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Posts tagged ‘John Lennon’

John Lennon, b. 9 Oct 1940

John Lennon was born 80 years ago today. I interviewed him a few times for the Melody Maker at the Apple HQ in Savile Row, on the first occasion in the autumn of 1969. As many others did, I found him a thoroughly engaged and engaging interviewee — and, by the standards of the time, remarkably open.

One afternoon, when we’d been talking for a couple of hours, he took me with him in his car to the Thames TV studios on Euston Road, where he was being interviewed for the early-evening news show, so that we could carry on our conversation. These were the days when the names of John and Yoko regularly featured on evening-paper billboards. You knew they were around. At Thames that day he was due to talk about his decision to return his MBE in protest — as he had announced in a press release — “against Britain’s involvement in the Nigeria-Biafra thing, against our support of America in Vietnam, and against ‘Cold Turkey’ slipping down the charts.”

During that journey to the studios, I remember him expressing his enthusiasm for a recent Lee Dorsey 45, “Everything I Do Gonh Be Funky (From Now On)” — he liked songs with brackets in the titles — and telling me a story about the early days.

“In the beginning,” he said, “it was a constant fight between Brian (Epstein) and Paul on one side, and me and George on the other. Brian put us in neat suits and shirts, and Paul was right behind him. I used to try and get George to rebel with me. I’d say to him: ‘Look, we don’t need these suits. Let’s chuck them out of the window.’ My little rebellion was to have my tie loose, with the top button of my shirt undone, but Paul’d always come up to me and put it straight.

“I saw a film the other night, the first television film we ever did. The Granada people came down to film us, and there we were in suits and everything – it just wasn’t us, and watching that film I knew that that was where we started to sell out. We had to do a lot of selling out then. Taking the MBE was a sell-out for me.

“You know, before you get an MBE the Palace writes to you to ask if you’re going to accept it, because you’re not supposed to reject it publicly and they sound you out first. I chucked the letter in with all the fan-mail, until Brian asked me if I had it. He and a few other people persuaded me that it was in our interests to take it, and it was hypocritical of me to accept it. But I’m glad, really, that I did accept it – because it meant that four years later I could use it to make a gesture.”

When he moved to New York in 1971, he liked to keep in touch with the UK, often through the music papers. The postcard above is typical of those he’d send from time to time. In October of that year, when I sent him a note to ask for an interview for a book I was writing a book about Phil Spector, he replied immediately. He could do better than that, he said. He was about to go into the studio with Spector. Within a day or two he’d arranged a return air ticket and a room at the St Regis Hotel, where he and Yoko were living. So I spent three days with them, watching John sort through Elvis 45s for his jukebox, attending the sessions for “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” — those brackets — at the Record Plant, and going with them to look at a town house on Bank Street in the West Village, which they ended up renting from Joe Butler, the drummer with the Lovin’ Spoonful.

Lennon had a way of including people in whatever was going on, which is how come Spector’s chauffeur and I ended up in the group photo on the picture bag of “Happy Xmas”. When I read a piece in The Times this week blaming him — and particularly the song “Imagine” — for all the ills of the 21st century, I thought back to the man I knew briefly, to his warmth and enthusiasm and courageous refusal to be confined by the entertainer’s role. We know now, of course, that he was complicated and difficult and sometimes cruel, and there are aspects of his life that will always be difficult to explain and excuse. That’s true of most of us. In his case, I can only speak as I found — while wishing, of course, that he could have been here to celebrate his 80th, and to give us his thoughts on the state of things.

Mark Lewisohn’s ‘Hornsey Road’

Abbey Road

When the Guardian ran my interview with Mark Lewisohn about his Abbey Road stage show last week, the piece got 800,000 page views in 24 hours: more than that day’s Brexit coverage, they said. I don’t know what this means, except that the Beatles are still pretty popular. More popular than Brexit, anyway.

Mark had a lot of interesting things to say. What I didn’t have room to discuss in the piece was the use made in the show — which is actually titled Hornsey Road — of the original multitrack tapes, downloadable (astonishing as it may seem) from the video game called Beatles Rock Band, released in 2009. This allows anyone with the necessary equipment to make their own remixes: a dangerous opportunity, but one that Mark has used with care and sensitivity to form part of his two-hour show, which had its first night in Northampton this week and is touring around the country until early December.

I went to a run-through last week, and learnt a lot from his remixes of the original eight-tracks from Olympic, Trident and EMI’s Abbey Road studios between February and August 1969. He brought out a single bar of absolutely sublime McCartney bass-playing on “Because” that I’d never noticed before, ditto the cowbell on “Polythene Pam”. Thanks to him, I was paying closer attention and therefore better able to enjoy the sequence of guitar solos from McCartney, Harrison and Lennon on “The End”: two bars each, then repeat twice. Eighteen quite revealing bars — particularly Lennon’s — in a track that was the last thing they recorded together.

