Some Favorite Non-Rock Books on Rock Music Culture of the 1960s and 1970s

Throughout its history, rock music has always been deeply affected by sociocultural changes in the larger world of which it’s part. In my books, classes, and even my blogposts, I’ve concentrated on the music of rock, whether the performers, the records, or rock books and movies. I’m not often asked by rock fans to recommend books that aren’t strictly about rock music. Nonetheless, I’ve asked myself: what are some non-fiction books about the 1960s and 1970s that are not exactly about rock, but have much that relates to rock, or reflected how rock music changed the world?

There are many that could qualify on at least some grounds, even discounting fiction books that had a substantial influence on rock culture, like the Lord of the Rings trilogy and Ken Kesey’s work. Here, however, is a rundown of some of my favorites. Music figures strongly to slightly, but I’d recommend all to readers who want a sense of how rock’s effects—or energy similar to that driving changes in rock—rippled throughout our entire culture.

Many of my list-review combo posts rank them in order of quality, or at least my favorites. I find that hard to do with books that are in many ways so different from each other, so I’ve just put them in the order that flows best to me, with no numbers attached.

Season of the Witch, by David Talbot (Free Press, 2012). It’s refreshing when a book is both very popular and very good, like most of the best rock music used to be at its peak. That’s the case with the most recent entry on this list, Season of the Witch, which covers the changes undergone by the city of San Francisco in roughly a decade and a half, between the late 1960s and early 1980s. The Summer of Love and Haight-Ashbury are discussed, of course, but that’s just a part of the text, which moves on to how the ideals of the counterculture (and Establishment efforts to repress it) spread into community activism of all sorts in struggles over development, social justice, and the empowerment of ethnic minorities. The dark side of fringe radical movements is not ignored, with sections on Jim Jones, the assassination of Harvey Milk, and the SLA. It seems a bit strange to hone in on the 49ers’ 1982 Super Bowl victory as a triumphant/redemptive point for the city’s turnaround, but this is an engrossing read that weaves together many strands of San Francisco’s evolution during these crucial years, including its rock music.

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The Haight-Ashbury: A History, by Charles Perry (Wenner Books, 1984). This is the best account of the neighborhood more identified with the psychedelic movement and the Summer of Love than any other. Music’s a big part, of course, but this focuses more on the Haight, the drugs, the radical groups who took root there like the Diggers, and the changes (or decline, really) the area went through as the Summer of Love passed. Perry was there as a participant and as a journalist (which included work at Rolling Stone), and this is unlikely to be surpassed as a social history of the Haight in the 1960s.

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Rolling Stone Magazine, by Robert Draper (HarperPerennial, 1990). Although this covers the first twenty years or so of the history of the most famous rock music magazine, much of it’s devoted to the publication’s beginnings in San Francisco in the late 1960s and early 1970s. That puts it on the border of a book that’s as much about music as it is about publishing or other things. But it’s much more about Rolling Stone itself, how it reported on music and the counterculture, and how it changed drastically after it moved to New York in the mid-1970s than it is about rock. A very entertaining read heavy on anecdotes about major musicians and rock journalists, especially Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner. Like many such books, it also, sadly, reflects how ideals that fire a worthy enterprise at its genesis often get diluted and commercialized as time passes, particularly after success arrives.

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The Rice Room: Growing Up Chinese-American from Number Two Son to Rock’n’Roll, by Ben Fong-Torres (University of California Press, 2011). The autobiography of longtime music critic and San Francisco media personality Ben Fong-Torres isn’t solely about rock’n’roll. But it has a lot of material about reaching adulthood in the midst of the Summer of Love, and becoming one of Rolling Stone’s first editors shortly after the magazine was founded in San Francisco. There’s also a lot about his family, and how rock and the radio were instrumental in making him take career paths and personal lifestyles that his parents did not expect or, at least initially, always endorse. Originally published in 1995, this recent reprint is slightly updated and expanded.

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Days in the Life: Voices from the English Underground 1961-1971, by Jonathon Green (Pimlico, 1998). Moving from San Francisco to London, this 450-page oral history is by no means exclusively devoted to ’60s British rock music. But it has a lot of coverage of it nonetheless, and is great for the context of the counterculture in which UK psychedelic rock was born and thrived. About 100 figures are heard from in this absorbing volume, from musicians and producers to figures involved in the era’s British film, design, underground press, visual arts, clubs, literature, promotion, management, political activism, radio, TV, and more.

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Give the Anarchist a Cigarette, by Mick Farren (2002, Pimlico). This verges on being a rock memoir as Farren was a cult rock musician as a member of the underground band the Deviants. But he was also a funny and talented writer, and this account of his career on both fronts in the 1960s and 1970s is a triumph of both style and content. It continues the story well past the Deviants (who are discussed quite thoroughly) through his time as a star NME writer in the ‘70s, all the way up to the punk era. Besides his memories of performing music, there’s a lot about the British underground press (in which he was actively involved) and the overall underground UK counterculture of the late 1960s and 1970s.

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In the Sixties, by Barry Miles (Jonathan Cape, 2002). Another key figure in the British underground was Barry Miles, a personal friend of Paul McCartney and later author of McCartney’s own pseudo-memoir of the time, Many Years From Now. This is his own memoir of the period, during which he edited London’s leading underground paper, International Times, and ran Apple’s short-lived spoken word/experimental label, Zapple. (His time at Zapple is the focus of another book, the 2015 release The Zapple Diaries: The Rise and Fall of the Last Beatles Label.) As a book, this is less sharply honed, funny, and penetrating than Farren’s, but it’s still worthwhile.

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Your Face Here: British Cult Movies Since the Sixties, by Ali Catterall & Simon Wells (Fourth Estate, 2001). This isn’t so much a general survey of British cult movies since the ‘60s as it is a collection of essays about a dozen particularly notable British cult movies spanning the 1960s to the 1990s. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, and this has outstanding pieces, totaling 300 pages in all, on films that are worthy of in-depth study: A Hard Day’s Night, Blow-Up, If…, Performance, Get Carter, A Clockwork Orange, The Wicker Man, Quadrophenia, Withnail & I, Naked, Trainspotting, Get Carter, and (in the only questionable inclusion) Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels. Some of these, obviously, had quite direct connections to rock history (A Hard Day’s Night, Quadrophenia, Performance); some others caught the era’s rebellious or taboo-smashing ethos (If…, A Clockwork Orange), or at least used rock on their soundtracks. These aren’t conventional film critiques, but place most of the emphasis on telling the stories of how the films got made, spiced with plenty of behind-the-scenes stories and first-hand interviews with many of the actors, directors, writers, and other principals. What’s more, in many cases the authors identify specifically where famous location scenes in the movies were filmed in Britain, knowing that the kind of people likely to read these sort of books are precisely the kind of cultists that like to visit the actual places in the films if possible. The hard information is balanced by some insightful criticism, as well as some sharp general observations about what makes a cult film “cult,” and why these films struck particularly devoted chords that have enabled them to build staunch followings over the course of years.

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Take 10: Contemporary British Film Directors, by Jonathan Hacker and David Price (Oxford University Press, 1991). It’s more scholarly and less breezily accessible (though still highly readable) than Your Face Here, and not as geared toward films with a cult or cult rockish sensibility. But Take 10 is still worth attention for those interested in the cutting edge of British film in the latter part of the twentieth century. There are essays on and interviews with ten filmmakers, some of whose work is also discussed in Your Face Here, such as Nicolas Roeg and Lindsay Anderson. Other directors featured include one who was quite actively involved (in his 1977 film Jubilee) in documenting the UK punk scene, Derek Jarman, as well as other big names like Stephen Frears, Bill Forsyth, Kenneth Loach, and John Schlesinger.

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Creative Differences: Profiles of Hollywood Dissidents, by David Talbot & Barbara Zheutlin (South End Press, 1978). Though perhaps not as oriented toward the counterculture as Your Face Here, this has extremely interesting profiles (incorporating first-hand interviews) of directors, actors, and others in the film industry who struggled to make more personal, political, and ideologically meaningful movies than Hollywood wanted or accepted. It extends from the Cold War/McCarthy blacklist era through the 1970s, two of the more famous subjects being Medium Cool director Haskell Wexler and Jane Fonda. It was not until writing up this listing that I realized co-author David Talbot is the same guy who wrote, quite a few years later, Season of the Witch (see first entry).

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Woodstock: An Inside Look at the Movie That Shook Up the World and Defined a Generation, edited by Dale Bell (Michael Wiese Productions, 1999). Not as well known as it should be, this is a fascinating inside look at Woodstock, the movie—not Woodstock, the rock festival—from the perspectives of those who worked on and produced the film. Verging on an oral history, it has extensive memories from directors, producers, camera operators, and, yes, musicians who played the festival. Like the festival, the movie was a seat-of-the-pants operation that needed some miracles to get pulled off. Histories of Woodstock usually emphasize the music, but it was the film that did the most to pass it into legend, and here’s the story from the other side of the camera.

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Woodstock: The Oral History, by Joel Makower (Tilden Press, 1989). Despite its considerable heft (350 pages), this too does not focus especially on Woodstock’s music. Instead, the concentration is on Woodstock the event, as told from the perspective of the organizers, promoters, medical staff, food vendors, political activists, area residents, and yes, occasionally the musicians. In fact, there’s not much material here from the musicians, which might disappoint some readers. But Woodstock, for both good and bad, wasn’t just a big music festival—it was an epochal happening, recounted here only about two decades after it happened, when memories of what took place were at least somewhat sharper.

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Diaries 1969-1979: The Python Years, by Michael Palin (Thomas Dunne, 2006). Monty Python have been sometimes hailed, rightfully I think, as something of the Beatles of comedy, combining great individual talents into an entity more than the sum of its parts. Their irreverence, first on TV and then with their movies (and some various side/solo projects), was as groundbreaking and taboo-breaking in its way as what was often taking place in rock music. Some of their biggest fans were rock stars, some of whom helped fund Monty Python & the Holy Grail. As one of Monty Python, Michael Palin was right in the middle of it. Remarkably, considering how busy he and his group were, he found time to keep extensive diaries for their first decade. Some of the early ones, unfortunately, were lost, but in any case, they became much more extensive and reflective as the 1970s progressed. The ways in which Monty Python helped change the status quo, and were themselves changed into something bigger and unpredictably influential, in some ways mirrored the same process at work in rock bands like the Beatles. Palin documented it with the same kind of verve and wit he brought to his work in Monty Python, though this is naturally a good deal more serious and less silly than some of the group’s famous sketches.

Palin’s next two volumes of diaries, covering 1980-1988 and 1988-1998, just aren’t as scintillating, much as reading about the Beatles’ solo years isn’t the joy you get from reading about the years in which they worked together. Other worthwhile Python books that are more standard biographies or oral histories include The Pythons Autobiography By the Pythons, a coffee table first-hand oral history that’s kind of their counterpart to the Beatles’ similarly formatted Anthology; David Morgan’s Monty Python Speaks!, another oral history with entirely different contents; and Kim “Howard” Johnson’s more fan-oriented The First 20 Years of Monty Python, which still has much fun behind-the-scenes details of all of the episodes of their TV programs.

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The Prisoner, by Alain Carrazé & Héléne Oswald (Virgin, 1989). Just as Britain gave us the two best rock groups of the 1960s in the Beatles and Rolling Stones, so did it give us the two best TV programs of the time, Monty Python’s Flying Circus and the much different, far graver The Prisoner. The Prisoner brought up many of the issues rock music and the counterculture were also examining in the 1960s: the questioning of authority, rebellion against conformity, the abuse of power, and the nebulous nature of reality itself. There have been a few books about the series, and my favorite is this sumptuously illustrated coffee table one (translated from the original French) that details and examines each of the seventeen episodes. Also good, if more modest in production values and fannish in approach, is Matthew White and Jaffer Ali’s The Official Prisoner Companion.

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Ball Four, by Jim Bouton, edited by Leonard Shecter (Turner, 1970). A sports book, in a post devoted to books that reflected how rock was changing and changed by larger society? True, there’s not much rock music in Ball Four (though there’s some; check out one of my previous posts for the lowdown). Yet Ball Four—still, almost 50 years later, the most famous sports memoir—brought something of the era’s rock rebellion into the wide world of sports, a much more conservative one than the music business, even if many ballplayers were (like most of the era’s rock musicians) in their twenties. Bouton was, like many rock musicians, nonconformist, willing to speak his mind with unpopular opinions, and irreverent toward conventions that wanted employees (i.e. athletes) to keep their mouths shut and not rock the boat. He was also very funny—something that distinguishes Ball Four from other tell-all memoirs as baseball loosened up in the next few decades. Some other memoirs have been hailed as worthy cousins to Ball Four, and I’ve tried some (such as Bill Lee’s), but none seem, to use baseball terminology, even in the same league. Maybe part of that well-written wit is down to sportswriter editor Leonard Shecter, whom Bouton has never shied away from crediting as a collaborator. I have to think, however, that much of it is down to Bouton just being a naturally funny and insightful storyteller who’s not afraid to shoot sacred cows. This has come out in various slightly expanded editions with afterwords going over some of his post-Ball Four life, the latest (and presumably last) one being 2014’s Ball Four: The Final Pitch.

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Loose Balls: The Short Life of the American Basketball Association As Told By the Players, Coaches, and Movers and Shakers Who Made It Happen, by Terry Pluto (Fireside, 1990). Along the same lines, we have this less famous oral history of the ABA, which in its way brought a rock’n’roll sensibility to pro basketball and all of major league sports. It jazzed up the game with three-point plays, dunks, flamboyant stars, and flag-colored balls, even as it perennially teetered on the edge of disaster with its fly-by-night organization and finances. Some of the players had excesses on par with rock stars too, especially Marvin Barnes. My favorite story, related by Bob Costas in the book, is when Costas asked him for an interview, which Barnes said he would grant if he’d drive him to visit some friends. When Barnes didn’t come out of his hotel room, Costas called, only for Marvin to tell him, “Listen, Bro, why don’t you go see those dudes without me?” To which Costas pointed out, “Marvin, I don’t want to go see those guys, whoever they are. I don’t even know those guys.” To which Marvin responded, “Oh…yeah.”

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Growing Up Underground, by Jane Alpert (Citadel Underground, 1990). Alpert spent four years in hiding for her role in New York bombings by radical groups. I’ve found most of the memoirs I’ve read by radical ‘60s/‘70s activists to be self-righteous justifications of their behavior, often for some mistakes they made that hurt others. Alpert’s autobiography is an exception, as a more balanced and thoughtful portrait of why she and others felt it so urgent to take drastic steps for social change, acknowledging in hindsight the missteps, dogma, and naive ignorance that often hindered their progress. There’s not much about music, but an interesting passage notes how she played Bob Dylan’s Nashville Skyline—not one of his biggest hits among critics even at the time of its 1969 release, though it was pretty popular with the public—over and over again. Perhaps she found in it a mirror of her own hoped-for-journey to the end of the rainbow after the revolution had eradicated global injustice. As she observed, “In the beginning of his career he [Dylan] had struggled so hard to be himself that his voice had always been strained, his lyrics contorted and difficult…. Now, at 28, he was a survivor, had fallen in love again, had discovered that life could be startlingly, lyrically easy.”

Another memoir that I’d give more a more qualified recommendation to is Cathy Wilkerson’s Flying Too Close to the Sun: My Life and Times As a Weatherman, which also is willing to examine the flaws of the movement along with its strengths, and integrate some interesting personal autobiographical detail with the more political material.

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And an honorable mention to:

There’s a Riot Going On: Revolutionaries, Rock Stars, and the Rise and Fall of the ’60s, by Peter Doggett (Canongate, 2007). This does cross the boundary of being more about music than society or another subject. But it’s a large (nearly 600-page), extensively researched, and acutely perceptive examination of the relation between rock and revolutionary politics in the late 1960s and early 1970s, equally emphasizing the music and the social activism. Doggett’s more recent Electric Shock: From the Gramophone to the iPhone: 125 Years of Pop Music is more about music than society, but also often draws on cultural context to examine the many stylistic and technological changes that popular music has undergone since it was first reproduced and sold.

