Tag Archives: Northern Songs

Jan. 10: Only the Northern Songs, Pt. 2

A half-hour or so into the January 10 Nagra tapes, the visiting Dick James finally noticed something unusual at Twickenham.

“Are we interviewing?”

“This is my bug,” film director Michael Lindsay-Hogg answered. “I carry it with me, always.”

Paul McCartney chimed in: “We’re just constantly on film these days.”

“Oh, I see. Something’s happening,” Dick finally concluded.

He was half-right: Something was happening soon.

George Harrison was the third Beatle to arrive at Twickenham on the 10th, continuing a pattern over the first week of the group’s January 1969 sessions. He was the first to leave a few hours later, and he wouldn’t return to this studio again.

Liberal as the members of the band were to speak their minds — or at least not be transparently cagey — with knowledge of film and tapes rolling (including Michael’s not-so-undercover portable mic), the Beatles had a secret they wanted to discuss, but they never went so far as letting the cat out of the bag or into the bug.

“Did Neil [Aspinall] ring you last night?” Paul asked earlier in the day, with Ringo answering in the negative. “Sad news on the wheeling and dealing scene. … I don’t think he wants to say much.”

Later, on John’s arrival, George goes into slightly further detail on the meeting of the Flocculent Four.

“Neil would like us to have a shave tomorrow” — a Saturday — “only because we’re busy every other day.”

George further discussed the upcoming meeting – spinning it as a positive, in contrast with Paul’s interpretation — without other details beyond the hopes of it happening at 8 or 9 in the morning “so we can have the rest of the day to ourselves. Neil was very excited.”

Closer, let me whisper in your ear.

John: Good news?
George: Yes, very. … It’s so good, he just told me briefly what it was. But I’d have to whisper it or write it on a paper and you’d have to swallow it.

Without further detail, George mentions John Eastman by name right as the microphone refocuses on Dick and Paul, clearly suggesting the meeting involved Paul’s future brother-in-law, whose legal counsel the Beatles received at some point in January 1969 regarding NEMS.

****

“Do you think if I paint this brown and put red on top it’ll look like like a cigar?” Michael asked of his spy microphone.

George: You wouldn’t see the red, just the ash.
Ringo: Hide it in one of those film cigars.
MLH: Yes, like Groucho Marx.

Perhaps the inventive director wanted to get his bug in the ear of Apple Electronics’ Magic Alex.

“To change the subject,” Glyn Johns asked as the morning continued, “That phasing device that Alexis [Mardas] has built, have you actually tried it out?” (Glyn  — along with the Beatles — are counted among the pioneers of the technique.)

“He just comes across things as he’s designing,” said George of Alex. “He just designs it and then he says, ‘Oh, yeah, I’ve done this.’ But he hasn’t actually made it because he’s busy building recording studios.”

Everyone would soon learn “building” was a loose interpretation. More on that when the action shifts to 3 Savile Row.

At Michael’s request, George retold the origin story of Alex’s relationship with the Beatles.

“He met John Dunbar — or John Dunbar met him. Alex asked if he could stay and build a light machine for the Stones tour. So he stayed and did that. … And then he met John, and then he met us. And he’s been there ever since.”

“Is that device he’s going to put out on records going to work?” Michael asked. “Where you can’t tape it? Great idea.”

Home taping is(n’t) killing music. (Source: Ebay)

Ringo agreed with Alex’s primitive, unrealized copy-protection scheme, but said John was against it — why would the Beatles want to stop the kids from getting their hands on music? But John held the minority opinion.

“In America they have those cassette tapes,” George said. “That means its easy if somebody buys one and then rolls off their own 4 million and sell it. Everybody loses out on that because people bought it, and yet some cunts made all the money for doing fuck-all except thieving it.”

The idea of an intrusive “This is an Apple Record” messaging dropped into the record was embraced too. “It’s a good idea,” Michael said, “because if you’re rich enough to buy a tape recorder, you’re rich enough to buy a record, really.”

(He certainly wasn’t wrong, they didn’t come cheap. But if the bootleggers were running off 4 million copies, they were aiming too high — in 1968, the Beatles “only” sold 3.47 million records total in the U.S.)

Conversation quickly shifted from Alex — “We should get all his tricks,” George said — and the record business at large to the immediate business at hand. And it gives a clear picture to George’s state of mind in the hours before he quit the Beatles.

“I’m getting tired … just coming here, I’m bored stiff.” Openly frustrated with the directionless situation and feeling trapped at Twickenham, George asked if the group was still planning on rehearsing the next day, which would be their sixth straight at work.

Michael doubted it — he wanted to get rid of a nagging cough, and anyway, “I think we’ve had quite a good week.” This was, remember, the last day of their first full week for these sessions, and just their seventh day in the studio overall.

