So much has been written and said about The Beatles that it’s rare when something fresh comes along. Ken McNab’s And In The End is something fresh. His book takes a deep dive into the last year in the life of the band who changed the course of history. Benito Vila spoke with McNab about his project for PKM
Few buddy movies end well. It’s rare that buddy stories of any sort do. Why, then, aren’t the Beatles allowed to break-up? It’s not like the lads who hummed Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony to save Ringo Starr’s life in Help! were meant to keep at that forever. The group walked off into history in a film called Let It Be, and it seems a lot of fans overlooked the request made by those very words. Let. It. Be.
Today, everyone on nearly every continent know about the Beatles and their music. Celebrity culture, radio play and music sales have never truly allowed the individual band members to move on. It’s an unexplained phenomenon, but so was their sudden break up. There were rumors as John Lennon released solo music and George Harrison was seen touring with Eric Clapton, and then there was Paul McCartney’s press release announcement. But that was in 1970. In 2000, I saw a man walk up to McCartney on a beach and say, “I’m so sorry the group broke up”. No one ever asked Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady, Allen Ginsberg and Al Hinkle to get back in the car. And no one has ever lamented that they didn’t. It was clear that Beat quartet’s trip was done. Not so with the Beatles. Kaleidoscope-eyed fans still want their ride to keep going.
Earlier this summer, I received an advance copy of Ken McNab’s And In The End: The Last Days of The Beatles and I got around to reading it shortly before the book came out on August 18. I was struck by the amount of research McNab put into his account, because clearly the Beatles had not come in and helped him along. A journalist and sportswriter based in Glasgow, Scotland, McNab took to tracking the band’s 1969 break-up in a day-by-day fashion, much the same way Tom Wolfe reviewed the Merry Prankster’s 1964 bus trip film footage, frame by frame, to create his 1968 Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. I was also struck at how McNab used the months of the year as chapters to describe what was happening in and around the Beatles. That sequencing brings the occurrences of 1969 together in a way that makes sense and makes the break-up somewhat blameless. The year saw the band start an ambitious McCartney-led let’s-go-back-to-our-roots-and-play-live project that almost immediately got shelved (later turning into the Let It Be album and film) and ended with McCartney and Lennon losing a high-stakes battle for their song publishing company, Northern Songs. That sour business deal meant the Beatles’ hits no longer belonged to the songwriting duo, and were instead available as commercial fodder through ATV, a faceless British media company with a big single-eye logo.
The combination of “Carry that Weight” and “The End” is easily the most magnificent musical exit of any band in rock and roll history. What a way to go out. With a song called “The End”.
To describe 1969 is no easy task. There was news of unrest on a never-before-seen scale––in Madrid, in Vietnam, in Prague, in Chicago, in Nigeria, in Milan––day after day after day. McNab sticks close to the Beatles’ personal lives in constructing his narrative, and that he keeps his book under 300 pages is an accomplishment. John Lennon alone led many lives that year, recording “Give Peace A Chance”, bedding-in in Amsterdam and Montreal, crashing a car in Scotland, getting married to Yoko Ono in Gibraltar and finding heroin wherever he went. George Harrison, coping with a cannabis possession charge, continued his habit of musical exploration, while writing his own songs and playing with his other friends––Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Billy Preston, Delaney and Bonnie and a choir of Hare Krishnas. Ringo Starr took a lead role in the film The Magic Christian [adapted from Terry Southern’s dark, comic 1959 novel], starring his good friend Peter Sellers. The film shot all around London, and included a weeklong boondoggle on the QE 2 with Sellers and Southern. That overload, in the midst of the Abbey Road studio sessions, led Starr to an early autumn hospital treatment for exhaustion. Paul McCartney, too, tumbled into despair. He found himself outvoted when it came time to select a new band manager and the other Beatles chafed at his repeated insistence they play live. His March wedding to girlfriend Linda Eastman and the prospect of his own family cheered him up, but after production on Abbey Road wrapped in September and Lennon made clear his intentions to leave the band, McCartney retreated to Scotland for two months and drank heavily.