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Biking and Hiking in Reno

Time was when Reno, Nevada was known — like Las Vegas and the entire state of Nevada — for its casinos. A town where, as Richard & Mimi Fariña sang in their song “Reno, Nevada” (done better by Fairport Convention a few years later on the BBC and on French television), “The odds have been doubled, and it ain’t worth the trouble/And you’re never going nowhere at all.” And to look outside my hotel when I visited in late April, you’d think that nothing had changed.

The street scene in front of my non-smoking, non-gaming hotel.

The street scene in front of my non-smoking, non-gaming hotel.

Yet these days Reno, Nevada is a lot more than a casino city. In fact, you could easily visit, as I recently did, and not come across casino culture at all, most of it being contained within about three or four square blocks. Reno’s also a fairly liberal place where biking, hiking, and outdoor activities in general thrive, as does a decent arts scene.

Reno’s not too big, and it’s just a ten- or fifteen-minute drive to the Huffaker Park and Mountain Trail. No, these are not going to challenge the vistas and greenery of the many fine parks in the San Francisco Bay Area, my home base. On the other hand, it’s nice to walk around for an hour or so on a weekday morning, as I did, and come across no more than a couple other people. The trail’s narrow and rocky, but gives you some good looks at Reno’s compact downtown and the surrounding area, though the solitude’s sometimes interrupted by the sound of airplanes landing at the nearby airport:

Note airplane coming in for a landing at the far left.

Note airplane coming in for a landing at the far left.

If you want to get some biking miles in (I do) and don’t care to do some rugged mountain trails (I don’t), the flat and mostly well-paved Truckee River Bike Trail runs twelve miles, and can easily be picked up bang in the middle of downtown:

The bike trail in downtown Reno.

The bike trail in downtown Reno.

Opulent homes overlooking the river in downtown Reno.

Opulent homes overlooking the river in downtown Reno.

The best views are on the four miles or so that run west of downtown, passing through some of Reno’s well-to-do neighborhoods, including some small well-kept parks:

Near the western end of the bike trail.

Near the western end of the bike trail.

Bridge near the western end of the trail.

Bridge near the western end of the trail.

Idlewild Park, west of downtown.

Idlewild Park, west of downtown.

The eight miles east of town are a little rougher, both in physical character, as the paths are sometimes gravelly, and in physical appearance, often running right alongside industrial parks and trailer parks just to the north. There’s also a tent city of transients a mile or two to the east of downtown, near the Grand Resort and Casino skyscraper:

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You wouldn’t guess that there are run-of-the-mill (to put it gently) industrial/trailer parks on the other side of this trail from some of the views of the south side:

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Though the trail does come to an inglorious halt at its eastern end, butting right up against a highway and railroad tracks:

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If you’re looking to watch sports as well as engage in them, Reno is home to the Arizona Diamondbacks’ AAA team. The stadium’s just a couple blocks walk from downtown, and $20 gets you a ticket eight rows back of the dugout. It looked like a good place to see a game, but I didn’t actually see a game here, though I had that ticket, as it got rained out:

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Reno, viewed from a bridge just east of downtown.

Reno, viewed from a bridge just east of downtown.

Rock at Home: The Non-Generation Gap

On this Mother’s Day, and with Father’s Day coming up next month, it’s now been more than five years since both of my parents passed away. As more time passes, I think about ways in which I’m similar to and different than my mother and father. As much of my professional life has been devoted to writing about music, I naturally think about our similarities and differences in that area.

More so than most of my family, the life I’ve led has been different than that of my parents, who were much more conservative in lifestyle, though politically fairly liberal. This extended to my musical and artistic tastes. Born in the mid-1920s, they were of a generation way past their teens when rock exploded in the mid-1950s. Even before that, my impression is that they were not big fans of the pop music of their youth, which was dominated by big bands and crooners. Their record collection, probably running somewhere between one and two hundred albums, was dominated by show tunes and classical music, genres for which I’ve never had enthusiasm.

A representative LP from my parents' collection.

A representative LP from my parents’ collection.

On the other side, they had no interest in rock music, the form that dominated the popular entertainment of their children’s generation. To their credit, however—unlike many such parents—they made no effort to stop me from listening to it. From the age of five, I had a radio (AM only until 1972) in my room that I could listen to pretty much whenever I wanted. As a consequence, I’m familiar with almost all of the big AM radio hits from the end of 1967 through the 1970s from first-hand experience, not just from oldies radio or records. The first one that stuck in my mind was the Beatles’ “Hello Goodbye,” which makes sense as the radio arrived in my room around the 1967 holiday season, only a month or so before I turned six. I knew the song very well before I even knew it was by the Beatles.

More remarkably, I was allowed to stay up until 9:30 as a first-grader, and increasingly later with passing years. In part that’s because until I was eleven, I shared a room with a brother four years older. But when my first-grade teacher went around the class asking what students’ bedtimes were, that still sparked a puzzled, perhaps even worried expression on her face, given that virtually everyone else had a bedtime 60-90 minutes earlier. Many adults in the late 1960s (and even now) would view this as excessively permissive. In hindsight, my guess is that by the time I—the last of four sons in nine years—arrived, my parents were too busy supporting and raising the family to even think much about setting and enforcing bedtimes.

Around the time I entered high school, with my own record collection and interest in music of the past rapidly expanding, I became more curious about whether there’d be anything of interest in my parents’ collection. By this point they rarely played records, though they had more space to do so now that I was the only child left at home. But time was not bringing our interests closer together. There were exactly two LPs that piqued even mild curiosity on my part.

One was this #1 album by Harry Belafonte from 1956:

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It’s a testament to how huge that record was that my parents, who did not seem to be even slightly aware of pop trends, had this in the household. It was #1 for 31 straight weeks. My point of entry into the album, such as it was, was its opening track, the #5 hit “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song).” It was, every so slightly, influenced by—or at least an influence on—early rock’n’roll. It was a few years before I learned that Bob Dylan made his first appearance on a record as a guest harmonica player on a Belafonte LP (the title track of the 1962 album Midnight Special). It wasn’t until quite a few years after that that I grasped the full impact of Belafonte upon the pop and folk scene, even if his contribution to the folk revival was on its poppiest side.

The other was the first album by an act that was at the very center of the folk revival:

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There were some other albums by Peter, Paul & Mary in their collection, but this (with the hit “If I Had a Hammer,” though not with their biggest early-‘60s hit, “Blowin’ in the Wind”) was the strongest. To my recollection, there were no other records by folk revival artists among their LPs. As with Belafonte, this is a testament to just how huge Peter, Paul & Mary were—they sold albums to people who weren’t even folk or pop fans. I don’t have the empirical evidence to back this up, but judging from how popular and well known they also were among my parents’ friends, my guess is that Peter, Paul & Mary probably sold more per capita among suburban middle-class Jews than any other artist.

Although they rarely discussed popular music with me, my guess is that my mother was by far the more driving force behind listening to any sort of roots-tinged pop than my father. She still had some records—from back when “albums” were actual 78s grouped in photo album-like packaging—by Paul Robeson, though these were too fragile and harmful to styluses on modern equipment to play often, or at all.

In contrast, in one of his few memories of listening to music as a boy, my father admitted that when his friends raved about big band stars like Tommy Dorsey, he’d say something like, “yeah, that’s alright,” but more to be part of the gang than out of passion for the sounds. The only record I recall him singing along with was “What Kind of Fool Am I,” from the Broadway soundtrack LP to Stop The World—I Want to Get Off. (My response to that, had I known about the record at the time, would have been to play the Electric Prunes’ garage-psychedelic classic “Get Me to the World on Time.”) Response to rhythm and soul seemed deeper on my mom’s part, and maybe that was passed on to me, or at least more from her than my dad.

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What about my parents’ reaction to my collection, or what I played on the radio? There was virtually none. Again, with hindsight they were likely just too busy working and family-raising to think much about it. The only time my father came into my room to turn the radio down was when, circa early 1973, it was playing Timmy Thomas’s huge hit “Why Can’t We Live Together.” That might not seem like the loudest or rowdiest tune from the time to get upset over, but my radio was directly on the other side of the wall from my parents’ bedroom, and the high organ squeaks were driving him up the wall.

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The only time he had a specific comment about a record I was playing was equally unpredictable. On a visit home from college when I was about nineteen, I had Nico’s Chelsea Girl on the turntable. It might have been playing the song “Chelsea Girls.” In comparison to much of the rest of my collection, Chelsea Girl is for the most part a very low-volume, folky LP—and not one that many other people my age in 1981 would have had (not that he would have known that). But Nico’s voice strikes many as pretty peculiar, which is why he walked into my room and asked, “What is he [sic] singing about?”

I was not about to explain that it was about residents in New York’s Chelsea Hotel, where junkies and other hangers-on in the Andy Warhol scene engaged in bouts of depravity. I did point out, however, that low-voiced Nico wasn’t a he, but a she. Puzzled, even uncomprehending, he just shook his head and walked out of the room.

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An awkward night of music-watching was spent with both my parents on March 22, 1978. That evening, Eric Idle’s brilliant Beatles satire The Rutles: All You Need Is Cash was broadcast on NBC. This was before the days when home videotaping was common, and that night I had to be traveling with my parents. I insisted that we watch it in our hotel room. Which we did, and neither my mother nor my father—neither of whom were Monty Python or Beatles fans, more out of lack of interest or comprehension than distaste—laughed once. Very few of the inside jokes for which you needed some knowledge of the Beatles’ story to appreciate—and there were many—would have been caught by either of them. My father did redeem himself the next day, when he unexpectedly brought up the scene in which the Beatles play Che (instead of Shea) Stadium, named after Che Guevara. That was pretty funny and clever, he observed.

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The lone instance in which my mother commented at any length on a record I was playing was equally unanticipated. This was during a brief stay after I graduated from college and before I moved to California. More than thirty years later, it’s hard to envision a time when Muddy Waters’s catalog wasn’t extensive or all that easily available, which is why my Muddy album was a 14-song budget compilation issued in 1982, Rolling Stone. It was a good one, though, with some of his core classics like “I Just Want to Make Love to You,” “Tiger in Your Tank,” “Got My Mojo Working” (the Newport 1960 version rather than the original single), and “Rollin’ Stone” (an “unreleased alternate take”).

When I went downstairs, she asked what I’d just played, and I told her, though I don’t think the name Muddy Waters would have meant anything to her. “That’s my favorite kind of music,” she said, unexpectedly. Music with kind of a Dixieland, New Orleans feel, she elaborated. Yes, I knew full well by then, and had for almost ten years, that Waters was a giant of Chicago electric blues, and had moved to the Windy City from Mississippi. But there was no lecture from me about his history. She was close enough. And with its stop-start rhythms and rolling piano, “I Just Want to Make Love to You,” to take one song from that compilation, isn’t all that far from New Orleans R&B, or even from the earthiest Dixieland.

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When it got to the point where I was writing about music for much of my living, and then writing books (not always about music), my parents remained fairly puzzled and uncomprehending about the actual music, but supportive of my efforts. As a final music-related incident worth recounting, when I was about eleven, I’d ask for Beatles LPs for gifts (and did manage to get all of their significant US ones by the end of sixth grade). Around this time my mother remarked to one of her friends, with me present, that it was just a phase I was going through. It wasn’t a phase, however, for me or other rock fans, some quite a bit older than me. She didn’t live to see me teach a Beatles class at the University of San Francisco in front of 200 students aged fifty and older (sometimes quite a bit older), but that would have been quite a full circle to close.

My mother might not have been a rock fan. But she, much more than my father, was a reader of books, with a strong interest in art, which she sometimes taught in schools. On this Mother’s Day, I’d like to think that she passed at least some of that sensibility on to me, even if I’d use it in ways that she could never have predicted.

The Rest of the 5th Beatles

My vote for the Fifth Beatle, if there was such a thing, goes to George Martin, as I wrote about in this previous post. The others in my top ten, based primarily on their contributions to the Beatles’ music, are in another previous post. Here we go through, with briefer comments, fifteen others who made significant contributions.

As I noted in my earlier top ten list, I’m ranking people according to what they added to the Beatles’ legacy, which in my view rests primarily with their music. I’ve made more room on this list for non-musical figures in the Beatles organization, though it still favors musical contributors.

11. Eric Clapton. Who to put at the top of the non-Top Ten, when there are so many contenders for the also-rans of this list? As so many can make cases, why not pick someone who, at least, has a very famous and identifiable musical contribution? That’s Eric Clapton, who played lead guitar on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” If you want a good question for your next trivia contest, ask contestants to name all four of the famous rock musicians to play on Beatles recordings. The most likely first answer will be Eric Clapton; many will also guess Billy Preston. The other two are harder (and are farther down this list): Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones (who plays saxophone near the end of the B-side “You Know My Name”) and ace British session keyboardist Nicky Hopkins, who plays electric piano on the single version of “Revolution.”

Weeps

Clapton’s contribution to the Beatles’ repertoire wasn’t entirely a one-shot deal, although the other instance was more subtle. It was in his garden that George Harrison, skipping business meetings at Apple on one of the first warm spring days of 1969, wrote “Here Comes the Sun.” Also in the late 1960s, they wrote Cream’s “Badge” together, with George adding some guitar to that recording. When George briefly quit the Beatles in January 1969, John Lennon—apparently at least half-seriously—suggested replacing him with Clapton, though this was likely more heat-of-the-moment anger than something he was intent on enacting. Eric and George would be close friends (and occasional collaborators) for much of the rest of their lives, and George’s first wife Pattie would later marry Eric, though that’s beyond the scope of the story of the Beatles as a group.

12. Glyn Johns. If things had gone more according to their initial plan with the January 1969 recordings the Beatles made with the intention of doing an album, Glyn Johns might rate a higher position on this list. Already the top rock engineer in the UK for his work with the Rolling Stones, the Who, and others, Johns was making the transition from engineer to at-least-sometimes-producer. That’s what he was doing on at least some of the sessions for the album that was at that time titled Get Back, which generated much of the material for the LP eventually called Let It Be.

Whether exactly Johns was an engineer or producer at these sessions—at which, the impression is, the Beatles were to at least some extent producing themselves—was unclear even at the time. But he did take a lot of the responsibility for recording the Beatles in a tense month which produced some brilliant, if overall uneven, work. Johns was also the guy first given the task of trying to make an album out of the sessions, which he was doing with acetates even before the sessions had finished.

One of the bootlegs of an acetate Glyn Johns prepared from the Beatles' January 1969 sessions.

One of the bootlegs of an acetate Glyn Johns prepared from the Beatles’ January 1969 sessions.

Had the Beatles gone with one of his mockup acetates (some of which have been bootlegged) of what an album could sound like—which remained faithful to their original intention to record an entirely live LP—it would have sounded better than the actual Let It Be record. Unable to decide on whether it should come out or in what form it should come out, it got delayed in favor of Abbey Road. When Let It Be came out, Phil Spector, co-credited with George Martin and Glyn Johns with production, had added strings to some songs and done some remixing, altering the more back-to-basics goal of the original project.

13. Chris Thomas. Cited in passing on the previous top ten post, Thomas’s contributions to The White Album were greater than was acknowledged at the time, and have been acknowledged since. When George Martin took a vacation in the midst of these tense sessions, his assistant Thomas, just 21 at the time, was asked to in effect act as the unofficial producer of the sessions while Martin was gone. It was (rather like primary late-‘60s Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick) to a large degree a matter of being in the right place at the right time, but the Beatles wouldn’t have stood for an incompetent, and Thomas proved his worth by sticking out the sessions.

Of perhaps greater importance, Thomas also played keyboards on a few songs, though there isn’t absolute agreement which ones feature him. It seems pretty certain, however, that he plays harpsichord on “Piggies” and mellotron on “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill”; Thomas has said that he also plays piano on “Long, Long, Long,” electric piano on “Savoy Truffle,” and keyboards on “Happiness Is a Warm Gun,” though some sources express uncertainty as to whether his contributions are in the final mixes.

Chris Thomas played mellotron on this White Album track.

Chris Thomas played mellotron on this White Album track.

Thomas’s active role in Beatles production might have been brief, but he went on to long and notable career as a producer. Among the records he’s produced are albums by Procol Harum, John Cale, Badfinger, Roxy Music, the Pretenders, and the Sex Pistols.

