Jan. 9: Jokes in between

Let’s run through the ones we know and then learn the [new] one.

This is our format.

Paul McCartney was right. There was a format. At least there was a framework developing as the Beatles rehearsed in their second week at Twickenham.

As covered in the last post, George Harrison would have to wait a few hours for attention to return to his new “For You Blue.” Instead, with the full band ready to go nearly 90 minutes into the January 9, 1969, Nagra tapes, the Beatles tackled “Two of Us” for the fifth time in six days, initiating a sequence in which the group returned to some of the finished, core songs they’d have for their live show. Why, it was their format!

This stretch also clearly exposed the side of the Beatles that everyone (else) usually cites when describing the Get Back sessions. While I’m quick to argue January 1969 at Twickenham was not of itself the downfall of the band as it was filled with harmonious, joyous and highly fruitful moments to match the uglier, fractious component of the sessions, these guys could get pretty petulant and didn’t hide it with the tapes rolling.

A quick, carefree one-off into the song the day before, this day’s “Two of Us” rehearsal stretched about a half-hour, and quite unlike the Rocky and the Rubbers’ version, Paul insisted on serious refinement.

As loose as their run-through was early on the 8th was exactly how tense things emerged on the 9th, with consistent, stuttered efforts to get through a full song.

From the top, the group can’t find the proper pacing of “Two of Us,” with Paul pushing the others to pick it up. “Keep them all quiet, keep your instruments down so we can sort of hear what’s going on.”

They had another go at the song, and “it’s still pathetic,” in Paul’s words. He suggested the issues went beyond just the song’s speed.

As Paul nitpicked what arrangement the song needed entering the bridge, John argued, “We never got into this [part] yet,” defending himself and the others as Paul criticized the group for not knowing what’s in his head.

A fiery example of the strain came during a “Two of Us” take in which Paul barked at John, who wasn’t in perfect rehearsal position, to “get on the mic.”  John, certainly responding to the tone more than the instruction itself snapped back.

“You don’t have to bitch about it, we’ll never get through it.”

The band immediately went into another take, and you can hear John loud and clear — but he came in early. You can hear Paul’s displeasure when he comes in himself at the right time. Still, they championed on.

A dark moment, for sure, but as usual for these guys, they were able to compartmentalize and still harmonize figuratively and literally. Picking apart “Two of Us” to improve the various “bits” and now focusing on the middle eight, Paul started thinking out loud.

“The two things I think of are both corny, but something better are oohs  … or [a staccato “dit-dit-dit”]”

Never mind that the “oohs” are actually “aahs” when Paul, John and George instantly launch into a demonstration of the vocals, which are proposed to appear supporting the “you and I have memories” lead. This is the Beatles magic, immediate and spontaneous and completely normal, even when it comes a few minutes after one member complains about the other one’s bitchiness. The subsequent stab at the staccato vocalization came off a bit sloppier but still likable.

This below clip starts out with both of these attempts in sequence. After the first 30 seconds, though, is unrelated audio

Concerned the backup line would sound “too thin,” George proposed, “Maybe we get a few Raelettes,” marking yet another time the group evoked Ray Charles’ backup singers. “Get three girls” with some phasing on the mics.

John’s cheeky reply was to bring in three boys instead, and George named the Dallas Boys, Britian’s first boy band (by ’69 they were into their 30s).

While they never landed the Raelettes, the Beatles would soon enlist the man seated before them, Billy Preston. (Photo from late 1968).

Ultimately, Paul asked the others to “just think of something, then” for the middle eight, and off they went into another take, this one featuring the lovely “aahs.”  The song may not have dramatically improved, but the mood had over the last 25 or so minutes on the tapes.

But Paul still had something to complain about, turning his attention to a frequent (and legitimate) punching bag for the band, the equipment setup at Twickenham. If we think the tapes sound diluted, just imagine how substandard the quality must have been for the musicians on the sound stage. With the proposed show nearing — and despite some pretty ambitious ideas, uh, floated less than 24 hours earlier — improved sound needed to be addressed along with other facets of a finalized live performance.

“Just so that we can all hear, so it sounds really great here,” Paul said. “So that our voices are just as loud as they need to be. ‘Cause then we’ll be able to hear what’s wrong.”

What’s more …

“Everything we’re going to actually do like that, we could get into now. Just where the amps are going to be, and where we stand. It is a bit silly to be rehearsing sitting, facing this way, when we’re actually to be playing standing, facing that way.”

And here’s where we return to a disagreement among the principals, but with a far different result than earlier.

John: I thought we’d get into that when we do a few more.

George: We still have dance steps to learn.

Paul: And the jokes in between.

The esprit de corps resumed as the group advanced to a singular take of “Don’t Let Me Down.” There was no nibbling, no exhausting search for a missing “bit,” and even when there was a screw-up on the lyric, they powered on and completed the song in a tidy 3:10.

Far less concise, and clocking in at nearly 25 minutes of torturous micromanagement, was a brutal run of “I’ve Got a Feeling.” After a perfectly adequate (for this point in the sessions) initial run-through, Paul immediately identified just one specific spot for improvement — the same part of the song that had bedeviled the group on multiple occasions, and the same point that the struggled with in several songs —  “The only bit is the break. Still not sort of dramatic enough.”

This tense sequence was up there among the least listenable parts of the entire month’s worth of tapes. Paul offered several variants on how he wants the guitar part to sound, right after his line, “All that I’ve been looking for is somebody who looks like you!”

Issues:

  • “All the notes are clipped.”
  • “There shouldn’t be any recognizable jumps.”
  • “The notes shouldn’t ring on.”
  • “At the moment, it’s like a riff.”

Solutions:

  • “[The notes should be] just like falling, falling.”
  • “Try to sort of sing it.”
  • “It’s got to be like pain.”
  • “Certainly do anything like it’s crying.”

It’s got to be like pain. What an instruction!

Paul desperately and relentlessly attempted to communicate how he wanted the part to sound — gesticulating, vocalizing, playing it on the bass — but John simply couldn’t or wouldn’t accurately nail the brief solo.

In another editing trick that showed up in the Let it Be film, John did, in fact, nail it. That’s because the film shows the January 8 “Rocky and the Rubbers” take of the song (where Paul shouts a celebratory “good evening!” after the part is played), and spliced it on both ends of a brief portion of this sequence from January 9.

Ultimately, John hit the part satisfactorily enough for the Paul to continue the group through their core set. The mood rose again for another jubilant effort of “One After 909,” although we don’t get a complete grasp of the rehearsal due to the tape cutting in and out. We can pretty safely assume, though, that like “Don’t Let Me Down,” the band tore through a single take.

As John moved over to the piano, the Beatles practiced their stage patter, in hilariously fake sincere voices.

Paul: “Certainly, it’s a great occasion for us.”

