Double Fantasy Turns 40

I actually wrote this post in April and never published it. Oops. Happy birthday, John. You can check out Sean Lennon’s interviews with Elton John, Julian Lennon, annnnnnnd Paul McCartney on BBC Radio 2 if you are needing an extra dose of Lennon today! 

I’ve spread my wings a little lately and graduated to Beatles solo careers, spending a lot of time listening to and contemplating John Lennon’s final studio album, Double Fantasy. Both the album and Lennon’s murder turn 40 this year, which is just as much time as Lennon spent on the earth–a harrowing and humbling fact.

The genesis of Double Fantasy is well-known: with the birth of his son Sean in 1975, Lennon retreated from the music world to devote his time and energy to his newborn son. Years later, following a turbulent and transformative sailing trip to Bermuda, Lennon felt creatively re-energized, having written a handful of new songs. The album eventually became a joint effort with wife Yoko Ono, with one of Lennon’s songs being “answered” by an Ono composition, resulting in one critic to wish that Lennon had stayed in retirement and “kept his big happy trap shut until he has something to say that was even vaguely relevant to those of us not married to Yoko Ono.”

The critical response to the album was initially vitriolic before being awarded Album of the Year at the 1981 Grammy Awards, in wake of Lennon’s sudden and senseless murder. This shift in attitude is clearly linked to Lennon’s murder, as memory is in large part tied to emotion, and Lennon’s murder enveloped multiple generations in paralyzing, numbing grief. And for the critics, perhaps it was an apology or a saddening realization of what we once had and would have no more.

Considering Lennon’s solo career, the first two albums, Plastic Ono Band and Imagine, are masterful in their own distinct ways, yet he then faltered and never quite regained the same level of artistry on an entire album. (This is not to say that there are not outstanding compositions and performances on the subsequent albums.) I can imagine an avid John Lennon fan in 1980, eagerly awaiting the release of a new album after a five-year absence and being mildly disappointed. Lennon, the edgiest and most outspoken of the four Beatles who best encapsulated rock ‘n’ roll and all its connotations,  had waited five years to release an album full of songs about…middle age (euuuugh!)–marriage, parenthood, relations between the sexes, which he’d plastered on the front cover by giving half of the album to his wife! At any other point in his life, Lennon would have gagged over such a prospect, but his life had never had the domestic stability and contentment he did in the final years of his life. That fact, coupled with his murder, is what lends the album so much emotional weight and poignancy.

The hopeful, tinkling tones that usher in “(Just Like) Starting Over” are a harsh contrast to the heavy, somber tolling bells at the start of Plastic Ono Band’s opening track, “Mother”, recorded ten years earlier. This telling contrast reveals just how much life Lennon had lived in a decade–shattered and hollow from the abandonment of his parents to a stable cocoon of apparent domestic bliss. “I just gotta tell you goodbye,” he sang in 1970. “It’ll be just like starting over,” he announced jubilantly in 1980. Not only is the song an expression of his love for his wife but it is also a homage to Lennon’s rock ‘n’ roll idols: Elvis, Gene Vincent, Eddie Cochran, and Buddy Holly. Unlike Yoko’s contributions, which embraced contemporary influences, Lennon primarily stayed true to the rock ‘n’ roll that he embraced as a teenager.

While “(Just Like) Starting Over” offers a rosy image of the Lennons’ marriage, “I’m Losing You” shows the relationship’s strain and frustration, making it an outlier on the album. It is also the only track that carries Lennon’s famous lyrical and vocal bite. “I know I hurt you then/But hell, that was way back when/Well, do you still have to carry that cross? (drop it!)/Don’t want to hear about it…” Yet all that anger and frustration melts away into the sublime “Woman.” For all her flaws and criticism–sometimes undeserved and often unnecessarily cruel–the beauty of this song and its sincere expression of love for Yoko is breathtaking–literally. It can be difficult to sing along because you can just feel how intense and heartfelt Lennon’s words are, with the knowledge that he was unexpectedly and unjustly ripped from his wife and children lodged firmly in your throat. “Hold me close to your heart/However distant, don’t keep us apart.” I mean, can you even imagine someone writing such a song for you? “Dear Yoko”, on the other hand, pales in comparison, as any song would.

My favorite on the album just might be “Watching the Wheels,” which is reportedly the track that convinced Lennon he could tell the world (or, rather, let Yoko tell the world) that he was making music again. The song is a response to those who criticized Lennon for leaving the music industry to “play house husband.” It’s playful, direct, and insidiously catchy.

“Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy)” is, of course, the gentle, loving lullaby for Sean, whose picture adorned the studio during record to remind Lennon of why he was there. “Good night, Sean, see you in the morning,” he whispers in the song’s final moments–and knowing that is all he wanted to go upstairs and say on the night of December 8 just rips your heart out.

I first heard all of these songs on the only John Lennon CD I had as a child: The John Lennon Collection (the cover photograph was taken by Annie Leibovitz on the morning of Lennon’s murder). (The only Lennon composition not included, “Cleanup Time,” has not stuck with me.) I don’t remember grouping the songs as Double Fantasy and not Double Fantasy, but I do remember enjoying the Double Fantasy songs just as much as (and–in some cases–more) than the other tracks–the same way I do now.

Listening to Double Fantasy in its entirety, I am inclined to skip over Yoko’s contributions–not to discount or disrespect her as an artist (although, really, she had no inkling of songwriting or knowledge of popular music until she married John Lennon and only then because of Lennon) but because I simply just don’t care for her music. At all. And while Lennon loved her and indulged her musical endeavors, I don’t subscribe to the view that I have to just because he did.

