Paul McCartney: The Lyrics is a very good book. It’s much better than I expected, since most books of rock lyrics just print the lyrics with some illustrations of no great consequence. This two-volume, expensive-but-worth-it production has a lot of text featuring detailed recollections from McCartney himself about his songs. It also has a lot of illustrations, but they’re pretty interesting and often rare or previously unpublished. A full reprint of my review of the book from my previous post of my favorite rock books of 2021 is at the end of this post.
This post, however, is not another review of Paul McCartney: The Lyrics. It’s sort of a fact-check on some of its text. It’s a good book, but it’s not perfect.
To quote from my review: “There are a few, if not many, factual mistakes that I’m surprised made it through the editing process…There are many, many Beatles fans besides myself who could have spotted such errors, and the essence and primary points of the stories could have been retained if they’d been fixed. Was it unimportant to McCartney and the publisher to make the relatively modest effort necessary to catch those?”
It doesn’t surprise me that Paul misremembers some incidents, and particularly gets some order of what happened when wrong. Some of these things happened fifty to sixty years ago. What does surprise me is that the publisher—a big one, with a very prestigious project—apparently didn’t care enough to do the kind of fact-checking that might be considered routine if this was a book on a major political figure or movement, rather than a mere celebrity musician who did more to change the world than most politicians.
So no, they didn’t ask me or, it seems, others who could have caught mistakes to go over the text. Not that I’m so special; there are probably thousands of fans who could have done so, and will while they’re reading the book. But here are ones I caught, if anyone’s interested in treating these as sort of corrective footnotes.
On page 64: Remembering recording “Can’t Buy Me Love” in Paris in January 1964, Paul muses, “The irony here is that just before Paris, we’d been in Florida where, if not love, money certainly could buy you a lot of what you wanted.”
To those not steeped in the history of Beatles recording sessions, it might seem like the mistake is that the hit was recorded in Paris, not London, where they cut almost all of their records. However, “Can’t Buy Me Love” was indeed recorded in Paris on January 29, 1964, while the Beatles were playing shows in the city for almost three weeks.
The error is the first of several chronological ones in the book that might seem trivial to plenty of people, but are certainly mistakes. The Beatles hadn’t been in Florida before this session. In fact, only George Harrison had been to the United States, and he didn’t go to Florida during his trip there (mostly to see his sister in the Midwest) in late 1963.
The Beatles did go to Miami in mid-February 1964, only a couple weeks after recording “Can’t Buy Me Love,” for a short vacation after their famous initial American appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show and concerts in Washington, DC and New York’s Carnegie Hall. They also performed the last of their three Sullivan spots this month in Miami.
It’s odd that McCartney switches the order of events that did happen very close to each other, but where one (their first US visit) was much more famous and important to the group’s career than the other (their visit to Paris). There might be literally millions of Beatles fans who’d spot this switcheroo, which just shows that followers of celebrities often know more about such details than the stars who actually experienced them.
On page 91: “My favorite electric guitar is my Epiphone Casino. I went into the guitar shop in Charing Cross Road in London and said to the guy, ‘Have you got a guitar that will feedback, because I’m loving what Jimi Hendrix is doing.’ I’m a big admirer of Jimi. I was so lucky to see him at one of his early gigs in London and it was just like the sky had burst…
“The guitar shop staff said, ‘This is probably the one that will feedback best, because it has a hollow body and they produce more volume than a solid body guitar.’ So I took it to the studio, and it had a Bigsby vibrato arm on it, so you could play with the feedback and control it, and it was perfect for that. It was a really good little guitar, a hot little guitar. So that became my favorite electric guitar, and I used it on the intro riff to ‘Paperback Writer’ and the solo in George’s song ‘Taxman,’ as well as quite a number of other pieces through the years. I still play it today. That Epiphone Casino has been a constant companion throughout my life.”
Cool, but McCartney wouldn’t have seen Hendrix until late September 1966 at the earliest, which is when Jimi moved from New York to London. Hendrix did some gigs right away before the Experience formed, but my guess is Paul didn’t see him until at least a little later than September. “Paperback Writer,” however, was recorded quite a bit earlier, on April 13 and 14, 1966, during the Revolver sessions. “Taxman” was recorded about a week later. Either he wouldn’t have seen (and almost certainly not heard of) Hendrix before he used that Epiphone Casino on those songs, or maybe there were later recordings where he used it with a Hendrix feel in mind.
Although it’s not a mistake, it’s interesting that Paul refers to using this “on the intro riff to ‘Paperback Writer.’” That seems to mean that McCartney, and not George Harrison, plays lead guitar on at least part of the song. (In late 2022, the notes to the superdeluxe edition of Revolver clarified that Paul “used an Epiphone Casino hollow-body electric guitar for the propulsive riffs of ‘Paperback Writer.'” Harrison, according to the notes, “doubled the guitar riffs that follow each of the choruses.”)
According to Andy Babiuk’s quite thorough and authoritative Beatles Gear (as well as the Revolver superdeluxe liner notes), Mcartney actually bought an Epiphone Casino guitar around December 1964, almost two years before Hendrix became known in London. Paul’s account from a July 1990 issue of Guitar Player might well be the more accurate one of how he was inspired to get the instrument, noting that British blues-rock great John Mayall “used to play me a lot of records late at night. He was a kind of DJ type guy. You’d go back to his place and he’d sit you down, give you a drink, and say just check this out. He’d go over to his deck, and for hours he’d blast you with B.B. King, Eric Clapton…he was sort of showing me where all of Eric’s stuff was from. He gave me a little evening’s education in that. I was turned on after that, and I went and bought an Epiphone.”
Page 105: “I’d say to the other guys, ‘Let’s use a library sound of an audience laughing when “the one and only Billy Shears” is introduced to sing “With a Little Help from My Friends”’.” This is fairly minor, but the sound of an audience laughing is heard after the first verse of the title track from Sgt. Pepper, much earlier in the song. Audience noise is heard at various points throughout the “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” track, but after the line referring to Billy Shears near the end, it’s more general chatter and screaming, not laughter. Of course to be picky, maybe Paul originally suggested laughter here, but they ended up using different audience noise instead.
p. 179: A caption states “For No One” “was written in the Austrian Alps during the filming of Help! March 1965.” While this isn’t demonstrably untrue, the Beatles hadn’t even finished recording the Help! album at that point. It seems very unlikely they would have waited until Revolver to record it in 1966, not putting it on either Help! or the album they recorded in late 1965 between the two, Rubber Soul. Maybe Paul started writing it in March 1965 and it took a long time to complete, but that’s not what the caption or any other source states.
He seems to have mixed up his skiing trips, as according to Barry Miles’s 1997 book Paul McCartney: Many Years from Now, written with extensive input from McCartney, the song “was written in March 1966 when Paul and Jane were on their skiing holiday in Klosters, Switzerland.” In the same book McCartney confirms, “It was very nice and I remember writing ‘For No One’ there.”
Page 185: Discussing “From Me to You,” according to Paul, “We were on tour with Roy Orbison at the time we wrote this. We were all on the same tour bus, and it would stop somewhere so that people could go for a cup of tea and a meal, and John and I would have a cup of tea and then go back to the bus and write something. It was a special image to me, at 21, to be walking down the aisle of the bus and there on the back seat of the bus is Roy Orbison, in black with his dark glasses, working on his guitar, writing ‘Pretty Woman.’ There was a camaraderie, and we were inspiring each other, which is always a lovely thing. He played the music for us, and we said, ‘That’s a good one, Roy. Great.’ And then we’d say, ‘Well, listen to this one,’ and we’d play him ‘From Me to You.’ That was kind of a historic moment, as it turned out.”
Great, but the tour with Orbison took place in the UK between May 18 and June 9 of 1963. The Beatles recorded “From Me to You” on March 5, 1963, more than two months before the start of the tour. It’s back to Paul McCartney: Many Years from Now for a firmer date, as Barry Miles writes the song was composed “on 28 February 1963 in the tour bus traveling from York to Shrewsbury on the Helen Shapiro tour,” the Beatles’ first tour of the UK.
Certainly it’s quite possible Lennon and McCartney played Orbison songs they were writing during that subsequent tour. They could well have played him “From Me to You,” considering it was not only already written and recorded, but also that it was #1 on the British charts the whole tour, and the Beatles were playing it in concert every night. When Paul discusses “From Me to You” in Many Years from Now, he adds, “After that [italics mine], on another tour bus with Roy Orbison, we saw Roy sitting in the back of the bus, writing ‘Pretty Woman.’” McCartney seems to have conflated writing “From Me to You” on one tour and seeing Orbison writing “Pretty Woman” on another tour a few months later.
Orbison, by the way, didn’t record “Oh, Pretty Woman” until August 1, 1964. It seems unlikely he would have sat on such a strong number for more than a year, though of course that’s impossible to prove, and maybe he was just starting to write it and it took a long time to complete.
p. 389: Here’s a mistake for which McCartney probably can’t be held accountable. A caption to a picture of Paul with Wilfrid Brambell, who played his grandfather in A Hard Day’s Night, reads “With Wilfred Bramble.” The first sentence of the text for this entry (for the song “Junk”) spells Brambell’s first and last name right. Did anyone proofread that caption?
p. 639: Paul recalls the genesis of the title track for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and indeed the whole Sgt. Pepper concept, as follows: “I’d gone to the US to see Jane Asher, who was touring in a Shakespeare production and was in Denver. So I flew out to Denver to stay with her for a couple of days and take a little break. On the way back, I was with our roadie Mal Evans, and on the plane he said, ‘Will you pass the salt and pepper?’ I misheard him and said, ‘What? Sergeant Pepper?’”
McCartney visited Asher in Denver on her 21st birthday, which was in early April 1967. The last session for the Sgt. Pepper album was completed on April 3, although some remixing was done later that month. The first session for the Sgt. Pepper title track had taken place on February 1, by which time the song had certainly been written, and the concept probably starting to take hold. Other reliable sources have reported that Paul started to come up with the Magical Mystery Tour title song and film concept during the Denver trip, and maybe he mixed up the chronology of the conception of these two projects.
p. 639: Also in the entry for “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” setting the context for how the album in part evolved from their retreat from live performances, Paul notes: “We had recently played Candlestick Park. That was a show where we couldn’t even hear ourselves; it was raining, we were nearly electrocuted and when we got off stage we were chucked into the back of a stainless steel minitruck. The minitruck was empty, and we were sliding round in it, and we all thought, ‘Fuck, that’s enough.'”
This was actually the Beatles’ last official concert, in San Francisco on August 29, 1966. It can be pretty chilly and foggy in San Francisco in the summer. Paul seems to notice this in a much-bootlegged tape of most of the show, announcing before the “Long Tall Sally” finale, “We’d like to say that it’s been wonderful being here in this wonderful sea air.” He also remarks “it’s a bit chilly” after “Yesterday.” As a resident of the San Francisco Bay Area for nearly forty years, I can testify that it’s not rare for the summer fog to be so heavy it can almost seem like it’s drizzling.
But I can also testify that it rarely actually rains in San Francisco in the summer. And it wasn’t raining at Candlestick Park during this concert. I’m a bit hesitant to call this an outright mistake if Paul and the Beatles felt like it was raining. But no accounts of which I’m aware, and there are quite a few, of the concert report that the Beatles were in danger of being electrocuted. There are, for instance, quite a few in Ticket to Ride: The Extraordinary Diary of the Beatles’ Last Tour, by Barry Tashian, leader of the fine Boston group the Remains, who were a support act on the Candlestick bill. These include Tashian’s own memories, eyewitness reports from fans, and reprints of 1966 reviews of the concert in the San Francisco Examiner and TeenSet. None of them mention rain (although Tashian does recall that “on stage, a wild sea wind was blowing in every direction”), let alone danger of electrocution.
I believe Paul was actually thinking of a concert from just a few days earlier in Cincinnati. The Beatles were scheduled to play at Crosley Field on August 20, 1966, but the concert was canceled two hours after its scheduled 8:30 start time due to rain. The Beatles indeed feared they’d be electrocuted if they went on, George Harrison remembering in The Beatles Anthology, “It was so wet that we couldn’t play. They’d brought in the electricity, but the stage was soaking and we could have been electrocuted, so we canceled—the only gig we ever missed.”
In the 1972 book Apple to the Core attorney Nat Weiss, who worked on the Beatles’ business affairs in the US, remembered that McCartney in particular was upset by the incident: “We’d just been through a very bad experience in Cincinnati. The promoter had been trying to save himself a few cents by not putting a roof over the stage. It started to rain and the Beatles couldn’t go on because they would have been in danger of electrocution. They had to turn away 35,000 screaming kids, who were all given passes for a concert the next day. The strain had been obviously too much for Paul. When I got back to the hotel, Paul was already there. He was throwing up with all this tension.” (The Beatles did play in Crosley Field the following day, when the weather was clear.)
