Tag Archives: Eric Clapton

Jan. 10: Go on, as if nothing’s happening

“It seems highly unlikely we’d be on,” the guitarist told the director.

With a member of the band unexpectedly AWOL, he was justifiably skeptical the Beatles could stage the big concert to end the film.

“I mean, the law of averages are against it,” he continued. “I think if you could get the juggler on with a couple more clubs, that’d fill in a bit of time.”

That guitarist speaking was George Harrison, and the production was A Hard Day’s Night, the Beatles’ first feature, filmed Spring 1964. On the afternoon of Friday, January 10, 1969, it wasn’t a self-deprecating Ringo Starr who was missing, it was a self-reliant George himself, having sprung Twickenham during his “Winter of Discontent.” This left the remaining Beatles and director Michael Lindsay-Hogg juggling ideas for how to close what would become “Let It Be,” their final film, and who else would be on stage playing lead guitar.  

Michael and Ringo, January 1969. From Peter Jackson’s Get Back.

More than a week into the Get Back sessions, Michael continued making similar iterations of the same pitch for the show.

“One of my ideas is if we go to, like, anywhere, that we mightn’t just announce any times for the concert at all,” he said to Paul McCartney later in the day on the 10th. “We’ll set them (the Beatles) up in whatever desert we do it in, and they start to play. And one by one, and ten by ten, people will come in.”

Inane, I’d call that,” Paul replied with a comedic aggression. “Straight off the top of my head. … Imbecilic. Salacious.”

(Like in his songwriting, at times, Paul sometimes spoke words that simply sounded good, even if they didn’t make sense in context.)

Michael deflected the response, saying “‘imbecilic’ sounded like a bad bug you get the flu from.”

Regaining focus, he invoked the show’s target date, 10 days hence: “I though that could make a very kind of groovy, trendy opening. Seriously, like: January 20, 1969.”

Moments later, the director and the others in the room — which extended beyond just the band — discussed the issue of visas and difficulties several of the Beatles’ peers (Donovan, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards) faced getting into the United States. They were open to several options, including Mexico, the Virgin Islands and other Caribbean destinations.

“And Catalina, which George said wasn’t very nice,” Michael said.

Not that it mattered what George thought then, he’d quit the group almost an hour earlier.

“So what’s our next move?” Michael asked the others. 

“We split George’s instruments,” John Lennon said to laughter.

It was clear in the immediate they were not considering splitting the band, though. If the Beatles were going to be on the move, it would just be in a different iteration. Abandoning the project wasn’t a consideration at present.

The conversation would shortly return to locations, with the Roman amphitheater at Sabratha in Tunisia remaining at the forefront, all other contenders just conversation pieces to keep the group engaged. Michael’s long-preferred destination, he enlisted a “reconnaissance team” that included Beatles assistant Mal Evans and producer Denis O’Dell slated to scout the venue the upcoming Monday.

“There has to be someone to say, ‘The weather’s fine, come on in,’” Michael said.

Paul repeated familiar, feasible suggestions (The Cavern Club, Tower Ballroom) along with new nearby options (the Underground) and  more distant, outlandish and outrageous ones (“the mouth of a volcano near Ecuador”). 

“I think we should do it for more than 500 people,” Michael added.

It was a tough time to think big. This was an afternoon and evening of distractions and interruptions.

In the wake of George’s departure, there were several coincidental arrivals at Twickenham: A package arrived for Paul (marked “‘handle tenderly”); several “EMI heavies” wandered around the soundstage; a CBC interviewer prepped John and Yoko for an infamous interview that would come a few days later.

Rather than return to a full rehearsal, the group joined Michael in telling several imbecilic (and salacious) knock-knock jokes. Of more interest was Michael discussing his career and relationship with Orson Welles, whom decades later he would discover was his father. One lengthy anecdote (which was also detailed in his 2011 autobiography, “Luck and Circumstance”) described Michael acting in Welles’ 1960 stage production of “Chimes of Midnight” when Welles briefly stormed out of the production in anger. 

“See you ’round the clubs!” Glyn Johns reacted, laughing — and confirming George’s earlier valedictory statement, which wasn’t caught on tape. 

An afternoon replete with nostalgia would soon continue after Paul returned to the piano (you can hear “The Long and Winding Road” and “Adagio for Strings” clearly on the tapes in the background). After quizzing the band on whether they had endured any scuffles with their fans (Ringo recalled being kicked in the head), Michael asked if they looked back fondly on their frenzied touring period.

