Ringo was convalescing. George’s refusal is more revealing of rumbling within the Beatles’ ranks, especially his stated objection to John’s choice of extra-curricular projects (and their ‘avant-garde’ collaborators). When speaking to Jann Wenner for Rolling Stone in 1970, John remembers this as the day at which he decided to leave the Beatles:

john torontoWe were in Apple and I knew before I went to Toronto, I told Allen [Klein] I was leaving. I told Eric Clapton and Klaus that I was leaving and I’d like to probably use them as a group. I hadn’t decided how to do it, to have a permanent new group or what. And then later on I thought, ‘Fuck it, I’m not going to get stuck with another set of people, whoever they are.’ So I announced it to myself and to the people around me on the way to Toronto the few days before. On the plane Allen came with me, and I told him, ‘It’s over.’

The next day, John regretted having agreed to perform at the festival, but was convinced by Eric Clapton that it was too late to back out. During the flight back to London, on 15 September, John confided to journalist Ray Connelly that he had decided to leave the Beatles, asking him not to print this news just yet.

It was on September 20 that John made the sudden decision to inform Paul and Ringo of his intention. The band (minus George, who was visiting his mother) were present at the Apple office to sign a new contract with EMI/Capitol guaranteeing an increased royalty of 25% (up from 17.5%). A series of black-and-white photos from this event depict John (Yoko at his side), Paul and Ringo gathered around Allen Klein’s desk. One shot features John pretending to sign the document on Klein’s back as Paul feigns kissing his hand as though paying his respects to a Mafia Don. A band meeting followed at which Paul made a series of proposals for the future. He remembers this in the Anthology:

I’d said: ‘I think we should go back to little gigs – I really think we’re a great little band. We should find our basic roots, and then who knows what will happen? We may want to fold after that, or we may really think we’ve still got it.’ John looked at me in the eye and said: ‘Well, I think you’re daft. I wasn’t going to tell you till we signed the Capitol deal’ – Klein was trying to get us to sign a new deal with the record company – ‘but I’m leaving the group!’ We paled visibly and our jaws slackened a bit.

I didn’t really know what to say. We had to react to him doing it; he had control of the situation. I remember him saying, ‘It’s weird this, telling you I’m leaving the group, but in a way it’s very exciting.’ It was like when he told Cynthia he was getting a divorce. He was quite buoyed up by it, so we couldn’t really do anything: ‘You mean leaving’? So that’s the group, then…’ It was later, as the fact set in, that it got really upsetting.

Again, the prospect of breaking up is likened to a divorce. It is interesting that John’s admission seems to have left him ‘buoyed’, another case of excitement at leaping into the unknown with both feet. It is partly because John’s announcement appears to have been unplanned and instinctual (‘I wasn’t going to tell you’) that the other Beatles may have held out hope of a return to the fold. The decision itself had been made just seven days earlier, and John certainly had a history of turning cold on what he had recently been hot for. Consider his request to play at the Toronto Rock and Roll Revival festival and then his attempt to renege on the deal just one day later, his commitment to transcendental meditation in India and sudden departure amid accusations of inappropriate behaviour on the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s part, or his vocal enthusiasm for but failure to complete Arthur Janov’s Primal Scream therapy. It was certainly conceivable that John would change his mind about leaving The Beatles, and the lack of any public announcement about his decision could be put down to a ‘wait and see’ attitude on behalf of the other three or a recognition by John himself that public silence allowed him to keep his options open. We must remember that this was the man who, a year earlier, had sung ‘you can count me out, in’, admitting to a mercurial nature.

                             *            *            *

macca 1970 3However much he may have been holding out hope for a change of heart, there is no denying that John’s request for a ‘divorce’ ‘got really upsetting’ for Paul, who decamped to his remote Scottish farm with his family and was so little seen or heard in the ensuing months that rumours of his death began to spread. John busied himself with ‘avant garde’ projects for the rest of the year, George toured as part of the Delaney & Bonnie band and Ringo set to work on Sentimental Journey, a solo album of old standards. On January 3 of 1970, Paul, George and Ringo convened at Abbey Road to arrange and record George’s song, ‘I Me Mine’ for inclusion on Let it Be. George can be heard alluding to John’s absence on take 16 as he jokes ‘You all will have read that Dave Dee’s no longer with us, but Micky and Titch and I would just like to carry on the good work that’s always gone down at Number 2 [recording studio].’ John’s absence could be put down to the fact that he was in Denmark at the time, trying to win a custody battle over Yoko’s daughter, Kyoko. It is quite possible, however, that if he were in London and available he would still have been reticent to participate in the session. His decision to leave the band may have held firm, or if it were wavering he might still have thought twice about showing up for one of George’s songs, a tendency alluded to in the September 8 meeting in 1969. The ‘threetles’ (minus John) finalised the song ‘Let it Be’ the next day with new vocal, guitar and bass parts.