This all leaves the album where it ended–irrevocably tied to Lennon’s murder. He never intended for it to be his last statement on record, but he was undeniably proud of it at the time. Listening to the album is a reminder of how happy, fulfilled, and excited for the future Lennon was.

“When I was singing and writing this and working with her, I was visualizing all the people of my age group, from the sixties, being in their thirties and forties now, just like me. And having wives and children and having gone through everything together… I’m singin’ to them. I hope the young kids like it as well, but I’m really talking to the people who grew up with me. And saying, ‘Here I am now. How are you? How’s your relationship goin’? Did you get through it all? Wasn’t the seventies a drag, you know? Here we are, well let’s try to make the eighties good, you know?’ ‘Cause it’s still up to us to make what we can of it. It’s not out of our control. I still believe in love, peace; I still believe in positive thinking – when I can do it. I’m not always positive, but when I am I try to project it,” Lennon declared in his final interview, hours before his murder. “And we’re goin’ into an unknown future, but we’re still all here. We still… while there’s life there’s hope.”

Tracks had already been recorded for a follow-up album, and Lennon was planning to tour again. But it wasn’t to be. Lennon, who valued and demanded truth throughout his life, stumbled across the most brutal truth in the end: life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.

The Song That Broke Up The Beatles

As the world adjusts to its new normal, with some finding comfort in innumerable rolls of toilet paper (hey, that’s one for you, nineteen for me) or choosing to purchase cleaning supplies for the first time ever (apparently), I still find contentment, joy, and comfort in the same things, and near the top of that list has always been The Beatles.

I have spent the past several weeks immersing myself completely in their words and music (nothing else sounds good anymore), and I find myself still amazed by the craft and beauty found in so many of the songs. (I think I could use my fingers to count the truly abominable Beatles songs on a single hand.) These songs are undoubtedly part of my DNA at this point, but it is startling to hear a song as if it is the first time and be utterly blown away.

Let It Be has never been a favorite album. (Even with the release of Let It Be…Naked, I wasn’t sufficiently swayed, although the omission of the horrid “Maggie Mae” and “Dig It” is an obvious improvement, and it might contain the best version of “Across the Universe,” a beautiful Lennon composition that never got the production it deserved.) When an editor used Let It Be as an example of a classic record that would receive a full five-star rating, I was appalled and lost respect for that individual’s opinion (although in retrospect, I suppose the Beatles at their lowest ebb is better than 99% of any other musician’s output at any time). Despite the band’s disintegrating relationship, they still managed to produce some astounding songs, but I’ve never really wanted to listen it repeatedly — until now, with the impending end-of-the-world. (But I need the world to not end before Peter Jackson’s film is released. And the final two volumes of Mark Lewisohn’s biography. Is that too much to ask?)

The initial idea behind Let It Be was to show The Beatles rehearsing, recording, and ultimately performing an album of new material in front of a live audience. “Someone mentioned The Colosseum in Rome, and I think originally Paul might have even suggested a bloody boat in the middle of an ocean. As for me, I was rapidly warming up to the idea of an asylum!” John Lennon stated, reflecting on the number of “live” performance options that were discussed before The Beatles finally just went up to the rooftop of their Apple building.

The original intended title, Get Back, was an expression of the band’s desire to “get back” to the simplicity of their old recording days with no studio trickery or hours of overdubbing. The original cover even copied that of their first studio album, which had been recorded in just under twelve hours. The final result: approximately 96 hours of film and 30 hours of music that no one could agree on a suitable production sound (ever). The record was subsequently shelved, and the band returned to the studio to record the superior Abbey Road later that year.

John and George, however, approached Phil Spector to re-mix Let It Be for release. Although Spector did the opposite of the album’s original purpose, adding a female choir and orchestra to four of the album’s tracks, three of the Beatles liked the album’s sound, and it was slated for release, more than a year after its initial recording.

Paul McCartney was upset with the extensive overdubbing that was added to two of his hallmark compositions, and he attempted to have the “raw” (later re-christened “naked”) versions from the Glyn Johns mix placed on the album instead. His request was blocked by the ever-magnanimous Allen Klein (because he “waited too long to ask,” according to Lennon). This was the final straw for McCartney and what ultimately cemented the band’s demise–not to discredit Yoko (please, do not play nice and naive and claim she had no role, it’s delusional and irritating), diverging interests, and sheer boredom. Not only had McCartney lost control over his music–unforgivable in itself–but his voice and opinion were no longer respected. He released his debut solo album, titled simply McCartney, on April 17, 1970 (a controversial date, as it clashed with the releases of both Let It Be and Ringo’s Sentimental Journey) and announced to the world that The Beatles were no more.

Yet it is “The Long and Winding Road,” the song that broke up the Beatles, that I find myself listening to constantly during this time. (When Ringo recorded his drum part for “The Long and Winding Road” on April 1, 1970, he was the last Beatle to attend a recording session. This was, unfortunately, not an April Fool’s joke.) It has never been a favorite; I think I found it too saturated in syrup (maybe a by-product of Spector’s over-production), and it reminded me of Peter Frampton contemplating suicide. Now, though, I cannot decide which version I prefer.

The “naked” version is arresting in its simplicity and bare emotion, and it is clear why McCartney wanted to release this version. (Interesting to note, however, that McCartney has used Spector’s arrangement for many of his live performances. Again, it may have been less that Spector added orchestration and female voices to his song than the fact that he did it without McCartney’s consent and approval. The man likes to control things, understandably so.)

By comparison, Spector’s version does seem over-the-top. Yet, in an over-reaching way, it does augment the song’s emotional weight. And I absolutely love the slight break in Paul’s voice around the three-minute mark: “You left me standing here….” That just might give it a slight edge. Thankfully, in this age of copious takes of Beatles songs being available, one does not have to definitively decide which one is superior.