John replied with an affected accent, the voice of a ragged bluesman looking back on a lifetime, not merely a few years earlier:

Why, I think of it every day. I think what fun we had when we was [sic] the Beatles, playing and rocking with the group around the world. I said, ‘Richard, you remember that?’ He says, ‘No, I hadn’t joined you then.’

One of the not-so-fond memories: “Having eggs thrown at us in Australia was one of my big moments,” John said.

Reminded by Ringo he had missed part of the 1964 Australian tour (although he was there for the egging in Brisbane), John evoked the name of the rare Beatle stand-in. 

Jimmie Nicol: Now making a living as the 29th Beatle in New Mexico,” John said of the fill-in drummer, who was actually in old Mexico at the time.  

Now with the band facing a new vacancy, would they soon get to Beatle No. 30?

As if on cue, moments later, Michael barked an instruction for additional equipment: 

“Glyn, Yoko wants a mic.” 

She was back, but the music was hardly intense, with Paul having moved onto his White Album ode “Martha My Dear.”  Now, her vocals were largely calm and controlled, more comedic than anything.

While Yoko once again wailed, John — in conversation with Michael — laid out his plans to replace George. He didn’t suggest Yoko. 

A few hours earlier, George told the other Beatles, “You need Eric Clapton.” The time had come for John to heed the advice, sharing it with Michael. 

“I think if George doesn’t come back by Monday or Tuesday, we ask Eric Clapton to play, ” John said. “Eric would be pleased. He left Cream because they’re all soloists. … The point is, if George leaves, do we want to carry on as Beatles?”

Harsh feedback shortly overwhelmed the room, obscuring some of the conversation on the tapes. But the discussion continued, as Yoko again passionately called out John’s name.

MLH: Maybe for the show, you would just say George is sick.

John:  (Sincerely): No, I mean, if he leaves, he leaves.

MLH: But what’s the consensus, do you want to go on with the show and the work?

John: Yeah. If he doesn’t come back by Tuesday, we get Clapton.

Yoko: John!

John: Whaaaaat? (laughter) 

John and Yoko continued to repeat each other’s names, but this was the couple playing for laughs.  Meanwhile, John and Michael’s discussion continued through the call-and-response, bringing together the issue of show location with locking down a replacement guitarist.

MLH: And what about the venues? … If George comes back we go away, and if Clapton comes in we stay here.

John: We should just go on, as if nothing’s happening.

MLH: I think we should go away.

So eager to get the show on the road, Michael had the potential logistics lined up in his head, proposing the group spend the following week at Twickenham and the week after abroad, all conforming to the group’s timetable, which was in part defined by Ringo’s filming schedule for The Magic Christian. 

“What I’ve always thought is we leave here next weekend (January 18-19) and do the show the following weekend (January 25-26) there, if we decide to go there,” Michael said. “And then come back on Monday (January 27), which is just inside Ringo’s seven days.”  (The January 20, 1969, date floated previously must have only applied to a domestic show or an alternative, abbreviated schedule.)

Michael’s plans to this point were more extensive than expected, implying there really was no option, at least that he was eager to prepare, other than Sabratha. 

“We’ve arranged everything food-wise to come in from Germany,” Michael said, adding for the skeptics, “I do not joke. It’s the same food from the American [military] base.”

Eric Clapton and John Lennon, from the Rock & Roll Circus, December 1968.

And if it wasn’t enough John was trying to enlist Eric Clapton to join the Beatles, Michael casually suggested a near reunion of Cream, if it meant just getting Paul and John to Libya for rehearsals, and Ringo — who was least receptive to travelling — to be minimally overseas.

“We can get out a session man for a couple days,” Michael said. “Or Ginger Baker can come for a few days. Just to kind of routine it.”

The discussion between John and Michael petered out as John joined Paul and Yoko on another jam. Unlike earlier, when the Beatles played hard blues rock out of rage, this improvisation was more subdued, a more gentle and at times an arguably pleasant performance, containing elements of “Palace of the King of Birds.” Paul was on piano, John on guitar and Ringo on tambourine with Yoko providing another disruptive vocal — although not quite as consistently intense than earlier in the day.

Soon, Paul shifted to the drums — and it’s a noticeable drop in quality from Ringo to Paul, as strong as the latter is as a multi-instrumentalist. More importantly, it freed up Ringo, who returned to conversing with Michael. But first, he played up for the cameras (and tapes).

