Paul McCartney and Sir George Martin talking about working together again on the Tug of War album in 1982.
From his forthcoming album of the same name… out October 15th…
Stephen Thomas Erlewine’s Nov. 2008 All Music Guide review of Paul McCartney and Youth’s third album together (and first song-based…) as The Fireman. This should not be missed by any fan of Paul’s, especially fans of his more experimental stuff…
Ever since the early days of the Beatles, Paul McCartney has known the value of a pseudonym, famously registering into hotels under the surname Ramone and pushing the Fab Four to act like another band for Sgt. Pepper. This carried through to his solo career, where he released a couple odd singles while flitting back and forth with Wings, but he never again embraced the freedom of disguise like he did with Sgt. Pepper until 2008, when he put out the Fireman’s Electric Arguments. Read the rest of this entry »
A Sept. 1971 Village Voice article dealing with the aftermath of The Beatles’ untimely breakup in 1970 and the fallout that occurred in its wake. Christgau also critiques the first solo recordings of the 4 Beatles…
Not one but two of George Harrison’s friends got more applause than the best-selling ex-Beatle at the Bangla-Desh concert at Madison Square Garden. Dylan did, of course — New York is his turf — but unless I am deceiving myself, so did Ringo. Admittedly, self-deception is a real possibility. I clapped and shouted enough to provide Ringo’s margin of victory all by myself, and that epiphany exhausted, sat and gazed upon my hero through opera glasses. I was only twenty rows back, among the industry freebies, but I craved detail, and wouldn’t you know? George kept getting in the way. His white suit had obscured Ringo’s grand ole black-on-black for most of “It Don’t Come Easy” as well, but both times Ringo seemed aware that he was being upstaged. He looked calm and even complacent, brimming with quiet happiness, as if after eight years he still couldn’t quite believe his own good fortune — a seat right up on stage, the best industry freebie of all. That’s why we love him, after all, and why unlike the others he remains immune to the vagaries of our affection. Ringo is our representative on the Beatles.
Think about it. Ringo joined the group in the summer of 1962, replacing the corny good looks of Pete Best with a homely corrective to all that genius. The Beatles were on the brink of their fame. They had just signed with George Martin and EMI and dominated the thriving Liverpool pop scene. In less than a year they would become a national craze, with international Beatlemania already imminent. What a time that must have been for Ringo, a continual up among three intimidating near-strangers. In retrospect it must seem the high point of his life, but if he’s passed his peak, he’s not complaining. Ringo may not be able to describe the dark chamber of his future, but he knows it’s his, and that suffices. He is a family man now, unalienated from his lifework and identity. Four or five years ago, when John was talking about expanding into films and George was learning sitar and transcendental meditation and Paul was turning in on himself in a London town house, Ringo also had plans of his own — he wanted to start a Beatle museum. And now that the breakup is real, he has written a song, his fourth, called “Early 1970,” the B side of the best single any ex-Beatle has released. Perhaps you saw the lyrics in Howard Smith’s column. After devoting a stanza each to Paul (“When he comes to town, I wonder if he’ll play with me”), John (“When he comes to town, I know he’s gonna play with me”), and George (“He’s always in town, playing for you with me”), he goes on to himself: “I play guitar, A D E/ I don’t play bass cos that’s too hard for me/ I play the piano if it’s in C/ And when I go to town I want to see all three.” He really is the ultimate Beatle fan.
Conversely, George is the ultimate ex-Beatle, exploiting his Beatleness to assert his own identity. The old mediator and business head has turned into a superduperstar, and even as he talks of getting the group together again, he relishes his ascendancy as an individual. It may be that John first wanted to break up the group and was persuaded to stay by the insidious Paul, as John claims, or that Paul was shut out by the others until he had to leave, as Paul claims, but it is silent George who has adapted best to being out on his own. The catch is, he isn’t out on his own, for unlike the other three, George feels totally at home in the new condominium that dominates rock–I.P.M.C., the International Pop Music Community. George fits in because he knows how — he always played lead guitar and second fiddle — but even more because the prevailing trend suits his predilections. John is a media artist, Paul a composer, and Ringo just a Beatle, but George, ahh, George is a musician, he likes to play his ax, he likes to jam.
The ascendancy of I.P.M.C. represents a fundamental changeover, from Pop to Music. Five years ago, rock was created by integral groups, each of which directed its own organic identity at the audience. It’s true that that identity was often filtered and distorted by friends and outsiders, and that group members did create individually and interact with each other. But the group was still an aesthetic unit that communicated vertically, toward us, and thus related primarily to us. From the Beatles’ earliest success, when their lively-but-harmless moptopness was manipulated by Brian Epstein, through all the spontaneous changes of their collective genius, what went on among them came right down to us as a self-contained but multifaceted and evolving whole. In contrast, the aesthetic unit of I.P.M.C. is the individual musician, who communicated horizontally in continuing semispontaneous improvisation with his coequals. We in the audience are only incidental beneficiaries of his flirtations and affairs, at least until we stop buying. George is an I.P.M.C. man as regards both the public and his fellow superstars. In Let It Be, remember, it was George who rejected touring because he thought the Beatles, like Stravinsky, were responsible only to the art of music. Later, when Paul broke up Stravinsky, George reportedly made the perfect joke: “Well, I guess we need a new bassist.”
Although I.P.M.C. is vast enough to defy efficient generalization and is the locus of some of my favorite rock — Delaney & Bonnie, Layla, Mad Dogs & Englishmen — I strongly suspect the new mainstream of draining back toward an individualism that rock and roll once seemed to challenge. That’s a big argument, however. For now, allow me to note that there really is something about music-for-its-own-sake (read: I.P.M.C.) that transcends life’s harsher details, and that this is not true of music-as-popular-communication (read: group-rock). George’s religiosity is tellingly appropriate. Don Heckman referred to George as “the most introspective of the Beatles,” but that’s just I.P.M.C. claptrap. Playing headsie with the Universal Mind is not introspection; more often, it constitutes an evasion of hard inquiry by heirs of privilege with access to easier rewards, like riding the hounds or playing the guitar. The Bangla-Desh benefit started a lot of money on its way to people who plainly need and deserve it and established an awesome moral precedent, yet I find it hard to take seriously as politics because George has specifically disclaimed political motivation. “The political side is not my concern,” he told the trades. “Any war is wrong.” George’s know-nothingism is admirably candid, but it is also embarrassing and infuriating. Listen to the music. He can’t feel the pain, has never known such distress, doesn’t understand, but it sure looks like a mess quote unquote, free the people of Bangla-Desh. The flip of the “Bangla-Desh” single, “Deep Blue,” an unoverdubbed quickie that I consider George’s most affecting piece since “Here Comes the Sun,” amplifies his almost comic intellectual gaucherie. Written for his ailing mother, but by implication applicable to all suffering, including Bangla-Desh, it ends up another piece of lordy-lordy-lordy, with all that suffering reduced to so much Eternal Recurrence. It makes sense. The man who seeks after transcendence wants to avoid the ugly, immanent contingencies that taking sides involves. But maybe avoiding the contingencies is even uglier.
