Sunday, 27 June 2010

It's Mother Love And Fear From John Lennon

That was the headline for the NME review of John Lennon: Plastic Ono Band in December 1970. (In fact, it continued: 'and weirdo sounds from Yoko Ono', over a brief and baffled description of her own Plastic Ono Band album.)

In 1970, the NME wasn't the sharp-witted, impeccably hip, razor-edged journal that people remember from later in the decade and beyond, peopled by the likes of Nick Kent, Charles Shaar Murray and Julie Burchill. That transformation came a couple of years later. The NME of 1970 was unashamedly a pop paper, dominated by who and what was in the Top 30, and more at home with LPs by Danny La Rue, Clive Dunn and Kenneth Williams (all reviewed on the same page as the Lennon album) than with progressive rock or confessional songwriting.

Which is what makes their review of the Lennon album so fascinating. Journalist Andy Gray had clearly only heard the record once, without a lyric sheet, and without any of the biographical insight that we have today. He didn't know that Lennon had spent several months that year undergoing Primal Scream therapy. Nor did he have any sense of Plastic Ono Band as an epochal record in rock history. That all came later. But his review does provide an intriguing view of the pop world in which Lennon was struggling to exist.

"I get the impression that John Lennon has much fear in his make-up," Gray began. "Also a great big chip on his shoulder about class consciousness and the unfairness of the world." So far so good, but Gray's comments on the individual tracks reveal a man who was conscious of feeling out of his depth.

He complains that on the gentle 'Hold On', "words are smothered by instruments". On 'I Found Out', "the insistent guitar and throbbing drums make it hard to hear the words". 'Remember', which he says is based around "a monotonous plunk-plunk repetition from the guitars" (sure that's not actually a piano, Andy?), is "a sort of speech-talk song, rather hard to hear". On 'Well Well Well' he finds the "words distorted again". And he says that' God' is "compelling, but hard to catch the words again" - which is presumably why he fails to mention that Lennon sings, "I don't believe in Beatles".

At this point, one is tempted to ask whether he should have checked the needle for fluff before he started. His problems with Lennon's diction aside, Gray was stumbling to find adequate descriptions of the music. 'I Found Out' apparently has "big Afro-beat and voodoo drums behind the high-pitched, distorted vocal", while 'Well Well Well' has "a thump-on-drum sound throughout, reminding me of a war canoe song by Paul Robeson in a film long ago". When primitive rock'n'roll confused him so much, it's not surprising that Gray's response to Yoko's album was: "I'm afraid it is a bit beyond me, but I'm sure it is very clever".

Yet Gray couldn't avoid the emotional impact of one song: 'Mother'. "I have rarely heard so much anguish and suffering put into a track", he wrote. "It builds up to the most frightening, mad screeching. Anguish as never heard before."

To be fair to Andy Gray, my reaction to John Lennon: Plastic Ono Band - when I bought a copy eight months later, just after my 14th birthday - wasn't much more sophisticated. I'd gone looking for Lennon's new album, Imagine, but it wasn't in stock, and being an impatient teenager, I'd bought another Lennon record instead. I can remember being shocked and a little deflated by the album's lack of pop tunefulness, though I loved 'I Found Out' and 'Well Well Well' (must have been those war canoe drums). I couldn't admit to my mother that I'd wasted two pounds, so I persevered - and spent the rest of the decade convinced that John Lennon: Plastic Ono Band was the greatest album of all time. But I'd love to know whether Andy Gray ever played it again.

Saturday, 26 June 2010

McCartney Live 35 Years On

They're still selling tickets for Paul McCartney's Hyde Park show tomorrow at a mere £29.99, according to this morning's paper. It's an enticing bill for those of us over a certain age, with Elvis Costello and Crosby, Stills & Nash among the supporting cast. But I won't be there. Nothing against McCartney, you understand; but 12 hours under the blistering sun is about 11 hours and 55 minutes more than I can take, no matter what the attraction.

In my book, I note the marked deterioration in McCartney's speaking voice around the time of his traumatic divorce from Heather Mills. But the brief clips I've seen on Youtube from his US shows earlier this year demonstrated a remarkable durability for a man who has just celebrated his 68th birthday. Check out, for example, this rousing debut for a 45-year-old Beatles standard:

I've been fortunate enough to see McCartney in several much more intimate venues than Hyde Park down the years, from Westcliff Pavilion to the Mean Fiddler in North London. But nothing would ever be able to match the emotional impact of the first rock gig I ever attended: Paul McCartney & Wings at the Southampton Gaumont in 1975.

It had been a long wait. In 1973, McCartney had announced tour dates that included Southampton, but then cancelled them because his James Paul McCartney TV special wasn't finished. When the schedule was revised, he played Bournemouth instead, which was too far for me to travel on a school night. Two years later, I obeyed the mid-70s etiquette for obtaining concert tickets, trekking to the nearest post office to buy postal orders, and sending them off hopefully with a stamped addressed envelope. To my amazement, I received two seats about ten rows back, in a cinema that couldn't have held more than about 3,000.

I still couldn't quite comprehend that I was going to be in the same building as a Beatle. Outside the cinema, there were desperate Americans who had travelled thousands of miles in the vain hope of obtaining a ticket. McCartney was unable at the time to get into America because of a drugs bust, and so US fans assumed that a speculative flight across the Atlantic represented their only chance of ever seeing him in concert.