Yeah, rock it to me baby, that’s what I like. You may think this is a full orchestra, but if you look closely you can see there’s only two people playing and one person singing. I know it sounds like Benny Goodman, but don’t worry. It’s the big sound of 1969! You bet your life. Oh, sock it to me, sock it to me. (Laughter)

Interested in the filmmaking, Ringo asked Michael precisely what he was doing — “I thought what we should do is the first sessions when you came back, make it very hand-held looking,” Michael said, pulling the curtain behind the sausage-making. More importantly, Michael shared his first-hand view on what he saw after George walked out. 

“And the interesting thing is, Paul went to his amp. … I don’t know if you knew what you did, psychologically, after lunch. You (addressing Paul, who joined them) went at your amp like you shut the door into a closet. … And you (Ringo) were playing very hard. … And John was doing whatever he was doing.”

Ringo, Paul and Michael continued their conversation, as John provided background music — “Sun King” and “Dear Prudence.”

MLH: Have you ever had coverage when you were doing a whole album?

Ringo: No. 

MLH: Have you ever wanted it?

Ringo: No.

Like it or not, the Beatles — what presently remained of them — were getting blanket coverage, and the real drama was happening in the studio, not on location.

“Are we meeting again Monday?” Michael asked hopefully in the waning moments of the day’s session.

“Yeah, I’ll have Eric, Jimi (Hendrix, although it could feasibly be Jimmy Page) and Tommy (Evans of the Iveys, perhaps?) lined up,” John replied, with varying and low degrees of sincerity.

Paul’s set his bar much lower. 

“A7, D7, G7,” he instructed Maureen Starkey, who was visiting Twickenham that afternoon. “Get ’em off over the weekend and you’re in.”

(Ironically, armed with those chords, Maureen would have been able to fill in for George on his For You Blue.)

Paul with guitar protégée Maureen Starkey. From the Get Back trailer.

Before splitting for the day, Michael made sure to capture the scene. “We have this well-documented. And a lot of shots of the empty cushion.” We’ll see what Peter Jackson shows us in Get Back ’21, but this footage was left on the cutting-room floor of the final cut of Let It Be.

“And I guess that’s it,” wrapped up Michael, who wished the others luck in their planned weekend business meeting, which would include George. “And I hope everything really goes swell. I’d like to say, I’ve enjoyed our week together, hope one day we have another one like it.”

“Surely,” Paul replied. “Why not?”

And thus ended the first full work week of the Get Back sessions.  While George was kicking Eric Clapton’s ex-girlfriend out of his own house, John pushed the concept of welcoming Eric into the Beatles’ office. 

As you certainly know, Clapton never joined the Beatles, and John didn’t bring him in the following Tuesday, even though George wasn’t back. There clearly wasn’t an actual offer anyway.

Here’s Paul, from the Anthology book:

After George went we had a meeting out at John’s house, and I think John’s first comment was, ‘Let’s get Eric in.’ I said, “No!” I think John was half-joking. We thought, “No, wait a minute. George has left and we can’t have this — it isn’t good enough.’

For his part, Clapton repeatedly downplayed the idea he was an actual fallback option for the Beatles. In modern parlance, Clapton thought John used him as clickbait, and the friendship he had with George would have been a blocker anyway. 

Eric, from the April 1998 issue of Mojo

There may have been [a suggestion the Beatles would ask him to join]. The problem with that was, I had bonded or was developing a relationship with George — which was exclusive of them. I think it fitted a need of his and mine, that he could elevate himself by having this guy, that I could be like a gun-slinger to them. Lennon would use my name every now and then for clout, as if I was the fastest gun. So I don’t think I could have been brought into the whole thing, because I was too much a mate of George’s.

Several years later, after George’s death, Clapton literally laughed at the idea of joining the Beatles when he was interviewed for Martin Scorsese’s 2011 documentary “Living in the Material World”.

As he said in the clip, the Beatles could be the most close-knit quartet, but at the same time, “the cruelty and the viciousness was unparalleled.” 

The latter led the Beatles to this moment. After their first full day at Twickenham, on January 3, George described with envy The Band‘s ability to blur their domestic and working lives, something he witnessed first-hand when he visited the group and Bob Dylan six weeks prior.  “They’ve got all that gear there, but … they’re just living, and they happen to be a band as well.”