Revisiting Abbey Road was funny for me because it was 50 years ago to the week — on September 10, 1969, in fact — that I’d tipped up at the ICA in the Mall for a screening of several films by John & Yoko, including Two Virgins and Rape. It was a long and gruelling evening, during which an unidentified male and female in a white canvas bag led us all in a chant of “Hare Krishna” that lasted the entire 52 minutes of Yoko’s Film No 5. Was it the Lennons inside the bag? At first we assumed it was. Then we thought, almost certainly not. But it was Bag-ism in action, for sure.

The unexpected treat was a preview of Abbey Road, a couple of weeks ahead of its release. Side one was played in the interval, followed by side two as an accompaniment to John’s film Self Portrait, a 20-minute study of his penis rising and falling. By the time the evening ended, only a handful of the invited audience remained in the theatre.

It was a time when the Beatles — and the Lennons in particular — were in the headlines almost every day. Fleet Street was obsessed with their relationships, their business affairs, their eccentricities. It was also a time when Lennon was happy to sit and talk in the Beatles’ room at Apple HQ at 3 Savile Row, as he did a couple of days later. The following day he was in Toronto for the Live Peace Festival, with Eric Clapton, Klaus Voormann and Alan White. On the Monday morning he called me up at the Melody Maker offices to give me the story, and specifically to deny the reports that he and Yoko had been booed off.

“That’s a load of rubbish,” he said. “It was a fantastic show — really unbelievable. It was magical. The band was so funky and we really blew some minds. We only had time to rehearse on the plane going over, and we did things like ‘Blue Suede Shoes’, ‘Money’, ‘Dizzy [Miss Lizzy]’, and a new song I’d never played before.” That would have been “Cold Turkey”, which the Beatles were about to turn down as their next single. “Then Yoko joined us,” he continued, “and sang one number [“Don’t Worry Kyoko”] before doing things like our Life with the Lions album. It was incredible because the crowd was howling along with us and they all joined in for ‘Give Peace a Chance’. Everyone was singing — it was like a great big mantra.”

My impression of Lewisohn’s show was that Hornsey Road tells the story in rewarding detail and with a nicely judged sense of how wonderfully absurd the events surrounding the Beatles sometimes were, half a century ago.

* The photograph of the Beatles was taken on the Thames at Twickenham on April 9, 1969 and is from the booklet accompanying the 2009 remastered version of Abbey Road. It is © Apple Corps Ltd.

George Martin’s Day in the Life

George MartinForty five summers ago, George Martin granted me a long interview for the Melody Maker. It was a very enjoyable experience: he was most courteous of men, and his answers were full of fascinating detail, with the occasional gentle indiscretion. He spoke in some depth about his experience of working with the Beatles, all the way from “Love Me Do” to Abbey Road, and the result was published in three parts, on August 21 and 28 and September 4, 1971. Lennon and McCartney were at war with each other that year, and some of what he said got up John’s sensitive nose, provoking a couple of letters from New York, the first of which you can see above. But when I asked Martin about the making of “A Day in the Life”, he responded with a very thorough and interesting description, giving a vivid snapshot of the creative relationship between the producer and the four young men he always referred to as “the boys”, a partnership based on his willingness to entertain their interest in taking risks and their respect for his experience and integrity. Had he, I asked, been responsible — as rumour then had it — for sweeping up several seemingly disconnected musical episodes from the studio floor and sticking them together to create a masterpiece?

No, let’s explain that. John had this song, which started off with his observation, and his part was the beginning and the end, and Paul’s was the middle bit. We started recording it with Paul on piano and John on guitar, and we decided we needed another riff in it, and Paul said, “Well, I’ve got this other song — ‘Got up, got out of bed…'” — and he was going to make that a separate song. He said, “You can use it if you like, put it in your one. Will it fit?” They thought about it for a bit and decided it would work, and they wanted something different in it but they didn’t know what.

They decided that they were going to put a lot of just rhythm in it, and add something later. So I said, “Let’s make it a definite number of bars, let’s have 24 bars of just rhythm in two places, and we’ll decide what to do with them later.” They said, “How are we going to know it’s 24 bars, because it’s a long time?” So we had Mal (Evans) standing by the piano, counting “One… two… three…” and in fact he had an alarm clock, because he was timing the thing as well, and it actually went off. On the record you can hear Mal saying, “Twenty one… twenty two…” if you listen.