The show was meant to start at 8.00, but the headliners (there was no support act) took the stage a few minutes early - because, I discovered later, McCartney was so nervous about the first night of the tour that he couldn't bear to wait in the dressing-room a second longer. They opened with the 'Venus And Mars' and 'Rock Show' medley from their recent album. I vividly remember the first time McCartney's fingers touched the strings of his Hofner bass guitar, and a vast percussive thud cannoned into my chest. All night I kept feel ing my ribs to make sure they were still intact. It wasn't hard to guess which member of the band had ultimate control over the sound system . . .

Most of the show passed in a thrilled, disbelieving haze. But after a handful of songs, someone shouted from behind me, "What about John Lennon?". It had been five years since the Beatles' split, but McCartney was still widely resented as the chief culprit. He glared back in the direction of the heckler, vigorously chewed his gum for a few seconds, and then said contemptuously, "What about John Lennon?".

The other hot topic in 1975 was whether McCartney would ever perform Beatles material in public again. We had our answer after about 30 minutes, when he sat behind a piano and bashed out the familiar intro to 'Lady Madonna' - one of five Fab songs that night. As I recall it, my reaction wasn't the glow of nostalgia that the same song would evoke today, but an almost numbing sense of disbelief.

The show was tight, efficient, and probably (in hindsight) too controlled to be genuinely exciting. But its symbolic importance, for me and everyone else who was there, was huge. Maybe it was, after all, possible for the Beatles to reclaim their past. And if Paul McCartney, the man who (so I presumed then) had chosen to break up the group, could step back into the past, then surely a reunion couldn't be that far away?

There was only one disappointment. Back in 1973, when James Paul McCartney was premiered in the States, Melody Maker and NME reviewed the TV special and mentioned Wings' rowdy performance of 'Long Tall Sally'. When it was screened in Britain a few weeks later, I sat with thrilled anticipation, waiting for this song - and was let down when the British 'mix' of the show included 'Hi Hi Hi' instead. During the encores at Southampton in 1975, the band duly played 'Hi Hi Hi' again, and then prepared for one more song. This was it, I thought - 'Long Tall Sally' at last. But no. Instead, they launched into an unfamiliar riff which, I discovered a year or two later, was called 'Soily', and barely deserved to be called a song. To this day, I still haven't seen McCartney perform 'Long Tall Sally' in the flesh, and I probably never will.

35 years on, if I was in Hyde Park tomorrow, I'm sure I'd relish McCartney's return to the Beatles catalogue. But I'd have been far more likely to brave the body-sapping sunshine if I thought that he'd play a set that wasn't purely an exercise in collective nostalgia. Wings in 1975 were a functioning band, with a repertoire that didn't depend on the past, fired by their leader's desperate desire to prove himself as a contemporary artist. Paul McCartney's 2010 stage act is purely a celebration of the past - remarkable in its way, but with nothing more at stake than sunburn and dehydration. One consolation: at least the crowd won't have to endure 'Soily' . . .

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Stop Press #3: Clapton's wedding 1979

As I wrote in You Never Give Me Your Money, "In May 1979, Starkey, McCartney and Harrison made music for the first time since January 1970 - drunken, shambolic music, but together nonetheless. The occasion was the wedding celebration for Eric Clapton and Pattie Boyd. Clapton recalled, 'John later phoned me to say that he would have been there too if he had known about it', but no one thought to invite him."

That much is indisputable, although I remain doubtful whether Lennon would have turned up even if he had been invited. What's never likely to be known, however, given the degree of intoxication experienced by all the participants in this wedding-party jam session, is what material the three Beatles (and their equally inebriated buddies) performed.

In the book, I report that the ensemble "stumbled through such familiar material as 'Get Back', 'Sgt. Pepper' and 'Lawdy Miss Clawdy'." But in the interests of accuracy, I ought to add here that some witnesses claimed that no Beatles material was attempted or destroyed on this occasion, the repertoire being dominated by Lonnie Donegan's skiffle material. Given the size of Donegan's ego, and the ex-Beatles' collective devotion to his 50s hits, I think it's pretty safe to say that once the skiffle king took centre-stage for such numbers as 'Cumberland Gap' and 'Pick A Bale Of Cotton', he'd have been unlikely to let any youngsters like McCartney and Harrison anywhere near a microphone. Still wish I'd been there, though.

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Stop Press #2: Lennon in 1978

As You Never Give Me Your Money was an attempt to focus on the truth about the Beatles' post-split adventures, I skipped past most of the rumours that were attached to their names in the 1970s.

To pick a year and a man almost at random, take the case of John Lennon in 1978. He spent most of that year in America, the summer in Japan, and none of it, so far as we know, in the recording studio. In which case, why were there 'confirmed' reports in April 1978 that Lennon was hard at work at the Record Plant in New York, making a new album? We're not talking one person's fantasy here: the same story spread across the UK & US media, alongside suggestions that Lennon was about to sign a deal with Columbia Records (who instead signed up Paul McCartney).

In that same month, another Lennon tale was printed in dozens of US newspapers. This time, he was said to have agreed to play the lead role in The Street Messiah, a Hollywood movie about a rock star who finds religion and seeks to convert his entire fanbase. Two things spring immediately to mind: the similarities with the mid-60s Paul Jones vehicle, Privilege, though that was based on politics, not religion; and the fact that the following year, Bob Dylan would take on the role of 'Street Messiah' for real.

The film was supposedly going to be directed by William J. Levy, a name that doesn't show up on the database. It was never made; Lennon never mentioned the possibility in his final interviews; and the mysterious Mr Levy never got his name onto a single set of movie credits, even as deputy bottle washer. So where did this apochryphal story come from?