His relationships with his wife and his band in distress, George had neither element 10 days into January 1969 — he wasn’t living properly, and he didn’t feel like a useful member of the Beatles.  

While he’d join John Lennon as a member of the Dirty Mac before and the Plastic Ono Band later, Eric Clapton was neither asked, nor was he seemingly willing to accept an assignment with the Beatles.

The Beatles didn’t need Eric Clapton, a gunslinger for hire. They needed George Harrison. 

 

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Jan. 10: Knew it wouldn’t last

If I needed someone, George Harrison vs. Eric Clapton edition. (Insert Pattie Boyd joke here)

“You need Eric Clapton.”

“No, you need George Harrison.”

As the Beatles worked on the days-old “Get Back,” it was Harrison himself who suggested they call on his friend, the erstwhile Cream sharpshooter, to add an extra line or a solo to the quickly developing song.  John Lennon and Paul McCartney disagreed, trying to prop up George’s confidence and desire — and offer a specific instruction, too, as the band continued work after Dick James departed Twickenham on January 10, 1969.

With George the next to leave the venue and indeed the group, the exchange reads as a tidy — albeit exaggerated and deceptive — emblematic microcosm of the present situation. George was itching to leave, but maybe the rest of the band didn’t know it. Maybe George wasn’t certain just yet either.

The full group worked on “Get Back” and “Two of Us” that Friday, and both songs received a bit of tough love, mainly from its songwriter. But Paul pushed the others, too.

A deep, ongoing concern for Paul was George’s power chord that immediately followed the phrase “Get Back,” a chord he called “passe” in an earlier exchange with session arranger Glyn Johns.

“That suggests something to be, this chord,” Paul said. “We should try to get away from that,” as Paul subsequently refers to the chord as “passe” again, this time directly to George.

Paul: It was a couple of years ago.

George: No it wasn’t, it’s just a chord. … Some chords fit things.

Paul: Chords, like fashions and stuff. But it’s like drainies (drainpipe trousers).

George: Some drainies suit different occasions.

He eventually shrugged off the cross-talk, and the group continued to attack “Get Back,” with George searching for a power chord more in line with the latest trouser fashion.

“For the three of us, that’s good enough for the rock-and-roll thing,” Paul said just prior to George bringing up Clapton as a supplement to the song.

“Just doing simple things until it’s your go,” Paul told George. “Because otherwise you get the guitar conflicting with what you’re singing and all that. And then I’m trying to sing louder to get over the guitar. If you (George) vamp, then it takes away from his (John’s) vamping. It’s like the big, soft, lead guitarist, who just stands there and …”

Little, soft, lead guitarist” interrupted George — who at 5-foot-10 stood the same height as Clapton (who would famously be called on again soon, but that’s for another post).

“No, the big one in our head, who just sort of goes [Paul played straight, staccato power chords]. You can either do that soft or good. I really think it’ll happen better if we’re just keeping it going. A clipped offbeat. ‘She’s a Woman.’ That was just a better rhythm than we have. And ‘Sgt. Pepper’ on the organ.”

Facing this tall order, the group moved into other facets of “Get Back,” including Ringo’s drum pattern, the vocal combinations, guitar solos — including a proposal for both John and George to each have one — and the lyrical content. While “Pakistanis” and “Puerto Ricans” tracked well enough to remain useful to Paul (“Meanwhile back at home there’s 20 Pakistanis living in a council flat”), he didn’t try to further deepen the political discourse.  Instead characters like Sweet Loretta Martin and Jojo Jackson were introduced, and while the latter eventually lost the surname, both survived to the rooftop and into posterity.

“It fits — it’s a drag queen. ‘Get back to where you once belonged,’ Paul said.

John chipped in another line that mostly stuck: “But he knew it wouldn’t last.” Paul added the companion rhyme “California grass” although he conceded, “It’s daft, but we’ll straighten it out later.” (He didn’t).

While John and Paul actively hashed out the lyrics as a team, George was uninvolved and clearly disinterested in collaborating beyond defending his guitar parts (and later, making suggestions on a drum pattern to Ringo). Still, there was serious momentum toward building “Get Back,” and John was clearly into the song throughout, delivering a ripping vocal on several takes, at times singing the verses and chorus in unison with Paul or even solo.

Repeated stabs offered positive results, including funky takes featuring a groovy wah-wah solo by George. The song was fast and electric, and a strong example of the Twickenham sessions at their best, genuinely spirited.  

