Thursday, October 4, 2012

Still Fresh And Original At 50! Happy Birthday, 'Love Me Do'

October 5, 2012 will herald the golden anniversary of the release of ‘Love Me Do’, The Beatles' debut 7" single for EMI in 1962.

This milestone will kick off a series of 50th anniversary celebrations of Beatles events and releases from Friday, October 5, 2012 right through to April 2020. Most of these events are sure to receive widespread media coverage as The Beatles prove to be just as relevant to today’s generation as they were to the 1960s generation. But exactly what was so different about this 7" circumference of black vinyl released to very little fanfare in October 1962?

There was something utterly original in its performance and in its reflection of its influences. Half a century after its release, the recording still sounds remarkably fresh. Investigating the events that led to the single’s release reveals a fascinating insight into the fledgling relationship between EMI and The Beatles camp, demonstrating each side’s ability to adapt quickly to new departures, while remaining true to their respective principles.

Despite moderate success – particularly with comedy acts such as The Goons – EMI producer George Martin was looking for something different to offer his modest Parlophone label in 1962. Decca Records had famously turned The Beatles down earlier that year, crucially however, the group's manager Brian Epstein had retained possession of the audition tape funded by Decca. Having been shown the door by most major UK labels, Epstein was referred to George Martin during a chance meeting which changed the fortunes of all parties involved.

Martin recognised the X factor which Decca Records had been deaf to, even if he didn’t yet realise what it was. What piqued the producer’s interest was the rough sound of beat music, an emerging – as yet unrecorded – style of music which emphasized heavy back beat drumming and loud instrumentation infused with live energy. A prototype of late 1970s punk music, beat music would be pivotal in the evolution of rock and roll into rock, and would carry an army of British Beat groups across the Atlantic during the mid-1960s.

Yet, The Beatles' debut single was far from representative of their beat music stage performances. More country-blues than R&B or rock and roll, how ‘Love Me Do’ became their first 7” release is an interesting tale of self belief and a small leap of faith.

McCartney claims the song was written with Lennon in 1958 while ditching school. Indeed the song's influences would seem to back up his claim. The song's style, structure, close harmonising, key of G Major and even its three word title is strikingly similar to the Everly Brothers’ 1957 hit ‘Bye Bye Love’. The Everly Brothers were a huge influence on The Beatles, demonstrated by Harrison controversially recording a rewrite of ‘Bye Bye Love’ in 1974 and Lennon going as far as to admit that in the group's early days: 'We were just writing songs a la Everly Brothers....' (Sheff, David, All We Are Saying p. 152)

However, ‘Love Me Do’ is strangely absent from surviving records of the group's stage sets from Liverpool and Hamburg. Furthermore, as a Lennon-McCartney original, it was not presented to Decca Records during the fateful audition of January 1962. Most likely the group sat on the song for four years and reintroduced it at an EMI recording session in mid-1962 to demonstrate their songwriting capabilities.

During an interview in 1988 McCartney claimed '’Love Me Do’ was us trying to do the blues.' (Lewisohn, Mark, The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions p. 7) Indeed the song may have been inspired by ‘Hey! Baby’, an enormous hit for American singer Bruce Channel during the spring of 1962. The Beatles supported Channel in June 1962 and Lennon was rumoured to have discussed his harmonica playing with Delbert McClinton, who was touring with Channel.

‘Love Me Do’ was originally presented to EMI during the Beatles’ debut recording session at Abbey Road on June 6, 1962, a session which featured Pete Best on drums. However, the same session exposed Pete Best’s drumming flaws which EMI felt were substandard for commercial recording purposes.

A second attempt at recording ‘Love Me Do’ took place at Abbey Road on September 4, 1962, this time with new drummer Ringo Starr replacing the sacked Best. This was only the group's second appearance at Abbey Road and amazingly, they were involved in a tense standoff with the producer who held the key to their professional career in his hands.

Martin had presented the Beatles with a song by Tin Pan Alley writer Mitch Murray which he felt was a certain hit. He instructed the group to learn ‘How Do You Do It’ in advance of the September 4 session, much to the group's disdain. The issue allegedly led to a row between Lennon and Epstein, although the latter won out and the group prepared the song as requested. However, when they recorded the song for EMI, their perfunctory performance left George Martin in little doubt as to their feelings for material they felt was tame.

Lennon allegedly informed Martin: 'We want to record our own material, not some soft bit of fluff written by someone else.' (Emerick, Geoff, Here, There and Everywhere, My Life Recording the Music of The Beatles, p. 45) Martin apparently countered with a bruising retort, informing them that when they could write songs as good as this [‘How Do You Do It’] he would record them. In the end, Martin reluctantly allowed them another crack at recording ‘Love Me Do’.

Starr’s drumming was an obvious improvement over Best’s from June 6, although the rhythm track took at least 15 takes to complete. The recording was a huge improvement on the first version, with the vocals vastly improved. Lennon’s harmonica playing took a huge leap in confidence, possibly since meeting McClinton on June 21.

George Martin overrode his gut instinct for Murray’s song and decided to take a chance on the McCartney-Lennon original. However, it appears he was still not entirely happy with the version he had on tape and clearly felt it was worth one more attempt at recording the song. Perhaps owing to Starr’s unease at nailing the rhythm track during the September 4 session, Martin hired a professional drummer for the third and final attempt one week later on September 11, 1962.

When the group arrived at EMI studios that morning, they were surprised to find another drummer present. Starr was stunned, later claiming that he felt EMI were ‘pulling a Pete Best’ on him. Banished to the control room like a naughty school boy, he must have felt his Beatles career was over before it ever got started. He later quipped: 'I saw a drum kit that wasn’t mine, and a drummer that, most definitely, wasn’t me!' (Badman, Keith, The Beatles Off The Record, p. 43)

There was no strike action over Starr’s treatment however, no protests of ‘we don’t play if Ringo doesn’t play.’ The others simply got down to business with Lennon and McCartney running over the arrangements of two songs with drummer Andy White while Starr watched from his perch in the control room. They completed the track in 18 takes, curiously three more than the previous week when Starr had played drums. However, the difference between White’s performance on the 11th and Starr’s on the 4th was ultimately the difference between a nervous club drummer and a seasoned professional.