Paul wrote “The Long and Winding Road” with Ray Charles in mind; Charles cried the first time he heard it. “It’s a sad song because it’s all about the unattainable; the door you never quite reach. This is the road that you never get to the end of,” McCartney has said of the song’s melancholy. And that is perhaps what makes it the perfect soundtrack to these uncertain times–even if it is the song that broke up the world’s greatest rock and roll band.

Thoughts on Imagine

If you’ve been worried about me and my fragile mental state since my last post from more than a month ago (whoops), you were right to worry. Since that time, I’ve developed a new obsession because, you know, I was starting to run low on those…

(If you weren’t worried about me at all, that’s okay, it doesn’t hurt my feelings. I’ve been accused of being overly sensitive, but it’s really not true. Unless it’s the wrong time of month, of course.)

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New life motto right there.

My newest obsession is a BBC/PBS Masterpiece show called Poldark, and I may have accidentally marathoned the first three seasons on Amazon Prime in about two weeks. Oops. We’re going to have to talk about it soon, so if you haven’t watched it yet, get ready!

I’ll give you a moment to wipe the drool from your mouth….

Meanwhile, John Lennon’s Imagine was re-released last month. This version is reportedly the ultimate release, and you won’t need to buy another copy of Imagine ever again. Fans had their choice of a single CD, a double CD or vinyl with the second disc featuring “elements mixes”, outtakes, demos, and alternate takes, or the ultimate edition with four audio discs (same content of the double CD edition plus more outtakes etc.), two blu-rays, and a hardcover book. Being quite fond of my old, battered vinyl copy of Imagine, a surprise gift from my husband when we were still dating, I simply opted for the double CD, decreeing it sufficient for my needs. Trying to cut back, y’know.

In the liner notes, engineer Paul Hicks states that Yoko Ono wanted this release to achieve three goals: first, be totally faithful and respectful to the originals, second, be sonically clearer overall, and finally, increase the clarity of John’s voice because, in her words, “It’s about John.” Which, of course, is absolutely true. For a man who (amazingly, inexplicably) hated his voice, his voice–in its genuine, bare-soul beauty–bears the greatest impact on Imagine (and every other Lennon work, I’d argue).

With this remastering of Imagine, that voice is clearer than ever before, making the album that much more powerful and enjoyable. Lennon once described Imagine as “Plastic Ono with chocolate coating”, referring to his first official solo venture, Plastic Ono Band, where, fully indulged in Primal Scream Therapy, he unleashed pent-up emotions about his upbringing, class, religion, and those darn Beatles.

But you know what? I like chocolate coating. It’s the food group at the bottom of the food pyramid in my world. I’ve been thinking about which Lennon album is my favorite (when I’m not, you know, thinking about Captain Poldark) or which is the best, and I just think Imagine might be it, chocolate coating and all. And I think it not only has to do with his voice and the lyrics but also that Imagine encapsulates John as a flawed, beautiful human being so well.

The title track is iconic, rightfully so, and has to be THE John Lennon track. Painting a portrait of a beautiful Utopian world, the lyrics are fraught with irony. “Imagine no possessions,” sings the man currently residing in what can only be described as a mansion sitting on 70-some acres. But there’s also the irony inherent in Lennon’s personality, which could alternately be loving and combative. We see this duality in “Jealous Guy,” where he plaintively seeks forgiveness (“I didn’t mean to hurt you/I’m sorry that I made you cry”) and tries to explain the cruel side of his personality (“I’m just a jealous guy…watch out”). John’s gentle, vulnerable voice makes this beautiful song transcendent.

Yet, Lennon bites on this album, too. He pokes fun at religious hypocrisy in “Crippled Inside,” and he leaves no survivors in “Gimme Some Truth.” The cutting lyrics, of which it is impossible to pick a single favorite line, attack politicians and their games. “Just gimme some truth,” Lennon snarls. His voice is front and center on this track, lending less volume to the backing track and emphasizing the power and emotion of his voice. It’s such a great and relevant track. And George Harrison’s slide guitar solo is pretty sweet, too.

John also poked fun at Paul’s cover art on Imagine as well…

Perhaps the harshest and most controversial track on the album is “How Do You Sleep?”, where Lennon directs his diatribe toward his former bandmate, Paul McCartney. “The only thing you done/Was Yesterday/And since you’ve gone/You’re just another day,” he sings, knowing where to hurt McCartney the most. McCartney, who sought, coveted, and needed Lennon’s approval, would be supremely hurt by such a severe dismissal of his musical accomplishments and talents. Lennon was responding to attacks he heard on Ram. McCartney later admitted that a few lines were digs at John and Yoko (“Too many people preaching practices”, “You took your lucky break and broke it in two”). The difference between the two is telling of their individual personalities: McCartney’s lyrics are allusive; Lennon’s lyrics are direct, leaving the listener to imagine absolutely nothing. Yet, the final product we hear on the album is less offensive than some of what was rehearsed. Visiting the studio, Ringo Starr witnessed some of the more bitter lyrics and told Lennon, “That’s enough, John.” For his part, George Harrison, again playing a mean slide guitar, had no visible reaction to the song, as seen in the Imagine film:

(Klaus Voorman looks pretty miserable as well.)

Paul was right to not respond–lyrically, at least–to the track, as there was never really any competing with John’s lyrical prowess and wit. It is important to note how the two men did eventually reconcile; by the time of Lennon’s death, the two had resumed their loving, brotherly relationship.

