270. The Beatles with Billy Preston – Get Back (1969)

British Leyland Motor Corporation launched Britain’s first hatchback car on 24 April. The Austin Maxi was designed to compete with family saloons like the Ford Cortina. It was also the day on which the final episode of the long-running BBC Radio drama Mrs Dales Diary was broadcast.

It was also a big week in football, as Manchester City won the FA Cup on 26 April with a 1-0 win over Leicester City at Wembley. Two days later, Leeds United won the Football league First Division title for the first time.

The famed ocean liner Queen Elizabeth II embarked on its maiden voyage, from Southampton to New York, on 2 May. And 29 May saw the release of one of my favourite movies of all time (I’m not even kidding) – Carry On Camping. It became the biggest film at the box office of 1969.

All these events transpired during the six-week run at the top for Get Back. Hard to believe it but I’m nearly at the end of the Beatles’ career. This 16th number 1 was the last to feature John, Paul, George and Ringo together – plus one extra. For the first time, they gave equal billing to another musician – keyboardist Billy Preston.

The Beatles’ eponymous double LP hadn’t made the same cultural impact as Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band upon its release, but it was a wonder it had even been finished, as the sessions had been tense, with Harrison and Starr walking out at separate points. McCartney searched for a new project to keep them afloat.

In January 1969, the same month that the Yellow Submarine album was released, they regrouped. Macca suggested they continue down the back-to-basics road they started on the previous year, but with a twist. They would record an album of new material, rehearse it, then perform it in front of a live audience. The results would be made into an album and TV special called Beatles at Work. They hired Michael Lindsay-Hogg to film them rehearsing at Twickenham Studios that month.

What followed did nothing for inter-band relations. Lennon and Harrison later described the rehearsals as the lowest point the band ever experienced. Harrison, irritated by both Lennon and McCartney in particular, who was captured on camera patronising the guitarist, walked out. He returned five days later, but issued an ultimatum. They must abandon the idea of a live performance, and concentrate on getting the album, by that point known as Get Back, finished, and then use the songs for the TV show. He also wanted out of Twickenham, a cold location that did nothing for the frosty atmosphere amongst the Fab Four (and of course Yoko Ono). The Beatles decided they would relocate to the newly completed Apple Studios and use Lindsay-Hogg’s footage to make a new documentary film.

Among the many songs rehearsed that January was Get Back, intended to be the project’s title track. It originated from a jam session during rehearsals on 7 January. McCartney played with the lyric to a George Harrison tune from 1968. Sour Milk Sea was originally planned for The Beatles but surfaced as a single by Jackie Lomax on Apple Records instead, with bass from McCartney. It featured the lyric ‘Get back to where you should be’.

Two days later McCartney brought a more developed version of Get Back to rehearsals, with the ‘Sweet Loretta Martin’ wordplay pretty much complete. He had also come up with some controversial lyrics that would surface on bootlegs over the years. Paul decided to use the song to satirise the views of people like right-wing politician Enoch Powell’s views on immigration.

While ‘Don’t dig no Pakistanis taking all the people’s jobs’ may fit the tune of Get Back perfectly, the Beatles were wise in scrapping this approach. It’s likely not everybody would have got where they were coming from… It also didn’t help that McCartney would look at Ono whenever he sang ‘Get back to where you once belong’, according to Lennon.

Immigration was clearly on their minds, as they also worked on another right-wing satire at the same time, usually referred to as Commonwealth. Again, it’s a good thing this was dropped, and it was musically inferior to Get Back.

Bootleg recordings dating from 23 January reveal a conversation between McCartney and Harrison inbetween trying to whip their next single into shape. McCartney explains it was supposed to be a protest song, but the group then decide that the third verse, featuring the ‘Pakistani’ line, should be dropped.

Instead, the song evolved from an angry rock song to a softer, bluesy sound, no doubt helped along by the ‘fifth Beatle’, who had joined the group the previous day. Enter Billy Preston, who Harrison had invited to proceedings to try and bring an end to the bickering. He wisely assumed a relative stranger among them would put everyone on their best behaviour and give them a kick up the arse. He was right.

Billy Preston, born in September 1946 in Houston, Texas, had been a child prodigy. Self-taught, he never recieved a single piano lesson. He first met the Beatles aged 16 in 1962, when he was playing in the singer’s backing band at a Liverpool show that the Fab Four opened. When Harrison had left the January rehearsals, he had gone to a Ray Charles gig, in which Preston performed on the organ.

