As Apple re-releases its eclectic catalogue, Ray Connolly recalls
chaos and creativity, and telling Paul about a naked John
Friday, 22 October 2010
When Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, DW Griffith and Douglas
Fairbanks set up their own Hollywood film studio, United Artists, in
1919, the joke in the film industry was "the inmates are taking over
the asylum". That may have been a somewhat jaundiced reaction, but it
was to be replicated to the very smirk when, in 1968, four other
artistes created their own group of companies. They were The Beatles
and their company was called Apple Corps.
"We've got all the money we need," Paul McCartney, then a worldly
wise 25-year-old, told me at the time. "I've got the house and the
cars and all the things that money can buy. So instead of trying to
amass money for the sake of it, we're setting up a business with a
social and cultural environment where everyone gets a decent share of
the profits. I suppose it'll be like a sort of Western communism."
And, with that foray into a new strand of political science, an
advertisement was placed in the underground bugle of the day, the
International Times, inviting readers to send in their film scripts,
songs, poems, tapes, fashion designs, inventions, plays, electronics,
novels and recordings. You imagined it, and it was sent to Apple for
possible financial backing.
Big mistake. Within days a trickle of hippie hope had turned into an
avalanche of useless tat and dreams being delivered to The Beatles'
offices in a newly renovated Regency house in London's Savile Row.
To the music business at large, an industry not best known for
altruism, this was the hippie ideal gone truly mad. If Dick James,
the head of Northern Songs, the company that published the Lennon and
McCartney catalogue of music, had needed any encouragement in his
plan to sever his links with The Beatles following the death of
manager Brian Epstein a year earlier, this had to be it. Within
months the songs had been sold to Lew Grade at ATV.
As it turned out the cynics were quickly proved at least partly
right. Staffed by many of the group's old friends from Liverpool, few
of whom had any real business acumen, Apple quickly became a
financial whirlpool as money was sucked away to places unknown.
Perhaps the group's first venture outside music, a fashion boutique
in nearby Baker Street, should have been a warning, quickly turning
into a Beatle-takeaway as, in the absence of much in the way of
security, customers simply helped themselves to the designs and
walked out without paying.
If it was an omen it wasn't spotted. As a character known as Magic
Alex was given funding to build a new recording studio, which didn't
work, and grotesque bills for drinks, food, taxis and flowers began
to rain in, accountants were soon trying to trace an Apple-owned
Mercedes that had simply vanished off the face of the earth.
Within a year, with John Lennon joking he was "down to his last
10,000 [pounds]" and they'd "all be broke within six months if this
carried on", American Allen Klein was introduced to sort out the
mess. Another big mistake: Klein quickly dropped James Taylor's
contract and lost them millions. Meanwhile the sackings began: the
dream was over, as Lennon used to sing.
But it wasn't all a naive failure. Apple, as a small, short-lived
record company, wasn't without its successes. For decades all Apple
records have been highly valued as collectibles, and from October 25
The Beatles' early work as producers and unheralded backing musicians
for other artists will finally be made available for digital download.
There will be some surprises. Who knew that both Paul McCartney and
George Harrison played on the original recording of James Taylor's
"Carolina in my Mind", or that Harry Nilsson was originally under the
impression that McCartney had written his eventual Grammy
Award-winning hit "Without You", and not Beatles protégés Badfinger?
Or that Apple released a Modern Jazz Quartet album, and that it was
at Ringo Starr's insistence that John Tavener's The Whale was
recorded for the label?
Over the decades the legend of Apple has come to be considered a kind
of late-Beatles folly, and the roof-top where they played their last
gig, but at the time there was something magnificently crackers about
it. While all around them the edifice of The Beatles was imploding,
the band and their staff still practised a continual open house in
Savile Row where friends could drop in uninvited for a chat with
whoever happened to be about.
There, especially in Derek Taylor's press office on the second floor,
many a pleasant afternoon for a young journalist, scotch and Coke in
hand, could be passed playing acetates of new Beatle recording
sessions at least one, "Teddy Boy", never released by them while
outside on the pavement the teenage girl fans whom George Harrison
christened Apple Scruffs stood sentinel. And all the time the phones
never stopped ringing from around the world.