On January 5, whilst still in Denmark, John and Yoko gave a press conference at which John stated that ‘we’re not breaking up the band, but we’re breaking its image’, adding that the group would gather together and record an album before too long, if only for the money. John may have been putting a positive spin on what was still a serious intention to leave, but his comment about ‘breaking the image’ rather than the band cannot be dismissed as an outright lie. For one thing, it matches comments he had made in the January 1969 recording sessions about wanting the increasingly claustrophobic foursome of The Beatles to become a looser collective of ‘Beatles and Co.’ associate artists like Billy Preston. Paul had said much the same thing to Life in November of that year: ‘We make good music and we want to go on making good music. But the Beatle thing is over. It has been exploded…’ In concert with John’s comment about the break-up of the ‘image’ rather than the band, Paul seems to be suggesting that the myth of mop-topped fab four unity no longer existed, but that the possibility of music reflecting the band’s ‘real’ selves as distinct contributors to a shared identity remained possible. John would re-iterate this position to the BCC on February 6, stating that he ‘wouldn’t destroy [The Beatles] out of hand’ and that their current hiatus could prove either ‘a rebirth or a death’.

A little earlier that year (January 15), John and Yoko sent a curious postcard to Paul and Linda (McCartney) that read, ‘WE LOVE YOU AND WILL SEE YOU SOON.’ It is hard to know what to make of this: is it evidence that the bond between the two Beatles was still strong, or does it offer re-assurances of cordial relations at a time of strain? As it happens, Paul was not waiting aimlessly for John’s return. Having borrowed a four-track tape machine from EMI, he had been making experimental home recordings, likely unsure of whether the music might develop into a Beatles or solo project (or nothing at all). It is revealing that ‘Maybe I’m Amazed’ and ‘Every Night’ – the two most substantial songs to be released on McCartney – were not recorded at home on this rudimentary equipment, but professionally at Abbey Road on February 22 and 23. The dates are auspicious because it was not until February 6 that John released ‘Instant Karma!’, his first solo single to reach the top 5 of the UK and USA charts. Paul’s decision to make use of his old band’s preferred studio and to focus on these stellar compositions (the first of which had been brought to The Beatles in 1969) was likely a response to the quality of John’s new material. John would later describe the creative rivalry between his old writing partner and he as two men ‘scar[ing each other] … into doing something good’, and this is a prime instance.

george 1970George, who might be considered conspicuously quiet over the early months of 1970, had encouraging words to say about the future of the group on March 11, when interviewed by the BBC:

I certainly don’t want to see the end of The Beatles. And I know I’ll do anything, you know. Whatever Paul, John, Ringo would like to do, I’ll do it. As long as we can all be free to be individuals at the same time.

I think that’s just part of our life, you know, is to be Beatles. And I’ll play that game, you know, as long as the people want us to.

This hopeful attitude appears to have been vindicated by at least one event 6 days later: on March 17, George held a birthday party for his wife (Pattie) at their new home in Henley-on-Thames. Apple staffer Chris O’Dell later recalled this as ‘a great success. Ringo and Maureen, Paul and Linda, John and Yoko … were all there.’ O’Dell’s statement was not a hasty press release aimed at papering over increasingly-visible cracks with lies or half-truths, but a personal reflection made after the event, and so it would seem to represent an accurate impression of good relations between the four Beatles, all present in one location in March 1970. When interviewed by the BBC on March 25, Ringo confirmed that the band were still very much together, blaming the British press for stirring unwarranted controversy around them. This doesn’t square with comments he made four days later, however, when appearing on Frost on Sunday. The titular host asked whether The Beatles were likely to record together again, Ringo admitting that this was doubtful. Had submerged arguments resurfaced in the intervening days?  It is one of the minor mysteries of this uncertain time. Perhaps the discrepancy between Ringo’s statements is yet another case of uncertainty itself: things between the Beatles being fine but not fine, hopeful then doubtful, cohesive yet disintegrating, in very quick succession. If so, it supports this article’s claim that the lived experience of the period for John, Paul, George and Ringo was indeed one of doubt more than certainty; claims they would make later about the band having already broken up being susceptible to the selection of evidence that supports this view and forgetful of evidence suggesting otherwise.