Finally, at least one recognised Beatles historian claims that April 1978 was when Lennon and Ono sent out a press release about their forthcoming Broadway musical, The Ballad Of John And Yoko. Except that if they did, it was ignored by the entire worldwide media. Does that sound likely? File this rumour under 'flights of the imagination' as well. And ponder for a second on the iconic power of a man who could attract global gossip, then and long after his death, without ever leaving the sanctuary of his Central Park West apartment.

Monday, 14 June 2010

Lennon's Disappearing Message

In the spring of 2005, as I was finishing up the manuscript of The Art And Music Of John Lennon, I stumbled across the name of Bruce Bierman (also known as Brulen). He was, I discovered, making an astonishing claim: he had taken over from Paul McCartney as John Lennon's songwriting partner.

It was easy to prove that Lennon and Bierman knew each other, because at the age of 17 Bierman had been one of the musicians on The Pope Smokes Dope, an album of 'street music' produced by John & Yoko and issued on Apple in 1972. The album was the work of David Peel & the Lower East Side, and Peel (whom I interviewed for You Never Give Me Your Money) was in fairly constant contact with the Lennons in 1971/72. But Bierman? His role on The Pope Smokes Dope aside, his name was absent from almost every chronicle of Lennon's life and career.

So I tracked Bierman down, and listened to his story. He told me that he and Lennon had bumped into each other in Manhattan several times in the months after the Apple recording sessions, and that Lennon had interpreted this as a cosmic sign that the two men should become friends. It was only natural, Bierman said, that the they should start writing together - and over the next eight years they composed around twenty complete songs, and fragments of as many more again.

As an example, Bierman cited a song called 'Central Park'. "We were watching an old black-and-white movie called Million Dollar Baby," he told me, "in which Ronald Reagan supposedly 'composed' a song about Central Park. John said, 'That's awful, we can do better than that'. He asked me if I had a piano, and I said, 'No, but I knew where we could get access to one, at my old school, Vanderchild High School in the Bronx. So we snuck in there, where there one or two grand pianos in an otherwise empty music room, and we wrote a song of our own. John began banging out chords on the piano, and we came up with the chorus line, 'Meet me in Central Park', because that's where we often used to meet."

Bierman steered me towards his website,, where he listed more than a dozen songs he claimed to have written with Lennon, and had also posted samples of his own recordings of several of them, including 'Central Park'. "There will be an album soon", he told me, adding that he owned many tapes of his writing sessions with Lennon, and hoped that Yoko Ono would allow them to be released.

A few months later, Newsweek magazine picked up on the story, but since then? Nothing. So today I checked Bierman's website, and was redirected to - where I discovered that Bierman had indeed recorded an album of his Lennon collaborations, Message, but that Ono had apparently blocked its release. There are still samples of ten songs to stream on the site, however, which strangely include Bierman's covers of Lennon's 'Love' and Elvis Presley's 'Can't Help Falling In Love'. Surely he wasn't claiming he'd co-written those?

So where does that leave us? With a disappearing album, Bierman/Lennon collaborations that aren't, and a shifting list of songs that supposedly came from their writing sessions (ten of the songs that Bierman listed in 2005 aren't mentioned on the site anymore, while two new suggestions, 'One Lonely Tear' and 'It's Been A Journey', feature among the song samples).

Most importantly, do I think the story is true? Well, having spoken to Bierman for about an hour, I didn't think he sounded like a madman or a fantasist. I was expecting a tale that fell to pieces in seconds, but nothing he said was obviously wrong or inaccurate. The first question most people would ask is: how come we've never heard of you before? To which Bierman answered, quite sensibly: "There was no quicker way to end a friendship with John than advertising it to the outside world".

What is impossible to prove (at least without hearing Bierman's tapes of Lennon) is how much Lennon contributed to the creation of these songs. From what you can hear on the website, the songs are Lennonesque, but then so are thousands of pop songs that have been written since the 1960s. In my judgement, however, there is nothing in the music or (especially) the lyrics that is so distinctively Lennon-like that it must have been written by him, rather than somebody trying to sound like him; and some of the lyrics are so clumsy that he would surely never have let them stand. Unless, of course, he was trying to encourage a young friend, and never thought for a second that anyone else would ever hear the results . . .

For the moment I'll let my cynicism win out, and refrain from giving the Doggett Seal of Approval to Bierman's recordings. But I still want to hear his Lennon tapes, though Yoko Ono doesn't seem to want me to. Is that because she doesn't think they're authentic, or because they reveal something she doesn't want us to know? Sadly, my guess is that we'll never find out.

Friday, 11 June 2010

I Call Your Name

John, Paul, George and . . . Richard? Or Richie, maybe? Though he's 'Richie' to his family and friends, Ringo Starr is known around the world under the stage name he adopted at the start of the 60s. Back then, he was playing with Rory Storm and the Hurricanes, alongside a guitarist who dubbed himself Johnny Guitar, and behind a lead singer who had been christened with the less tempestuous and romantic name of Alan Caldwell.

So it was Ringo Starr who enjoyed his moment of 'Starr Time' on stage with the Hurricanes, and who went on to join the Beatles in 1962. And yet . . .

On every page of You Never Give Me Your Money, I refer to the Beatles' drummer by his real name: Richard Starkey. When the book was published in Britain last September, I heard murmurs of complaint that I was being sarcastic towards the man I am quite happy to call 'Ringo'. That's probably because the only reason I gave in the book for my decision was to quote what Ringo said in that really annoying TV advert last year for a product that, thankfully, I've already forgotten: "Don't call me by my stage name".