John: “First chance we’ve had to play for you dummies for a long time.”

The playful attitude continued as Paul dabbled in a bit of “Norwegian Wood” on bass, soon to be joined briefly by Ringo on drums and George on guitar and vocals before they immediately launched into, as George called it, “the one about the window.”

It was a straightforward, strong take of “She Came In Through the Bathroom Window,” although we don’t hear the whole thing on the tapes.  Far less straightforward, but wholly enjoyable was a string of takes broken up by tape cuts, including one with John taking the lead vocal with a heavy Cockney accent.

By this point, the mood was entirely loose. The song was given a slow ballad treatment, featuring a lyric referencing the famed celebrity female impersonator Danny La Rue.  Paul completed one take by answering the phone: “Hello, this is Tuesday speaking. Is that Paul? I’d like to have a word with you.”

Now, five minutes past 1 p.m., the group broke for lunch. Paul offered a brief impression of Elvis — who someone mentioned turned 34 the day earlier.

Only a few hours into a temperamental roller-coaster of a day, John replied to the rest of the 20-somethings in the group, “We all seem to be catching up to him.”

Advertisements

1 Comment

Filed under Day by day

Jan. 9: Last-night song

“I was just so hungry today.”

Why, it’s a metaphor for George Harrison’s flowering ambition within the Beatles in their final year! OK sure, but it’s actually just the guitarist describing how famished he was before arriving at Twickenham Film Studios mid-morning on January 9, 1969.

“I had to be late, just to eat me breakfast. If you want an excuse.”

You know that what you eat you are: George enjoys breakfast at home on April 9, 1969, three months to the day after this post’s session.

Paul McCartney already had spent at least 45 minutes at the piano this Thursday, and he ceded the virtual spotlight to the new arrival, who reintroduced “For You Blue” to the sessions.

“This is his last-night song,” Paul would later describe it to John Lennon, who would show up shortly (Ringo Starr was already around when Paul was playing). Paul’s characterization of George’s song wasn’t entirely accurate. As far as the tapes are concerned, this was the third day “For You Blue” was demonstrated — but it was the first time it was properly and deliberately performed for and with the other Beatles.

A slower, bluesier version acted as background music on January 6 during a conversation about equipment. Likewise, the next day, the song wasn’t performed so much as it kept George busy amid the overwhelmingly tense debate over the band’s future.

Finally on January 9, George properly lifted the veil on “For You Blue,” offering it on an acoustic guitar as a sharper, more highly paced toe-tapper as compared to those previous, abbreviated versions. The skiffle influence was obvious, and on this morning, admitted.  The song was clearly a “last-night” project, enjoying a clear evolution heading into the 9th.

The guts of the version that would be recorded a few weeks in the future and released more than a year later existed this morning for the first time: its distinguishable introduction, the first few verses, guitar solo and its ending. The cat didn’t bop yet, and Johnny didn’t go, but the number George described as “our little blues-folk song” was indeed the same ol’ twelve-bar blues.

Paul chipped in an imperfect but not insincere stab at a piano part and a vocal harmony. Neither would stand the test of time, but the attempt wasn’t out of place.

Peaking as a songwriter, George admitted writing the lyrics was a simple process.

“You got most of the words?” Paul asked.

“They’re so easy, I just wrote about two [verses] down,” George replied. “You just make ‘em up.”

John arrived moments later, and with the fab count complete at four, proper rehearsals were finally able to commence. John initially suggested kicking things off with “For You Blue.”

“Should we learn your song then, ‘I love you sweet and honey baby.’”

Paul slammed the brakes, though, setting the terms of the rehearsals.

“Let’s run through the ones we know and then learn the [new] one.

“This is our format.”

For better or worse, it was. And following was a sequence in which the group tackled some of their more familiar numbers — “Two of Us,” “I’ve Got a Feeling,” “One After 909,” “She Came In Through the Bathroom Window,” new favorite “Get Back” and the rehabilitated “Across the Universe” — before they got a little original and political. But that’s for another post.

Fresh out of a cover of “Honey Hush” (by Big Joe Turner, via Johnny Burnette, with John taking lead vocals), we finally got the day’s first few attempts at full-band takes of “For You Blue” on the tapes. It sweats with swagger, with George leading the way on electric guitar and Paul adding a mature though imprecise bass part.


The group picked up their parts pretty quickly and easily, because, after all, it’s a pretty basic song. George’s eventual description of the “For You Blue” in his 1980 autobiography “I Me Mine” says as much:

“For You Blue” is a simple twelve-bar song following all the normal twelve-bar principles, except that it’s happy-go-lucky!

At least one person, though, wasn’t too happy with the song after the first full go.

“Pretty short, innit?” John asked after the two-or-so-minute take.

George didn’t address his critic, instead criticizing the ad-hoc arrangement — making it at least two people unhappy with the song — saying he’d like to perform the song “on acoustic on the show. I don’t want to do it like that.”

“I’d like to do it with just an acoustic guitar. If we can get an acoustic bass, it’d be nice.”

John interrupted, almost shocked. “Acoustic bass?”

He shouldn’t have been too surprised — George suggested the same instrument just the day before, for “I Me Mine.”

George retrieved an acoustic guitar and proceeded to perform the song alone, accompanied only by hand-claps, probably from Paul.

Clearly noting the lack of enthusiasm for his own songs and probably reflecting his own increasing boredom as he endured the sessions , George — for the third time in a week — tried to deflect effort from the Beatles’ own rush to produce new material.

“Should we do some other people’s tunes as well?” George asked.

To laughter, but clearly laced with sincerity, John shot down the idea. “I can only just bear doing your lot’s songs, never mind doing strangers’.”

George: “Yeah, but those songs are so much better than ours.”

“That’s why I don’t learn them,” Paul replied.

George performed “For You Blue” one more time, and he eventually quit singing after Paul melodically read or improvised a wholly unrelated speech while George played guitar.

On January 3, the sessions’ first full day, George asked if the group would dip into their back catalog.  On January 7, he asked if other groups would join them on the bill. And now, he was feeling out the potential of mixing in covers, something they were doing relatively effortlessly throughout the sessions thus far. His most significant contributions to this point — “All Things Must Pass,” “I Me Mine” and “For You Blue” — arguably matched Paul’s newest songs and certainly outpaced John’s meager output.

And still, George’s songs were downgraded or degraded by the others, nothing that was really new. Per the tapes, George’s last-night song was the only song of his rehearsed on this January 9. His hunger for an expanded role — or a significant change in the band’s operation — was growing insatiable.  On January 10, it was breakfast at home again for George, but the change he starved for came at lunch.

2 Comments

Filed under Day by day

Jan. 9: Road work

He launched the January 9 Get Back sessions with “Another Day,” an ode to the working woman. Paul McCartney followed it by making the most of his own makeshift satellite office in Twickenham.