And while John was eager to deepen the arrangement, Paul again tempered the organic enthusiasm. “We still haven’t gotten one straight through yet.” If it wasn’t the guitar part in the chorus, it was the guitar in the verses that nagged him.

Paul also worked to manage a since-discarded introduction that featured the three guitarists playing a “big, long, clear chord” while Ringo was asked to work out an extended arrangement on tom toms, squeezing in as long an introduction as feasible.

“What are you trying to do, jazz?” John laughingly asked Ringo, who’d again be be on the end of a tongue-in-cheek jab when Paul called him “Dave Clark” after a particularly mundane drum part. (It was a running joke, too: John likewise invoked Clark months later during the recording of “Polythene Pam.”)

Despite the work, the mood at the moment was light. The melody line of “Get Back” reminded John of the old Perry Como hit “Catch a Falling Star,” prompting some giggles followed by a verse of that song.  An even more unlikely reference came moments earlier, when — in referencing “Long Tall Sally” — Paul broke into the closing theme to the Beatles cartoon, with Ringo joining in.

As the Beatles wrapped this early-day stab at “Get Back,” the song settled into a defined structure, really starting to resemble the song Paul still trots out in concert a half-century later.

With the group ready to shift to “Two of Us,” John took note of the overall pace of the sessions at Twickenham.

“We’ve never learned this many numbers at once, have we?”

The pace of new material strained John’s attention span. That’s not a surprise. But in the hours before George left the band on January 10, 1969, the message from Paul to the lead guitarist was clear: You need to keep up, too. It wasn’t about handling the quantity of songs, which was John’s problem. It was about keeping up with the quality.

George’s chord selection was “passe.” It was of “a couple years ago.”  George may have been matching Paul in productivity, consistently delivering new songs to the sessions, lapping John’s contributions. But he sill was very much the junior partner in this first month of the band’s final full year.

When George suggested the group bring in Clapton, it wasn’t a genuine dismissal of his own talents. It came from a clear weariness, an exhaustion. How could George not feel completely weary for the position he was put in by Paul, who was quick to call his own lyrics “daft” yet also describe George’s playing as “passe”?

And that only described the most recent hour. Only 72 hours before he called for a divorce. Since that moment, things were no more improved in the studio than they were at home.

The Beatles needed George Harrison, but did George Harrison need the Beatles?

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Jan. 9: Crossroads he’s standing at

During a brief transition immediately preceding the extensive “Let It Be” session late on January 9, 1969, George Harrison opened himself up to significant, retrospective armchair psychoanalysis in just five minutes of music.

He also became a human bootleg.

Everybody’s got somebody to lean on: Lucky and Nelson, November 1968.

Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes with the Band (a huge influence on the Beatles’ Get Back sessions) had been privately circulating since 1968, and the first true rock bootleg — Great White Wonder, which featured two LPs of his music that stretched back to as early as 1961 — surfaced in record shops starting in July 1969.

But this January 9, George — just a few weeks removed from his first collaboration with Dylan — seized a few moments of spotlight and shared a few of his friend’s songs, and ones that the others in the room hadn’t likely heard.

“I Threw It All Away” was so fresh a cut, Dylan wouldn’t record it for his forthcoming “Nashville Skyline” until Feb. 13, precisely two weeks after the Beatles’ rooftop performance and while George was in a London hospital recovering from a tonsillectomy.

Dylan first shared the song with George and wife Pattie Boyd around Thanksgiving 1968 at his home in upstate New York. George retained quite a bit of the song in performing at Twickenham, injecting intensity in his solo acoustic take.

George didn’t perfectly nail the lyrics, but he captured guts of the chorus and parts of the verses — “No matter what you think about it, you just can’t do without it. Take a tip from one who’s tried … And I threw it all away.”

The performance seamlessly went into “Mama, You Been On My Mind,” written in 1964, but to that point another unreleased Dylan track.

Perhaps it’s the color of the sun cut flat
An’ cov’rin’ the crossroads I’m standing at
Or maybe it’s the weather or something like that
But mama, you been on my mind

When you wake up in the mornin’, baby, look inside your mirror
You know I won’t be next to you

There could be no reason at all George plucked these songs out of thin air this Thursday afternoon, as meaningless as the group’s brief forays into “Tennessee” or “Slippin’ and Slidin‘” within the same hour. He’d been playing Dylan throughout the sessions, after all.