Despite the puffs of I.P.M.C. stalwarts like the New York Post‘s Al Aronowitz and Rolling Stone‘s nameless hydra, the Bangla-Desh concert was far from an unqualified aesthetic success. Because rock and roll is happy blues, there is something intrinsically awkward about the idea of a rock benefit, unless the cause is revolution for the hell of it. The only way Leon Russell performing “Jumping Jack Flash” and “Young Blood” (brilliantly, too) can be said to relate to a few million starving dark-skinned people on the other side of the planet is by fiat, yet there he was; it’s hard to blame the confused minority who clapped in time to “Bangla-Desh” as a film of the mutilation came on during intermission. With his never-failing critical acuteness, Dylan defeated this quandry by reverting to folk music, but Harrison’s disinclination for hard inquiry told. The plethora of musicians may have been necessary — how else render George’s I.P.M.C./wall-of-sound synthesis on stage? — but was still an excess wretchedly inappropriate in context. In fact, the whole production was anachronistically showbiz.
Of course, the same overblown fatuity characterizes All Things Must Pass, which sounds more like Muzak to my ears than Ram does. I’m not even sure that the prodigious flatness of Harrison’s new music — probably attributable to monomaniac Phil Spector, whose production work continues to sound best on a car radio as it approaches cosmic vagueness — can be adapted to the dynamic depth of live performance at all. Maybe George don’t need no wah-wahs, but he is a man of the recording studio more than ever — after all, how else can he make his voice do that? I.P.M.C. encourages a profitable mystique of concert jamming, but for every Mad Dogs & Englishmen, puts on half-a-dozen shoddy shows. Derek and the Dominoes are terrific when an extra guitarist hypes them up, uninspired otherwise. Leon Russell pumps away stage right like a coiffed locomotive, flanked by two women singers selected primarily for the mobility of their tits who function as a kind of tender, fueling Leon with attention, while the rest of the band cabooses desperately behind. And despite Al Aronowitz’s smug exultations about the “respectful and appreciative” crowd that responded to the “exercise in charisma” by performers who would never “invite a crowd to bedlam and hysteria” — as do group-rock holdouts such as Sly and the Stones and Grand Funk, all of whom excite Aronowitz’s disapproval — the music at Madison Square Garden, excepting Dylan and a few wonderful moments here and there, was competent at best. Since I.P.M.C. is thought of as an antidote to pop image and hype, it would seem strange that the ultimate I.P.M.C. concert should succeed as an event, which it certainly did, but not as music. The fact is, however, that concerts in Madison Square Garden are rarely more than events up in the cheap seats, and I’ve heard nothing from my sources in the cheap seats to indicate that this one was an exception. Here is fan Karin Klein: “The songs were very cut and dried, without particular flair or warmth. The basic result seemed to be a put-down of the audience’s mood, and the impression that George and Friends would like to do their piece and go.”
They did their piece, and they went.
2. Like a Horse and Carriage
In early 1970 Tom Paxton released a single called “Crazy John.” Paxton is one of those ex-purist folk singers whose major talent is persistence: When Dylan went electric, Paxton commented, “Where it’s at is a synonym for rich,” but a few years later he was riding the heretic’s tail at the Isle of Wight. “Crazy John” was evidence of Paxton’s new vocation, offering that wonderful nut, the John Lennon of bed-ins and peace billboards, some sage folk advice: “They never can hear you, John/ So how can you teach them?/ They never come near you, John/ So how can you reach them?” It’s appropriate for a folk singer to offer such a sterling example of that contemporary usage, the paranoid “they,” because the very idea of the folk connotes an integral audience, us, separated by time and/or values from the shapeless mass, them. Paxton thinks John is crazy because he does not recognize this dichotomy, and in an ass-backward way he is right, for if John were capable of such easy formulas, he might be almost as boring as Paxton himself. But John is a media artist, and like any media artist he continually confronts a maddening question: Where is my audience? More than any other pop star (except perhaps Dylan) he enjoys a creative relationship with his own celebrity, plying it not merely out of ambition or self-protection but because the process piques him aesthetically. John Lennon in public is like a filmmaker at the Movieola or Yoko Ono at a happening in 1963.
New York artists used to look at the six o’clock news or, perhaps, some wonderful new rock and roll group from England and think, “Huh, what a weird thing to reach so many people at once.” They perceived mass-cult outreach as a basically formal quality, irrespective of content, and experimented with it by devising art events that if they were very clever, might make Howard Smith’s Voice column, once Howard Smith had devised a column to deal with such phenomena. In this context the Lennon/Ono marriage was the most successful multimedia move of the decade. Yet the taint of the avant-garde has stayed with Yoko, for after all, the cover of Rolling Stones or Crawdaddy just ain’t the cover of Life, and if Ono/Lennon appear on Cavett, you can expect McCartney/McCartney to show up on Carson any time now. Ex-groupie or no, Linda Eastman McCartney has class, and banker’s daughter or no, Yoko Ono doesn’t. John married genius, and Paul married power, and in the world of public media it’s hard to be sure which is more important.