There’s more than logistics to McNab’s And In The End, but there’s none of the musical and psychological analysis commonplace in other Beatle books. The fact they walked away from their collective success at a creative peak, after releasing Abbey Road, may still befuddle fans, but it was a foregone conclusion long before those sessions started. It’s odd that the project that makes their differences plain to everyone, the one McCartney called “Get Back”––the one that would show them as they were in the studio, the project that became Let It Be––is the one that keeps coming back around as “new”. McCartney released a less encumbered version of the album, Let It Be…Naked, in 2003, stripping off the orchestral arrangements producer Phil Spector added to the original. In late 2021, Peter Jackson, director of Lord of the Rings, King Kong and They Shall Not Grow Old, is due to release his take on those sessions in a documentary entitled The Beatles: Get Back. His Disney-distributed movie features footage and audio cut from the original Let It Be film and promises to show the full 42-minute January 1969 rooftop concert. In my conversation with McNab, he talks about Get Back and Let It Be and describes a few of the more active characters of his narrative. McNab loves Beatle music, as do I, and if we’d had more time to talk about Abbey Road, we might still be it at. In the best buddy movies, one of the friends (and much of the audience) has an experience that leaves them changed and nothing can be the same again. That’s the thing McNab describes of Beatle fans: a Beatle song comes on and it takes them away, so much so that every moment after is different than all the ones before.
The Magic Christian Trailer 1969 Ringo Starr Peter Sellers:
McNab and I spoke via Skype, where I was greeted by a kind, lyrical Scottish brogue, with the author immediately apologizing for being in a Beatles T-shirt.
PKM: When did you first hear the Beatles?
Ken McNab: I was 14. I was delivering newspapers and I heard “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away”. It was coming from the house of a friend of my parents across the road from us. It was just one of those moments. I got to chatting to their boy, who was slightly older than me. He was playing the 1962 to 1966 compilation. It opened the door a wee bit and, as I got to know and like the music, I started to explore the band’s musical backstory and its musical legacy. This is a band that has three iterations almost: the friendly, lovable mop tops, and then, all of a sudden, these hippy avatars of “Strawberry Fields Forever” and the psychedelic era, and then the all-out rockers with long hair and a heavier guitar sound. It’s three metamorphoses, a musical journey of unbelievable creativity and invention and, with every album, they just seem to get better, more sophisticated, more experimental. As I got a bit older I was intrigued, not just by the music of the band, which stands alone, but by the story of the Beatles. How these four guys all came together, in a sort of alchemy, to produce a kind of Big Bang-type chemical reaction. When you consider that in the space of seven years or so, from 1963 to 1970, they did––from a UK context––12 albums, all the tours, the films, the singles. It’s such an intense body of work in such a concentrated period. They were mushrooms growing inside a Beatles hothouse and it’s amazing that they managed to survive, individually and collectively, as long as they did with their nervous systems still intact.
PKM: What year were you born?
Ken McNab: 1962. I’m not a child of the ’60s. I’m a child of the ‘70s. The time I first heard them I was at such a pivotal age, because I was discovering all these colors of the outside world. Music is so important in that moment. I like lots of different bands today. I can easily go from Mozart to Metallica, from Schubert to Sinatra, from a bit of Beethoven to the Beatles. But I always come back to the Beatles, not as a soundtrack for my adolescence, although there’s an element of that, but I always find something in them that I can relate to, no matter what age I am and no matter what’s going on in my life. Somebody asked me once, “What’s the big deal?” And it, too, was one of those days, one of those light bulb moments, when I realized that the reason I like the Beatles is the songs make me happy. That’s it. They make me happy. I can turn on the albums and I’m transported into a sort of magic garden in a sense. I feel better about myself; I feel better about life. The Beatles have had some kind of immortality bestowed upon them, that even after all this time, even after 50 years since the band has broken up, they still hold this enduring fascination for so many people. It must come back to the music.
PKM: Why this book and why now?
Ken McNab: The book came out in the UK last year with the premise that it was a hook for the 50th anniversary of 1969. 1969 was a quixotic year and a chaotic year. It was tumultuous for the Beatles because it was their last year as a functioning band. When you looked at everything that was taking place on the planet, it’s amazing that amid all the difficulties that they were having in the personal lives, and in their professional lives, that they still managed to produce two albums in that year: Let It Be and then Abbey Road, which is their last recorded album, the end of the road for them, a swan song, that let them walk off the page of history and into legend.
Allen Klein is, in my opinion, the ultimate villain of the entire Beatles story.
PKM: How did the book come together for you?
