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Paul (singing): Please lock me away …
John: Yes, okay. End of song.
—The conversation that changed my life
I grew up in a musical household, so in some ways it is not surprising that I gravitated to the world of music and recordings. My father was an amateur pianist and a committed lover of Gilbert & Sullivan as well as a distinguished physician, and my mother was oboe professor at the Royal Academy of Music; she had played in various major orchestras and gave oboe lessons at home as well. So as my sisters and I were growing up, there was always music in our house at 57 Wimpole Street on the corner of New Cavendish Street in Central London.
By the time I was fourteen or fifteen, I had had not only piano lessons but some instruction on the oboe and the double bass as well, but my appalling laziness about practising prevented me from achieving any real competence despite my great love of the music itself. I loved the music of my parents—I am still very happy to listen to a Corelli oboe concerto or a Gilbert & Sullivan operetta—but my passion became all the non-classical music I was hearing from American sources. I loved the bebop of Charlie Parker and his contemporaries and modern jazz of all kinds and ended up with an extensive record collection in that field. I loved the folk music of Woody Guthrie, Cisco Houston, Lead Belly, Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee, and so on—and went to Dobell’s Record Shop in the Charing Cross Road to buy what I now realize must have been bootleg acetates of all that wonderful music. And I loved R&B and blues. My curiosity about America itself (a miraculous land of plenty from our point of view, both materially and artistically) was matched only by my love for its music. So I got my first guitar and learned a few chords.
I met my friend Gordon Waller at Westminster School in London—and he loved much of the same music and knew a couple more chords than I did. We started singing together, playing pubs and clubs and coffeehouses, calling ourselves (it sounds odd now) “Gordon & Peter.” Eventually, we got a fancier gig late at night in this eating and drinking club called the Pickwick. And while we were playing there one night, a man in a very shiny suit came up to us and introduced himself as Norman Newell, an A&R (artists and repertoire) manager for EMI Records, and asked us if we would come and do an audition at EMI Studios in Abbey Road in the St. John’s Wood section of London. We were thrilled to death, as one might imagine. We went there several days later, recorded a few songs, and awaited the results. Fortunately and joyfully, the result was that they offered us a contract. We signed it, of course.
Norman told us he had booked some studio musicians and had reserved Studio Two at EMI for a date about a month in the future, and he started to talk about which songs we should record. He had picked some songs from our Pickwick Club set and was talking to a couple of songwriters. But he also said, “Look, if you know of any other good songs that might be right for you to arrange and record, please let me know. We’re interested in some new songs as well as the ones you’re already doing. Oh, and by the way, we are changing your name to ‘Peter & Gordon’ because we think it sounds better.” Who was I to complain?
Now this is where coincidence plays a role in our story. I had at the time (and still have, I’m happy to say) two very beautiful sisters, Jane and Clare. And my sister Jane, two years younger than me, two years older than Clare, was already a very successful actress in Britain, well known and much admired to this day. And it was in that context, as a music-loving celebrity, that she had been asked to go see this new band all the girls were screaming over. A band that had just come down from Liverpool and had their first hit. Radio Times magazine had asked Jane if she would attend their London performance and write a review and see if she could figure out what all the fuss was about. She was delighted to do so; she had never seen the Beatles but had read a lot about them, as we all had.
My sister Jane and me.
Jane was most impressed—she thought the music was fantastic, and when she met them all afterwards, she found them charming, witty, and cool, and she liked them very much. They liked her, too; one of them liked her in particular and asked her out. That’s how she ended up going out with Paul McCartney for a few years. And one of the side effects was that Paul was hanging around our house all the time.
In the end, our parents kind of took pity on him and offered him the guest room at the top of the house, next to my bedroom. So Paul ended up moving in, and he and I shared the top floor of that house for a couple of years. During that time, I was fortunate enough to hear some songs he was writing, and one of those songs was called “A World Without Love.” I had heard it as a fragment, and I told Paul I thought it sounded really good. He explained to me that the Beatles were not going to record it. It didn’t seem to be quite right for them. (I found out later that John did not like the opening line, “Please lock me away.”)
Paul McCartney’s handwritten lyrics to the verses of “A World Without Love.”