None of this is to imply that Paul, or John, married for convenience. Like all artists, great popular artists believe their own myths, and for popular songwriters of the pre-Beatle era — which is exactly how Lennon and McCartney began — there was only one of these: romantic love. Repeat: They were popular songwriters. Even though the staple of rock and roll in the fifties was teen schmaltz of wondrous innocence and vapidity, and even though the popularization of black music meant romanticizing the hard-assed realism of rhythm-and-blues, the sheer physicality of rock and roll, its sexual underpinnings, always implied a negation of such escapist rhapsodies. But the Beatles, unlike blues-influenced fellow geniuses Jagger and Dylan, never showed much interest in this negation. Instead of projecting sexuality, they evoked it and made fun of it simultaneously, just one more example of the insistent popness that always tempted the cynical to suspect they were the finks. After turning out enchanting variations on the permissible themes of union and parting for three or four years, their version of the myth gradually became more acerbic (“Girl,” “If I Needed Someone,” etc.), but their formal commitment to pop remained unchanged — those later songs are reminiscent of the down Smokey Robinson, especially on the all-important pop surface.
It was only during their mature period — including Sgt. Pepper, their best album, and The Beatles, their most consistent and probably their worst — that they abandoned the subject altogether. Great popular artists believe their own myths, but like all artists, they do so from a distance. As his relationship with Jane Asher became more problematic, Paul’s romantic experiments became more outré. He never quite gave up on romance, but it is significant that “Hey Jude,” one of his truest and most forthright love songs, was omitted from The Beatles, whereas “I Will,” a piece of fluff that seemed designed to fit unobtrusively into that pastiche of musical exercises, was included. When Paul took up with Linda, however, he also took up the love theme with fresh enthusiasm. Typically, John’s withdrawal and return were more extreme. He discovered Yoko well before the white album, but not until “I Want You,” on Abbey Road, did he signal his renewed embrace of the myth. For both moderate Paul and manic John, romance was a lot of what getting back was about. After desperate years, each decided love is all you need, because each found his one-and-only, doo-wah doo-wah.
But the revitalization of the myth of romantic love almost inevitably contributed to the disintegration of another myth, the myth of the Beatles. It is significant that it was the group’s songwriters and resident movers who swung so precipitously from one myth to the other. In Hunter Davies’s official biography Cynthia Lennon chides her husband for preferring the group to his family. “They seem to need you less than you need them,” the quote goes, and John admits it: “I did try to go my own way after we stopped touring, but it didn’t work. I didn’t meet anyone else I liked.” At that time, according to John, Paul had just about taken over leadership of the group. Engaged to Jane Asher, Paul regretted that he was still so much a bachelor, but he wasn’t — he was married to the Beatles: “We’re really the same person. We’re just four parts of the one.” At that time Pattie Harrison was thought of as the independent Beatle wife because she still did some modeling. Now Ringo describes her as “a long-legged lady in the garden pickin’ daisies for his suit,” and the marriage seems ornamental, the sort of show-business union that might just end sometime. The impression may not be factual, of course, but there’s no doubting the accuracy of Davies’s description of Ringo as something of an Andy Capp, albeit solider and more devoted — Ringo is a common man in ways that don’t inspire our ready identification as well as in ways that do. In any case, we realize in the context of more recent history that George and Ringo did not separate themselves from the group by marrying, although each gained a margin of autonomy. That margin proved necessary, because when John and Paul married, they married hard, replacing the Four Mates with “Man We Was Lonely” and “Love is you/ You and me.” It was as if their ambivalent relationship to the sexuality of rock and roll finally caught up with them. Men in groups gave way to couples.
John started it, of course. His mates mated with suitably mod types–an actress, a model, a hairdresser. Yoko, whatever else you might think of her, was a rather unbirdlike original, from her mature body to her obsessive creativity. She was strong — too strong. It is possible, I suppose, that the other Beatles bore her some faint racial or (more likely) artistic prejudice, but her deepest offense was to their male chauvinism. She aroused John’s male chauvinism, too, but because he was in love with her he responded differently: He actually thought she could become the fifth Beatle. And when he found he couldn’t work her into the Beatles, he began to rework the other available myth instead. Like all artists, great popular artists not only believe their own myths but carry them to new extremes: The dream is over; long live the dream. The myth of romantic love is usually a trap for women, but a sufficiently potent woman can transform it (it has been transformed before, after all) by compounding it with that vague notion of the perfect equality of all free spirits that can also be descried lurking around our culture. Actually, the combination isn’t so much a compound as a colloid, mixing disparate elements in suspension. Nobody just screams away his entire oedipal heritage, and even as John acts out the fierce symbiosis of his marriage, he remains a jealous guy who interrupts his wife on Howard Smith’s radio show.
Paul, the born romantic, came more readily to the new romanticism, but naturally in a much more sentimental way. John has dedicated an album to Yoko, but it is hard to imagine him doing something so cutesy as concealing a Y.I.L.Y. on some secret border. Paul and Linda are also much more moderate — in fact, it might be argued that they cop out on the new dream altogether. Linda is a creative partner but in a traditionally subordinate way, not just in the view of her husband’s fans but in the view of her husband. Her work is the mod art-craft, photography, and she has looked to rock as an energy source for years; in contrast, Yoko is a conceptual artist who was completely outside the music when John came to her. John now calls himself John Ono Lennon, but it’s Paul and Linda McCartney, or even (on their first coauthored song, “Another Day”) Mr. and Mrs. Paul McCartney.
In its radical or liberal version, however, romantic marriage has destroyed the group. The Beatles were an aesthetic unit, but what did they transmit in common? Exuberance, yes. Cheek, although George’s head change changed that somewhat. Youth, and then youthfulness; rock and roll, and then rock. But above all, what the unit transmitted was unity, the possibility that four very different individuals could constitute a harmonious and functioning whole. That image was very important to the way we thought in the sixties, and Yoko and Linda have made it impossible, not only by inspiring a countermyth but also by intensifying their husbands’ divergences. John and Paul complemented each other: Paul was conservative, John mercurial; Paul was fascinated with the silly history of pop music, John with its grand future; Paul was more comfortable with money, John with fame. But their women augmented rather than complemented. In class terms Paul married up to Linda and her show-business wealth, whereas Yoko married down to John, who seems unlikely to abandon his scrappy lower-middle-class heritage no matter how many possessions he accrues. But psychologically, the spirit of the husband, focused by the wife, dominates each marriage.
