Questions About A Beatle Photo

The figure I have read is 1200 or more.  That’s the number of times it’s estimated that The Beatles had performed together (anyway, John, Paul & George) by the time they appeared, relaxed and confident, on that first Ed Sullivan Show, 49 years ago this Saturday, Feb. 9, 2013.

But their appearance three days later in Washington at the Washington Coliseum stands out from every other Beatle appearance I’ve ever seen.  Used as a venue for boxing matches, the Coliseum was likely the first time The Beatles had ever played in such an enormous venue, completely surrounded by a huge, enraptured but well behaved crowd and it was the first time that they had to rotate so they’d face everybody in every direction.  It provides some perspective on what The Beatles did for the stature of rock & roll to see Ringo himself struggling to tug his drum set around to play to a new sea of faces.

This is the only Beatle performance I’ve seen where The Beatles are in as tumultuous a mood as their audience, the first I’ve ever seen where The Beatles seem on the verge of being washed away by the sea of screams and cheers and contagious (even the performers caught it) excitement. The film shows constant little furtive flicks of light, like meteors, whizzing across the camera lens.  Jelly beans.  The hard shelled American kind, not the soft gummy sort the English kids would throw.  Ringo’s drum sticks visibly split and shatter as he plays.  Ringo was especially worked up for the concert.  He said afterwards he would have played all night for that crowd.  As a final reminder that it wasn’t until The Beatles’ success that rock & roll reached the heights of big time entertainment, the black and white concert footage ends, “bang” like that, abruptly in mid-song.  The movie camera had run out of film.

Last year a gentleman named Mike Mitchell emerged with a series of photographs he’d taken as, I believe, an 18 year old amateur photographer, when he attended the Coliseum concert.  He apparently moved freely around the perimeter of the stage snapping pictures of The Beatles performing without anyone shooing him away… if true, another indication that rock & roll was still in its “this too shall pass” stage.

Jump ahead 48 years. Mike Mitchell discovers the roll of film he’d shot, develops it and plans to auction the resulting pictures off at Christies.  The Wall Street Journal covers this story and runs one of the photos.  It’s this photo. John and Paul, plugged in and fancy free, dapper and spiffy, from the Coliseum concert.


Having seen the Coliseum concert in it’s entirety—at least everything the Maysles’ brothers captured—many times, and having watched the significant segment that The Beatles included in their Anthology DVD’s many times, something about the showcased photograph didn’t seem right.  Reviewing the filmed footage with this single photograph in mind, several things seem to be amiss.

  1. John Lennon is, in real life, slightly taller than Paul McCartney. He’s noticeably smaller than Paul in this photo, even taking into account the fact that he’s standing slightly back from Paul.
  2. The round stage at the Coliseum was ringed with mikes and mike stands. No mikes in this photo. John would occasionally wander away from a mike and step forward to sing his bit, but not Paul and not both of them.
  3. John Lennon is clearly actually singing in the photo and not merely mouthing a lyric but he’s singing into a void. Again, no mike.
  4. Where is the background in the photo? It’s a black void.

Perhaps someone can clarify or explain the photo and what it all means.

Paul McCartney, Lyricist

Paul McCartney, in spite of characterizing himself as a composer of “silly love songs,” is in fact a superlative lyricist. In my opinion, McCartney’s best lyrics set very comfortably in the company of John Lennon’s and Bob Dylan’s. And perhaps in some ways they’re even better than his two contemporaries.

The acclaimed lyrics of Dylan and Lennon don’t usually survive contact with an unadorned piece of paper. Dylan’s phrasing of his lyrics on the recordings make them valid but they sure sound nutty when someone like Joan Baez covers his songs respectfully and pronounces the lyrics carefully. Ditto for John Lennon. Strawberry Fields, A Day in the Life, Across the Universe…lovely and meaningful songs but what we’re talking about is lyrics here. Isolate John’s lyrics and all you’ve got is gobbledygook.

In no particular order, here are a few Paul McCartney lyrics–coherent, evocative and quotable–that surpass Bob Dylan’s and John Lennon’s.

From I’m Looking Through You: I’m looking through you/ Where did you go? / I thought I knew you/ What did I know?