Ken McNab: This is the most written about and talked about band in history. One of the questions I had to ask myself was, “Does the world need another book about the Beatles?” I thought that if I could bring some context and some perspective to the events of 1969, as seen through the prism of, now, half a century later, where people can take a step back and look at things with a certain amount of detachment, that perhaps I might arrive at a not so much a different conclusion, but at a different narrative, a new tapestry of sorts, by weaving all these strands together, and seeing how events from one part of the year had a serious impact on events in the later part of the year.
My concept was to treat the project like a diary and split it up into 12 months, and treat each month as a separate standalone entity, and look at what happened in that month. I had to become a bit of a rock and roll detective and peel back the layers of the sediment of history because with a band like the Beatles, here’s what happens: stories become legends, and legends become myth. It was important to me to try to bring some context, some perspective to it, and separate fact and fiction. The only way I could do that was to speak to as many people as possible who had some connection to the band at that time, who were in their orbit, either professionally or personally, and who could lend some degree of credibility and authenticity to the narrative. I’m a Beatles fan but I’m not a Beatles obsessive. I’m not a geek. I love the band and I love the music but I don’t go to bed every night wearing a Beatles T-shirt. There are so many out there who know so much more about the band than me. The reaction I’ve had has been good because people have been getting back to me and saying, “Wow, there are some nuggets in here that we didn’t know about.” There’s a certain amount of mission accomplished attached to it.
PKM: I want to hear you describe the characters in the book. The first one is [recording engineer] Glyn Johns.
Ken McNab: Glyn Johns talked at length about his involvement in recording what was first known as Get Back, and which later became Let It Be. When he got the job, he received a phone call asking him if he would, in effect, step into George Martin’s shoes. It was McCartney, but he thought it was Mick Jagger taking the mickey out of him [UK slang for “making fun of him”]. Glyn Johns thought, “This isn’t really McCartney.” Eventually, it became clear that it was McCartney, and he was handed what really became a poisoned chalice.
I’ve Got A Feeling:
The concept behind Get Back was that the Beatles would be filmed making an album and then at the end of it, the finale of the film would be the group performing live before an audience for the first time since August ’66 at Candlestick Park in San Francisco. From the outset it was a magnificent opportunity for Glyn Johns to work with the band, but it soon became clear that it was fraught with difficulties because by that point in 1969, in January ’69, the band is professionally and personally exhausted. They have just come off the grueling sessions for the White Album, a double album [released in November 1968], and they are certainly not in a good place to pick up the strands of a new project, even though this is a band used to doing two albums a year. They had reached that point where they were too tired and they couldn’t commit to doing it, with the one exception of Paul McCartney, who, of course, is the Beatles’ cheerleader-in-chief, and who even today has a relentless work ethic, He was like a drill sergeant and would keep marching them up and down to try and coax more product on. They were just in a bad place, and for Glyn Johns, especially, it became a nightmare, because frankly, their hearts weren’t in it.
PKM: And his recordings of what became Let It Be became something else when Phil Spector got hold of them.
Ken McNab: We all grew up with Spector’s version of “The Long and Winding Road”. It’s a bit saccharine with all the orchestration.
[Before the Get Back/Let It Be sessions, Glyn Johns had been known for recording The Rolling Stones’ Their Satanic Majesties Request and Beggar’s Banquet, as well as Traffic’s Traffic. He later recorded Led Zepplin’s Led Zepplin, The Stones’ Get Yer Ya-Yas Out, Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main Street and the Who’s Who’s Next and Quadrophenia.]
PKM: You develop a repugnant character in [Beatles manager] Allen Klein.
Ken McNab: Allen Klein is, in my opinion, the ultimate villain of the entire Beatles story. One of the most-often asked question is, “Who split up the Beatles?” Yoko Ono always has a target on her back. Linda Eastman, who stalked McCartney, has a smaller target on her back and various other cast members including the Beatles themselves, it should be said. If I had to pick one figure who would be the demon king it would be Allen Klein because Allen Klein enters stage left at the end, throwing his hat into the ring, a three-ring circus, to become the Beatles new manager. The Beatles needed somebody to steer Apple, because after Brian Epstein’s death they had become a bit of a rudderless ship. I think by then their egos got carried away with themselves. They thought they could do anything, but this was business. These guys are musicians, they’re not businessmen and the wheels were coming off Apple at an accelerated rate. Allen Klein is this pudgy New York accountant, who wears polo necks [slang for turtleneck] and smokes a pipe; he’s the most incongruous figure in rock and roll. He just happens to also be the manager of The Rolling Stones. His avowed ambition was that he would manage the Beatles.