Paul’s morning piano sessions weren’t simply exhibitions, nor was it just for conditioning as he alluded to director Michael Lindsay-Hogg at the outset of the day’s Beatles business. The Get Back sessions’ most prolific writer, Paul treated the recording studio as a design studio, too, frequently shaping his songs and writing his lyrics while on the clock. This day offered a terrifically vivid window into that process.

After “Another Day,” a revisiting of “The Palace of the King of Birds” and a quick spin of “Let It Be,” Paul dug into “The Long and Winding Road” for a third consecutive day. The first verse is locked in and would be unchanged through its eventual release. “The second verse, leave a space, for the same thing,” Paul sang as filler. As he continued, Paul play-tested the rhyme of “the many times I’ve cried” and “the many ways I’ve tried” — tested to ultimate success, obviously.

Less successful was Paul’s plan to work in the word “pleasure” into the lyric.

I’ve had lots of pleasure, but said better. …
I’ve had many pleasure. …
I’ve had much pleasure. …
I’ve had lots of pleasure from the many ways I’ve tried.

After less than four minutes on “The Long and Winding Road,” Paul moved on. “There’s no more to that yet,” he dictated to Mal Evans, the do-it-all roadie (the group no longer touring, his roads were now long and winding ones). “But if you leave it around, I’ll still know where I’m going to fill in.”

Following a momentary return to “Mother Mary,” i.e. “Let It Be,” Paul unwrapped another new number, this one a song that would eventually find a home at Abbey Road’s terminus.

Paul didn’t know it at the time, but “Her Majesty” was complete. His presentation of music and lyrics was the same as would appear as Abbey Road’s coda, although here Paul would scat a second verse that would never be written. This version’s introduction, especially, evoked the current, bouncy state of “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” and would be the lone instance “Her Majesty” could be heard on piano. Paul played the song one more time these sessions, weeks later, on guitar.

“Paul continued his trip across what would become Abbey Road. Evoking Frank Sinatra’s 1956 LP that reinvented pop standards in a more contemporary style, Paul pointed out to laughter that “Golden Slumbers” — unveiled two days earlier — “should be ready for a Songs for Swinging Singles album.”

Paul offered a gentle delivery of “Golden Slumbers,” and pointed out the direction he’d like to take the song. “It really should be like a fairy tale. ‘Once upon a time, there lived a king. Sleep pretty darling, do not cry.’”

Leading into the next line, Paul introduces the original melody that he intended to change: “The bit you might remember: And I will sing a lullaby.”

Paul repeated his experiment merging “Golden Slumbers” and “Carry That Weight.” And like he did three days earlier, likewise in Ringo Starr’s presence, Paul signaled his intention to expand the song beyond its single line we all know. Paul doesn’t have the verses yet, but he knows what he wants them to say.

“Like a story,” he said. “A bit like ‘Act Naturally,’ where the tagline keeps coming up.”

In referencing one of Ringo’s showcase songs, it’s another piece of evidence pointing to the reason Paul opted to give the drummer a prominent voice on “Carry That Weight,” thinking of him for this song months before it was recorded for Abbey Road.

At this point, Paul wanted “Carry That Weight” to evolve into a comedy song featuring verses describing “just the sort of normal kind of troubles that everyone has” before leading into the “carry that weight” chorus. “There might be a verse about, like, ‘I got in trouble with the wife, I got drunk, something, something, something, something. … Woke up the next morning with a weight upon my head, and I found out it was my head. … Boy! You’re gonna carry that weight …’

“It could be one of those things, you know, in those songs where you’ve got everything, and everything is so great. And this morning, one of my eggs broke, (giggling). Just something trivial. The right shoe’s a bit tight. … ‘Boy, you’re gonna to carry that weight!’” Ringo sang along with every chorus.

Paul indeed delivered a wait, and we can close the circle on our story of “Carry that Weight.” The Nagra tapes don’t capture the song again. If he ever pursued the novelty song idea, there’s no record of it. By the time we get to the song’s actual recording for Abbey Road in July, it was exactly as the song was to this point: simply the line: “Boy, you’re gonna carry that weight, carry that weight a long time!”

Still at the piano, and unaccompanied by any other Beatles, Paul took a detour off (the future) Abbey Road and returned to the long and winding one for the second time in less than 15 minutes on the tapes. And again, Paul was very clinical, deliberate and open with his songwriting.

“I was thinking of having a weather obstacle,” he said before taking a stab at a new verse: “The storm clouds and the rain/The clouds disappear.”

The song’s imagery evoked a famed film thoroughfare.

There’s a Beatles-related photo for everything! Here’s Paul with the cast of Return to Oz, for some reason, in 1985.

“It’s sort of like the Wizard of Oz,” Mal said. “Did you ever see the Wizard of Oz?”

“Yeah,” Paul quickly answered, clearly not paying attention at first, before continuing,“No, no, no, I didn’t.”

“The yellow brick road,” Mal said before Michael broke in, “A heartbreaker. Yeah, it’s great.”

Paul returned to the road he was constructing, singing a placeholder verse.

“The thing that’s up ahead/at the end of the road.”

For a lyric, Mal suggested recounting the obstacles on the road, but Paul dismissed that idea, reflecting the pervasive and prevailing uncertainty surrounding the live show. “We have enough obstacles without putting them in the song.”

Much like George asked Paul a week earlier, regarding Maxwell’s, Michael questioned the song’s endgame: “Is it going to end happily or not sure yet?”

Interestingly Paul didn’t address the emotion behind the song’s ending, just that he had an ending. And it was very close to the one that would appear on the record more than a year later:

“And still they lead me back to the long an winding road
You left me waiting here a long, long time ago
Don’t leave me standing here, lead me to your door”

Leave a comment

Filed under Day by day

Jan. 9: Just another day

It had been a week.

Linda & Paul, 1969

With the benefit of nearly a half century of hindsight and purely from the vantage point of surviving audio tapes, it was an absolutely remarkable one for the Beatles, starting January 2 and entering the sessions on January 9. Amid sniping that peaked with a threatened walkout in unpleasant, wholly uninspiring surroundings, the Beatles put together — between mostly recently written shells and completely new originals — a compact set of fresh songs they could reasonably stage for a TV show. Just the night before, after days of deliberation, it sounded like they had come to consensus on what and where the show would be.

January 9 began, as many of the days at Twickenham Film Studios had, with Paul McCartney the first Beatle in the room. Today, he took a guest with him to the office.

“Do you know Michael Lindsay-Hogg?” Paul asked his bride-to-be, Linda Eastman.

From the conversation, it’s clear that Paul didn’t take his work home with him. She knew very little about the group’s plans regarding the live show.

Linda: So if you do it, it would be in here?

Paul: Dunno. There’s many a story …

MLH: If we do it here, we’ll do it in here.