These personal changes are reflected in their musical work, except perhaps for McCartney, which despite its melodic interludes I find difficult to take seriously as anything more than a million-selling wedding announcement. In a way, though, McCartney can be said to have provided impetus for John’s Plastic Ono Band, from egocentric title to spare production. It’s as if John is saying, “This is what personal minimal music ought to sound like.” Plastic Ono Band is conceptual in the Yoko Ono rather than the Sgt. Pepper sense. It is one of the few albums I admire that does not permit casual enjoyment. You have to listen to it. Those who can do that — and there are many not in the category — customarily praise its lyrics, whereupon those who can’t, conclude that John has not only gone off the deep end but also dragged his friends with him. It is distressing that anyone can take a collection of psychotherapeutic truisms as revelation, although “I Found Out” and “Well Well Well” are more than that on even the most obvious level. It is even more distressing, however, that others consider John a simpleton (or perhaps a wonderful nut) who doesn’t know what he’s doing. Anyone who loves Rosie & the Originals the way John does understands the value of dumbness. Of course the lyrics are crude clichés. That’s just the point, because they are also true, and John wants to make very clear that right now truth is far more important than subtlety, taste, art, or anything else.
I am not encouraged by John’s admission that he now writes melodies for lyrics rather than the opposite, because I believe music will get you through times of no lyrics better than lyrics will get you through times of no music. I also believe, however, that music overwhelms lyrics on Plastic Ono Band. Carman Moore, who is a composer as well as a critic, thinks John has emerged as the most musical Beatle in terms of chords, melodic lines, and other such arcana, which only shows what I’ve said all along — that you can perceive that stuff without analyzing it. For me, the musicality of Plastic Ono Band can be summed up in one word: strength. At first, of course, what came through was crudity. The music sounded stark and even perfunctory compared to the free harmonies and double guitars of the Beatles’ rock and roll. But the music of the album inheres not in its instrumentation but in the way John’s greatest vocal performance, a complete tour of rock timbre from scream to whine, is modulated electronically. Like so much great rock and roll, it depends on studio gimmickry, with the greatest of the gimmickers, Phil Spector, providing the expertise while stripped of his power to grind sixteen tracks down to mush. John’s voice unadorned appears only twice: on “Working Class Hero” and after the nonbelieving malediction of “God,” when John says, “I just believe in me/ Yoko and me/ And that’s reality.” Elsewhere it is echoed, filtered, and double-tracked, with two voices sometimes emanating in a synthesis from between the speakers and sometimes dialectically separated. In addition, the guitar and even the drumming is distorted.
This trickery slips by because Plastic Ono Band just isn’t a tricky album. It does sound strong, even primal; there really is something quintessentially raw about it. Yet it isn’t. John is such a media artist that even when he is fervidly shedding personas and eschewing metaphor, he knows, perhaps instinctively, that he communicates most effectively through technological masks and prisms. Separating himself from the homemade pretensions of, say, McCartney, he does not bullshit himself or his audience about where he is in the world — namely, on some private pinnacle of superstardom. As always, he wants to reach us with a message that is also a medium and really equals himself. Like any great artist, the great popular artist feels compelled to embody his myth in a form that offers its own pleasure. Plastic Ono Band had to be a one-shot, and in retrospect, Imagine follows it as inevitably as New Morning followed Self-Portrait. Its myth is twofold: Yoko plus the movement. The word “imagine” is a Yokoism crucial as well to Marcusian theory, which regards the ineluctable utopianism of the artistic imagination as essential to social transformation — we cannot change unless we can envision change. If “Working Class Hero” is John’s movement credo and “Power to the People” his movement marching song, then the title cut of the new album is his movement hymn.
Chances are the movement is just another of John’s phases, though he has always shown that mix of genius, indignation, and pugnacity that characterizes the movement media heavy. In any case, it is certainly an invigorating development for those of us who have been straining to link rock and politics. Yet the movement’s ability to get across to masses of people has proved so sporadic that a part of me suspects John’s new stance portends his downfall. The thing is, Imagine doesn’t quite make it. At its best it is richer and more exciting than Plastic Ono Band because its potential appeal is much broader. “Gimme Some Truth” is the union of Lennon unmasked with the Lennon of Blunderland wordplay, the kind of venom Dylan never quite managed to spew. “It’s So Hard” is the perfect blend of big blues and metapolitical despair. “I Don’t Wanna Be a Soldier Mama I Don’t Wanna Die” is a proper Spectoral extravaganza. “Oh Yoko!” is pure spontaneous joy and captures more of the spirit of fun than all of Ram. And other songs succeed, too. But the combination of nasty lyric and good-timey ricky-tick on “Crippled Inside” has been exploited by every ex-purist folk singer since Phil Ochs, and “How?” is so psychotherapeutically lugubrious that it might not even have worked on Plastic Ono Band. Nor are these mistakes simply bad tries. They are symptomatic of Lennon’s limitations as an individual artist, limitations that, contrary to suggestion, are not musical. John’s music suits his vision perfectly. It’s his vision that is lacking.
As indicated, I think Ram is a bad record, a classic form/content mismatch. If music is just gentle, fey, and occasionally funky, then why labor over it so assiduously? If you wanna have fun, then have it; don’t just succumb to conspicuous consumption. I am infuriated by the McCartneys’ modern young-marrieds image — just normal folks who happen to have a wee recording setup on their Scottish estate. Since Paul’s political perspective seems limited to Zero Population Growth, the production lavished on this album amounts to an ecological obscenity. Yet Ram is far from Muzak and offers amenities that John could use. Paul’s voice conveys a warmth and sophistication that might make John’s manic-depressive extremism more palatable at those times when we just feel like lying around and listening to the stereo. Also, Paul uses Linda well. John seems unable to understand that although Yoko is a good artist, all that distinguishes her from a number of her fellows is access to media. This is indeed an important, and legitimate, distinction, but it ought to demonstrate once and for all that the function of avant-garde art is to inspire other artists, not the public. Yoko has entered John’s music successfully twice (on “Cold Turkey” and on “Do the Oz,” by the Elastic Oz Band), and although her own records are interesting, they will never reach a large public unless she makes the move. But Linda’s participation on Paul’s records works in a good way, another example of the trend to allow women as well as men to sing in their everyday voices. It is not his commitment to yesterday or another day but to everyday that might eventually render Paul’s music pleasant again. Let’s hope so.