Allen Klein immediately won over John Lennon, George Harrison and Ringo Starr, who favored his hustler-type, underdog approach. In one corner you have Harrison, Lennon, and Starr backing Allen Klein to take over the reins of the Beatles’ business empire. In the other corner, you have Paul McCartney, who hated Klein from the start. He didn’t trust him and wanted to install his prospective future in-laws, Linda’s father and brother, Lee and John Eastman, who were entertainment lawyers in New York. Those two couldn’t have been more different than Klein because they reeked of Park Avenue privilege and social status, and you can understand why that would appeal to Paul because he was the most class-conscious of them all. Unfortunately, Klein’s involvement created a terrible schism between all of them, especially Lennon and McCartney because it polarized the two. They could not agree on business issues, because of how they felt about Allen Klein. History is showing that McCartney’s instincts were more correct. At that time, I think, John was an easy mark. He liked hustlers like Klein. He was easily won over by the braggadocio, the false promises, the boasts, even if not rooted in reality. He was won over by the sales pitch, if you like. Paul was a bit more grounded in business and was able to see through somebody like Allen Klein.
PKM: Another part of your narrative is the battle for Northern Songs.
Ken McNab: Yes. While Klein did create a wedge between Lennon and McCartney, the battle for Northern Songs was one of those last instances that brought them together. They owned a minority share in a publishing company called Northern Songs, which was responsible for caretaking their song catalog. The guy in charge, with a majority share, was Dick James, who arrived on the scene when the Beatles’ elevator was just taking off, when they were young mop tops. As these guys became a bit more world-weary and cynical, and you’ve got drugs on the scene and bagism, divorces and affairs, they’re not the lovable mop tops of old, so Dick James wanted to divest himself of the Beatles. He put up his 51% up for sale, and that triggered a monumental and bitter, bitter battle for control of what was easily the most lucrative song catalog in history.
Allen Klein was front and center because Allen Klein, as he did, boasted that he would be able to get Northern Songs for nothing. He used to have a mantra, which was “F U money.” That was his attitude, that he could do anything, and that he didn’t need money to do it. But like many of his promises, Northern Songs turned to dust because in the middle of 1969 Allen Klein lost the battle for Northern Songs. That meant the Beatles, Lennon and McCartney, lost control of their own publishing company, which was now run by fat cats in the City [London], the very antithesis of the people that they wanted to be in charge of their own songs. For Lennon and McCartney, it was a terrible moment and it had repercussions throughout the decades that came after, to the point that even Michael Jackson owned a piece of Northern Songs. It was a huge debacle. And again, for McCartney and the Eastmans, it just showed that Klein, for all his idle boasting, wasn’t up to the job. There’s nothing worse for a songwriter than to see somebody else own their songs and reap the benefits of them, knowing they could be used for any purpose, for sneakers, or for beds or some rubbish. It was important to John and it was important to Paul to own their songs. And even though Lennon was apoplectic, he stuck with Klein, still had faith in him. John comes across as this cynical kind of individual, but there was a streak of sentimentality ran through him.
PKM: Who owns Northern Songs now?
Ken McNab: It has a combination of owners, a myriad network of companies, led by Sony. I think some of the copyrights revert to Lennon and McCartney after a certain period, 55 years or so. But the battle for Northern Songs is an example of the business trauma in the background at the same time they’re still trying to be a functioning band. It made life together extremely difficult for them, especially Lennon and McCartney.
If visitors come to us from another planet, and we go to introduce ourselves, we should introduce ourselves by saying, “Welcome to Earth. This is the home of the Beatles.”
PKM: A kinder character is [Beatles publicist] Derek Taylor.
Ken McNab: If Allen Klein is the devilish elven, then Derek Taylor is the benign Asgardian figure. Derek Taylor was the Beatles press officer, a bit of a London dandy but he fit in well with the Beatles. He was friendly with each of them for the rest of their lives. As their press officer in those days, you can just imagine him having to field completely bizarre calls from all over the world. How do you deal with somebody who’s phoning up from the United States asking for a comment that John Lennon and Yoko Ono were now going to be staying in bed for a week––for peace? Or asking, “Is it true that George Harrison is now recording a song with a Hare Krishna temple?” It’s bizarre, the things that happened, but these were just four guys living their lives the way they led them. This is just the way their lives unfolded. They probably didn’t think that they were doing anything out of the ordinary. They were simply living their lives. It’s just that through the other side of the window, to people looking in from the outside, it was somewhat, especially in John Lennon’s staying on bed for a week, perhaps a bit eccentric. I don’t think the Beatles were bothered with any of it. I’ll call Derek Taylor the eighth Beatle, not the fifth, not the sixth, not the seventh, but round about the eighth. He was part of the inner sanctum and an important member of that circle.