14. Neil Aspinall. Now we get to non-musicians that many other writers would put much higher on their lists. I understand how others would take a different view, but mine is that road managers and personal assistants, such as Neil Aspinall and (see below) Mal Evans, did jobs that could have been done by many others. They did them well; quickly earned and kept the band’s trust; and spent more physical time around them than anyone else, probably even more than Brian Epstein and George Martin. But although they took some occasional token minor roles on Beatles recordings when an extra instrument needed to be played that didn’t demand experience or skill, they were not significant contributors to the Beatles’ music.

Neil Aspinall stood in for an ill George Harrison at a rehearsal for the Beatles' first Ed Sullivan Show appearance.

Neil Aspinall (center) stood in for an ill George Harrison at a rehearsal for the Beatles’ first Ed Sullivan Show appearance.

Of the two road managers, I would say Aspinall was the more important one as their first, going back to the early 1960s. He also (unlike Evans, who died in 1976) took an active role in the Apple organization for many years, where his background in accountancy came in useful, calling on skills more involved than road managing. It’s been speculated, with hindsight, that Aspinall might have made a better choice for managing the Beatles—or at least acting as their business manager—in the late 1960s than Allen Klein, as he had good, even-handed personal relations with all four members. It was felt he didn’t have the necessary high-level experience, though again in hindsight, he hardly could have done a worse job than the tougher and far more experienced Klein, who did his share to ensure the Beatles broke up. It’s a measure of the respect the Beatles felt for him, however, that he’s one of only three non-Beatles (the others being George Martin and publicist Derek Taylor) interviewed in their Anthology documentary.

15. Mal Evans. More so than Neil Aspinall (who became the Beatles’ road manager in the early 1960s because he was a good friend of Pete Best), Mal Evans lucked into his spot with the Beatles through serving as a bouncer at the Cavern. Big, brawny, and extremely likable, Evans served the group dependably through their touring years, and then for several more as an assistant at Apple. That’s him working the anvil when the Beatles run through “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” in the Let It Be film, and like Aspinall, he can also be heard making minor non-skilled contributions to other Beatles recordings.

Mal Evans had a cameo role as the lost swimmer in Help!

Mal Evans had a cameo role as the lost swimmer in Help!

Evans did not have the aptitude Aspinall had for organizational work off the road, and didn’t fare as well when the Beatles broke up. He deserves some credit for bringing Badfinger to Apple’s attention and producing some of their early tracks, though “producing” probably meant more keeping an eye on the proceedings than making active musical contributions. He probably would have had a lot to say about the Beatles in the memoir he was working on in the mid-1970s, but he was shot to death by police in Los Angeles in a January 1976 incident that remains controversial.

Although Aspinall seems to have contributed much more heavily to the running of Apple, it’s interesting that in his Rolling Stone interviews with Jann Wenner shortly after the Beatles split up, John Lennon says bitterly, “You see a lot of people, all the Dick Jameses, Derek Taylors, and Peter Browns, all of them, they think they’re the Beatles, and Neil and all of them. Well, I say fuck ‘em, you know; and after working with genius for 10, 15 years they begin to think they’re it, you know. They’re not.” A few questions later, he takes pains to exclude Mal from that list, indicating he held Evans in greater esteem and affection. Nothing else I’ve read, it must be said, intimates that Neil Aspinall took undue credit for the Beatles’ success or basked inappropriately in their glory.

16. Phil Spector. A controversial listing, to be sure. Did Phil Spector contribute to the Beatles, or did he detract from them? Paul McCartney would certainly say Spector’s involvement as co-producer of Let It Be—really a post-producer, as he did some remixing and overdubs on the tracks in early 1970, with only Ringo Starr contributing (and then only slightly)—was a negative. In particular, Spector’s overdubs of strings and female voices on “The Long and Winding Road” is often cited as the final straw in McCartney’s decision to leave the Beatles in April 1970. McCartney even went to the extent of helping generate what was essentially a de-Spectorized version of Let It Be, titled Let It Be…Naked, in 2003.

A record that helped break up the Beatles.

A record that helped break up the Beatles.

Spector’s role as Let It Be producer wasn’t as extensive as is sometimes intimated. His overdubs on “The Long and Winding Road” were heavy-handed to the point of being in your face, but he only added strings to a couple other songs, “I Me Mine” and “Across the Universe.” Elsewhere his remixing, I feel, usually neither significantly improved nor diminished the record (though I feel the 45 single mix of “Let It Be,” in which Spector wasn’t involved, was considerably superior). If he wasn’t there, it’s possible the Let It Be LP might not have even come out, as John Lennon and George Harrison in particular felt Spector’s involvement was necessary to salvage an album out of the material.

As noted in previous posts, contributions to the Beatles solo careers don’t count in those listings. But it’s worth noting that Spector made significant and impressive contributions to the early solo records of George Harrison and John Lennon as producer, in a much more sympathetic style than he applied to “The Long and Winding Road.”

17. Jimmy Nicol. Where do you draw the line with temporary Beatles? Do you include all of the many Quarrymen who dropped out before John, Paul, and George formed the nucleus of the Beatles? How about Chas Newby, who filled in on bass for a few shows when the Beatles returned from their first Hamburg visit without Stuart Sutcliffe? Or Roy Young, who sometimes played keyboards with them onstage in Hamburg? I say you don’t.

But Jimmy Nicol, though never an official Beatle, did play drums onstage with the Beatles at the peak of Beatlemania. He filled in for Ringo, who was ill with tonsillitis, for the first ten days of their mid-1964 world tour. Some recordings (and a bit of film footage) from shows with Nicol survive, and though it’s not too fair to judge a guy who had to join a band at a moment’s notice, he’s not as good as Ringo. Or at least, it can certainly be stated that his style didn’t fit in as well with the Beatles as Ringo’s did. He’s too busy and overplays. He seems to be settling down by the time of the final unofficial live recording of the Nicol lineup (from June 12 in Adelaide, Australia). But the band were immensely relieved when Ringo rejoined a few days later, both to have Starr’s musical assets and to have their buddy back instead of a stranger.

Although this is the only thing Nicol’s remembered for, he did have a long performing and recording career, going back almost to the dawn of British rock’n’roll, and extending a few years past the Beatles. You might not think it possible to make a book out of his life, but of course there is one. The obscure The Beatle Who Vanished has his story, even if it has to be stretched quite a bit to fill up 238 pages.

Nicol

18. The Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Another selection bound to attract criticism. Just as it’s certain McCartney views Spector as more of a negative than a positive, it’s likely that Lennon would view the Maharishi in a similar light.

But if the Beatles hadn’t met and then traveled to India to study with the Maharishi, The White Album would have certainly been different. It’s not just because experiences in India specifically inspired the creation of a few of the songs—not just “Sexy Sadie,” a thinly veiled attack on the Maharishi, but also “Dear Prudence,” about fellow meditator Prudence Farrow, and “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill,” an American hunter they met in India.

Mad magazine satire of the Beatles-Maharishi fling.

Mad magazine satire of the Beatles-Maharishi fling.

More subtly, and less famously, the visit to India—although it ended badly, with none of the Beatles staying for the duration of their intended course with the Maharishi—gave them an environment conducive for writing plenty of songs. First because, for the first time in about five years, they were isolated from the day-to-day hysteria of a public and press clamoring for their attention. Second because, as they were often meditating, that—at least it’s been credibly theorized—gave rise to the surfacing of many subconscious creative ideas that found their way into their songs. And third, since they had only acoustic instruments with them, they could give some of the songs an interesting folky flavor. Which leads into the next listing…

19. Donovan. Briefly considered a creative and commercial peer of the Beatles in the late 1960s, Donovan was friendly with them, especially Paul McCartney. He contributed the “sky of blue and sea of green” lyric to “Yellow Submarine.” That alone wouldn’t be enough to get him on this list, but he was also with the Beatles when they studied transcendental meditation with the Maharishi in India. It’s been speculated that he was there in part because he was chasing George Harrison’s sister-in-law Jenny Boyd (the subject of Donovan’s hit “Jennifer Juniper,” later to marry Mick Fleetwood). But that’s as good a reason as any to suspend your career for a couple months to fly halfway around the world.

“While the Beatles and I were in India they wrote the White Album songs,” Donovan told me in an interview for the book Jingle Jangle Morning: Folk-Rock in the 1960s. “It was obvious The White Album would have a distinctive acoustic and lyrical vibe. Paul, John, George, and I all had our acoustic guitars with us. George would later say that my music greatly influenced The White Album. I played all my styles, and the Beatles were exposed to weeks of Donovan. John was influenced to write romantic fantasy lyrics on the two songs he wrote, ‘Julia’ and ‘Dear Prudence,’ after my teaching him my finger-style guitar method. He was a fast learner.”

In late 1968, an unreleased tape captures Donovan and Paul McCartney informally playing and singing a few tunes together acoustically at a Mary Hopkin session. More pleasant than remarkable, it’s sort of an adult version of the ditties Donovan put on his 1967 children’s record, For Little Ones. As a final Beatles connection worth noting, while in India, George Harrison wrote a verse for Donovan’s hit song “Hurdy Gurdy Man” that was not used in the studio recording; Donovan in turn helped George write “Dehradun,” an unreleased version of which Harrison recorded in 1970.

Bootleg that includes the informal session between Paul McCartney and Donovan (more commonly dated to 1968, though this gives it a 1969 date).

Bootleg that includes the informal session between Paul McCartney and Donovan (more commonly dated to 1968, though this gives it a 1969 date).

20. Andy White. The only guy besides Ringo and (when Ringo quit the band for a few days during The White Album) Paul to play drums on a Beatles record, Andy White was the session musician that George Martin used when the group cut their first single, “Love Me Do”/“P.S. I Love You.” As it happened a take with Ringo was used on the single (though he’s playing tambourine, and White drums, on the LP version), but Starr was relegated to maracas for “P.S. I Love You.” When the group recorded an early version of “Please Please Me” on September 11, 1962 (the session where they finished up their first single), White was also on drums, as can be heard on the version released on Anthology 1.

Andy White played drums on the B-side of this single.

Andy White played drums on the B-side of this single.

These are pretty meager contributions on which to claim the role of notable associate. But White could nonetheless say he played on a Beatles record—and on one of the band’s core instruments, not as a session musician on something the Beatles never or seldom played themselves. For what it’s worth, though, the drum parts he plays on “Love Me Do” and “P.S. I Love You” aren’t that prominent or interesting. And when he takes more of a presence on “Please Please Me,” his drumming is not very good—a la Jimmy Nicol later, it’s inappropriately busy. Kudos to George Martin for letting Ringo play forever after, even he didn’t have the conventional studio chops of session veterans like Andy White, as his style was a far better fit for the band.

21. Klaus Voormann. Had Klaus Voormann learned the bass a little earlier, he would have made a reasonable replacement for Stuart Sutcliffe in mid-1961. Though a bit older than the Beatles, he would have fit in okay visually and personally, despite not speaking English well at the time. Of course, had he not stumbled upon the Beatles in Hamburg’s red-light district, he wouldn’t have become interested in rock music at all, let alone pick up the bass.

By the time Voormann became proficient, the Beatles were well on their way to fame as a foursome. But Klaus kept in touch with them, moved to England, and joined other rock groups, working his way up to one of the bigger British bands, Manfred Mann. Of most note, he designed their Revolver sleeve, putting his art school background to appropriate use.

Klaus Voormann (center) during his stint as Manfred Mann bassist in the late 1960s.

Klaus Voormann (center) during his stint as Manfred Mann bassist in the late 1960s.

“You can imagine how I felt after having heard some of the songs that were going to be released by the Beatles soon,” Voormann told me in a 2007 interview about the Revolver sleeve. “A new trend was going to be set, and there was little me having to come up with something just as daring, or at least give the record buyer a lead to what they were getting themselves in for. Brian Epstein was scared the fans might turn their back on the band and say, ‘What happened to our Beatles? I want them the way they were before.’ But when Brian saw the Revolver cover he said, ‘Klaus, your cover manages to build the bridge from the music to the fans.’”

That—along with introducing the Beatles to photographer and friend Astrid Kirchherr in Hamburg—is enough to get Voormann onto this list. Voormann would also play bass on solo recordings by John Lennon (the first of those being the Live Peace in Toronto album, done in September 1969 when Lennon was still in the Beatles), George Harrison, and Ringo Starr. He’s on “I’m the Greatest,” the John Lennon-penned Ringo Starr track also featuring Lennon, Harrison, and Billy Preston. He was also the bassist in the nonexistent group most of the Beatles were rumored to be forming in the early 1970s, the Ladders, who would have also included Lennon, Harrison, and Starr. Which would have made him the Fourth Beatle of sorts, but the Ladders never actually formed.

It’s pretty well known that Voormann designed the Revolver cover, but it’s not so well known that Klaus also designed the covers for sheet music of Revolver songs. Here are a few of them:

160218_CBOX_Beatles-eleanor copy.jpg.CROP.promo-xlarge2

smukhere

 

The+Beatles+Revolver+Sheet+Music+420551b

22. Astrid Kirchherr. The only woman besides Yoko Ono to make this list, Kirchherr was vital to the creation of the Beatles’ image in the early 1960s. First she did so by taking the first truly first-class and striking pictures of the group in Hamburg. She has also been credited with devising, or at least getting Stuart Sutcliffe to adopt, the Beatles hairstyle. The other Beatles followed (Pete Best excepted), giving them their top early visual trademark. Aside from getting engaged to Sutcliffe (though they didn’t marry as Stuart died in April 1962), she was also simply a valued friend to the Beatles as they played in a foreign land to strangers in their Hamburg days. Like her ex-boyfriend Klaus Voormann, she had an artistic and bohemian sensibility with which they felt much more at ease than they did with the usual patrons of the Hamburg clubs they played.

Astrid

It is strange and unfortunate that Kirchherr—discouraged by the lack of interest in her pictures that didn’t feature the Beatles—failed to pursue photography more seriously after the Beatles rose to fame. One certainly thinks she could have photographed an album cover or two for them. Robert Freeman’s photo for With the Beatles, whether intentionally or not, features half-lit faces similar to some of Kirchherr’s shots of the group. But other photographers would take the bulk of the Beatles’ pictures from 1963 onward, including Freeman, Robert Whitaker, Dezo Hoffman, Michael Cooper (for the Sgt. Pepper album), Ethan Russell (near the end of their career), and others.

23. Derek Taylor. Here you get to the point where fifth Beatles get less directly involved or less exciting to detail. Yes, Derek Taylor did a lot of work for them as a publicist near the outset of Beatlemania, and then as a press officer for Apple in the late 1960s and early 1970s. As PR guys went, he was probably the most interesting and colorful, if given to over-florid prose in his press releases. But did you really have to work too hard to publicize such a commercial commodity as the Beatles? Would their career have been too different if he hadn’t been there?

I’d say no, though he was good for some stories in Beatles histories, having known them better than most people in their inner circle. Which is probably why, as previously stated, he was one of the three non-Beatles interviewed for the Anthology documentary. It’s a shame, however, that his limited-edition 1983 memoir, Fifty Years Adrift, has never been issued in an affordable edition for the general public.

How much would you pay for this book? For the astonishing answer, read on...

24. Nicky Hopkins. Now that we’re past the point in this list at which there were really major contributors to the Beatles’ legacy, how to round this out to a list of 25? How about by listing a couple guys who, though their interaction with the group was fleeting, you can actually hear on their records? Or at least one record, which is the case with Nicky Hopkins? He played on lots of discs by other British ‘60s artists, almost to the point where he could be considered a fifth member of the Who for their debut album My Generation. And he plays electric piano on the Beatles’ “Revolution”—the “fast” single version, not the one on The White Album.

When Paul McCartney and John Lennon sang uncredited background vocals for the Rolling Stones’ “We Love You” at a June 1967 session on which Hopkins played piano, Nicky later recalled, that led to the invitation to play on “Revolution.” According to a Hopkins quote in Julian Dawson’s Nicky Hopkins: The Extraordinary Life of Rock’s Greatest Session Man, “There weren’t really any instructions, except where they wanted the piano to start and I basically just played some blues stuff and we did it in one take. I’d have preferred to do it again, but they were fine with that. I remember I was surprised at the amount of distortion; it was John’s rough side coming out and it sounded wonderful. I quickly got tuned into hearing it that way and it still holds up great—a wonderful record!”