Indeed, Ringo would again claim to the BBC that the Beatles would likely work together again on the morning of March 31, 1970. It was also on this day that a problem with potential release dates was identified at Apple, McCartney scheduled for April 10 and Let it Be for April 24. Without Paul being present, a decision was made to push the release of McCartney back to June 4, prioritising the group effort over a solo album. John was careful in communicating this decision to Paul, handwriting a note on which appeared these words:

Dear Paul, We thought a lot about yours and the Beatles LPs – and decided it’s stupid for Apple to put out two big albums within 7 days of each other (also there’s Ringo’s and Hey Jude) – so we sent a letter to EMI telling them to hold your release date til June 4th (there’s a big Apple-Capitol convention in Hawaii then). We thought you’d come round when you realized that the Beatles album was coming out on April 24th. We’re sorry it turned out like this – it’s nothing personal. Love John & George. Hare Krishna. A Mantra a Day Keeps MAYA! Away [sic].

The note was placed in an envelope, on which was written ‘From us to you’ and it was hand-delivered by Ringo to Paul’s house in St John’s Wood. Ringo would later remember what occurred next in an affidavit submitted in court in 1971:

I went to see Paul. To my dismay, he went completely out of control, shouting at me, prodding his fingers towards my face, saying: ‘I’ll finish you now’ and ‘You’ll pay.’ He told me to put my coat on and get out. I did so.

Paul’s account of their exchange in the Anthology is consistent with this, and both versions suggest that its intensity was out of character (‘it was the only time I ever told anyone to GET OUT!’). Clearly, the 3-to-1 situation had left Paul feeling increasingly isolated and overlooked, his lashing out at a bandmate almost a ‘fight or flight’ response to decisions made about his solo work by the three Beatles who had had nothing to do with its creation. It is not hard to feel sympathetic towards Paul here, but we must also recognise that if the hiring of Allen Klein was ‘the crack in the liberty bell’, and if John’s request for a divorce on September 20, 1969 seriously impacted the Lennon-McCartney relationship, then this was a third event that risked damaging The Beatles irreparably.

On April 9, Paul (surely mulling over recent events in the relative isolation of his family home) phoned John at Dr Arthur Janov’s private London hospital, where he was undergoing Primal Scream therapy. John would remember the conversation this way:

Paul said to me, ‘I’m now doing what you and Yoko were doing last year. I understand what you were doing’, all that shit. So I said to him, ‘Good luck to yer.’

mccartney album shot 1970Paul having won the previous month’s battle around release dates for albums, Apple staffers spent much of the same day packing review copies of McCartney with unusual ‘question-and-answer’ sheets intended to be a replacement for the normal round of interviews that attended an album’s release (Paul would later say that he was not capable of facing the press at the time). Derek Taylor had sent the questions to Paul at home, and Paul had supplied written responses to them (though Taylor would later confirm that those questions specific to the Beatles had been added by Paul himself). As the albums arrived on Fleet Street news desks and their inserts were read, rumours that Paul had left the Beatles began to swell. Mavis Smith, assistant to Derek Taylor, released a statement assuring the press that this was ‘just not true’. The Daily Mirror, however, confidently ignored this, preparing the headline ‘PAUL QUITS THE BEATLES’ for the next day.

When considering Paul’s responses in the questionnaire and their relationship to this headline, it is important to recognise that the words ‘I quit’ do not appear anywhere but in the Mirror’s sensationalist reportage. There has been a tendency in discussion of this questionnaire to conflate Paul’s words with the way they were received, interpreting a few of his statements as an unequivocal announcement that The Beatles had indeed reached the point of ‘divorce’. An objective consideration of Paul’s answers in the questionnaire, however, reveals that equivocating is exactly what he is doing: neither confirming nor denying a split, acknowledging that he is unhappy with the state of the band but recognising that relationships between its four members were far from over. The most relevant aspects of the questionnaire to this article are as follows:

Q: Will Paul and Linda become a John and Yoko?
A: No, they will become Paul and Linda.

Q: Did you miss the other Beatles and George Martin? Was there a moment when you thought, ‘I wish Ringo were here for this break?’
A: No.

Q: Are you planning a new album or single with the Beatles?
A: No.

Q: Is this album a rest away from the Beatles or the start of a solo career?
A: Time will tell. Being a solo album means it’s “the start of a solo career…” and not being done with the Beatles means it’s just a rest. So it’s both.

Q: Is your break with the Beatles temporary or permanent, due to personal differences or musical ones?
A: Personal differences, business differences, musical differences, but most of all because I have a better time with my family. Temporary or permanent? I don’t really know.