Or …

Maybe the songs reflected George’s mood as he was less than 24 hours from quitting the group. Paul transparently sang the blues about the Beatles in “The Long and Winding Road,” “Let It Be” and “Golden Slumbers,” so why wouldn’t George do likewise? It’s not a significant stretch to consider George was speculating about what he was throwing all away, at these crossroads he was standing at.

Without question, those two Dylan songs did hit home with George.

But …

Maybe it wasn’t necessarily only for the reasons we’ve always supposed.

The January 9 tapes begin with the Paul’s muse, Linda Eastman, visiting the studio. John’s girlfriend, Yoko Ono, had been a Beatles session fixture for months, and this day was no different.

George’s wife, Pattie, was very much not hanging around Twickenham. And when she looked inside her mirror, George wasn’t next to her, because she had walked out on him. But that didn’t mean he was alone at his Kinfauns home.

From Pattie’s autobiography Wonderful Tonight:

I was friendly with a French girl who was going out with Eric Clapton. She was always flirtatious with George, but so were a lot of girls and he, of course, loved it. Then she and Eric broke up — Eric told her to leave — and she came to stay with us at Kinfauns.

It was January 1, 1969, and George and I had seen in the new year at Cilla Black’s house. … We arrived home in good spirits but then everything went swiftly downhill. The French girl didn’t seem remotely upset about Eric and was uncomfortably close to George. Something was going on between them, and I questioned George. He told me my imagination was running away with me, I was paranoid.

Soon I couldn’t stand it so I went to London to stay with Belinda and Jean-Claude. Six days later George phoned me to say that the girl had gone and I went home.

The French girl was 20-year-old Charlotte Martin, and she had been dating Eric for more two years. Eric has since said he left Charlotte because of his growing feelings for Pattie. Why, you can almost say George tried to give her consolation when her old man let her down.

George’s fling was in its final day on January 9 — and after leaving the Beatles the next day, he asked Charlotte to leave Kinfauns, ending the affair.  He would  reconcile with Pattie, and separately, with the rest of the Beatles shortly thereafter.

The two Dylan songs George touched on wouldn’t drift far from his consciousness. Sixteen months after this date, George joined Bob in New York City, where they recorded both “I Threw It All Away” and “Mama, You Been On My Mind,” and the sessions have since surfaced on bootlegs.

George continued to show love for “Mama, You Been on My Mind,” laying down a solo studio version in the 1980s; this was still before Dylan’s first authorized release of the song in 1991. George’s recording would get a proper release in 2012 on Early Takes, Vol. 1.

From Giles Martin, who produced the compilation:

He recorded it at home in Friar Park at some point during the ‘80s, and it originally had programmed drums and loads of keyboards on it, and George had overdubbed himself for a three-part vocal harmony.

I asked [George’s widow] Olivia if it would be OK to break it down a bit, I thought it sounded a lot better stripped to its bones. You can still hear a bit of the drum sound in the background, because there was bleed on the tape — probably coming through from George’s headphones.

George did his own three-part harmonies in the ’80s, but his first vocal partners, John and Paul, were silent on the tapes during George’s brief Dylan set on January 9, 1969.  Walking out on the group, George silenced himself the next day, not only because of his increasingly tense relationship with John and Paul, but with trouble surrounding his marriage, as well.

***

Charlotte Martin remained in rock-and-roll’s inner circle. In a coincidence of the calendar, exactly one year after her last day involved with George, on January 9, 1970,  she met Jimmy Page after a Led Zeppelin concert. The couple would maintain a relationship into the 1980s. Their daughter, Scarlet Page, is a rock photographer of note; she’s shot Paul McCartney and contributed to the Visions of Dylan photo exhibition in 2007.

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TMBP Extra: Let it be first

Like so many of the outtakes on the “sessions” discs unearthed and unleashed on the most deluxe version of the Beatles eponymous double-album, this newest version of “Let It Be” — the oldest recording of the song — is acutely alive and profoundly captivating.

As performed on September 5, 1968 — the day after recording their iconic performance of “Hey Jude” for Frost on Sunday — here’s the world’s greatest tea-room orchestra:

Fifty years in the books, and Beatles history still has room for an edit.

In some ways, this one-minute, 18-second cosmic jam capturing the band in medias resbetween takes of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” — is just what should be expected, even if its very existence is still something of a minor surprise. A White Album-era version of “Let It Be” felt apocryphal, despite established knowledge rooting it in fact. And so it is that the disjointed, driving performance sounds like it’s out of time — it was.