On Imagine, we hear Lennon’s plea for a better, more peaceful world, his unabashed, borderline obnoxious love for his wife (“In the middle of a bath, I call your name…Ohhhhh Yoooooooko!”–it should be annoying, but it’s kind of endearing and lovely), his admittance of his shortcomings (“I’m just a jealous guy”), and his venom for hypocrisy in all its forms, even if that means attacking a dearly loved friend. He is loving. He is angry. He is hopeful. He is kind. He is viciously cruel. He was all of those things, and while he sings of a longing for a better world on Imagine, he ultimately worked diligently to become a better man until his life was senselessly cut short. “He was no angel,” a journalist commented to George Harrison in 1988. “He wasn’t. But he was, as well,” George replied. “Was he?” the journalist challenged. “Yeah,” was Harrison’s simple reply.

Imagine–now in its full remastered glory–is a wonderful reminder of that.

Without Precedent

I often wonder about my love for The Beatles–why it is so inexplicable and embedded in my DNA and how millions of people, different from me in innumerable ways, feel precisely the same. Maybe this ingrained, intense feeling is why fans are so incredibly protective of the band’s legacy and equally critical of anything pertaining to The Fab Four, even if it is a feature-length documentary directed by an Academy Award winner named Ron Howard.

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John Lennon, with son Julian, visits Ron Howard and company on the set of Happy Days in 1974.

The producer of the film, Nigel Sinclair, who also produced Martin Scorsese’s documentary about George Harrison Living in the Material World, explained fans’ dual reaction to the announcement of the film: “Ron had people come up to him in the street and [they would] say ‘Mr. Howard, I’m so glad you’re doing the Beatles film.’ Ron said, ‘Of course the subtext is “And don’t screw it up.”’

From me to you (hey, I’m trying my zest here), he does not mess it up.

(My criticisms are few and minute, so let’s get them out of the way. I find the commentary from individuals not part of the Beatles’ circle superfluous, unnecessary, and rarely insightful. Do I care what Sigourney Weaver wore to see The Beatles at Shea Stadium? Not really. Do I care that Jon Savage’s parents wouldn’t let him go to a Beatles concert? Not really. What makes them different from the thousands of other ordinary people who loved The Beatles just as fervently? Oh, right, they are of some renown. Whatever. Get out. Secondly, the film’s tagline boasts that this film is about the band you know but the story you don’t…well, not really. I didn’t really learn anything new, but I did see lots of new photos and footage, and I got to see The Beatles on the big screen, replete with the entire Shea Stadium concert. Horrid snobby portion of this post over.)

Eight Days A Week: The Touring Years tells the story of The Beatles, using their live performances as its focus, which, on the surface, may seem odd, since The Beatles were never exactly synonymous with extraordinary live performances. They didn’t have pigs or light their instruments on fire or create auto-destructive art. Their audiences were not rapt in hearing the words of a lyrical poet, as Dylan’s fans were (a fact he was proud of in his early career, especially when The Beatles’ phenomenon surfaced). For much of their performing career, the music was secondary to the spectacle of seeing The Beatles. By choosing this least-regarded facet of the band, however, Howard is able to more fully reveal how the Beatles progressed and evolved by contrasting it with the circus-like atmosphere of their increasingly stagnant live performances.

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Foreshadowing in Hamburg, 1960: “Their name liveth for evermore.”

The Beatles’ stage performances weren’t always so stagnant, though, and their success was not an accident that happened overnight. Ringo states in the film that playing was the most important thing for the band, and their stints in Hamburg, Germany, allowed them the opportunity to perfect their craft while playing for eight or more hours every night—to unruly, difficult-to-please crowds or to an empty club (empty except for a bearded drummer from another Liverpool group, Ringo Starr). This was their apprenticeship, this is where they learned how to play in front of people–how to mach schau, and when they returned to England, they broke the jazz-only rule at Liverpool’s The Cavern Club, performing a total of nearly 300 times. Having dominated The Cavern Club and garnered a local following, the group was still looking to improve and to move the next step up the ladder.

That next step up the ladder was not what any of The Beatles expected: Beatlemania. Opening with color footage of the band playing in Manchester in November 1963, the film shows the excitement and the burgeoning mania: girls screaming, fainting, and the sheer joy John, Paul, George, and Ringo exude. The film illustrates this joy and excitement perfectly with its abundance of unseen (or, at least, under-seen) concert and interview footage. Fans debate the sexiness of the members (“Ringo’s got a sexy nose.” “George’s eyelashes are sexy.”) and declare their undying love for them: “Paul McCartney, if you’re out there listening, Adrian from Brooklyn loves you.” Fans’ adoration for the Beatles ignites laughter but is genuine—and contagious. Just as contagious and laughter-inducing is The Beatles’ humor—then and now. Just a few favorites: John introduces himself to a reporter as Eric, George uses John’s mop top as an ashtray, George thanks Ringo for his contribution to a fan club record and remarks “We’ll phone you,” and Ringo recalls his inability to hear the band’s music at their concerts, “I couldn’t hear anything. All I could see was Paul’s arse, John’s arse…” Ringo had the best seat, am I right?     

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After conquering Europe, the Beatles arrived in the United States, where the madness escalated to a whole new level. While the Beatles complied with the larger venues (and greater profits) and increasingly manic American crowds, they refused to accommodate the demands of segregated venues. In this regard, they were pioneers, standing for what they believed to be right. As journalist Larry Kane, who accompanied The Beatles on their 1964 North American tour, remarked, he was touched by The Beatles’ kindness, their genuineness, and their intelligence.

After 1964, though, The Beatles’ pioneering in the live arena stalled, except by breaking attendance records by playing in larger venues. The opposite was true of their recording career, where they continued to flourish. With each record, they progressed, wrote better songs, and experimented with new sounds and ideas, culminating with the release of Revolver in May 1966. Tellingly, the Beatles never performed any songs from Revolver live, demonstrating how the sophistication of their recording career had overtaken the circus that was their live show.