So I didn't. Except that the advert wasn't actually why I took that decision. I was clear from the start that I didn't want to call the subjects of my book 'John', 'Paul', etc. when I was writing about four adults who had led very adult lives. That left me with Lennon, McCartney, Harrison - and Starr? Not a problem if I was writing a book about their careers as musicians. But You Never Give Me Your Money was much more than that. It was about what happens when four ostensibly ordinary people become the most famous human beings on the planet, and have to live with the consequences of that fame. And one of those four ordinary people from Liverpool was a sickly but determined child called Richard Starkey.

It was Starkey, not Starr, who signed all those contracts, earned and spent all those millions, sued some people and was sued by plenty more, and who carried around the burden of being not only a Beatle for life whether he liked it or not, but also 'Ringo Starr', the happy-go-lucky drummer with the sad face. It's Ringo Starr who makes albums, leads the All-Starr Band, and gives occasional interviews. And it's Richard Starkey who goes home afterwards and probably asks his wife why every interviewer insists on quizzing him about the Beatles. 'Ringo Starr' is a fantasy in which we've all bought shares. Richard Starkey is something much more interesting than that - a human being, with the same strengths and faults as you and me, who also turned out to be a rock'n'roll drummer with a backbeat that wouldn't quit.

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Paul is dead, and I am the walrus

Yesterday was publication day for the US edition of You Never Give Me Your Money, and I spent my afternoon on a 'radio tour' - 17 radio interviews with American stations in just over three hours, with scarcely a pause for breath between each one.

There were lots of questions about who really broke up the Beatles, and where the money went, and whether John and Paul really loved each other, and all the stuff you'd expect. But several DJs also asked me about a new movie, which supposedly proves, once and for all, that Paul McCartney died in 1966, and was replaced by an imposter.

The 'movie' turns out to be a DVD entitled Paul McCartney Really Is Dead (snappy title, huh?). It's based around two tapes, supposedly made by George Harrison, supposedly on the day he was nearly murdered in 1999, in which he supposedly (you get the picture) reveals that he and the other Beatles (not Paul, obviously, cos he was dead) had been involved in a spectacular cover-up of McCartney's death in a car crash.

It's hardly a new idea, this. The 'Paul is dead' saga began in 1969, and I really can't face going through all the 'clues' again right now. If you have a spare day on your hands, you can find all sorts of conspiracy-theory clips on Youtube that 'prove' the case once and for all. But this DVD is, supposedly, different - and it rests on the authenticity or otherwise of these famous tapes.

Well, I've watched the trailer for the DVD, strictly in the cause of research, and it's not even funny enough to count as a joke. I mean, if you're going to pretend that you have tapes of George speaking, then your first step is to find someone who sounds like him - at least a little, right? But this guy - well, the closest he's ever been to Liverpool was watching A Hard Day's Night. I can do a better Harrison impression than this guy, believe me. (So you know where to come next time, boys.)

Paul isn't dead, George didn't leave a 'last testament' exposing the truth, and the DVD is a waste of everyone's time. What intrigued me, though, was the timing. Here we are, 40 or 41 (depending where you start counting) years after the Beatles broke up, nearly nine after George Harrison's death, and you can still get in the papers by making up a story about the group. And you can still get on the radio by writing a book about them, thank goodness. All of which illustrates one of the themes of You Never Give Me Your Money: we (the Beatle-obsessed world) still cling to the Beatles like children do to their favourite toys. We want more, more, more, and if we have to make up new stories because the old ones are no longer exciting enough, then we'll do it.

Meanwhile, here are a couple of equally bizarre claims for you to consider. Which (fairly) famous drummer claimed that it was he, and not Ringo, who played on most of the Beatles' records? And which (very) famous record producer claimed that it was he, and not George Martin, who produced most of the Beatles' records? One clue: it wasn't Paul McCartney. (He died in 1966, remember?) Answers soon . . .

Monday, 7 June 2010

Heroes & Villains No. 2: Allen Klein

"Mr Klein does not give interviews", I was told politely and repeatedly when I attempted to contact the person who was - alongside Yoko Ono - the most controversial figure in the entire Beatles story. I'd assumed that he simply didn't wish to revisit a period of his life that had been financially lucrative, but had (indirectly) led him to a US prison cell, and to public denigration by virtually every commentator. No doubt that was true, but when Klein died last summer, another more pressing reason for his silence became apparent. For years, he had been suffering from Alzheimer's disease.

What made Klein so controversial? The simple fact that his appointment as manager of "the Apple group of companies" - and therefore, by extension, the Beatles - marked the parting of the financial ways between (on the one hand) Paul McCartney, and (on the other) the rest of the Beatles. The full story is in my book; suffice to say here that McCartney wished to be managed by his father-in-law, Lee Eastman, while Lennon, Harrison and Starkey all feared that Eastman would inevitably be biased towards Paul and against them. Lennon met Klein in January 1969, and within the week he'd been put in charge (initially alongside Eastman) of the Beatles' tangled financial affairs. Several months later, the three-man Beatle alliance signed a management contract with Klein, but McCartney refused to add his signature, and from that moment on, there was no hope that the Beatles could survive as a viable business entity.