And so it was almost in the reject pile, or at least in the pending pile, and it was also unfinished. He had written a couple of verses but no bridge. So when Norman Newell asked if I knew of any other songs that might be good to record, I thought, Maybe I do.
I went back to Paul that night and said, “Look, we’ve got a record deal now and we’re looking for songs. Is that song ‘A World Without Love’ still kind of an orphan song?”
And he said, “Yes, we’re not going to record it.”
And I said, “Can we record it if we work out a version that sounds okay? Because we’ve got a day in the studio coming up, and we’re all excited.”
And Paul said, “Yes, you may.”
So he very graciously wrote out the chords and the lyrics for me, and he also recorded a little demo so that we wouldn’t screw it up when we made our record. (I still have that demo.) Paul made it on a reel-to-reel tape machine in my bedroom that day in late 1963. Gordon and I worked out our version of this new song, which we loved—but it was still incomplete. As the date of the session drew near, I did have to nag Paul gently about the missing bridge. Eventually, he went into his bedroom with a guitar for an infuriatingly short eight minutes or so and emerged with a whole new section which was utterly perfect.
We went ahead and recorded that song on January 21, 1964, along with four or five others, and by the end of the session, there was no question in anyone’s mind but that “A World Without Love” was going to be our first single. It came out a month later, which is very fast, went to No. 1 in the UK, No. 1 all over Europe, finally to our utmost incredulity and infinite joy No. 1 in America, which meant so much to us. Gordon and I and all of our friends idolized American music; we idolized America. So the day we got the phone call saying, “You are number one in Billboard magazine in America,” is a day I’ll remember forever and one that changed my life. I began my career in the music business.
In time I moved away from performing and became a producer, and I was asked to be the first head of A&R for Apple Records, where I worked with all four Beatles in identifying new talent and getting their music recorded. It was during that time that I met a young singer-songwriter named James Taylor and signed him to his first record contract, and when Apple (and the Beatles as a band) began falling apart in the late ’60s, James and I decided to leave Apple. James returned home and I moved to California, where I became his manager and producer, and over the course of my career I worked with many other recording artists, including Linda Ronstadt, Cher, Diana Ross, Neil Diamond, Joni Mitchell, Robin Williams, and Steve Martin.
In 2017 I began broadcasting a radio program on SiriusXM’s The Beatles Channel called From Me to You, spinning records and telling stories about my experiences in the music business, all with some connection to the Beatles, of course. Listeners send me emails, and I get a lot of interesting questions and comments, along with detailed Beatles questions, like “What did John mean by this lyric?” or “Who played this instrument on this track?” or “What’s the order of the guitar solos?” and I don’t know the answers! There are people who are serious Beatles experts and scholars and write giant books with giant indexes, and I am not one of those people. I just offer my personal insights into the music and recollections of the time when I was lucky enough to be around and to be part of so many interesting events and to spend time with such remarkable people.
After a few months of bouncing from topic to topic, I had an idea as to how to organize my show. I decided to embark on a new project, a new path, a new protocol—something different, something I thought might be cool. It sounds very mundane when one first explains it, but I think maybe you’ll agree with me that it can lead in some interesting directions.
I decided to use the alphabet as a way for me to take a personal and at times idiosyncratic look at the Beatles—their music, their history, their influences, their legacy. I took a leaf out of Sesame Street’s book, as it were, starting with the letter A and going all the way through to Zed.
(I hope you don’t mind that I’m using the English pronunciation of that particular letter. It seems appropriate under the circumstances. I’m bilingual myself, but this is a Beatles book, so we shall stick to English.)
I’m going to use letters as a guide not only to songs (Beatles songs, Wings songs, Traveling Wilburys songs, individual Beatle solo songs, cover versions, all that good stuff) but also to topics, instruments, people, and places. So we won’t just use song titles. For example, when we get to the letter D, I shall be talking about drum fills along with everything else. The letter G will find us on a trip to Germany. T for time signatures. Things like that. And the more I thought about it, the more other people, other projects, and other ideas associated with particular letters occurred to me that might be interesting to explore.
Many of you may wonder at the end of a particular chapter why I left out certain obvious songs that begin with that letter. For example, in the chapter on the letter A you won’t find “A Day in the Life” or “A Hard Day’s Night” or “All You Need Is Love.” Not to worry—they are all here, just in different parts of the alphabet, where they make new connections and show different sides of themselves. I hope you will find it worth the wait.