By 1966, the group’s rosy relationship with the public was fraying. Not only were their performances inaudible but touring had become a life-threatening situation, which escalated with John Lennon’s remark that The Beatles were, in fact, more popular than Jesus Christ. (Real talk hurts.) Even their relationship with the press, who had adored their wit and cheekiness, was verging on hostile. In a clip, one journalists asks The Beatles why they are so “horrid snobby.” Paul, irrefutably the most diplomatic Beatle, answers that they are not snobby but the journalists and their questions are not particularly nice and get what they deserve. (Again, real talk hurts.) Death threats, Beatle burnings, and exploding firecrackers at concerts became the new norm for The Fab Four. They arrived to their final concert, at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park on August 29, 1966, in an armored truck. They decided they’d had enough–of touring, at least. Still, in these tense moments, you can still see their camaraderie and the joy their music brings.

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Paul McCartney and George Harrison at The Beatles’ final concert in 1966.

Despite all the obstacles this band faced — touring was a money-making venture not an artistic one, their concerts lasted no more than thirty minutes and offered little variation in terms of set lists, and oh yeah, the screaming which made it impossible for them to hear one another — the film shows what a good live band The Beatles were. They could have easily not put any effort into their live shows at all, but they were often in tune and played as a cohesive unit. That unity is a testament to their closeness as individuals and their faith in one another, my favorite aspect of the film.

“I was an only child, and I suddenly felt as if I had three brothers,” Ringo states in the film. Paul gets emotional recalling the first moment Ringo played with the group, and George expresses how he was always glad that they had one another to lean on and share the experience, unlike an isolated Elvis or Sinatra, declaring, “We were very, very close to one another.” This is the band that went from staying in a single cramped room in the back of a theater in Hamburg to occupying the entire floor of the New York Plaza Hotel, where they found themselves gathering together in one room to get away from the pressure of being Beatles and just be with each other.

They loved one another and had faith in each other, just as many individuals around them had faith in them — notably George Martin having faith in their artistic vision to not touch the unorthodox structure and sound of “Tomorrow Never Knows” and Brian Epstein sacrificing so much for them and maintaining his faith in them despite no measurable success for so long (John Lennon once said there was a period where the only people who had faith in the band were Brian Epstein and George Harrison). And by having faith in each other, they inspired others to have faith in one another — so that it didn’t matter if you were black or white, weird or popular, young or old; The Beatles were a uniting force, beautifully encapsulated by the chorus of grown men singing “She Loves You” to celebrate their football club’s victory season. And there it is — that inexplicable feeling of love swelling inside me. I love The Beatles like no other. They are, quite simply, without precedent.

The Toppermost of the Poppermost

I have read a lot of books about The Beatles, so many that I began to lose faith in ever finding another one that would teach me something new or let me see them from a different perspective. I have become more and more picky about which books I will spend my time reading, especially when it comes to the Beatles — so much so that when I am in the midst of reading one and an author refers to John Lennon as the oldest Beatle, I stop reading. Because if you can’t get something that simple correct, what else are you mucking up? So, this past holiday season, when The Fest for Beatles fans touted not just one but three books as essential for every Beatles fan, I was skeptical. But oh, was I wrong! These three books are, you might say, the toppermost of the poppermost when it comes to Beatles reading…

1. All the Songs: The Story Behind Every Beatles Release by Jean-Michel Guesdon and Philippe Margotin 

I adore this book so much I’ve already read it twice, stuffing it with post-it notes along the way. As the title suggests, this book gives you the full story about every Beatles release. This first includes an overview of each studio album and EP, and then a delicious (yes, delicious) track-by-track dissection — we’re talking the genesis of each song (i.e. what inspired them to write the song or, if it’s a cover, when they started working the song into their impressive and extensive repertoire), discussion of each song’s production, technical details, who played what, who wrote what, recording and mixing dates, the technical team (bless ’em), and the number of takes (this gets kind of crazy around oh, I don’t know…”Maxwell’s Silver Hammer.” Bang, bang!). Oh, and there’s also little yellow boxes exclaiming “FOR BEATLES FANATICS” (…who else?), and they are packed with the tiniest, coolest tidbits…like how there is no bass after the first minute of “Strawberry Fields Forever” or the mono version of “She’s Leaving Home” is slightly faster and higher than the stereo version (boo, mono forever). Here’s what a typical spread looks like:

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I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Paul definitely has the best butt in the Beatles.

Isn’t it beautiful? The spread design, I mean — not Paul’s butt (although it is pretty great, let’s be real, people).

All the Songs is a great (albeit hefty) reference book that I know I will return to again and again. William J. Dowlding’s Beatlesongs has been my go-to when it comes to specifics about the Beatles’ music for years, but All the Songs just may replace it. 

I love that this book’s main focus is on the Beatles as musicians, songwriters, and recording artists with minimal personal information or defamation. I thought I knew it all, but this book taught me so much more about their songwriting and recording processes, and I came away with an even greater appreciation of and love for their music and the Beatles as musicians — who would have thought that was even possible? Not I.

2. The Beatles: The BBC Archives: 1962-1970 by Kevin Howlett

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Again, the title gives it all away — this book digs into the BBC Archives and gives readers every available detail about the Beatles relationship with the indomitable BBC (who, eager housekeepers that they were, got rid of so many of their performances). The book comes with reproductions of some of the documents Howlett uncovered in his extensive research, including manager Brian Epstein’s application for the Beatles (which, at the time, still included Pete Best on drums) to audition for the BBC radio and the staff’s subsequent response to their audition: “An unusual group, not as ‘rocky’ as most, more C+W [Country and Western], with a tendency to play music.” The same staffer approved of Lennon as a singer but not McCartney (“Paul McCartney — NO.”).