Experience is everything when it comes to recording studios and White had it in spades. He was clearly comfortable in these surroundings and this is obvious in the performance. The drums were laid down with a solid beat delivered evenly and cleanly while Starr’s sole contribution was a tambourine rhythm throughout.

Aside from the new vitality provided by Andy White’s steady rhythm, the vocal harmonies from Lennon and McCartney were attacked with even more country-blues gusto than before. McCartney’s solo spots were more competent and comfortable, while Lennon’s harmonica dripped with bluesy despair.

The session of September 11 ultimately served to confirm George Martin’s hunch about the Beatles’ appeal. It may have taken three attempts, but the producer was now confident that he had an unorthodox record which was fresh, yet contemporarily analogous with transatlantic sounds.

The Beatles had stood their ground and remained true to their principals. They were not prepared to compromise their style or sound for the sake of commercial success. They had won their first battle with George Martin, but most importantly Martin had demonstrated the qualities that would make him – and The Beatles – so successful throughout the decade to follow. He proved he was willing to listen, to arrange, to advise and he proved he was willing to go out on a limb.

In a final twist however, the version which was released on 7” single was the September 4 version featuring Starr, while the Please Please Me LP and later single releases contained the September 11 version featuring White. No explanation has ever been given for the two separate releases, although an error, or a possible gesture from Martin to Starr cannot be ruled out.

To the untrained ear, tambourine is the easiest way to differentiate between the two released versions of ‘Love Me Do’. The presence of the tambourine indicates White on drums, while the absence of tambourine indicates Starr.

Early in October 1962, Brian Epstein supposedly took possession of 10,000 copies of ‘Love Me Do’ and set about employing every contact he had in the record industry to push the release as far as it would go. Rumours persisted that he used his position as a record store owner to buy the single into the charts. However, this is something that the Beatles always denied. If he had bought the record into the charts he wouldn’t have been the first to do it, and he certainly wasn’t the last.

As the world nervously watched the perilous standoff between the U.S. and Soviet Union over the Cuban Missile Crisis and Britain slipped into one of the bitterest winters in living memory, ‘Love Me Do’ began to climb the charts. Distinctive and different, the song stood out it in stark contrast to the cautiously tame mainstream British chart material of the time.

Although the record peaked at number 17, the experience galvanised the band and injected in them a new confidence in their abilities as songwriters and recording artists. The limited national exposure gave them a vital toehold upon which to launch their follow-up single. This new confidence acted as a catalyst, boosting Lennon and McCartney’s songwriting development which – based on a healthy rivalry – was breathtaking in its escalation once set in motion.

Not everyone was appreciative of the group's first release however, perhaps John Lennon included. Brian Griffiths, guitarist with fellow Liverpool group Howie Casey and the Seniors recalled visiting NEMS record store in Liverpool to hear The Beatles' debut single with John Lennon in 1962. Griffiths – who was used to the group's heavy rock and roll act – recalled how he thought it was 'bloody awful' and told Lennon as much. 'I said, what is that crap? It’s a country and western song', to which Lennon replied, 'Isn’t it? But they picked it, not me.' (Uncut, March 2012)

George Martin’s brave decision to allow the Beatles to issue a self-penned debut single would ultimately prove to be revolutionary. If the Beatles could write and release their own songs, why couldn’t everyone else? Fifty years ago this Friday, October 5, the music business as well as the aspirations and goals of musicians all over the world – throughout the 1960s and beyond – were altered forever.

Friday, August 10, 2012

The Beatles' Many Drummers

"Is Ringo Starr the best drummer in the world?" John Lennon was once asked this by a journalist. "He's not even the best drummer in The Beatles" was Lennon's predictably quick and witty response.
On the serious side of course, Starr was undoubtedly the backbone of the biggest band in rock history, with his heavy hitting style and sublime subtlety blending together to perfectly enhance the group's dynamic. A less talented drummer may have failed to rally the group during important early sessions, while a more technically gifted drummer may have swamped their emerging style and sound. Finding Starr was never easy however and the group were plagued as a wandering collection of guitarists with no permanent drummer during their early days. "The rhythm is in the guitars" Lennon would allegedly quip when asked about their lack of a drummer.
Even after they found Starr, he was replaced on Beatles recordings by a further four individuals on five occasions and once on a major tour.
On the approaching half-century anniversary of Ringo Starr replacing Pete Best as The Beatles' drummer on August 18, 1962, we look at the various individuals who have occupied the drum stool during The Beatles' (and its earlier formative line-ups) career.

Colin Hanton

The original drummer with Lennon's group The Quarry Men, Hanton must hold the distinction of being the first drummer to back John, Paul and George on stage and in the recording studio.
Two years older than Lennon, Hanton had already left school and was serving an apprenticeship when he joined the group. His main asset was that he was in possession of a brand new drum kit. His tenure as the group's drummer witnessed the departure of several floating Quarry Men members and the arrival of the future Beatles core of Paul McCartney and George Harrison alongside the already present John Lennon. Hanton was playing with the group the day McCartney saw them perform at Woolton Village fete and he also played drums on the group's first studio recording featuring Buddy Holly's "That'll Be the Day" and the very first original Beatles recording; "In Spite of All the Danger".
In a sign of things to come, the arrival of McCartney was not exactly met with joy by all group members, particularly Hanton, whose drumming skills were allegedly called into question by the group's latest arrival on guitar. Hanton quit the group after a drunken performance in early 1959, apparently never seeing John, Paul or George again. In 1997, he joined the reformed Quarry Men. The inclusion of "In Spite of All the Danger" on Anthology 1 in 1995 guaranteed that Hanton was eventually featured playing drums on a Beatles album.
With Hanton's departure in January 1959, The Quarry Men/Johnny and the Moondogs entered the most inactive period of their musical career, playing only a handful of gigs between then and May 1960. However, after acquiring bassist Stuart Sutcliffe early in 1960, the group was ready to shed their skiffle skin and get serious as a rock and roll band by May of 1960. Hamburg: T-minus three months.