PKM: A brutal character in your narrative is heroin.
Ken McNab: Yes, it’s no secret that in 1969, John Lennon had a heroin problem. It’s no secret the Beatles took drugs. It’s well documented, but heroin for Paul McCartney and George Harrison and Ringo Starr was a step too far. They were quite happy to dabble in less serious drugs like marijuana, hash, LSD, but they weren’t prepared to cross the line. Whereas Lennon didn’t just cross the line, he ran over it because he was very much an experimentalist. But heroin stymied his lyrical creativity and, unfortunately, it created havoc with his mood swings by all accounts. If you look at pictures of 1969, John is clearly ill. He’s like a volcano trapped in ice. Everyone was never quite sure when there was going to be an explosion, for whatever reason, and it made life very difficult for the rest of the band. This is a bit controversial and not everybody would agree with it, but if you take a track like “Come Together”, which is still one of the great Beatle rock tracks, but if you were to analyze the lyrics, you are entitled to come away thinking, “What on earth does that mean?” If you look at some of his other “new” songs, for Abbey Road, like “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”, it only has 13 words in it.
That said, John had his own explanation for “I Want You”, which is if you see somebody drowning, you don’t extemporize the whole scene by extending the matter and saying, “Excuse me, I can see that you’re drowning. Would you like me to go somewhere? Instead, you throw somebody a lifeline and you just jump in. You don’t need to extend the whole thing.” “I Want You” is a great love song, but, when you look at who’s putting pen to paper, John hasn’t got an awful lot of new songs to contribute to Get Back, and most of his stuff on Abbey Road, especially in the medley, had been around for some time. Now, I don’t want anyone to think I’m criticizing John. For me, John was the beating heart of the Beatles. Paul was the cheerleader. George was musically brilliant and Ringo is a drummer par excellence. They are four sides of the same square. If you take one of them away, it doesn’t work.
PKM: The Beatles call for peace and spirituality becomes a character, too.
Ken McNab: Yes, it’s a pivotal time in Western history, 1968 and 1969. The Vietnam War was taking place. The Soviet Union’s tanks are rolling into Prague. You’ve got terrible riots in America and in France. The world was at a cultural, political and historical crossroad. The Beatles, and especially John Lennon, were able to tap into that. His political activism was genuinely awakened by all these events. It was a happy accident for John that he kind of fell into it, and his activism, certainly with “Give Peace a Chance”, had an important part to play in mobilizing public opinion against the Vietnam War. He paid a terrible price because Richard Nixon put John’s name in his little book and years down the line it caused John all sorts of hassles with his immigration status.
Pursuing spirituality, George Harrison discovered a new kind of devotion through his love of all things Indian. That was good for him because it allowed him to chill out a wee bit and it added momentum to his creativity. George in 1968 is the Beatles’ dark horse coming up on the inside rail. Up to then, in terms of songwriting, it’s always been Lennon and McCartney, front and center. By 1969, you’ve got Harrison writing two of the most seminal tracks on Abbey Road “Something”, and “Here Comes the Sun”. He’s riding on the back of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” on the White Album. But he has the age-old problem of trying to persuade the other two to give him some room on the albums.
Paul McCartney, at that time, is in a happy place. He’s just gotten married to Linda and she’s pregnant with her first child. It’s funny to think that Lennon and McCartney got married within seven days of each other. The problem for Paul is with John, especially since he’s now having to walk on eggshells around Yoko. Her presence in the studio is a serious issue for Paul. Up to now, John has been Paul’s closest friend and his creative partner. All of a sudden Yoko supplants him in both these elements, both these areas. If he confronts John about Yoko and asks the question everybody else is asking, “Do you need to bring her into the studio?” John, being quite volatile, may well have said, “I’ll tell you what, if it’s a choice between you or her, I’m going to choose her.” That simply would be the end of the band and that’s the last thing Paul wants because, as I said, he’s the cheerleader. He wanted to carry on. George had no filter. He would just call it as it is. Ringo went along with the majority.