This project was never intended to be an encyclopaedia or a comprehensive account of everything having to do with the Beatles. It is more of a journey whose destination becomes clear only as it unfolds, an alphabetical mystery tour, if you will, drawing on my own impressions and observations of these four remarkable individuals and the timeless music they have given us.
That plan seemed to work on the radio, so now the idea has metamorphosed into a book. I hope you enjoy the journey.
John Lennon, George Harrison, George Martin, and me in Studio Two at EMI Studios.
We begin our alphabetical journey, with drastic unoriginality, with the letter A. There are so many Beatles songs that begin with A, but there are few better than the classic tune “All My Loving.” It was primarily a Paul McCartney composition and certainly one of Paul’s major early works. Recorded in July 1963, the song was written a couple of months earlier, while the Beatles were on tour with one of their American heroes, the great Roy Orbison. Even though it was never released as an actual single, “All My Loving” was certainly a big hit with pop music fans across the world and remains a favourite of mine as well. A great song, a great singer, and some imaginative harmonies on the third verse that Paul sang with himself.
In fact, this early song contains multiple examples of the originality, creativity, and brilliance of each individual Beatle and his contribution to the arrangement. In the verse, Paul plays a walking bass part that moves effortlessly through the chord changes. Ringo rides the hi-hat in his splashy yet precise style, creating a joyfully unique shuffle feel; he also plays a syncopated snare part which switches to straight quarter notes in the bridge. John’s giant contribution was a perfect electric rhythm guitar part composed of driving triplets (at a snappy tempo) throughout the verses and then syncopated backbeats in the bridge—not an easy part to play at all, let alone with the rocking precision that John delivers. And finally we have George’s wonderful Chet Atkins–flavoured, Country Gentleman–style guitar solo.
Paul’s lead vocal sounds effortless, as does the high harmony he overdubbed on the last verse. I believe that when they sang this song live, Paul would go up to the harmony for the last verse, and George would take over the melody—the harmony goes up to a high G-sharp which Paul could (and still can!) hit easily, and then he saves a perfect falsetto high C-sharp for the licks at the end.
Another significant A song comes from the other end of the Beatles’ time together as a band, and that is “Across the Universe,” composed mainly by John Lennon, and about which a lot has been written. Some have speculated about whether it was competing with “Lady Madonna” to be released as a single in 1968. There are various different versions of the song, and I honestly am not sure how many. I’m also not sure which version is the best. I confess that I am no expert on that stuff. The original version was recorded for a benefit album for the World Wildlife Fund, and it was already a fine song. It seems John was not completely happy with the way it came out, whether in this version or any of the subsequent variations. Phil Spector had a go at the song as well at one point, but I am told that John did not like that, either. My guess is that John was so happy with the lyrics when they first made themselves known to him (for that is how he felt, apparently) that he never quite believed that he had found a musical bed for them of equal quality and brilliance—despite many different overdubs, an orchestra, a choir, exotic instruments, and so on.
Given the poetic nature of the lyrics themselves, that makes sense to me. I especially love how the lyrics actually (and perhaps transcendentally) describe the process of their own creation: “Words are flowing out like endless rain into a paper cup / They slither while they pass, they slip away across the universe.”
This remarkable song also gave rise to a movie called Across the Universe. It was written by some brilliantly witty and creative writers who are friends of mine, Ian La Frenais and Dick Clement, who wrote many great British TV comedies and some excellent screenplays. They wrote The Commitments movie, and for TV they wrote the classic Porridge, which is brilliantly funny, if you ever have the chance to see it, and Lovejoy, and so on. Across the Universe was directed by the astonishing Julie Taymor, who is famous for being the director of The Lion King, the unbelievably successful stage musical in New York using Elton John’s music. She also did so much extraordinarily creative work in the theatre before that. But we are talking about Beatles music, and Across the Universe, the movie, had some creative cover versions of Beatles songs in it. The most radical was performed by someone I very much admire, the brilliant actor and comedian Eddie Izzard. If you don’t know his work, look him up and watch everything. He’s a genius. Check out Darth Vader in the canteen on the Death Star—it’s amazing. But in Across the Universe, Eddie Izzard takes on “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!” and turns it into a surreal and eccentric recitation over an arrangement that, to my mind, owes more to the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band than to the Beatles. Remarkable.