All this is common knowledge. And it's equally accepted that Klein was a villain, a charlatan, a con-merchant - you can add your own insults. Two things puzzled me, however. If Klein was such a bad egg, how come Lennon, Harrison and Starkey didn't sack him as their manager until 1973? They not only led his appointment stand at the end of each year of his initial three-year contract, but actually retained his services in 1972, when it would have been just as easy to let him go. Also, if Klein was really as unpleasant a character as all previous Beatles biographers have claimed, how did they fall for his charms in the first place?

The deeper I delved into his reign at Apple, the more admiration I had for his business brain, and for his sheer panache. Klein threw himself at the Beatles' affairs with the same reckless enthusiasm and unfailing eye for a dollar that he had already displayed as a financial adviser to Bobby Darin, Sam Cooke, Donovan, the Rolling Stones and many more. He uncovered plenty of money that was owed to the Beatles, but would never have found its way into their coffers if he hadn't known which rocks to turn over. He won them the most lucrative recording deal ever agreed up to that point - though it was slightly unfortunate that by the time the deal was on the table, the Beatles could no longer stand to be in the same room as each other. And he turned the money-burning hippie utopia of Apple into a fully functioning, profit-making record company, even if he had to sacrifice all of its original ideals along the way.

Against all this, you have to balance the fact that he also blinded the Beatles with financial wizardry so slick that they, and their other advisers, completely failed to notice that he was claiming much more commission on their earnings than he was entitled to. "So what?", Klein would probably have said. "They're still much richer than they would have been if I hadn't helped them out." And he'd have been right. He skirted along the edges of the law, though, and his cavalier method of selling off copies of Apple albums that had been written off as promotional items (and therefore didn't generate any royalties for artists or songwriters) eventually led him to a New York courtroom on charges of tax evasion, and a two-month jail sentence in 1980.

Ultimately, Klein was hardly the first pop manager to cream a little extra for himself off the top of his clients' pot; and hardly the worst offender, either (hello Colonel Parker). But he was (a) an American, (b) not a gentleman in the Brian Epstein tradition, (c) not from Liverpool, (d) intimidating, (e) brash and (f) a show-off. Several of those qualities endeared him to John Lennon, but they all counted against him as far as Paul McCartney was concerned. Not that McCartney absolutely rejected everything that Klein did, as my book reveals . . .

When the UK edition was published last year, somebody asked me why I was so biased towards Klein in my narrative. I didn't, and don't, think I was, so the question surprised me. Then I realised that I was just about the first person to write about the Beatles who didn't start from the premise that Klein was 100% evil. Other Beatles biographers have been very unkind to him; I hope I've tilted the balance back a little in his favour, without seeking to disguise any of the mistakes he made.

One thing is certain. Allen Klein's cardinal sin was that he wasn't the right person to keep the Beatles together in 1969. Only one man could have done that - Brian Epstein. And sadly he had died two years earlier.

Sunday, 6 June 2010

Stop Press #1: The 1976 Reunion

Every time I publish a book, I can guarantee that I'll spend the next year or two stumbling across information that would have been really useful when I was writing it. So, with that in mind . . .

Midway through You Never Give Me Your Money, I mention the familiar anecdote about the US TV series Saturday Night Live, and its semi-satirical attempt to engineer a Beatles reunion by dangling the grand sum of $3,200 in front of the group.

As many of you will know, John Lennon and Paul McCartney watched Saturday Night Live together at the Dakota in April 1976, and briefly joked about the idea of hailing a cab and heading downtown to the TV studio. But, so Lennon recalled in 1980, they decided that it was too late and they couldn't be bothered.

Comedian Chevy Chase, a Saturday Night Live regular, told a different version of the story, which I found this morning while searching for something entirely non-Beatle-related. He claimed that not only did Lennon and McCartney watch the show, but that Lennon immediately phoned George Harrison, who was elsewhere in New York with Ringo Starr - and all four men agreed to meet at the NBC TV studios.

Sadly, so Chase recalled, "John's chauffeur got lost. By the time they arrived at the studios, the others had already been waiting outside in their car for half an hour. John's chauffeur went inside, and asked where the Saturday Night Live studio was. He was told that we had gone off the air twenty minutes earlier. Paul said they felt frustrated at first, but then started laughing. John said, 'Never mind, lads, we've got another appointment tomorrow - it could be our lucky break'."

Well, that's what Chevy Chase said. All of which raises a pertinent question. Did all four Beatles really meet outside a TV studio in New York, nearly seven years after the last documented occasion when they were together in the same place? George Harrison was certainly in New York during the week when this 'reunion' was supposed to have happened. Ringo Starr? He started work on a solo album in Hollywood around that time, but it's not impossible that he could have been on the East Coast that night.

I don't believe it, however. I'm happy to imagine that Lennon and McCartney watched Saturday Night Live together; I can even believe that Lennon phoned Harrison to say, 'Are you watching this?' But the rest just doesn't ring true. Besides anything else, I can't conceive that the four Beatles could have stood together on the streets of mid-town Manhattan for even five seconds without someone seeing them. And I can't believe that all four of them would have taken a vow of silence about this so-near/so-far reconciliation, to the extent that none of them has ever mentioned the incident since then. Good story, though, and I wish I'd mentioned it in You Never Give Me Your Money, even if only to shoot it down.

Friday, 4 June 2010

The Great Lost Beatles Single

We know that John Lennon wanted 'Revolution' to be a Beatles single in the summer of 1968. That's 'Revolution 1' from the White Album, to be precise. But, as Lennon complained to Jann Wenner in 1970, his fellow Beatles "said it wasn't good enough and we put out, what, 'Hello Goodbye' or some shit. No, we put out 'Hey Jude', sorry, which was worthy. But we could have had both."