From Rocky Raccoon: Her name was Magill/ And she called herself Lil/ But everyone knew her as Nancy.

From Back in the USSR: Show me round your snow peaked mountains way down south/ Take me to your daddy’s farm/ Let me hear your balalaikas ringing out/ Come and keep your comrade warm.

From Get Back: Wearing her high-heeled shoes and a low neck sweater/ Get back home Loretta.

From Maxwell’s Silver Hammer: P.C. Thirty One/ Says we’ve caught a dirty one.

From Helter Skelter: You may be a lover but you ain’t no dancer.

From Her Majesty: I want to tell her that I love her a lot/ But I gotta get a bellyful of wine/ Her Majesty’s a pretty nice girl/ Someday I’m gonna make her mine.

From Two of Us: You and I have memories/Longer than the road that stretches out ahead.

From I’ve Got a Feeling: All I was ever looking for/ Was somebody who looks like you.

From She Came in Through the Bathroom Window: And so I quit the Police Department/ And got myself a steady job/ And though she tried her best to help me/ She could steal but she could not rob.

From You Never Give Me Your Money: One sweet dream/ Pick up the bags and get in the limousine.

From Lady Madonna: Friday night arrives without a suitcase/ Sunday morning creeping like a nun/ Monday’s child has learned to tie his bootlace/ See how they run.

From Hello Goodbye: You say yes/ I say no/ You say stop/ And I say go – go – go/ Oh no/ You say goodbye/ And I say hello.

From Let It Be: And when the night is cloudy/ There is still a light that shines on me/ Shine until tomorrow/Let it be/ Let it be.

From The End: Oh yeah !/All right !/ Are you gonna be in my dreams/ tonight?

Do you see what I mean? These are phrases that can punctuate casual conversations. They’re useful hi-lights for everyday use. They have a classic touch. You’d be surprised how handy it can be to drop “You may be a lover but you ain’t no dancer” into some cocktail party chit chat. Or get folk’s attention by an impromptu quoting of “Her name was Magill, and she called herself Lil, but everyone knew her as Nancy.

Remember, you heard it here first.

Beatle Cover Songs

The Beatles, among their other numerous qualities, often managed the rare accomplishment of surpassing the original artist(s) when they did a cover version of someone else’s songs. The most obvious example is their version of Twist and Shout. They literally created a new song out of the Isley Brothers’ goof-off rendition. The Isleys did a thin, tinny, high pitched, almost a novelty take on the song. The Beatles instrumental line-up and John Lennon’s vocal transformed the song into one of the all time great rock numbers, a surging instrumental and vocal performance…rock & roll with no holds barred and the floodgates open.

Other bands and singers may have made more noise or screeched higher but I’m still incredulous when I listen to the Please Please Me album version of the song and still more taken with the rendition performed at the 1963 Royal Variety Show after John’s “… the rest of you just rattle your jewelry…” quip. It’s a stunning performance before probably the worst possible rock and roll audience. These weren’t screaming teenagers and shrieking girls out front. These were the Royals and their ilk if you can imagine it.

My fictional rock and roll group The Sparrows in Sidereal Days, The History of Rock & Roll, A Romance, are enthralled by both the song and the performance when they see The Beatles perform it live on The Ed Sullivan Show in February 1963. The Sparrows are conditioned to the frantic, gimmicky antics of the stars of the day, the Jerry Lee Lewis’s and the Little Richards, who kicked and screamed and careened around the stage during their wild numbers. The Beatles and John Lennon stood literally stock-still and let loose the massive barrage of controlled shock waves that was Twist and Shout. It was the sedate stage presence of The Beatles while launching into this staggering song that leaves the fictional Sparrows limp with admiration.

(In a hundred years, if it becomes necessary to explain rock and roll to generations as yet unborn and unknowing, I would suggest that the last living fan dust off Chuck Berry’s Johnny B. Goode, Buddy Holly’s Peggy Sue and The Beatles’ Twist and Shout and stand back to see what happens.)