At this point, John, who was pretty much always the last to arrive to Twickenham, did just that with Yoko. Again, Michael touts his discreet yet disclosed microphone.

“If anyone says anything interesting, will you remember it?”

“Dick James is a fascist bum,” John replied loudly, though clearly out of earshot of the publisher, who was in the midst of another business-related exchange with an inattentive Paul, touting things like “the consistency of earnings.” Referring to Dick as “pig” moments later, John’s feelings were certainly clear, but he also wasn’t confronting him, this morning anyway.

Whether it was playing for the cameras (and microphones) or just trying to keep the darker side of the business out of the studio, John was upbeat and friendly in chatting directly with Dick.

Step on the gas: The Daily Mirror from January 4, 1969.

Having hyped the “tremendous music book trade” and briefly addressing and then downplaying a published quote from the Daily Mirror from the previous weekend — “Will the Beatles record any of [the songs from the Lawrence Wright collection]? Said Mr. James: ” Now, that’s an interesting thought. … I doubt it, but it would be a gas if they did!”  — the conversation turned as at often did, back to television.

“You likely to be home tomorrow evening, watching television?” Dick asked John. “The Rolf Harris Show, Vera Lynn is on singing ‘Good Night.’

John sounded sincerely charmed his song was getting the prime-time treatment. “Oh, she’s doing that? I thought she did ‘Fool on the Hill’.”

Alas for John, “[‘Good Night’ is the] B-side,” replied Dick. “We put them back to back. … it’s a nice medium waltz. It sounds like “True Love,” that kind of feel, makes it very commercial.  (Because everything in Beatles history ties together, it’s worth nothing seven years after this conversation, George himself recorded “True Love” for his 33 1/3 LP, albeit without the original waltz arrangement.

Another cover, Arthur Conley’s version of “Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da” — as likely pictured in one of the photos from the Get Back Book that accompanied the Let It Be LP (look for the ATCO label) — drew George’s interest. “That’ll be the big American one? … It’s gone 50 now? Great!”

After fishing for a cigarette, Dick steered the conversation with George to a deep shared interest: cars.

“I would never have a Yankee car, not for this country,” Dick said. “They’re just a bit too big. Nineteen-feet long. ”

“And they’re so … rubbish,” George replied.

In particular, they hated the Cadillac Eldorado.

George: You look at it, and there’s all this plastic.
Dick: A load of bull all over the place.
George: Even the wood in it is like wallpaper.

They could hardly find a redeeming characteristic in American cars. “I can’t stand brakes on American cars,” Dick said, with George likewise bemoaning power brakes. “I nearly killed myself,” Dick said of owning a Buick Skylark.

Ultimately, Dick ended up with a four-door Rolls Royce Silver Shadow.

George’s ride at the time was a Mercedes 600, as seen in the Let It Be film.

Not quite the driver and six months away from wrecking his British-made Austin Maxi, John broke to tell Paul, who had finished his piano stint and rejoined the others, the good news: “Vera Lynn’s done ‘Good Night’ and ‘Fool on the Hill.'”

After Dick recapped Lynn’s promotional schedule, Paul was ready to really get to work.

“OK, should we start?”

Dick left the scene having promised Paul to “send some discs down.”

And with that, the group returned to work on what had the potential to be their own next disc and the next batch of Northern Songs.

****

“If you’re listening late at night/You may think the band are not quite right
But they are/They just play it like that”

The second verse of “Only A Northern Song” was written almost two years before the Beatles’ January 1969 sessions; coincidentally, it was released on the Yellow Submarine soundtrack LP 72 hours after the events of this post (in the U.S. — it came out in the U.K. a week later).

The Beatles most definitely were not quite right on January 10, 1969. George Harrison,  John and Paul’s bandmate since 1958, before anyone was a Beatles, would soon the Beatles and there’s nothing right about that. But in a sense, they were quite right, they “just play (it) like that.”

There are multiple reasons George left the Beatles on January 10, but Dick James wasn’t one of them, despite the timing of his visit and the publisher and Northern Songs historically irritating George to the point it inspired a song.  Dick wasn’t a true villain in the Beatles’ story contemporaneously, and he wasn’t a divisive figure to the group until he chose to leave their orbit by selling off Northern Songs to ATV a few months later. To this point relationship may have been deteriorating, but hadn’t in any way collapsed.

Tuesday’s on the phone to Dick James. 1968 at Savile Row.

Status as “a fascist bum” notwithstanding,  Dick — a generally respected elder like George Martin or Brian Epstein — could still talk music-hall numbers with Paul and Ringo, and cars with George. This visit said more about the Beatles themselves than Dick, reinforcing the group’s innate ability to isolate business from pleasure, whether the pleasure was making music amongst themselves or happily discussing frivolities with a man George later called a con man and thief. And even when talking business — like ownership of “Boomps-A-Daisy” and how “Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da” covers fared on the charts — conversation could easily veer to power brakes or the kids at home.