Hopkins

As to why he wasn’t asked to play on other Beatles sessions, according to another Hopkins quote in the same book, Lennon told Nicky, “We just thought you were too busy, with the Rolling Stones and all.” As some compensation, Hopkins played on solo releases by all four Beatles, his most memorable contribution perhaps being to George Harrison’s 1973 #1 single “Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth).”

When the Beatles did promo films for “Revolution” in late 1968, they did live vocals, but used the backing track from the record. If anyone tries to tell you it’s not, ask them why you can hear an electric piano—the part played by Hopkins—even though a piano isn’t on the stage.

25. Brian Jones. Brian Jones was known more as a guitarist in the Rolling Stones (whom he left in June 1969, dying less than a month later) than anything else. But he played many instruments, and before he’d gotten into the blues and rock, he’d played jazz. It was still strange that, when he was invited to lend a hand to a Beatles session, he showed up with an alto saxophone, rather than a guitar or something else more in line with what he usually played, like a harmonica.

Brian Jones

Characteristically, instead of getting unsettled, the Beatles were unfazed and made use of what he’d brought to the party. Jones’s rather tremulous sax is heard in the final part of their goofy B-side “You Know My Name,” adding appropriately woozy jazz to the lounge music satire. If you’re wondering how he could have guested on a track used on a 1970 single, remember that the first sessions for “You Know My Name” were done in 1967, Jones playing sax on the one on June 8.

Critical description of all known unreleased Beatles recordings, their most crucial unissued film footage, and more. Updated with 30,000 more words to reflect newly circulating material and additional information that's come to light since the original edition.
Critical description of all known unreleased Beatles recordings, their most crucial unissued film footage, and more. Updated with 30,000 more words to reflect newly circulating material and additional information that’s come to light since the original edition. Click here or on the cover image above to order through Amazon.

 

The Top Ten Fifth Beatles

In my last blogpost, I made a case—and the subject made it very easy—for George Martin as “The 5th Beatle,” if anyone deserves that title. Many other figures have, seriously and facetiously, been cited as “The 5th Beatle,” or “5th Beatles” of sort. As I wrote in my post about George Martin, I think that only two people are really serious contenders for that title, those being Martin and Brian Epstein. How do the others rank, if you’re going for a list that the Beatles themselves would probably never make, or scoff at?

Here are my rankings, with some explanatory comments. Note that I’m ranking them according to what they added to the Beatles’ legacy, which in my view rests primarily with their music. Other pundits might rank them more according to how well they knew the Beatles, how closely they interacted with them, and how they affected their commercial success and business. That’s a valid approach, but I think the musical contributions of their associates are the most significant and lasting ones.

1. George Martin (see lengthy comments in my previous post)

2. Brian Epstein. After stating that I’m listing fifth Beatles according to their musical contributions, it might seem strange to put a non-musician who did not play in active role in their records as #2. But Epstein, much more than anyone else, created the environment in which the Beatles’ music could thrive. First, he believed in them and pushed them toward a record contract when no one else with his resources was interested in doing so. He did so with diligence and skill. He refined their image to maximize their popularity with and impact upon the public, without interfering with their music. He thought in big terms that made that impact international, not just limited to the British pop scene. He was also, unlike many managers then and now, devoted to them personally as well as professionally, and considered—maybe not immediately, but certainly eventually—a friend by the band, not just an associate. As John Lennon famously said when interviewed by news cameras just after Epstein’s death in August 1967, “He was one of us.”

Brian Epstein's autobiography, ghost-written by Derek Taylor

Brian Epstein’s autobiography, ghost-written by Beatles publicist Derek Taylor

Just as George Martin was the best imaginable producer for the Beatles, so was Epstein the best imaginable Beatles manager. That doesn’t mean his record as manager was as impeccable as Martin’s performance as producer. As often detailed after his death—the 1972 book Apple to the Core was the first source to do so to a significant degree—he made some poor and at times disastrous business decisions that cost the Beatles millions of dollars in the short run, and perhaps many millions more in the long run.

But he made some good ones, too, if more cannily in terms of getting them publicity and exposure than in dollars and pounds. Had he not been in Liverpool in the early 1960s, it’s scary to think of the consequences. The Beatles might well have never gotten a record deal or become known outside of Hamburg or Liverpool. Had they used another manager, he or she might have exploited them, or lacked the dedication and competence to make them successful and put them in a position where they could maximize their innovations.

Marianne Faithfull had a funny and appropriate line about this in the BBC documentary The Brian Epstein Story (still unavailable on DVD, though it should be): “He may not have been the greatest businessman in the world. He may well have made a lot of mistakes…not that I care. I couldn’t care less about things like licensing T-shirt deals. It just isn’t interesting. And I don’t think it’s so bad to not be good at that sort of thing.” Not to minimize the financial impact on the Beatles, but the point is, it’s not the merchandising of the Beatles and the money it made that interests us about them all these years later. It’s the music, and Epstein, more than anyone else, helped bring that music to the world.

It’s sometimes speculated that Brian Epstein didn’t care much about rock music, and that he managed the Beatles for the money and glamour it brought him. It’s true he didn’t know too much about rock music before taking on the Beatles (though he might have known more than he let on, as he ran the most successful record store in Northern England). Compared to someone like Rolling Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham, his personal image and musical tastes might have seemed pretty conservative. But if he didn’t know much about the Beatles’ music at the beginning, I believe he did quickly grasp and comprehend their essential appeal, with a greater insight than most managers of the time would have possessed. Take this quote, for instance, from the 1966 television special The Beatles at Shea Stadium (another historically important documentary that should be made available on DVD):

“I’m very much a Beatle fan,” he proudly confesses. “In fact, I’ve always realized this, that I’ve always been, right since I’ve known them. I’ve felt, probably, everything that any Beatles fan”—here he chuckles, perhaps realizing that he’s getting a little too revealing about his homosexuality, which was very much a secret to the public at the time—“male Beatles fan has ever felt. All the various things I’ve liked, I think, is what the fans have liked…the marvelous quality [of] the Beatles both in their music and in their general manner is that they in fact do original things, and new things, as they go along. Their songs are always new and different, and so are their performances, in sort of different, small, subtle ways.” Although these observations are uniformly accepted today, back then few adults could see that the group’s unparalleled thirst for change and artistic evolution was a key to their astronomical popularity and influence. While Epstein has sometimes been criticized for failing to appreciate the full dimension of the Beatles’ aesthetic sensibilities, this comment seems proof enough that such accusations hold no merit.

A book based on the BBC documentary The Brian Epstein Story.

A book based on the BBC documentary The Brian Epstein Story.

Just as George Martin did not produce other artists nearly as great as the Beatles, Brian Epstein did not manage other artists nearly as great as the Beatles, though some were very successful. It was probably a consequence of his early-‘60s Liverpool base as much as anyone else, but the biggest other hitmakers he chose to put in his stable—Merseybeat bands Gerry & the Pacemakers and Billy J. Kramer & the Dakotas, and pop belter Cilla Black—were much more lightweight and less artistically adventurous than his primary clients. (Uncoincidentally, all of them were also produced by George Martin.) There are indications that had he lived, he might have expanded his roster into more interesting areas, especially as the Beatles needed and wanted less of his attention. There were indications he wanted to get involved in the Velvet Underground’s career in some way (and the path would have been clearer after Lou Reed fired Andy Warhol around mid-1967), though the specifics remain fuzzy and Epstein died before he could take any action.

Likewise he had some interest in getting involved in Eric Andersen’s career, and if Andersen wasn’t nearly as significant an artist as the Velvet Underground, he was hipper than Billy J. Kramer or Cilla Black. He also praised Jimi Hendrix in an April 1967 radio interview with Murray the K, before Hendrix was known in the US, and Hendrix gave a concert at a major venue Epstein leased, London’s Saville Theatre, right after Sgt. Pepper was released. The Four Tops had played the theater the previous year, and the Motown group credit Brian with helping them become known in Britain.

Would the Beatles’ story have ended differently had Epstein not died in August 1967? It’s impossible to say, and I agree with historians who feel their breakup was inevitable. It’s also true that, with more now known about Epstein’s psychological problems and some strains between him and the Beatles, he might not have remained their manager anyway, or at least would have taken a far less active role in their affairs. I do think that the Beatles’ breakup would have been less rancorous, if for no other reason that they wouldn’t have wanted to hurt him more than necessary. Epstein certainly had much greater concern for them as individuals than Allen Klein (who by the end of the 1960s was managing all of them except Paul McCartney) did, and his ability to communicate with them might have eased the tension somewhat.

All of that’s a big if. What’s not a big if is Epstein’s towering importance in the Beatles’ story, surpassed only by George Martin.

3. Pete Best. Pete Best was fired from the Beatles in August 1962 primarily because he wasn’t a good enough drummer, though there were other reasons. So why is he so high up on this list? It’s an arguable ranking, but unlike everyone else here save Stuart Sutcliffe, he actually was a Beatle, not just an honorary one. And not just for a couple weeks or so, like Jimmy Nicol—he sat in the drum chair for two full years. With the inclusion of about half of their January 1, 1962 Decca audition tape and a couple tracks from their first session with George Martin in June 1962 on Anthology 1, he’s actually now represented on official Beatles records. He was already represented on official Beatles records with the recordings they made in Germany with Tony Sheridan, even if those sessions didn’t reflect the full range of their embryonic talents. He played many shows with them in Merseyside and Hamburg; let them use his home as a base for many of their operations; and his mother, Mona Best, did a great deal for their career in the early 1960s in unofficial managerial capacities.

Pete Best documentary.

Pete Best documentary.

Best has his defenders, primarily fellow early Merseybeat musicians; see the documentary Best of the Beatles for some of those. But even based on the slim body of recordings on which he plays (also including a couple lo-fi 1962 BBC broadcasts), Ringo was decisively the better drummer. Even more decisively, the ebulliently humorous Ringo was a far better fit for the Beatles as a personality. The question that never seems addressed when a vociferous few claim that Pete Best was better, or at least that the Beatles were better when Best was their drummer, is why the Beatles’ popularity did not suffer when Ringo replaced him. To the contrary, it exploded, even if some loyal Best supporters in Liverpool never forgave the band.

But Best was there, every step of the way, from August 1960 to August 1962, when the Beatles rose from a barely professional group to the best one in Liverpool, and the cusp of being the best in the whole world. His image might not have fit in with the band as well as Ringo’s, but his, to use the cliché, mean, moody magnificence was important to establishing their Liverpool popularity in the early 1960s. For those reasons, he deserves a high spot on this list.

4. Billy Preston. After the first two or three slots on the fifth Beatle list are filled, the choices are much more variable depending on the compiler, and more open to controversy. After listing a couple figures who were with the band for most of the 1960s, and then someone who was in the band for a couple years, how can you list someone whose primary contributions to the Beatles boiled down to about ten days? Which was about how long Billy Preston played and recorded with the Beatles in late January 1969, though he did also play on a couple Abbey Road tracks, “Something” and “I Want You (She’s So Heavy).”

The "Get Back" single was credited to "The Beatles with Billy Preston."

The “Get Back” single was credited to “The Beatles with Billy Preston.”

But if we’re talking musical contributions to the Beatles’ legacy, Preston made more to their recordings than any other rock musician outside of the Beatles themselves. And they weren’t insignificant or merely decorative—for that portion of January 1969 on which he recorded (and, at their January 30, 1969 rooftop concert, performed live) with the group, he was about as close to a fifth member as you could get. He didn’t write any of the material, but his keyboards are an important, indeed vital, part of the tracks that came out on the “Get Back”/ “Don’t Let Me Down” single and, eventually, on the Let It Be album. On “Get Back, “Don’t Let Me Down,” and “Let It Be” in particular, his work is both stellar and integral to the arrangements. John Lennon was so impressed that after just a couple days of working with Preston, he even (on January 24, 1969) told the other Beatles he’d like to make Billy a permanent member, though an incredulous Paul McCartney defused John’s likely over-impulsive enthusiasm.

The Beatles did, however, generously use the billing “The Beatles with Billy Preston” for the “Get Back”/“Don’t Let Me Down” single. Also generously, they signed him to Apple Records as a solo artist, which is likely one reason he didn’t play on more sessions with them after January 1969. Although contributions to the Beatles’ solo careers don’t factor into these rankings, it’s also worth noting that Preston also played on numerous solo releases by Lennon, Ringo Starr,, and George Harrison, including the track (Ringo’s “I’m the Greatest”) that came closest to reuniting the Beatles in the studio, as Starr, Harrison, and Lennon also played on this John Lennon composition.

5. Geoff Emerick. Unlike the four names above him on this list, Geoff Emerick isn’t so well known to the general public. However, there’s now a greater knowledge of and appreciation of recording engineers than there was when many of them actually worked on their most famous recordings in the twentieth century. Emerick was the engineer on most of the Beatles’ recordings from Revolver onward, though he quit partway through The White Album, resuming work with the band for Abbey Road.

Geoff Emerick's memoir.

Geoff Emerick’s memoir.

Although it’s harder to pinpoint specific contributions for Emerick (and engineers in general) than it is for producers like George Martin, Emerick was there when the Beatles were doing their most sophisticated and experimental recordings. Although a few other experts have disputed some of what he wrote in his memoir Here, There and Everywhere (co-authored by Howard Massey), that very worthwhile book helped raise his profile. If much of his opportunity to start working with the Beatles when he was barely in his twenties was due to the luck of being in the right place at the right time, he had the open-minded appetite for trying new things that made him a good match for the band as they expanded the boundaries of what was possible in the studio.

6. Richard Lester. Richard Lester directed the two films in which the Beatles starred as actors, 1964’s A Hard Day’s Night and 1965’s less impressive Help! These movies, perhaps as much as their mid-‘60s records and concerts, established the Beatles’ image with the public. As subsequent comments (especially by Lennon) revealed, this image wasn’t entirely accurate and was somewhat sanitized. But Lester deserves enormous credit for capturing much of the essence of the Beatles’ appeal in their fun-loving humor, irrepressible energy, and relative naturalness in the oft-phony entertainment business. In A Hard Day’s Night in particular, he often did so with a fun-loving cinematic energy on par with that radiated by the Beatles themselves.

Richard-Lester

Although Lester wasn’t a musician, it’s also worth noting that the musical sequences were easily the best that had been used in rock movies to that point. Quite possibly (again, especially in A Hard Day’s Night), they remain the best musical sequences in rock movies more than fifty years later. By complementing the songs with images, camerawork, and editing that were as vivacious as the soundtrack, Lester did his part to get the music over to the public, especially to those who’d be converted into Beatles fans (and sometimes into general rock fans) by the A Hard Day’s Night movie.

Lester could have done more films with the Beatles. It’s likely the first few months of 1966 were set aside for making a third Beatles movie, as the group didn’t perform or record during that time. But they couldn’t find a script or story they liked (though some, like the western A Talent for Loving, came under consideration), and it’s likely that by 1967, they were losing interest in acting in a fictional film anyway. Lester did direct John Lennon (without the other Beatles) in late 1966 in the satire How I Won the War, which—though Lennon does okay with his part, which is small—is in my estimation a pretty awful, unfunny film that’s difficult to sit through in its entirety.

7. Norman Smith. Perhaps even less known to the public than Geoff Emerick, Norman Smith was Emerick’s counterpart in the earlier part of the Beatles’ career as the engineer they most often used before 1966. Since their recordings were more straightforward and less technologically intricate during that era (though they were quickly becoming more elaborate as 1965 progressed), Smith’s contributions seem to have been less creative than Emerick’s, and certainly than George Martin’s. He certainly did well with them, however, even if he properly bowed out after Rubber Soul, feeling less interested in the group’s music as it changed. According to Emerick’s Here, There and Everywhere, Smith overdubbed some drums on “Can’t Buy Me Love,” though this hasn’t been accepted as gospel throughout Beatledom.

If Smith, as is sometimes intimated, didn’t enjoy their more progressive direction, it’s a little strange that he then went on to work with two bands who were the most recklessly experimental in Abbey Road other than the Beatles themselves. The first was Pink Floyd, whose first three albums Smith produced. Pink Floyd don’t have much to say about him, and the impression is given in Floyd literature that he’s something of an EMI functionary. But certainly those albums are impressive early psychedelic/progressive rock LPs, especially the 1967 debut Piper at the Gates of Dawn.

