Three short pieces connected to The Beatles’ Apple label. Firstly a review of the Apple label reissue series (written for The Word, November 2010); then Dennis O’Dell’s book At The Apple’s Core (for Mojo, August 2002) and finally Tony Bramwell’s book Magical Mystery Tours (for The Word, September 2005).
Come And Get It: The Best Of Apple Records
APPLE / EMI
It’s easy to caricature Apple as one almighty cock-up. In the standard Fabs story their company was chaotic, and riven with in-fighting. You think of the Rutles parody, in which freeloaders loot the building, or of Allen Klein, the pugnacious New York manager, hammering like a demon at the ampersand that once linked Lennon & McCartney.
But Apple got more things right than it got wrong. The company’s one insoluble problem was that its masters stopped loving one another and left the business to fend for itself. The Savile Row HQ was legendary for liquid lunches, gatecrashers and hare-brained schemes that went nowhere. But Apple was a more than anything else a record label, and in that light it was the most amazing success.
A new 17-CD series of reissues should bring its story into focus. It reveals that between 1968 and ’73, while the four Beatles were distracted by such trifles as Hey Jude, the White Album, Abbey Road and their own fledgling solo careers, they oversaw a record company that somehow got around to all of these:-
• The debut of an unknown hippie oddball who soon became the defining singer-songwriter of his era. That would be James Taylor.
• An uncompromising album of meditational Hindu chanting, which spawned two hit singles and made its parent sect world-famous. Light a joss stick for the Radha Krishna Temple London.
• Two sophisticated LPs of ultra-muso virtuosity: Under The Jasmin Tree and Space by the legendary Modern Jazz Quartet.
• A tough and funky set of superb British rock music by Jackie Lomax, Sour Milk Sea.
• Three classic albums of American R&B by two of the greatest soul talents: Doris Troy and Billy Preston’s That’s The Way God Planned It and Encouraging Words.
• Two startling works of avant-garde composition that became milestones in modern classical music: The Whale and Celtic Requiem by John Tavener.
• Two albums (and hit singles like Those Were The Days) by a shy Welsh teenager who went from TV’s cheesiest talent show, Opportunity Knocks, to folk music royalty: Post Card and Earth Song/Ocean Song by Mary Hopkin.
• Four albums by Badfinger (and one by their former incarnation as The Iveys), a band once hailed as The Beatles’ natural successors, and still revered by connoisseurs of power-pop. A quartet from South Wales and Liverpool, they got their break when Macca sub-contracted them to do the music for a Ringo/Peter Sellers movie The Magic Christian. On 1970’s No Dice album, the main writers Pete Ham and Tom Evans concocted a haunting ballad called Without You, covered to lucrative effect by Harry Nillson and many others since. But for all Badfinger’s prestige, their melodic rock-outs and sombre craftsmanship never quite gelled with a post-60s audience. And their business affairs became a dreadful tangle. Despairing of it all, poor Pete Ham hanged himself in 1975. Eight years later Tom Evans took a rope into the garden and did the same. Magic Christian Music, No Dice, Straight Up and Ass are the Apple CDs here. Their macabre back-story will always overshadow the music, unfortunately, but this band really should be heard.
Badfinger’s first hit, the Paul McCartney-penned Come And Get It, lends its name to one final CD, the Apple “Best Of”. Here you’ll find the biggest songs by most of the acts above, plus bizarre delights like a benefit single for Oz magazine, some Northern brass band music and the early Hot Chocolate singing Give Peace A Chance. In nearly every case there was at least one Beatle on board, as sponsor, writer, producer or session player. It’s simply staggering that so much was done, so quickly and so well. And Apple still exists today, quietly steering all things Fab. For an almighty cock-up, they really didn’t do too badly.
At The Apple’s Core: The Beatles From The Inside
Denis O’Dell with Bob Neaverson
Head of the Apple Films division recollects life inside The Beatle Empire.