Q: Do you foresee a time when Lennon-McCartney becomes an active songwriting partnership again?
A: No.

It is understandable that Paul did not wish to see his marriage in terms of John and Yoko’s relationship, preferring instead to ‘ram on’ towards a unique identity. Not missing the other Beatles or their producer could easily be put down to the fact that the album under discussion was very different to the band’s work, much more of a family affair. At the risk of comparing Paul and Linda to John and Yoko, it was in some respects an answer to their 1969 Wedding Album: however much Paul might love his bandmates, he could be forgiven for preferring the company of his family during the honeymoon period of his marriage and the birth of his first child. Not planning a new album or single with the Beatles could be read as evidence that the band were defunct, but it should be remembered that long-term planning was never the Beatles’ modus operandi, even at their most cohesive. Indeed, the two projects that had suffered the most in the Beatles canon (Magical Mystery Tour and Let it Be) were problematic largely because of this preference for spontaneity over planning. Paul states in his next two answers that he is ‘not … done with the Beatles’ and that he doesn’t know whether the ‘break’ with the group is ‘temporary or permanent’. These are both far from being a declaration of independence. He may not have been able to foresee a time when Lennon-McCartney would again become an active partnership, but John and Paul’s song writing had been growing more distinctly individual for some time. Even on ‘happy’ albums like Abbey Road, certain songs belonged solely to Paul and others to John, despite the co-credit.

mirror page horizPaul’s private phone call to John might suggest an intention to leave as firm as John’s had been, but what he chose to announce publicly was considerably more tempered. He may have been trying to let the band’s fans down easy, but the fact is that his questionnaire remains another example of a Beatle declaring himself out-but-in. As Derek Taylor himself would state in a press conference on April 10, ‘He says himself he doesn’t know whether the break is temporary or permanent: that’s the truth.’ If Paul’s ‘self-interview’ marked a point beyond which The Beatles could not continue, it had less to do with the intent of the piece and more to do with its unfortunate effect. John’s response (‘Paul didn’t quit, I sacked him’) appears to reference the Mirror headline more than any of Paul’s statements, and perhaps Paul’s phone call to John the day before led him to assume a more direct connection between the ‘self-interview’ and its surrounding publicity than there actually was.

It would appear as if a regrettably unanticipated but intense period of jealousy, resentment, defiance and anger followed the events of April 9 and 10, further delineating Paul from the other three Beatles, who continued to work happily with each other over their various solo projects in 1970. Paul may have had little or no contact with them for some time after his phone call to John on April 9, but the final nail in the band’s coffin would not be hammered until the very last day of the year, on which Paul filed a lawsuit to dissolve the Beatles’ partnership. George had floated the idea of ‘divorce’ nearly two years earlier; John had requested this of his bandmates eight months later. Not all divorces are acrimonious, but those involving as much money and contractual obligation as The Beatles’ seldom end without the need of lawyers. A courtroom battle was, in one respect, the natural end-point of the ‘trial separation’ that had played itself out over 1970. It was almost as if Paul was responding directly to George’s original proposal and John’s direct request. It’s easy to imagine him thinking, as he signed the legal papers, ‘You want a divorce? You got it. This is how it happens.’

Dr Duncan Driver is an Assistant Professor at the University of Canberra in Australia. His PhD research investigated aspects of Shakespeare studies and movements in literary criticism, leading to articles for Melbourne Scholarly Publishing and Iona College’s Shakespeare Newsletter. More recently, Duncan has published “Writer, Reader, Student, Teacher” in English in Australia, “Poetry and Perspective” in Idiom, “Reflecting Windows: The Blade Runner Films in the English Classroom” in Screen Education and ‘Wordsworth’s ‘We Are Seven’” in Changing English. He is currently co-authoring a book on English teaching in secondary schools to be published by Cambridge University Press in 2020.

 

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GETTING NASTY: A Rutle Remembers

Al Sussman pays tribute in Beatlefan #242 to Neil Innes, creator of the brilliant Beatles musical parodies used by The Rutles in addition to playing the band’s Lennon figure, Ron Nasty. Innes was a member of the legendary Bonzo Dog Band (which appeared in “Magical Mystery Tour”) and also appeared with Monty Python over the years, including at the Concert for George.. Here, we offer excerpts from two interviews with Innes that were published in Beatlefan. First up, Juan Agueras and Ricardo Gil spoke with him recently for an interview originally published in  Beatlefan #145. …

the rutles

From left: Eric Idle, Ricky Fataar, John Halsey and Neil Innes as The Rutles.