Smith also produced the Pretty Things’ 1968 LP S.F. Sorrow, which though not a big seller has been recognized as one of the most sonically adventurous psychedelic albums. In contrast to Pink Floyd, the Pretty Things have been vocal in their appreciation of Smith’s contributions, to the extent of hailing him as an unofficial member—the sixth Pretty Thing. You’d have to think he picked up something of the Beatles and George Martin’s hunger for expanding the parameters of what could be done in the studio while working with them, and brought at least a little of that to his work with other psychedelic bands in Abbey Road.

The Pretty Things' S.F. Sorrow album, produced by Norman Smith.

The Pretty Things’ S.F. Sorrow album, produced by Norman Smith.

Smith would be far more famous in Beatles lore if, as he revealed years after the incident, one of his compositions had been used on 1965’s Help! LP. As he told it, when the group were struggling to find enough material to fill up the album, he played a song he’d written to them, which they gave serious consideration to recording. They decided not to, in his account, because they needed a song with Ringo on vocals, which ended up being “Act Naturally,” and although they said they’d do Smith’s composition later, they didn’t return to it. It’s mysterious, however, that Smith could not remember the title of the song or even describe it too well. The possibility cannot be discounted that John and Paul were humoring or stringing along their longtime studio colleague, but as Smith told the story (on more than one occasion), their enthusiasm for the tune was genuine.

There were several other members of Abbey Road staff who made important contributions to Beatles recordings, particularly Chris Thomas (who was an unofficial producer of some White Album sessions and plays keyboards on some of the tracks); Ken Scott (an engineer on some of their late-‘60s sessions who later became a producer of note, particularly on early-‘70s albums by David Bowie); and Alan Parsons (who helped with engineering on Abbey Road). And Glyn Johns and Phil Spector were credited as co-producers (with George Martin) of Let It Be, while Ron Richards effectively produced “Love Me Do,” although George Martin was credited as producer. But Smith’s contributions outweighed all of these figures in quantity, even as one would be hard-pressed to identify any specific imprints he gave the Beatles recordings he engineered.

8. Stuart Sutcliffe. Along with Pete Best, Sutcliffe was the only guy other than John, Paul, George, and Ringo to be a full-time Beatle. His stint was short—a year and a half—and musically insignificant, according to most accounts. Some (such as Klaus Voormann, who saw the Beatles often in Hamburg) have contended that Sutcliffe was not as bad a bass guitarist as is usually reported, and that he was competent, or verging on competent. The substantial majority of Beatles literature, however, gives the impression that he never did master the instrument. And even if he might have gotten better had he kept with it, he left the group in mid-1961, an indication that he just didn’t have the interest in or hunger for playing and writing music that the other Beatles did.

Sutcliffe’s chief contribution to the Beatles, as many have noted, was in the image department. In the early ‘60s, he was key to establishing their moody leather look; after taking up with Astrid Kirchherr, he was the first to adopt a Beatles haircut. Pictures taken of Sutcliffe shortly before his death in April 1962 indicate he would have actually fit in well with the Beatles visually, certainly in their early days. Had he not died, there’s speculation he might have done some work with him as a visual advisor of sorts, maybe designing record sleeves or logos, though that honor (for the Revolver cover) would fall to his friend Klaus Voormann.

The picture in which Stuart Sutcliffe looks most like he could pass for a member of the 1962 Beatles.

The picture in which Stuart Sutcliffe looks most like he could pass for a member of the 1962 Beatles.

Unlike with Pete Best, very little survives in the way of Beatles recordings on which Sutcliffe plays. He wasn’t even on the Tony Sheridan sessions in 1961. He is, as far as we know, on numerous lo-fi 1960 rehearsal tapes (a few of which were officially released on Anthology 1), at which point he’d only been playing bass for a few months. On these, he plays with an artless thump that does more to distract from the proceedings than fill out the sound, though at any rate it’s often faint and hard to make out.

9. Yoko Ono. I have no doubt this will be the most contentious of these rankings, especially since Ono, fairly or unfairly, is often cited as the biggest reason the Beatles broke up. Although a good number of listeners and critics would come to her defense and champion her musical work after the Beatles split, that doesn’t mean that the majority of Beatles listeners regard her in a favorable light. Judging from the reactions of my students in my Beatles classes, she’s almost as unpopular now as she was then. And this isn’t solely a matter of sexist male Beatles fans being chauvinistic—at least half of the negative reaction, which is often quite vociferous, comes from women.

But Yoko did have a substantial influence on John Lennon’s songwriting after they got together in spring 1968. And, hard as it might be for some of her critics to concede this, often it was positive. Or at the very least, some good-to-great Beatles songs emerged that would not have, at least in the same shape (especially lyrically), had Yoko not been in John’s life. These include songs specifically inspired by their relationship (“Don’t Let Me Down,” “Ballad of John and Yoko,” “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”); songs in which some of her poetry and art was likely an influence (“Julia,” with its reference to “ocean child”); and “Because,” partly inspired by Yoko’s rendering of Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” on piano.

Yoko almost seems like a fifth member of the group in the picture sleeve for "The Ballad of John and Yoko."

Yoko almost seems like a fifth member of the group in the picture sleeve for “Ballad of John and Yoko”—photographed, interestingly, by Linda McCartney, who’d go on to become an actual member of Paul McCartney’s band, Wings.

Yoko was also a substantial contributor to some White Album recordings, though the results were far more controversial than the songs in the previous paragraph. She was John’s primary collaborator on “Revolution 9,” probably the Beatles’ most unpopular track. She also contributed quite a bit to the somewhat more tuneful White Album outtake “What’s the New Mary Jane” (one version of which was officially issued on Anthology 3), which though far more obscure is not too popular among the Beatles fans who’ve heard it. She also sings the line “and when he looked so fierce” on “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill,” though no one minds that as far as I can tell.

The Beatles songs on which Yoko was a prominent influence, “Ballad of John and Yoko” excepted, did not refer to her specifically, and even “Ballad of John and Yoko” was more of a journalistic travelogue than a relationship song. Lennon’s songs would get more particular and detailed in their depiction/celebration of Yoko on his solo albums. One imagines that if he’d tried to have the Beatles record some of these (such as “Oh Yoko,” an informal version of which he recorded in a Montreal hotel back in spring 1969), he would have met much more resistance than he did to the likes of “Don’t Let Me Down,” which could have been about anyone.

Yoko did, incidentally, perform as part of the Beatles on January 10, 1969, shortly after George Harrison had walked out of the studio that day to quit the Beatles, returning about ten days later. That makes her more the Fourth Beatle than the Fifth Beatle on that occasion, though the noisy jams on which she scream-sings—backed by John, Paul, and Ringo—are not beloved by those who’ve heard them on bootlegs.

Remarkably, an unreleased three-minute color film scene capture part of a loud, angry jam by John, Paul, and Ringo with a black-clad, black-hatted Yoko on caterwauling, wordless vocals, just hours after Harrison temporarily left the band on January 10. This must have been one of the strangest, tensest passages not just of the entire Get Back sessions but of the Beatles’ whole career. If Yoko seems distraught about the group’s crisis, she certainly doesn’t show it. Indeed, she’s smiling radiantly, fueling conspiracy theorists who view this segment as evidence of her not-so-subtle pleasure at being the center of attention for once within a Beatles performance and perhaps her delight at the prospect of a possible group breakup. Ringo’s seen flailing as wildly and energetically on his drums as he ever was during the January 1969 filming. Paul, perhaps more out of grim “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” resignation than anything else, contributes to the chaos by studiously, humorlessly massaging a speaker with his bass to coax some appropriate feedback out of the instrument.

It still boggles the mind to think the band was grinding this out, with cameras recording the action no less, just at the point when their very survival was more in doubt than it had been since they became a foursome. Shock and incomprehension at George’s abrupt departure seems like the only possible explanation. As Ringo reflected in the Anthology book, “George had gone home. When we came back [from lunch] he still wasn’t there, so we started jamming violently. Paul was playing his bass into the amp and John was off, and I was playing some weird drumming that I hadn’t done before. I don’t play like that as a rule. Our reaction was really, really interesting at the time. And Yoko jumped in, of course, she was there.”

10. Tony Sheridan. Sheridan was never a Beatle, but he got pretty close in a way, as he’s the lead singer on most of their first truly professional recordings. On these tracks (mostly recorded in 1961 in Germany), however, the Beatles are just a backing group, with little of their personality emerging (or allowed to come through). “My Bonnie,” which was a small hit after the Beatles became famous on their own, is the best of these, in part because you can easily hear Paul McCartney’s enthusiastic backup vocals, and the band’s backup is fairly powerful. The others, though, are frankly dull, Sheridan coming across as just another early-‘60s sub-Elvis Presley.

The Beatles backed Tony Sheridan on "My Bonnie," though on this release they were billed as "The Beat Brothers."

The Beatles backed Tony Sheridan on “My Bonnie,” though on this release they were billed as “The Beat Brothers.” The picture on this release was taken by their friend Astrid Kirchherr. Another photo from this session, in which original Beatles bassist (and Kirchherr’s fiancé) Stuart Sutcliffe can also be seen, is in the book Astrid Kirchherr: A Retrospective.

Sheridan’s chief importance to the Beatles wasn’t on the few records on which they backed him, but as a mentor of sorts in their Hamburg days. Though he was just a few months older than John Lennon, he was far more musically experienced than anyone in the Beatles, and gave them plenty of instrumental and stage tips. They performed together fairly often live, it seems, when they were playing the same Hamburg clubs.

Sheridan would later say he was disappointed in the pop direction the Beatles’ material took when they started making hits, preferring their rougher and bluesier early Hamburg sound. Judging from his own pedestrian records, however, he had little in the way of songwriting talent or originality—qualities the Beatles had in abundance. As much as they might have looked up to him in 1960, they quickly surpassed him on all fronts.

There were, of course, many other people who played a significant role in the Beatles story, even if I don’t think they impacted their music as much as the figures on this list. Numbers 11-25, with briefer comments, are detailed in my next post.

Critical description of all known unreleased Beatles recordings, their most crucial unissued film footage, and more. Updated with 30,000 more words to reflect newly circulating material and additional information that's come to light since the original edition.

Critical description of all known unreleased Beatles recordings, their most crucial unissued film footage, and more. Updated with 30,000 more words to reflect newly circulating material and additional information that’s come to light since the original edition. Click here or on the cover image above to order through Amazon.

George Martin, The Fifth Beatle

The recent death of George Martin sparked some discussion—which has been ongoing since, without exaggerating, at least 1964—as to who deserves the title of Fifth Beatle. New York radio DJ Murray the K might have been facetiously self-promoting when he came up with the term to describe himself after attaching himself to their entourage on their first US visit, but many serious and casual fans like to debate the question. Who, to phrase it another way, was the most important figure in the Beatles career besides the Beatles themselves?

One of the LPs featuring George Martin's versions of hits by his most famous clients, the Beatles.

One of the LPs featuring George Martin’s versions of hits by his most famous clients, the Beatles.

People often make jokes—which by now are quite tired—in their answers, citing such obviously silly choices as Ed Sullivan or Murray the K himself. Really, however, there are only two serious contenders for this title. One is Brian Epstein, their manager from late 1961 through his death in August 1967. The other is George Martin, the producer of virtually all of their studio recordings.

Epstein’s importance to the Beatles can’t be overestimated. He believed in and pushed them when no one else with his resources did; he did not interfere with their music; and, despite some questionable business decisions, was devoted to their artistic and personal interests. But when you come down to it, the most important thing about the Beatles was their music, and the most vital components of their musical legacy were their studio recordings. And their most vital collaborator on those recordings, by far, was George Martin. He never promoted himself as the Fifth Beatle, but if anyone should get the title, he deserves it.

Numerous recent obituaries have pointed out his contributions to the Beatles’ records, and entire books could be written about them. (As I noted in my post last year about rare rock books, Martin himself wrote one, Playback, which was a very expensive limited edition that now sells for hundreds of dollars, and which I haven’t read; his less extensive With a Little Help from My Friends, which focuses on his work on Sgt. Pepper, is readily and cheaply available.) Martin tributes rightly praise his sympathetic and skilled use of orchestration on their recordings from the mid-1960s onward; his ability to translate the Beatles’ more daring, sometimes wild, ideas into effective recordings; and the generally superb sonic quality of the band’s records, for which Abbey Road engineers and staff also deserve some credit. In this post, I’ll point out a few things which don’t get quite as much attention.

playback

George Martin’s Playback memoir.

While it’s more fun to focus on the positives of what did happen in Beatles history than speculate on what might not have happened had things turned out differently, it’s truly scary to think of how wrong things could have gone if they hadn’t been produced by George Martin. Which would have happened had they passed their audition with Decca Records on January 1, 1962, when Pete Best was still their drummer. At the time, they were crestfallen at their failure to get a contract with Decca (or any of the other big UK labels).

As I’ve emphasized in classes I’ve taught about the Beatles and presentations I’ve given about them, at the time, the group felt like it was the worst break imaginable. In retrospect, I contend, it was the best break they ever got. One reason is that it gave John Lennon and Paul McCartney time to write better songs than the original material—meager in quantity (three compositions) and not nearly up to their 1963 recordings in quality—they played at the Decca audition. Another is that it gave them about half a year in which to consider whether they wanted to replace Pete Best with a better drummer who’d also fit in with them much better as a personality—which Ringo Starr did, perfectly, when he joined in August 1962. The biggest, however, is that if they’d signed with Decca, they wouldn’t have been produced by George Martin, the best imaginable producer for the Beatles.

Imagine what would have come to pass if someone at Decca—perhaps Mike Smith, who conducted their audition for the label—had produced them instead. Smith himself had a frank and blunt assessment in Spencer Leigh’s book Drummed Out! The Sacking of Pete Best: “I don’t think I could have worked with them the way that George Martin did—I would have got involved in their bad parts and not encouraged the good ones.” As if to illustrate the point, he actually told the Beatles fan magazine The Beatles Book that Pete Best “was a better drummer than Ringo.”

Although it's fairly obscure, this is a pretty good book devoted solely to the firing of Pete Best.

Although it’s fairly obscure, this is a pretty good book devoted solely to the firing of Pete Best.

More specifically, had the Beatles signed with Decca and been produced by Smith or someone else on the label’s staff, it’s quite possible that:

A) They would have been forced to record inappropriate pop material written by composers from the equivalent of the British Tin Pan Alley. George Martin, as is well documented, actually wanted them to do this by recording Mitch Murray’s “How Do You Do It” (later a hit for Gerry & the Pacemakers) for their first single. He swiftly realized (to his credit) that it wasn’t a good match for the Beatles, and that they should be allowed to record their own material.

B) Session musicians might have been used on the Beatles’ records, as they often were in early-‘60s rock records in the UK (and US). Note again that George Martin did this by engaging Andy White to drum on the Beatles’ first single. Again to his credit, he realized that Ringo should be drumming, as Starr did on the 45 version of “Love Me Do” and on the band’s records from late 1962 onward. My guess is that very few producers of that era would have had the wisdom and humility to let the band be as they were, instead of imposing songs (sometimes, uncoincidentally, written by the producers) and musicians on them against their will and against common sense.

C) The sound simply wouldn’t have been as good on the records, regardless of what songs they cut. They would have likely been of higher fidelity than the basic, if acceptably professional, sound of the fifteen songs on the Decca audition tape (which have long been bootlegged, and about half of were officially released on Anthology 1). But they almost certainly wouldn’t have been as good as what was recorded in EMI Studios at Abbey Road. As an even scarier thought, it’s possible the Beatles might have been augmented by inappropriate orchestration and chirpy background vocals by session singers, as much lame pre-Beatles British rock was.

For another take on how a Decca deal might have turned out badly for the Beatles, read “Grid Leek”’s pseudonymous, lengthy essay “The Untold Story of the Decca Tapes,” which are small-print liner notes on the back of the 1979 bootleg LP The Decca Tapes (on Circuit Records). Leek writes the story as if ten songs from the Decca tapes actually came out on 1962 singles, with the other five added to this LP as “outtakes.” There are problems with its premise: had the Beatles signed to Decca, they would have made different recordings for release than the ones on their audition tape, and quite possibly cut different songs altogether. In Leek’s historical fiction of sorts, however, all five of the singles flop, with the Beatles only becoming successful after signing with EMI and releasing “Love Me Do” with Ringo on drums (as happened in real life).

deccasessions

The back cover of the first bootleg to feature all 15 songs from the Beatles' Decca audition had fictional liner notes recapping what might have happened had the Beatles signed to Decca and released material on the label.