Less successful – in fact I would have to say, unsuccessful compared to the original – was The Beatles’ take on the American girl group The Cookies’ song Chains. The original is a perfect acoustic rhythm guitar arrangement with classic hand claps (credited in Sidereal Days to the fictional Sparrows grateful for any excuse to be in a recording studio) and the great vocals by the Cookies. It’s a nice easy swaying song with its spare instrumentation accompanied by the innocent but helplessly sensuous vocals of the Cookies.

The Beatles offer up the weakest track in what I still consider just about my favorite of all their albums, Please Please Me. They forgo the steady strum that paces the Cookie’s version and they replace the Cookies’ sultry voices with their bright British vocals. On this cover, Chains, The Beatles prove once again the old adage that nobody but nobody is perfect. Even The Beatles.

The Greatest Beatle Article Ever

The best, and I mean the absolute best article I know of on The Beatles, appears in the August 27, 1966 Saturday Evening Post. It’s entitled “The Monarchs of the Beatle Empire.” The author, James Morris, clearly gives the impression that he is an older, slightly sniffy Brit, distinctly posh and old school, who has been reluctantly and gradually charmed by The Beatles. (The Beatles after all had been household names in Britain since early 1963.)  His article is a vaguely aloof, slightly snobby effort to explain how and why this happened to him and what he thinks of them. This generational and class distance that he maintains from his subjects, this sort of ironic affection combined with a wry and witty writing style fit perfectly with his subjects. The Beatles are perfect subjects for James Morris’s approach, being, themselves, rather ironic characters who never took themselves too seriously.

A photo of The Beatles standing together holding up their MBE’s for photographers is given a perfectly appropriate caption, “Standing in a Beatle version of attention, Ringo, John, Paul and George…” It’s the Fab Four casually holding out their awards, unabashedly bored.

Another accompanying photograph is of The Beatles onstage but it’s a shot of them as seen from above. We see them from directly overhead, the amplifiers, a piano, the drums, the pre-amps, chairs, microphones, spare guitars set on the stage floor behind the amps. What catches the attention of the author, and startling to the reader, is the profusion of electrical cords and cables that are strewn about the stage as The Beatles perform. The cords and The Beatles throng to the microphones, to the amplifiers, to pre-amps, to the guitars. The Beatles perform amid a swirl of electrical spaghetti. The photo caption cheerily observes, “Plugged in and fancy free, The Beatles cut loose during a concert inParis.”

A third photo is of John Lennon and Harold Wilson. The caption, “Standing beside Prime Minister Harold Wilson, John Lennon, somewhat a head of state himself, gives an enigmatic ‘V’ sign.”

The clever impishness of the captions rather successfully matches the knock about, off-the-cuff humor of The Beatles themselves. The author manages a literary tightrope of being both erudite and hip.

Morris writes, “No history of the 1960’s will be complete without a Beatle footnote, and, above all, no future history of England will be true to itself unless it has a paragraph, fond or scathing, frivolous or profound, about these irrepressible scions of what Winston Churchill loved to call “The Island Race.”

This is good stuff. Not the pap of the fanzines, not the au courant pop-dash of the Rolling Stone type magazines.

Morris writes knowledgeably of the place of Liverpoolin post-war Briton and notes that The Beatles released the humor, the brash and bouncy irreverent interior monologue that characterized the denizens of what the rest of Briton considered a dreary cultural backwater. The Beatles “…Mersey accent, which not long ago would have seemed to most Englishmen barbaric, now falls with an attractive bite upon the ear.”

Though sick and tired of the “disrespect” so prevalent in post-war Briton, in plays, in novels, in protests, “…The Beatles’ disrespect has been of a different kind. It is eminently genial. Somehow or other it does not often give offense.” Morris goes on to say that The Beatles “…have expressed something that most of us inEnglandhave instinctively felt – that the old values did need a cheerful dust-down. Why should we all be manly? Why should life be quite so real, quite so earnest?”

James Morris brings back the marvelous fun of those early Beatle days and makes it perfectly clear once again what cheerful avatars they were before their immense fame began to encrust them and the cultural vultures broke through their delightful and astonishing nonchalance.