Beatlefan: Do you remember the first time you met George Harrison?

Innes: We, Bonzo Dog Band, were at Abbey Road recording a thing called “My Brother Makes a Noises With The Talkies,” a very old 1920s thing, very early jazz thing. I came down the corridor, I saw some doors open. It was all before I met any of The Beatles. There they were wearing sunglasses, pointed shoes, and I said: “They record here too, don’t they?” A little later I went down to listen outside the studio to see what they were doing. It was “I Want to Tell You.” Some other day I was with George, on the piano outside the kitchen, and I said to George: “I’ve always loved that bit when the F goes over the E [in that song]. He picked up a guitar and he went with the intro — when was the last time he had played it? It was uncanny. I started playing the piano with him. Amazing musician, I couldn’t do that, he picked it up absolutely perfectly.

Beatlefan: Then came “Magical Mystery Tour”?

Innes: Most people liked the Bonzo Dog Band. We were making fun of it all, all the time, in the middle of the ’60s. And there we were, in “Magical Mystery Tour.” We met George then. We had a big party. We had a huge jam session with most of The Beach Boys. George was playing saxophone. We spent some 20 minutes doing a version of “Oh! Carol.” He simply found a couple of notes and made them work, no soloing. There were 20 people onstage! We all had a good time together. We were all of the same age, sort of middle 20s men, I guess the same sense of humor. We just kept in contact, really.

Beatlefan: Could we talk now about “Rutland Weekend Television”?

neil innes 1970

Neil Innes in 1970.

Innes: I made a television show with Eric Idle called “Rutland Weekend Television.” For the BBC2. Rutland is the smallest county area in England, and therefore it would have the smallest amount of money. So, these television shows had to be very cheap. The BBC liked this idea, not too much money. In 1974 I was playing with Monty Python. So, it was in ’75, possibly. We did two series of that. Basically, Eric Idle wrote the sketches and I wrote some songs. I also came up with visual ideas to go with the songs. And because everything on the show had to be cheap I thought it could be a good idea to do a parody of “A Hard Day’s Night.” It was black and white, it had these speeded up sections in which there were those very cheap jokes. And for that we needed some kind of songs. The actors had to dress up, and with some wigs on we could be The Beatles running around. So I wrote this very simple song — you know, it is like a list of “I feel good, I feel happy, I feel sad” — and I needed a middle eight. But it’s basically a list, a terribly lazy song. The middle bit is a little more interesting, musically speaking. So we did this and Eric said: “Oh, I like this idea because I’ve got another about a documentary filmmaker who is so boring that the camera runs away from him.” So we put the pieces together and we came up with the name of The Rutles, which comes from Rutland — it is terrible, I hate that name! I like words. This word should have two t’s … but never mind.

Beatlefan: How did the whole project evolve?

Innes: Then Eric went to New York to attend “Saturday Night Live” and he took me with him. We shot this clip of the song for “Rutland Weekend Television.” And the people liked it and they sent letters with Beatles albums in with Beatles names crossed out and Rutles written in. So we said: “Let’s do the whole story.” Then I did another song —- we got the money to do the film for American prime time television. They told me: “Can you write, by next Thursday, 20 more Rutles songs?” I said: “I don’t know.” Anyway, I tried it and that is how it came about, the story of The Beatles, with George Harrison supporting us. He thought it was time for a bit of a laugh. You know, somebody was offering The Beatles $20 million to get back together again. It was kind of “Let’s tell the story in a funny way.” Of course, everybody realized it was funny because we pretended that The Beatles didn’t exist, that The Rutles existed instead. It was such an obvious lie. These mad people, where are they from? So it was like a parallel universe. And there’s real Beatles footage, not of The Beatles themselves but of newsreels and the like, cut into the film. And our cameraman and the director were very clever when matching all these things. So lots of skillful people were involved, not only in the music, but also in the photography and in putting it all together. It was so close to the real Beatles story that nobody needed a script. George was giving us inside stories, Mick Jagger too, Paul Simon — so it was like a party for everybody. All these people were put together by George Harrison.

Beatlefan: Were George Harrison and Eric Idle friends?

Innes: I was obviously working with Eric, and he and George became friends. Both their marriages had gone at the same time, so they were “boys together on the town.” And in fact it was quite funny because George used to tease Eric by saying “My wife ran off with Eric Clapton, and not some actor from Hampstead.” George and Eric came down to see me in my van, when we were playing together. George actually did some things on Rutland Television, too.

neil nasty 2

Innes as Ron Nasty.