The back cover of the first bootleg to feature all 15 songs from the Beatles’ Decca audition had fictional liner notes recapping what might have happened had the Beatles signed to Decca and released material on the label.

Who would have been a good producer for the Beatles, if George Martin hadn’t been their miraculous match? I’m not sure there was any other good producer for the Beatles in Britain at the time. London-based American expatriate Shel Talmy (who produced mid-‘60s hits for the Kinks and Who) might have done well or at least okay with them, but he hadn’t even moved to England at the time of the Decca audition. I had the chance to ask Talmy if he would have turned down the Beatles on the basis of their audition in early 1962, and though he had the benefit of lots of hindsight, he responded, “I don’t think I would have, because I’ve always been very song-oriented. Although they were not a wonderful band musically, the songs were outstanding, even then. And I’m sure I wouldn’t have turned them down.”

How about Andrew Loog Oldham, the Rolling Stones’ producer? He was really more of an image-making publicist and enabler of the Stones to sound like themselves on record than a creative force in the studio, without any of the musical training or extensive experience Martin brought to the job. Giorgio Gomelsky, who managed/co-produced the early Yardbirds (and unofficially managed the Stones at their very beginning), likewise lacked that musical/studio background, and though he had an appetite for daring experimentation, probably lacked the professional focus at which Martin excelled. Mickie Most proved with the best of his records with Donovan and the Animals that he could make great and innovative discs, but was really more of a guy with a good commercial ear than one who prioritized the best artistic results.

It comes down to this: George Martin was really the only guy in the whole of the British recording industry with good qualifications to produce the best British rock band. Just because he was the only guy, however, doesn’t mean he wasn’t a perfect guy for the Beatles.

Another album of George Martin versions of Beatles songs.

Another album of George Martin versions of Beatles songs.

Moving to what Martin actually did with the Beatles, one of his great contributions was encouraging them to focus on their original material, once he’d gotten over his initial brief resistance to using their compositions. I didn’t realize the full extent of this until reading the extended edition of the first volume of Mark Lewisohn’s mammoth Beatles biography, Tune In (which only covers the story until the end of 1962). John and Paul hadn’t even done much writing in the first couple years of the 1960s before getting back in gear in 1962, and Martin hadn’t been too impressed by “Love Me Do” or the other originals they presented to him at their first sessions. Lewisohn’s book also takes the view that had pressure from publishing interests not been at work, the Beatles’ first single might very well have been Mitch Murray’s “How Do You Do It” instead of a Lennon-McCartney original, which would likely have altered history much for the worse.

Yet the modest commercial success of “Love Me Do” and enthusiasm over the freshly penned “Please Please Me” apparently spurred Martin to give the go-ahead to a Beatles album with much of their original material at a meeting with the group in mid-November 1962, even before “Please Please Me” was recorded, let alone on its way to becoming chart-topping hit. This was key to transforming their relationship from one of a band operating under a nonplussed record company functionary to one collaborating with a supportive and valued artistic ally. As Lewisohn writes:

George Martin’s idea that the Beatles should make an LP was extraordinary; that he wanted it packed with (and perhaps full of) John and Paul’s songs is even more so, and there can be no better barometer of both his transformed attitude and interest in seeing where it would lead. This was the man whose reflection on being shown ‘Love Me Do,’ ‘P.S. I Love You’ and ‘Ask Me Why’ was, ‘I didn’t think the Beatles had any song of any worth – they gave me no evidence that they could write hit material.’ Since then, he’d heard ‘Please Please Me’ and ‘Tip of My Tongue’ (much preferring the former) and that was it…but, nonetheless, he’d changed his mind…this was a volte-face of immense proportions.

Again, my guess is that very few producers of that era would have had the wisdom and humility to backtrack on their strategy, in effect admitting they were wrong. But not only admitting they were wrong—to also take a new and more effective strategy with enthusiasm that likely fired up John and Paul to write more and better songs, now that they knew their producer had their back.

Another virtue of Martin’s that gets a little underplayed—though many more people are aware of it now than they were in the 1960s—is just how often he actually played on Beatles recordings. Most often he was on keyboards, and though he had fairly little experience producing rock’n’roll (and, I’m guessing, virtually none actually playing it), he was a hell of a piano player. On early songs like “Slow Down” and “Rock and Roll Music,” he really is a fifth member of the band, playing piano with a furious bluesy boogie-woogie energy that even Nicky Hopkins (the top British session keyboardist of the 1960s) might have been hard-pressed to match.

"Slow Down" was released on a US single in 1964, and was (with its flipside, "Matchbox") a small American hit.

“Slow Down” was released on a US single in 1964, and was (with its flipside, “Matchbox,” on which Martin also plays piano) a small American hit.

If Martin helped bring out qualities in the Beatles that were instrumental in them breaking out of pure rock into orchestrated arrangements influenced by classical, music hall, jazz, the avant-garde, and other styles, the Beatles seemed to bring out the closet rock’n’roller in George, at least in their pre-1966 recordings. Which isn’t to diminish his less frenetic instrumental contributions to other tracks—the sped-up piano solo on “In My Life” might be the most famous, but there were plenty of other notable ones, like the honky-tonk piano on “Good Day Sunshine” and “Lovely Rita.”

As great as Martin’s contributions to the Beatles were, it’s a little curious that he didn’t make many truly notable records with other rock groups in the 1960s (or the 1970s, Jeff Beck’s early fusion albums excepted). He didn’t record much rock before working with the Beatles, making his greatest mark as a producer of comedy discs with Peter Sellers. His work with other Merseybeat groups like Gerry & the Pacemakers and Billy J. Kramer & the Dakotas produced some enjoyable hits, but was extremely lightweight and conventional compared with even the early Beatles recordings, with little in the way of remarkable ingenuity. He never abandoned middle-of-the-road pop, as his hits with Cilla Black and Matt Monro demonstrated. His own versions of Beatles hits that were released under his name were surprisingly bland, even square. His tracks with the one ‘60s rock group he produced other than the Beatles who had an assertive, guitar-oriented sound—mod band the Action, who never had a big hit, despite gaining a cult following that lasts to this day—were punchy, clear, and balanced, but don’t bear a specific imprint or utilize particularly crafty production touches.

Besides the Beatles, he Action were the best rock act produced by George Martin in the '60s.

Besides the Beatles, he Action were the best rock act produced by George Martin in the ’60s.

It may be that the Beatles were so all-consuming that Martin had little left in the way of extraordinary contributions to other acts with whom he worked. Just as it’s certain that Martin brought out the best in the Beatles, it’s possibly even more certain that the Beatles brought out the best in Martin. While he earns the title of fifth Beatle, there were of course many others who made crucial contributions to their music and career, starting with Brian Epstein. Numbers two through ten on my list will be discussed in my next blog post.

the-george-martin-orchestra-and-i-love-her-parlophone-3

 

Critical description of all known unreleased Beatles recordings, their most crucial unissued film footage, and more. Updated with 30,000 more words to reflect newly circulating material and additional information that's come to light since the original edition.

Critical description of all known unreleased Beatles recordings, their most crucial unissued film footage, and more. Updated with 30,000 more words to reflect newly circulating material and additional information that’s come to light since the original edition. Click here or on the cover image above to order through Amazon.

 

 

 

 

 

 

San Bruno Mountain State and County Park

There are so many striking vistas in the San Francisco Bay Area that residents not only take many of them for granted, but don’t even visit some of them. The area just south of San Francisco between the city and the airport is, if not exactly maligned, not really paid much attention to unless you live in those neighborhoods. It’s my guess that few people outside of those neighborhoods (and maybe not too many people in them) visit San Bruno Mountain State and County Park, although it’s only a couple miles south of the San Francisco city limits.

Part of the downtown San Francisco skyline and the Bay Bridge, as seen from San Bruno Mountain.

Part of the downtown San Francisco skyline and the Bay Bridge, as seen from San Bruno Mountain.

I have to admit that even after about thirty years in the Bay Area, I only got to San Bruno Mountain for the first time last June. The friend I was with has lived in Northern California all of her life (mostly in the Bay Area), and had never been there. We might never have gone if someone at a booth at the San Francisco Green Festival hadn’t enthusiastically talked about it with us.

San Bruno Mountain might not be as isolated, quiet (it’s near busy roadways, a major highway, and the airport), or jaw-droppingly scenic as the more famous Bay Area parks. It does, however, give you pretty impressive 360-degree panoramic views of the Bay Area. From the small parking lots at the park entrance on Guadalupe Canyon Parkway, the best way to see those is by taking the Summit Loop Trail, whose trailhead is near the main parking lot (and right next to the smaller parking lot that you have to drive back under Guadalupe Canyon Parkway to reach).

Near the Summit Loop trailhead.

Near the Summit Loop trailhead.

The trail isn’t uninterrupted scenery. There are radio towers and ugly maintenance buildings near the top. Many San Franciscans, however, rarely or never see sweeping views of the southern part of the city (as you see when you look to the north), or the neighborhoods just south of the city (as you see when you look to the south).

Southern San Francisco neighborhoods, as seen from San Bruno Mountain. You can just about see the tops of a couple spans of the Golden Gate Bridge on the far left.

Southern San Francisco neighborhoods, as seen from San Bruno Mountain. You can just about see the tops of a couple spans of the Golden Gate Bridge on the far left.

The towns you see on the south—South San Francisco (a separate town from San Francisco itself), Colma, and Daly City—get relatively little attention from tourists, the media, or most San Franciscans. With their industrial parks, cemeteries, and modest-income (by San Francisco’s inflated standards) homes, they’re decidedly unglamorous in comparison with the Bay Area’s gaudier attractions. They are towns that San Franciscans drive through, but rarely visit. They are, however, part of the San Francisco Bay Area, and deserve some appreciation, even if it’s from the top of a mountainside.

View of Lake Merced from the Summit Loop trail, with a hillside settlement on the right.

View of Lake Merced from the Summit Loop trail, with a hillside settlement on the right.

The trail itself is fairly pretty, if not world-class stunning. They’re also fairly empty—I only saw about a dozen people on my second visit (on a Monday morning), and not many more on my first, although that was on a Sunday. This season’s El Niño hasn’t dumped nearly as much rain on the area as the drought-stricken region has hoped, but there’s at least been more rain this year than in some other recent dry ones. That means the vegetation’s fairly lush, and that warmer-than-average temperatures in the mid-winter, as bad a sign as they are of more global warming, make for good hiking weather.

Lush life on the Summit Loop trail.

Lush life on the Summit Loop trail.

Theoretically the park should be bikable from San Francisco, and in fact I’ve seen a good number of bikes on Guadalupe Canyon Parkway on my two visits. It’s disappointingly unbike-friendly, however, if you want to bike to the main entrance and walk a trail. I like to think of myself as a pretty hardy middle-aged rider, but wouldn’t look forward to biking up long, steep Guadalupe Canyon Parkway in the absence of wide bike lanes most of the way. More surprisingly, there’s barely anything in the way of bike racks at the entrance, at least that I could see. There’s a green post in the grass near the bathrooms whose circular railings could lock up a couple bikes in a pinch, but nothing else, although most Bay Area parks provide something more in the way of places to lock your bike.

Picnic area near the park entrance.

Picnic area near the park entrance.

Basic information about visiting is at the San Bruno Mountain State and County Park website. Directions aren’t too straightforward no matter where you’re coming from; taking the Brisbane exit off 101 is about the easiest. If you’re driving, note that there’s a $6 vehicle entry fee when you enter the parking lot.

HIkers near the bottom of the Summit Loop trail.

HIkers near the bottom of the Summit Loop trail.

Part-Time MVP Contenders, Past and Present

For a few weeks last year, Yoenis Cespedes was being touted as a credible National League MVP candidate. He hadn’t played with the New York Mets much more than a few weeks after getting traded from Detroit at the end of July. But he was in the midst of a ridiculously hot streak, and the rationale was that the Mets wouldn’t be where they were without him. He cooled off some near the end of the season, and so did talk of Yoenis for MVP, Cespedes (who had 17 home runs and a .942 OPS in 57 games) finishing 13th in the voting with 24 points.

Cespedes

It struck me as kind of ridiculous that any player could be considered for MVP on the basis of just a few great weeks, or indeed on less than a whole season. I hoped to post about this at the time, but I didn’t have time at the time, and by the time I had time, the season was over. Spring training for 2016 has just started, however, and now’s the time to blog about it, as belated as it is.

No one’s won an MVP for his work on a team for whom he didn’t play the entire season, and no one’s won an MVP who has missed as much as a third of the year (though some MVPs have missed signficant time, as George Brett did in 1980, when he hit .390 in 117 games). During the brief Cespedes-for-MVP campaign, I became curious as to how many players with similar partial seasons attracted MVP votes. I knew there were some, but a little to my surprise, there were quite a few, and not all from the distant past, when the ever-debatable notions as to what constitutes an MVP weren’t as solidified. There are too many, indeed, to list in a blog like this without going into several thousand words. So this is a survey of some of the more credible or interesting half or partial season would-be MVPs.

Candidates in this category factored into the MVP voting from the very beginning of the award, or any rate its predecessor, the Chalmers Award (only given from 1911 to 1915). In 1911, A’s catcher Ira Thomas finished eighth in the AL MVP voting despite only playing 103 games with 337 plate appearances, and batting a respectable but hardly notable .273 in the dead-ball era. Catchers with modest (and sometimes, as in the case of Al Lopez, even poor) batting stats in general fared much better in the early years of MVP voting than they would in more recent times, perhaps being viewed as team leaders or semi-managers at a time when there were far less coaches. In 1913, A’s catcher Wally Schang finished tenth despite playing just 79 games with 252 plate appearances, and an okay but not-too-threatening batting line.

Ira Thomas, in the days when some baseball cards didn't even have the players' first names.

Ira Thomas, in the days when some baseball cards didn’t even have the players’ first names.

Even putting catchers aside, some of the players getting stray votes in early MVP contests were strange, even indefensibly weird choices — anomalies that occur throughout the history of MVP voting, if less frequently now than then. In 1925, Boston second baseman Doc Gautreau got a couple votes for NL MVP despite playing just 68 games and notching a decidedly unimpressive .676 OPS. (Listed at just five-foot four and 129 pounds, he must have been one of the smallest players of an era.) In the 1930s and early 1940s, a few part-time players with what would now be called “outlier” seasons got down-ballot votes, like A’s catcher Earle Brucker did by batting .374 in 53 games in 1937, and Cardinals reserve outfielder Estel Crabtree did in 1941 by hitting .341 (at the age of 37, after an eight-year absence from the majors) in 198 plate appearances. Senators backup outfielder Dave Harris got five points in 1932 despite just 177 plate appearances, though he did hit well in those, with a .938 OPS.

Estel Crabtree.

As the back of his baseball card made clear, Estel Crabtree spent years in the minors before getting called back up for his breakthrough 1941 season.

The most credible part-time MVP candidates emerged during World War II, when many players were in the military for entire seasons or parts of season, affecting both the quality and predictability of major league ball for a few years. In 1943, the first of the three years in which many players were in the military (though some had entered with increasing numbers in 1941 and 1942), Bill Dickey finished eighth with 85 games and 284 plate appearances. He did have a very good year for the pennant-winning Yankees, hitting .351 at a time when offense was depressed by a less lively ball. (In 1938, fellow Hall of Fame catcher Gabby Hartnett finished tenth in the NL with just a bit more playing time, his cause no doubt helped by managing the pennant-winning Cubs as well.)

In 1944, for the first time, a non-catching half-timer was a serious MVP threat. Detroit Tigers outfielder Dick Wakefield, who’d finished sixth in his 1943 rookie year, finished fifth despite playing just half a season. In that half season, he was spectacular, hitting .355 with power for a 1.040 OPS. Had he played the whole year, there’s little doubt the Tigers would have won the AL pennant instead of finishing just a game behind the St. Louis Browns (who won their only pennant that year). Of course, all times were missing key players in those years, and many would have won significantly more or less games had the war not been raging.