Paul: But if we don’t, it’s on a boat to Tripoli.

Linda, like George Harrison the day before, instantly questioned the practicality of a boat trip. “What do you do with the equipment?”

Well, that’s Apple’s problem, Michael and Paul agreed.

The conversation abruptly shifted to a book Michael was reading — the title is never mentioned, but he clearly described My Father and Myself by J. R. Ackerley — before an evidently disinterested Paul bailed out minutes later: “I better go and put in some piano practice.”

Paul’s demonstration piece was an unfinished original, perhaps inspired by Linda’s time as a receptionist in New York before they met and after her first marriage. Or it may have just been another McCartney original observing life through a woman’s eyes, one Wings drummer Denny Seiwell would later call “Eleanor Rigby in New York.”

In two years’ time, “Another Day” was Paul McCartney’s first single as a solo artist (the 1970 McCartney LP yielded no singles), reaching No. 2 in the U.K. and No. 5 in the U.S. It also received a Linda McCartney co-writing credit, a fact that eventually spawned yet another Beatles-related lawsuit.

The song was name-checked that same 1971 in John Lennon’s furiously anti-Paul diatribe “How Do You Sleep”: “The only thing you done was yesterday / And since you’re gone you’re just another day.” The “Another Day” reference was actually written by Allen Klein, not Lennon.

But on January 9, 1969, Klein was a few weeks away from smashing into the Beatles orbit, and John was Paul’s partner, still a few moments from joining the day’s sessions. “Another Day,” however, was recognizable in this early state, the song’s first two verses largely identical to what Paul would record in New York in October 1970.

The sleeve of the Portuguese release of the “Another Day” single featuring Twickenham Paul.

Paul sang delicately and tentatively on the tapes, in contrast to his bolder performance on piano in his practice session. He’s searching, unsuccessfully, for a bridge to the song, and there’s no chorus. After about three minutes and two-plus repetitions of the two verses, Paul simply moved on to improvisations and several other previously debuted numbers (to be explored in subsequent posts).

The song could be heard just once more on the Nagra tapes, for less than a minute, in a fleeting rendition by Paul on acoustic guitar during an equipment change on January 25. “Another Day” was never a serious consideration for a Beatles record.

The next several songs Paul would play were.

 

1 Comment

Filed under Day by day

TMBP Extra: Jan. 8, 1969 recap

January 8, 1969, started with George Harrison unveiling “I Me Mine” and ended with the Beatles ready to work in conjunction, seemingly ready to finally reach consensus on a plan for an overseas concert.  Along the way, the group recounts Beatles history back to their days in Liverpool and through the decade.

  • All through the day: The “I Me Mine” origin story is brought to you by George Harrison, LSD, TV, a waltz and a dare. The longest post in this blog’s history, It’s everything you ever needed to know about The Beatles’ final song, but never thought to ask.
  • Take a lesson from Jude: Could James Brown prove to be an inspiration for a Beatles live show?
  • Rocky and the Rubbers:  The Beatles get serious in deed, if not demeanor, in a run-through that was, in large part, eventually featured in the Let It Be film.
  • No blue moon in history: The Beatles travel down Memory Lane with a stop at 20 Forthlin Lane as they shine light on the very first two Lennon/McCartney compositions (with a detour to 1966).
  • An hors d’oeuvre. George Harrison’s future solo classic “All Things Must Pass” reaches its apex as a song performed by the The Beatles. Would opportunity knock for George Harrison of Liverpool?
  •  Two for the RoadIt’s Twickenham as a demo venue for Abbey Road, as John Lennon re-introduces “Mean Mr. Mustard” and Paul McCartney leads The Beatles in another go at “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window.”
  • Look Around – An old TV show by The Beatles serves as inspiration for their new one. but will the discussion go round in circles? Features special appearances by Elvis Presley and pastry cooks from Walton-on-Thames.
  • Let it Be hers: Paul McCartney brings his future anthem to the rest of The Beatles and shares whom he wants to cover yet another of his new gospel-flavored songs.
  • Nothing is real: The Beatles consider pairing their “honest sound” with an artificial set for a final live show. Featuring Denis O’Dell.
  • The Four Powers: It’s The Beatles, fully engaged and animated as a model UN, negotiating terms for a live show. “Russia” and “France” threaten vetos, but Paul comes through with an offer inspired by a pair of incidents from 1962.
  • Syndicate any boat: The Beatles seem to approach some consensus on the terms of traveling to Africa for a one-off concert, with 1,000 fans tagging along on a boat ride.
  • TMBP Extra- Time to leave the capsule: Hey, January 8 is David Bowie’s birthday! Bowie and members of the Beatles crossed paths several times starting in the ’70s, but here I dig into what they were doing in 1969, before they met, just miles away at the same precise moment on January 6. Bowie, the Beatles and Apollo 8 cross paths.
  • TMBP Extra- Birthday for a King (and Duke): It’s Elvis’ birthday, too! A clip-heavy post has the Beatles covering Elvis and vice versa.

Leave a comment

Filed under Extra, Recap

Jan. 8: Syndicate any boat

The TV show’s title and tagline could have written itself:

“The Beatles are … ADRIFT.”

Picture yourself in a boat: The Beatles aboard the Fritz Otto Maria Anna, in the River Thames, on April 9, 1969.

It’s a simplistically obvious metaphor, and a literal description of what the group was seriously considering in the waning moments of their January, 8, 1969, session at Twickenham. If the TV show in production was to be episodic, this sequence would have provided a true cliffhanger.

Ringo Starr, codename “Russia,” wasn’t unwilling to drop his automatic veto, and it was John Lennon spearheading the effort withing the group, resurfacing as the group’s leader after so many years, who worked the sell on the drummer, along with Paul McCartney.

“Just give me one reason to stay here,” John asked.

“For the people,” Ringo answered with complete sincerity.

“All right, we’ll take ‘em with us,” John replied.

Paul McCartney clarified the pitch for a Winter 1969 rock cruise.

Look, we were going to give tickets away at this door here and say the first thousand people who come from Britian — British, white people (said to laughter as Paul was clearly joking; don’t write his reps). No, it’s going to be the first thousand that got here. We give them out, those tickets, but they include a boat ride, as well.

“We take them with us, and that’s the show,” Michael Lindsay-Hogg said.

France — aka George Harrison — took a more skeptical view of the potential naval movements than Russia and voiced several specific concerns with the plan:

  • Traveling with fans: “We’re stuck with a bloody big boatload of people for two weeks. At least you can go home from here, you can get away from it all. … It’d have be a bloody big boat, it’ll have to be bigger than the Royal Iris.”
  • Technical logistics: ” It’s just impracticable to lug all those people there and get all that equipment. … Of course it’s our problem.”
  • Cost:  “I think the idea of a boat is completely insane. It’s very expensive and insane.”