Let’s dig in on some finer points:

Brother Malcolm, Paul and George Martin during the White Album sessions in 1968

Brother Malcolm, Mother Mary and the lyrics of “Let It Be”
Notably, the lyrics of the song hardly advanced in the three months between September 5, 1968 and January 3, 1969, the first recorded performance of “Let It Be” at the sessions that would ultimately bear its name.

Here’s Paul grooving alone at the piano for the song’s debut on the Nagra tapes:

The lone addition, lyrically: “In my darkest hour, she is standing right in front of me.”

“She,” of course, is Mother Mary, who presumably was in the very original lyric sourced from Paul’s dream about his mother but was absent in the 1968 early attempt. That featured “Brother Malcolm,” a nod to do-it-all assistant Mal Evans. The reference to Mal was inconsistent over January 1969 but endured to the very end of the sessions. Here are the Beatles on the final day of the sessions, January 31, 1969:

It wasn’t until a few days into the sessions at Savile Row, on January 25, 1969, that most of the verses had been added. But Paul started teaching “Let It Be” to others in the band on January 8, when we hear Paul naming chords to the others to learn. That’s also when Paul disclosed that, even at this early stage, he planned to have Aretha Franklin cover the song.

Interludes
Students of the Beatles’ January 1969 sessions have heard this sort of thing several times before, someone in the group veering into an original, a cover, an improvisation between songs, during a transition during a rehearsal or purely as an aside.

Some of these drop-in songs were even the same for the White Album and Get Back/Let It Be sessions:

And just as future songs were sampled and explored during jams in 1968, they were in ‘69 too. And probably long before that as well. A few examples:


Divine intervention
This initial iteration of “Let It Be” may not have had “Mother Mary” but it did feature the hand of “God.”

The September 5 session of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” was the one that featured Eric Clapton as the Beatles’ guest on lead guitar. That places Eric at the origin of “Let It Be,” and he can be heard adding a few guitar licks to the improvisation. (Listen to the very end and you can hear George close the track imploring his friend to don his headphones: “Cans on, Eric.”)

A full 31 years later Eric would get to play the song again, joining Paul on stage at the 1999 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductions. Paul was inducted for his solo career, but the show closed with, naturally, “Let It Be.”

Clapton didn’t take the solo — that’s Robbie Robertson of the Band, the group whose sound the Beatles sought to emulate during the Get Back/Let It Be sessions.

This same induction ceremony honored producer George Martin, who happened to miss the September 5, 1968, session whilst on vacation.

Times of trouble?
Even Paul called the White Album “the tension album.” John said worse in the early ’70s. Ringo literally left the band for a few weeks in the summer of ’68.  Four Beatles, each recording in a separate studio — we all know the stories.

But while history is static, perceptions are variable.

The 2018 reissue’s promotional campaign works to dispense with some of the darker sides of the session, from Giles Martin’s interviews to the numerous dismissals of dysfunction in the lovely hardbound book packaged with the deluxe edition. Indeed, there’s plenty of laughter and carefree spirit throughout the White Album outtakes. The outtake set even begins with laughter among John, Paul and Yoko, as if to hammer the point home.

The Get Back/Let It Be sessions inherit the same sour reputation, yet it would be very easy to compile 50 tracks from January 1969 filled with laughter, chatter and the indication that nothing could ever tear these guys apart. And I bet if and when we do see a formal reissue campaign of Let It Be (which I suspect will be attached to a larger Abbey Road/”Beatles in ‘69” re-release), we’ll see that very recalibration of Beatles history. More “Suzy Parker,” and not quite so many calls for a divorce.

And that’s OK. I’ve long posited that things weren’t necessarily so bad — or at least that much worse — for the Get Back/Let It Be sessions than in the period immediately before and after. Naturally, the reality lies somewhere in between. Neither the White Album nor Let It Be are outliers — that’s just how the group was post-1967.

On January 7, 1969, the day before the rest of the Beatles learned the chords to “Let It Be,” George Harrison made it clear: “Ever since Mr. Epstein passed away, it hasn’t been the same…  [the Beatles had] “been in doldrums for at least a year.” That takes the group to before their trip to India in February 1968.

Together at the beginning of that trip, the individual Beatles returned to England separately. For the final stage of their career, they produced enduring music, though they may be parted.