There were also quite a few excellent Beatles covers done for I Am Sam, a Sean Penn movie which used only Beatles songs, each sung by a different artist. One of those, strikingly enough, was “Across the Universe,” sung on this occasion by Rufus Wainwright. He is a singer I really admire. He comes from an amazing family. His father, Loudon Wainwright III, is a fantastic songwriter; his mother was Kate McGarrigle of the wonderful McGarrigle sisters; and his sister is Martha Wainwright, so it’s no wonder he’s a very good singer himself. What I like about his version of “Across the Universe” is that it may actually bring out the sublime beauty of the melody almost more effectively than do the various Beatles recordings, some of which get quite heavy-handed in the complexity of the arrangement. And Rufus has a gorgeous tenor voice. So listen to John Lennon’s version for his creative genius, to Eddie Izzard’s for the eccentricity of the song itself, and to Rufus Wainwright’s for its elegant and movingly definitive beauty.
Now it’s Ringo’s turn to join us under the heading of the letter A. The song that comes immediately to mind is an obvious choice but a great one. Two things Ringo is really good at: playing the drums and acting naturally. And we have him doing both in “Act Naturally,” a song he found for himself, listening to a Buck Owens record. Ringo is a country music fan, and the “Bakersfield sound” and style of Buck Owens suited him perfectly. Written by Johnny Russell and Voni Morrison, the undemanding vocal range of the melody and the self-deprecating humour of the lyric might as well have been designed for Ringo—and once his performance was released on record it became an in-concert favourite as well.
We move on to George Harrison, still under the letter A. Another obvious choice, and such a great record, is “All Things Must Pass,” the title track from George’s excellent first solo album. With an astonishing cast of star musicians, an elegant string arrangement, and a heartfelt George vocal, this could be one of the finest and wisest solo Beatles records ever made. Though George may have originally hoped that the song would end up on a Beatles album, I believe it was best served by coming out the way it did and establishing the genius of George as a solo composer, producer (working in tandem with the unpredictable Phil Spector), and artist.
That album, All Things Must Pass, was made after the sessions for the final album the Beatles recorded, Abbey Road. And indeed, some of those songs might have made it onto Abbey Road and inexplicably did not, but their omission helped create the masterpiece that the album All Things Must Pass became.
Abbey Road itself is still a work of extraordinary genius from all the Beatles collectively, so we are going to go backwards in time from All Things Must Pass to the Abbey Road sessions that preceded it. They were, by all accounts, quite difficult sessions. The recording did not go easily, but it came out so well that one would never know it.
Abbey Road is a very big subject in its own right under the letter A. It is of course a street in the north of London in the area known as St. John’s Wood. The nearest tube station is indeed St. John’s Wood Station—originally on the Bakerloo Line but now on the Jubilee Line. (Probably more information than you need, but you never know; you might be heading there one day.) That’s the tube you take if you want to get by public transport to Abbey Road Studios. It was originally called EMI Recording Studios. The house it is in was built in 1829, a beautiful Georgian town house. In 1931 it was turned into EMI Studios and opened by the brilliant composer Sir Edward Elgar.
You may think you do not know or are not sure who Edward Elgar is. But you do actually know because you are undoubtedly familiar with one of his biggest hits. I guarantee it. His big hit, which is still played today—talk about a golden oldie—is “Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1.” I am told it is played at the majority of graduation ceremonies in the United States, whether college or high school. Apparently, this very tune is the most frequent accompaniment to that glorious moment. That was Edward Elgar’s monster hit, still a hit today—and it has words, too. The words are all about a “Land of Hope and Glory,” a reference (it goes without saying) to Great Britain. What I did not know until I looked it up is that Elgar didn’t originally have words to it at all. King Edward VII told Elgar to put words to it. So because Edward was the king, Elgar did exactly what he was told to do. And it became another hit which everyone sings. Drunken and patriotic aging Englishmen sing it at any opportunity—though with a considerable degree of irony. Speaking on behalf of that specific community, we love it. It is also sung every year at the conclusion of the famous Proms concerts at the Royal Albert Hall. The BBC actually tried to exclude it (along with “Rule Britannia”) at one point, in deference to “European viewers,” but I am happy to say that public outrage won the day and it was reinstated.