While at apparent odds, all the Beatles were deeply engaged in the discussion, and Michael took a straw poll for this proposal. “If we can get the audience and the boat, who votes to go?”

One hand — undoubtedly John’s — shot up immediately. George, despite his vocal objections, would still grudgingly go along with a trip if everyone else was joining. “I just want to get it over with, you know?”

John piloting the ship (in 1975)

It was all coming together for Michael. The boat trip compromise to include a British audience was a bonus for him, an easy way to compile captivating footage for his documentary, another unusual setting — the Beatles not just mingling with fans, but doing it as they sail along the coasts of Western Europe and Northern Africa.  It all would culminate with his deep wish to bring the group to the Sabratha amphitheater: the world’s greatest band making its stage comeback at a spectacular, unique venue.

“See, it’s like having the most fantastic set on earth, but we haven’t made a set, you know? It’s still simplicity itself,” John said.

Ringo still wasn’t sure.

Ringo: But how many’s going to be looking at the set besides us and [Michael]? … [Viewers] want to see what’s on, not what’s around.

John: We’re bound to get something from it.

Ringo: A nice time, get a bit of sun.

Michael: After you’ve had your nine or ten closeups each, we’ve got to have something else to shoot about.

John: It’ll be like being on the roof in India, only we’ll be fully equipped.

The roofs in India were where, not coincidentally, John was at his most prolific in this latter phase of Beatles history.

Even though, as Michael said, “the vibes are very good at the moment,” there was enough obvious dissent in the room to lead John to say that the group will mull it over that night. “We all could say yes now, and somebody could decide no tomorrow.”

Paul and Heather at sea, 1969. (Photo by Linda McCartney)

As they wrapped up, a final, spirited discussion — as animated as the room has been with no fewer than six people all talking at once (the four Beatles, plus Michael and Apple Films head Denis O’Dell) — emerged over the cost of the boat trip, Ringo and George most concerned.

“We should be able to get the boat for nothing,” John said. “We should be able to get the boat for the publicity they get from it.”  Denis replied to Ringo’s skepticism that he could get a ship “in three hours on the phone.”

John confirmed Denis’ skills, relaying how the producer was able to secure a vessel for How I Won the War. “It was the American Navy making an antiwar film.”

Really, it was all falling into place.

January 8, 1969, was the band’s sixth day back to work at Twickenham, and while most of their new songs were still a work-in-progress, the was actual progress.  One day earlier, George was on the brink of leaving the group. Now, while he was bothered to do so, he was still seemingly willing to get on a boat with the group — and 1,000 fans he wanted little to do with — to go to Africa for a concert he didn’t really want to play.  Ringo was dead-set against going, and now he was willing to bend. Paul was always ready “for an adventure” and as the group’s de facto musical director, he was shaping the material to have ready for the production. As for John, he wasn’t just finally involved — during the final conversation, you heard him speak on the tapes, not Yoko Ono — but he was the group’s leader again.

Days of discussion of where and how to stage the concert had been a distraction from the music-making process, which needed to continue. They were almost ready for a decision.

“Sleep on it then,” said Paul. “I am.”

One question remained as the working day ended: Would the great democracy that was the Beatles agree to this plan for a live show and have a goal they could rehearse toward, or would January 9, 1969, be just another day?

5 Comments

Filed under Day by day

Jan. 8: The Four Powers

n a time of global crisis — isn’t it always, though? — it was the world’s greatest legislative body. OK, maybe the Beatles were the world’s greatest band that also tried to behave like a legislative body, and late in the day on January 8, 1969, it was nearing time for a decisive vote on a lingering issue: Where would the Beatles play their next — and presumably last — concert?

You know his name (look up the nation)

From the band’s outset to its imminent end, the Beatles prided themselves on what they called democracy, but it was really complete consensus. “We had a democratic thing going between us, particularly by 1962,” George Harrison told the high court in 1997 amid a lawsuit to stop the release of a Beatles recording from one of their residencies in Hamburg. “Everybody in the band had to agree with everything that was done.”

Unanimity isn’t necessary to the democratic model, but this model United Nations was extraordinary by nature of its four voting members: John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr. The two serious veto threats earned code names from director Michael Lindsay-Hogg — Russia (Ringo) and France (George, so named “because he smoked some garlic once,” per Paul).

Continuing his earlier conversation with Ringo, and desperate to sell a show overseas, Michael laid out the situation as he saw it in hopes of chipping through the Iron Curtain.

The way it stacks up is, John is happy to go. … Paul is, I gather, in the middle, tending toward either side … and George is swinging more your way. So there’s quite a tough battle. The problem was we couldn’t talk about it because of Russia. And it’s the four powers. And if Russia says no, then the conversation is obviously in the bag and we can’t do anything with it. And I think if we now can talk about it, we may still discard it … or we may come up with something better.

In retrospect, the drama of the group’s incapability of finding agreement on a concert location, despite the suggestion of several intriguing venues, would have made for a captivating documentary for Michael. It would have given a narrative the Let It Be film lacked. But after less than a week of sessions, the director saw things differently.

“My documentary is running out of gas,” Michael admitted to John. “If we were to vote tomorrow, it’s not running out of gas.”

Fine-tuning the group’s intentions would do more than make for better television. “It might make it better again, whatever the wound is,” Michael told John moments earlier.

What octane do documentaries use? (Photo of the Beatles at Weston-super-Mare by Dezo Hoffman, 1963)

“Yeah, that’s what I was thinking,” John replied.

And here you thought John didn’t care about the band anymore. The Beatles were a wounded group before the Get Back sessions started, and salt would soon be added when George quit in two days’ time. But the Beatles were still worth saving in January 1969, even if John himself would call it quits well before the calendar year was out.

The day’s musical session was complete, Paul having walked the group through “The Long and Winding Road” and “Let It Be.” For these final 15 or so minutes on the tapes, all four Beatles are engaged, animated and opinionated concurrently to a degree yet unheard to this point on the Nagra reels.

All the principals immersed, Denis O’Dell makes the sell on Michael’s repeated preferred overseas adventure.

“I really think we could go and shoot a day sequence, a night sequence, a torch-light sequence, out there the sea, desert, in four days. Make it comfortable for everybody.”

Paul’s skepticism remained. But he was willing to keep options open and the live concert plans … uh, afloat.

My major objections to that: Traveling, one. Setting up and everything — I’m sure we can do that. Then, there’s that thing, which may not seem much, but we’re doing a live show, and we’re doing it in Arabia (laughter), and everyone’s waiting to see the lads rocking again. So, like, I’ll tell you what then, I’ll come in with it as long as you can get a couple of boats, the QE2. And then give away the tickets here, as you would have done, but the ticket includes a boat journey as well.