My Butcher Album Cover

Beatle fans in 1966, maybe especially the ones who lived in small upstate NY towns, had a very remote connection with the band, no matter how fanatical their devotion. Especially perhaps upstate 16-year-old fans whose family didn’t own a television. That would be me.

I had all the albums and the singles, generally two of each, so I could go to sleep at night with one side playing and the flip side ready to drop off the changer and play. News of The Beatles was seldom in the newspapers, occasionally there’d be something in Life, Look or The Saturday Evening Post, the large format picture-type magazines, and sometimes in Time or Newsweek.

Without a TV, it was easy to miss The Beatles occasional appearances on American television. I recall once standing in the lobby of a local restaurant waiting to see the band on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1965 when a lightning strike knocked the transmission off the air. Otherwise, if I knew they were going to be on television, I’d have to go to watch them on my grandparent’s TV.  I’d be concentrating every atom of my being on their bewilderingly brief appearance and fending off my grandparent’s observations. “They look like girls. Look at that hair.” “They must be wigs. Men can’t grow their hair like that.” “How can you tell the songs a part. They all sound alike.” “Which one is Ringo?”

Adults all knew about Ringo. They didn’t know John, Paul, George.

So for me, The Beatles existed almost entirely in still photographs and magazine articles. (The best article I’ve ever read about The Beatles, accompanied by the best photograph I’ve ever seen, appeared in the Saturday Evening Post and will be the topic of my next blog!) A wonderful enthusiast, fan and editor was Gloria Stavers of 16 Magazine. Invariably there were Beatle photos (“pix” they were called) and interviews (made up I’m sure) and gossip about the Fab Four. “Paul married?” “John divorced?” “George leaving?” “Ringo quitting to run a beauty salon?” More mature but still a fan magazine with more in-depth coverage, was Datebook. Datebook became notorious for innocently reprinting the interview John Lennon had given months earlier in England to Maureen Cleave, a confidante of the group. It caused no stir in England but his remark that The Beatles were more popular than Jesus caused a serious controversy in America. The Beatles had been wanting to break with their “four mop tops” image and this, at least, adroitly accomplished that.

Which brings me to my story. Also on deck was the new Capitol Records Beatle album. Yesterday and Today. As usual, for the American buyers, Capitol had patched together an album consisting of tracks from the British LPs Rubber Soul and Revolver, singles, flip sides of singles and British EPs (extended play records, a format little known in the U.S.) and a couple of tracks intended for future release in the UK. Suddenly, a rumored Dadaist-like Beatle album cover that the group had pushed for—with the obvious intention of breaking the mop top image—had become superfluous and counterproductive. John’s “Jesus” remark had done that in spades and now there was need for some American damage control. No further provocation necessary.

The “fanzines” carried this news. A few copies of the album with the offending cover had actually been released and then pulled from the shelves. Other already printed copies were unpacked from the shipping boxes and had the initial cover removed and replaced. The replacement cover, incidentally, featured four deadbeat, bedraggled, slovenly Beatles standing around a sort of footlocker/packing case staring deadpan and bleary-eyed at the camera. Paul sits in the trunk, John sits cross-legged on top of it, George and Ringo stare blankly. In and of itself rather an extraordinary album cover for the pop music phenomenon of the 20th Century. However, in the hurry to get Beatle product to insatiable fans, Capitol in a few cases simply pasted the new cover over what became known as “The Butcher Album” cover photograph.

The photographer, whom John described while stinting as a deejay on WPLJ in NYC as “a bit of a surrealist,” was Robert Whitaker. Robert Freeman had been the photographer whose soft focus images of The Beatles had graced most of their album covers (With The Beatles, A Hard Day’s Night, Beatles For Sale, and Rubber Soul) and it was Freeman’s evocative photographs that fixed the early image of the group. It was this “image” that John especially was out to break. He resented the rebellious image cultivated by the Rolling Stones and felt that it was gained at the expense of The Beatles. (Insiders were later to say that the Rolling Stones were gentlemen passing themselves off as thugs while The Beatles were thugs passing themselves off as gentlemen.)