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Jan. 6: Icing Cream

When the Beatles reconvened at Twickenham Film Studios the morning of Jan. 6, 1969, it was the prior evening’s television that dominated early conversation between the band and director Michael Lindsay-Hogg.

And, hey, why not? Twickenham is their office, and the piano is the water cooler, so what else would the grunts talk about as another work day begins?

Just seconds into the day’s tapes  the discussion goes right into the Cream farewell concert that aired on BBC the evening before. And with it, it’s the Beatles’ first reasonable reference point* for their eventual film. Or, at least, a great example of what they didn’t want to do.

The documentary is, in fact, really lousy — I watched the whole damn thing in prepping this post. Cream, as a band, is great. But what a terrible program, from the seizure-inducing cuts to the wildly melodramatic narration and ridiculous band interviews. The camera’s always on the wrong thing, the songs aren’t complete, there’s continuity errors and it’s just an effort to get through.  (Try it yourself here!)

“Ginger Baker’s was the only interesting interview,” Lindsay-Hogg said to Paul, explaining that he himself is “really uncoordinated” and learned a bit of drum technique from Baker.

“I just thought they were interviewed badly,” Paul said.

Paul likened the interviewer to “a 3-year old kid” in suggesting Eric Clapton play his parts again on guitar.

The talk shifts to a tangent when Lindsay-Hogg compares the Cream production to the grandiose “Eloise” by Barry Ryan (the song itself, not the promo clip below), a chart-topper from a few weeks earlier.

“All form and no substance,” the director said of the song after using the same term to describe the Cream doc.

“It’s great I thought,” Paul replied. “I loved it.”

“All form, no substance, I hated it,” Lindsay-Hogg said before again repeating “All form and no substance.”

“That’s too big a put-down,” Paul said. “All form, and not much substance.”

“It was my least favorite record from the last five years,” Lindsay-Hogg insisted before adding under his breath,”I really hate it.”

Paul then sings a bit of “Eloise,” and Lindsay-Hogg is incredulous, although he would admit he liked the musical break.

The conversation wandered a bit, and included a quick take of “Oh Darling!” by Paul solo on the piano. But after Ringo, and then John and Yoko arrived, discussion of the Cream documentary resumed.

“We ought to think this week sometime about the show,” Lindsay-Hogg said to the group. “We could do it at the Albert Hall with those quick cuts.” Paul again expresses his disappointment, especially focusing on those edits.

Paul asked Ringo if he saw the show.

“Bits,” said the drummer.

“That’s all there were! Just bits, terrible quick-cutting,” replied Lindsay-Hogg.

Hard to tell what John or Yoko said as they were well off-mic.

George is the last to arrive. He was already good friends with Clapton — who contributed his part on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” four months earlier and had played in Lennon’s Plastic Dirty Mac just weeks earlier on the Rock & Roll Circus. Despite the friendship, George doesn’t shy from criticizing his friend’s production.

“There were some nice bits, but … what was … with the photography? You don’t see anything,” George said.

George calls Baker “great,” and Paul asks Ringo if he’s met him “as star drummers.”

George & Eric

Conversation shifted again, George talks about a new song he wrote (“Hear Me Lord”) and then his equipment arrives at the studio (“like an ambulance for ailing documentaries” according to Lindsay-Hogg).

But they can’t shake talking about Cream’s own doc, again mocking the interviewer.

Then, finally after 40 minutes of the tapes, the band’s finally ready to start the business of making music, and a documentary of their own.

I found it interesting, in retrospect, is they’re discussing a farewell concert, which is what Let it Be ended up being — not planned that way, of course (of course?) —  and that’s what they would spend so much of the sessions attempting to organize. Not that Lindsay-Hogg would end up producing anything that looked like the Cream special — nothing he’d done I’ve seen had given that indication — but Let it Be was certainly not anything like the Cream farewell.

But having that reference point so early in the sessions could only have helped light even the smallest of sparks in encouraging the band to do what they always have done, and that’s do something better than every other band.

*(Of course, Lindsay-Hogg had directed the Rolling Stones’ Rock & Roll Circus weeks earlier, but it wouldn’t see the light of day for another 25 years . And, while Lindsay-Hogg was behind the camera and John Lennon in front of it, I can’t imagine the film was edited to any significant degree at this point to be considered a comparison piece for the eventual Let it Be/Get Back film barely in-progress. It wasn’t the same concept anyway — the Stones weren’t trying to document the making-of the show; it was just the show itself that was being produced.)

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