Klein’s involvement created a terrible schism between all of them, especially Lennon and McCartney because it polarized the two. They could not agree on business issues, because of how they felt about Allen Klein. History is showing that McCartney’s instincts were more correct.
PKM: You bring out Harrison’s jealousy of Yoko. That was even more powerful than McCartney’s hesitation towards her.
Ken McNab: I think cynicism was hot-wired into George Harrison’s DNA, and he had a somewhat conflicting relationship with John Lennon because there was this two-and-a-half year age gap between them. John always looked upon George slightly, as an economy class Beatle. At that time, George was probably the least committed of them all to the ethos of the band because he knew he had all these songs in his bottom drawer and he was quite confident then in his own abilities. He had a great kinship with the likes of Bob Dylan and Eric Clapton. These guys were always complimenting him whereas Lennon and McCartney tended to keep him in a box, keep him on the naughty step.
PKM: A struggling character is [Let It Be filmmaker] Michael Lindsay-Hogg.
Ken McNab: Michael Lindsay-Hogg was drafted to film what became Let It Be. He was the man tasked with trying to make the Beatles look cinematically happy. What he produced was a piece of cinema verité, which rather than show the Beatles as a happy, chappy family, it showed them at their worst. He actually caught the band in the middle of breaking up. Maybe, from the point of view of a filmmaker, it’s manna from heaven. It’s great for a writer, somebody with my perspective. It makes for a great story, but, unfortunately, in the film, the optics are not great. He was brought in to do a job and he tried to do it as collaboratively as possible by bringing everybody on board, but he faced the same kind of creative brick wall Glyn Johns faced, which is that he was dealing with four guys whose hearts are not in it. What Michael Lindsay-Hogg did bring us all is the amazing rooftop session at the end of Let It Be film, which even now looks absolutely fantastic. It catches the Beatles in a moment, going back to their rock and roll roots. It puts the band in rock and roll amber. I look at Lennon, with his fur coat, and Harrison with his green jeans and sneakers, and Ringo in his red slicker. They all look fantastic and they all play fantastic.
If you look at pictures of 1969, John is clearly ill. He’s like a volcano trapped in ice. Everyone was never quite sure when there was going to be an explosion, for whatever reason, and it made life very difficult for the rest of the band.
PKM: What can we expect to see from Peter Jackson in his Get Back film? [which prior to the pandemic was due to be released September 2020. It’s now scheduled for August 2021.]
Ken McNab: Personally, I don’t think you can really reheat a soufflé. I think that what happened, happened, and anybody who’s seen the film Let It Be can tell you it’s quite grim. Yes, there are 400 hours of footage that’s unused, which is fine, but at the end of the day, you cannot change history. The ineluctable truth is that when the Beatles were recording Let It Be, they were in a bad place and no amount of film editing is going to change that. Not at all. I am a huge Peter Jackson fan, a huge Lord Of The Rings fan, a great admirer of his. I think he’ll try to shine a light on some of the dark corners. Nobody’s shying away from the truth, but the version of Let It Be that exists at the moment doesn’t tell the whole story. There were, in fact, lots of moments of levity. There were, in fact, moments of great creativity. As I said before, I’m just a bit concerned that there’s an element of revisionism here in the new Get Back. Paul and Ringo have already seen it and they think it’s great. They would say that, wouldn’t they? History already tells you that this was a band on life support. It’s that nobody wanted to be the one to turn the switch off.
PKM: On the album Let It Be, “Dig A Pony”, “I’ve Got A Feeling” and “One After 909” are all from the rooftop session. What are your impressions of the album? And why didn’t “Don’t Let Me Down” make it on?
Ken McNab: “Two of Us” is one of the last examples of McCartney and Lennon being on the same page. “Don’t Let Me Down” is this raw unvarnished song to Yoko Ono and one of Lennon’s best contributions to their last year. I don’t know why that track didn’t make it on, but it made it onto Naked because McCartney couldn’t understand why it had been omitted the first time around. The rooftop songs are a bit of a Beatles unplugged because they capture the spirit of what the Let It Be project was supposed to be, which is to catch them raw, in unguarded moments, no overdubs. That’s what the whole concept was supposed to be. There were supposed to be no George Martin production techniques. It was supposed to be entirely different than Sgt. Pepper and the White Album. It was meant to capture them almost like a skiffle band in that sense.