EMI Studios was initially used for classical recording. But in 1958 something happened. The very first rock and roll record ever produced at EMI Studios was recorded in Studio Two. And that record (“Move It”) was by a man called Cliff Richard, a major influence on all of us in British rock and roll. John Lennon said, “Before Cliff and the Shadows, there had been nothing worth listening to in British music.” It was a huge hit in England. We all fell in love with Cliff, and he is still a big star today.
Though Cliff Richard’s backup band is famously known as the Shadows, in 1958 they were called the Drifters. It eventually dawned on everyone that there was a very successful band in America already called the Drifters, and Cliff’s backup band became the Shadows. But “Move It,” their first record and a British song written by Ian Samwell, was actually credited to Cliff Richard and the Drifters and released on August 29, 1958—and that date can be said to mark the beginning of the history of British rock and roll, our ongoing tribute to a great American art form.
In that same studio, Studio Two at EMI Studios, the Beatles made nearly all of their records for the next several years, including the album they decided to call Abbey Road, which they recorded and released in 1969. They named the album after the street the studio was in, of course, not after the studio itself. But then in 1970, somebody at EMI had the bright idea of changing the studio name to Abbey Road Studios, and that is what they did. It remains one of the most significant and important studios in London. Well worth a visit. They have just built a whole new Dolby Atmos mixing room. Giles Martin, George Martin’s son, who is also a brilliant record producer, has a room there. It’s a really cool studio, and I use it whenever I am in London and have the opportunity to do so. Even to someone like me who has used Studio Two very often over many decades, there is still something magical about being in the “Beatles’ studio,” and to newcomers it must be intense. Running up and down those stairs between the live room and the control room (the only studio I have ever used with such an idiosyncrasy) remains both exciting and nostalgic.
While we’re still on the subject of Abbey Road the studio, I’d like to turn our attention to one of my favourite tracks off Abbey Road the album, George Harrison’s “Something.” Now, as many of you know, James Taylor had a song called “Something in the Way She Moves” which he and I recorded for the album we made for Apple Records. A little while after that, George Harrison wrote a song that contained the same lyrical phrase, “something in the way she moves,” and somebody said, “Aha! Maybe he borrowed that from James,” in response to which James explained that actually, in his song “Something in the Way She Moves,” he had borrowed the lyric “I feel fine,” from the Beatles song of that title, and he used it twice because he loved the song. He sang, “She’s been with me now quite a long, long time, and I feel fine.” So lots of lyric borrowing goes on in every direction all the time, and it has given rise to so many great songs, and no one is complaining about it.
Another obvious A related to the Beatles is Apple, a topic so big that it could be a book of its own. My relationship with Apple Records began even before I made that record with James. Paul McCartney and I had talked about the Apple idea from the day of its conception, and I shared his vision of what it could be—a new kind of label with a much more generous and respectful attitude towards artists than was current at the time. Paul, in turn, was closely aware of my enthusiasm for producing records (he had actually played drums for me on my first-ever production!), and he offered me the position of head of A&R for Apple Records, which I happily accepted. Shortly thereafter, James Taylor came my way through a series of coincidences. On an early Peter & Gordon tour I had become close friends with the brilliant guitarist in the band backing us up, Danny Kortchmar, who had been best friends with James Taylor from childhood. When James was planning a trip to London, Danny gave him my information, and James showed up at my flat one evening, played a tape he had made along with a couple of songs performed live on my guitar, and blew me away with his genius. I introduced him to the Beatles and signed him to Apple as quickly as I could—they shared my admiration for James’s music. Indeed, in the song “Carolina in My Mind” the “holy host of others standing around me” which James mentions in the lyrics is a reference to the Beatles themselves.
There is also a very curious A character who played a key role in the Apple story. Soon after the Beatles created the company, there was a man on staff for a while called Magic Alex. His full name was Alexis Mardas, and his is an interesting story. I believe he was a friend of John’s initially, and George liked him as well. He was a scientist, and he was, to some degree, a real scientist as far as I could tell. He had some great ideas and was very up to date on a lot of cool new research. But in the end, he got a bit beyond himself and was talking about things that might happen as if they really existed already. Some of them eventually did exist. I remember him talking about voice recognition technology and face recognition technology. He was telling the Beatles he could create speakers that were made like wallpaper that you’d just stick on the wall. Such things are starting to happen now. So I don’t think Alex was a complete fraud, but I do think he was substantially over-optimistic about what he could actually build and when he could build it.