Beatlefan: What was it like making “All You Need Is Cash”?

Innes: There was a lot of fun. It was very hard work because most of the time we were just making it up. And we had a rough idea of what we were going to do in that scene; then we sort of — for example, with Leggy [the manager of The Rutles] I said “no,” they said “yeah.” And of course, at the end it was perfect. I mean, it all was made up all the time. And when I was in the bath, with Chastity, and the water is turned on, and the camera is turned on, I said to myself: “What’s gonna happen?” I said to Eric: “What are you doing? Thank you, Eric.” [So I said] “We’re sitting here, getting wet … ” We talked about it, we were desperately thinking of something to say. And then I said that civilization is an effective sewage system and we hoped that by the use of plumbing we could demonstrate it to the rest of the world. You know, we made it up at the time. We had lots of things like that.

Beatlefan: Did you and George ever play together on a record?

Innes: I wanted George to play ukulele on [the Rutles sequel album] “Archaeology”, ’cause I had written a ukulele song, a bit of a tease for George. I showed him the lyrics and asked him: “What do you think of this song?” He immediately faxed something back saying: “Yeah, there shouldn’t be any problem putting a tune to that. But here’s one I wrote earlier.” And then sent me one of his. I used to tease him about “Something in the way she moves.” I said to him: “You’re so lazy. You couldn’t even think of a rhyme, and then you put a guitar — [Neil sings the guitar lick intro]. We used to have a lot of fun.

Beatlefan: We can’t forget the film “Life of Brian.” Tell us something about it.

Innes: George came in and saved Monty Python’s “Life of Brian.” He raised the money because the Rank Organisation pulled out because they thought it was blasphemous, too risky. So the film was made six months later than it should have been and I had to make a television series of my own, so I hardly did anything in the film because I was working on something else. Even though I had big credit because I had already made the animated credits. I only did one morning filming. Anyway I had a very nice weekend in Tunisia just in the last week of filming. That is when The Rutles started, just by accident. We all thought at that time it was a good idea, just for having fun, really.

older neil innes

Innes in his later years. He died in December, 2019, at age 75.

Beatlefan: But above all, you were close friends. What was the role of the garden in George’s life?

Innes: My wife is a very good garden designer. She’s won gold medals in the Chelsea Flower Show. And George has such a fantastic garden and we went down there and both of us were helping with the garden, especially with Olivia’s kitchen garden, for years. I don’t know as much about gardening as Yvonne does, obviously. George is a natural, brilliant garden designer. George’s garden is very difficult. It is huge. It was built by this Victorian millionaire called Sir Frank Crisp. There’s a Japanese garden in it, and then there’s a rockery — it’s just silly, something very difficult because if you want to buy some plants for it, you don’t need one tray, you need 20 trays. George spent hours trying to get the garden right, and he got it. The garden is fantastic. There were people taking care of the trees because there is so much stuff there. And there you have, in the fireplaces written “Sir Frankie Crisp,” and “Ring out the old, ring in the new; bring out the false, bring in the truth,” which he turned into a song. And all of the light switches, the brass, with little faces of monks, with the nose [as the switch]. I mean, that was there. George simply wanted to be safe.

Beatlefan: You witnessed his last days . . .

Innes: George and I were very close friends. When he knew he was sort of disappearing, he dropped an e-mail: “We’re fine,” telling us he was doing whatever. I was really so shocked. It was in August that some reporter wanted to interview me about George. They were looking I think for some kind of obituary. I had been writing this song called “Friends Till the End of the Line.” It was about three friends, about some other people. I had been away to finish the song. Then I came back to London and I saw the thing on the news: “Beatle George is dead.” I couldn’t believe it. I really thought he was getting better. Well, I don’t really like telling sort of private things to anyone [but] when George was in Switzerland, he had no hair, he had with him this little movie camera. He turned it around himself and he started to sing: “How does it feel to be one of the beautiful people?” George was fantastic. A great person. The more you look into life, the more courage you need to sort of keep going. He had courage. He was spiritual, but he wasn’t mystical — because he has this wonderful sense of humor as well. He was a very very special human being. We all miss him. There’s lot of stuff he’s still giving us, things to listen to and remember, to keep it in our hearts. You know, I close my eyes and I still see him, looking gallant, grinning horribly right now as I am saying these words.

Beatlefan: Who were behind the [Concert for George] tribute to George Harrison?