When they’d done it, I asked them what they were going to do with those bloody great gaps. Paul said he wanted a symphony orchestra, and I said, “Don’t be silly, Paul — it’s all right having 98 men, but you can do it just as well with a smaller amount.” He said, “I want a symphony orchestra to freak out.” So I said, “If you really want one, let me write something for it.” He said, “No, I don’t want you to. If you write it, it’ll be all you. Let’s have just something freaking out.” I said, “Let’s be practical. You can’t get an orchestra in there and say, ‘Freak out, fellers,’ because nothing would happen. They’d just look embarrassed and make a few funny noises.”

So I booked a 41-piece orchestra, half the normal symphony orchestra, and I spent some time with Paul and John. I wrote out the obvious underlying harmonies, and during the main 24-bar sections John and Paul suggested that we should have a tremendous shriek, starting out quietly and finishing up with a tremendous noise. So I took each instrument in the orchestra and at the beginning of the 24 bars I wrote down their lowest note, whatever it was, so that the cello, for instance, had a bottom C, and at the end of the 24 bars I gave them their highest note related to the chord of E. And throughout the 24 bars I just wrote “poco a poco gliss(ando)”, and when it came to the session I told the musicians that they had to slide very gradually up and those people in the woodwind who needed breaths should take them at random. It was just a general slither.

But when we came to do it, the boys said they wanted to make a real event of it. So they got all their friends to come along and dress up and at that time Mick (Jagger) and Marianne Faithfull came along and all their Apple shop friends — the Dutch people — and there must have been about 40 of them, all freaking out with joss sticks. Paul said, “We’re going to be in our flowers but we don’t expect you to do that because you’re not that kind of person.” I said, “Thank you very much.” He said, “But I want you to wear evening dress, and the orchestra, too.” So I booked the orchestra in evening dress, and when it came to the point Paul had brought a lot of carnival gear — funny hats and false noses — and I distributed them among the orchestra. I wore a Cyrano de Bergerac nose myself. Eddie Gruneberg, who is a great fiddle player, selected a gorilla’s paw for his bow-hand, which was lovely. It was great fun.

Session man

Hugh McCrackenHugh McCracken, the great New York session guitarist who contributed to recordings by Paul Simon, Steely Dan, Laura Nyro, Aretha Franklin, the Monkees and countless others, including all four Beatles, died on March 28, aged 70. Most of the obituaries, including this one in the New York Times, carried the anecdote about John Lennon meeting McCracken for the first time at the “Happy Xmas (War is Over)” session in October 1971 and, on learning that he’d played on Paul McCartney’s Ram earlier that year, telling him: “You know that was just an audition to get to play with me.”

The quote came directly from an interview with McCracken himself, but he didn’t get it exactly right. What happened that evening at the Record Plant was that Lennon was introduced to the group of guitarists who, playing acoustic instruments, were going to lay down the basic track for the song, according to the formula required by Phil Spector. All but one of them were young and inexperienced.

He asked them for their names. “Chris.” “Stu.” “Teddy.” “Hugh.” Lennon turned to Yoko Ono and said, “Hey, Yoko, doesn’t Hugh look just like Ivan?” Yoko didn’t respond. “Hugh, you look just like a mate of mine from school. A cross between him and Paul.”

He was referring to Ivan Vaughan, the friend who played bass guitar with the Quarrymen and introduced Lennon to McCartney at Woolton village fete that famous July day in 1957. Vaughan had known Lennon since childhood and had gone to school with McCartney, with whom he shared a birthdate. He studied classics at university, became a teacher, and was later engaged by the Beatles to develop an education project on Apple’s behalf. He was diagnosed as suffering from Parkinson’s disease in 1977 and died in 1993.

A little later, during a break, someone told Lennon about McCracken’s impressive record as a session man, including his contribution to McCartney’s second solo album a few months earlier.

“Oh,” Lennon responded. “So you were just auditioning on Ram, were you?”

If you think I’m splitting hairs here, you’re probably correct. But we might as well get the verbatim right for posterity’s benefit, if there’s going to be a posterity.

McCracken was a first-choice session man who could nevertheless often be found playing the less glamorous rhythm parts behind guitarists with bigger reputations. But if I had to pick a highlight from his career in the studio, it would probably be Steely Dan’s “Hey Nineteen”, a track from Gaucho (1980), to which he contributes a startling intro and a discreet but beautifully shaped short solo.

* The photograph of McCracken is taken from http://www.jimmyvivino.com — the website of the guitarist who leads the house band on Conan O’Brien’s late-night chat show on TBS, the US cable channel.