Tommy Moore

Tommy Moore was recruited into The Silver Beetles by their booking agent/manager Alan Williams in May 1960. All reports indicate that Moore was a solid and capable drummer who owned his own kit and who suitably impressed Paul McCartney with his abilities to reproduce the tricky drumming on the Everly Brothers' hit, "Cathy's Clown". Moore's age at the time has been questioned with some sources claiming he was 28 and others 36. Nevertheless, Moore was significantly older than the rest of the group.
A nervous and slight man, he was an easy target for John Lennon who seemed to delight in making his life a misery with his cruel tongue. Moore had joined the group just before their infamous and pivotal audition for London promoter Larry Parnes. Parnes was seeking a backing group for one of his major artistes; Billy Fury, and The Silver Beetles had squeezed into the audition.
Legend has always maintained that Parnes was put off by Stuart Sutcliffe's non-existent bass guitar skills. However, Parnes himself later claimed that it was the flustered and unprofessional late arrival of drummer Tommy Moore halfway through the group's set which put him off. Moore had been dashing to collect his kit from another venue and while he was en route, Johnny Hutchinson of Cass and the Casanovas was instructed by Alan Williams to sit behind the drums. Parnes booked the group to tour Scotland with another of his artistes: Johnny Gentle.
That tour was a disaster from start to finish with Moore losing teeth and suffering a concussion in an automobile accident while remaining under the unrelenting lash of John Lennon's acerbic verbal abuse. On his return to Liverpool, Moore had had enough and quit the group by failing to show up for a gig. When they arrived to inquire about his absence, his girlfriend allegedly leaned out of a window to instruct them to p*ss-off, before informing them that Moore had been taken back at his old job as a night-shift forklift driver in a bottle factory. Moore, it seems, had decided not to quit his day (or night) job.
Interviewed on camera by the BBC at a Mersey Beat reunion in 1971, Moore by then cut a slightly worse-for-wear looking figure who admitted he was struggling and regretted his decision to quit the group. Within 10 years he would be dead. Like his brief rhythm section bandmate Sutcliffe before him, Moore succumbed to a brain hemorrhage (in 1981), less than a year after the death of John Lennon.

Johnny Hutchinson

Also known as Johnny Hutch, Hutchinson was the drummer with Cass and the Casanovas when he stood in for Tommy Moore at the Larry Parnes audition. No fan of The Silver Beetles, Hutchinson - who cut an imposing figure and who allegedly terrified even John Lennon - was known to have remarked that they [Silver Beetles] "weren't worth a carrot" and were a "bunch of posers". Hutchinson also plugged the two-day gap between Pete Best's dismissal on August 16 and Ringo Starr's agreed arrival on August 18, 1962.

Cliff Roberts

Mersey Beat magazine editor and founder Bill Harry recalled how during a performance at Liverpool's Lathom Hall in May 1960, the group's (Silver Beetles) drummer - probably Tommy Moore - had failed to bring his kit. Upon arrival he asked the drummer of a rival band for the use of his drums. However, Cliff Roberts - of Cliff Roberts and The Rockers - refused to allow Moore to sit behind his brand new Olympic kit. He at least did offer to sit in with the group, playing six songs with them. So we have one more fleeting addition to the long line of Beatles stick men. (Roberts is obscured in the above picture).

Norman Chapman

Following the departure of regular drummer Tommy Moore, the group were sitting in the Jacaranda one night they heard the sounds of a practicing drummer drifting across the summer night air. Tracking down the source of the racket, they discovered Norman Chapman; a picture-framer and part-time drummer. No sooner was Chapman invited to join the group - playing three gigs - when the British Army made him an offer he couldn't refuse. Chapman was conscripted for National Service in June of 1960 and thus missed his chance with rock's hottest ticket.
Towards the end of the summer of 1960, The Silver Beetles were offered a contract to play a stint in Hamburg, an unbelievable turn of fortune. But, the job spec required them to have a permanent drummer. Cue Pete Best.

Pete Best

Pete Best's story is well documented. The Beatles' drummer from August 1960 until August 1962, he was unceremoniously dismissed from the group by Brian Epstein who informed him that the others simply wanted him out.
To this day, debate still continues as to whether he was dumped because of his dire performance at the group's EMI artist test in June 1962 or because the moody and quiet loner simply never fitted in. Lennon later admitted that they were cowards to fire him in the manner they did, but the fact remained that Best was cut from a different cloth than Lennon, McCartney & Harrison. He was apparently never particularly close to any member of the group and when George Martin - the EMI producer who held the keys to their professional careers - flagged Best's drumming as sub-standard, his days were numbered. Best's sacking was unpopular with the group's fans, many of whom viewed Best as the 'looker' in the band, and some scuffles among fans in the Cavern resulted in George Harrison obtaining a black eye.
Although Best formed another group after his dismissal from The Beatles, he was soon left behind. He attempted to commit suicide during the height of Beatlemania and by the time his former bandmates were recording the White Album, Best was loading bread onto delivery trucks. Following a successful career as a civil servant, Best finally came out of retirement as a musician in 1988 and has pursued a successful career as a musician and Beatles celebrity ever since. Best's version of "Love Me Do" and the German Polydor recordings were eventually released on 1995's Anthology 1, giving Best a windfall of royalties while finally placing him on a Beatles album.