That would explain how that incident would be specifically cited when McCartney remembered how and why the Beatles decided to stop touring. But it seems very doubtful the near-electrocution he’s referring to took place in Candlestick Park. For that matter, the sliding around in a stainless steel minitruck might well have happened in Cincinnati rather than San Francisco, since Paul places this mishap after a show where “it rained quite heavily” in The Beatles Anthology.
It’s a little odd, though it’s not a mistake, that Paul doesn’t note the Candlestick Park concert was their final official gig, as it’s been cited as such in many, many historical accounts. He certainly must know it was, as he made a point of doing the last official concert held in Candlestick Park in 2014 before it was demolished, as a sort of homage to the Beatles having played their final show there.
p. 721: In the entry for “Too Many People,” the song that John Lennon interpreted as a jab at him and spurred his famous response “How Do You Sleep?,” Paul gives this account of one of the factors leading to the Beatles’ breakup and subsequent ill feelings between the pair: “The whole story in a nutshell is that we were having a meeting in 1969, and John showed up and said he’d met this guy Allen Klein, who had promised Yoko an exhibition in Syracuse, and then matter-of-factly John told us he was leaving the band. That’s basically how it happened.”
Not exactly, or at the least this drastically condenses the timeline of what occurred. As the recent Get Back documentary makes clear, John and Yoko had their first significant meeting with Klein in late January of 1969, near the end of the January 1969 recording sessions and filming that eventually produced the Let It Be LP and film. (The date of both January 26 and January 27 have been given for the meeting, though judging from the film and the companion book of dialogue from the sessions, January 27 seems more likely.) According to the Get Back documentary, the Beatles as a group had their first meeting with Klein on January 28, very shortly afterward.
It’s not too important whether or not the Beatles managed to first have a group meeting without Klein where “John showed up and said he’d met this guy Allen Klein.” Certainly, however, McCartney knew about Lennon’s interest in having Klein as the Beatles’ manager by January 28 at the latest. Certainly John wouldn’t have “told us he was leaving the band” at that meeting. He played in the Beatles’ last concert on the roof of Apple a couple days later, for crying out loud.
The meeting at which John said he was leaving the band is usually reported as having taken place in September 1969, not long after he’d done a concert in Toronto without the Beatles (on September 13) as part of the Plastic Ono Band. That’s almost eight months after the group meeting with Klein in late January, and they’d recorded all of Abbey Road in the interim. For what it’s worth, Lennon didn’t officially leave the band after that September announcement, at least publicly. The Beatles are usually considered to have split on April 10, 1970, when Paul’s intention to leave became public.
Also for what it’s worth, Yoko’s Syracuse exhibition didn’t take place until October 1971. It seems very improbable that Klein would have promised Yoko a Syracuse exhibition at their first or one of their first meetings, which took place back in late January 1969. Paul’s account makes it look like the first time John told him and the Beatles about Klein, he told them Klein had promised Yoko the exhibition.
Most of the mistakes noted in this post are apparent jumbles of chronology, understandable to a degree of events that happened more than fifty years ago, and not ones that are going to seriously disturb most readers or Beatles fans. This one, however, might be the most egregious error, significantly distorting the roles Klein and Lennon played in the Beatles’ breakup.
p. 847: Reinforcing the inaccurate chronology of the previous item, in the entry for “You Never Give Me Your Money,” Paul reports that “it was early 1969, and the Beatles were already beginning to break up. John had said he was leaving, and Allen Klein told us not to tell anyone, as he was in the middle of doing deals with Capitol Records. So, for a few months we had to keep mum. We were living a lie, knowing that John had left the group.”
Almost all of this is true, pretty much, though the split wouldn’t be final until spring 1970. Except that this wasn’t early 1969. It was September 1969 when John announced he was leaving, and Allen Klein convinced him (and, perhaps, the rest of the Beatles) not to tell anyone, since he was making a new deal for the group. Paul’s off by about half a year, and that’s not a trivial inaccuracy, since the Beatles would record Abbey Road during that time.
Do ten errors (and maybe I missed some others might have caught) over the course of 875 or so pages make for a substandard volume? No, of course not, though I think they’re noteworthy enough to be cited in case no one else does. It doesn’t seriously impair the overall high value of the book, my full review following below, as promised.
Paul McCartney: The Lyrics, by Paul McCartney, edited with an introduction by Paul Muldoon (Liveright). The most well known book, perhaps by far, on this list, as it was a #1 New York Times best-seller. Just because it was commercially successful, however, doesn’t mean it isn’t good—kind of like the Beatles themselves. Crucially, it’s not just a book that prints the lyrics with some illustrations, though the lyrics of 154 of the songs he wrote or co-wrote are here, and there are lots of graphics. There’s also a lot of text in which McCartney discusses composing the specific tunes, often throwing in a lot of observations about influences, inspirational incidents and people and his life, and life in general. Most of the really well known songs he wrote (with the odd exception like “Hello Goodbye” and “Magical Mystery Tour”) are included, and there are some really obscure ones from both the Beatles days and his solo career, even reaching back to a late-‘50s number (“Tell Me Who He Is”) that was never released, and for which McCartney doesn’t remember the tune.
While some of these stories have been told a fair amount (and a few are even repeated with variations in the text), the commentary’s almost unflaggingly absorbing and entertaining, both for the information and the lively, witty way McCartney tells it. While I’m not overall interested in much of his post-early-‘70s solo career, even the notes on those are usually worth reading, as they usually have noteworthy stories and perspectives not specifically related to the songs themselves—quite a few of which from the previous decades, I admit, I’m not familiar with. Here’s one of the better examples of his wisdom, in discussing a character in “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window”—“She found a ladder lying outside my house in London. As far as I recall, she stole a picture of my cotton salesman dad. Or robbed me of it. But I got the song in return.”
This doesn’t nab the #1 spot on my list since it does spotlight a good number of songs from a period of his career that doesn’t interest me (even if, as previously noted, the stories accompanying those usually do). A few (not many) notable Beatles songs in which he was the main writer—“I’ve Just Seen a Face” and “I’m Looking Through You” are a few others—are missing. And there are a few, if not many, factual mistakes that I’m surprised made it through the editing process. For instance, Paul remembers getting the title for “Sgt. Pepper” from a remark Mal Evans made on a plane ride back from visiting Jane Asher on her 21st birthday in Denver, although that was in early April 1967, and the song “Sgt. Pepper” had largely been recorded on February 1. There are many, many Beatles fans besides myself who could have spotted such errors, and the essence and primary points of the stories could have been retained if they’d been fixed. Was it unimportant to McCartney and the publisher to make the relatively modest effort necessary to catch those?
To get back to the book’s substantial pluses, the photos and illustrations are really good, and sometimes rare and unseen (though the absence of captions on some is frustrating). Besides pictures dating back to his childhood, there are plenty of McCartney’s handwritten lyrics, drawings, and letters. Most interesting to me of all were a few very early Beatles setlists, from around the late 1950s and early 1960s, listing some songs they haven’t been documenting as performing. And yes, this is an expensive (though not massively so) book, but it’s worth owning.
Peter Jackson’s Get Back documentary has been widely and deservedly acclaimed for the eight hours or so of footage it presents, with some context, of the Beatles’ January 1969 sessions. Footage taken during this month provided the basis for both the Let It Be movie and album, though the LP in particular didn’t come out quite as originally intended, or even as originally recorded.
This story has been told in many books and quite a few articles and films, if never in quite so much depth. Although not nearly as well known as the Get Back film (or even many other Beatles books), much of the music and dialogue from the many hours of existing recordings is aptly described and summarized in Doug Sulpy and Ray Schweighardt’s mid-1990s book Get Back: The Unauthorized Chronicle of the Beatles’ ” Let It Be” Disaster. Even that book, however, couldn’t capture some of the glances, silent shots, and atmosphere revealed by Get Back’s footage.
This post isn’t going to try to summarize all of the interesting and important points and questions raised by what the Beatles were doing in January 1969. It isn’t even going to address all of the interesting points and questions raised by the material in the Get Back film. That would take more books, and this is just a blogpost. Having heard and thought about all of this for many years (and written about the 100 or so hours of music recorded by the group that month in a section of my book The Unreleased Beatles: Music and Film), I’m just going to highlight some interesting things the documentary brought to light. Even if I’ve come across some of them in the past and didn’t remember all of them when watching the film (twice), I’ll still include them, if they’re of interest for other Beatles fans.
Like the film, I’m going in chronological order, separated by date:
As many fans know by now, in May 1968 the Beatles recorded a version of John Lennon’s song “Child of Nature” at George Harrison’s home. Along with many other demos from that session, it’s now available as one of the discs in the super deluxe edition of The White Album. It’s also well known that the song was reworked, with the same melody but entirely different lyrics, as “Jealous Guy” on Lennon’s 1971 album Imagine.
John was still thinking of having the Beatles record it as they ran through possible material at the Get Back sessions. It seems, however, that he had changed the title, though nothing else major about the composition. He was now calling it “On the Road to Marrakesh.” Sitting on the fence, it’s titled “On the Road to Marrakesh/Child of Nature” when the title and composing credit is flashed onscreen during Get Back, as it is for many of the songs performed in the film.
And as many who’ve collected Get Back-era bootlegs must have noticed, songwriting credits have now officially been assigned to the unreleased original numbers performed in January, even the ones that are improvisations, fragments, or mere scraps. Many of these are too insubstantial to merit official release, but you can see the details as the end credits roll for each of the three episodes. They’re also often (but not always) flashed onscreen when they’re performed in scenes in the documentary.
George Harrison on the compositions he’s offering for the Get Back project: “They’re all slow-ish. There are a couple I can do live with no backing.” He might have already been wondering if any would be deemed suitable by the group for the concert they were planning, where the thinking seemed to be tilted toward uptempo material. He might have been weighing whether he could do slow numbers like “Hear Me Lord” solo, though as it happened those and some others (like, most famously, “All Things Must Pass”) wouldn’t get released until his 1970 All Things Must Pass album.
Yoko is usually pretty immobile as she sits in on most of the sessions, even on the most energetic tunes, or one that’s obviously inspired by her, “Don’t Let Me Down.” She does animatedly move at some unexpected times, dancing to the early Lennon-McCartney number “Because I Love You So,” which like most of the early pre-recording contract compositions played at the sessions were doleful and unmemorable.
As “Gimme Some Truth” is played, a subtitle reads “John suggests an unfinished song that he and Paul have been working on.” That in turn suggests that Lennon and McCartney collaborated to at least a slight degree on this song, although it was credited to John alone when it appeared on Imagine. Paul does sing a part of it, indicating he might already have been familiar with the song from doing some work on it. In the larger picture, if this was the case, it suggests the Lennon-McCartney songwriting partnership wasn’t entirely dead by this time, as some accounts would have it.
John and Paul have been accused, probably with some merit, of to some degree undervaluing or even ignoring some of George’s songwriting efforts. Several sequences demonstrate, however, that they weren’t entirely uninterested or unsupportive of Harrison’s work. In an early run-through of “All Things Must Pass,” John suggests a minor change to the lyric, modifying “A wind can blow those clouds away” to “my mind can blow those clouds away.” “Okay,” George responds. John adds: “A little bit of psychedelia in it, you know. Social comment, like.”
George offers some surprising comments about The White Album, a record that’s often considered to have contained the first major seeds of the Beatles splitting and going their separate ways. “That was the good thing about the last album,” he tells Paul. “It’s the only album, so far, I tried to get involved with. It should be where if you write a song, I feel as though I wrote it, and vice versa.” This isn’t just intriguing because it’s a more positive view of the record than has usually been attributed to the Beatles. It also makes you wonder if George felt left out or relatively uninvolved with every record before The White Album, of which there were quite a few.
Another surprise from George: thinking that the Beatles could do some of their older songs for their proposed live concert, he says, “I’ll tell you which is a good one,” and plays a very brief excerpt of “Every Little Thing.” That’s one of the more, and maybe one of the most obscure, early Lennon-McCartney songs, heard on their fourth album, 1964’s Beatles for Sale. As they never played it in concert and George didn’t write it—and it wasn’t a single or even among their more popular LP tracks, although it’s good—it’s a pretty left-field pick out of the hat.
George talks about Eric Clapton’s guitar style for a bit: “He’s very good at improvising and keeping it going, which I’m not good at.” That fits very much with what Klaus Voormann, who met the Beatles in Hamburg in 1960 and remained good friends with George (and played bass on All Things Must Pass), told me in a 2021 interview: “That’s something that Eric says too. He says George is fantastic solo guitar player. He works out his little solos. It takes him a lot of time to do get it down, he’s not free on a guitar like an Eric, who can play around anytime. He plays a different solo each time. That’s not George. He composes a little song, and that’s his solo. And that’s a fantastic attitude, which I really like.”