Furthermore, The Beatles, and Paul especially, were upset with the liberties Capitol took with Beatle product in the US releases. The group sequenced the running order of the tracks on the UK releases with great care. Capitol, as already noted, scavenged through the available material and repackaged the album tracks as they saw fit. Irksome as this was to the group, the final straw for Paul was on the Capitol release of Rubber Soul. Here, the quick warm-up strums that preceded the opening chords of Paul’s I’m Looking Through You were inadvertently included on the track as it was presented on the US album. Paul was aghast and annoyed at Capitol’s carelessness. (Personally, and Paul notwithstanding, I greatly prefer the offending track on the American LP. I n a way, it’s the first bootlegged Beatle song!)

The Beatles decided to register their complaint that Capitol had “butchered” their Rubber Soul album. They decided that the cover photo they supplied for the next Capitol compilation album would depict the group in white butcher smocks with doll parts and cuts of meat draped around them while the band smiled maniacally at the camera. Paul merely looks innocently bemused. That was the intention of the photo but circumstances, including John’s “Jesus” remark, seemed to indicate that this time, The Beatles had quote—gone too far.

Assiduous fans of The Beatles, even those of us in remote upstate NY were aware of the controversy and followed it carefully. It came out that a few of the albums had been shipped with a replacement cover simply pasted over the offending cover. It was revealed that it was possible to identify these rare specimens because Ringo’s black turtleneck on the “Butcher” cover was could be dimly seen coming through on the upper right hand corner of the replacement cover.

Ah hah!

Mr. Gabriel was the wonderful man who ran Olean’s local record store, Melody Corner, at 235 N. Union Street. Mr. Gabriel had a listening booth lined with salmon colored acoustic tiles and he would allow us high school kids to listen to records to our hearts content. He appreciated his steady clients and I was one of them. After all I bought two copies of all The Beatle (and Bob Dylan) albums as part of my sleeping arrangements. I informed Mr. Gabriel about this rare chance that a “Butcher” cover might slip through. He said, “I’ll tell you what. My new shipment of albums comes in on Thursdays and the new Beatle album is scheduled to come in this week. You go down to the Blue Bird bus depot and pick up the package and you can be the first one to go through it and see if we get one.”

I was at the bus depot. I picked up the shipment, brought it back to Melody Corner. Mr. Gabriel opened it and I began my inspection.

It wasn’t looking good and I was getting down to the last few Yesterday…and Today albums when I saw it. A small V-shaped black smudge showing through the upper right hand corner of the replacement cover. I paid my $3.97 and prepared to set off with my prize. Mr. Gabriel said, “You plan to steam it off and see what’s underneath?” I said “Yes.” He said, “Remember to take the record out of the sleeve before you steam it. Otherwise you’ll warp it.” That was excellent advice and I took it. The cover, held a foot or two away from the steaming spout of a tea-pot, slipped easily off and there it was. The fabulous “Butcher album cover.” The cover was beautiful. The paper it was printed on had a grainy, fabric-like texture. The only other album I ever owned like it was Bob Dylan’s The Times Are Changing Album.

Like the majority of albums at that time (1966) my copy was in mono. The rarity of stereo copies makes them worth considerably more to collectors (a Wall Street Journal article indicated that there are only seven stereo covers known to exist.) The steamed off “steam trunk cover” is also safely preserved.

All of this just goes to show that being a knocked out Beatles fan is not all fun and games.


A Really Big Show

The “behind the scenes” look at the Ed Sullivan Show in Sidereal Days is based on photographs and descriptions supplied by such informed “we were there,” rock & rollers as Ringo Starr and Jerry Allison, the great Cricket (Buddy Holly and the…) drummer. The various biographies of Buddy Holly provided written and photographic documentation of his two appearances on the show, and The Beatles Anthology is rich with similar data and accounts of their first appearance on the show. (The 73 million viewers in 1964 would be the equivalent of 146 million viewers in 2012. Even the viewership of the Superbowl doesn’t come close to that.)

Ed Sullivan himself is a vivid and familiar figure but a great plus for me in researching the Ed Sullivan material for the book was to see in person appearances by Ed Sullivan and his number 2 man, son-in-law Bob Precht, in the movie Bye, Bye Birdie.  I had to scrub the initial description of Precht I’d written because I’d made it up.  Figured no one would know or care what he actually looked like.  Bob Precht’s brief, fortuitous appearance was the only good thing about that otherwise execrable movie.