What John needs most, you see, is just that acceptance of the everyday that in Paul-without-John appears to us as repellent complacency. He needs further rapprochement with the reality experienced by his audience. He needs continual reminder of his pop heritage, to balance his oedipal heritage and his lower-middle-class heritage. That balance is what the Beatles always reflected back to us, because we’re all like that and tend to forget it. It is missing from the New York artistic/political avant-garde, which is why that avant-garde never lives up to its genius. John really does need it. But it’s obvious that John doesn’t want to get it from Paul ever again. “How Do You Sleep?” is the kind of public act committed by a lover who wants to make sure he will never return in momentary weakness to the one who has rejected him so cruelly, the best proof yet of how deep the Beatles’ unity once was. Perhaps he’ll find it in himself or in George, who is capable of songs of rare beauty, or elsewhere, but although I’ll always love him, I wouldn’t be surprised if it were lost to him forever. It is strange to foresee the artistic death of an artist who is still so vital, but I often do.
What the breakup of the Beatles represents on the largest symbolic scale is a central problem of our time — the inability of couples to coexist within cooperative groups. Perhaps they’ll all survive to lead happy, truly productive lives, or perhaps like so many of us, they will be trapped by this dilemma. John will be a tragedy, George and Paul something not so affecting. But for Ringo it will be worst of all, and since Ringo is all of us, we’d better figure out what there is for us now that we can’t be Beatle fans any longer. Find our own love, maybe — and form our own group.
Written for the November 1969 issue (Vol. 2, Issue 5) of Creem magazine, comes this article on the whole ridiculous “Paul is Dead” rumor that was floating around back in the late 60s. Of course, Paul McCartney was NOT dead, as we all know.
By the way, his new “Fireman” album comes out tomorrow, Electric Arguments. I heard it on Myspace and it is very good – check it out…
The Paul McCartney Death Hoax and How It Grew
Detroit is known for automobile factories, Greenfield Village, Grosse Pointe, Motown Records, sewage, Zug Island, drag racing, race riots, Bob-lo, salt mines, air pollution, Walter Reuther, pizza, Vernor’s ginger ale, Henry Ford, Coney Island hamburgers, bad teeth, the GM Tech Center, two-headed dogs, the Lions, the Tigers, the Red Wings, the Pistons, the MC5, blind pigs, cheap statues, and now, the Great Paul McCartney Death Hoax.
Russ Gibb was doing his weekend radio show in WKNR-FM on Sunday, October 14, when “Some kid from Eastern Michigan University called and asked very simply, what did I think of the story that Paul McCartney was dead. I said ridiculous, no such thing, we’d know about it, the media is right there all the time and obviously you couldn’t hide something like Paul McCartney’s death.” A reasonable response, one would think. But the kid asked Russ to play “Revolution No. 9” backwards and see what he thought. When the phrase “number nine,” which is repeated sonorously over and over throughout that cut, is played backwards, it sounds a lot like “turn me on, dead man.” Hearing that, a seed of doubt was planted.
Of course, without more, there’s really nothing in that “turn me on, dead man” to suggest that Paul McCartney is the dead man referred to, that the dead man is any of the Beatles, that it’s a real dead man they’re talking about, or that there’s any significance to the aural phenomenon at all. After all, if you played a recording of someone speaking the word “dog” backwards, you’d get something that sounds as much like “god” as “number nine” played backwards sounds like “turn me on, dead man.” Depending on the accent of the speaker, of course. (Has anyone out there tried playing Rufus Thomas’ “Walking the Dog” backwards? There may be more to that record than meets the eye/ear).
But the idea of Paul McCartney being secretly dead was too macabre, too bizarre, too ridiculous, therefore too appealing to go no further. For the next few days, WKNR’s switchboard was jammed with calls from people who had unearthed new clues supposedly pointing to Paul’s death.
“I was listening to Russ’ show on the way to this Oakland Community College number that I was supposed to emcee, and I heard this kid, kid named Tom or something, telling Russ to play “number nine” backwards. And Russ did, and I heard it, briefly, and I heard this thing evolve on his show, with a lot of kids calling, the excitement and the weirdness, and Russ was totally freaked. I got home and John Small called me and asked me what I thought of it. I said ‘pretty strange,’ and he said yeah, and that’s as far as it went. The next morning about eight o’clock he calls me again and says that he and Russ were up most of the night, that Russ was pretty freaked, and that we should look into this when I get into the station.” Dan Carlisle, WKNR-FM disc jockey.
“I vascillated back and forth from thinking he was really dead to the fact that he was playing a game of being symbolically dead,” says Gibb. On Monday, KNR had to call in two extra people to man the switchboard. Gibb, Carlisle and Small waited to see if it would cool down, but instead it kept growing, and by Wednesday they decided they ought to get something together.
The decision was in large part the responsibility of John Small, WKNR-FM program director. “At first I got the impression that everybody thought it was a joke.” But as he got more involved in the matter, things began to assume a new seriousness. All the WKNR people seem to feel that they did no more than respond to public demand. The kids, it turned out, were taking it seriously, and in one way or another they found themselves taking it seriously themselves.
On Monday, a University of Michigan student and Paul Krassner fan named Fred LaBour started to write a review of Abbey Road for the school newspaper, the Michigan Daily, but he had heard Gibb’s show on Sunday and was taken with the idea of a Beatle Mystery. So instead of writing a review of Abbey Road, he fabricated a fantastic plot which he attributed to the Beatles. Paul, he said, had left the EMI studios one night early in November, 1966, to be found four hours later “pinned under his car in a culvert with the top of his head sheared off.” He then went on to outline succeeding events in impressive detail.
“When word of Paul’s untimely demise was flashed back to the studios,” he wrote, “the surviving Beatles, in a hurriedly called conference with George Martin decided to keep the information from the public for as long as possible. As John Lennon reportedly said, “Paul always likes a good joke,” and it seemed that they considered the move an attempt to make the best out of a bad situation.” George supposedly did the burying. Ringo conducted the services, and John went into seclusion for three days. “After his meditation,” LaBour explained, “Lennon called another meeting of the group, again with George Martin, and laid the groundwork for the ensuing hoax. Lennon’s plan was to create a false Paul McCartney, bring him into the group as if nothing had happened, and then slowly release the information of the real Paul’s death to the world via clues secreted in record albums.”
At this point, LaBour’s article started to take a macabre turn. “Brian Epstein,” he wrote, “was informed of the group’s plan, threatened to expose it all, and mysteriously died, leaving five men who knew of the plot.”