It’s only the second day of sessions, but George enthuses at length about Billy Preston: “The best jazz band I saw was Ray Charles’s band…Billy Preston is too much. Billy plays piano with the band. Then he does his own spot where he sings and dances and plays organ solo…then Ray Charles comes on. He’s better than Ray Charles, really. Because he’s like too much. Because he plays organ so great. Ray Charles doesn’t bother with the organ now. He just, ‘I’ll leave it to the young guy, Billy.’ It’s too much.” This is a good nineteen days before Preston visits Apple and almost instantly joins the Beatles for the next ten days or so of sessions. It’s doubtful that Harrison already specifically had Preston in mind for this, but certainly demonstrates he was familiar with his contemporary work quite a bit before Billy turned up and made a major impact on the Get Back project.
It’s only the third day of sessions (they took the weekend off), but George is already moaning about the upcoming concert. Always the least enthusiastic of the group about the Get Back project, he thinks “we should forget the whole idea of a show.” Maybe the Beatles should have never embarked upon this if he was putting such a wet blanket on the idea so early on. Perhaps it was fueled by a feeling that it was rushed and ill-conceived, as he remarks at another point on this day, “We’ve only run through about four [songs, for a show planned in only about a dozen days]. We haven’t learned any at all.”
Paul says “we should do the show in a place we’re not allowed to do it. Like we should trespass, go in, set up, and then get moved, and that should be the show.” He suggests the House of Parliament as a possibility of a place where they’d “get forcibly ejected, still trying to play numbers, and the police lifting us.” Although it would be on the Apple rooftop, this is remarkably close to what actually happened on January 30, though the police wouldn’t use such force to stop the show.
Although Let It Be director Michael Lindsay-Hogg would help suggest the rooftop location, he thinks Paul’s idea of trespassing would be too dangerous. He suggests hospitals and orphanages as alternatives. John doesn’t seemed inclined to give Lindsay-Hogg’s notions serious consideration, saying he doesn’t think orphanages and police balls are going to do it.
In his typically buoyant, optimistic mood, George says “the Beatles have been in doldrums for at least a year”—this four days after he told Paul the White Album was the first one he really felt involved with. “I don’t wanna do any of my songs on the show,” he declares, which couldn’t have elevated spirits. He even suggests a divorce, which he’d come close to initiating by quitting the band for a few days on January 10.
It looks like a recording, maybe an acetate, of “Across the Universe” is brought on to be played to the Beatles. Although a version had been recorded by the group in February 1968, it had yet to be released. As he didn’t have too many of his own new compositions for the proposed upcoming concert/album, John was looking toward things he’d written quite a while ago (like “Child of Nature”) but hadn’t yet released with the Beatles as possibilities. Although the Beatles had done a version a little less than a year ago, it seems like they and John in particular have forgotten the lyrics, hence the recording being played to them.
George brings “I Me Mine” in for consideration, reporting that he wrote the song the previous night, its rhythm inspired by a waltz he saw on TV as part of a ceremony. His sour comments from yesterday on the whole prospect of doing his songs or the show itself to the contrary, he proposes “I Me Mine” for the concert “because it’s so simple to do,” though they wouldn’t do it (or any Harrison compositions) on the roof. In fact, although “I Me Mine” would be on Let It Be, that version wouldn’t be recorded until early January 1970, and then by the Beatles without John Lennon.
Although he’s not the biggest insider in the Beatles’ circle, Michael Lindsay-Hogg sees Lennon and McCartney aren’t getting along as well or working together as much. “Paul and you are not getting on as well as you did,” he tells John.
Paul confronts John about his lack of new material: “Haven’t you written anything else? Haven’t you? We’re gonna be faced with a crisis,” thinking of the show they’re supposed to be doing of all-new songs in about ten days. Although Paul has the image of the most diplomatic of the Beatles and one who wants to avoid confrontation in favor of amiable discussion, in fact he was probably the one person most likely to challenge John when necessary.
George, never too gung-ho on the concert in the first place, is making his feelings uncomfortably public: “I just want to get it over with.” He also seems worried about the expense involved, pointing out they haven’t even made back the cost of the film used for Magical Mystery Tour, another endeavor in which he half-heartedly participated.
Ringo doesn’t say much during the January sessions, but tells Michael Lindsay-Hogg “we’ve been getting grumpy for the last 18 months.” That goes back to just after Sgt. Pepper, indicating the tensions eventually pulling the group apart have been brewing for quite a while.
Linda Eastman, who’ll marry Paul in a couple months, tells Lindsay-Hogg “I feel the most relaxed around Ringo.” “Me too,” Lindsay-Hogg responds. The inference here is that she and Lindsay-Hogg don’t feel as relaxed, or too relaxed overall, around John and George.
Paul infers here and elsewhere that the lead vocal on “Carry That Weight” is meant for Ringo, as he works on it on piano with Starr watching. He refers to it as a comedy or story song, and fills in a verse between choruses with scatting, Ringo singing along with the chorus. The verse, he says, will have lyrics about getting in trouble with the wife and getting drunk. The vision will have changed by the time it’s recorded for Abbey Road and welded to “Golden Slumbers,” with only the chorus surviving, sung not by Ringo on lead, but by all four Beatles in unison.
George is seen on drums briefly, probably just fooling around instead of intending to sub for Ringo if necessary, as Paul did on a few Beatles recordings.
Yoko again gets animated at an unexpected point, bobbing enthusiastically to a song (really a jam) the Beatles didn’t release, “Commonwealth.”
Yoko and Linda are seen (though not heard) chatting together in a quite friendly fashion, though they don’t have the public reputation of being friendly or getting along.
The Beatles work on one of the best of the many instrumental jams (most of which are dull and/or cacophonous) they play this month, “The Palace of the King of the Birds.” A different section plays over the end credits to episode one of Get Back, and while it might sound to viewers like incidental music specifically recorded for this documentary (especially since no information flashes on the screen as to what’s playing), it’s a genuine January 1969 Beatles recording. Rather than being the sluggish blues many of their jams are, it has a haunting, elegiac tone, spotlighting organ rather than guitar.
John’s honest and rather flippant about his lack of new material, remarking “I’ve done all of mine, both of mine.” If he’s just counting two songs, he might be referring to “Don’t Let Me Down” and “I’ve Got a Feeling” (which incorporates his “Everybody Had a Hard Year” composition with the bulk of the song, which was written by Paul), though “Dig a Pony” had been tentatively played a couple times, and he’d revisited some songs he’d written earlier that had been passed over for release on Beatles records, like “Across the Universe” and “Child of Nature.”
On the day George quits the band for about five days, there’s a hint of his touchiness when he tells the others as they work on a guitar part, “You need Eric Clapton.” John and Paul hasten to tell him, “You need George Harrison.” Ultimately Harrison isn’t mollified, walking out in the middle of what was supposed to be a full day’s work.
John offhandedly suggests replacing George with Eric Clapton, perhaps out of anger with Harrison or trying to brush off the seriousness of the crisis. Remember, however, that Lennon had recently played with Clapton as part of the one-off lineup (with Keith Richards on bass and Mitch Mitchell on drums) with which he performed “Yer Blues” on The Rolling Stones’ Rock and Roll Circus in early December 1968.
Michael Lindsay-Hogg asks John if anyone’s quit like George has. “Well…Ringo,” Lennon admits. Although it wasn’t public knowledge, Ringo had quit for about ten days the previous summer during the sessions for The White Album.
Lindsay-Hogg talks about the weakening Lennon-McCartney partnership with longtime Beatles assistant Neil Aspinall and producer George Martin. “John and Paul aren’t writing together much anymore, are they, really?” he notes. They were collaborating more than has sometimes been reported, but more in the sense of refining some of the other’s songs than actively writing together. George Martin realizes this, commenting that “nevertheless, they’re still a team.”
John, Paul, and Ringo briefly hug each other as the day’s work ends after George quits. This is one of the most crucial shots in Get Back. It illustrates their camaraderie and concern for each other at a moment of crisis in a way that doesn’t come across at all without the visuals when you’re listening to the audio bootlegs of the sessions, where they often discuss their troubles flippantly.
It’s the day after a group meeting that didn’t work out well, George walking out. As Paul, Linda, Lindsay-Hogg, and others talk in a group before John’s arrival, it’s evident they feel freer to discuss Yoko’s impact on the Beatles than they do when he and she are around. Linda says of the previous day’s group meeting, “She was talking for John, and I don’t think he really believed any of that.” Acknowledges Paul, for John “if it came to a push between Yoko and the Beatles, it’s Yoko.” Asks Lindsay-Hogg, “Were you writing together much more before she came around?” “Oh yeah,” McCartney responds.
Yet in the same conversation, Paul expresses much more sympathy toward the couple and positive vibes toward Yoko than he’s usually credited with. “She’s great, she really is alright,” he says. “They just want to be near each other.”
When John doesn’t show up or answer his phone, Paul seems to verge on choking up into tears – a moment that doesn’t come through, or certainly with anywhere near the same impact, on the audio tapes. “And then there were two,” he laments, though he’s informed that John wants to speak to him on the phone before a possible breakdown. Note John wants to speak to him, not Ringo or both Paul and Ringo, intimating these are the two guys ultimately calling the shots for the Beatles.
After John does arrive, signaling he’s willing to continue as part of the Beatles, he and Paul have a serious conversation in the cafeteria. Michael Lindsay-Hogg sensed something was up, and in his memoir Luck and Circumstance: A Coming of Age in Hollywood, New York, and Points Beyond remembers asking “our soundman to bug the flower pot on the lunch table.” According to a story in Sound & Vision on the making of Let It Be and how the footage was used in Get Back, this was done on both January 10, the day Harrison quit, and January 13.
Readers are all poised for the big revelation as to what was said and what went down on January 10 when Lindsay-Hogg dryly notes, “My bug had only picked up the sounds of cutlery banging on china plates, obscuring what the muffled voices had said.” Fortunately, twenty-first century technology enabled dialogue from the January 13 conversation to be retrieved for a scene in Get Back, where Lennon and McCartney talked over the crisis with more grave honesty than they seemed to have done in group settings.
There are too many points made in that conversation to recap in total in a post like this, and they’re not all about how George is feeling and trying to get him to rejoin, though that’s the most urgent issue discussed. Here are a couple of the most interesting samples. John tells Paul, “There was a period when none of us could say anything about your arrangements, ’cause you would reject it all…A lot of the times you were right, and a lot of the times you were wrong. Same as we all are.” Paul tells John, “You have always been boss. I’ve always been secondary boss. Now I’ve been sort of secondary boss. Always.”
As the Beatles minus George leave for the day amid uncertainty as to whether the group will continue, Paul leaves his bass as kind of collateral for his intention to return tomorrow. “What greater faith could man have than to leave his list,” he says, referring to a setlist taped to his bass. It’s the setlist from the Beatles’ final tour, of the US in summer 1966, though it wouldn’t end up being their final performance of all.
As the Beatles struggle through rehearsals without George, Paul at one point utters, “Aimless rambling amongst the canyons of your mind.” This seems to refer to a song by the Bonzo Dog Band, “Canyons of Your Mind,” from their 1968 LP The Doughnut in Granny’s Greenhouse. Paul would have been pretty familiar with this fine British comedy rock group as they appeared in Magical Mystery Tour, and McCartney had produced their 1968 UK hit “I’m the Urban Spaceman.”
There seems to be confusion about how many songs should be played for their concert (should it take place), or are ready to be played. The numbers eleven, twelve, and fourteen are all thrown out. John mentions a “choice of six.”
Perhaps unsure of whether the Beatles have enough for an album and/or concert, George Martin darkly jokes that Ringo can do a long drum break, though Starr was known for abhorring drum solos. “An hour and a half,” Ringo adds in similar gallows humor.
George Harrison’s rejoined the band after a productive group meeting on January 15, and checks out Apple’s new studio with engineer Glyn Johns (eventually credited as co-producer on the Let It Be LP). They’re unhappy with the equipment, the studio having legendarily been designed by Apple’s supposed electronics wizard, Magic Alex Mardas, though it doesn’t perform even the most basic of functions. This gets a little trainspotter-ish, but this is different than how it’s reported in Mark Lewisohn’s excellent 1988 book The Beatles Recording Sessions. Technical engineer Dave Harries (seen in a few Get Back scenes) told Lewisohn the Beatles “actually tried a session on this desk, they did a take, but when they played back the tape it was all hum and hiss. Terrible. The Beatles walked out, that was the end of it.”