The dilapidated state of the production equipment used on the show and described in the book is accurate. Most of it, painted in clumsy khaki, was military surplus. The high drum riser that makes it impossible, during the rehearsals, for Billy Tuck to hear his band-mates actually happened to Jerry Allison when Buddy Holly and the Crickets appeared on the show. The Crickets appeared and performed with that handicap. The Sparrows explain things to the set designer (who was the actual set designer) Bill Bohnert.  Bohnert muses aloud about an earlier drummer whose complaints about the same issue were disregarded.  He’s thinking of Jerry Allison.

All the incidents and preparations described in Sidereal Days were fact-based and realistic.  The man who chauffeured the Sparrows around, “Louis Savarese” was a real person and an actual chauffeur.  His appearance in Sidereal Days and his claim to fame is the fact that in February 1964, it was Louis Savarese who chauffeured The Beatles aroundNew York.

Speaking of The Beatles… While their first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show is pretty familiar to most of us and has been seen by most of us somewhat recently, it’s a real education to see a rerun of the ENTIRE Ed Sullivan Show. We hear what a jolt the appearance of The Beatles was to the culture of the day. But to see their performance in the context of the rest of the show—including the TV ads and the other acts—is to witness one era being snapped shut like a cheap suitcase and carried out the door.  An amazing and instantaneous transformation.


The Beatle’s Drop-T Logo

The earliest photos of the final Beatle line up (in case anyone on earth has forgotten it’s John, Paul, George and Ringo) show Ringo’s bass drum head sporting an extremely run-of-the-mill Beatle logo. Its obviously hand drawn twirly scrawl plays on the insect quality of the word “Beatle” by having insect antennae adorn  the letter B. Embarrassingly unimaginative, utterly predictable. Unimaginative and predictable because this isn’t Joe Doe and the Hot Dogs. This is, after all, THE BEATLES.

Soon thereafter, we see Ringo’s bass drum head with a bold new face. And the overall image of the group, the image that will sweep the entire civilized world off its feet, is suddenly fastened in place. This new THE BEATLES graphic is now one of the earth’s best known logos. Think Coca Cola. Think Exxon. Think Apple.

The new logo had a very formal, establishment look. The lettering could have appeared engraved in stone over the front door of a bank or the entrance of an investment firm. Yet somehow this perfectly fit the image of The Beatles throughout their career, from the astonishing squeaky clean, manicured group that overwhelmed Americain February 1964 to the scruffy, bedraggled and dour foursome that glowered their way through the Let It Be film in 1969. And now, in 2012, this THE BEATLES logo is still as striking and evocative as it was when it debuted in 1963.

So, who is the genius behind this classic image?  He’s rich, right? Like the guy who designed the Exxon logo?

The gent in question was Ivor Arbiter, the owner of DrumCity, a drum and music store located on Shaftesbury Ave. inLondon. Having bought a Ludwig drum kit from Drum City, Beatle manager Brian Epstein noticed that the name Ludwig was displayed prominently on the drum head. Brian thought, as the owners of the drum kit, the group’s name, The Beatles should be displayed, perhaps even more prominently. Ivor Arbiter, a good salesman, agreed. He drew a circle representing a drum head, and quickly sketched out “The Beatles” with a tiny “The” above and below it, Beatles with a large B that reached up to the level of “The” and the center letter of the word Beatles dropping below the rest of the word.

A part time sign painter named Eddie Stokes who worked at Drum City during his lunch break took Ivor Arbiter’s sketch and produced it on Ringo Starr’s new drum head. Over the course of The Beatles’ career,DrumCity, and presumably Eddie Stokes, prepared seven different but similar “The Beatles” logos for Ringo. Some were larger, some heavier etc. but the iconic image was set.

Ivor Arbiter for his trouble sold a Ludwig drum set (and probably to be fair, quite a few more) and Eddie Stokes made that extra cash during his lunch break. Neither of them saw an extra penny for the logo they had launched upon the world.