Wakefield

When you look at Wakefield’s record, you’d logically assume he had to miss the second half of the season, almost all players who missed partial years being called up after play had begun. Oddly, he missed the first half of the year and played the second. He was in the Navy, but was discharged when his aviation program was discontinued, though he was called up again at the end of 1944 and missed 1945. Though he looked like he’d be a superstar, Wakefield, like some other players who had great years during the war, didn’t come close to matching his previous stats after 1945, and was just a journeyman after the war.

In 1945, there were strong part-season MVP candidates in each league. Pitcher Hank Borowy was famously sold to the Chicago Cubs for $100,000 after clearing waivers in the American League, despite having a 10-5 record. With the Cubs, he was great, going 11-2 with a 2.13 ERA and basically providing the difference that gave them a slight edge over the Cardinals and put them into (as of this writing, their most recent) World Series. Borowy was sixth in the MVP voting, and although a couple Yankees rookies (Tiny Bonham in 1940 and Whitey Ford in 1950) got a few votes for spectacular debut years in which they had just a dozen starts, there would be just a couple subsequent occasions on which such pitchers would figure strongly in MVP contests.

Borowy

There’s still uncertainty and controversy over how Borowy managed to clear waivers, and why the Yankees let him go. The Yankees claimed he’d become ineffective, though his good (if not quite great) performance with them in 1945 indicates otherwise. It’s been speculated that the Yankees really wanted the $100,000 more than they wanted to get rid of Borowy, and that the other American League clubs didn’t claim him on waivers (necessary to enable his sale to an NL club) because they figured the Yankees would withdraw him from being available if that happened. A la Dick Wakefield, Borowy had just a brief and so-so career in the years after the war ended.

Also in 1945, the Detroit Tigers had one of the most serious half-season MVP candidates in baseball history, though he oddly underperformed in the voting itself. Superstar slugger Hank Greenberg spent most of 1941 and all of 1942-44 in the military, getting out in time to play the second half of 1945 with the Detroit Tigers. In that half year he hit .311 with power at a time when, again, offense was way down because of a less lively ball. Had he doubled his stats, he would have won the Triple Crown. He also hit the game-ending (actually season-ending), come-from-behind grand slam that clinched the pennant for the Tigers in their last game (though they would have been able to play one more game to clinch the pennant had they lost). The Tigers certainly wouldn’t have gone to the World Series (which they won, over Hank Borowy’s Cubs) had Greenberg not returned for the final half of the schedule.

Hank Greenberg crosses the plate after his pennant-winning grand slam in 1945.

Hank Greenberg crosses the plate after his pennant-winning grand slam in 1945.

Yet Greenberg was just 14th in the MVP balloting. #1, deservedly so, was another Tiger, pitcher Hal Newhouser, who won 25 games. It’s strange, though, that average-hitting, not-quite-full-time (83 games) Tiger catcher Paul Richards finished tenth, ahead of Greenberg. Indians shortstop Lou Boudreau was limited to 97 games, but finished eighth. Maybe Greenberg was unpopular with some writers; maybe there were too many other Tigers getting votes; or maybe they figured he’d already won a couple MVPs (in 1935 and 1940). Greenberg probably wasn’t too hurt, as he was able to play for a World Series winner.

“That was the biggest thrill of all,” Greenberg later said of his pennant-winning homer, hit shortly before darkness would have ended the game on a rain-sodden field. “What was going through my mind is that only a few months before I was in India, wondering if the war would ever end. Now I had just hit a pennant-winning grand-slam home run. I wasn’t sure whether I was awake or dreaming.”

Another great slugger of the era had a great half season in a close pennant race a few years later. Joe DiMaggio was out with an injury for the first half of 1949, but came back with a .346 average, 14 homers, 67 RBI, and a 1.055 in the second half. The Yankees beat the Red Sox by just a game, and certainly wouldn’t have gone to the World Series if DiMaggio had played significantly less than what he managed. Of course, had DiMag not been injured for such a long time, likely the pennant race wouldn’t have been as close as it was. But even if you doubled Joe’s stats, they wouldn’t have matched those of the MVP and Triple Crown winner Ted Williams. DiMaggio finished only twelfth in the voting, behind four of his own teammates.

A few years later, Williams became the only position player to get an MVP vote with less than 100 at-bats. Serving in Korea for much of 1953, he was able to play in 37 games near the end of the year, and had the best season — easily — of any player in history with less than 100 AB, hitting .407 with 13 homers and 34 RBI in 91 at-bats for an astronomical 1.410 OPS. The greatest month in history can’t win you an MVP award if you don’t play much of the rest of the year, though, and he just got one point, perhaps from a sympathetic journalist who recognized Ted’s sacrifice in going into the military for a second stint (he’d also served in 1943-45). Less well known is that in the previous year, Monte Irvin got five points despite only getting 126 at-bats due to a broken leg, again perhaps from a journalist who sympathized with a bad break.

TedWilliams

In 1955, Williams became the first position player missing more than a third of his team’s games to place in the top five vote-getters for the MVP award. Playing 98 games, he finished fourth. It was a testament to how good he was in those games — he hit .356 with a 1.200 OPS. He didn’t play the whole year as he didn’t sign a contract until May 13, and didn’t play his first game until May 28. He’d briefly retired, though according to the Society for American Baseball Research’s online Williams bio, “it seemed as though retirement was a strategic move in a divorce.” Finishing fifth, right behind Williams, in the MVP voting was Mickey Mantle, who really should have won that year, as he played 147 games and easily had the best WAR (wins above replacement) mark in the league at 9.5 (Williams had 6.9).

Ballot placings by part-timers became more infrequent in the next three decades, though there were still oddities like votes for spare outfielders/pinch-hitters Dusty Rhodes and Jerry Lynch, and 16 points for Wes Covington when he had a fine 90-game season (.330, 24 home runs) in 1958. Although he managed to play exactly two-thirds of the 162-game schedule, mention should be made of Elston Howard’s seven points in 1967, when he began the year with the Yankees before joining the Red Sox. Howard, a fine player for many seasons, was terrible at the plate that year, hitting .178 with a .478 OPS. The vote was probably in the recognition of stability he brought to the pennant-winning Red Sox’s catching position and his veteran leadership, but that kind of hitting really shouldn’t be recognized in MVP balloting under any circumstances. And he was even worse with the Sox than the Yanks, hitting .147 in 116 at-bats (and getting just two hits, both singles, in 18 World Series at-bats, though post-season performances aren’t considered as part of the MVP voting).

1968 Elston Howard (f)

In 1984, Rick Sutcliffe became the only starting pitcher to both seriously contend for an MVP award and not even qualify for the ERA title. After coming over from the Cleveland Indians (where he was 4-5 with a 5.15 ERA), Sutcliffe was sensational in 20 starts for the Cubs, where he was 16-1. That put him at a quite respectable fourth place (and 151 points) in the MVP contest, though teammate Ryne Sandberg won the award. Sutcliffe did win the NL Cy Young, and remains the only Cy Young winner who split the year between two different leagues.

Sutcliffe

Just three years later, Doyle Alexander finished 13th in the American League MVP voting on the basis of going 9-0 with the Detroit Tigers after coming over from the Atlanta Braves (where he was mediocre, with a 5-10 record and 4.13 ERA). As great as his eleven starts (with a 1.53 ERA) with the Tigers were, they probably weren’t enough to justify any MVP votes, or Cy Young votes, though he did even better there, finishing fourth. It wouldn’t be the last time a pitcher got some MVP votes for a strong finish after getting traded, Randy Johnson picking up a couple points for his 10-1 charge with the Astros in 1998, and another ace ranking much higher with a similar situation in the twenty-first century (see a few paragraphs down).

Doyle

In 1997, Mark McGwire split his year between the A’s and Cardinals, leading the majors with 58 homers, 24 for the Cardinals in 51 games — which was enough to get him six MVP points, although he got none in the American League, where he’d hit just as well for the A’s in about twice as much playing time. Interleague trades can still result in votes for few games played, Mark Teixeira getting a point for a sizzling third of a season with the Angles in 2008. That was the year not one but two players finished in the top six of the NL voting with portions of full seasons.

The fourth-place player was Manny Ramirez, who had an amazing 53 games with the Dodgers, hitting .396 with 17 homers and a 1.232 OPS. That blaze of glory has since been diminished by PED use revelations. Not far behind him, in sixth place, was C.C. Sabathia, 11-2 with a 1.65 ERA in 17 starts for the Brewers after a so-so 18 starts for the Indians. Unlike Sutcliffe, Sabathia didn’t fare much better in the Cy Young sweepstakes, where he finished fifth. This was less than ten years ago, and while Yoenis Cespedes, to bring us back to where we started, wasn’t quite as phenomenal as Ramirez and Sabathia were over similar part-seasons, they did establish part of the precedent for taking Cespedes seriously as an MVP candidate. So, in a different and lesser way,  was another Ramirez, Hanley Ramirez, who was eighth in the 2013 voting despite playing just more than half (86) of the games for his team, the Dodgers, hitting .345 with 20 homers.

Manny Ramirez in younger, more innocent times in 1992.

Manny Ramirez in younger, more innocent times in 1992.

Is any player worthy of a first-place MVP ballot who plays less than two-thirds of a season for his team, let alone just one-third of a season, as Cespedes did? No, I would contend. But contending teams will continue to land players like Cespedes near the trading deadline, and they’ll continue to get MVP votes if they get hot at the right time.

Dave Dexter, The Beatles, and Capitol Records

Dave Dexter is not the most popular figure in Beatles lore. He’s most notorious for adding reverb to some of their early recordings for their US releases on Capitol Records—mixes that can be heard on the CDs The Capitol Albums, Vol. 1 and The Capitol Albums, Vol. 2. He’s also infamous for rejecting the Beatles’ first four singles for American release, before Capitol finally issued “I Want to Hold Your Hand” at the end of 1963 to launch Beatlemania in the US.

Dave Dexter.

Dave Dexter.

Remembering the first time he heard the Beatles in a 1988 interview with Chuck Haddix, Dexter groused, “When I heard Lennon playing the harmonica on this record, I thought it was the worst thing I’d ever heard. So I nixed it. I didn’t want any part of the Beatles.” (Probably the record was “Love Me Do,” though Dexter could not remember the title in this conversation.) In a mid-1980s interview for the radio documentary From Britain With Love, he elaborated, “I didn’t care for it at all because of the harmonica sound. I didn’t care for the harmonica because I had grown up listening to the old blues records and blues harmonica players, and I simply didn’t…I nixed the record instantly.”

As Mark Lewisohn wrote in the extended edition of The Beatles Tune In:

“The fact Vee Jay was having a huge hit with a harmonica record Dex had nixed a couple of months earlier [Frank Ifield’s “I Remember You”] prompted no circumspection, and neither did the success Capitol was having with another self-contained vocal-instrumental group, the Beach Boys. Dexter had no love for the British and a neat way of showing it. Though he rejected the Beatles, the Shadows, Cliff Richard, Adam Faith, Helen Shapiro and Matt Monro, he did issue ‘Bobbikins,’ a piano instrumental by Mrs. Mills. Gladys Mills was that most British of discoveries, an ample, 43-year-old, heavy-wattled housewife who chopped out party singalong numbers on a saloon-bar-like piano. After finding sudden TV fame late in 1961, she was signed to Parlophone by Norman Newell, but while her debut single was a hit, the follow-ups weren’t—and it was one of these failures that Dex decided America needed.”

Mrs. Mills, one of the British artists who was issued on Capitol Records at a time when the Beatles' early British hits were being rejected by the label for American release.

Mrs. Mills, one of the British artists who was issued on Capitol Records at a time when the Beatles’ early British hits were being rejected by the label for American release.

Not much has been written about Dexter and the Beatles (though it’s likely Lewisohn will have more to say about the matter in the next volume of his mammoth Beatles biography, Tune In only covering their history through the end of 1962). While researching something else, I stumbled across a section of the website of the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s library that features some little-known memos from Dexter’s time at Capitol. These don’t exactly exonerate the executive’s handling of the Beatles, but do offer a more fully rounded picture of how he dealt with British product at the time the British Invasion was gaining steam.

There probably wasn’t much if any internal discussion about Dexter’s rejection of the early Beatles discs, or other early British rock records, before 1964. The Beatles’ second, third, and fourth UK singles—all British chart-toppers, with “She Loves You” becoming one of the biggest sellers ever in that country—were issued in the US by either Vee Jay or Swan after Capitol passed, and sold little. Very few British rock records of any kind had been hits on the US charts.

That changed instantly with “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” which was a massive American hit as soon as it was issued by Capitol on December 26, 1963. In his interview with Chuck Haddix (available as a sound file on the University of Missouri-Kansas City site), interestingly, Dexter remembers being played the song in September or October (he gives the year as 1962, an obvious mistake) by an A& R man on a visit to England. Probably knowing Dexter’s resistance to the Beatles, the A&R guy (Tony Palmer) played him the track without telling him who it was. “Boy, I heard about four bars of that and grabbed it,” he says, though A) it didn’t take golden ears to tell it had enormous sales potential, and B) other sources, to my knowledge, have never pinpointed Dexter as the guy who made the decision to release this in the US, or lobbied for its release there by Capitol.

Dexter does not improve his credibility by remembering the incident somewhat differently in his obscure 1976 autobiography Playback. There he remembers Palmer telling him the single was a Beatles record before playing it. That’s a minor detail, but Dexter also writes that he told Palmer, “Capitol will take full page ads in the three major trade papers, and we will send special pressings and biog sheets to all the important radio stations. We’ll go all out.” According to the Los Angeles Times obituary for Alan Livingston, however, the key impetus  behind “I Want to Hold Your Hand” gaining Capitol’s support was a personal call from to Livingston from Brian Epstein. The issue of who exactly was the big cheese behind deciding Capitol would not only release “I Want to Hold Your Hand” but promote it heavily remains unclear, to the point of wondering whether several people at the label scrambled to take credit after Beatlemania took off in the US.

The biggest of the British hit singles Capitol did not release for the American market.

The biggest of the British hit singles Capitol did not release for the American market.

A February 20, 1964  memo from Dexter to Alan Livingston (the guy usually credited with approving “I Want to Hold Your Hand” for US release) indicates the heat was on for Dave to both examine British rock product more carefully, and justify why he’d passed on acts other than the Beatles who were now beginning to make American waves. “Billy Kramer and the Dakotas and Gerry and the Pacemakers were offered to Capitol nearly a year ago along with numerous other rock combos, solo singers, vocal groups, orchestras, comedy acts and other EMI artists,” Dexter writes. “I waived on both of them because neither had a particularly unique sound. Subsequently, they became big hits in England but the American labels who put them out here sold nothing.” Both groups would, of course, have big US hits over the next couple of years as the British Invasion became huge and labels issued or reissued their UK hits from 1963, some of which (like the Beatles’ 1963 singles) became belated American chart singles.

One wonders whether Dexter even knew that both Kramer and the Pacemakers were managed by Brian Epstein. Or that Kramer’s early hits were written by John Lennon and Paul McCartney—the same duo, it’s barely worth repeating, who penned the Beatles records that were now selling in enormous quantities for Capitol. Both factors in themselves would have made them worth adding to Capitol’s roster, both to ingratiate the label with Epstein and to get some hits with (admittedly secondary) additional Lennon-McCartney songs. If Dexter knew all this by February 20, maybe he was playing dumb in case that knowledge got him in even deeper hot water.

Had Capitol not rejected Billy J. Kramer's early hits, it would have been able to issue otherwise unavailable Lennon-McCartney songs like these in the US.

Had Capitol not rejected Billy J. Kramer’s early hits, it would have been able to issue otherwise unavailable Lennon-McCartney songs like these in the US.

Interestingly, in the next paragraph Dexter offers: “Freddie & the Dreamers, in my opinion, have a most attractive rock sound and might make it big over here, although the first record we issued sold hardly any copies. Freddie’s second record comes out next week on Capitol.” The Dreamers would indeed have a couple hits for Capitol’s Tower subsidiary—though not until early-to-mid-1965, and then with singles (“I’m Telling You Now” and “You Were Made for Me”) that had already been big British hits in mid-to-late 1963. Was Dexter trying to cover his tracks by snapping up another early British Invasion band while there was still time?