Innes: Very much Olivia and Dhani were in control and they put Eric Clapton in charge. But the whole concept was of Olivia and Dhani. So they got the Ravi Shankar Orchestra, Anoushka — and they were all fantastic. The first half was absolutely fantastic. And I wanted to do that song, but nobody wanted to do any song apart from George’s ones. I ended up doing the thing with Monty Python, singing and then turning around with the bareback sighting. It was my idea to have a good laugh about that as well, because we decided to take our trousers off, and not many people can say to have done it at the Royal Albert Hall. I think it was a good moment. Then we had Tom Hanks, who was like a little school boy, he couldn’t wait to put his Canadian Mounted Police suit and come out and sing “I’m a Lumberjack.” So there was a lot of happiness and a lot of sorrow, and a lot of love that evening. And I thought Paul McCartney was great as well. Paul was there for George. He really went in and did it. Even though they finished with “Wah Wah,” which is not exactly an appropriate song — you know, George was fed with The Beatles songs [when he wrote that one].

 

Ken Sharp also talked with Innes. These excerpts are from an interview originally published in Beatlefan #55 and #56, December 1987 and February 1988 ….

 

bonzos

The Bonzos in The Beatles’ “Magical Mystery Tour” film.

Ken: How did the Bonzo Dog Band wind up in “Magical Mystery Tour”?

Neil: Paul McCartney’s brother, Mike, was in a group based in Liverpool called the Scaffold. And we’d actually bumped into each other at various venues and … thought it would be fun to work together some time … because we were both doing a similar thing — they were a little more literary, but just as absurd as we were. And because [The Beatles] were making “Magical Mystery Tour,” Mike said to Paul, “Why don’t you get the Bonzo Dog Band?” And Paul said, “Well, what do they do?” [And Mike said] “You ought to go and check them out.” And we were checked out. And the next thing we knew it was “Would you like to be in ‘Magical Mystery Tour’? Which was quite exciting, because we’d heard they were making it. And we thought, “Oh, yeah, why not?” And when we heard it was going to be the strip scene — which was part of their story, it wasn’t any of our doing — they said can you come up with a song? And we thought, what’s suitable? Oh, well, “Death Cab for Cutie,” that’ll do. And we did it. George said afterwards it ought to be a single. I said, “Oh, come off it. No one’s going to take this seriously at all.”

Ken: It’s ironic that you appeared in that and later you were involved with The Rutles. …

Neil: Well, yeah. The Beatles, after all, were our same age. And, to their great credit, didn’t really go insane, you know, with a lot of insanity around them. And to have a laugh and drink with, they were basically a rock ’n’ roll band.

Ken: And you also worked with Paul, who produced “I’m the Urban Spaceman” under a pseudonym, Apollo C. Vermouth.

Neil: Yeah, we weren’t going to have any of this kind of cheap success by dropping names in any way. It was so funny, actually, because when Paul turned up — he’d met [Bonzo member] Viv [Stanshall] in a nightclub and Viv was moaning about it, and Paul said, “Well, I’ll come and do it.” … Anyway, he turns up and … Paul is Mr. Magic. You know, going around being nice to everyone and putting everyone at their ease. And he sat down and started playing the piano, [saying] “I’ve just written a song.” … That was the first time, I think, anyone heard “Hey Jude.” He hadn’t even recorded it. … He was great. And he got the double-track drums and things like that. And played ukulele on it. And when Viv wanted to do that thing on the end with a garden hose and a plastic funnel, the engineer said it can’t be done and [Paul] said, “Oh, yes it can. Put a microphone in each corner.” And that’s what had to be done. And the guy who was producing us at the time, his wife was a very forceful woman, and she came up to [Paul] when he had the ukulele and said, “Well, what’s that? A poor man’s violin?” And he said, “No, it’s a rich man’s ukulele.”

neil as nasty

Innes played a John Lennon parody, Ron Nasty.

Ken: How did The Rutles come about?

Neil: Well, “Rutland Weekend Television” [was an Eric Idle TV series for the BBC] and he asked me if I’d be interested in doing it with him. … [Looking for something inexpensive to make, I thought] I’ll do a Beatles spoof called “I Must Be in Love.” And I got into it a bit, and that’s how The Rutles were born. Eric went to host “Saturday Night Live” and at that time somebody was trying to get The Beatles together again, offering $3 million and a killer whale, or something, and [“SNL” producer] Lorne Michaels came on and set it all up. He said. “Well, people have been saying $3 million and Eric said he could do it for $300 so reluctantly we gave him the money and he went back to England … and the upshot is, he hasn’t got The Beatles back together again, but he’s got The Rutles.” And it had a sufficient impact for them to think about doing the whole story. Lorne got NBC to actually put prime-time money into it. …

Ken: How did you come to write some of those songs? Were there certain Beatles songs you were listening to? Because you really captured all the songs … you really distilled it.