On 27 January the Beatles and Preston made a concerted effort to finish the song, which now featured a false ending and a coda. Take 11 was picked, but it had come to an abrupt end, so they returned to the studio the next day to work on the ending. When McCartney and Glyn Johns came to turn the performances into a single, they opted to go against the ‘as nature intended’ vibe of the project, and tacked on a coda from 28 January to Take 11. But they were right to do so, and did it so well, you’d never know, really. Unusually, the single features Lennon on lead guitar over Harrison on rhythm, as Lennon stepped up during Harrison’s absence.

Before it had even been released, Get Back had earned its place in Beatles folklore, for it was the last song they ever played together live. After much toing and froing about how the project would end, they finally agreed to be filmed performing on the roof of Apple Studios with Billy Preston. They opened the short concert with two takes, and then closed the set with one last version, featuring ad-libs from McCartney referring to the police ascending to the roof to shut the gig down (available on Anthology 3). The set ended with Lennon’s famous, ironic quote ‘I’d like to say thank you on behalf of the group and ourselves and I hope we’ve passed the audition.’ Phil Spector would add this to the end of the version that made it to Let It Be.

Although it was a wise decision to remove that third verse of Get Back, it does rob the song of any bite it had. Reduced to two verses that don’t really mean anything, it needs to be musically interesting, and it’s not too good at that really. It chugs along pleasantly enough, and Preston’s solo adds some soul to proceedings, but it’s far from their greatest single and none of the actual band get to do anything very exciting.

It’s not a return to the Beatles’ roots either, which was how it was marketed. Get Back is the sound of the Beatles following the curve, rather than being ahead of it. It is in fact, the boogie sound of US blues rockers Canned Heat, with McCartney even stealing the distinctive vocal stylings of Alan Wilson. But before I make it sound like I hate Get Back, I don’t. As a throwaway bit of fun, it’s perfectly fine. The single version does a good job of sounding both rough and ready and polished at the same time, thanks to the reverb added to the mix. It’s superior to the Let It Be version. But it’s clear to see that at this point, the Beatles were struggling to keep the magic going.

Released with Lennon’s Don’t Le Me Down as its B-side (which is better if you ask me), also featuring Preston, Get Back was Paul McCartney’s fourth A-side in a row. It was also the last of their singles to be released in mono.

And what became of Billy Preston? Quite a lot. He worked with the Beatles again, playing uncredited on superior tracks I Want You (She’s So Heavy) and Something. In the same year he signed with Apple Records and released his fourth album, That’s the Way God Planned It. Produced by Harrison, the title track was also a hit.

Following the split of the Beatles in 1970, Preston continued to work with his friend, and became the first person to release a version of Harrison’s solo number 1, My Sweet Lord. He also featured on Harrison’s triple album All Things Must Pass that year. Not only that… remember Stephen Still’s excellent single Love the One You’re With? That title came from a saying of Preston’s.

In 1971 he left Apple to join A&M Records, and in addition to his own work selling well, he worked on many Rolling Stones albums, including Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main St. and was their primary touring keyboardist from 1973 to 1977. In 1974 he co-wrote and released the first version of You Are So Beautiful, a soul classic later made famous by Joe Cocker.

Preston worked with Motown in the early 80s, then concentrated on session work for artists including Luther Vandross and Whitney Houston. Drug issues curtailed his career but he resurfaced in the 90s, playing with, among others, Eric Clapton, Ringo Starr and the Band.

Following Harrison’s death in 2001, his friend performed three songs at the 2002 Concert for George at the Royal Albert Hall. Also in 2002, Preston played piano on Johnny Cash’s album American IV: The Man Comes Around. Towards the end of his life he appeared on American Idol and worked with Red Hot Chili Peppers and Neil Diamond. His last live performance saw him promote the re-release of the 1972 documentary The Concert for Bangladesh. On his last song on stage he performed Harrison’s Isn’t It a Pity with Harrison’s son Dhani and Starr.

Soon after, Preston suffered pericarditis and fell into a coma. He had been struggling with kidney disease and his drug issues (which many feel stemmed from problems due to being abused as a child and later hiding his sexuality) had returned. He died in June 2006, aged 59.