From the way it’s presented in Get Back, it seems like the whole group might not have tried a take, and maybe Harrison and Johns did the basic determination that different equipment need to be moved into Apple. The story on the making of Let It Be in Sound & Vision, however, indicates there might have been a tryout session of sorts around January 17. As that article reports, “It took a day for Harries to get the system functional enough to make a recording, at which time the band did try to make a recording with it. ‘We did one take,’ says Harries. ‘They didn’t like it, and they just walked out, without saying a word. Then we got the word to bring our stuff in'” from EMI.
Beatles road manager/personal assistant Mal Evans shows a prototype of an instrument “Magic Alex” Mardas has invented to John. “It’s a combination of a bass and rhythm guitar with a revolving neck,” Evans tells Lennon. It’s not known whether the Beatles had a use or desire for this, or if it evolved into a finished product.
John and George stage a mock fight in Apple Studios, laughing and smiling. Much tension in the group’s obviously gone now that George has rejoined.
George opens a package of LPs including Smokey Robinson & the Miracles’ Greatest Hits and Make It Happen. Although he’s not usually regarded as the biggest soul fan in the Beatles, he was getting back into rock and soul again after a couple years or so of concentrating more on Indian music. On the second day of the sessions, he’d sung lead on a fairly spirited if casual version of a Motown hit, Marvin Gaye’s “Hitch Hike.”
At one point during the day, a list is presented of songs that seem to be under the most consideration for the upcoming show, if that was to take place. These were “All I Want Is You” (a working title for “I Dig a Pony”), “The Long and Winding Road,” “Bathroom Window” (a working title for “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window”), “Let It Be,” “Across the Universe,” “Get Back to Where You Once Belonged” (a title later shortened of course to “Get Back”), “Two of Us (On Our Way Home)” (eventually simply titled “Two of Us”), “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” “I’ve Got a Feeling,” “Sunrise” (an odd alternate title for “All Things Must Pass”), and “I Me Mine.” Eight of these would eventually get on the Let It Be LP, and two others find a spot on Abbey Road, with “All Things Must Pass” waiting until Harrison’s 1970 album of the same name.
It’s strange, however, that the aforementioned list doesn’t include “Don’t Let Me Down,” which had already been extensively worked on, and would be part of the January 30 rooftop concert and the B-side of “Get Back,” though it didn’t make the Let It Be album. As to why “Across the Universe” seemed to drift out of the picture the rest of January, on the 23rd Harrison asked Lennon about whether the song would be used for the Get Back project. “No,” John responded, “‘cause it’s going out on an EP.” That seems to confirm he and/or the Beatles were planning an EP, as has been reported elsewhere, with “Across the Universe” and the four songs exclusive to the Yellow Submarine soundtrack. That EP never materialized, and a new version of “Across the Universe” did ultimately resurface as part of the Let It Be album, though not for another year or so, when Phil Spector did post-production on the Beatles’ 1968 recording of the song.
The Rolling Stones’ Beggars Banquet LP is seen near John as the Beatles play. Maybe Lennon’s keeping up with the competition. It wasn’t a brand-new release, but was pretty recent, having come out on December 6, 1968.
Ringo’s seen playing bass on “Hi Heel Sneakers,” a rare and possibly unique glimpse of him playing the instrument with the Beatles, though he’s likely just fooling around with it briefly.
During a version of “Don’t Let Me Down,” John throws in references to Dicky Murdoch. This was a British comedian who wouldn’t be known to US audiences.
George says at one point, “We just need one more in the group,” in seeming acknowledgement of how their determination to record live without overdubs is leaving some gaps in the arrangements. He doesn’t specifically mention Billy Preston, but that’s probably in his mind when Billy visits the following day and is quickly invited to play keyboards on the sessions.
The Beatles were considering several locations for a live concert, despite George Harrison’s continued reluctance to do one, in part because of Lindsay-Hogg’s continued pressure to find an exotic setting. Amphitheaters in foreign countries and ocean liners were considered (probably far more seriously by Lindsay-Hogg than the Beatles), but another isn’t mentioned as much – Primrose Hill in London. That idea was abandoned when it wasn’t available.
John enthuses about watching Fleetwood Mac on TV, at a point where the group had some hit records in Britain, but weren’t too well known in the US. “The lead singer’s great,” he says, probably referring to Peter Green, the band’s most prominent guitarist/singer/songwriter in their early blues-rock days. “ He sings very quiet, he’s not a shouter.” Paul says they’re like Canned Heat; John says they’re better than Canned Heat. Certainly the influence of Fleetwood Mac’s then-current UK instrumental hit “Albatross” (which would reach #1 on February 1) is heard on “Sun King,” which the Beatles played in rudimentary instrumental versions during the Get Back sessions, though it wouldn’t be fully developed until it was recorded for Abbey Road.
This is the day Billy Preston starts playing on the sessions, making a significant impact on the Get Back project for the rest of the month. It’s noted in the Get Back documentary that he used to ask them to play “A Taste of Honey” when he met them in Hamburg back in 1962, when he was with Little Richard’s group. Maybe that was an influence in having the Beatles include “A Taste of Honey” on their first album, not recorded until early 1963.
Although George seems to have been the most active member in getting Billy into the studio, John’s quickly on board with Preston’s participation, telling him, “You’re giving us a lift, Bill…He’s the guy, and that solves a lot.”
John proposes, “We could do half here, and the other half outside.” That’s pretty much what happens—about half the material in strong consideration for the record is performed on the roof (and sometimes used on official releases), and about half is recorded in the studio.
“It will be the third Beatles movie,” John says of the film-in-progress. The Beatles owe United Artists one more movie (after A Hard Day’s Night and Help!), and maybe John sees this as a way to fulfill their contract. “And it will be a movie, you know, not a TV show,” he adds for emphasis. For that it probably has to be a theatrical release, not a TV show — which is also what eventually happens.
It’s only a week before the concert, but John says “we almost know three numbers, actually.” Obviously they’ve been working on a lot more than three songs, but maybe he feels only three are really down cold enough to do in live performance.
Beatles assistant Peter Brown tells John Lennon Allen Klein’s arriving in a couple days. So obviously Lennon knew Klein wanted to talk with him and the Beatles in advance of their first meeting on January 27, though the impression’s sometimes given in historical accounts that the meeting occurred more spontaneously.
At one point in Get Back, early Beatles manager Allan Williams is briefly seen at the day’s sessions. He’s not identified in the documentary, though he is in the companion book. What was he doing there? It’s not explained, though I’m guessing he was just dropping in for a visit. He was their pseudo-manager of sorts from around mid-1960 to some time in 1961 before Brian Epstein entered the picture, though he didn’t seem to have much direct contact with them after the Beatles moved from Liverpool to London in 1963.
Part of the group does what’s titled a “Freakout Jam” with Yoko Ono on vocals, the songwriter credits given to Ono, Lennon, and McCartney. “I’d like it to be part of our new LP,” recommends Lennon, and it’s hard to tell whether he’s joking or serious. Certainly it never gets seriously considered for inclusion.
George Martin’s role in these sessions is kind of uncertain. As Lewisohn writes in The Beatles Recording Sessions, “He was there for some sessions but not for others,” with engineer Glyn Johns seeming to sometimes take a producer role as well. Martin hasn’t been too positive in his memories of the sessions, feeling the group were falling apart and doing too many takes in search of the perfect live performance. On this date, however, he seems pleased with their progress, perhaps as a result of Preston having given them a life. “You’re working so well together now, let’s keep it going,” he advises them.
George Harrison unexpectedly sings a bit of the Four Tops’ 1966 chart-topping classic “Reach Out I’ll Be There” as they’re working on “Get Back.” “That’s what the song needs, it needs a catchy riff,” he feels. “Get Back” already had catchy riffs. Maybe the Beatles were making sure to be tolerant of all of his suggestions after his sensitivity to some criticism led to his brief walkout earlier in the month.
It’s only four months since it made #1, but George has to be reminded that “Hey Jude” was their last single. I don’t see this so much as a reflection of lack of interest in their output as evidence that members of big groups don’t pay as much attention to the chronology of events as many fans do. Lennon and McCartney would mix up the sequence of some of the Beatles’ album releases in subsequent interviews. “Which album is this?” asked Harrison with puzzled earnestness when he, Paul, Ringo, and George Martin were filmed listening to a take of “Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight” for the bonus disc of the Anthology DVD.
John, the most impulsive Beatle (as will also be seen by his over-the-moon enlistment of Allen Klein as his manager after his first meeting with him on January 27), seems to infer Billy Preston should join the group when he announces, “I’d like a fifth Beatle…I mean, I’d just like him in our band, actually.” Paul, the more cautious and practical one, feels “it’s bad enough with four.”
The original idea behind the Get Back sessions was to play live as a band with no overdubs. About three weeks into the sessions, it’s becoming apparent that they’re reconsidering allowing for at least some flexibility. For “Child of Nature” aka “On the Road to Marrakesh,” John reveals, “I was gonna do a big ‘30s orchestra bit.” When he reworked it into “Jealous Guy” for Imagine, he would in fact use a lushly orchestrated arrangement. At another point, he says, “After we can stick it on,” meaning do overdubbing. “It’s cheating,” points out Glyn Johns. “Well, I’m a cheat,” John shrugs.
Maybe mulling over how the Beatles have to alter their usual lineup when they’re playing without overdubs, McCartney observes, “I quite like those ones where there isn’t a bass. We’ve done a few. ‘I’ll Follow the Sun.’” When he’s on keyboards on the sessions, however, John will sometimes take over on bass (most noticeably on “The Long and Winding Road”), though he doesn’t seem to have a good aptitude for the instrument.
George suggests putting “Two of Us” “on the B-side,” though it’s hard to telling if it’s a passing half-joke. John chips in, “Release it in Italy only, let’s just make a different single for every country.” Probably he wasn’t serious, but the Beatles were entertaining some odd and highly unusual ideas in the early Apple days, and it’s not out of the question that they would have considered this before some impracticalities or difficulties in enacting such a policy were pointed out to them.
As George plays slide guitar on “Her Majesty,” John jests, “That’s the cheapest one. If gets any good on it, we’ll get him a good one.” George would get good on slide guitar, but only after seriously applying himself to the technique for his 1970 solo album All Things Must Pass.
Ringo plays “Teddy Boy” with a towel on his drums. Even when I had the Kum Back bootleg as an eight-year-old in 1970, I thought the drums on this sounded kind of like hoofbeats, and this could explain part of that.
John remarks, “I don’t regret anything ever…not even Bob Wooler.” Bob Wooler was a DJ and MC at the Cavern Club in Liverpool, and had done a lot to help advance the Beatles’ career in the early 1960s. On June 18, 1963, at Paul’s 21st birthday party in Liverpool, Lennon viciously beat up Wooler after the DJ suggested John and Brian Epstein, who’d recently taken a holiday together in Spain, might have had a homosexual affair. This incident got the Beatles some of their first, and unwelcome, publicity in the mainstream British news media. Although Lennon did send a telegram of apology to Wooler afterward, this offhand remark shows a more callous side of John than has usually been attributed to him, at a time he was starting to remake his public image over into one of a man of peace.
George Martin, in what might have been one of the rehearsals where the Beatles were trying his patience by doing take after take, is seen lying on the floor reading a newspaper. Yet although Martin, as previously noted, might not have been as directly involved with or enthusiastic about the Get Back sessions as virtually all of the others he produced for the Beatles, he was still doing some hands-on-work as a producer. He’s shown inserting a newspaper (maybe the same one he was reading) into a piano to give the instrument a honky-tonk “tack” sound on “For Your Blue.”
Michael Lindsay-Hogg and Glyn Johns, according to the Get Back documentary, are the ones who suggest to Paul the idea of doing a concert on the roof of the Beatles’ Apple building. Paul and Ringo go up with Lindsay-Hogg to check it out. Sometimes the concert has been characterized as an impulsive decision that day or the day before, but this shows the idea germinating a good five days beforehand.
Art dealer Robert Fraser is shown visiting the session on this date. Fraser was a friend to members of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. When Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were busted for what most would consider very minor drug offenses at the Redlands home of Richards in February 1967, Fraser was also caught in the raid. Although Jagger and Richards had sentences overturned after spending very brief periods in jail, Fraser wasn’t as fortunate, in part because he was charged with the more serious offense of heroin possession. He served a sentence of six months hard labor, which he would have finished only about a year before he was filmed with the Beatles on this date.
