Friday, 22 October 2010

Credit where it's due...

A few entries ago, I complained that all the 'classic rock' acts were as bad as each other when it came to exploiting their back catalogues for maximum profits.

Well, I was wrong. My friend Stuart Batsford pointed out that there is one band who have consistently refused to issue a greatest hits album or compilation: AC/DC. The spirit of the counter-culture is still alive and well in Australia, it seems . . .

My life with the Beatles (part 1)

I was five years old when 'Love Me Do' was released, and in the Britain of 1962 pop music was something you had to seek out and find - bizarre though that may sound to anyone raised in more recent times, when pop has been unavoidably everywhere. My only exposure to music, beyond those chaotic 'Music and Movement' classes at school, would have come from Children's Favourites on the BBC Light Programme at weekends. It was the forerunner of Junior Choice, and as far as I can recall it aired a mixture of light classics (Peter and the Wolf, usually, which was also my first record, although we didn't own a gramophone to play it on), comedy songs, and very occasional chart hits. That winter, I remember dancing the twist at a schoolfriend's party. But I was too young to know that there was a Top 20, or to note the Beatles' arrival there.

At some point in 1963, everything changed. 'She Loves You' was released shortly after my sixth birthday, and everybody at school that autumn was singing its chorus. I have vague memories that I already knew 'From Me To You' as well. And for the next year, I became fairly obsessed with pop, and the charts, especially after I came across a copy of Record Mirror in a hospital waiting-room and saw to my amazement that there were lists of the best-selling records not only here but overseas as well.

In 1964, my parents bought me New Musical Express every week, alongside the properly educational Children's Newspaper (which was as dull, and doomed, as it sounds), and I studied the apparently miraculous movements of the Top 30 with as much care as I was starting to apply to the daily sports results. (At this point I wouldn't have realised that, in theory at least, the charts were reflecting record sales.) I also have vivid memories of buying the pop paper Fabulous for its colour pin-ups of the stars. Forty-six years later, the memory of those luridly technicolour-styled portraits still brings shivers to my spine.

After loving the anarchic rowdiness of 'Glad All Over' and 'Bits And Pieces', I wanted to become the drummer of the Dave Clark 5; I even drew a version of this fantasy, peopled with matchstick figures and my name on the drumkit. But I never doubted the supremacy of the Beatles, whose hits were a universal language for pre-teens. They were competing for my attention, though, with football, cricket, school, puppet shows on TV, Enid Blyton, and no doubt plenty more ephemeral influences. I didn't own any records; I never dreamed for a second of ever seeing a pop concert; I can't remember knowing that there was a Beatles film, and anyway I had never been to the cinema; and at the age of seven, everything existed in the present, so I had no sense of having tripped across something that might endure in my life.

Some random Beatle memories spring to mind . . . being confined to bed (measles, probably) in spring 1964, hearing the group talking on BBC Radio's Saturday Club . . .. seeing in the NME's US charts that there was a Beatles song called 'Please Please Me', but being frustrated because I had no way of hearing it, though I tuned in to Saturday Club every week with a hopeful heart . . . receiving a plastic Beatles guitar (red?), which broke (or which I broke, probably) almost immediately . . . hearing that their next single would be called 'I Feel Fine', and being so impatient to hear it that I improvised my own ditty of that name to the tuneless thwacking of my (probably broken) Beatles guitar. I even committed this 'composition' to reel-to-reel tape, alongside a chorus of 'Hippy Hippy Shake'. It went something like this: "I feel fi-e-i-e-ine (thrash thrash), I feel fi-e-i-e-ine (thrash thrash thrash), all the ti-e-i-e-ime (thrash)". The boy was clearly a genius.

For many years, that tape survived - certainly into the 1980s - but now I think it's gone, though I live in hope that it may turn up in a box somewhere, alongside the only surviving recording of my maternal grandparents, chatting about peppermints, and my paternal grandmother reading me a story. As Paul Simon once wrote, "Preserve your memories, they're all that's left you".

Anyway, the tapes vanished - and so, quite mysteriously, in spring 1965, did my interest in the Beatles, and in pop as well. I remember hearing 'Ticket To Ride' for the first time, because I'd been to Ryde on the Isle of Wight, and I assumed the two things were connected. But 'pop fan' was a skin I shed effortlessly that year, as I channelled my enthusiasm into collecting stamps, playing with Airfix soldiers, reading, and endlessly devouring the scores from my football and cricket annuals. Until . . . but that's a story for another time.

Thursday, 14 October 2010


For those with a few spare minutes in their busy lives, here's the link to a lengthy interview I did recently with the online arts magazine Oomska . . .

Among the subjects discussed: should Paul McCartney have appeared on X Factor? Did John Lennon really fall out with Allen Klein? And are we all doomed? Answers on the proverbial postcard . . .

Thursday, 7 October 2010

Billy Preston at the Beeb

Most Beatles fans are familiar with the story of how George Harrison invited the R&B keyboardist Billy Preston to join the group for the final days of their troubled January 1969 sessions - the results being audible on the 'Get Back' single and visible in the Let It Be movie.

I knew that Preston was in the country as a featured sideman in Ray Charles' band; and that his relationship with the Beatles went back to Hamburg in 1962. But what I didn't realise until last week was that on the same day he finished his duties with the Beatles (31 January 1969), Billy starred in his own BBC-TV concert special. It was filmed at the Talk Of The Town in London, with the assistance of the Johnny Pearson Orchestra, and featuring nothing but Preston for 40 minutes. At a time when TV coverage of 'pop' rarely extended beyond Top Of The Pops and light-entertainment series starring Cilla Black and Cliff Richard, this was an unusual honour indeed.