The story was that through a lookalike contest, someone named William Campbell was found to be the new Paul. According to LaBour, there’s a picture of him—pre-coaching and minor plastic surgery—on the foldout sheet that came with the double album. Campbell was easily introduced, he explained, because Paul lived in the homosexual half-world and had few close friends. So when Jane Asher was hired to play the girlfriend, there was no real girl or other friend to expose the ruse. Whew.
Even stranger was LaBour’s assertion that the hoax began to assume an “essentially religious nature” in the minds of the plotters. With John masterminding the enterprise, which was supposedly no less than the founding of a new religion with Paul as Messiah, resurrected by John to propagate an order of “beauty, humor, love, realism, objectivity. It is a religion for everyday life.” On the cover of Abbey Road the risen Paul, still dressed as a corpse in business suit and without shoes or socks, is led from the cemetery by John the anthropomorphic God, and his friends. “The real Paul is still dead, of course,” wrote LaBour, “but his symbolic resurrection works fine without him.” The gospel, you will note, is the entire second side of Abbey Road.
LaBour peppered his article with clues from Beatles albums, some of which he had heard suggested on Gibb’s show, some of which he discovered himself. None of them really go to confirm the actual workings of the plot he outlined, but are presented as its manifestations. Similarly, all the clue hunting that went on that week had as its end the finding of manifestations of a premise, rather than the discovery of whether or not a hypothesis was in fact correct. So where one aspect of a larger phenomenon could be construed as pointing to the death, it was seized out of context, whether or not it was consistant with the thrust of the larger thing of which it was a part. Keep that in mind as we wander through the elaborate sand castle constructed by the death theorists.
Drawing from LaBour’s article, listener phone calls, and their own investigations, Gibb, Carlisle and Small put together a two hour documentary that was aired the following Sunday night. They divided the presentation of their case into three parts: visual clues, aural clues, and supporting analysis of human phenomena uncovered by their inquiry.
They started with Yesterday and Today. On the cover, Paul sits in a trunk which stands open on one end. Turn the album sideways, they recommended, and it looks like he’s (sort of) lying in a coffin. Also, here’s the first appearance (reported) of the much-mooted Death Hand Sign. Ringo’s hand is resting on the top of the trunk, so that in effect it is held palm down over Paul’s head. This, they learned from a professor of Eastern culture, is a mystical symbol of death or dying. Another professor noted that it is a sign of blessing, buy anyway it’s one of the constants in the search for Paul’s death.
Moving on to Revolver, they noted the pen and ink artwork by Klaus Voorman in which three of the Beatles look forward, while Paul looks away. John eyes Paul suspiciously, and on the back of the jacket Paul is less clearly defined than the other three. Not much yet, but with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band things really start to turn up.
The grave. The guitar in flowers, it was decided, was a left handed bass (well, it does have three strings); looked at another way, it spells Paul; less elaborately, it is the initial P. The bust on the grave is a minister; a doll representing Shiva, the destroyer, dissolution. Paul himself. Taller, a hand extending over his head from the crowd in back. On the inside of the jacket a moustache obscures a previously apparant scar and generally makes comparison with the “real” Paul more difficult. The braid he wears is apparantly dark edged, he wears a medal supposedly commemorating death, and the patch on his left arm reads “O.P.D.,” “Officially Pronounced Dead.” On the back cover Paul has his back turned, while the others face forward, and George points to a line in “She’s Leaving Home” that goes “Wednesday morning at five o’clock,” the supposed time of Paul’s accident.
(An interesting sidelight to this whole affair also centers around Wednesday morning at five o’clock, The Beatle myth that immediately preceded the death ruse also involved Paul, who has supposedly left the group sometimes between Revolver and Sgt. Pepper, and is now living on an island paradise. If you were to call Billy Shears in London, whose number is spelled out by the stars in the word “Beatles” on the front of Magical Mystery Tour, at five a.m. Wednesday, and say—get this—”turn me on, dead me,” you would get a one-way ticket to Paul’s island. People who tried calling this number, or checked it with London information to see to whom it was listed, found that a Billy Shears was involved somewhere, whose name was familiar to London operators and who only accepted calls from the States at certain times. The number has been changed, though, and the only people who ever claimed to have gotten through are not now available for comment. Many of the “clues” involved in this fantasy were used interchangeably by the death theorists, but in this business ambiguity is no liability at all. I kind of like the paradise island story better, though.)
Magical Mystery Tour gave the investigators twenty four pages of pictures to play with, and they went to work with a vengence. The cover shows three white animals and one black one, a walrus, whose arms are spread in a crucifixion pose: and “we know from “Glass Onion” that ‘the walrus was Paul’,” don’t we? Walrus, it was also learned, is Greek for “corpse.” Mmmmmmmmmm. And the predominant walrus teeth were vaguely connected with Paul’s supposed head injury. Page five, where the walrus is seen playing the piano while a white hippo plays Paul’s customary bass, didn’t throw the theorists. They explained simply that the hippo is not Paul, but is holding Paul’s axe, a clue in itself. (My mistake here is perhaps in looking for internal consistency: “Glass Onion” can stand on its own, establishing no more than that Paul really is what the walrus seemed to be: crucified, a corpse. It’s not necessary that Paul actually was the walrus, and “Glass Onion” can by saying only “well, pretend that the Walrus actually was Paul; do you understand now?” I hate to give aid and comfort, but this construction has an irresistible obtuseness that I had to set out.)
Once inside the cover, clues abound. On page two, George plays a sinister death figure that keeps appearing. Hands over Paul’s head again; in this picture alone there are two. On page three, Paul playing army recruiter, with lip scar and eyebrow line unlike any other picture of Paul. And the sign on the desk: “I YOU WAS.” On page four, Paul holds a writing stick in his right hand; Paul is left handed. Page five shows four policemen guarding a fantasy involving a line of surgeons, a black walrus playing a white, operating table-like piano, and, as already mentioned, Paul’s bass being played by another. Page six has John in disguise in front of a sign which reads “the best way to go is by M&D coach.” It was suggested that M&D might mean M.D. or the like. On page ten, Paul wears black trousers and no shoes, which is the way corpses are dressed for burial. Also, the moustache is gone and no scar is visible on his lip. On page thirteen, Paul is again pictured shoeless, while empty shoes turn up next to Ringo’s drums. Empty shoes, we are told, were a Greek symbol of death. Page twenty shows three Beatles wearing red carnations, while Paul’s boutonnière is black, and on page twenty four Paul is again pictured with arms raised and a hand over his head.