If you haven’t already, purchase Beatles Gear by Andy Babiuk, a source for this blog and one of the best Beatle books ever published.


A Sad Discovery

Yesterday, Oct. 9, 2012, was John Lennon’s 73rd birthday. As usual on a Beatle birthday, I plan a small musical celebration. Five or six numbers which serve to remind me just how great these people are, or were.

I played Twist and Shout, Please, Please Me, Baby It’s You” (when all is said and done, my deserted island Beatle album would be their first British release), You Can’t Do That, I Feel Fine, Help, and Norwegian Wood.

In making my selections, I flipped through John’s solo albums. I realized that there wasn’t a single song from John’s solo career that even came close to making the play list. Imagine crossed my mind but the lyrics are such up-talking prattle that I couldn’t bring myself to listen to it. That was my sad discovery. So much for LSD, Transcendental Meditation, Primal Scream Therapy, reading cards. Read a good book, I think.

They Get Better All The Time: The Beatles

I recently attended a showing of The Beatles’ first film, A Hard Day’s Night. The audience was cautioned that the opening of the film might be a bit startling.

That “startling” opening was, of course, the flaring crash of sound that opens the title song of the movie and the movie itself.

This chiming clang of music is described as “the most famous chord in all of rock & roll.” But new research indicates, after all, that it’s not.

And why not? Well…because it’s not a chord.

Rock & Roll raconteur Randy Bachman recently spent time in London’s EMI’s Abbey Road Studio Two, where most of The Beatles recordings were made, with Giles Martin. Giles is the son of George Martin, who produced most of the group’s records. Giles is now the defacto custodian of the Beatles’ masters – the tapes and the individual tracks from which the final records were produced. These were the recorded sounds that were mixed and released to a waiting world.

Giles explained what he had apparently gleaned from the master tapes. That the opening “chord” was in fact played by the entire Beatle “front line,” that is, the guitarists, John, Paul and George. It was not a single chord, which explains why for nearly fifty years Beatle musicologists and other musicians have puzzled and argued over it.

Filming of the Beatle movie was well along and as yet untitled when Ringo commented, as a day’s work turned into evening, that it had been “a hard day’s… night.” The line had appeared in John Lennon’s recently published book In His Own Write, but until Ringo muttered the line on the movie set, its appropriateness for the title of the film was overlooked. With a title finally chosen came the need, and quickly, for a made-to-order song. Something the song writing team of Paul McCartney and John Lennon had never done before.

In these heady days, as the bachelor Beatles were enjoying the extravagances of their extraordinary fame, new husband and father John Lennon was slightly more homebound. It is noticeable that the majority of the thirteen tracks on the British version of the Hard Day’s Night album are John “weighted’ compositions. Paul was probably out and about in London while John soldiered on at home.

So John was likely at home on Saturday, April 11, 1964, coming up with a basic outline of a song, written to order, entitled A Hard Day’s Night. Over the course of the next three days, John and Paul polished up and finished off John’s rough draft of the song.

On Wednesday, April 16, at seven o’clock in the evening, after a day spent filming the scene in which the Beatles are chased by London constables up and down a dreary London cul-de-sac, the seemingly tireless Beatles showed up at EMI’s Abbey Road Studios. John and Paul stood with their acoustic guitars and played a basic, barebones song to producer George Martin, sitting between them on a high stool, listening intently.

The usually tight-knit crew, Norman Smith, Geoff Emerick, George Martin, who presided over Beatle recording sessions were joined by an apparently unwelcome but necessary guest. This was amateur musician and professional director of the Beatles’ movie, American Dick Lester. Lester was there to make sure the title song was appropriately “cinematic.” It was probably Dick Lester who was responsible for the most famous “chord” in rock & roll. He wanted the title song to open the movie and he wanted to open the movie with a bang.