The early years are fascinating because, like the recordings now available on Live at the BBC and On Air: Live at the BBC, Volume 2, they tell us so much about the Beatles as musicians and their personalities. First, the Beatles worked hard and often a relentless, frantic pace. Their first album (well, ten of its fourteen tracks) was recorded in about ten hours; this is seen as a remarkable achievement, but, as Howlett writes, their work rate at the BBC was even higher: “Apart from when they were performing in front of an audience for a broadcast, The Beatles had to complete five or six songs in a short session. They were not fazed by this requirement.” Furthermore, their radio performances were limited by the BBC’s equipment: they had to record on mono machines and any mistakes would have to either be edited out and replaced with a separate take or a lengthy overdubbing process. Thus, most of their BBC performances were recorded live, direct to tape, revealing their strength and talent as musicians and what exciting performers they were.

The other aspect of their BBC performances is that they offer insight into the Beatles’ as music fans — what they liked to listen to and what inspired them. During their radio program Pop Go the Beatles, 39 of the songs heard in the series were not available on the Beatles’ records by the series’ conclusion and 26 of those 39 would remain unreleased during the Beatles’ recording career. Of course, many of these are now available on the Live at the BBC series, and they tell us what the Beatles liked — lots of Chuck Berry, Elvis, Buddy Holly, Carl Perkins, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, and records and artists that remain rare and unheard to this day (“Devil in His Heart” by the Donays, anyone?). This large repertoire of songs that remained unreleased on record gives us an indication of what accomplished musicians they were and how much variety they were able to have in their set-lists in their early performing days. And not only did they cover these songs, they made them their own, they gave them the Beatles sound.

Then there were the interviews and on-air banter between the performers and presenters that tell us what naturally charming and witty people the Beatles were. Howlett’s book is full of transcripts of such banter, some available on the BBC recordings, some not (I would love to hear a recording of the 1964 interview with Paul by George, who, at the end of the interview, thanked Paul and told him he’d receive his “three shilling fee at a later date!”). They liked to call presenter Lee Peters Pee Litres (tee hee), and when presenter Rodney Burke introduced himself, “My name’s Rodney Burke, thank you very much!” John Lennon interjected, as only he could: “That’s your fault!”

Later, however, the Beatles simply had less time (and, likely, interest) to drop into the BBC and thus their final BBC session was in 1965. They still offered interviews and television appearances, and the details of these offer insight into how they were changing as a band and as people. For example, when interviewed for a program called The Lennon and McCartney Songbook, Howlett’s transcript indicates McCartney’s diplomatic nature, while Lennon is subdued, grumpy even, showing how he was becoming restless with being a Beatle (and likely very stressed and nervous about their upcoming tour of the US, who didn’t take kindly to his “more popular than Jesus” remark).

Interesting also is the interviews of 1969 and 1970, when relations between band members were very tense and strained at times. In 1970, George was asked about the split of the group and answered, in part: “It’s the end of The Beatles like maybe how people imagine The Beatles….I can see this year us all doing a separate album each and by that time people will probably think there’s no chance at all of there ever being Beatles again. And then suddenly, there’s Beatles again.” Only eleven days after this interview was broadcast, Paul McCartney announced he had quit the band (well, basically). Jerk!

The BBC Archives is a fascinating examination of the Beatles as recording artists and people, demonstrated by their recordings and interviews given to the BBC. I’d argue that the following statements made by Howlett are some of the most important to be written or uttered about this most-written and most-uttered-about band: “The brilliant innovations made by The Beatles in their latter years are, quite rightly, regarded as pioneering achievements that continue to influence musicians. But if you did not experience the group’s musical progression as it happened, listening to The Beatles without that chronological context can distort an historical view of their career. The picture on With the Beatles may not seem so now, but in 1963 it was extremely radical. So was the album’s music: energetic, visceral, and cutting edge. Indeed, the initial years of The Beatles’ success, 1963 and 1964, may well be their most revolutionary.” Yes, yes, yes!

This book, coupled with the Live at the BBC recordings, shows just how revolutionary and fun they were in those early years. In a BBC Audience Research Report, a solicitor, self-described as “definitely over-twenty,” wrote:  “How can anyone fail to like them? Their music is so gay and uninhibited, and they themselves are so full of joie-de-vivre.” Amen, brother.

3. The Beatles: All These Years, Volume 1: Tune In by Mark Lewisohn 

When Mark Lewisohn, renowned Beatles scholar and author, told the late Neil Aspinall that he was beginning a three volume biography about The Beatles, Aspinall responded, “Does the world really need another Beatles book?” Yes, Neil, it does, and this is it!

This first installment of Lewisohn’s trilogy takes us up to the end of 1962, just on the cusp of Beatlemania. In other biographies, this section of the Beatles’ story is glossed over — not here. The book is just over 1100 pages (and there is an extended version of the book but it’s currently only available in print in the UK, what gives? This is the 21st century, where is our global village?). Other biographers, too, make this period of the Beatles’ story somewhat dry — not here. I couldn’t put this book down. I even dreamed about it. That’s normal, right? And other biographers — still, here, now, in 2014 — repeat (or even create) myths and legends that simply are not true — not here. Lewisohn is a scholar. He has source upon source upon source. And as a result, his writing is scholarly but, at the same time, engaging.

Lewisohn gives the full facts and truth about so many parts of the Beatles story — how they finally got that coveted recording contract, where those haircuts come from, and yes, not only did Pete Best have zero drumming talent but zero personality. It’s so refreshing (…especially after the headache that was Larry Kane’s When They Were Boys).

Similarly refreshing is how Lewisohn portrays and discusses the Beatles’ individual faults without making them out to be horrible people. He does not excuse their faults (John and Paul’s early views on women, Paul’s jealousy, John’s strange fixation with cripples, etc.), but he does put them in perspective by putting them in context of their lives and times, allowing some understanding of why they were the way they were.