Ringo Starr

Ringo Starr stepped in as the Beatles drummer on August 18, 1962, however his initial tenure was not a particularly happy one.
Turning up at EMI Studios on September 4 for a second attempt at recording a debut single (the previous session on June 6 had featured Best), Starr found himself partaking in a slightly shaky version of "Love Me Do" which failed to please producers George Martin and Ron Richards. When they returned for a third and final time a week later, Starr was sandbagged by Richards, who had hired trusty session musician Andy White to replace him. Starr feared EMI was pulling a Pete Best on him, although curiously despite the version recorded with White on drums resulting in a tighter and more accomplished version, it was Starr's recording which was originally released on the group's debut disc in 1962.
Starr's incandescent performance on the "Please Please Me" single in November 1962 secured his status and EMI felt no further need for session drummers thereafter. Soon growing into the role, Starr's steady timing in particular helped to facilitate much of the editing that went into the band's early releases. As they grew more adventurous, Starr became critically important as the conducer who facilitated translating the songwriters' increasingly left-field desires onto tape. In particular, his unorthodox style of leading drum fills with his left hand instead of his right - he was actually left-handed playing right-handed - resulted in Starr's contributions to various Beatles songs becoming as sublime and important as the vocals, melody and various instrumental parts. The most notable songs include "Strawberry Fields Forever" and "A Day in the Life".
Additionally, Starr was instrumental - no pun intended - in introducing the drummer as an equal and integral part of the emerging format of the rock group. His influence outside of the Beatles was also massive with Phil Collins (Genesis), Dave Grohl (Nirvana) and Max Weinberg (Bruce Springsteen and  the E Street Band) among many others citing him as a major influence.
Often flippantly referred to as the luckiest man in music, you might argue that while he undoubtedly received the ultimate winning lottery ticket, The Beatles and rock music itself were equally lucky to land him. No Ringo. No Beatles.
He may have been small, he may not have been handsome, and he may have been the convenient figure of fun in Beatles movies and press conferences, but underestimate his importance and role at your peril. Starr was a giant in his field and was also an equal partner and contributor to the unrepeatable phenomenon that was The Beatles.

Andy White

Glaswegian drummer Andy White was booked to drum on the third attempt to record "Love Me Do" in September 1962. He played on both the A-side and the single's flip-side, "P.S. I Love You". He appeared uncredited on The Beatles' debut LP, Please Please Me.

Jimmy Nicol

Struck down with Tonsillitis on the eve of The Beatles' European and Australasian tour in June 1964, Ringo Starr was ruled out of travelling with the group. Faced with the enormous headache of cancelling sections of such a huge tour, Epstein made the somewhat unpopular decision of calling in a replacement. George Martin suggested a session drummer he was familiar with: Jimmy Nicol. Nicol was familiar with the group's recordings and so just over 24 hours after he was called in for an audition he found himself on stage in Denmark before thousands of screaming Beatles fans.

From obscure nobody to celebrated Beatle, Nicol was automatically returned to obscurity after 10 days following Starr's return to the group. Although he earned a substantial amount of money and supported Andy Warhol's 15 minutes of fame theory, Nicol's sudden propulsion into the international limelight and his subsequent hard-breaking return to normality left him with adjustment problems. He later remarked that "standing in for Ringo was the worst thing that ever happened to me. Until then I was quite happy earning thirty or forty pounds a week. After the headlines died, I began dying too." (Mojo Special Limited Edition, 2002).

If Nicol had been altered by 10 days exposure to the incomprehensible madness of Beatlemania, what did eight years exposure do to the other four?

Paul McCartney

Never shy to bump Harrison out of the way for a lead guitar solo, McCartney had initially served sporadic terms as the group's drummer during their Quarry Men days and again at various periods in Hamburg and Liverpool, particularly during Pete Best's absence or solo singing spots. When Ringo Starr quit the group and walked out of the recording sessions for the White Album (ironically over an argument with McCartney about his drum part) McCartney took over. He taped a particularly credible - if slightly wooden - perfromance on "Back in the USSR", "Dear Prudence" and later on "The Ballad of John and Yoko".

John Lennon and George Harrison

During the same session for "Back in the USSR" in which Starr walked out, Harrison and Lennon also overdubbed drum tracks to augment McCartney's. Allegedly on the stereo mix McCartney's drum track can be heard in the left speaker, with Harrison's and Lennon's blended on the right. Incredibly, "Back in the USSR" is unique in that it features all three Beatles minus Starr on drums, with his colleagues taking over his part after his playing fell under criticism.

This was no easy band to be in, for sure!

Thursday, June 21, 2012

The Passing of Victor Spinetti, Beatles Actor and Friend

Article first published as The Passing of Victor Spinetti, Beatles Actor and Friend on Blogcritics.

Another sad passing was marked the other day in the ever diminishing ranks of The Beatles camp; Welsh actor, director, poet and comedian Victor Spinetti died following a short illness with prostate cancer.
Spinetti was internationally immortalized and will be forever remembered by Beatles fans for his roles in three of the five movies the group were connected with. After working with The Beatles during the making of A Hard Day's Night, Spinetti became close friends of the group and worked with them collectively and independently.

Born in the Welsh town of Cwm in 1933, Spinetti's grandfather was an Italian immigrant to Wales, a fact which was evident in his full name: Victorio Giorgio Andrea Spinetti. Educated in Cardiff at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Spinetti began a lifelong career in theatre, but was catapulted to international fame for his role as the slightly eccentric and humourless TV director in Alun Owen and Dick Lesters' hugely successful and ground breaking rockumentary; A Hard Days Night (1964).

The movie that perfectly captured Beatlemania and the dawn of a global youth revolution was always going to feature the heroes of the piece, The Beatles versus the establishment. Spinetti, who was 31 in 1964 represents the older, established order who view The Beatles and their success as a crazy flash-in-the-pan which will soon die out and return the hordes of screaming girls to normality. The Beatles naturally represent the awakening youth of Britain (and the globe). Anti-establishment in their outlook, the four young men clash repeatedly with establishment figures throughout the film – including police, managers, agents, businessmen, groundskeepers and even bartenders – but it is Spinetti's fantastically morose, bored and marginalised TV director who provides most of the humour.

Paul: "There he goes [Spinetti]. Look at him. Bet his wife doesn't know about her [his secretary]."
John: "If he's got one. Look at his sweater."
Paul: "You never know. She might have knitted it."
John: "She knitted him."

After attempting to promote his profile in the U.S. with the international release of the movie, George Harrison apparently informed Spinetti that he would have to star in all their movies: "You've got to be in all our films. If you're not in them me mum won't come and see them – because she fancies you" (NME). In 1965, Spinetti did indeed return, this time as a mad scientist trying to rule the world in the Beatles' second movie, the rather farcical and pointless Help!, before he appeared a final time with the Fab Four in 1967 in their less than fabulous made-for-TV offering, Magical Mystery Tour. The film was savaged by critics and adjudged to be The Beatles' first commercial and artistic flop.