In early spring 1970, Paul would quit the Beatles, in part because Phil Spector added orchestration and female voices to “The Long and Winding Road.” McCartney strongly asserted he hadn’t approved of these overdubs, telling the Evening Standard, “I was sent a remixed version of my song ‘The Long and Winding Road,’ with harps, horns, an orchestra and women’s choir added. No one had asked me what I thought. I couldn’t believe it. I would never have female voices on a Beatles record.” George Martin backed him up on this, telling Melody Maker, “John insisted that it was going to be a natural album, a live album, and he didn’t want any of the faking, any of the Pepper stuff, any production. … When the record came out, I got a hell of a shock. I knew nothing about it, and neither did Paul. All the lush, un-Beatle-like orchestrations with harps and choirs in the background—it was so contrary to what John asked for in the first place.”
However, one of the most interesting exchanges in Get Back indicates McCartney and Martin were at least considering orchestrating “The Long and Winding Road” back in January 1969, more than a year prior to Spector’s overdubs. George Martin says, “Paul’s thinking of having strings anyway.” George Harrison asks Paul, “Are you gonna have strings?” Paul replies, “Dunno.” Continues Martin, “It needs something a little more clinical.” Paul says he heard it in his head with “Ray Charles backing,” elaborating, “We were planning to do it anyway, with a couple numbers, just have a bit of brass, a bit of strings.”
George introduces a song he’s written the night before, “Old Brown Shoe,” which he enthusiastically describes as “happy, a rocker,” maybe feeling like he should come up with something upbeat and uptempo that’s more suitable for a concert than the more reflective, slower numbers he’s recently composed. He plays it on the piano, an instrument he doesn’t play nearly as much as John or Paul. “It’s great on the piano, because I don’’ know anything about it,” he explains. “It’s great, because I wouldn’t have been able to do that on the guitar.” Billy Preston plays guitar on some of the run-throughs, although he’s mostly known as a keyboardist. Although Paul (and John) have been criticized for not paying as much attention to George’s songs as their own, McCartney seems delightedly enthusiastic as he plays along with Harrison when George starts routining the number.
More indications Paul might not be wholly satisfied with the plain no-overdubs arrangement of “The Long and Winding Road” when he remarks, “I can’t sort of think of how to do this one at all…mind’s a blank.”
More evidence that George Martin sometimes took a conventional hands-on production role at the sessions when he tells the group, “Your speakers are very near to your mics, and they’re being picked up. So you get howl round…Why don’t you have the piano open for a start?” He does so in the tactful, gentlemanly helpful manner he’s usually remembered as bringing to his work with the Beatles. “I’ll fix you, lads, I’ll fix you,” he calmly reassures them at one point.
John expresses frustrations with playing bass: “I can’t even tell if I’m in tune or not. I’ll just have to guess what I’m playing.”
George Martin expresses frustrations with the Beatles’ endless-take-perfectionism as they try to get the best live performance: “Let’s all rehearse it well, and let’s just do one take, and that’ll be it. And we’ll do it again…and do it again…and do it again.”
The Sound & Vision article on the making of Let It Be, incidentally, offers some more insights into Martin’s overall role at the sessions. “I was booked by Paul to engineer it, to be the recording engineer,” Glyn Johns told the publication. “And I expected, therefore, George Martin to be producing. And, in fact, that wasn’t the case at all. He appeared on occasion, but he wasn’t involved with the production of the music at all. I was a bit embarrassed by the whole situation, because he wasn’t involved. But he was charming, and he put me at ease, and was lovely about it.” Adds cameraman Les Parrott in the story, “He was such a subtle gentleman. I never saw him telling Glyn what to do.”
In the same piece, George Martin’s son Giles offers his take: “Glyn was the constant. He was the young engineer, sort of producer, who’s there the whole time. My dad was told he wasn’t needed. I actually went through this with Paul once. They were essentially doing a live record. They’re doing a live show, they’re not doing a ‘record.’ Why would your A & R record producer come down to your rehearsal room? But he did appear. And when he appeared, interestingly enough, they did play more songs on the days he was there than when he wasn’t. And he had a pen and a pad. And the necessity arose for some organization, because it became so chaotic, in the fact that they hadn’t really done anything, he appears more and says, ‘Okay, listen, what are you actually doing here? What’s the idea?'”
John voices a more sympathetic ear to Harrison’s material than he’s often credited with: “I’m trying to get us to do one of George’s for the first batch.” Although none of George’s songs would be done on the rooftop, where, after all, they only performed five numbers (sometimes in multiple versions) in all.
John and Yoko have met with Allen Klein for the first time the previous evening, talking with him until two in the morning. He’s already enthusiastic, in retrospective over-enthusiastic, about Klein, telling George, “He knows everything about everything…He’s gonna look after me, whatever…He knows me as much as you do.”
Yoko says Klein “owns half of MGM.” This sounds like a wild exaggeration Klein might have made to her and John. According to Fred Goodman’s biography of Klein, Klein bought 160,000 shares in MGM. To bear with a long-winded explanation for a moment, according to Isadore Barmash’s book Welcome to Our Conglomerate—You’re Fired, when Kirk Kerkorian bid for a million MGM shares in July 1968, that would have given him 17% ownership. That works out to about six million total shares. Klein’s 160,000 shares would have worked out to about 2.7% of that.
At his meeting with Klein, Klein told John that the Rolling Stones’ Rock and Roll Circus would be made into an LP and a book. The book wouldn’t appear; the LP (and its associated TV special) wouldn’t be available until 1995. Klein also told Lennon the LP would be issued “to buy food for Biafra.” If there were serious intentions to make it such a charitable project, they certainly weren’t realized.
Getting back to the music,John’s still talking about “On the Road to Marrakesh” and “Mean Mr. Mustard” as possibilities for the Get Back project. As noted earlier, “On the Road to Marrakesh” would be reworked into “Jealous Guy” on Imagine, and “Mean Mr. Mustard” wait until Abbey Road.
The lineup’s varied in interesting ways as they continue to work on “Old Brown Shoe.” At one point Billy Preston’s on guitar and Paul’s not there – most likely just doing something else for a bit, not out of a lack of interest in participating, since he played along so enthusiastically on January 27. At another point Preston takes over piano from George while Harrison just does vocals.
When George introduces his work-in-progress (and eventually most famous composition) “Something,” contrary to John and Paul’s reputation for not putting much effort into George’s songs, they give him a good deal of support and encouragement. Suggests John to George, who’s stuck on devising some lyrics, “Just say what comes into your head each time. Attracts me like a ‘cauliflower.’ Until you get the word!”
John, George, and Billy briefly fool around with a stylophone, a small instrument that looks like a toy. It’s most known for being used prominently on David Bowie’s first hit later in 1969, “Space Oddity.”
There’s a shot of Linda Eastman at a keyboard at one point while the Beatles are rehearsing. It’s not certain whether she’s trying to play along, but interesting in light of how she’d join Wings as a keyboardist in a couple years or so.
Onscreen text notes the Beatles have their first group meeting with Allen Klein on this date. However, they weren’t filmed there, and it’s not discussed in any of Get Back’s scenes.
Ringo accurately says the Beatles will do five or six numbers on the rooftop show planned for tomorrow; they’ll do five (though multiple versions of several of those five songs).
Glyn Johns, who’s had some interactions with Allen Klein since Klein has handled business affairs for the Rolling Stones and Johns has often worked on recordings for the Stones as an engineer, characterizes Klein as “very strange. Very clever.” John brushes aside this possible caution with “we’re all hustlers.” Ringo calls Klein “a conman who’s on our side for a change. All those other con men are on the other side.”
Johns seems to be trying to warn Lennon about Klein without getting on Lennon’s bad side, consider how animatedly John’s raving about Klein.
“He’ll ask you a question, and you’re halfway through answering it, and if he doesn’t like the answer or it’s not really what he wanted to hear, he’ll change the subject, right in the middle of a sentence,” Johns notes. “That bugs me a bit, actually.” In hindsight Lennon would have done well to pay more heed to Johns’s observations, given how John, George, and Ringo would eventually get dissatisfied with Klein and initiate a break with him in 1973.
Just a day before the rooftop concert, there’s a lot of back-and-forth uncertainty about doing a show or how they should do it. Paul seems to be getting cold feet. Although John concedes “we’re not ready to do fourteen” songs, he adds, “I think we’d be daft to not do it,” pointing out they’d need another month of work to be ready to do fourteen. Paul feels that “we’re not doing a payoff.” John urges seizing the moment: “We’ve only got the seven. Let’s do seven. We haven’t got time to do fourteen.” George, as always the keenest to wrap things up and move on, says they could already “make half a dozen films” with all the footage they have. Glyn Johns suggests doing the rooftop concert, and then the TV show later, maybe thinking a more polished performance could be filmed for television if they’re not satisfied with the rooftop show. Michael Lindsay-Hogg gripes that “there’s no story yet,” concerned the film he’s been working so hard on will be anticlimactic.
Paul’s frustrations with recent sessions come out: “I really feel like I’m trying to produce the Beatles, and I know it’s hopeless.” George Martin, the Beatles’ official producer, is right behind him as he says this; it’s not clear whether McCartney knows Martin’s there, or whether Martin’s hurt by the remark.
George again seems to put the whole enterprise in danger by complaining, “I don’t wanna go on the roof.” Ringo, who has by far the least to say of any of the Beatles this month, might come to the rescue by simply chiming in, quietly but firmly, “I would like to go on the roof.” John quickly adds, “Yes, I’d like to go on the roof.” Maybe Ringo did the most to rescue the plan, his opinion perhaps carrying more weight at that moment precisely because he was making his voice known at a time when he said little. This could be a point at which Ringo truly did “Carry That Weight” when it seemed in danger of being dropped.
A list is shown that seems to be of the most serious contenders for inclusion in the movie, whether filmed on the roof or in the studio: “I’ve Got a Feeling,” “Don’t Let Me Down,” “Get Back,” “I’d Like a Love That’s Right (Old Brown Shoe),” “The Long and Winding Road,” “Let It Be,” “For You Blue,” “Two of Us,” “All I Want Is You,” (indistinct), “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” “One After 909,” “Bathroom Window,” “Teddy Boy,” “Dig It.” Of course a few of these wouldn’t make either the Let It Be film or LP, though “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” and “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window” would be on Abbey Road, “Teddy Boy” on McCartney’s first album, and “Old Brown Shoe” on the B-side of “The Ballad of John and Yoko.” It’s interesting to see “I’d Like a Love That’s Right” as a working title for “Old Brown Shoe,” though the opening line of that song would actually be “I want a love that’s right.”
George Martin might not have been satisfied with these sessions in retrospect, but he declares “there’s no question we’ve got an album.” It wouldn’t come out until May 1970, and Martin would only be credited as a co-producer, with Glyn Johns and someone who wasn’t even there for these January 1969 sessions, Phil Spector.
George Harrison says “I’d like to do an album of songs” on his own, as “it would be nice, mainly to get ‘em all out of the way…to hear what all mine are like all together.” Although he knows he could give away some of the songs to other artists to do, as he’d done for Jackie Lomax in 1968 with “Sour Milk Sea” and would even consider doing for Joe Cocker with “Something,” he adds, “I’m just gonna do me for a bit.” However, he wouldn’t start the sessions for his first proper solo album, All Things Must Pass, until spring 1970.
Mike McCartney, Paul’s younger brother, is shown pretending to play a piano. In a November 2021 interview with me, he remembered, “I bought this bright orange shiny leather jacket, and I simply wanted to show it to our kid [Paul] and the boys.” Going to Apple Studios as a recording session was in progress, “I slipped in, closed the door quietly, and just stood at the back, and enjoyed ‘Get Back,’ a smash hit.
“Then suddenly I realized there’s a track right down the middle of the studio. There’s a big movie camera on it, and it started to come down towards me. God, how ridiculous – this is gonna see me at the back standing here in me lovely leather jacket. I’ve gotta do something. There was a piano on the right-hand side there, and this track went to the side of the piano. So I thought, well, I’ll get behind that and they’ll think I’m playing the piano.
“And it started to keep going. All the Beatles are playing, Billy Preston is playing on his organ on the left-hand side, I’m on the right. I’m thinking, it’s getting very near my piano, which had its lid closed. It was all last minute. I thought, Jesus, I better pretend to play the closed-lid piano and look as though I’m part of the group. It went right past me, so I had to be serious, playing the piano.
“I’ve been telling people that story all my life. I’ve asked Apple many times, Mike Lindsay-Hogg, and no one’s even acknowledged it. And the next thing is our kid said, ‘Oh, you’re in this film.’ ‘Am I? Oh? I wonder if it’s my bit.’ Then Peter Jackson’s right-hand lady says, ‘I’ll send you a photograph.’ There is me at the piano in me leather jacket. So I can now prove I’m part of that track.” (The story for which I interviewed Mike McCartney, about the new book of his photos Mike McCartney’s Early Liverpool, can be read at https://pleasekillme.com/mike-mccartney/.)