It sounds like a classic example of the growing gulf between Lennon's rock'n'roll sensibility, and McCartney's commercialism, with 'Hey Jude' (one of the best-selling singles of the 1960s, after all) taking precedence on good old-fashioned money-making grounds.

But that's not the whole story. Forgive me if you already knew this, but until the other week I had never quite realised the audacity of Lennon's suggestion. It's true that 'Revolution 1' wouldn't have been the most obvious choice for a Beatles single, though it was probably no less radio-friendly than 'The Ballad Of John And Yoko'. I reckon, however, that the problem wasn't 'Revolution 1' but Lennon's intended choice of B-side - that all-time fan favourite, 'Revolution 9'.

Lennon confirms his intention in a previously unheard 1972 interview, which comes up for sale at Christie's next auction of pop memorabilia in London on 24 June. "The other Beatles wouldn't let it out," he complains. "They said it wasn't commercial." Mark Lewisohn's investigations into the Beatles' studio activities proved that Lennon devoted the best part of June 1968 to recording, editing and mixing the two 'Revolution' tracks; and that during much of that time, first George and Ringo, and then Paul, were out of the country.

The four men reconvened at Abbey Road on 26 June 1968, and Lennon presumably unveiled his new 'Beatles single' for their approval. You can imagine their reaction: they were confronted with a record that (a) was overtly political; (b) was entirely dominated by Lennon, on both sides; (c) featured an avant-garde sound collage unlike anything else in the Beatles' catalogue; (d) bore the obvious influence of Lennon's new girlfriend, Yoko Ono, to whom they had only been introduced a few weeks earlier, and who had loyally appeared at every single recording session since then. It's no wonder that McCartney, Harrison and Starkey said no.

How did Lennon react to their refusal? We don't have a record of the conversation, but consider this: he immediately led the band into an eight-hour session devoted to recording the backing track for a song called 'Everybody's Got Something To Hide Except For Me And My Monkey'. Were the people with "something to hide" none other than his fellow Beatles?

So there was no Beatles single combining 'Revolution 1' and 'Revolution 9'. One thing is certain, though: the moment they heard that single, the other Beatles knew that John Lennon had changed. And the nature of that change meant that the group's days were numbered.

Thursday, 3 June 2010

Heroes & Villains No. 1: Yoko Ono

In You Never Give Me Your Money, I offer the names of three outsiders who had a dramatic impact on the Beatles in the late 60s, and who have all been blamed - to greater or lesser extent - for the split. All three were Americans, by birth or adoption. As I argue in the book, it isn't fair to blame any of the three for what four strong-minded, increasingly independent British men decided to do (or not to do) in 1969/70. But there's no doubt that if the Beatles hadn't met Yoko Ono, Linda Eastman and Allen Klein, their history would have been very different.

I stood next to Linda Eastman once, was briefly acquainted with one of her daughters, and once spent a very pleasant morning with Allen Klein's son, Jody. But the only one of those three 'intruders' who I actually met - on several occasions - was Yoko Ono.

This isn't the place to argue the pros and cons of her influence over John Lennon and the Beatles, as you really need to read the book. At the very least, she transformed Lennon's life. But I can offer you some personal reminiscences of being in her company. What can I say? She's tiny, almost unfeasibly so, but you already know that. Her speaking voice is very quiet, even when she's disagreeing with you. I've seen her being grumpy and cold, and I've had a long conversation with her when she was charm itself, and both times she barely did more than whisper.

What else? Well, I interviewed her at length when her Onobox retrospective was released (early 90s, I guess), and she smoked more cigarettes, more quickly, than anyone I've ever met. They were filters - don't ask me what brand - and she had a ritual. She lit up, inhaled once, then stubbed it out and immediately lit another. And so on and on. I presume she reckoned that the cancer risk was minimal that way, and she was hardly strapped for cash, but the average nicotine junkie could have lived quite happily off her discards.

There was a poignant moment in that interview when, without mentioning John's name, she talked about her loneliness and her isolation. We were sitting in her luxurious, £1000-per-night suite at the Hyde Park Hotel in London. ("Nice view", I said semi-sarcastically as I arrived and looked out at the park beyond her windows. "Umm", she said vaguely, with the air of a woman who was so used to luxury that she hadn't really noticed.) At the exact second when she talked about being forced to live alone since John's death, there was a loud cough from behind the closed door of her bathroom - a loud, distinctly male, cough. She looked at me, I looked at her, she glanced briefly towards the bathroom - and changed the subject.

Something that's rarely mentioned when people talk about Yoko is that English is her second language. Regardless what you think of her art (and I have a sneaking regard for it, especially her more confrontational music and performances), she is clearly an intelligent woman. But when she speaks, she often sounds very naive - sometimes even simple-minded. Partly that's because she believes that simple ideas are usually the best. But it's also because she's not actually that articulate in English, and she sometimes seems to have trouble finding the words to express what she means. It's obvious that she has a wide English vocabulary (she ought to, because she's been living in the States for nearly 50 years). But I bet she still thinks in Japanese.

One last thing, which shouldn't need saying, but probably does. Most people still regard Yoko Ono as John Lennon's widow and the controller of his artistic estate. (Many also see her as The Woman Who Broke Up The Beatles, as if any outsider could actually have wielded that much power.) But Yoko is now 77 years old, and she only spent fourteen of those years as Lennon's wife, collaborator, partner and friend. By contrast, she has been a working artist since she left college when she was . . . I can't remember the exact date, but she was 21, maybe?