The composition of the audience was a sticking point, especially for Ringo, and there’s something virtuous to be said for the lads’ loyalty and desire to be rocking again before an audience that was with them from the start.

“We’ve got to get the right audience for Russia,” Michael said. “If we can get the right audience over there, which we can get over there.”

George wasn’t easily swayed. “What is the point of doing it abroad… apart from getting a great holiday? I’d much rather do it and then go away.”

Reminding the band of Twickenham’s relatively pedestrian features, Denis replied, presumably waving his hand at the scene around him, “To get away from that, that’s really the answer.”

“It’s ‘Around the Beatles ‘69′,” John acknowledged after a brief exchange about potential set possibilities on the Twickenham stage.

Paul, having had enough at the end of a long day, aggressively presented a compromise.

“I’ll tell you what I’ll offer you. If we’re going away, and we hire a boat to take the audience with you, we’ll do a bloody show on the boat, and then we’ll do a show when we get there, in the moonlight. … Final dress rehearsals on the boat.”

History never stopped chasing the Beatles, and sometimes it caught up to them. They didn’t want to repeat a past accomplishment, whether it was “Around The Beatles” or a stadium show. But Paul’s suggestion would have done just that: Bringing along a select audience to a performance at sea would combine a pair of episodes from the other side of their career.

Feb. 20, 1962, just a month after Brian Epstein formally signed on to manage them, the Beatles — that’s still John, Paul, George and Pete, at this point — performed an important show at Floral Hall in Southport. From Mark Lewisohn’s biblical epic Tune-In:

[Epstein’s] principal involvement in the Floral Hall night was two-fold: to help sell the 1200 tickets and to book the talent that would provide continuous dancing for four hours — five groups headed by POLYDOR RECORDING STARS, THE BEATLES. He circulated typed leaflets among Beatles fans and on the record counters at all three Nems shops, announcing affordable coach trips: fans could pay 8s, 6d for return transportation, admission to the hall and, afterwards, the chance to mingle with the musicians and get their autographs. These special all-in tickets were sold only in the Whitechapel shop, outside which the chartered buses would leave. The Beatles were taking a Liverpool audience with them for a night out up the coast.

Emphasis mine.

Instead of towing British passengers across the Atlantic and Mediterranean, the Beatles brought their fans from their Cavern Club base in Liverpool about 20 miles up the A565.

That was by bus. Six months before the Floral Hall show, the Beatles made the first of four appearances on the Riverboat Shuffle, a concert series on the MV Royal Iris, a ferry cruising in the River Mersey.

For Paul — who would record parts of Wings’ London Town on a boat in the Virgin Islands in May 1977 — the Royal Iris performances made enough of a lasting impact that he referenced them decades later on his 2007 LP Memory Almost Full:

The journey wasn’t as important to Michael as the destination: the Roman amphitheater in Sabratha, Libya.

“I don’t think anything is going to beat a perfect acoustic place, by the water, out of doors, a perfect theater, with perfect acoustics,” he said.

John was on board. “Just singing a number, sunset and the dawn and all that. Gentle, and the moon, and all that for the songs, you know.”

“I think we’re going to do rock and roll at dawn or at night, and we can have the change of day over something like this,” Michael replied. “Because I’m sure we can do the rock and roll there if we get the right audience.”

All-important consensus was building between the two most powerful members of the band, and it was more than wanderlust and closer to finding a way to heal that wound — do something different, but still be together as The Beatles.

“Last year, when we were doing the album, like you said, we suddenly said we don’t need to do it here, in EMI in London,” Paul said. You can listen along to this particular sequence on the “Fly on the Wall” bonus CD packed with Let It Be … Naked.

John excitedly picked up the argument.

“Every time we’ve done an album, we’ve said, ‘Why are we stuck in EMI, we could be doing it in L.A.! We could be in France! And every time we do it, and here we are again, building another bloody castle around us, and this time we [should] do it there. And not only would we be doing it, physically making the album there, but it takes [off] all that weight of, ‘Where’s the gimmick, what is it?’ God’s the gimmick. And the only problem we’ve got now is an audience, you know.”

For a moment, at least, Paul’s skepticism vanished.

“It makes it kind of an adventure, doesn’t it?”

3 Comments

Filed under Day by day

TMBP Extra: Oh what joy

With birthday posts previously produced for Paul McCartney, John Lennon and George Harrison, it’s about time we righted a wrong, and completed the set with the man born as Richard Starkey. Like the others and in the spirit of this blog, here’s a look at Ringo Starr’s life as it straddled the big days circled on the calendar in 1968 and 1969.

Ringo Starr, 1969

How did you spend your 29th birthday? Ringo Starr, the eldest Beatle, spent July 7, 1969, at EMI Studios on Abbey Road — like he spent so many of days in his 20s — laying down the drum track for “Here Comes The Sun.” We’ve all been stuck working on our birthdays, but this doesn’t sound like a bad gig, if you can get it.

Yet, 11 months earlier, Ringo gave up that gig, walking out on the Beatles during the White Album sessions.

From the Anthology book:

I left because I felt two things: I felt I wasn’t playing great, and I also felt that the other three were really happy and I was an outsider. I went to see John … I said, ‘I’m leaving the group because I”m not playing well and I feel unloved and out of it, and you three are really close.’ And John said, ‘I thought it was you three!’

So I went over to Paul’s and knocked on the door. I said the same thing: ‘I’m leaving the band. I feel you three guys are really close and I’m out of it.’ And Paul said, ‘I thought it was you three!’

I didn’t even bother going to George then. I said, ‘I’m going on holiday.’ I took the kids and we went to Sardinia.

He famously returned two weeks later after to a flower-covered drum kit as the sessions continued (they never stopped recording, with Paul filling in on drums for a few songs).

Still, Ringo’s time away was fruitful, spent on Peter Sellers’ yacht, where the captain told him stories about octopuses on the seabed.

A couple of tokes later with the guitar — and we had ‘Octopus’s Garden’!

Ringo’s relationship with Sellers — a member of The Goon Show, beloved by the teenage future Beatles, and whose novelty records had been produced by George Martin — dated back a few years and would benefit the drummer in several ways in the decade’s final years. In November 1968, Ringo took advantage of a Sellers’ market, moving into the actor’s former Brookfield House estate in Elstead, Surrey. Just a couple months later, the two would co-star in a movie. But first, Ringo had another movie to film with the Beatles.

Ringo’s resistance to go abroad during the Get Back sessions — he was most insistent of any of the Beatles — led to the beauty of the rooftop performance. This blog’s entire purpose is to tell that story.

Musically, Ringo did Ringo things in the January 1969 sessions, and as a songwriter, he continued work on “Octopus’s Garden” (as seen in the Let It Be film) and also brought a few unfinished songs to the table, too.