The double album, The Beatles, is sleeved in pure white, which somehow reflects on the nature of the plot, and the fold-out contained within was discovered to contain a wealth of clues. The picture of Paul in a bathtub “might well indicate a brain splatter.” The moustached death figure is back, and Paul’s head is cut off in one picture, as it was in his death. Toward the lower right hand corner, a pair of ghostly hands appear to reach out for Paul as he plays. Hands are raised, faces are distorted, there is a welter of confusion.
The cover of Abbey Road brings the visual aspect of the inquiry to a peak, with the symbolic resurrection. John as savior in white, leading Ringo the undertaker, Paul the corpse, dressed in business suit and shoeless, out of step and carrying a cigarette in his right hand, and George the gravedigger. They are leaving a cemetery and heading in the direction of Paul’s house. The white Volkswagen bears the license number 281F, and if Paul had lived, he would have been 28 this year. A police ambulance (?) is on the other side of the street. Is this the road to the Abbey? Where.
The whole thing started with “number nine” played backwards, and the idea of tampering with recordings was so intriguing that by the time they were ready to produce their program, the WKNR investigators had received a good deal of help from technology oriented listeners in reversing, phrasing, isolating, patching, boosting, interpreting and doing all manner of strange and wonderful things to Beatle music, all aimed at uncovering more of this heady stuff. Of course, they didn’t do so bad on their own.
Attention centered on “Revolution 9,” where it all started. Gibb, Small and Carlisle presented the following transcription of the mélange toward the end of that cut: He hit a light pole; we’d better get him to see a surgeon. (A scream) So anyhow, he went to see a dentist, who gave him a pair of teeth that weren’t any good at all. (A car horn) My wings are broken and so is my hair. I’m not in the mood for words. (Gurgling. Sounds of war) Find the night watchman. (Something about a suit) It must be a louse. A fine natural imbalance. Must have got it between the shoulder blades. The twist. The Watusi. Eldorado. “Take this, brother, may it serve you well,” says John. Well, OK.
At the end of “I Am the Walrus” is a passage from King Lear, taped, according to Beatles Press Officer Derek Taylor, off a radio play, replete with references to burial and untimely death. According to LaBour, this is recorded simultaneously with the announcement of Paul’s death which was never broadcast, but investigation did not disclose same. At the end of “Strawberry Fields Forever” is a passage which, when played at 45 rpm, sounds like “I buried Paul.”
“Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da,” put on one track, equalized and played backwards can sound like “hahaha I think we did it.” “Your Mother Should Know,” backwards and rephrased, through creative listening, comes out as: “why, why doesn’t she know me/I shed the light/why doesn’t she know me/dead/why doesn’t she know me/dead/I shed the light/why don’t they ask my mind/I don’t know why/why doesn’t she know more/if I shed the light.” Getting further and further out, more abstruse, more surreal. Hey, Popular Science, can you dig it? “Blue Jay Way,” also done to a turn: “find me/find me my body/please God, please/find my body/find me/find me.” Comments the creative young engineer: “it’s like a chant; the resurrection, y’know?”
The clues contained in lyrics when played forward are many but fragmentary. From the foolish (deathlike?) grin of “The Fool On the Hill” to John struggling with Paul’s body on “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” (Paul was gay, remember?), the automobile accident passage in “A Day In the Life,” John beseeching Paul (who, according to a rumor started by LaBour and since accepted as fact, was called Prudence since the days of the Nurk Twins) to “come out and play.” You can find references in virtually every song which can be made to correspond with death. Or with sleep, or bowling, or mashed potato eating. This part can be left to the creative reader’s imagination.
Astrological charts were consulted, rationalized, reported. Stevie Winwood was called; he verbally shrugged, stammered, demurred. Eric Clapton got out record jackets and puzzled. Derek Taylor denied all: “They’re not as subtle as you suppose.” Rationalized: “We cannot see the symbolism, because there is none. Because we live far more spontaneously than anyone supposes. What you have here are four Beatles who are acting their lives out in a spontaneous way and having read into that acting out something that isn’t there.”
Would Paul care to make a statement to WKNR about his death? Said Taylor: “It would certainly be great to have a tape of Paul saying he’s not dead, but it gets very grotesque. If people don’t believe that the man who married Linda, or the man who sang “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” or the man who’s on the Abbey Road cover is Paul, who’s going to believe that his voice on the air is Paul?” More people than you might think, Derek. Two days later, Gibb received a phone call from London from someone who identified himself as Paul McCartney. For half an hour the caller very brusquely explained that he was alive, that none of the supposed clues meant anything like what WKNR was saying they did (that their were no clues at all), and that he resented what he thought to be a cheap publicity stunt. When asked whether the conversation, which was taped, could be broadcast, he answered rather angrily that WKNR had reaped enough benefits from the hoax already, and that an exclusive Paul McCartney interview would not be added thereto. The tape was, however, turned over to a voiceprint specialist, Oscar Tossi of MSU, who stated that he was pretty sure it was really Paul on the phone. But a phone call to Derek Taylor brought yet another denial. Paul, it seems, was in Scotland when the call was made from London, and so it couldn’t possibly have been he. On the other hand, McCartney’s secretary said that Paul did make the call. The answer to that was that one of Paul’s assistants, after a “trying day,” decided to have a bit of a joke and put the colonials in their place at the same time. Well….
WKNR finally obtained an interview with John Lennon (though not through Russ Gibb, who went to England and spent some time hanging around Apple, but never got to talk to John)—or with someone who looked, sounded, acted and smelled like John Lennon—who dismissed the possibility of Paul’s death with: “It’s a joke, isn’t it? Paul isn’t dead: if he were, we would have told you. I don’t understand at all.” He couldn’t comment on the clues, because “I’ll tell you, I’m not aware of any of them; I only read about them this morning in the paper and I can’t remember them. If you play anything backwards you’re gonna get a different connotation because it’s backwards. I’ve got no idea what Beatles records sound like backwards; I never play ’em backwards.” He claimed not to think of himself as Christ-like, or Paul’s appearance on the Abbey Road cover as corpse-like: It’s the most stupid rumor I’ve ever heard. Sounds like the same guy that blew up my Christ remark, where the remark had been out for six months in England before anybody said anything about it, and this guy just blew it all up. Paul walks barefoot across the road because Paul’s idea of being different is to look almost straight, but have one ear painted blue; something a little subtle. We all were a bit like that. We used to go on stage with, say, one polythene bag on one foot, and nobody might notice it. Just us would be laughin’. So Paul, he decided to be barefoot that day, walkin’ across the road, but when you first glance at the album it looks like four Beatles or whatever fully dressed.”
