From Liverpool to Hamburg to points circling the globe, the Beatles electrified audiences, and, well, you can insert your own hyperbolic statement about the redefinition of a rock show here. Yet on January 8, 1969, 28 months since they last played proper a live concert (alternately: “only” 28 months since they last played a live concert), Beatlemania was a memory as the group searched, still, for the how and where of their upcoming live TV concert.
The Beatles’ performance of “Hey Jude” on “Frost on Saturday” that was aired nearly four months prior to the day was their new baseline. It was nothing compared to the ideal, the best in the business.
“The example of the perfect stage show is James Brown,” director Michael Lindsay-Hogg declared to Paul, George and Ringo. “He’s the greatest stage show of all time, I think.”
For all the R&B the Beatles performed, there’s no evidence they covered the Godfather of Soul, but there were fans among the group. From a press conference in 1965:
Question: “I have a question for all The Beatles here. If you were sitting at home listening to record albums of other recording artists, who are some of the American recording artists that you prefer?”
John: “Otis Redding is one.”
Paul: “James Brown.”
Paul’s tune was unchanged several decades later, when he told Uncut in 2004 that Brown was “sodding fantastic,” while understandably saying he’s more of a Beatles fan, ultimately.
OK, stack us up against James Brown, record for record, he’s definitely hotter because he’s James Brown. But he didn’t do the stuff we did. He’s James Brown and he’s sodding fantastic. We can all agree on that. But there’s something else to The Beatles. Look, we did a lot of good music. You look at Revolver or Rubber Soul, they are decent efforts by any standards. If they’re not good, then has anyone ever been any good? Because, if they’re not good, then no-one has ever really been that good.
George, who would write in his 1980 autobiography that his favorite cover of “Something” was in fact by Brown, wasn’t quite so much a fan of his act, at least, in the opening days of 1969 — which was when, coincidentally, “Something” was in nascent form.
“I don’t know about that,” George said, dismissively, in response to Lindsay-Hogg’s declaration. “All that, with his cloak and his crown …”
Paul and Ringo parodied Brown’s “cape routine,”Paul pleading, “Come back, Ringo, come back!” “I can’t do no more, man,” Ringo moans in response.
Lindsay-Hogg beamed in recounting a Brown performance. “He’s got comedy and everything, and he has all that bit before he comes on. And I love when he comes on with that little white suitcase that says ‘Out of Sight’ on it, with that white silk suit.”
There’s no delusion — nobody at Twickenham thought or suggested the Beatles try to stage a show like Brown’s. So instead, as they’ve done before, they returned to their own recent benchmark: “Hey Jude.”
With Paul having already mentioned earlier that morning the suggestion of “[opening] the doors [to the audience], and we’re in the middle of a number,” Lindsay-Hogg — the director of the “Hey Jude” segment — wondered if the band shouldn’t be awaiting the audience’s arrival. “It’s all collected and you’re all together, then you start, as opposed to you coming on as the Beatles, it’s like much more intimate and participated that you’re there.
“If we were to do it here, the way to do it is to make the big brotherhood again”
Paul’s on board with a rerun of audience participation, a la “Hey Jude.” But it seems he thinks his luck with the “na-nas” of 1968 wouldn’t be repeated in the new year. “If we could do it, I thought it would be great, really, if all the audience did it,” Paul says before he imitates the crowd clapping and singing responsively the “oh, yeah” in “I’ve Got a Feeling. ”
“But the British audience [would sing, mockingly, in drawn-out tones], ‘Oh, yeeees, oh yes. They’re bloody good, this mother,’”
Lindsay-Hogg wanted nothing to do with Twickenham — or anywhere in England — as a concert locale, but this early in the sessions he’s at least showing signs of a vaguely open mind and understanding the final decision won’t be his anyway.
“I think if we do it here — and that’s an extremely long pause after that, ‘If we do it here’ — we ought to I think, which is what we’re talking about, is take a lesson from Jude. Which is another title for a song: ‘Take a Lesson From Jude.’ And make it that kind of thing where the audience is involved, but in a good way. When I say a party, I don’t mean paper hats and balloons.”
“Maybe we should have,” George chipped in.
The discussion shifted to the potential decriminalization of pot — sparked from a reading of the daily papers and the Wooton Report — and it’s around then John finally arrived and joined his mates as George said he was keeping his guitar warm for him.
With characteristic sarcasm, John replied, “I’ve been dreaming about get[ting] back to my guitar.”
The band’s all here, and a loose warmup began with some R&B — alas, not James Brown, but an improvisation led by Paul that name-dropped French fries and sausages that evolved into a song from one of Brown’s early contemporaries: Big Joe Turner’s “Honey Hush.” It was a song Paul later recorded for “Run Devil Run” and John rehearsed with Elephant’s Memory before his 1972 concert in New York, if the bootlegs are to believed.
“Honey Hush” wandered into “Stand By Me,” a song very definitely covered by John for “Rock ‘n’ Roll” in 1975 and his last single before his comeback in 1980. This time, Paul was on vocals, and he gave it the same grandiose treatment he delivered on “I Me Mine,” adding a little “The Barber of Seville” flavor for good measure.
More than 30 years later, Paul and James Brown shared the microphone on a version of “Stand By Me.”
As the Beatles continued getting loose, a mention of one Harry Pinsker led to a cheeky rendition of the “Hare Krishna Mantra” with the Apple Records accountant in the lead role. The Radha Krsna Temple (London)’s version of the chant, as produced by George Harrison months later amid the Abbey Road sessions in the summer of 1969, peaked at No. 12 on the U.K. charts.
As they wrapped their approximation of the chant, and with discussion of staging ongoing, the Beatles began their first sincere stab at a genuine run-through of their new songs. If you’ve seen the “Let It Be” film, you’ve seen much of that performance.
“Johnny,” Paul instructed laying out the set’s opener, “’On Our Way Back Home.’”