It may have been in Hunter Davies’ words, but in his authorized biography of the Beatles that was published only a few months earlier, he conceded “they all loved Dick James.”

The same 1968 Apple promotional film touting Magic Alex’s electronics department (as posted above) also serves a glimpse of Paul and John confronting Dick over money, with Paul firmly directing Dick to “go away, and you come back with something which you know won’t start this argument again.” Months later at Twickenham, with Dick not even aware the Beatles were filming their sessions, there was no such encounter. The argument wasn’t started again, but there wasn’t any change in their arrangement, either.

As Derek Taylor wrote in “As Time Goes By“: “Dick never liked rows with the Beatles and I cannot blame him.”

***

The scheduled meeting for the next day that so excited the Beatles didn’t materialize. They ultimately met at Ringo’s house on January 12 under completely different circumstances.

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Jan. 10: Only the Northern Songs, Pt. 1

In 1999, George Harrison called “Only a Northern Song” — recorded during the Sgt. Pepper sessions in early 1967 but not released until January 13, 1969, on the Yellow Submarine soundtrack LP — a “piss-take” against his former song publisher, whom he characterized as a con man and thief.

From an interview with Billboard, 30 years after the song’s release:

It was at the point that I realized Dick James had conned me out of the copyrights for my own songs by offering to become my publisher. As an 18- or 19-year-old kid, I thought, ‘Great, somebody’s gonna publish my songs!’ But he never said, ‘And incidentally, when you sign this document here, you’re assigning me the ownership of the songs [Harrison had written as a Beatle],’ which is what it is. It was just a blatant theft. By the time I realized what had happened, when they were going public and making all this money out of this catalog, I wrote ‘Only A Northern Song’ as what we call a ‘piss-take,’ just to have a joke about it.

“Only a Northern Song” has absolutely nothing to do with the Get Back sessions, but the timing of its release does. Just 72 hours before the Yellow Submarine soundtrack LP hit stores, the Beatles convened at Twickenham for a truly climacteric day — not just in these sessions but in the group’s history.

George Harrison and Dick James, 1964.

Three hours (on the Nagra tapes) before George Harrison quit the Beatles on January 10, 1969, the target of his lyrical furor — Dick James — was one of the very first voices heard on the day’s recordings. Starting in 1963, Dick James Music administered Northern Songs, earning the publishing company a fortune and the band’s songwriters a disproportionately scant share of those riches. George’s share was but a fraction of what Paul McCartney and John Lennon managed to earn. Dick sold his majority share of Northern Songs out from under the songwriters about two months after the conclusion of the Get Back sessions, but that’s another story altogether.

Dick James was already on the tip of the Beatles’ tongues during the sessions in the previous days — John’s tongue, really, when he joked the publisher would “have the children” if the Beatles would “have a divorce” and break up. And perhaps anticipating the January 10th appearance, John name-checked Dick in the improvised “Shakin’ in the Sixties” just the day before.

But if there was any significant ire toward Dick, from George or mostly anyone else on the day of his visit, it didn’t materialize in the audio, which revealed a lengthy, seemingly cordial encounter (John said some things counter to this, but more on that next post).

Like so many mornings at Twickenham, the previous night’s must-see TV was the first big subject up for discussion, with Paul, Dick, Ringo Starr, engineer/producer Glyn Johns and director Michael Lindsay-Hogg retelling an astounding confrontation between Peter Cook and Zsa Zsa Gabor in which the comedian referred to the actress as “vain, untalented and a complete non-event.” (John and George hadn’t arrived yet).

An event: The Beatles with Zsa Zsa Gabor, at rehearsals for the Night of 1,000 Stars in 1964.

Paul did his best/worst Zsa Zsa impression for her reply: “I zink you are the rudest man you’ve ever seen.”

This exchange on Eamonn Andrews’ show was literally international news — here’s a syndicated story by Reuters that appeared in that morning’s Chicago Tribune — but of course all news is local when it comes to the Beatles, who seemed to have crossed paths with everyone and everything.

“She’s very honest,” Paul said of Zsa Zsa. “Quite entertaining. One thing I don’t like her for is — she was with her daughter. Her daughter was always around EMI when we were making our last album. We saw Zsa Zsa with her daughter there … and she makes a sort of ass out of her daughter. She’s so honest, she’s a bit too honest. She sort of said, ‘Don’t wear that sweater, darling, it makes you look fat.’”