But the sessions were just a warm-up for what came next at Twickenham Studios, where Ringo — teamed up with Sellers — filmed The Magic Christian, his first true starring role (Ringo had a small part playing a Mexican gardener in Candy, which was released in this period, too). This took time, with filming running from February into May. The film would be released in December 1969.

Let It Be — the film and the record — wouldn’t see a release until 1970, a few months before Ringo turned 30. But the Beatles weren’t finished yet in the wake of those sessions. “Octopus’s Garden” would be formally recorded in April 1969, although recording for Abbey Road, to this point sporadic, wouldn’t get into full swing until July.

In December 1969, Ringo said in an interview with the BBC that “I want to be a film actor. I don’t want to be like Cary Grant or one of them who, like, really do the same performance in everything, and the story is the only thing that changes.”

Ringo & Barbara at their wedding

That may be the biggest takeaway in the career of Ringo Starr between July 7, 1968 and 1969 — because he did look at life beyond, or at least in addition to, the Beatles and rock and roll. Without the songwriting gifts of John, Paul and George, Ringo applied his natural charm to film, and was finally able to step fully out into the spotlight and marquee, without other Beatles to his side, or front. And while he was successful in the early 1970s with his solo career, he remained active on the screen, too, even if it wasn’t to that same critical or commercial success.

If you judge success by the bigger things in life, however, Ringo’s foray into film couldn’t have been any more fruitful. A few months before his 40th birthday, in 1980, Ringo filmed Caveman, starring alongside model Barbara Bach. After meeting on the set, they would wed a year later, and have been together ever since.

 

1 Comment

Filed under Extra

Jan. 8: Nothing is real

Far from chaotic, the Get Back sessions, if anything, could be defined by its routines. Paul arrived early to play piano, and then pretty much ran the rehearsals. George’s songs — whether written overnight or brought back for another day — were a slog for everyone else. John didn’t have much new to offer, while Ringo did Ringo things like participate in conversations and keep the beat. Turn the page to the next day on the calendar, and do it all again.

Beyond music, the daily pattern underlying the scene centered around discussion of the live concert the Beatles were trying to put together. At once a footnote to the songs, the show was simultaneously the purpose of these January sessions and thus ostensibly what mattered most. The push and pull between director Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s wanderlust and the group’s default stance — to stay put — was a constant. And the more they couldn’t settle on a British venue, the closer they collectively moved toward simply staying in the very room where they were rehearsing and ruminating.

January 8, 1969, then, was no different than so many other days the Beatles spent at Twickenham the first half of the month. Discussion about the concert surfaced late in the work day, concurrent with Paul introducing the unfinished “The Long and Winding Road” and “Let It Be” to the rest of the band for the first time, and with their initial attempts at a full-band arrangement.

Yet now, to stage the “honest” sound they sought to achieve these sessions, the Beatles began to consider an ersatz solution. Rock and roll begets rocks, or something imitating it, at least.

Denis O’Dell (left) with Ringo at The Magic Christian shoot. Photo from O’Dell’s book, At The Apple’s Core.

“If we try to cover all this (Twickenham’s sound stage) and build caverns and caves, it’s nice, you see,” said Denis O’Dell, the head of Apple Films.

Why perform at the Cavern in Liverpool for the nearly 300th time, when you can simply craft your own cavern indoors? (Please don’t answer that.)

Denis had been in the film industry since before the Beatles were born, and his association with the group began in 1964, when he was associate producer on the A Hard Days Night film. It was the start of a mutually beneficial partnership to this point, which included How I Won the War (associate producer and John starred), Magical Mystery Tour (producer) and led to his appointment as an Apple executive.

Of course, you already know his name (but have to look up his number) from his time at Slaggers, and do note he is NOT related to Miss Chris O’Dell.

Denis had appeared sporadically on the tapes to this point, and here it dovetailed with one of the first times John seemed even marginally interested in what was going on with the live show.

“Then we could do what we’d like with a backing,” Denis told John. “Go black, or stark or something. Then we could control all our lights from a panel, and we could have all colors you’d like.”

“Yes. And they’ll be able to see us through everything.”

John invoked sets used by Stanley Kubrick, Denis’ boss on Dr. Strangelove (that film was the source of the footage used during the “Flying” sequence in Magical Mystery Tour), and the man floated to direct a version of Lord of the Rings starring the Beatles. An extensive recap of that aborted episode in Beatles history is discussed at length in Denis’ 2003 fine autobiography of his Beatles years, At The Apple’s Core.

The conversation would continue, with Denis asking someone to fetch George Djurkovic, art director of The Magic Christian, from the film’s set elsewhere at Twickenham to provide added insight. But while Paul continues to play “The Long and Winding Road” in the background the conversation on the tapes meandered to a new duo: Ringo — one of the stars of The Magic Christian — and Michael. While Denis and John spoke as if the live show was to be held at the studio, Michael continued negotiations on taking the show on the road with Ringo. They were the leaders of the rival factions: Stay-put Starr vs. the whole Hogg.

“If I do go, I think it’s better just to go for four or five days,” Ringo said, showing newfound flexibility. “We don’t need to go to rehearse.”

Ringo was willing to bend and travel, but there’s a catch: “I’d like to do it to a British audience.”

It’s a catch, but one Michael is willing to receive. “Can we all talk about it? Will you take the veto off if you can be convinced we can get an audience?” Michael asked.

A Roman amphitheater wasn’t artificial, but to Ringo, the whole reason to perform overseas was contrived. The only reason to travel was the “helicopter shot, you’ll see the sea, the theater. And that is, for one, two minutes, say, that shot isn’t worth me going down there when I really prefer to do it here.”

Two and a half months after Ringo suggested the Beatles perform before there for a “British audience,” John and Yoko would be married in Gibraltar (near Spain).

“I see us doing a good show here [at Twickenham], because it’s you [the Beatles],” Michael said, again conceding this could be the last TV program the band will ever do.

Speaking quickly, Michael continued:  “Everything you do has got to be good. All your albums are good. …. It’s not only you as the band, it’s not only them as songwriters, it’s the four of you.

“It’s got to be the best.”

Of course they’re the best. Like Ringo doesn’t know that?

“Every time we do anything it’s going to be the best,” Ringo replied. “Can’t we just do something straight?”

And back to Twickenham, and staying precisely put.

“At the moment, that scaffolding set and the tubular thing, it is kind of like four years ago,” Michael said. “And there’s nothing wrong with four years ago. … We’re all 28 now, or whatever we are. The audience isn’t the same, life isn’t the same.”

For the record, John, Ringo and Michael were all 28, Paul was 26 and George a wee 25. But his point remained legitimate. This wasn’t 1965 anymore.

“This place, it could be rock and roll, ” Michael began.

“It could be rock and roll in Tahiti or wherever you want to put us. What’s it called? (laughing)”

Michael’s not even sure himself. “It’s either Tunisia or Tripoli.”