Neil: Well, all of a sudden there I was with people saying, “We’ve got the go-ahead, we need 14 Beatles songs.” And I thought, “Oh, great, oh God. If I go listening to Beatles songs, I’m going to be nowhere.” So from my own memory of being someplace else listening to this and that, I started to write songs based on different eras they went through. … The hardest ones I found to write were the teenaged ones, you know, “I Want to Hold Your Hand” kind of things. Then I had to really remember what it was like the first time I put my hand inside a girl’s bra. You know, it’s that sort of excitement. Adolescent love is terribly serious and it’s really difficult to write, married and two children. … So I wrote them all without listening to a damn thing. And then I think I had another good idea, which was to get the band together, the ones who were playing it, which was everybody except Eric, who doesn’t really play, and Ollie Halsall was the fifth Rutle, Leppo. … We went to a place in Hendon and rehearsed for two weeks. … And so we went into the real studio and made the recordings and only when we went into the studio did we listen to particular [Beatles] tracks, having laid down our tracks, to listen to the production. That’s when we had, “There’s bongos in there! I never knew they had bongos in there before. Better stick some bongos on,” and things like that. And then it still sounded too good with the modern equipment. We put it through two passes through a compressor to sort of ruin it a bit. And it took a fortnight to make the album. The only thing to come in under budget was the music.

Ken: What about [the Lennon parody] “Cheese and Onions”? You appeared on “Saturday Night Live” and did that song [before the Rutles film].

Neil: That track turned up on a [Beatles] bootleg album. … I was rang up by a reporter from the NME saying, “There’s a bootleg Beatle album and there’s one song on there that’s identical to a Rutles track!”

Ken: You mentioned Ollie Halsall. He plays on the record …

rutles 2

The early Rutles. Eric Idle (left) as the Paul McCartney character mimed while Ollie Halsall actually sang on the recording.

Neil: He sings, actually. Eric mimes to him.

Ken: “With a Girl Like You” is Ollie singing?

Neil: Yes.

Ken: What other songs does he sing?

Neil: “Get Up and Go.” That’s it. But Rikki [Fataar, who played Stig, the George character] sings the ones he sings.

Ken: How did John Halsey [who played Barry Wom, the Ringo character] come into the picture?

Neil: John was sort of a mate of mine. … A very nice drummer and a real character. And he appeared in “Rutland Weekend Television” a few times doing other things as well. We worked together quite a lot.

Ken: You mentioned “Get Up and Go” [the film’s “Get Back” parody]. The re-creation [in the film] of the rooftop “Get Back” sequence from “Let It Be” is so incredible, down to the clothing and hairstyles.

Neil: I know. But the difficult thing was, why Ringo had on a red plastic mac and John was wearing a fur coat, it was a bloody cold day [when The Beatles filmed their rooftop concert]. The day we were filming it, it was scorching hot! It was most uncomfortable, with glued-on wigs and beards and things.

Ken: Besides George [who was a fan of The Rutles and appeared briefly in the film], what was the reaction of the other Beatles to The Rutles?

neil innes 2009

Innes in 2009.

Neil: The official thing I heard was John was fascinated and kept watching it. Allen Klein actually owned up and said, “Yes, I do talk to myself in the mirror” [like the character Ron Decline in the film]. Ringo liked the happy bit and not the sad bit. It was too close. That was the big thing about The Rutles. The real story was too sad to tell. I feel very sorry for Neil Aspinall, who actually put together a very informed and balanced, well-made film of the whole period [“The Long and Winding Road”]. I don’t know whether it’s seen the light of day or not, but George had a copy and showed it to Eric and I. And after Leggy [Brian Epstein] dies, it’s miserable. You feel, what a downer. And so it was a way of telling the story without downing the audience, skipping over the sad bits. So I think Ringo was too much reminded of the real breakup. And Paul had an album out at the same time as The Rutles came out and was forever saying, “No comment” about The Rutles. He had dinner at some award thing at the same table as Eric one night and Eric said it was a little frosty. But they all agreed to release Shea Stadium footage and other footage [for use in the Rutles film] and things like that, and said good luck to you. Because I think they all wanted the record put straight a little bit, even if it was slightly cockeyed.

Ken: It’s a legend that will last a lunchtime.

Neil: Certainly is. With pudding and tea. And biscuits.

 

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