Apple building doorman Jimmy Clark has a bigger and more colorful role than you’d expect as the police enter the premises to halt the proceedings. “They lock the door when they’re recording,” he blithely tells the cops as he stalls for time. “‘Cause other people keep trying to get on the roof.”
Considering that 55-60 years have passed, it’s amazing how many of the most important landmarks of the Beatles’ stints in Hamburg survive. Just one major site—unfortunately, a very major one (details later)—is gone. Otherwise, the clubs they played, the places they stayed, and some other odds and ends (including the doorway of a very famous photograph) are pretty intact, if understandably usually altered. It took a long time for me to get here, but almost fifty years after I first read about their Hamburg visits (at the age of eight in Hunter Davies’s Beatles biography, back in 1970), I finally made my pilgrimage in July 2018.
The Indra, the first club the Beatles played in Hamburg.
To be honest, if you’re not a big Beatles fan and don’t make the connections between these landmarks and their early history, they don’t look like much. I was here on my own, but I imagine that if you’re visiting with someone who’s not a fan (or even if they’re a casual fan), they might feel like I do when I tag along with fellow travelers eager to linger over vintage tapestry collections.
Hamburg, however, was the most crucial city to the Beatles’ evolution, other than their Liverpool birthplace. It was here they mutated, in just a couple years or so, from a ragtag semi-pro outfit who couldn’t find a permanent drummer to—without exaggeration—the best group in the world.
They certainly were by the time they played their last Hamburg show on New Year’s Eve in 1962, even if you can’t quite tell from the surviving lo-fi recordings of them in late December of that year at the Star Club. Playing for eight hours or so a night (with some breaks) for weeks or months on end not only accelerated their growth, but forced them to drastically expand their repertoire. Also important was their exposure to the St. Pauli district’s seedy nightlife, which similarly accelerated their growth from teenagers to adults.
There are Beatles landmarks throughout the St. Pauli district, but the most vital are concentrated on the Grosse Freiheit, a small but vibrant street off the western edge of the area’s main drag, the Reeperbahn. Three of the four clubs they played in Hamburg were here, within about a block of each other. The Reeperbahn entrance to Grosse Freiheit is marked by Beatles Platz, its circular shape meant to mimic a record.
Four Beatles statues on Beatles Platz.
To the side, the lone statue representing Stuart Sutcliffe.
Five spindly statues on Beatlesplatz represent the group as they were when they first played Hamburg between August 1960 and mid-1961. Four are grouped together; one, of original bassist Stuart Sutcliffe (who left in mid-1961 and died in spring 1962), is considerably off to the side. The idea behind these not-immediately-identifiable-images is for you to pose inside them as if you’re actually one of the Beatles. Yet less immediately apparent are the song titles inscribed into the Platz, which name many of their biggest hits from throughout their career.
“Let It Be,” the final song title inscribed onto Beatles Platz.
The first club the Beatles played in Hamburg was the Indra, though they didn’t draw much due both to its small size and their relative inexperience. Remarkably, it’s still there and still a music club, though a bit removed from the main action, about half a block north of where the other commercial establishments end.
Translation of Indra club plaque: “On August 17, 1960, the Beatles took the stage at the Indra. It was their first German engagement and the beginning of a huge career.”
Often missed by passerby are some interesting photos and posters above the entrance, which you have to get very close to in order to make out. The Beatles poster is of their last show in Hamburg — not in the Indra or even St. Pauli, but in the Ernst-Merck-Halle, as by this June 1966 gig they were global superstars, not a struggling club band. Less common are the photos of Jimi Hendrix; though he didn’t play the Indra, he did play the Star Club in March 1967.
The Indra closed about six weeks into the Beatles’ first visit, and they moved to the Kaiserkeller. Though less than a block away, it was much better situated to draw in the foot traffic from Grosse Freiheit, and a much bigger and better venue. It’s still here and still a club, with a doorway poster for some of their shows. Note they’re billed below, and in much smaller type than, fellow Liverpool group Rory Storm and the Hurricanes (misspelled “Hurican”), whose drummer was Ringo Starr.
The Star Club, the final and biggest place the Beatles played in Hamburg for 1962 engagements, was just across the street and south of the Kaiserkeller. Unfortunately the building burned down in 1987, and the former entrance now looks a bit like a mini-mall:
The entrance to the former Star Club, as it looks today.
But at least there’s a marker in the large open space inside, commemorating some of the many legends who played the Star Club. Besides the Beatles, these included fellow Liverpool bands both famous (the Searchers) and relatively obscure (Ian & the Zodiacs). But quite a few are great acts from elsewhere (you’ll have to blow up the picture to read them), including the Pretty Things, the Spencer Davis Group, Johnny Kidd & the Pirates, the Walker Brothers, and US rock’n’roll greats like Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Jerry Lee Lewis, the Everly Brothers, and Ray Charles — an amazing roster (and this is just a partial list, missing some notable names like Jimi Hendrix, Cream, and Soft Machine).
The interior of the space the Star Club used to inhabit at least gives a good idea of how big it was.
Grosse Freiheit itself is still teeming with gaudy nightlife, and many locals and tourists who likely aren’t there to pay homage to the Beatles:
The entrance to Grosse Freiheit.
Around the corner from Grosse Freiheit, on the Reeperbahn itself, is the Top Ten club, where the Beatles played in late 1960 and spring 1961, between their Kaiserkeller and Star Club stints. There aren’t many traces of its history from its current appearance. It’s now a club featuring late-night DJ sets a few times a week, though the entrance looks more like one for an apartment building:
Entrance to the former Top Ten club, now a DJ venue called Moondoo.
Also around the corner from Grosse Freiheit, at #33 on the far quieter Paul-Roosen Strasse, is the building that housed the Bambi Kino, the cinema over which the Beatles slept in legendarily filthy quarters on their first visit:
Yes, it’s marked by an actual Bambi, though that space is now a garage, not a cinema (which actually only operated for a couple years or so). There are still apartments above it, and they don’t look all that plush from the outside. The youngsters in this photo are at tables placed on the sidewalk by a cafe across the street. There’s a plaque a few feet to the right of the Bambi marking the Beatles’ residency, another landmark you might miss if you don’t know to look out for it:
English translation of Bambi plaque: “The Beatles lived here in 1960.”
The Beatles didn’t actually enter their rooms on this street, instead using a back entrance on Grosse Freiheit. As documented elsewhere, they probably didn’t get much sleep, as the Bambi Kino started running films at loud volume at noon, after the Beatles had stayed up all night and then some playing music and winding down:
The back entrance to the Bambi.
The Reeperbahn itself is still jammed with nightlife—much of it of the red-light variety—for about half a mile, sex clubs sitting side by side with falafel joints, bakeries, and tawdry bars. Not my kind of scene, but it gives you a taste of the wild side the still-teenaged Beatles were thrown into without preparation in summer 1960.
Food and beer court in the middle of the Reeperbahn has some welcome relief from the rows of sex clubs and bars lining both sides of the drag. The sign in the background translates to “the heart of St. Pauli.”
The most notable landmark outside of the Grosse Freiheit area is the doorway in which John Lennon posed for a memorable picture by Jurgen Vollmer, later used on the cover of his 1975 Rock’n’Roll album. To find it, you need to go to the arch reading Jäger-Passage at Wohlwillstrasse 22, go into the passage, open the gate, and go into a small garden. The doorway is easily recognized on your right. In the picture I took on July 7, 2018 (Ringo’s 78th birthday, as it happened), my guide held a copy of the Rock’n’Roll LP on the left edge:
By chance, a shop named after the opening lyric to the Beatles’ “Happiness Is a Warm Gun” opened a few doors to the right of Jäger-Passage. Not an authentic Beatles Hamburg landmark by any means, but it’s an interesting coincidence:
Farther away from the Reeperbahn, the Pacific Hotel—where the Beatles stayed for their final visit at the end of 1962, and a much nicer place than the Bambi Kino—is still in operation, only a block or so from Feldstrasse U-Bahn station. It still looks like a rather nice place to stay, in fact:
A couple blocks from there is the former shop where the Beatles got leather suits, though it’s not in operation anymore:
And near the Feldstrasse U-Bahn entrance are the fairgrounds where Astrid Kirchherr took the first great pictures of the Beatles in late 1960. It’s still used as a fairgrounds a few times a year—but I was there a couple weeks before one of those occasions.
The fairgrounds where the Beatles were famously photographed by Astrid Kirchherr in late 1960 usually sport this empty look today.
Maybe it’s an indication of how rock history has yet to be taken as seriously as it should, but there isn’t as much boosterism of the Beatles in Hamburg as you might expect—certainly little outside of Grosse Freiheit. Museums and souvenir stands had plenty of postcards of local landmark churches, lakes, buildings, and such, but none that I could find of the Beatles in Hamburg. Fortunately I did get one from the guide I used, Stefanie Hempel, who runs tours on Saturday evenings (info at http://www.hempels-musictour.de/en) that cover all of these sites in detail.
There are other things to do and see in Hamburg (a city of nearly two million), of course. Here are pictures of just some:
City center skyline from Binnenalster Lake.
Fountain on the lake.
View of the shipyard from the top of St. Michael’s church.
Planten un Blumen Park.
But really, for me, it was the Beatles landmarks that made me decide to finally visit. Besides Liverpool and London, Hamburg’s the city with the most important of these.
What do you say about an album that, back in the year in was issued, would have topped many best-of lists, but has become so over-familiar that even a six-disc expanded version isn’t as exciting as it could be? The six-disc deluxe box of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is a big step in the right direction in the packaging of the Beatles’ catalog, which until this 50th anniversary edition had not taken the obvious step of expanding their classic albums in reissued formats. This one has the stereo and mono versions, plenty of outtakes, the classic cuts from the “Strawberry Fields Forever”/“Penny Lane” single (originally intended to be used on Sgt. Pepper), and the audio on Blu-ray/DVD discs if that rings your chimes. But the extras aren’t as exciting as they are on some other box set editions of classic vintage LPs, and the fans most interested in the bells and whistles probably already have a good deal of this in their collection, sometimes many times over.
That doesn’t mean I don’t care about Beatles material that hasn’t been available before. With The Unreleased Beatles: Music and Film, I wrote a whole book on that subject. But as I noted in that book, 1967 might have been the least interesting year of the Beatles’ career (if we focus on their core 1962-69 era) in terms of material that was unissued at the time. No longer touring, they were focusing on studio recording, and in those recordings, building up tracks layer by layer. That means the different versions of songs they recorded for the LP—which form the bulk of the three dozen or so extra cuts on the box (counts vary according to whether you might consider a “2017 mix” previously unreleased)—aren’t all that different from the album versions we’ve heard all these years. Sometimes you essentially just get the backing track or elements of a track, which is interesting, but not so much that you’re likely to enjoy them over and over.
Whatever edition of Sgt. Pepper was issued (the 50th anniversary CDs also came in two-CD format with less bonus tracks), media coverage focused on the stereo remix by Giles Martin, George Martin’s son. I seem to be one of the critics least excited by ballyhoed remixes; it’s good, but it’s not that stupendously different from the original, and the original always sounded pretty good in the first place. The 1992 TV documentary on the DVD/Blu-Ray discs (The Making of Sgt. Pepper), featuring interviews with Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, George Harrison, and George Martin (who brings up separate elements of some tracks at the mixing board) is good, but long available on bootleg. The 144-page hardback book might be the best reason to buy the box, as it hasn’tbeen available before and can’t be easily bootlegged, and is pretty well done, even if the details on some tracks (like the bonus ones on the mono CD) could have been better. And for all its size, the box is missing a few bootlegged or known-to-exist items—the avant-garde “Carnival of Light” outtake, John Lennon’s home demo of “Good Morning Good Morning,” and Lennon’s home recordings of “Strawberry Fields Forever” (not to mention “Only a Northern Song,” recorded during the sessions, but not released until Yellow Submarine)—that would have made the box more definitive, if more expensive.
You can probably tell I don’t feel like the $150 or so this box cost (prices vary according to where you buy it and the shipping, if that’s involved) quite justified the price tag. But don’t get me wrong – the quality even on the oft-circulated stuff is better than the bootlegs; a few of the previously uncirculated tracks (like the “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” where Lennon has a mechanical vocal, changing to a more rapid and natural phrasing at McCartney’s suggestion) are pretty interesting, if not phenomenal; and the overall packaging is of a commendably high standard, even if there are a few questionable decisions and omissions. Hopefully there will also be a deluxe box for The White Album’s 50th anniversary, especially as there are much more, and much more interesting, extras to choose from (especially if you count the couple dozen or so demos they did at George Harrison’s home shortly before the sessions started). And then maybe they’ll finally go back to all of their albums to construct deluxe editions.