You can argue back and forth about how much her involvement with Lennon helped or hindered her art career. It's inescapable, though, that she has always been an artist, first and foremost, and a character in the Beatles' saga second. Regardless what you think of her work, I think you have to admire the single-minded way in which she has insisted on following her own artistic vision, rather than living quietly and comfortably off her Lennon inheritance as she could easily have done. More on this subject another time, though . . .

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

John Lennon and Money

One of the earliest releases from Berry Gordy's Motown stable was Barrett Strong's 'Money (That's What I Want)', a No. 2 hit on the Billboard R&B charts in 1960. The single was also released in Britain, and although it wasn't a hit, it caught the ears of John Lennon, who had added the song to the Beatles' live repertoire by the following year. He performed it at their Decca audition on January 1, 1962, on a BBC radio show in May 1963, and definitively at Abbey Road studios two months later. It provided a riotous conclusion to the With The Beatles album at the end of that year.

As Lennon screamed out the final chorus, he made the song his own by adding a single ad-lib: "I wanna be free!" Prestigious critics have interpreted this as an existentialist cry from the heart, widening the context of the song from a love affair to a desperate urge for liberation from the banality of human existence.

But there's a simpler explanation. The Beatles' version has effectively erased Barrett Strong's original recording from history, but if you dig out Strong's original 45, you'll hear him cry: "I want some green!" Americans knew exactly what he meant, but few 20-year-old rock'n'roll fans in the Britain of 1960 knew about the greenback dollar. It's easy to imagine Lennon and McCartney hunched over their Dansette, replaying the same few seconds of Strong's record over and over, in a vain attempt to decipher what he was singing. Instead, Lennon opted for the closest equivalent he could imagine, and a myth was born.

Strong's record is one of the tracks on the first of Motown's epic CD anthologies, The Complete Motown Singles Vol. 1: 1959-1961. And so is its much more obscure B-side, 'Oh! I Apologize'. (Spelling wasn't Motown's forte, so the label listed the song as 'Oh! I Apoligize'.) Lennon obviously loved this track almost as much as 'Money' - because he borrowed the structure of the middle section of 'Oh! I Apologize', much of its tune, and even a couple of its lyric lines, and pasted them into his own song, 'Isolation', on the 1970 album John Lennon: Plastic Ono Band.

Lennon never hid the fact that he took inspiration from his American heroes. But what's striking about this particular 'theft' is that he was already being sued by the publishers of Chuck Berry's tune 'You Can't Catch Me', because of the similarity between that song and the Beatles' 'Come Together'. Once bitten, twice shy? Twice clearly wasn't enough.

Listen for yourselves to Barrett Strong's Lennon-esque apology here . . .

US edition published next week

On Monday June 8, HarperCollins publish the American hardback edition of You Never Give Me Your Money. It retails for $24.95, but as ever you can save money by buying it from Amazon: - and there's a Kindle edition as well.

What's different from the UK edition published last September?

1) The rather attractive cover, which incorporates a clever parody of a familiar record label design.

2) The subtitle of the book. In Britain, it was The Battle For The Soul Of The Beatles, while the Americans have opted for the simpler The Beatles After The Breakup.

3) The text - well, a little of the text, in any case, as a couple of minor errors have been corrected, and I've also updated the final chapter to incorporate the CD reissue campaign that briefly enlivened our lives and emptied our pockets last autumn (or fall, depending how you feel).

UK readers should rest assured that exactly the same additions will be available in the paperback edition that should be in the shops in October.

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

Really - Why Write Another Beatles Book?

Because it was the Beatles story that nobody else seemed to want to tell. Yet it begged to be told - it was sat there, screaming, "Notice me! Notice me!"

In a single sentence, You Never Give Me Your Money tells the story of how and why the Beatles broke up, and what happened to their personal and financial relationships over the next 40 years. Check your shelves of Beatles books, if you're that way inclined, and you'll find plenty of books that THINK they've told that story. But really, they haven't. Either they get the facts wrong, or miss the point, or are so biased towards one or another of the main participants that their accounts can't be trusted. Or - and this is the most common failure - they take a saga that is crammed with psychological warfare, corporate intrigue, and good old-fashioned human drama, and cram it into two or three pages at the end of a book that concentrates on the story of the Beatles in their heyday.

I knew that the story deserved better than that. I also knew that none of the published accounts of why the Beatles had broken up, slowly and agonisingly, between 1967 and 1970, rang true to my ears. It was a period of such turmoil and trauma, such adventure and ambition, such mayhem and madness, that the Beatles themselves couldn't keep track of what was going on in their lives. If they could have stopped for five minutes, any of them, and thought about the consequences of their actions, then Beatles history might have been very different. Instead, they charged about in their four individual bubbles, each one fired by an idealistic vision of how life and the Beatles should be, and each one spreading random chaos in all directions.

So that was my first motivation for writing You Never Give Me Your Money. I wanted to find out for myself how the Beatles slipped from Sgt. Pepper to fighting in the London law courts in not much more than three years, and then tell the story with the clear-eyed precision that it deserved.