Spinetti remained close friends with the group however, and in 1968 he directed a theatrical performance of John Lennon's In His Own Write.

From the late '60s on, Spinetti enjoyed a successful career as an actor and director in many and various roles for TV, Film and theatre. However, for Beatles fans, he will always be remembered as the frustrated TV director or the bungling scientist who is constantly goaded and thwarted by the four mop-tops.

Interestingly, Spinetti's younger brother Henry, is a session drummer who has recorded with both George Harrison and Paul McCartney.

Victor Spinetti was 82 when he died on June 18, McCartney's 70th birthday.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Sure while we're at it, here's 10 of your best fab moments

In no particular order

Blackbird (1968)

All My Loving (1963)

Mother Nature's Son (1968)

Here, There, And Everywhere (1966)

Oh Darling! (1969)

Lovely Rita (1967)

She's Leaving Home (1967)

She Came In Through The Bathroom Window (1969)

Hey Jude (1968)

Golden Slumbers...and the rest (1969)

Happy Birthday, Macca! Here's your top ten greatest post fab moments

Jet  (1973)

No More Lonely Nights (1984)

My Brave Face (1993)

Let Me Roll It (1973)

Another Day (1971)

Calico Skies (1997)

Band On The Run (1973)

Junk (1970)

Maybe I'm Amazed (1970)

Every Night (1970)

Thursday, April 5, 2012

A Portrait Of The Bassist: An Examination of Stuart Sutcliffes Legacy With The Beatles 50 Years After His Death

Article first published as A Portrait Of The Bassist: An Examination of Stuart Sutcliffe’s Legacy With The Beatles 50 Years After His Death, Part 1 on Blogcritics.

Otis Redding, Buddy Holly, James Dean, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Amy Winehouse, John Bonham, Robert Johnson, Hank Williams, Keith Moon, Kurt Cobain, even Sam Cooke - Just many of the musical legends who died young and became instant cultural icons. We have a perverted fascination with those who create a special body of work, then pop their clogs before they get a chance to tarnish their reputation.
Many died as a result of depression and/or substance abuse, others simply as a result of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Stuart Sutcliffe, the original bassist with The Beatles, joined this tragic and iconic club in April 1962.

Sutcliffe’s iconic status was assured almost instantly after his death from a cerebral haemorrhage on April 10th 1962. His legend is perpetuated not only by his membership of the most famous group in the history of popular music, particularly during their most uninhibited and formative period, but also by his own independent talent and good looks.  His close friendship with one half of the 20th century’s most celebrated composers, as well as his battles with the other half, have guaranteed that his name is forever inextricably  linked to those of Lennon-McCartney and The Beatles. Indeed Sutcliffe receives credit for conceiving the group’s name. In addition, the details of his tragic love affair with a beautiful German fiancée who helped to shape the groups early image, and his premature death at the age of 22 make for a fascinating story that writes itself perfectly for a film script...and it has.
No fewer than three movies have documented Sutcliffe’s life, most famously the 1994 film BackBeat. However, as early as 1979, the film Birth Of The Beatles placed more emphasis on Sutcliffe’s character than that of McCartney or Harrison. In addition to these movies, Sutcliffe has been the subject of some four documentaries and at least five books.

Despite this however, his contribution to The Beatles has often been conveniently played down. Sutcliffe was the musically-bereft, James Dean wannabe who was relieved of £65, and selfishly press-ganged into Lennon’s group to provide a back-beat on an instrument he couldn’t play anyway, right? Well, perhaps on the 50th anniversary of his tragic death, this young man’s legacy deserves a second look.

Stuart Victor Ferguson Sutcliffe was born June 22nd 1940 in Edinburgh, Scotland to middle class parents. His father, like John Lennon’s, spent the greater part of the war away at sea. The small, effeminate and sensitive Sutcliffe left Grammar school, and with a burgeoning talent for drawing and painting was enrolled at the Liverpool College of Art in 1956 at 16...two years earlier than the average age of enrolment. Moving in Liverpool 8 art school circles, he was introduced to John Lennon sometime in 1957/58 by fellow student Bill Harry, who later founded the paper- Merseybeat.

On the surface Lennon and Sutcliffe appeared to be polar opposites. Lennon was already highly skilled at hiding his emotions behind a firewall of aggressive and abusive cruelty towards anyone on his radar. This behaviour moved up a gear at Art College as a defence mechanism to deflect from the fact that he believed himself to be a phony who was in over his head and surrounded by real talent. When it came to applying himself to his studies he was lazy, bored and easily distracted...the worst pupil in his class. Sutcliffe on the other hand was gifted with a natural talent for drawing, painting and even sculpture. He was a determined, studious, and meticulous artist who possessed an intensity and dedication which alarmed his tutors. Well aware of the young man’s artistic promise, his tutors allowed him to work from his flat although they asked him to slow down and take life easier even then.
Sutcliffe was the most promising student at the college. Cynthia Powell, John Lennon’s future wife and art school student remembers Sutcliffe’s nature as being opposite to Lennon’s completely.  “Stuart was a sensitive artist and he was not a rebel, as John was. He wasn’t rowdy or rough”. (Mojo, 10 Years That Shook The World p.26)
Despite their differences however, they possessed a mutual admiration for each other, and for rock n roll. Unlike his jazz influenced art school contemporaries Sutcliffe was influenced by Elvis, which intrigued Lennon, and it was rock n roll's imagery that drew him to Lennon’s group.