WKNR’s presentation was done on thirty six reels of tape, edited down to two hours by John Small, broadcast once, updated, and broadcast again a week later. After the first show, according to Carlisle, “we thought that was it, we had done our number and it would cool off. That was a week after the whole thing started on Russ’ show. But we had forgotten that that Monday, a week later than we had started working on it, it was like the next day to the rest of the world that was just getting the story. So it was reaching epidemic proportions in the rest of the country, while it was just cooling off here. So then we were caught up in that, and we had to go through that whole number again with the rest of the country.”
Time magazine, which has something to do with the rest of the country, called just as they were going to press, on information from the Detroit Free Press’ Mike Gormley. They published a short, garbled account of what was going down in Detroit. Life magazine was there the night of the first broadcast, and a story appears this week, including (of course) new and exclusive pictures of Paul, whereby it is hopefully demonstrated that reports of his death have been grossly exaggerated.
Meanwhile, sales of Beatles albums are, as they say, booming. “Almost instantaneously after Russ got the initial calls, and the pyramid began on Sunday,” says Tom Gelardi of Capitol Records, “the E.J. Korvette chain, who probably are the best barometer in the Detroit area of record sales and movement, by Monday or Tuesday were wiped out of Beatle product. It was significant not only because of the fantastic sales of Beatle catalog (past releases), but also because of kids opening packages that were sealed and examining covers for maybe a half hour before buying the package. And it has developed off the last few weeks in sale of Beatle product, particularly their catalog, like we have not experienced since the group has been in existence and had a catalog of any consequence. As the newspapers and radio stations in individual cities pick it up, the record sales do the same thing that’s happened here.” Picture thousands of kids, all over the country, spending hours in record stores, passing up comic books and haircuts to buy these collector’s items, taking them home and ruining their record players trying to play them backwards, trying to figure out some new way in which Paul can be officially pronounced dead.
Of course, the point that Gibb, Carlisle and Small are most insistent about driving home is that they never actually said that Paul McCartney was dead. Rather, they point out, they have suggested that that message is contained in Beatle artifacts, and that the conclusions that can be drawn therefrom are variable. Says Carlisle: “I think it’s obvious that the Beatles were doing a riff on the people and we caught them before they were ready to tell us about it. And they’re trying to keep us off. They’ve been victims of rumors for years, and they’ve always ignored them; this one they’re not ignoring. We noticed that on Magical Mystery Tour they got outrageous with their clues, and they sort of hung back and then came out again. They underestimated the public. They underestimated people in the media who were trained from Meet the Beatles to understand the Beatles. We just got so deep into them we became like one of their minds.” He does not believe that Paul is dead, but rather that the Beatles have been pretending that he is and had set next Easter as the date for the denouement of their hoax. What the denouement might be, he’s not sure, but there seem to be only two possibilities: that they would “resurrect” Paul from his paper and vinyl grave, or join him in it.
Small and Gibb for the most part agree. “Either they’re milking us,” says Small, “they’re milking the press, they’re milking the public, or there’s something desperately wrong. There’s still the possibility that Paul really is dead; I’m vacillating back and forth. There’s just too much incongruity to the story. Listening and talking to Derek Taylor, phony Paul McCartneys, the availability of Lennon, Ringo, and Harrison—it’s just unprecedented in terms of media people like ourselves getting to them. They were just not available, and now all of a sudden they’re so congenial. Something smells yet.”
“I think that Paul McCartney is alive,” says Gibb. “I think that the Beatles have gotten themselves involved in a charlatan game. I feel that they have been hot and cold on this game, and that what started out as the rebuttal to John’s comment about the Beatles being more popular than Christ started John thinking, and he rapped this out with the other fellas, and they proceeded to play the game. I think that in the near future we will see a resurrection of Paul McCartney. I think that we’ve blown their cover a little bit early, but there is still some kind of conspiracy, in a gentle sort of way, to put the world on.”
Whether or not that’s right, the fact that the hoax, whoever originated it, can work the way it has, says a good deal about what it means to be a culture hero in the USA. The thing that struck me most about the people that took the possibility of Paul’s being dead most seriously was the glee with which they went about proving their case. The young engineers who recited a supposed dirge with what was obviously great satisfaction at having dredged it out of its surrounding electronic complexities, for example. The callowness with which the matter of the death of a human being was approached was incredible, and on the part of those who didn’t relate to is as just a macabre Beatle joke can only be explained by saying that the people didn’t think they were dealing with a human being. Paul McCartney was never real to them, so his death couldn’t be approached the way you would approach the death of a real person.
I can’t blame this depersonalization on the Beatles’ withdrawing themselves from their public, because it was other manifestations of the same phenomenon of depersonalization which brought them to take that step. If you think of Paul McCartney as a human being, you don’t jump him on the street in order to touch him, to get a piece of his clothing or his hair. You only do that to objects. But the Beatles aren’t objects, and it was to escape the physical and mental effects of being so treated that they stopped touring. They’re still not thought of as human beings, but at least now they don’t have to spend three months at a time sitting around in hotel rooms, afraid to go out for fear of being torn apart like so many Barbie dolls in a rush of pre-adolescent enthusiasm for a new toy.
I think that the death hoax is purely a figment of the public’s imagination; I don’t believe there was ever a plot on the part of the Beatles to propagate any such story. But if there was, the point has been made. The Beatles are human beings who are thought of as objects, as outlets for the unsatisfied needs of millions of people. Ironically, Russ Gibb hit upon it: “There’s only so much of any man that you can give to the public. If you can’t keep something to yourself, you might as well be dead.” True enough, but it goes farther than just maintaining a sphere of privacy; it means that everyone has an essential humanity that cannot be humanly denied or exploited to satisfy needs that although human, are less than worthy. Fuck me for a pompous asshole, but it’s true.
Taken from Liverpool Sound Collage, features the voices of the other Beatles. This is McCartney swimming in ambient techno waters. Interesting if strange stuff…
Another new Paul McCartney (as The Fireman) recording (w/ producer Youth). This is from an upcoming album called Electronic Arguments…