Ringo asks about a British possession likewise on the Mediterranean — “What about Gibraltar?” — before turning his attention back to the room he was in and the music, ignored during the conversation.

How’s this for an idea of stripping a show down?

“See, Ringo said, “I’d watch an hour of just [Paul] playing the piano.”

4 Comments

Filed under Day by day

TMBP Extra: RIP Chuck Berry

From Forthin Road’s front room to their final fracture, the Beatles were openly ripping off Chuck Berry, imitating and flattering the late, great rock and roll patriarch with complete sincerity.

The bass line to “I Saw Her Standing There,” for instance, is the bass line to Berry’s “I’m Talking About You.”

Here’s Paul McCartney, getting the message through in Beat Instrumental, via Barry Miles’ Many Years From Now:

I played exactly the same notes as he did and it fitted our number perfectly. Even now, when I tell people about it, I find few of them believe me.

This you can believe: The massive influence of Charles Edward Anderson Berry — who left the material world on Saturday at 90 — on the Beatles is quite impossible to minimize. The Beatles’ growth pattern wouldn’t have been the same if there was no Buddy Holly or Little Richard, Elvis Presley or Carl Perkins, Lonnie Donegan or Slim Whitman, Jim McCartney or Julia Lennon. But the mark Chuck Berry left was unique.

You’ve heard this quote for sure, if not before this weekend, then certainly since:

If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it “Chuck Berry.”

That was John Lennon in 1972, spoken in Berry’s presence on the Mike Douglas show. John’s adoration took many forms in the more than decade prior to that.  Here’s Paul, as quoted in the Anthology book:

We’d go up to John’s bedroom with his little record player and listen to Chuck Berry records, trying to learn them.

And there was plenty of reason to learn them. The sheer velocity of the music was one. John explained the other in a 1972 interview, relayed in Anthology:

In the Fifties, when people were virtually singing about nothing, Chuck Berry was writing social-comment songs, with incredible metre to the lyrics. When I hear rock, good rock, of the calibre of Chuck Berry, I just fall apart and I have no other interest in life. The world could be ending if rock ‘n’ roll is playing.

As the Quarrymen moved things up a trifle further in becoming Beatles, their love of Berry’s music was written all over their performances, with more than a dozen of his songs covered live over their touring career (you can find many of those songs as performed by the Beatles on their two Live at the BBC compilations, plus the Bootleg Recordings 1963 release).

“Memphis, Tennessee” made the cut as one of the songs for their failed audition for Decca in 1962.

Rock and Roll Music,” “Roll Over Beethoven” — the Beatles blessed record buyers with those tracks on wax and also live from the stage.  The former was performed right up until their last live show in 1966, when it was the concert opener, while the latter made it as late as into their 1965 tours.

Two and a half years after that last concert — in the timeline we’re concerning ourselves with here on this blog, January 1969 — the Beatles turned to Berry’s music over and over again, if not for inspiration then at the least out of habit and comfort. For John, Paul and George, it meant filling moments amid the tension and tedium by jamming into a impromptu but completely sincere rehashes of “School Days” or “Sweet Little Sixteen” or “Thirty Days” or “I’m Talking About You” or .. or … or …

Even when they were fooling around with their own “Back in the U.S.S.R.” at Twickenham, it was just another reminder of Berry’s influence by way of “Back in the U.S.A.”

That the Beatles would play a song by Berry wasn’t in and of itself that telling, but their universal knowledge and comfort in playing his songs, said a lot.

Months later, in the Beatles’ waning days as a unit, Berry’s inspiration struck Lennon very directly in “Come Together.”  John dismissed the claim that “You Can’t Catch Me” — a song he said he hadn’t heard in a decade, yet one that John belted out a few lines from in a jam the final week of January 1969 — sparked the Abbey Road opener.

(Someday we’ll have to talk about how an early version of “Come Together” resembled the Kinks’ “Drivin'” off  Arthur. But that’s for another blog.)

Paul, who had no shame admitting he integrated Berry’s work into his own, felt pretty certain John did the same. As quoted in Anthology:

John came in with an up-tempo song that sounded exactly like Chuck Berry’s ‘You Can’t Catch Me,’ even down to the ‘flat-top’ lyric. I said, ‘Lets slow it down with a swampy bass-sand-drums vibe.’ I came up with a bass line and it flowed from there. Great record.”

He’s right, it is a great record.

Turns out, they could catch John, and as part of an eventual settlement, John had a chance to re-make “You Can’t Catch Me” (as well as a few other songs owned by the prosecution) for his 1975 Rock ‘N’ Roll LP (another great record).

John’s love of that original era of rock and roll, which made him want to do it himself, gave his life and career meaning and shone on that record, and really whenever he had the opportunity to play it. The genuine glee felt by John, when he got to share the stage with Berry on the Mike Douglas Show in 1972 is palpable. If you haven’t watched it before, you should, both the performances as well as the interview segment.

John recalled that day during an interview/DJ session with Dennis Elsas on WNEW, September 24, 1974:

Because although I was there with Chuck Berry, and I’d been sitting backstage with him, I met him a few times over the years, I still have that feeling, that when I was sixteen, those were the records I listened to [in] what we called “milk bars” in England, with a jukebox. And I could never quite see him as a human ’cause there was one of my idols, actually talking to me. … It’s sort of an effort to see, “Oh, yeah, it’s a human, but it is Chuck Berry, isn’t it?”

Like John Lennon, Chuck Berry was indeed human and thus mortal, and the master was able to enjoy 50 more years on this earth than his apprentice.   The Beatles were as innovative as any act as popular music has seen, but with Berry’s genius baked into the individual members’ DNA from youth, the group didn’t have to start from scratch. It wasn’t enough that the Beatles had a backbeat they couldn’t lose,  the lyrics mattered too.

“Ever since I was in my teens I was acquainted with the works of Chuck Berry, whom I consider one of the original rock and roll poets,” John Lennon said after the Beatles’ breakup.

Said in a deposition.

Said in a deposition in which he was being sued for ripping off Berry.

But this spoke more of the litigious universe that enveloped The Beatles in the early ‘70s than anything else — Berry didn’t sue John over lyrics in “Come Together,” it was the people who owned the rights to “You Can’t Catch Me.” And the solution was simple: just play some Chuck Berry music on another record.

Paul was never litigated for ripping off Berry, but he still went ahead and covered him decades later in 1999, cutting “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man” for the most excellent Run Devil Run.

On Berry’s death, Paul (and/or his people) tweeted his condolences, and it was his turn to rip off John.

Or maybe he didn’t rip off John at all. Berry was a poet, and Paul just didn’t have any better word to describe him.

Berry’s music will live on through his own recordings and as a direct line through the Beatles, too. And as long as we’ve got a dime, the music will never stop.

Leave a comment

Filed under Extra