The Beatles have been much on my mind lately, prompted by a pair of recent developments, the first being John Colapinto's New Yorker profile of Paul McCartney, timed to coincide with the release of his 21st solo album, Memory Almost Full.
Colapinto has come in for his share of knocks recently. Some were fair – his hyperventilating, thin-skinned responses to some fairly benign criticism made him look ridiculous, petty and unprofessional. Some were off the mark, however – specifically those that chided him for revealing nothing new about his famous subject. My feeling is that such criticisms ignore the nature of these kinds of New Yorker pieces – pieces meant for general audiences, not intended to satisfy Beatles experts. (Perhaps Colapinto's critics would prefer Seymour Hersh to have done the profile.) They seem, instead, intended to give a sense of what it's like to spend time in the presence of its subject. A subject so thoroughly scrutinized and interviewed that even the best journalist is unlikely to learn anything new – a challenge which, to be fair, Colapinto doesn't seem to have quite prepared himself for. (Although it's interesting to me that his audio post on what it was like being around McCartney was much more engaging than most of the piece. It's a shame that spirit didn't inform more of the profile.)
However, it's wrong to say that the piece revealed nothing new about McCartney. It revealed one point that was of great interest, to me, at any rate. In the profile, Colapinto describes McCartney refusing a mother's request to pose for a picture with two young boys:
Eventually the woman went away, and McCartney said, "Everyone's got a camera. Everyone's got a phone, man. It's not just the paparazzi – which I've had two of this morning. And I've had two requests from the public as well, to take a photo with them. And I don't want to take a photo with every single person in the world – especially when I'm having a private moment."
To understand why I found this point so interesting, you have to go back to April 1981. I'm a 16-year-old on my first solo trip to London for a week. (Different times.) I'm also a rabid Beatles fan who played Paul in a Beatles sound-alike band (photo at right from a 1984 gig), so I spend most of the trip checking out London's (and later Liverpool's) Beatles sites. After visits to the Cavern, Abbey Road, Penny Lane and the rest, I find myself at the Soho Square office of McCartney's MPL (McCartney Productions Limited).
Standing across the street, photographing the building, I can see the top of a head in the second floor conference room window and that's all I need to know that Macca is in the building. I find the nearest lamppost and shimmy up as far as I can for a better view, holding on with one hand, Kodak Instamatic Pocket 20 in the other. I snap a few shots, slide down the post – to find two Bobbies waiting for me.
Now, this is only five months after John Lennon has been murdered, so the police are naturally uncomfortable about anyone getting too close to the remaining Beatles. They're in the process of patting me down when McCartney comes down and steps out the front door.
"Oh, he's all right," he says. "I know him. You can leave him."
I'm stunned and speechless and all I can manage to do is stick my camera into the hands of one of the Bobbies and stand beside Paul. Paul chuckles and says, "Oh, they can't do that." But the officers are clearly every bit as thrilled as I am and say they're happy to. The photo they took appears below. No jokes about the hair, please.
(The autograph is there because I had the chance to interview him three years later when he came through New York on a press junket. When it was over, I gave him the photo and said, "You might not remember this but I nearly got arrested climbing up a lamppost outside your office." He lit up at the memory, smiling as he took the photo and signed it. "Ahh, that was you. Ya drip." There are few moments in my life that compare with being affectionately called a "drip" by Sir Paul McCartney.)
It's worth noting that McCartney was holding something in his right hand so, when he took leave of me, we shook hands my right to his left – and all I could think walking away was "I just shook the hand that wrote 'Hey Jude' ... "
So, you can see why the notion that he no longer likes to stand in photos surprised me and must surely constitute new information. And I admit, I can't help but wonder if the real reason for his reluctance is as simple as vanity – he wears his age roughly and my gut says he doesn't want a plethora of 65-year-old McCartney jpegs filling up the internet.
I said there were two things that had prompted my Beatles reverie. The other one also addresses the question of what's new that can still be said about them, and also speaks to the difference between the general reader and the Extreme Beatles Fan.
Last year, the New York Times ran this story on the runaway success of Recording the Beatles, a self-published detailed look at all the Beatles' recording equipment and techniques. I knew as soon as I read it that I had to have it but the book was out of stock already and a second printing was in the works. Last week, I finally got aroud to forking out the $100 and the book arrived with a resplendent thud a few days later. It's a gorgeous, absorbing package and I've been consumed since it arrived.
The 537-page book is beautifully designed and assembled with the highest of production values – and it weighs a ton. The authors, Brian Kehew and Kevin Ryan have tracked down every piece of equipment in Abbey Road, from mixers to outboard gear to speakers and have provided archival quality photographic documentation and detailed technical descriptions. For the Beatles fan who can't live without really understanding the role of the Fairchild 660 limiter, this is $100 well spent.
But the most absorbing part of the book is the "production" chapter, which details how the records themselves were made. Analyses of different takes and mixing methods – what was double-tracked or mixed down to allow for an open track (in the case of "Help," opened up solely to allow George repeated attempts to record that tricky guitar run); the role that ADT (Artificial Double Tracking) played in the recordings; how many of the versions we know were edited together from multiple takes. I especially like the "A Closer Look" sidebars which delve into specific songs in detail. ("A Hard Day's Night" is below – forgive the poor scan but the book is too unwieldy to scan easily. It's really here to whet your appetites.)
It's an endlessly fascinating read, and I'm planning to track down Brian Kehew – a Los Angeles resident – for a future 3MI interview. Until then, it's enough to make me want to pull my old 1963 Hofner 500/1 bass out of closet, and see how much I can remember.