John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison stood around their carefully miked amps (two Vox AC-50 and Paul’s AC-100 bass) and experiment with notes and chords looking for what George Martin and Richard Lester wanted – a strident beginning to the song – a strident beginning that would also open the film. George was playing his brand new twelve string 360 Rickenbacker guitar, a gift from the Rickenbacker Company, presented to George in New York in February on the group’s first visit to the U.S. The twelve string had the top two strings simply doubled up, while the lower four strings were matched with higher octave strings. The unique sound of this guitar was the Beatles’ secret weapon, at least until the movie came out. John was playing his Rickenbacker 325, a standard six string electric guitar known as a “short arm” Rickenbacker because the guitar neck was shortened so the frets on the neck were closer together. Paul was holding his light, inexpensive (fifty-two guineas he claimed) Hofner “violin” bass guitar, designed for a left-handed player…a four string guitar, with much heavier strings set in the lowest range of the guitar. The three of them were poised to play the strident opening their record producer and their movie director were looking for.

Ringo, sitting behind a new Ludwig drum kit with a new and slightly altered THE BEATLES logo on his twenty inch bass drum head, provided his steady, percussive backbeat.

The Beatles recorded nine takes of their brand new song. Over the course of three hours John and Paul altered the lyrics slightly, smoothed out and tightened up their delivery, while the Georges, Harrison and Martin, worked out a lead guitar break. At some point in those three hours, they all experimented with and settled on the “cinematic, strident” opening that George Martin and Richard Lester were looking for.

Of the nine takes that evening, take nine is the one you hear in the movie and on the record.

On what might be take number one or two, John Lennon muttered one of his usual goofy, oafish “one, two, three, four” count ins, followed immediately by a dissonant clang of guitars, then silence. John mutters “That’s not the one. I’m still doing This Boy.” John repeats the count in, there’s a stuttered clang and again John stops and mutters “I missed the beat…” A third try, the same joking growl of a count in and the famous, unmistakable Hard Day’s Night guitar opening chimes out in all its glory. They had got it.

What “it” was, according to Giles Martin and passed along by Randy Bachman after studying the source tapes preserved on a computer at Abbey Road Studios, “it” was George on his 12 string playing a modified F chord, with a G note on top, a G on the bottom and a C note next to the G. John playing (eventually) a modified D chord with a suspended fourth with a G note. And Paul plucks his third string, a bass D.

Later on, the song was touched up with John adding an acoustic guitar backing on George’s J-160E Gibson and a bongo track, courtesy of Ringo Starr.

And the world was a better place.

Thanks to Geoff Emerick’s Here, There and Everywhere, Andy Bobiak’s The Beatles Gear, Mark Lewisohn’s, The Beatles Recording Sessions and Randy Bachman’s Vinyl Tap radio program on CBC.

Facts and Figures

My rock & roll novel Sidereal Days carries the subtitle The History of Rock and Roll. This slightly exaggerates the “history” content of the book but the text is alert to real rock and roll characters, issues, places and background.  For example, the birth of the vinyl 45 record as detailed in the book by the record producer Joe Brodie is factually true.  Shellac records were made from the excretions of the lac insect.  When the Japanese conquered the sea lanes and islands of the South Pacific in WW2, the supply of shellac was cut off.  The military used records to send general information to its various commands and a crash program was instituted to find a substitute for shellac.  Vinyl plastic was the result.  It was slightly more expensive than shellac but it was much lighter, much sturdier and provided higher fidelity.  The fortuitous happy result for rock and roll was the 45 single.  As detailed in the book, kids could carry their indestructible 45 to a party, play their favorite song to all their friends, all their friends could hear the song, like it, buy it, and play it for THEIR friends.  The making of many a hit.  And it transformed the music business because that niche market could create a hit and a performer could appeal to that one segment of the population.  And that particular “population” wanted to hear rock and roll music.  Voila!

Also, anytime a specific number is mentioned, a license number, a room number etc. it relates to some specific r&r episode. For example, a hotel room might in fact be the same room that Jerry Lee Lewis stayed in when it was discovered that his wife was a 13 year old relative, or the license number of a vehicle might be the license number of the van the Beatles first travelled toHamburgin. The chauffeur who drives the Sparrows around NYC was in fact the man who drove the Beatles around in February 1964.  The names given to the production staff of the Ed Sullivan Show are, in fact, the same people who produced the Beatles epic first live appearance on American television.

There are lots more. All in good time.