Paul and me around the time Apple was being planned.
I remember him talking about a problem in the studio that has always existed—the sound from one instrument leaking into other microphones in the room beyond the one specifically intended for that instrument. For example, the drums would leak into the vocal mics and things like that, and we would put up big wooden barriers called baffles to try to prevent this. Alex was telling us, “Oh, you won’t need those—we can create invisible barriers that will prevent the sound waves from leaving that area and entering another area.” Again, something that may happen in the future, but it doesn’t work yet, and it certainly did not work then. Anyway, in the end everyone lost confidence in Alex. He was kind of a half scientist with a considerable hint of con man perhaps in there as well. I liked him personally. He was a cool guy. He was charming and eloquent, and I was sad to read recently that he died. Alex Mardas was a significant part of the Apple team—as Magic Alex, he was a close friend of the Beatles and certainly a relevant part of our letter A, but not (I am sorry to say) actually magic!
As I recall, Paul might have been the least credulous when it came to Alex’s extravagant pseudoscientific claims—and I’ll take this opportunity to mention a Paul solo track. While there are lots of A songs from which to choose, I’m going to show how far back the letter A goes in Paul’s musical life. I especially like Paul’s version of a song that is not a Beatles song at all but rather one of my very favourite Elvis Presley records, “All Shook Up,” written by Otis Blackwell, a legendary songwriter from that era. Elvis himself actually took credit for the title—he apparently woke up one morning feeling “all shook up,” liked the phrase that had come to mind, and suggested it to Blackwell as the subject for a song. It is always hard to figure out how to sing an Elvis song without lapsing into a lame Elvis impersonation. Gordon and I used to sing this song as well and did a slow and slinky duet arrangement in order to avoid imitating the Elvis groove, but Paul took the opposite approach, taking the tempo up a bit and turning “All Shook Up” into a hard-driving, full-on rock song. He recorded it on his excellent 1999 album Run Devil Run, and it really works well.
John has a long history with the letter A, too. I particularly admire his cover version of a song he and Paul did not write but one they recorded, written by the great Arthur Alexander (A. A.!), and the song is called “Anna (Go to Him).” Perhaps more A’s than we can handle, but there you go. Arthur Alexander is one of the largely unsung heroes of rock and roll. To give you just a hint, he is the only songwriter to have had songs recorded by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and Bob Dylan. Even more widely recorded than “Anna (Go to Him)” was his country-soul masterpiece “You Better Move On”—a key part of the Stones’ repertoire from the day I first saw them; it was recorded by many other significant British artists as well. Despite his brilliant work, like so many other writers of that era, Alexander had trouble getting the recognition (and income) he was due and spent several years back at his original job—as a bus driver. I never met him or had the chance to tell him how much I admired his writing, but I have no doubt it must have been a great joy to him when the Beatles burst onto the scene, and John Lennon delivered Alexander’s song to a whole new and wildly appreciative audience—and with such a fine and viscerally powerful vocal. I have to admit that I think that on the bridge John even beats Alexander’s original version for emotional intensity.
I shall conclude with one more A song that brings us back to where we began this chapter. Our opening number was a Paul song, “All My Loving,” from 1963, and less than a year later Paul wrote another A love song that might even be better than the first: “And I Love Her.” A beautiful song and a perfect record. Paul and I both remember him singing this song in our family home to the various Ashers who happened to be on the premises at the time, on the grand piano in the main upstairs sitting room. As I recall, the song did not have a bridge yet and that part (we might have called it a middle eight back then) was added in the studio following a gentle nudge from George Martin. I love that there are no drums—just congas and clave—and only acoustic guitars. The delicious modulation (up a semitone) into George’s beautifully elegant classical-style guitar solo is a charming surprise, and the whole production is perfect in its restraint and its clarity. Not a rock and roll record at all, and yet another demonstration of the versatility and overall musicality of the Beatles—and thus why we are all still such devoted fans!
Copyright © 2019 by Peter Asher