The strangest Beatle record of all? Not Revolution 9, but You Know My Name (Look Up The Number). A giggling collision of Goons and Bonzo Dog impressions (with Brian Jones on saxophone), Paul and John had dicked about with it since 1967. It eventually dribbled out on the B-side of their final single, in 1970, and must be among their least-played tracks. Still, it has a ramshackle charm, and thanks to some Lennon ad libs – “Let’s hear it for Denis O’Bell!” – it secured a footnote in Fab folklore for one of their long-suffering backroom boys.
Denis O’Dell was already a veteran of the British film industry when he met The Beatles as an associate producer on A Hard Day’s Night. They liked him enough to recruit him to their Apple organisation a few years later, where he oversaw movie projects from Magical Mystery Tour to Let It Be; in between, he worked with John on How I Won The War and later with Ringo on The Magic Christian. From his position inside the Beatle business machine, O’Dell observed the band in action from Savile Row to Rishikesh. His stance today is that of an eye-witness with no axe to grind. His memoirs are largely affectionate and respectful.
As the originator of the Apple film archives he laid the ground for their eventual Anthology releases; with his connivance the Beatles employed the film canisters as secret stores for their dope. Beyond that there is little to satisfy the scandal-hungry in this book. Amid the publicity material is a suggestion that he actually saw George Harrison levitate. But it turns out that he’s not really sure. So the real value of At The Apple’s Core is in its supply of background detail to those episodes of Beatle history its author was involved in, like the roof-top session for Get Back. (The inter-band bickering, he recalls, was put on hold by the arrival of Billy Preston: having an outsider in the ranks put everyone on their best behaviour.)
O’Dell participated, too, in one of rock’n’roll’s great “What if?” stories. He’d conceived the idea of The Beatles starring in a film version of Tolkien’s Lord Of The Rings, at that time a hippy cult; approached in India, the Fabs approved, and John announced that he would play Gandalf. Alas, O’Dell’s choice of director, Stanley Kubrick, deemed the story un-filmable, and a meeting with Lennon and McCartney failed to persuade him otherwise. In the way of so many movie projects, the idea was left to die quietly in a corner.
Around the same time, of course, The Rolling Stones were sniffing around the screenplay for A Clockwork Orange, which Kubrick would indeed find filmable, though not with Jagger and co. Imagine if both projects had been consummated: droogy Stones and hobbit Beatles would have sealed forever the bad-boys versus good-guys duality in the two bands’ joint mythology.
MAGICAL MYSTERY TOURS
Occasionally you find the less amazing a book turns out to be, the more reliable it feels. And Tony Bramwell’s memoir of The Beatles – the group he befriended as a schoolboy in Liverpool and served as an employee of Brian Epstein and Apple – is none the worse for its lack of eye-widening revelations. Only thing is – don’t, whatever you do, leave it lying around if you’re expecting Yoko Ono over for tea.
The recent trend has been to regard Yoko as benign if a bit dotty – an artist ahead of her time, a feminist icon, etc, as if in recompense for the rather horrid remarks she endured all those years ago. But in Tony Bramwell’s view she is everything the cynics suspected – a pseudo-artist, haughty and manipulative, who brought out the very worst in John Lennon. I suspect if Paul McCartney reads this book he’ll rather like it. Of the Two Virgins record, for instance, Bramwell states: “There wasn’t a person at Apple who didn’t think the album and cover were rubbish.”
The vicious bristling of the anti-Yoko passages contrasts with a generally amiable style – Bramwell is a popular figure who later helped to launch the late Eva Cassidy. The staggering aspects of the Beatle tale are mostly already known, and the real pleasures of this book are in Bramwell’s everyday routine. He did everything the young masters asked him, from carrying their gear into the Cavern, bringing the butties round to Abbey Road and making promo films for Penny Lane and Hey Jude. He remembers Epstein with love, while acknowledging the manager’s colossal business blunders. Bramwell remained, deep down, a wide eyed provincial boy who knew he’d stumbled into the biggest fairy tale of the times.