Reading this book, I came away with a greater appreciation of how hard the Beatles worked and similarly how hard the people around them worked — specifically Brian Epstein, bless that man — to make their career happen. I appreciate how certain people, whose lives had run parallel to their own, had to come together with them to make it happen. The Beatles always had the potential to be the greatest, they always had the talent and charisma, and they certainly always had the belief that something would happen…but without certain people and opportunities, it would not have happened, and we would still be listening to Pat Boone records.

One of the most interesting things I learned was how Decca didn’t necessarily reject the Beatles — well, they kind of did, but they also offered to assist Epstein in getting the Beatles on a record. But Epstein, amazingly (albeit thankfully), refused. Lewisohn explains Epstein’s thinking: “The bottom line seems to have been that Brian couldn’t accept the Beatles’ records being made by someone who didn’t appreciate them and was doing it only for money. In a perfect world they would come under the wing of a man who, like him, could see their potential and was interested in adding his talents to theirs.” That man, of course, was George Martin who was actually forced to sign the Beatles! Oh, what stories are in this book.

I especially love Lewisohn’s thoughts about a recording of the Quarry Men’s evening performance the day Paul met John. Writing of the tape and this early Lennon vocal performance, Lewisohn hits so many things about Lennon (and by extension, the Beatles) that make them so remarkable:

“And this, even more than its highly improbably existence, is the most extraordinary thing about the tape: it is unmistakably John Lennon. Although inspired by Elvis and Lonnie, he’s not attempting to imitate their voices or their style, and more strikingly still he’s not adopting any phoney American or mid-Atlantic accent. Singers always start off as impersonators, mimicking whoever made the record they’re performing, some perhaps going on to develop their own voice. That John Lennon already had it at Woolton, that he was so audibly himself, is the mark of a true original. Not only does he have a great rock voice, it’s an honest one.”

Influenced, yes, but unmistakable an individual, an original — a natural, honest original, not painstakingly groomed for prime time but just being himself.

I just finished this yesterday, and I am so depressed. I just wanted it to keep…going. It took Lewisohn ten years to research and write this volume, and he hasn’t written the remaining two volumes, and I don’t know if I can sustain the will to live long enough to see them written and released. I hope so.

Good Ol’ Freda (Ryan White, 2013)

When it comes to The Beatles, there are plenty of myths and legends. There are the tell-all books and exclusive interviews of close and loose associates of the band that sometimes create or perpetuate these falsehoods, distorting the truth in the process. Then there are the words, memories, and opinions of the Beatles themselves – and sometimes even they contradict themselves! (See their recollections of receiving the MBE in The Beatles Anthology!) And then, rarest of the rare, there are the untold stories of those who were actually there.

Good Ol’ Freda tells such a story.

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Freda Kelly had the dream job of countless teenagers (and adults, too, I’m sure!) in the 1960s: she was head of the Beatles’ fan club…and personal secretary to the Fab Four themselves, placing her in their coveted inner circle and giving her a front-row seat to the madness that was Beatlemania and all the crazy, wonderful stories that went along with it. There are so many stories — and kinds of stories — in Good Ol’ Freda.

There is the story of her close relationship with all of the Beatles and their families — how George’s father taught her to ballroom dance and how Ringo’s mother eventually influenced Brian Epstein to give Freda a raise. There is the story of how John Lennon’s laugh once saved her job. There is the story of how George, sweetheart that he was, got her all of the Beatles autographs. There is the story of how she made John Lennon, who moments earlier had declared she was “sacked”, get down on his knees and beg her to once again serve as his secretary. What a sight that must have been!

Then there are the stories of how she took care of the fans because she was, first and foremost, a Beatles fan, and she knew what that meant. She understood the intense devotion, admiration, and love the Beatles inspired in their fans. And so when fans wrote requesting locks of hair, she scoured the floor of the barbershop and sent them real locks of their hair. When a fan sent a pillow requesting that Ringo sleep on it and send it back to her, Freda made sure that Ringo slept on that pillow. And when scores of fans wrote for autographs, she did her best to make sure that they received genuine autographs. (She — like John Lennon — disliked the use of the stamped autographs Brian Epstein tried to make standard practice because, quite simply, they weren’t the real thing. And she understood the disappointment and frustration that a fan would feel when they received not only a stamped autograph but a stamped autograph that had smudged.) Even after the Beatles had disbanded, she gave away memorabilia worth literally millions to real Beatles fans in the mid-1970s.

And then there are the stories of Freda as a person — staunchly loyal, unfailingly trustworthy and honest, not swayed by materialism or wealth, and highly protective of the Beatles and their fans. Freda was kind, but she was not to be crossed, as the story of how she fired an assistant once she discovered she had cut her sister’s hair and tried to pass it off as the Beatles’ hair demonstrates. The situation was simple to Freda: she could no longer trust the assistant and thus she had to go. Freda was fiercely loyal. She was once offered money in exchange for as many bits of information she could fit into an envelope. Nobody would have to know — she could place an envelope through a door and an envelope, with a large check enclosed, would be returned. Looking back on the situation, Freda explains how everybody needs and likes money and often would like to have more money — but she did not want it that much. Her integrity was worth more to her. What a gal!

To Freda, fame and wealth do not mean much. Because, as she reflects on the deaths of those once part of the Beatles’ circle, all the fame and money in the world still can’t cure cancer, can it? Throughout the years, Freda has refused offer after offer to write a book and tell her story — and the only reason she chose to tell it recently was for her posterity, spurred on by the birth of her grandson and the death of her son who had often asked her about her memories of working with The Beatles.