In the bulk of this post, I’m not going to focus on a track-by-track rundown. (Brief commercial interruption: I describe each “bonus track” on the deluxe box that wasn’t released back in 1967 in the updated ebook version of my book The Unreleased Beatles: Music and Film.) Nor will I detail the merits of the Giles Martin remix; there’s been enough of that on Facebook, NPR, and classic rock magazines. Instead, here are a few more obscure aspects of the reissue that fanatics might find interesting.
What’s been added: Besides the many bonus tracks, the deluxe edition has also added “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane.” It wasn’t well known at the time—though it’s pretty well known now, even if you’re not a Beatles obsessive—that both of these tracks were recorded early in the Sgt. Pepper sessions, and originally intended for the album. But pressure from Brian Epstein and EMI resulted in both songs getting issued in February 1967 on a single, in part because they were desperate to get a Beatles record on the market, as none had appeared for—gasp—six months! That’s nothing today, but that was the longest gap of their career up to that point, and hunger to quell rumors the Beatles were breaking up (as they’d taken the drastic step of retiring from live concerts) also played a part.
Wrote George Martin in his book With a Little Help from My Friends: The Making of Sgt. Pepper (written with William Pearson): “It was the biggest mistake of my professional life.”
Let’s look at the full context of that remark, from the same book:
“Realizing how desperate Brian was feeling, I decided to give him a super-strong combination, a double-punch that could not fail, an unbeatable linking of two all-time great songs: ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ and ‘Penny Lane.’ These songs would, I told him, make a fantastic double-A-sided disc—better even than our other double-A-sided triumphs, ‘Day Tripper’/‘We Can Work It Out,’ and ‘Eleanor Rigby’/‘Yellow Submarine.’
“It was the biggest mistake of my professional life.
“Releasing either song coupled with ‘When I’m Sixty-Four’ would have been by far the better decision, but at the time I couldn’t see it.”
A few observations here:
It’s hard to see where “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane” would have fit onto Sgt. Pepper, even though each of them were better as individual songs than any on the LP, except possibly for “A Day in the Life.” Maybe that’s because we’re so familiar with the thirteen songs that did make it onto LP, and the exact sequence of those songs, that it’s now hard to imagine the album any other way.
I guess “Strawberry Fields” could have ended side one and “Penny Lane” started side two, though the heart-stopping sudden climax of “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite” is hard to beat for a side-ender, especially in the days when you had to get up and actually flip the record. But that would have compromised the sound quality of the vinyl LP, in the days when even 45 minutes of music was pushing it. And then, which two songs do you take off? They’re all important to establishing the record’s mood, even lesser ones like “When I’m Sixty-Four.”
Speaking of which, I think it would have been a disaster to put “When I’m Sixty-Four” on a B-side, as it was clearly inferior to either “Strawberry Fields” or “Penny Lane.” More importantly, “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane” were a better pairing than any Beatles 45 boasted—and perhaps any 45 by anyone boasted. They were both about Liverpool childhood, in very different ways; they coupled one of John Lennon’s best songs (“Strawberry Fields”) with one of Paul McCartney’s best (“Penny Lane”); and the single had a distinctive picture sleeve.
This wouldn’t have been possible with “When I’m Sixty-Four.” And if you can only choose “Strawberry Fields” or “Penny Lane” for the LP, how can you possibly make a good choice of one over another? And if you can’t use “When I’m Sixty-Four” for the LP, doesn’t that throw off Sgt. Pepper’s balance, as one of its virtues was encompassing so many styles, for which “When I’m Sixty-Four” represented vaudeville?
No one I’ve come across—and just about everyone I know is familiar with Sgt. Pepper—has ever complained about missing “Strawberry Fields Forever” or “Penny Lane” on the album. George Martin’s about the only one I’ve heard express regrets. Along the same lines, George Martin was vocal, quite a few times, about wishing the Beatles would boiled down The White Album from two LPs to a much stronger disc. But very few other people would agree with him on that. And even if they do, no one would agree on which half of the songs to discard.
George Martin’s book about producing the Sgt. Pepper album.
Maybe if it had been the CD era and sound quality on a longer album had not been an issue, putting “Strawberry Fields” and “Penny Lane” on Sgt. Pepper would have been the right call. All things considered, however, back in 1967, it was the right call. And now that it’s the CD era and there are big expensive expanded box set editions of classic albums, it’s the right call to add the tracks, separated from the main thirteen songs so that it doesn’t change the sequence of the core LP.
Before this 50th anniversary release, by the way, I saw some comments on social media about what a bad idea it would be to add “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane.” Maybe those comments grew out of fears those songs would be inserted into and change the album’s main running order, which I agree would have been a mistake. So it’s worth emphasizing that they are separate from the core LP (as they are on the more modest two-CD deluxe edition).
If their very presence anywhere is considered bothersome, that seems as ridiculous as the complaint I once heard from someone who disliked any bonus tracks on CD reissues of albums, finding them distracting and injurious to the integrity of the original LP. If you really do find CDs with bonus tracks a ripoff—a concept about as sensible as complaining that free health care is too expensive—you can, of course, simply not play the extra cuts, or better yet, not buy these reissues.
What’s missing: Can there be much missing from a six-disc deluxe edition, with several dozen bonus tracks, some of which haven’t even been bootlegged? Yes, if we’re looking at the time frame between mid-September 1966 (when Lennon made his first informal composing tapes of “Strawberry Fields”) and when the album was finished on April 21, 1967. That’s even if you don’t count their 1966 Christmas fan club disc or home recordings (most by John) that were obviously too chaotic and lo-fi to merit serious consideration. Here are the most notable absentees:
“Strawberry Fields Forever” home tapes: John Lennon made quite a few tapes of “Strawberry Fields” in the two months before the Beatles started working on it at the studio in November 1966, some at home, and some (the earliest) in Spain, where he was filming his role in How I Won the War. It’s true it’s pretty repetitious to hear all of these (plus the various different recordings the Beatles made of the song in the studio before finalizing the track) all at once. But it’s historically fascinating, especially as it evolved from a much simpler near-folk song in its earliest solo acoustic versions. And they do circulate unofficially, on CDs such as the one below:
“Carnival of Light”: One of the most discussed Beatles studio outtakes that has never circulated, this wasn’t ever intended for Sgt. Pepper, but recorded on January 5 for use at a multimedia event of the same name at London’s Roundhouse on January 28 and February 4. From its description in Mark Lewisohn’s book The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions, it sounds heavily avant-garde, and perhaps tuneless. Hints have been dropped for years that it would find release. But its non-appearance on this deluxe box seems to indicate it might never appear—and that it might just not be very good and listenable.
“Good Morning Good Morning” home demo: Of the many home tapes John Lennon made in the late 1960s, this is the only one of a Sgt. Pepper song. In fact, it’s the only home recording of a Sgt. Pepper song. It’s just a bit over a minute long, and the chorus hasn’t been worked out, but it’s still interesting, in part because he chuckles after the fragment of the chorus (and the people he sees are “fast” rather than “half” asleep). Maybe home tapes were considered off-limits for a set featuring only EMI recordings, but that didn’t stop some such tracks from getting included in the Anthology series in the mid-1990s.
“Only a Northern Song”: The only real song recorded during the Sgt. Pepper sessions that didn’t make the album, aside from the “Strawberry Fields Forever”/“Penny Lane” single. Sometimes people ask me what my least favorite Beatles song is, and while I don’t have many contenders (as I like almost all of their songs), this is among the ones I mention. About thirty years ago I did come across someone who thought it was great, but I’ve never met anyone else who shares that opinion. Actually I’ve heard few opinions voiced about this George Harrison composition whatsoever—it did find a place on the Yellow Submarine album, but many listeners simply don’t remember it well, or at all.
“Only a Northern Song” was rejected for Sgt. Pepper. George Martin seems to have been particularly unenthusiastic, remembering in With a Little Help from My Friends, “I groaned inside when I heard it.” He suggested Harrison try to come up with something better, which the Beatle did with “Within You, Without You”—not only a better song, but an infinitely better fit for the Sgt. Pepper LP.
It’s hard to imagine where “Only a Northern Song” would have fit, had the tune simply been accepted as George’s contribution. It seems like it would have brought the carnival-like mood to a dead stop, with its rather careless half-baked swirl. It wouldn’t be a great fit even for the Sgt. Pepper deluxe box, where I suspect few miss its absence. And unlike the other recordings in this section, you can get it on another official release, Yellow Submarine, in any case.
The title of “Only a Northern Song” was inspired by the name of the Beatles’ publishing company.
So much is said in silence: Many times, I’ve read that there is no silence or no gap between tracks on Sgt. Pepper. This was mentioned in some writing on the LP shortly after it was released, and it’s still often referred to as a feature of the album. Kevin Howlett’s essay on the record’s “Songs and Recording Details” book in the deluxe box, for example, states:
“…the album sounds like a unified work. The elimination of the usual few seconds of silence between tracks helps to create this impression. The songs flow together without a break, like a surreal music hall variety show. Interestingly, the idea not to have ‘rills’ on the record had been considered before Sgt. Pepper. A month ahead of starting work on Revolver, in an interview published in NME, John discussed ideas for the group’s next album. ‘We wanted to have it so that there was no space between the tracks—just continuous. But they wouldn’t wear it [sic].’ The group was eventually allowed to carry out that idea, not only on Sgt. Pepper, but also on subsequent albums.”
I think I was around eight years old (which would have been 1970) when I first read about there being no silence between the tracks in a couple books. Even then, that assertion puzzled me. There are just three instances when there is no silence: when the title track segues into “With a Little Help from My Friends” as they sing “Billy Shears”; when the animal noises in “Good Morning Good Morning” turn into the guitar that starts the reprise of the title track; and when the cheers at the end of the reprise fade and “A Day in the Life” starts.
Otherwise, there’s silence between the tracks. Very short gaps of silence, yes, lasting just a couple seconds or less. But they’re there. The other tracks don’t segue into each other, or slam right against each other, as they do in my favorite album in which this occurs, the Mothers of Invention’s We’re Only in It for the Money (which of course was in part a Sgt. Pepper satire). I think the Mothers’ 1967 album Absolutely Free, released at almost the exact same time as Sgt. Pepper,was the first rock LP in which there was truly no silence separating tracks.
For what it’s worth, on my vinyl copy of Sgt. Pepper, you can clearly see thin bands separating all of the tracks (even the ones that blend into each other), as you can on most LPs. Granted, it’s not a first pressing, but I don’t recall seeing other copies of Sgt. Pepper with no thin separating bands. (Update: just after this post went up, Peter Bochan (see comments section) clarified: “I got the first edition Sgt. Pepper shipped over from UK. It didn’t have visible track separations, if you looked at it closely you could see some of the songs ending by way of intensity of the groove patterns. US copy had tracks.”)
This is far from the most controversial issue surrounding the Beatles or even Sgt. Pepper, but I think the continued reference to no silence between the tracks is simply inaccurate. For that matter, although most of side two of Abbey Road is commonly described as a continuous medley starting with “You Never Give Me Your Money” and ending with “The End,” there is in fact a definite, if short, silence between “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window” and “Golden Slumbers.” I don’t know how these things get entrenched, but once they do, it’s hard to stop them. (Also note some tracks on The White Album fade into each other without silent breaks, like “Back in the USSR” into “Dear Prudence” and “Revolution 9” into “Good Night,” but that’s never referred to as an LP without separating tracks.)
One more silence-related issue to bring up about Sgt. Pepper: the original UK issue had a bit of gibberish in the run-out groove after “A Day in the Life” ended (as well as a high-pitched whistle only dogs could hear), but the North American one didn’t. The book in the deluxe box explains how this might have happened.
As early as April 19, well before Sgt. Pepper’s release, some US radio stations somehow obtained copies of some tracks and began broadcasting them without authorization. Capitol Records wanted to counteract this by issuing the LP as soon as possible, and a cable from EMI indicates the mono tapes were sent on April 21, with the stereo ones hoped to follow the next day. “At this stage, the target release date was 8 May 1967,” Kevin Howlett writes (though it wouldn’t come out until the beginning of June). “The haste to supply Capitol with tapes partly explains why the American version of Sgt. Pepper did not include the material embedded in the run-out groove of the British record.” (Don’t worry, it’s on the 50th anniversary reissues.)
I honestly don’t remember discussing this run-out groove with anyone in my lifetime. My opinion is that on a CD, it’s much more effective to just have the memorable final piano chord of “A Day in the Life” (and the whole album) fade into silence, without anything to follow. And maybe that’s how it should have been on all editions of the LP, too.