(Roger McGuinn of the Byrds later claimed that he introduced George to Ravi Shankar’s music at an “LSD party” at Zsa Zsa’s Los Angeles mansion, which the Beatles rented during their 1965 tour. This proves again, there are no Beatles footnotes, only incredible parenthetical, contextual anecdotes worthy of stories themselves.)

The conversation soon shifted to more proximate family matters, when Dick asked Paul if his father and brother, Mike, received his telegram on the birth of Mike’s daughter, Benna, a few weeks earlier — “More gear to the McGear.”

“Mike had become a Benna-ficiary,” Paul replied with what clearly was already a well-worn joke.

Not much later Dick likewise discussed family with Ringo, almost like he was an elder of the clan himself, needling the drummer about more having more kids.

Dick: How’s Maureen? You haven’t even told me.
Ringo: She’s wonderful. She’ll be here later.
Dick: Zak?
Ringo: He’s wonderful, too, thank you.
Dick: No brother or sister on the way?
Ringo: Not yet.

Dick forgot 16-month-old Jason, but Ringo didn’t seem to mind.

A great deal of the conversation between Dick, Ringo, Paul, Glyn and Michael revolved around the extensive Lawrence Wright Music catalog, which was purchased by Northern Songs in 1965, but clearly the extent of the collection wasn’t known to the band until this morning.

“Mind boggles with a catalog like this,” Dick said at one point. “’Cause as fast as you remember some, you forget the other titles.”

The massive song inventory was very much in the wheelhouse of Paul and Ringo, who each would occasionally interject a superlative or sing along a line from various titles.

“That’s the greatest one you’ve got,” Ringo said of “Stardust,” which he’d record that November, with Paul arranging.

As Dick aptly noted, “there are some golden oldies in there that are ridiculous.”

Ridiculously classic? Absolutely. Like the aforementioned “Stardust,” the songs included “Home on the Range,” “It Don’t Mean a Thing if it Ain’t Got That Swing,” “Stormy Weather” and “Just a Gigolo.”

And it’s quite ridiculous that the Beatles held an actual financial stake in World War I propaganda songs and other novelties like “Eat Less Bread,” “He’s in the Infirmary Now,” “Don’t Go Down in the Mine, Dad,” “My Yiddishe Momme” and “Nobody Loves a Fairy When She’s 40.

A song like “Carolina Moon” stood out to Paul — “My Uncle Ron’s favorite. Sings at all the parties.” And while George presumably came to “Hard Hearted Hannah” via another source, the Tin Pan Alley-era Northern Song was a jump-off point for the late-1970s Harrisong “Soft-Hearted Hana.”

Of course the most important inventory in the Northern Songs catalog would always be the ones with the “Lennon/McCartney” credit, and those assets were discussed, too.

“They’ll release ‘Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da’ by us on the continent,” Paul said. “Hopefully with ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ on the b-side” (and it was a few weeks later).

“How about the ‘Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da’ covers and things? All right?” Dick asked.

“Yes, doing well,” Paul answered, without mentioning Marmalade’s version had just finished a run at the top of the charts.

“I brought some records over to the flat, just in case you’d like to hear it,” Dick told Paul. “Vera Lynn’s ‘Goodnight’ as a waltz. Stephen [James, Dick’s son] produced it. Done as a 3/4. Sounds beautiful.”

The Beatles had spent the previous six days writing and rehearsing the newest batch of Northern Songs, and nearly 40 minutes into the day’s tapes, the publisher was treated to a sneak peak of five songs. It’s a curious set, featuring Paul solo at the piano, and one that should have been among the clear highlights of every session bootleg. Except, very frustratingly, for much of the half hour he was merely background music.

The Long and Winding Road” and “Let It Be” had become morning standards, so Paul’s performance for Dick wasn’t extraordinary. And to hear Paul tickle the ivories on “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” was likewise unremarkable. But to hear a piano-based “Don’t Let Me Down” — with Paul alone on vocals with an obvious mastery of and affection for the material — and “I’ve Got a Feeling” are true oddities. The below clip covers a great deal of the music, along with dialogue that will be covered in the subsequent post (so don’t pay too close attention lest you’ll be spoiled!).

(“Don’t Let Me Down” runs from about 52 seconds for nearly two minutes in the above clip. “I’ve Got a Feeling starts around the 4:35 mark and runs about 2 1/2 minutes). 

Around the same time Paul headed over to the piano, George arrived at Twickenham for the final time.

The greeting between George and Dick was warm, with the George offering thanks for a Christmas gift — a set of drinking glasses.

Dick, who most assuredly had no idea George’s wife had walked out on him days earlier, could be excused for his response to the guitarist.

“Useful. Something to drink out of. Or the wife can throw.”

More on Dick James’ visit to Twickenham in the moments before George Harrison left the band coming in the next post, coming soon!

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