Written by: John Lennon & Paul McCartney

Producer: George Martin

Weeks at number 1: 6 (23 April-3 June)

Births:

Actress Kate Hardie – 26 April
Television presenter Tess Daly – 27 April
Actor Cy Chadwick – 2 June

Deaths:

Writer Sir Osbert Sitwell – 4 May
Civil Engineer Sir Owen Williams -23 May

264. Fleetwood Mac – Albatross (1969)

Fleetwood Mac are one of the biggest-selling acts of all time. Like Pink Floyd, they started out in the 1960s and overcame losing their chief songwriters to become hugely successful in the 70s with a very different sound, selling millions of records.

Also like Pink Floyd, they’ve only ever had one UK number 1 single. Peter Green’s classic balmy instrumental Albatross, which conjures up images of waves lapping against a sun-kissed beach, must have come as welcome relief during the winter of 1968/69.

Green had been Eric Clapton’s replacement as guitarist in John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers. Early in 1967, drummer Aynsley Dunbar announced he was leaving the group, and Green suggested to Mayall a former bandmate of his called Mick Fleetwood. The new version of the band consisted of Mayall on vocals, Green, Fleetwood and bassist John McVie. During their next recording session they named an instrumental after their new rhythm section, Fleetwood Mac.

Soon afterwards saw the debut of Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac, consisting of Green, Fleetwood, slide guitarist Jeremy Spencer and temporary bassist Bob Brunning, who was only there until McVie could be tempted away from the Bluesbreakers. It didn’t take long. No matter what has happened within the band since, Fleetwood and McVie have always remained.

Fleetwood Mac’s eponymous debut LP, a no-frills, bluesy affair, was released in February 1968. Not long after they entered the singles chart for the first time with Black Magic Woman, which became more famous via Santana’s version in 1970. Second album Mr Wonderful swiftly followed, featuring Christine Perfect on keyboards.

Around this time, Green had become impressed with a young guitarist called Danny Kirwan, and when his band Boilerhouse split, he invited him to join Fleetwood Mac. Green was unhappy with Spencer’s lack of willingness to help contribute to original material, but Kirwan was keen.

Among the material Green asked Kirwan for help with was Albatross. The song was said to have been inspired by Santo & Johnny’s Sleep Walk in 1959, though there is a more close resemblance rhythmically to Chuck Berry’s 1957 track Deep Feeling.

I love the lush sound of Albatross. This simple composition is for me one of the most atmospheric chart-toppers so far. From Fleetwood’s deep, muted drumming, played on timpani mallets to sound like rolling waves, to the languid guitar work of Green and Kirwan (Spencer is absent), there’s no wonder this gorgeous, tranquil tune has been used on TV and films so much over the years whenever a gorgeous scene of paradise is needing an appropriate piece of music. Apparently, the reason this single topped the charts is because it was used by the BBC on a nature documentary, and captured the public’s imagination.

The success of Albatross marked the first change in Fleetwood Mac’s sound, as they began to move away from pure blues during 1969. They signed with Immediate Records and Man of the World was a hit. Oh Well was a heavy rock classic, particuarly the first part, featuring a riff Led Zeppelin would be proud of.

Unfortunately, by the time of the dark psychedelia of The Green Manalishi (With the Two-Prong Crown) in 1970, Green’s mental health was rapidly dimishing. He had taken LSD at a hippy commune in Munich and had become erratic. Following an argument in which Green announced he wanted to give all the band’s money to charity, he left Fleetwood Mac in May. After an uncredited appearance on their 1973 album Penguin, he disappeared into obscurity. When he did resurface in the 90s, he was a shadow of his former self. I wonder what he made of his old band’s enormous success?

Fleetwood Mac struggled once their principle songwriter had gone. Perfect, now married to McVie, became a full-time member that August. In February 1971 Spencer went out to buy a magazine. He never returned. After several days searching they discovered he had joined a cult known as the Children of God. Kirwan was the next to leave, in 1972, having become a full-blown alcoholic. After his last solo album in 1979 he left the music industry for good. Their was to be no comeback for Green’s protégé. He spent much of the 80s and 90s homeless, and divorced, and had an estranged son. He died in June 2018, aged 68.