On one day you might meet the very young, long-haired, James Taylor,
whose first album was being produced by Peter Asher the rumour that
he'd spent time in a mental hospital before coming to England marking
him as someone especially exotic; and on another there would be Sweet
William and Frisco Pete, a couple of Hell's Angels from San Francisco
who were stopping over on their "way to straighten out
Czechoslovakia". In the end one of them tried to straighten out the
Apple Christmas party, eyeball-to-eyeball with a Santa John Lennon,
after which they disappeared back to California.
At different ends of the many-tentacled Apple social spectrum were
the well-scrubbed 17-year-old schoolgirl Mary Hopkin, from Swansea,
who McCartney decided should sing a Russian folk song he'd heard in a
club called "Those Were the Days", poet Allen Ginsberg, pop-artist
Alan Aldridge, Tariq Ali and Oz publisher Richard Neville.
Every day, it seemed, young and groovy Americans were beating a path
from Heathrow to The Beatles' front door where, if they could get
past the lovely but unbending Debbie in reception (a place described
at the time as resembling "the waiting room of a Haight-Ashbury VD
clinic), they were up the apple-green carpets and into the nerve
centre of what often resembled a happy and tolerant Casey's Court.
In one room the house hippie, Richard DiLello, a boy with hair not
unlike a friendly dahlia, might be blowing up 200 white balloons for
a John and Yoko happening; in another someone else would be rolling a
joint; while in the press office the elderly Bill Collins, a friend
of McCartney's father, would be trying to convince someone/anyone to
write about his group Badfinger, or, failing them, his son Lewis
(later the star of The Professionals). Then there was the girl who
wanted financial backing to make nude sculptures of herself out of
What the visitors really wanted was to bump into a Beatle on the
stairs. And, in the early days at least, that would often happen.
There would be George talking earnestly (and usually to blank faces)
about Krishna, John in a Tommy Nutter white suit ordering acorns to
be planted at Coventry Cathedral in the cause of peace, and busy-busy
Paul interfering all over the place as he saw his dream going wrong.
Ringo was, he liked to say, "just the office boy".
Hanging around Apple at the time it was impossible not to be aware of
the daily tensions. There were tears when one of the old Liverpool
mates was sacked by Allen Klein, with no intervention to save him
from the Fab Four; Derek Taylor's Olympian damage-limitation exercise
to the world's press when John and Yoko got busted; and the
astonishment and then anger on a Beatle face when it accidentally
fell to me to tell Paul that John and Yoko were going to be naked on
the cover of the Two Virgins album.
And then there was the slamming of doors and running on the stairs
the day Lennon told the others he was leaving the group. What is
astonishing is the amount of music that was still being generated in
and around the general bedlam. Putting aside John's gift to the Oz
fighting fund, Long Live Oz, a lamentable gift to raise funds for the
magazine's publishers who were shortly to be hailed before the courts
on pornography charges, Harrison was playing on sessions for Jackie
Lomax, Billy Preston and Doris Troy, along with pals Eric Clapton and
Keith Richards happy to be uncredited musicians when asked.
McCartney, for his part, was coming up with top-ten hits for
Badfinger, Mary Hopkin and Cilla Black (for whom he wrote "Step
Inside Love" it was going to be called "Come Inside Love" until
someone pointed out that it might be misunderstood.
Then, of course, there were The Beatles' own records from that period
The White Album, Let It Be and Abbey Road released on Apple if
only as a friendly courtesy from EMI, who retained the copyright. For
McCartney it now seems that only frantic work could assuage the pain
of seeing his world collapsing.
For decades the Apple catalogue of albums and singles have been
collectibles, changing hands for considerable sums of money. Their
digital rebirth, sadly minus a Delaney and Bonnie album that was
never released, is hardly going to alter that. There's nothing like
the vinyl in the original sleeves for collectors. But hopefully the
re-releases will cast a kinder light on that utopian dream of an
artistic "Western communism", that never really had a chance. It
wasn't all silly.
Apple Records's remastered catalogue is out on CD and download on 25 October.