Went to see Mr Lewisohn’s cutely-named talk about Abbey Road in Northampton. If you’re familiar with his books, you know that nobody knows more than Lewisohn about The Beatles, and I went in expecting the Full Trivia: the anecdotes, rumours, related events, cardboard cutouts and hidden extra tracks.
And that’s what you get, give or take. You could characterise this show as an extra-long Ted Talk, complete with a not-too-awful PowerPoint (Cooper Black was the typeface; Avant Garde – or even a Garamond – might have been a better choice, in keeping with the Apple Records house style) which nevertheless seemed to teeter on the edge of disaster on occasion. My suspicion is that it was playing from a Windoze* PC with a spinning disk HD, and that the occasional video glitch was the disk waking up.
Lewisohn structures the approximately two-hour talk around the chronological recording of the Abbey Road tracks, many of which were already complete long before the summer-of-’69 sessions at EMI Studios. “I Want You” – without the (She’s So Heavy) addendum, which was added in August – was the first to be recorded, in February 1969, and that not even at Abbey Road, but at Trident. Shockingly, Lewisohn doesn’t share this gem:
The song was done in an overnight session on February 22, 1969, at London’s Trident Studios. With the amps turned up high, band received a noise complaint from one of the studio’s neighbors in the Soho area of the city. The take has John Lennon exclaiming, “What are they doing here at this time of night?” Then he adds: “Well, we’ll try it once more very loud. And then if we don’t get it, we’ll try it quiet, like it might do it the other way. OK. The loud one, last go. Last chance to be loud!”https://www.forbes.com/sites/markbeech/2019/08/08/beatles-reveal-unheard-abbey-road-treasures-50-years-after-cover-shot/#10535b8b2e8a
Which is not me quibbling so much as acknowledging that this is the comprehensive-but-not-exhaustive version of events, the Lewisohn-lite version that (it turns out) has appeal to a more general audience as well as people who already know most of this stuff but like to hear the stories again, because the story of The Beatles’ 1969 is basically King Lear with better tunes. Paul is Lear, obvs, with the other three cast as ungrateful daughters, although Ringo is clearly Cordelia in this arrangement. All good children go to heaven.
One thing I do think Mr Lewisohn got wrong is the question of the Beatles’ esteem in the eyes of the British public. He uses evidence from the Daily Mail to suggest that Britain had fallen out of love with the Beats by 1969. Well. The Daily Fucking Mail, as it’s known around here, has always found time to add hatred of The Beatles to its poisonous drippings. Because of course it would. And as for the music press, I’m pretty sure they were predicting that the Beatles were “over” from about January 1964. Like the proverbial stopped clock, they were, eventually, right. The mainstream press of course fed the suspicion and fear of their readers: that’s their stock in trade. But the charts don’t lie.
So: a burning incense stick (George’s favourite brand), a stage set you could get in a small van, a slightly shonky PC and a borderline tasteful PowerPoint. Add to this the recordings themselves, played in edited isolated-tracks versions, so we can hear Billy Preston’s uncredited Hammond organ, or Paul’s frankly incredible vocal on “Oh! Darling” or his frankly incredible-sounding acoustic guitar elsewhere. Or George’s rather plodding bass-lines. Lewisohn foregoes commentary on the musicianship or most of the more technical aspects of the recordings, which is probably for the best.
The best bits for me were when he revealed the fruits of his painstaking research. John and Yoko went for a nostalgic road trip that summer and wound up interfacing an Austin Maxi with a tree somewhere in Scotland. All this is known, but what Lewisohn adds is the exhaustive tracking of the route by means of local newspaper reports along the lines of, “Yoko Ono visited the Post Office in Sodderton Chutney and bought some sweets”. Which is both hilarious and brilliant in equal measure. So there’s a map of the purported route, and later on the story of the missing bed leg, and so forth.
Another precious moment came when Lewisohn delved into the history of Mean Mr Mustard, who was the Abbey Road equivalent of Mr Kite; and Polythene Pam, who was this album’s Eleanor Rigby. Or something.
I reckon I could have written him a better ending (his kind of petered out to an awkward round of applause). But how do you even end this kind-of Ted talk? I’d have gone for the serendipitous circularity of this record. The first track recorded, “I Want You”, was bookended by the “(She’s so Heavy”) vocal tracks, the last thing The Beatles recorded together until “Free as a Bird”, and the last time Lennon and McCartney sang into the same microphone in EMI Studios.
And no, they didn’t know it was really the end.
But that cover photo? The perfect one out of six, with the other five sort of shit? Miraculous.
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