Lennon was intimidated by Sutcliffe's talent and particularly by his image. Sutcliffe however also admired Lennon's cartoons, particularly their honest and satirical subject matter.
Sutcliffe’s praise of his work had the effect of making Lennon feel he actually belonged at the art college. He also fulfilled Lennon's desire to be taken seriously by a serious artist whom he looked up to. Sutcliffe flattered Lennon and fulfilled an early role as a muse, a role later occupied by Yoko Ono. Indeed Sutcliffe introduced Lennon to Dadaism, a movement Lennon would later embrace wholeheartedly during his peace campaigns with Ono.
 Arthur Ballard, a former tutor at the Art College commented that "without Stu Sutcliffe, John Lennon wouldn't have known Dada from a donkey" (Philip Norman, Lennon – The Life p.136)

Late in 1959, Lennon’s group sought to broaden their prospects for bookings with the addition of a drummer and/or bass player. Lennon allegedly tendered either role to Sutcliffe and fellow flatmate and art student Rod Murray, who set about building a bass made from college materials. He was beaten to the role however by Sutcliffe who purchased a bass guitar sometime in early 1960 with £65 he made from the recent sale of a painting which had hung at exhibition in the prestigious Walker Art Gallery.

The general myth has always held that Sutcliffe was led astray by Lennon and the others, and duped into spending his money on the band. Quite the contrary however, it seems that Sutcliffe was a willing and enthusiastic addition to the group. Bill Harry claimed that the image of being in a rock n roll band appealed to Sutcliffe more than the music itself, (Norman, Philip, Lennon, The Life p.168) and it became an extension of his own moody image. Lennon certainly approved, dismissing Sutcliffe’s early struggles with his new oversized instrument by setting his priorities straight and declaring; "never mind, he looks good" (Norman, Philip, Lennon, The Life p.237). George Harrison recalled that it was better to have a bass player who couldn’t play, than not have one at all (Anthology).

Not everyone approved though. Paul McCartney smarted at his demotion in the ranks as a result of Lennon and Sutcliffe’s friendship and he admitted years later that 'the others' were jealous of the relationship, feeling they were forced to take a back seat (Anthology). In fairness, his dislike of the situation was also due to his frustrations with Sutcliffe’s musical ability. Even at this early stage, the idealistic differences between Lennon, whose ethos was ‘let’s play’, and McCartney who leaned towards ‘let’s play it right’, were plain to see. Yet, it was the subtle marriage of these contrasting ideologies which would make their partnership so devastating throughout the decade.

So enthusiastic was Sutcliffe for his new life as a rock n roller, that he began writing to booking agents on behalf of the band, and signed himself as – manager. Does that sound like the actions of a talented artist with a bright future, who was cajoled into parting with his money and joining a musical group with little prospects?

Sutcliffe’s next contribution to the group was to prove to be his most enduring. Still uncertain of their artistic moniker, (The Quarrymen had Become Johnny and The Moondog’s), Sutcliffe suggested The Beetles in homage to Buddy Holly’s Cricket’s. This name evolved several times through Beetles, The Beatals, The Silver Beetles, The Beetles and finally, The Beatles.

In May 1960, the group famously auditioned to become a backing band for Billy Fury, but instead ended being assigned a drummer and embarking upon a budget tour of Scotland with Liverpool singer, Johnny Gentle. The tour was an eye-opener and a disaster for many reasons. For Sutcliffe however it revealed that the life of a musician was not necessarily glamorous, and that his friendship with Lennon was far from perfect.

Unable to compete with Sutcliffe's artistic abilities at college, Lennon seemed to enjoy becoming his friend’s artistic superior once he strapped on a bass and stepped on-stage.
Lennon admitted that he was particularly cruel to Sutcliffe during the tour, refusing to allow him to eat or even sit with the others. He belittled his friend’s height and zoned in on his struggles with the Höfner bass he wore.

By the time the group acquired permanent drummer Pete Best in August 1960, Sutcliffe found himself bound for Hamburg to play rock n roll in the sleaziest of Europe’s red light districts. He had horrified his family and tutor’s by abandoning his teacher training diploma and turned his back on his art completely. However he was held in such high regard by the Liverpool College of Art that they agreed to keep his place open for his return, if and when he saw fit. For the others, no such friendly offers lay open...Hamburg was make or break.

Soon after his arrival on the Grosse Freiheit Sutcliffe had met, fallen in love with and become engaged to a beautiful German existentialist by the name of Astrid Kircherr. Unlike the typical female fan, Kircherr was not only beautiful and stylish, but confident, cultured and a talented photographer.

The group were far from irritated by Sutcliffe’s new found love, in fact they encouraged it. Kircherr’s family acted somewhat like the Asher’s later did for Paul McCartney. Mrs. Kircherr, appalled by the group’s living conditions in St Pauli, allowed Stuart to lodge in the loft while often tending to the rest of the group; washing their clothes and providing hot meals. Astrid’s affections and admiration for Sutcliffe’s talent woke him from his rock n roll coma and ignited his interest in art again. She and her friends also appealed to the existentialist in him, and it wasn’t long before he was dressing just like his new German friend’s. In another vital building block to the group’s image and direction, Sutcliffe became influenced by Hamburg’s existentialists clothing and hairstyles, and through him, so too did The Beatles.

Kircherr also took some iconic shots of the group, and her style was copied verbatim for the cover of their second LP; With The Beatles, which was considered an artistic watershed in terms of album covers.
Following the deportation of Harrison, McCartney and Best in late 1960, Lennon also headed for home leaving Sutcliffe behind with his fiancée. He had by now lost interest in his rock n roll career and intended on taking up his studies again. Back in Liverpool the Beatles career began to take off following their first apprenticeship in Hamburg, and for a time they adapted a new bass player; Chas Newby, who later left of his own accord. In December of 1960, Harrison also apparently asked John Gustafson, bassist with The Big Three to join The Beatles...Gustafson declined, understandably a decision he lived to regret.

When Sutcliffe returned to Liverpool in February 1961 he headed straight for the Art College, committed to picking up where he left off. To his dismay he found the door firmly shut to him, regardless of his golden promise. The reason for his banishing was later discerned to be his suspected role in the misappropriation of a student’s union amplifier; a Selmer Truvoice amp which was almost certainly ‘borrowed’ by The Silver Beetles. Disgusted and desponded, Sutcliffe returned to Hamburg in March 1961 to be with his fiancée and to test the possibilities of studying there. On application to the HFBK, or Hamburg College of Art, Sutcliffe made such an impression on Scottish-Italian artist and tutor Eduardo Paolozzi that he was immediately enrolled and given a generous grant. Sutcliffe soon picked up where he had left off in Liverpool by painting in the loft of the Kircherr house in Hamburg and, here his and the Beatles paths began to diverge. He still occasionally played and sang with the group during their second Hamburg residency, but McCartney had by now largely taken over on bass.