Which begs the question of why. It certainly wasn't because of his connection with the Beatles, as the booking was made before he ever showed up at Apple. But it could have something to do with the fact that, as an instrumentalist, Billy was a cult hero on the Mod scene, mostly for his 1966 single 'Billy's Bag'. He'd even released two albums in the UK before he joined Apple, the deliciously titled The Most Exciting Organ Ever and The Wildest Organ In Town.

It was only when he signed to Apple and released 'That's The Way God Planned It' that his talents as a vocalist became apparent to the general public. And that's the perfect cue to dig out the DVD of The Concert For Bangla Desh, and relive four of the most exciting minutes in the history of live performance.

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

It's All Too Much

Maybe the world's ending next year, and the Beatles' organization knows, and the rest of us don't. Nothing else - apart from blatant exploitation of the various Lennon anniversaries - can explain the quite phenomenal (and indeed ridiculous) profusion of Beatles product that's been aimed in our direction over the past month, and the month yet to come.

I don't expect any sympathy for a second, but for more than 20 years, I was in the very fortunate position of being a journalist who was sent almost all Beatles-related product for free. I tried very hard back then to think myself into the position of being an Ordinary Person who had to pay for their music, but it's difficult until it happens to you.

Which it did, to me, a few years back, and now I get nothing for free, and I only get to hear new Beatles releases if I pay for them. So like everyone else, I'm having to be very choosy about what I buy, and what I don't buy. I've already given you my pre-release reaction to the new Lennon packages in a previous post. Here's how I'm feeling about the rest . . .

LENNON BOX OF VISION: I missed this last time, and I'm missing the point of it now. It's more than £100, and it's like a conceptual box, to put things in, and it has a book with pictures of the albums that I bought in the 70s, and still have on the shelves. No, still don't get it.

BAND ON THE RUN: Four different versions of this on 1st November: the single-album digipak (pointless); the 2-CD/1-DVD edition (only £1 more than the basic version on Amazon); the 2-LP vinyl edition; and the 3-CD/1-DVD super deluxe edition. The 2-CD/1-DVD set has the original album, a shortish CD of 'rarities' (singles plus tracks from the One Hand Clapping film), and a DVD with promo footage and, so it seems, One Hand Clapping in full. That's £15.99 from UK Amazon; whereas for £71.99 (NOT a misprint), you can buy the same set in enlarged packaging with an extra CD carrying an audio documentary about the making of the album. Er - didn't you offer us that last time you reissued this album, Paul? And what's with the price differential? Madness. I might treat myself to the £15.99 edition, though.

1962-1966/1967-1970: Remastered, but what's really striking is the price. These double-sets sell for £8.95 each on Amazon, but they used to cost about £22 each for the unremastered editions. And that tells you everything you need to know about the current state of the music business. If you're really rich, you can buy the two compilations as a box set - which actually costs several pounds MORE than buying the two sets individually. Very strange.

APPLE REISSUES: I already have almost all of the 1991 CDs, so do I really want to buy the new editions for a handful of bonus tracks? Probably not, though I'm enough of a James Taylor fan to want the four extra songs, so I might splash out on that one. I'm much more interested in the Best Of Apple 2-CD set, though I'm devastated by the fact that it doesn't include one of the greatest singles ever issued by anybody, ever - 'Road To Nowhere' by Trash. It's like reissuing Sgt. Pepper and leaving 'A Day In The Life' off. I see that we will shortly be able to buy all of these reissues in (what else?) a box set, though I haven't yet managed to discover whether we'll get anything extra if we do (apart from a box, that is).

RAVI SHANKAR's COLLABORATIONS: Collaborations with George Harrison, that is, including the two albums the sitar genius made for Dark Horse Records, the lovely Chants Of India set from the late 90s, and a DVD of the 1974 concert by the Ravi Shankar Music Festival. I have to admit that this appeals to me. But . . . it's almost £50, and realistically, how often would I play it? Twice? Once? Or would I actually look at the packaging, think 'That's lovely' and not actually play it at all?

Without duplicating different versions of the same releases, fans could end up paying £125+ for the Lennon Signature Box, £100+ for the Box Of Vision, £21 for the Beatles compilation box, £50 for the Harrison/Shankar, £150-odd for the Apple box - and don't forget that bargain offer from Paul, the £71.99 edition of Band On The Run. Pause for some mental arithmetic . . . I make that more than £500 in total. In return, you'd get the bonus CD of Lennon rarities, two discs of McCartney bonuses, the Shankar DVD, and some bonus tracks by non-Beatles - plus lots of music that you've already bought on at least one occasion, maybe many times over. And in the middle of a recession?

There's simply no way that the market can stand this much new Beatles product condensed into such a short space of time, so I predict that sales for most of these items are going to fall way below corporate expectations. As someone who wants to hear new music rather than fill my shelves with duplicates, I'll buy the Stripped Down version of Double Fantasy, the most reasonable of the McCartney sets, and probably the Best Of Apple. The rest? It's Christmas, it's marketing, and as a great man once said, it's all too much for me to take. I want to be a fan and buy new Beatles albums, honest, but sometimes they just make it too hard.