In the next paragraph, Dexter is more dismissive about the prospects of the Swinging Blue Jeans (who’d have some moderate US success in 1964) and the Fourmost (an Epstein-managed act, again with some Lennon-McCartney castoffs that had been British hits, that never charted in the US). “In my opinion, Capitol can handle only a small percentage of these groups,” he states. And Capitol would not put out records by the Swinging Blue Jeans, though it put out a few (including a cover of the Beatles’ “Here, There, and Everywhere”) a few years later by the Fourmost.

In the following paragraph, his judgments get more interesting. He reveals that he has passed on Manfred Mann’s first record. Remember, this is more than six months before they’d have their first US hit (the #1 single “Do Wah Diddy Diddy”), though they’d just landed their first big British hit that month with “5-4-3-2-1.” “Because the record sounded like something that had been made by Chess in 1951, I promptly cabled Tony Palmer to go ahead and place it elsewhere,” Dexter writes.

It would be useful to know if the “first record” he heard by Manfred Mann was indeed their first UK single (“Why Should We Not”/ “Brother Jack,” which were rather tame blues-jazzy instrumentals) or their second single (“Cock-a-Hoop,” an R&B number with Paul Jones on vocals). If it was “Why Should We Not”/“Brother Jack,” Dexter’s judgment actually seems sound, and his comparison of it as “something that had been made by Chess in 1951” fairly if not quite dead-on accurate. If it was one of the Jones vocal numbers, his assessment was a misfire, especially if “5-4-3-2-1” was already proving its worth by climbing the British charts. Manfred Mann’s US rights would get snapped up by a branch of United Artists, Ascot.

Some of the early Manfred Mann tracks that Dave Dexter passed on were on this EP.

Some of the early Manfred Mann tracks that Dave Dexter passed on were on this EP.

In the final part of the memo, Dexter further justifies his positions: “Alan, I make errors in judgment as does everyone else, but when you consider the enormous amount of singles and albums sent to my desk every month from not only English Parlophone, Columbia and HMV, but France, Germany Italy, Japan, Austria, Australia, the Scandinavian countries and several other places, I am frankly amazed that we do not miss out on more hits as the months and years go by.” He also notes, “Last week in England, there was quite a hypo in the trade on a new type of music with Jamaican influences called ‘the Blue Beat.’ I have already cabled for two sides and hope to be the first in North America to issue this new music, which is a sort of hybrid combination of rock with calypso.”

That’s a fairly accurate, if imperfect, capsule description of Blue Beat, better known as ska. Like his reference to Chess Records in 1951, this indicates that Dexter wasn’t wholly unhip, and did have some knowledge of trends and styles in the rock and pop world. But the one sort-of-bluebeat single to become a big hit in the US, Millie Small’s “My Boy Lollipop,” would be on Fontana, not Capitol.

As 1964 went on, scattered memos indicate Capitol was taking a closer look at the procedure by which British recordings were accepted or rejected, also taking steps to get other people involved besides Dexter. On September 21, Livingston wrote Dexter, “I would like a review of current activity, in particular our success of Cila [sic] Black and Peter and Gordon, and any recent misses that we may have had. I am thinking specifically of the Animals and if I understand the situation correctly, we turned down a master which was subsequently unsuccessful. As a result of turning down this master, however, under our agreement we lost future rights to the artist and therefore did not have a chance to take the successful Animals record now on the charts [“House of the Rising Sun,” then at #1]. I would like your confirmation or any further explanation of this.”

In response, Dexter sent a quite detailed report on October 1 noting (with sales figures) how poorly most British singles issued by Capitol had done in the American market (especially before 1964), even when they were hits in the UK or by big British stars like Cliff Richard and Johnny Kidd. In a quite frank sentence, Dexter explains: “By paying a few pennies bonus to every record shop sales girl in thousands of stores throughout the 50 states, Capitol pushed [Helen Shapiro’s] third single up to nearly 19,000 but it was a phony ‘hype’ and as Epic proved a couple years later, the girl simply did not have the sound for success in the American market.”

Helen Shapiro had several big hits in her native UK in the early 1960s, but none in the US.

Helen Shapiro had several big hits in her native UK in the early 1960s, but none in the US.

At one point Dave makes a quite interesting claim: “Today it is obvious that Capitol never would have reacquired the Beatles had I not been in London last August, nor would Capitol have gotten Frank Ifield, who although dormant today, sold a lot of singles and albums for us in a brief period of time.” This is not the usual way the story of Capitol’s decision to issue Beatles product has been portrayed. If Dexter was in London in August 1963, he wouldn’t have been able to hear “I Want to Hold Your Hand”—the song he remembered in his interview with Chuck Haddix as grabbing his attention—which hadn’t been recorded yet. Maybe he’s simply misremembering the month (albeit only a year after his visit), but he also fails to mention that although Frank Ifield did have lot-charting singles for Capitol in late 1963, the label had missed out on his big US hit, “I Remember You,” which had gone to Vee Jay in 1962.

A little farther down, there’s more info that indicates that Dexter either didn’t remember exactly when he’d been in England, or that his role in the Beatles hooking up with Capitol is greater than is usually acknowledged. “In the summer of 1963, Vee Jay went bankrupt and Swan acquired the rights to the third American Beatles single [“She Loves You”]. Apparently, it sold fewer than 1,000 copies and Swan had no further interest in the group. By the time I returned from England in August of 1963, it was apparent that the Beatles were the hottest thing England had ever encountered and when I learned that Swan had waived on the group, I then somewhat hysterically started urging Livingston, [Capitol producer Voyle] Gilmore and Dunn to exert every possible pressure on EMI and Epstein. Mainly, promises of a promotional campaign,” he asserts.

There are a few odd aspects to this passage. Dexter writes this to give the impression that Swan had sold fewer than 1,000 copies of “She Loves You” and waived on the group around the time he returned from England in August of 1963 – though “She Loves You” wasn’t issued by Swan until September 16, 1963 (and not even by Parlophone in the UK until August 23). Just about every account I’ve come across has it that EMI and Epstein were pushing Capitol to release and promote Beatles records (and “I Want to Hold Your Hand” specifically), not the other way around.

Dexter goes on to admit he goofed by passing on Herman’s Hermits “I’m Into Something Good”; says he has “high hopes” for the Cherokees and “the committee feels that the Cresters and Shirley & Johnny have strong possibilities” (none of these acts would make the US charts); and though he liked the Zephyrs, “their artist royalty was more than Capitol cares to pay.” As for the Animals, he writes, incorrectly, that “House of the Rising Sun” was their third UK 45 (it was their second), adding that “House of the Rising Sun” was never submitted to Capitol “because we have waived on the group on March 27, 1964.”

He also claims that the Animals single they rejected, their debut disc “Baby Let Me Take You Home,” “did not sell any place in the world.” This was not true. It made #21 in the UK, a quite respectable showing for a debut at one of the most competitive junctures in British rock history. It seems like Dexter was trying to cover his Animals tracks here.

Animals

Then on to Manfred Mann, Dexter confirming that he rejected both of their first two singles, “Brother Jack” and “Cock-a-Hoop” (though it’s still not clear which of these reminded him of a 1951 Chess Records disc). Their third 45, “5-4-3-2-1,” was offered to him too, but he writes that it was already placed elsewhere by the time he was sent a sample. “The record was not very big in the U.S.A. but his succeeding records have been extremely successful,” he understates—at the time of the memo, “Do Wah Diddy Diddy” was making a beeline for #1 in America.

As for Gerry & the Pacemakers: “I have no excuses here. I did not think the sound of the group was extraordinary and I still believe that out of the hundreds and hundreds of samples submitted featuring various combos, that Gerry is nothing special. I missed!” On the Swinging Blue Jeans: “I missed on this group. They sounded like 983 other combos and they have enjoyed fair if not memorable success on a competitive American label.” For Billy J. Kramer and the Dave Clark Five, however, “I refuse to be the goat,” Dexter feeling he was pressured into making immediate decisions by Transglobal (a company licensing product to US labels) before he could give their product a fair hearing.

More justification follows in the form of a paragraph noting many flop acts Dexter passed on. And indeed, even today many British Invasion experts would be hard-pressed to recognize most of the names, though Georgie Fame would have a couple big US hits (and more in his native UK); Chris Farlowe had a British #1 in 1966 with the Rolling Stones’ “Out of Time”; R&B primitives the Downliners Sect have a cult following; and Sounds Incorporated got to tour with the Beatles. A longer list at the end of the memo includes a few other cool names who’d eventually have hits somewhere (but not the US) and/or have their own cult followings: Duffy Power, the Paramounts (who evolved into Procol Harum), ska star Laurel Aitken, and Julie Driscoll.

Dexter passed on Georgie Fame, leaving the path clear for Imperial to have a US hit with Fame's UK chart-topper "Yeh Yeh."

Dexter passed on Georgie Fame, leaving the path clear for Imperial to have a US hit with Fame’s UK chart-topper “Yeh Yeh.”

Dave also gripes about Capitol’s under-promotion of foreign acts in general: “Our exploitation of Cliff Richard was nil, although he was selling as many records during the Presley hysteria as Presley himself everywhere but the U.S.A. I am convinced we could have made Freddie and the Dreamers bigger than the Animals, Manfred Mann or Dave Clark, but we spent not a penny in his behalf.” (This was before Freddie & the Dreamers’ belated Stateside breakthrough in early 1965 with “I’m Telling You Now.”)

Freddie & the Dreamers would not become bigger than the Dave Clark Five, Animals, or Manfred Mann, though Capitol did issue a couple of their hits.

Freddie & the Dreamers would not become bigger than the Dave Clark Five, Animals, or Manfred Mann, though Capitol did issue a couple of their hits.

It must have been a strange, unsettling time for Dexter. Capitol, largely on the backs of the Beatles, was more prosperous than it could have possibly imagined in late 1963, especially considering it also had the Beach Boys and some other hit acts. At the same time, the label must have been beating itself up for allowing the first year or so of Beatles product to go to other US labels (though they’d get the rights to those early tracks by early 1965), and also for allowing other British Invasion acts on EMI UK to go to other American companies.

Dexter might have made an easy fall guy for this, though ultimately his judgment, to be charitable, was far from flawless. Out of the blue, seemingly, he was being inundated with music that no one in the US was paying any attention to before 1964. He was also getting called to account for the many decisions he had made and had to make about a style with which he was (again, like everyone else in the US) probably virtually wholly unfamiliar. As Dave wrote in the last sentence of his October 1, 1964 report: “The record business is a hell of a lot different than it was even a short year ago.”

Sadly, the link to memos dated April 8-June 14, 1965 titled “Turning Down Herman’s Hermits & Livingston’s Push That Capitol ‘Should Not Be Asked To Give Up An Artist Until They Have Had A Success Or Failure In England’” gets a “page not found” message on the University of Missouri-Kansas City Libraries site. A final brief memo from Alan Livingston to Dexter from August 31, 1965 indicates the Beatles wanted to exert more control over their Capitol releases, reading: “”In a meeting with Brian Epstein yesterday, he expressed the very strong hope that we would consider using the same art work for our Beatle album covers as England uses. Please let me know if this is possible, and if so, what the complications, if any, might be.”

The mixes used on early Capitol Beatles LPs were eventually issued on CD.

The mixes used on early Capitol Beatles LPs were eventually issued on CD.

By this time, Dexter might have had his fill of the Beatles, and not just because he was pretty much being called on the carpet for his decisions about them and other British Invaders. The bad feelings lingered for a long time. In a Billboard story about a couple weeks after John Lennon’s death, he wrote that Lennon and McCartney had called him from Miami on their first US visit “to praise the ‘fabulous’ sound Capitol’s engineers had achieved on American releases,” but that John subsequently “advised Capitol’s management that he didn’t care for the album covers Capitol was devising. Lennon didn’t like the back covers, either. Nor did he approve the sounds of the Beatles tapes issued by Capitol, an abrupt 180-degree turnaround from his previous praise of Capitol’s eq and reverb adjustments.”

Virtually all Beatles authorities, and probably most of their fans, feel that the artwork on Capitol’s Beatles LPs prior to Rubber Soul (at which point their covers started to be the same in the UK and US) was inferior to the designs on their UK covers. When it became widely known that Capitol was slicing and dicing UK releases to make more (and shorter) LPs for the US market, those decisions were rightly criticized as well. Even if some listeners didn’t mind the alterations for the US market, it’s undeniable that the releases were being packaged both without the Beatles’ approval and in a manner at odds with what they wanted. Dexter, perhaps unsurprisingly, sees things his way in his Playback memoir.

“With the dominance of the Beatles came a marked change of attitude on the part of Manager Epstein and his foursome,” he fumes. “No longer could I work felicitously with Marvin Schwartz in designing front and back album covers, choosing the photographs and annotation we thought best. Nor did the bedeviled Epstein allow me a choice of masters to be programmed into album form. Each single, each album, was made to specifications conceived by the Beatles’ organization in London. Artwork was mailed to the Capitol Tower from [EMI’s headquarters in] Manchester Square. So were the back cover editorial notes. None, I think, was an improvement over what we in California had been doing.”

As an aside, Dexter claims in Playback that George Martin told him there would be no soundtrack LP for Help! “because the boys won’t be featuring sufficient songs to fill an LP.” This, in Dexter’s view, forced him to cobble together the US Help! album from seven songs (the ones actually featured in the film) and the quite disposable non-Beatles instrumental music that filled out the American release. That’s a very odd recollection indeed, as the Beatles were writing and working in the studio at their usual industrious pace in early-to-mid-1965, coming up with a full fourteen tracks for the British Help! LP, released at about the same time as its American counterpart. It’s usually assumed the US version of Help! had just seven actual Beatles songs so the leftovers from the UK release (including the American #1 single “Yesterday”) could be parceled out on subsequent Capitol 45s and LPs, in keeping with the label’s usual strategy of spreading product out over more releases to maximize profits. What reason would there have been to keep Capitol’s staff in the dark about what tracks were completed?

(One reason less songs were available to Dexter, by the way, was that Capitol, in its eagerness to rush out as many LPs as possible, used three songs from the UK version of Help! on Beatles VI, released in June 1965 just two months before the US Help! soundtrack. On Beatles VI Capitol also used up another track recorded during the Help! sessions, “Bad Boy” (not issued in the UK until late 1966), as well as “Yes It Is,” the B-side to a song featured on the Help! soundtrack, “Ticket to Ride.” In fact both “Dizzy Miss Lizzie” (used on Beatles VI in the US and Help! in the UK) and “Bad Boy” were specifically recorded for the American market to help fill out Beatles VI so a US LP could be issued prior to the American version of Help! Presumably Beatles VI was compiled by Dexter himself, though he seems oblivious to this as a possible factor for the shortage of material to work from for the Help! soundtrack.)

Cover of the US Help! LP, begrudgingly assembled by Dave Dexter.

Cover of the US Help! LP, begrudgingly assembled by Dave Dexter.

The Beatles’ worst offense to Dexter, however, took place at a party Alan Livingston gave for the Beatles in 1964. Children of Livingston’s Beverly Hills neighbors, Dexter wrote in the Billboard piece, shouted “for the Beatles to come to the window and be seen. I asked Lennon, who was standing nearest the window facing the children, to move over a few feet and yell a ‘hello.’ ‘Why those bloody little bastards,’ Lennon replied, ‘they try to interfere with us constantly, try to deprive us of our privacy. We’ve had it with ‘em, mate.’ It was an unthinkably rude response. But Ringo and Paul obliged the children.” So unpopular was Dexter’s ill-timed article that Billboard that an editorial in the next issue ended, “We profoundly regret that some readers found it objectionable. We had no such intent and we apologize to those who were offended. Nobody’s perfect—not even Billboard.”

“They got so big-headed,” complained Dexter in his interview with Chuck Haddix. “They were so thrilled with the first few records and the first couple of albums we issued, and they called and thanked me. This was way back when…right after we got ‘em. And they thought that our sound was better on Capitol than on Parlophone.

“A couple years later, why, they went around complaining that Capitol’s sound wasn’t nearly as good as the British sound. And that was printed in all the music publications and…I don’t even like to talk about the Beatles. To me, it was just an unhappy…” he trails off.

220px-BeatlesCapitolAlbumsVol2albumcover