But the drama didn't end when the Beatles found themselves at opposite ends of a court case in the spring of 1971. As a fan, I'd watched with amazement and often pain as the four Beatles (then, sadly, three, and then two) spent the next four decades savaging each other in public one minute, and then declaring their undying affection for their old buddies the next minute, without ever acknowledging to themselves or the outside world that there was any inconsistency in their actions. Yet every time that the Beatles (corporate trademark) had some product to sell, the surviving members went to elaborate efforts to pretend that they had always worshipped each other, never argued, never sued each other, never sabotaged reunions - in fact, theirs was the greatest love affair of the 20th or any other century. Almost without exception, the media swallowed this nonsense whole, and regurgitated it for the world to read and believe.

I knew there was more to the story than that, and I wanted to tell the truth - not because I bear the Beatles any ill-will, but because I hate to see history being rewritten even while the protagonists are still alive. I thought that the Beatles, and their fans, deserved an honest, unprejudiced book that captured the full yin-yang, love-hate, triumph-disaster nature of their relationship over the last four decades. They were human, these four Beatles and their aides, and they lived and reacted like humans. Sometimes they were brilliant, magnanimous, shining examples of humankind. And sometimes they were fallible, spiteful, and so busy arguing with each other that they lost their bearings. Just like the rest of us, in other words.

There was one final motive for writing this book. If you ask young kids today, "What do you want to be when you grow up?", many of them will say, "I want to be famous". In today's celebrity-soaked culture, fame is often regarded as a cure-all - the ultimate ambition of modern life. But as the Beatles would be the first to tell you, fame isn't always that much fun. In many ways, the Beatles were pioneers of fame. Nobody before them had ever been so famous on such a global scale, and there were no instruction books for them to follow.

The Beatles suffered for their fame: one of them died because of it, another of them was brutally attacked in his home. And the surviving two have been through traumatic crises of their own since the group split up, all in the unrelenting glare of worldwide media attention. You Never Give Me Your Money is a no-holds-barred account of the consequences of fame - and also a tribute to four men who went through almost unimaginable experiences because of their success, but who still managed to create music, together and apart, that will survive long into the future, maybe forever.

So that's why I wrote You Never Give Me Your Money. The book tells all these stories in the best way that I could tell them. But there's plenty that didn't make it into the book - anecdotes, facts, rumours, theories, observations - and that's what you'll find on this blog over the months to come. Feel free to add your own comments and questions - if you post something, you can guarantee that I'll read it.

Why Write Another Beatles Book?

The simple answer? Because nobody else had done it. I had the idea for You Never Give Me Your Money about ten years ago, maybe more, and I knew that it was a book that somebody had to write. But I resisted it.

Why? Well, between 1980 and 2000, I must have written several million words (no exaggeration) about the Beatles. For most of that time, I was the editor of Record Collector magazine, and very early on we discovered that when we put the Beatles on the cover, we sold more copies. So, in a shameless bid to keep afloat, we put the Beatles on the cover several times a year, and more often than not it was me who wrote the feature that justified placing their familiar faces on the news-stands one more time.

During the same period, I also worked every month on The Beatles Book - the magazine that been the group's official mouthpiece between 1963 and 1969, and which was relaunched by the same publisher in 1976. It ran until something like 2002, which says a lot about the insatiable demand amongst a certain section of the public for Beatlemania to exist forever.

I'll be honest: The Beatles Book was a fan magazine, first and foremost, and much of the material that I wrote, month after month, to fill its pages was penned with my critical antennae off (and often my name nowhere near the finished piece). Put it this way: if there turns out to be a heavenly gate, I hope that St. Peter won't be making his final judgement on the basis of what I wrote for The Beatles Book. But I tried to make sure that I never forgot that I was writing for the kind of fan that I had been as a teenager - passionate, desperate for information, and totally uncritical.

Along the way, I also wrote a book entitled The Art and Music of John Lennon, the last edition of which (Omnibus Press, 2005) exists only as an expensive UK hardback, which was beautifully produced, widely reviewed, but not so widely distributed - with the result that most people interested in its contents never saw it. It didn't help that every copy I ever saw in a bookstore was still shrinkwrapped, making it impossible for the casual browser to peak inside. It's still in print, and still the most detailed examination of John Lennon's entire artistic output, from childhood to the last day of his life, that's ever been written. Or so it says here. At least I got paid, though, unlike . . .

In the mid-to-late 1990s - I've erased the precise details from my memory - I was commissioned to write a book in a series called 'Classic Albums', published by Schirmer Books in New York. My choice was not one album but two overlapping projects: Abbey Road and Let It Be. The result was a slim but readable volume that was reviewed in several places, but - you may notice a pattern here - not widely distributed. In fact, the publishers used to send me sales figures that suggested the book was either invisible or impossible to sell. They didn't answer letters, either, and in the days before e-mail, when I was in London and the publishers were 3,000 miles away, it was easier to give up than chase them for an explanation.

Then Schirmer went out of business. It was only several years later, when another NYC publisher took over the Schirmer list, that I solved the mystery. Against my advice, the original publishers had filled the book with photographs that were owned by the Beatles' company, Apple Corps Ltd. And they hadn't asked Apple's permission. Apple's lawyers barely had to break sweat to get the book pulled from the shelves. Nobody at Schirmer had the courage or grace to tell me what had happened. Did I ever receive a cent for writing the book? Not as far as I can remember. Meanwhile, I lent my solitary copy of the book to a friend, and it was never returned. Mark it down to experience.

So I had two strong reasons for NOT wanting to write another book about the Beatles.
1) I was convinced I was burned out on the subject
2) I was convinced my Beatles book karma was bad

But the theme of what became You Never Gave Me Your Money still nagged at me. Next time I'll do what I promised to do this time, and tell you why.