ADT on “She’s Leaving Home”: ADT refers to “automatic double-tracking,” a device often used on Beatles recordings to thicken sounds, especially lead vocals. One of the more interesting bonus tracks on the deluxe box is the “first mono mix” of “She’s Leaving Home,” which has four cello notes at the end of each chorus that were edited out of the final version. In addition, the opening notes on the harp, played by Sheila Bromberg, are treated with ADT, giving them a strange artificial effect that was not used on either the mono or stereo versions on the final album.
In 2011, Bromberg was interviewed by BBC One television about playing on the track. The brief segment is interesting, as I don’t recall her discussing this anywhere else. She recalls that Paul McCartney had the musicians (none of the Beatles played on the track) try several different ways of playing the song, and had trouble verbalizing how he wanted Bromberg to change her part, especially as he didn’t write or read music. After all those attempts, it was the first take that ended up being used.
In the segment, the BBC interviewer states, “When Sheila heard the track, she realized they’d used the first take. The sound McCartney had been after, a doubling effect of her playing, had been created by the engineers.” “That’s how they got that sound. That’s what he was after. Yes!” exclaims Bromberg.
It makes a good story, but the “doubling” or ADT effect was not used on either the official stereo or mono versions. You can clearly hear the difference on the intro of the “first mono mix.” As Mark Lewisohn writes in The Beatles Recording Sessions, “As an experiment, ADT was applied to the song’s opening harp passage on [mono] remix one, but the idea was dropped after that.”
So why would Bromberg have thought the track was “doubled”? Is it even possible she was accidentally played the then-unreleased “first mono mix” when interviewed for the program?
Another Beatle myth exploded: The book in the deluxe box set doesn’t have much information that’s different to how the genesis of Sgt. Pepper has usually been reported. Here’s the most important exception:
Almost since the time it was released, it’s generally been accepted that “Strawberry Fields Forever” was edited together from two different takes. These were performed in different keys and different tempos, so it would have been virtually impossible to do this with 1966 technology without sounding awkward. George Martin and engineer Geoff Emerick managed to do so, however, by speeding up take 7 and slowing down take 26. Miraculously, the keys and tempos now matched, almost as if by divine miracle. Takes 7 and 26 are both on the deluxe edition.
Or, at least, that’s how it was usually reported, as it is in The Beatles Recording Sessions. However, the book in the Sgt. Pepper box gives a different account. Here, Kevin Howlett writes that “the speed of take 26 was reduced by 11.5 percent and, as John’s voice was lowered by over a tone in pitch, the effect was created of a sleepy slur as he sang. The speed of take seven was not altered.”
Well, isn’t that a cold shower. I’ve told the story about both takes being altered and matched with calm authority at least half a dozen times when I’ve taught a course on the Beatles. Now I can’t tell it anymore. But it does go to show that Beatles mysteries continue to be untangled fifty years after the fact, buried in the deep recesses of EMI’s tape vaults.
The previously unreleased material on the Sgt. Pepper box, along with all of the other recordings the Beatles made that weren’t released while they were active, are written about in detail in my book The Unreleased Beatles: Music and Film.
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.”
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.
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.
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 (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!
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
“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:
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.
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.
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!”
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.
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. Click here or on the cover image above to order through Amazon.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 “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 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. Click here or on the cover image above to order through Amazon.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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,” 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 low-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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
With the super-abundance of information about the Beatles out there, it’s always a surprise, and for the most part a pleasure, to come across a bit of interest that hasn’t often been previously reported. No, we’re not talking anything on the order of the real reason Pete Best got fired, or a recording of a previously unknown Lennon-McCartney original. We are talking about of the roots of one of the songs the Beatles covered in their early days.
The Beatles’ June 1, 1963 performance of “I Got to Find My Baby” was issued about three decades later on Live at the BBC.
“I Got to Find My Baby” is one of the most obscure songs of which a good-quality recording by the Beatles exists. Like some of the other “most little known” songs they did, they performed it on the BBC, taping it on June 1, 1963 (the track eventually making it onto the Beatles’ Live at the BBC compilation). It’s pretty clear this jovial, bluesy number with a John Lennon harmonica solo – one of the bluesiest items they ever did, in fact – was learned from Chuck Berry, John introducing it as “Chuck Berry’s ‘I Got to Find My Baby’” on the broadcast. The Beatles even did it a second time on the BBC on June 24, a performance that’s now available as a download on iTunes’ Bootleg Recordings 1963.
Berry did indeed put out a version of “I Got to Find My Baby” as the A-side of a flop single in August 1960. Live at the BBC credits Berry as the songwriter. But he certainly wasn’t the first person to record it.
Muddying these blues waters more, blues harmonica great Little Walter recorded “I Got to Find My Baby” as a single on May 22, 1954. It’s not exactly the same as Berry’s “I Got to Find My Baby,” but in many parts, it is exactly the same. Quite a few years ago, I seem to remember even reading it stated that Little Walter did the original of the song performed by the Beatles as “I Got to Find My Baby.” The only compilation on which I have Little Walter’s version, Confessin’ the Blues, credits Willie Dixon—who wrote many blues classics, especially for artists on Chess Records—as the songwriter.
It turns out, however, that the roots of the tune go yet deeper. For in the early 1940s, Doctor Clayton put out a record, “Gotta Find My Baby,” that is in all respects the same song as the one Berry put on his 1960 single. The arrangement’s much different, of course—the chief instrument is piano, and there are no electric guitars or drums. It’s an easygoing early urban piano blues. But the tune, and most of the lyrics, are the same.
One important difference: a verse that goes as follows was not used in Berry’s version:
When my head starts aching
I grab my hat and coat
‘Cause cocaine and reefer
Can’t reach my case no more
That last line might not seem to make much sense, but that’s how it sounds. The line with cocaine and reefer, however, is definitely in Clayton’s version. And Chuck Berry, for all his boundary-pushing, was not about to sing about cocaine and reefer, especially not in 1960, when he was appealing a jail sentence for violating the Mann Act.
It seems unlikely to me that the Beatles would have even known about Clayton’s version. They were huge Chuck Berry fans; they weren’t prewar blues collectors. Which makes it less likely still that they had any notion they were performing a song that, in its original incarnation, made more blatant references to drugs than almost any song they or almost any other leading rock group performed in the 1960s.
As a final footnote, the song “Gotta Find My Baby” also lived on through the late 1960s, in the repertoire of a band that fed two members into Led Zeppelin. In 1968, the Band of Joy, featuring a pre-Led Zep Robert Plant and John Bonham, did the song on an unreleased tape that’s circulated. Check it out in the usual places we can’t name.
The Band of Joy, including Robert Plant and John Bonham.
There was a lot more talk about Kansas City than usual in San Francisco last month, since the Giants were playing the Royals in the World Series. It came as something of a disappointment – no, an outrage – that at no time did the networks play the classic ‘50s rock song “Kansas City.” It even opens with the lyric “goin’ to Kansas City”! It was good enough to be used when the Phillies went to Kansas City to play the Royals in the 1980 World Series, and it’s more than good enough now, 55 years after it topped the charts.
For those who found the song “Kansas City” playing in their head as the World Series played out, there was often some understandable confusion as to what version should be playing. The most famous one is the single by Wilbert Harrison that went to #1 in 1959. The second-most-famous one, and perhaps almost-as-famous one, was recorded by the Beatles in 1964 for their fourth LP. Yet the Beatles’ version sounds almost totally different from the Harrison one. How did that happen?
The original version was written by two 19-year-old white Jewish guys in Los Angeles, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. Leiber and Stoller would go on to become one of the greatest songwriting (and production) teams in rock history, but at that point were just getting a foothold in the R&B scene. As Mike Stoller remembers in Hound Dog: The Leiber and Stoller Autobiography, “Jerry’s idea was that we’d give him this geographically specific but musically traditional blues.”
After some apparently mild arguing about how authentically blues Stoller’s melody was, they placed it with Little Willie Littlefield, who had some regional success with the single in 1952. Littlefield’s version – done more as a jump blues than rock’n’roll, rock really not having been officially born yet — isn’t too different from Harrison’s, though a couple of the more risque lyrics would be modified. In the first act that would cause confusion for decades when fans traced the origins of the tune, however, the title was changed from “Kansas City” to “K.C. Loving” by Federal Records co-owner Ralph Bass (who considered “K.C. Loving” a “hipper” title, again according to Stoller in Hound Dog).
On September 13, 1955, Little Richard recorded a cover that stuck pretty close to Littlefield’s version for the first verse, though in a bit more of an uptempo rock’n’roll style. But then, in the biggest wrinkle in the song’s evolution, he suddenly leaped into an improvised-sounding diversion, yelping “bye bye baby bye, so long,” interspersing a characteristic whoop in the middle. When he gets back to a verse of sorts, this also sounds like he’s making lyrics up off the top of his head, then making another detour to the “bye bye so long” bit. Indeed, this sounds kind of like a jam after the first verse gets out of the way.
Then on November 29, he cut a yet different version which – it’s obvious right from the opening riff – is the one the Beatles based on their cover on. Here Richard took so many liberties with the Leiber-Stoller original that it’s virtually an entirely different song, save for the very basic theme of going to Kansas City to find a girl and tie one on. He did retain the “bye bye baby bye so long” etc. bit from his previous attempt at the song, adding a yet different bit based around a “hey hey hey” chant. In all, this accounts for why the Beatles’ version is credited to Jerry Leiber, Mike Stoller, and Richard Penniman (Little Richard’s legal name), not just Leiber and Stoller.
Now go back to the 1950s, but this time, the late 1950s. Journeyman R&B singer Wilbert Harrison had been doing Littlefield’s “K.C. Loving” live, and recorded it for a March 1959 single, this time changing the title back to “Kansas City.” Possibly Harrison was unaware of Little Richard’s liberal “cover,” sticking fairly close to Littlefield’s arrangement, though the lyrics were slightly toned down – “gonna get me some” was changed to “gonna get me one,” and the reference to a “bottle of Kansas City wine” was so slurred that many DJs and would-be-concerned parents might never have caught it.
But “Kansas City” wasn’t just a faithful replica of Littlefield’s by-then rather ancient single. Occasionally there are covers that vary the original only slightly, but by significant enough degrees to make it a much different listening experience and indeed much superior recording. And there may be no better example than Harrison’s “Kansas City.” What made it a #1 pop smash, where the original hadn’t even made the R&B charts?
Well, Harrison’s version just rocked more. He pounded the piano to set a compelling groove that might have had its roots in jump blues, but was as locked-in as it gets. Put on Littlefield’s version, and it’s just another above-average R&B song; put on Harrison’s, and your foot can’t help but immediately start pounding along with it. Crucially, Harrison also eccentrically varies the intonation on the vocals on the final lines of the verses so that he sounds like he’s leaning in and out of the lyrics, almost as if he’s tempted to sing it like a ska song. And most crucially of all, Jimmy Spruill lets loose with a wailing guitar solo (goosed on by Harrison’s shouts of “ah, but you know yeah, must-tah!” — well, that’s what it sounds like — and “ohhh yeah!”) that might be rooted in the blues, but is most definitely rock’n’roll. The record shot to #1, just a couple months after the plane crash that supposedly killed rock’n’roll – though, as “Kansas City” and countless other records prove, the music was very much alive and well at the time when rock’n’roll had supposedly died or vanished.
But while it was #1 in the US, it didn’t chart at all in the UK. There the hit version belonged to Little Richard, whose “Kansas City”/“Hey-Hey-Hey-Hey” mutation (as it’s now titled on Beatles for Sale) made #26, not long after Harrison’s “Kansas City” climbed the American charts. It was “Kansas City”/“Hey-Hey-Hey-Hey,” then, that the Beatles and other British teenagers heard, and this was the arrangement that the Beatles began to play live as early as mid-1960, as its inclusion on group’s the earliest surviving setlist proves. Although “Long Tall Sally” is a more celebrated instance of Paul McCartney’s ability to match Little Richard in sheer intensity for upper-register raucous rock’n’roll singing, the Beatles’ interpretation of “Kansas City” is just as impressive in that regard.
There are, indeed, several versions predating the studio recording they cut on October 18, 1964. They did three versions for the BBC (July 16, 1963; May 1, 1964; and November 25, 1964), all of which were bootlegged before the November ’64 one came out last year on On the Air: Live at the BBC Vol. 2. An inferior alternate studio take came out on Anthology 1, and you can even hear a lo-fi but energetic one from September 5, 1962 before a live Liverpool audience at the Cavern if you look in all the places you’re not supposed to.
The Beatles also did it on September 17, 1964 when they, after getting an offer from Charlie Finley (owner of the Kansas City Athletics major league baseball team), added a Kansas City concert to their summer American tour. If it was good enough for the Beatles and Kansas City then, why wasn’t it good enough for Fox network last month?
Author Richie Unterberger's views on vintage rock music; San Francisco Bay Area biking and hiking; socially responsible living; and baseball.