By October 1961 Sutcliffe was suffering from blinding headaches and dark mood swings, often coupled with aggressive bouts of unprovoked jealousy towards his fiancée. He was eventually persuaded to see a doctor who diagnosed nothing but a troublesome appendix and advised Sutcliffe to slow down, rest and quit cigarettes and alcohol.

Early in 1962 his health declined further and he began suffering seizures. He was eventually diagnosed as suffering from increased cranial pressure and this was temporarily relieved by a treatment of cranial hydrotherapy. Sutcliffe and Kircherr visited Liverpool in February 1962, where friends noted his alarming weight loss and more than usual pale complexion.

During this visit he met Brian Epstein, the new Beatles manager, and discussed a future role as an artistic director and designer for the band. Predictably, Epstein was drawn to Sutcliffe's looks and later wrote to him in Hamburg that he “[...] didn't know anyone as lovely as you existed in Liverpool". (Norman, Lennon - The Life p.262)

Upon his return to Hamburg, Sutcliffe’s seizures and mood swings escalated. He wrote home that “[his] head was compressed, and filled with such unbelievable pain". (Norman, Lennon - The Life p.262) On April 10th 1962 he suffered an hour long seizure at his home and fell into a coma. Despite being rushed to hospital by ambulance Sutcliffe died during the journey, rested in his fiancées arms. 

The next day, unaware of his death, the Beatles minus George Harrison, flew out to Hamburg from Manchester to begin yet another engagement. They were greeted by a distraught Kircherr in the arrivals hall, and her news sent Lennon into aggressive hysterics.
Lennon was later criticised by the Sutcliffe family however for his lack of emotion over his friend’s death.
The show of emotion in Hamburg airport had evaporated - or been carefully withdrawn - by the time his friend's mother arrived (on the same flight as Harrison and Epstein) the following day. Lennon in his defence was 21 years old, hardly a matured man, and those young years had already seen their fair share of trauma. Already aware that his father and mother had abandoned him, death had been a frequent caller to his door what with losing his surrogate father (Uncle George) at 15, his mother at 17, and now his best friend at 21. It's little wonder that he developed an aggressive defence mechanism for bottling and hiding his emotions. There are enough clues throughout his life however to suggest that he was always haunted by the death of his best friend and perhaps his frequent cruel treatment of him in public. Kircherr felt his behaviour towards Sutcliffe was another of his defence mechanisms; “I’m thinking when he treated him badly, it was because he was afraid anyone might see how much he loved him” (Norman, Lennon – The Life, p.214).
Sutcliffe may have been the subject of the confessional, self-healing and melancholy Beatles song 'There's A Place', composed the same year as Sutcliffe's death. He was also certainly one of the central subjects in Lennon's 1965 autobiographical 'In My Life', and his friend also ensured that Sutcliffe finally made it onto a Beatles album; standing among the greats of the 20th century on the cover of the group's magnum opus - Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
Yoko Ono has also maintained that Lennon spoke of Sutcliffe every day throughout his life, so much so that she felt she had known him herself.

Controversy has surrounded Sutcliffe in death just as it has his deceased best friend. His death was deemed the result of a cerebral haemorrhage, but post mortem results pointed to a previous skull trauma, possibly the result of a blow...or a kick. Beatles myths often have a tendency to grow into monsters and Sutcliffe’s death is no exception. Not surprisingly, views on how Sutcliffe may have been injured differ enormously.
The famous story is that Sutcliffe was ambushed and violently kicked in the head by a group of youths following a gig at Lathom Hall. This is the story put forth by Philip Norman, author of Shout!, and Lennon – The Life. Norman states the incident occurred in early 1961, probably Feb 25th. He also states that Sutcliffe’s mother found him that night, bleeding heavily from a head wound.
However, Bill Harry, Pete Best and Neil Aspinall maintained that the incident had occurred on May 14th 1960, and that it involved a few punches and nothing at all as sinister as a kick to the head. Best recalled; “When people talk of Stu being beaten up, I think it stems from this incident. But I don’t remember Stu getting to the stage where he had his head kicked in, as some legends say, alleging that this caused his fatal brain haemorrhage” (Mersey Beat Archives).

The trouble is, neither Pete Best nor Neil Aspinall worked with the group in May 1960. They were both with The Beatles by February 1961 however, the time the incident occurred according to Philip Norman, although their recollections seem to refute the viciousness of Norman’s description of events. Time has muddied the actual details it seems, but what probably occurred is that a minor fracas took place in February 1961, which involved no serious head injuries. Incidentally Sutcliffe only returned from Hamburg in late February 1961. So if he was with the group at this performance, it must have been one of his first engagements upon his return.

The Sutcliffe family have thrown further fuel on the fire in the debate. In her book The Beatles' Shadow: Stuart Sutcliffe & His Lonely Hearts Club, Sutcliffe’s sister Pauline claims that on his final return to Liverpool her brother told his mother how John Lennon had attacked him in a drunken rage, knocking him to the ground and kicking him repeatedly in the head. The incident was supposedly fueled by his jealousy of Stu, and his ever increasing frustrations with his musical abilities. Paul McCartney was cited as the sole witness, and it was allegedly he who carried a bleeding Sutcliffe back to his digs. The incident was kept in the Sutcliffe family until 1984, thus denying Lennon a chance to comment on the allegation of any involvement in his friend’s death.