PKM: On Let it Be, are all these little snippets of talk, like “‘I Dig a Pygmy’, by Charles Hawtrey and the Deaf Aids. Phase One, in which Doris gets her oats”.
Ken McNab: Those capture their humor. For Lennon, there’s a bit of mischief in it because between “Dig It” and “Let It Be” he says, “That was ‘Can You Dig It’ by Georgie Wood. And now we’d like to do ‘Hark The Angels Come’”, probably because McCartney’s “Let It Be” has such a hymn-like quality to it. [McCartney did not include that snippet on Naked.] All that talk lends an ear of frivolity; it humanizes them to a degree and you hear them as band mates, not to taking everything so seriously. Rock music at that period is beginning to take itself very seriously with the likes of the 1969 Fleetwood Mac stuff, Iron Butterfly, Led Zeppelin, the Who. I think it was just an attempt to puncture some of the pomposity that surrounded the Beatles.
PKM: The two Harrison songs, “For You Blue” and “I Me Mine”, do that.
Ken McNab: I like “For You Blue”, and it’s got some of that talk, like “Same old 12-bar blues” and “Elmore James got nothin’ on this baby”. There are good songs on Let it Be, but it’s held up by a lot of people as a sort of tatty tombstone because it was the album that was released last, after the group had broken up. And Phil Spector gets a lot of flack for some of the production values on it, but at the end of the day, it is what it is.
PKM: There were three songs on Abbey Road I wanted to ask you about, “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”, “Polythene Pam” and “The End”. You touched on “I Want You”. What’s the story behind “Polythene Pam”?
Ken McNab: “Polythene Pam” is a story about some weird threesome encounter that Lennon apparently had in the long distant past with a Liverpool poet named Royston Ellis. Apparently, there was a girl involved, nudge nudge, wink wink, who actually was in a polythene bag. Lord knows what went on, perhaps it’s best not to ask.
PKM: All right. Okay. And “The End”?
Ken McNab: It’s the only drum solo Ringo Starr ever recorded as a Beatle. It’s magnificent, absolutely peerless, even beyond Bonham and Moon. Abbey Road reveals what a brilliant musician Ringo is. Take a listen to his drumming on “Here Comes the Sun”. It’s exceptional. The guitar battle between Lennon, McCartney and Harrison on “The End” shows that when it came to guitar heroics, these guys were as good as any. This typifies it––three exquisite guitar solos, three different players. This is at a time when Zeppelin’s first and second albums came out, and you’ve got the Who and the Stones adopting a much rockier outlook. “The End” proves the Beatles can rock with anybody. This is not the band of “She Loves You”. This is a full-throttle guitar band and, in my opinion, the combination of “Carry that Weight” and “The End” is easily the most magnificent musical exit of any band in rock and roll history. What a way to go out. With a song called “The End”.
PKM: What did you leave out of the book?
Ken McNab: Nothing. [Laughs] I’m sure I have, but I can’t think of anything. Either way, there won’t be a follow up, I can tell you that. I tried to get as much as I could in. I interviewed 30 people who were around the band then to try and bring out that context and perspective. If you look at the cover of Abbey Road, you’ll see three guys up the street on the left wearing overalls. These were painters and decorators who just happened to be on Abbey Road the day of the shoot and I tracked one of them down, Derek Seagrove, who hadn’t told his story before. He talks about being in the canteen on Abbey Road, sitting beside them. It’s all in there.
Carry That Weight
PKM: In Still Life with a Woodpecker, Tom Robbins suggests you can learn everything you need to know about someone by having them describe their favorite Beatle. Who’s your favorite Beatle?
Ken McNab: It’s always John. It’s always John. I can change from day-to-day, like most people. But it’s a bit like asking me what my favorite song is. It would always be “Strawberry Fields Forever.” Then I might think about “Tomorrow Never Knows”. Then I may think about “The End”. I’m never, never fixed on one Beatle, but without John there isn’t a band. John started the band and, if you read the book, you’ll see how John finished the band, even though I’ve been careful not to apportion blame. As I’ve said, John was the beating heart of the band, although if it wasn’t for Paul’s relentless work ethic, a lot of it wouldn’t have happened. It was Paul who drove them on day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year to produce songs. Those songs now are with us in perpetuity. I think if visitors come to us from another planet, and we go to introduce ourselves, we should introduce ourselves by saying, “Welcome to Earth. This is the home of the Beatles. We’ve got lots of other cool stuff, but none of it’s as good.”