Watching Good Ol’ Freda, it’s easy to fall in love with Freda. You recognize yourself in her because she, like you, is a Beatles fan. She has been one since she visited The Cavern Club during her lunch break one day and will forever remain one. And you appreciate that she was there, in the midst of all the craziness, to take care of not only the Beatles but also their fans. You see the genuine love she had for the Beatles, their families, and those other close associates she worked with. “I worked with a lot of good people,” she remarks toward the end of the film.

She, too, was one of the good people, and I am so glad her story has finally been told. Thanks, Freda!

The Death of a Man

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Today marks the 32nd anniversary of John Lennon’s murder.

Some people forget that John Lennon was not a Saint but a man, an imperfect man. That does not make him a bad person. That makes him human.

Since his murder, he has been unfairly immortalized by the media and some of his fan base as this elevated human being, which he certainly was not. It’s ironic, given how cruel and dismissive the media were of him (and his wife) during the latter end of his career. It’s a frustrating image, as it is not rooted in reality, and Lennon himself would in all likelihood be amused and bemused by it.

Some like to focus on Lennon’s imperfections, make brash, outlandish, and unfair generalizations about him, and then proclaim those flawed generalizations as truth. I like to focus on how genuine and real Lennon was–and how honest he was about his imperfections.

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In “Getting Better,” Lennon contributed the lyrics: “I used to be cruel to my woman/I beat her and kept her apart from the things that she loved/Man, I was mean,/But I’m changing my scene/And I’m doing the best that I can.” He elaborated on this in 1967, speaking about his possessive nature of his first wife, Cynthia, during their initial courtship: “I was hysterical. That was the trouble. I was jealous of anyone she had anything to do with…I was neurotic, taking out all my frustrations on her….I was in a blind rage for two years. I was either drunk or fighting. It had been the same with other girlfriends I’d had. There was something the matter with me.” Incapable of expressing himself, Lennon resorted to physical violence at times. These were, however, isolated incidents, and his relationship with Cynthia was, contrary to popular belief, a loving one.

Lennon’s chauvinistic views toward women really began to change, however, once he met Yoko Ono, which he explained further in 1972: “As a teenager, all I saw were films where men beat up women. That was tough, that was the thing to do, slap them in the face, treat them rough–Humphrey Bogart and all that jazz. So that’s the attitude we’re brought up with. It took me a long time to get that out. That isn’t reality. The way I started understanding it was thinking, ‘What would happen if I said to Ringo or Paul or George: “Go fetch that. Put the kettle on. Somebody’s at the door..”‘ If you treated your best male friend the way you treat your woman, he’d give you a punch in the face.”

Lennon was not proud of his behavior, but he was honest about it in an attempt to express how his views and attitudes were changing. This change of attitude does not excuse his violent behavior, but it is important to remember that he did change. We are allowed to make mistakes, learn from them, and progress, aren’t we?

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“I really miss him as a person now – do you know what I mean, he’s not so much ‘The Baby’ or ‘My Baby’ anymore, he’s a real living part of me now, you know he’s Julian and everything and I can’t wait to see him, I miss him more then I’ve ever done before – I think it’s been a slow process my feeling like a real father! I hope all this is clear and understandable. I spend hours in dressing rooms and things thinking about the times I’ve wasted not being with him – and playing with him – you know I keep thinking of THOSE stupid bastard times when I keep reading bloody newspapers and other shit while he’s in the room with me and I’ve decided it’s ALL WRONG! He doesn’t see enough of me as it is and I really want him to know and love me, and miss me like I seem to be missing both of you so much.”John Lennon to Cynthia Lennon, August 1965 (as recorded in her memoir John)

Abandoned by his own parents, Lennon unfortunately made many of the same mistakes with his firstborn son, Julian. Again, this was not something he was proud of, and, as indicated by the above excerpt from a personal letter to his wife, did love his son and was tormented by his lack of presence in his life, which sadly only grew as time progressed. In the 1970s, largely aided by May Pang, he began to repair and rebuild his relationship with his son, but that process was sadly cut short by his untimely death. Elliot Mintz, a close associate of John and Yoko, once recalled in an interview how John and Julian were nearly to the point in their difficult relationship where Julian could say to his father, “I love you,” and Julian could hear his father repeat the words back to him. It is sad that a man who proclaimed peace and love to the world often had trouble extending those feelings to his oldest son, but it is undoubtedly something he struggled with and was not proud of. And had he not been murdered, I believe that father-son relationship would have only grown stronger.

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“There is this period of John which is all pre-Beatles, pre-huge fame, pre-drugs – and it is another John completely – that was always there right until the end. He got much sweeter, too, once he settled in New York. Once he was reunited with Yoko, and they had Sean, he became this sweet personality again then when he was more comfortable with himself. But the acerbic John is the one we know and love, you know, because he was clever with it, so it was very attractive. But, for me, I have more than a slight affection for the John that I knew then, when we were first writing songs, when we would try and do things the old songwriters had done. I slightly regret the way John’s image has formed, and because he died so tragically it has become set in concrete. The acerbic side was there but it was only part of him. He was also such a sweet, lovely man – a really sweet guy.” — Paul McCartney

Known for his biting wit, Lennon could, too, be verbally abusive. As McCartney explained, however, it is important to look at Lennon’s words in context–a quote from 1971 or 1972 will undoubtedly have more bite than a quote from, say, 1980 or 1963. And there were always many sides to Lennon–but too many people have forgotten that kind and gentle side.

John Lennon was not perfect–but no reasonable human being has ever claimed that he was. He is sometimes unfairly portrayed as having attained a Saint-like status, but he is just as unfairly criticized for incidents and aspects of his life of which he was not proud and worked diligently and honestly to change. He was a great man, but he was only a man. And I miss him.