Lennon was known to have a violent streak, sure, and he was a famously mean drinker. However the alleged attack is largely out of character with his documented relationship with Sutcliffe, and indeed the rest of his band mates. There are well known stories of John Lennon going on-stage wearing a toilet seat, urinating from balconies, mugging sailors, and walking the streets in his underwear. So, surely a story of him administering a vicious beating to his best friend in public would be supported by someone who was there.
Horst Fascher, the group’s unofficial bodyguard in Hamburg and a man for whom violence was a working tool, claims he never heard of such an incident. Sutcliffe himself, a man who wrote letters home frequently, never wrote of the incident, and neither Harrison nor Best has ever mentioned it. Astrid Kircherr, his fiancée claims that Lennon never raised his hands to Sutcliffe, dismissing the allegation as “rubbish”. (The Lost Beatle, BBC 4 Documentary)

McCartney, who supposedly witnessed the incident, has no recollection of it, although he admitted that John and Stuart could have had a drunken fight (Anthology). As always, analysis of recollections should be subjected to a degree of scepticism, owing to the sheer amount of time that has elapsed, not to mention the tricky issue of disentangling personal agenda.
McCartney has always come-off as a villain in Sutcliffe's story. The one well documented on-stage punch-up involving Sutcliffe was with McCartney, supposedly the result of an unkind comment aimed at Astrid Kircherr. He made no bones of his opinion on Sutcliffe’s, and even Best’s musical abilities, once shouting at them both during a performance; “You may look like James Dean and you may look like Jeff Chandler, but you’re both crap.” (Norman, Lennon – The Life, p.237)

McCartney has confessed that he was jealous of Sutcliffe, the older boy, and no doubt Sutcliffe's image and artistic abilities intimidated the younger McCartney, as they had done Lennon.

In the Beatles Anthology, McCartney admits that his relationship with Sutcliffe grew particularly fraught, but Kircherr suggests it was more than that; "[...} when Paul and Stu had a row, you could tell that Paul hated him". (Norman, Shout!, p.90)
McCartney has always maintained that he never wanted the job as bass player, that he somehow got lumped with the job by the refusal of the others to take up the role. Harrison contradicted this, recalling that “He [McCartney] went for it [the bass role]” (Anthology)
Regardless, it seems that McCartney viewed Sutcliffe's departure as the best possible outcome for his and the band's collective gain...he was probably correct in his assessment.  In any case, they did have options. Upon Sutcliffe's official departure from the group, Klaus Voorman, their Hamburg acquaintance who would design the cover of Revolver and play bass on numerous John Lennon solo albums, asked Lennon if he could take up the role as The Beatles bassist. Lennon turned him down telling him "sorry mate, Paul has already bought a bass [...]" (Mojo, 10 Years, p.35).
It seems the allegations of Lennon’s attack (as well as the predictable and highly irrelevant claims that Lennon and Sutcliffe had a homosexual relationship) are little but hearsay. But, they do sell books.
We will never know the true cause of Sutcliffe’s haemorrhage, although no doubt the legend surrounding it will continue and grow. Kircherr was convinced that Stuart had an underlying condition that was lying in wait. That condition was possibly exacerbated by Sutcliffe’s 24 hour lifestyle which has been documented by all those who knew him, tutors, musicians, lovers and friends. He simply worked too hard, too long, too intensely, smoked too much and ate and slept too little. In his last letters home he confessed how doctors had labelled him a nervous wreck.

But what of Sutcliffe’s musical legacy? Was he the terrible bassist some would have us believe?

Certainly, starting out in early 1960 he was very limited and struggled his way through the Scottish tour of May ’60. However it’s been well documented how the group went to Hamburg a ‘banger’ (jalopy) and came home a Rolls Royce...the relentless hours on stage turning them into a rock n roll powerhouse. If Lennon, Best, Harrison & McCartney progressed as musicians, shouldn’t it also follow that Sutcliffe did too? In 1960 Sutcliffe himself wrote home that the group had improved a thousand fold since their arrival in Hamburg. (Lost Beatle, BBC 4)
The surviving tapes that capture Sutcliffe on bass (Anthology 1) are too poor in quality to allow any real appreciation of his ability. So, we need to examine the recollections of those who were there.
McCartney’s opinion has been well documented, but there were others and, contrary to the myth, many remember him as being highly competent on the instrument.

Klaus Voorman remembers Sutcliffe as being "[...] a heavy rock n roller. Rock n roll is an art form, and Stuart had the feel and taste. They weren't playing anything very complicated, and taken as a whole - feeling it and playing those few notes - Stuart was a really, really, good bass player." (Mojo, 10 Years, p.35).
Pete Best recalled how Sutcliffe was a decent musician with a good reputation among his Hamburg contemporaries, and Bill Harry (Merseybeat founder) recalls that he was quite good. Furthermore, Sutcliffe sometimes played bass in a combo with Howie Casey (of the Seniors) in the Kaiserkeller, and they seemed to have no issue with his competency. (Uncut March 2012).

Sutcliffe and Best may have failed to make the grade when it came to the Beatles EMI career, in fact Best fell at the first hurdle. However in the case of both, it’s been convenient to excuse their treatment by the group by highlighting their musical ineptitudes...but personal dislikes can’t be ruled out of the equation either. The group closed rank on Best once George Martin flagged him, Sutcliffe was a different story however; he drifted out rather than having to be pushed. He had bigger fish to fry.
Some have argued that he wasn’t talented enough to be in The Beatles, but his artistic pedigree meant that he was far too talented to be in The Beatles.
John Lennon always claimed that the best work of The Beatles was never captured, referring to their wild, pre-EMI days. If that’s true, then he’s referring to a period when it was more important to play, than what you played and who heard you. The rock n roll played during this period was uncomplicated, and if Lennon’s opinion counted for anything, and it should – it was his band after all – then the proto-punk stage material of 1960-1962 suited the talents of Pete Best and Stuart Sutcliffe more than adequately.

Judging by the professional critique of his surviving work, Sutcliffe would have emerged as a major talent in the art world. In fact, had he never met John Lennon, nor joined The Beatles, Sutcliffe would possibly have become a renowned artist. The same is difficult to say for The Beatles, without ever having met and become subjected to the influence of Stuart Sutcliffe.

His association with The Beatles would probably have catapulted him to the top of the artistic movements of the ‘60s, as he lived a celebrity life with his beautiful German wife which would have mirrored that of the Beckham’s. Under his direction many of the group’s album covers may have looked very different. In fact, he may even have played on a few of them.

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