After numerous line-up changes, success finally beckoned when guitarist Lindsay Buckingham and his partner Stevie Nicks joined up in 1975. They released their second eponymous LP, which sold millions. Despite their new-found commercial success, the new line-up was mired in personal problems. The McVies and Buckingham and Nicks all split up, and the relationship turmoil resulted in one of their most famous albums. Rumours is one of the most famous pop-rock albums of the 70s. They ended the decade with the more experimental Tusk.

For much of the 80s, Fleetwood Mac were on sabbatical, with solo careers taking up most of the time. This most famous line-up regrouped in 1987 for another huge-selling album. Tango in the Night was their biggest since Rumours, and featured the hit singles Little Lies and Everywhere.

I have to confess to not really getting the massive fame of the soft-rock 70s and 80s incarnation of Fleetwood Mac. I like Rumours, and Little Lies transports me back to my childhood, but they’re a bit too safe for me. Albatross is in my opinion their best single. Even the Beatles loved it, and would pinch the sound on their similarly gorgeous Sun King from Abbey Road (1969). Its soothing tones would also drift in and out of the KLF’s influential ambient Chill Out album from 1990.

Buckingham and Nicks left after a fight in 1987, and the next Fleetwood Mac album, 1990’s Behind the Mask, recieved mixed reviews. The 70s/80s era line-up reformed to perform at Bill Clinton’s inauguration as US President in 1993 to perform his campaign’s theme song, Don’t Stop. In 1997 they reformed again, and a year later Fleetwood Mac were entered into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. As well as the current line-up, Green, Spencer and Kirwan were also inducted.

Fleetwood Mac’s last studio album to date was Say You Will in 2003. Buckingham left for (to date) the last time in 2018, and was replaced by Neil Finn from Crowded House and Mike Campbell from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. The current line-up still perform Albatross, and their sole number 1 always appears on any greatest hits compilations.

Written by: Peter Green

Producer: Mike Vernon

Weeks at number 1: 1 (29 January-4 February)

Deaths:

Actor Boris Karloff – 2 February

240. Long John Baldry – Let the Heartaches Begin (1967)

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November 1967 was a particularly cold, yet sunny month. On the 27th, President Charles de Gaulle of France once again vetoed British entry into the European Economic Community. Cheers! The foot-and-mouth outbreak resulted in a number of horse-racing events being cancelled the next day. 1 December saw further inroads into a bright new ethnically diverse future when Tony O’Connor became the first non-white headteacher of a British school, at a primary in Smethwick, near Birmingham.

There may be some sarcasm in my last sentence, as the UK still had a long way to go in becoming progressive. The law had only just changed to decriminalise homosexuality, yet many stars of the time felt they needed to keep their sexuality private. Although Long John Baldry was openly gay in showbiz circles, he didn’t announce it to the public until the 1970s. This giant of the blues scene was highly influential, yet his one chart-topper is disliked by many purists, and is considered unrepresentative of the singer.

John Baldry was born around Brixworth, Northamptonshire in January 1941 after his parents had fled London during the Blitz. His schooldays were spent in Edgware, Middlesex. When he began singing in the 50s he stood out from the crowd as one of the first known blues and folk singers in the country, listening to Muddy Waters and learning the 12-string at the age of 12. He also stood out because he had grown to six feet and seven inches, earning him the nickname ‘Long John’.

By the early-60s he was performing in coffee houses and R’nB clubs in London. A small scene began to formulate, and Baldry joined the fledgling Blues Incorporated, led by the pioneering Alexis Korner. They released the first British blues album, R&B from the Marquee, in 1962. Future members of Blues Incorporated included Charlie Watts from the Rolling Stones and Cream’s Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce. From this point onwards, Baldry’s career features cameos from an impressive number of future rock stars of the next decade or so.

In 1963 he joined the Cyril Davies R&B All Stars, featuring future ace session pianist Nicky Hopkins, and when Davies died the following year, he renamed them Long John Baldry and his Hoochie Coochie Men. While looking for a singer for his new outfit, Baldry chanced upon a busker and Baldry gig-goer called Rod Stewart, performing a Muddy Waters song at Twickenham Station. With Stewart on board, they changed their name to Steampacket in 1965. The group now featured Julie Driscoll as a singer and Brian Auger on organ, later known for their cover of Bob Dylan’s This Wheel’s on Fire. When Steampacket broke up in 1966, Baldry formed Bluesology. His new band had Reg Dwight on keyboards and future Soft Machine guitarist Elton Dean. When Dwight went solo, he took Dean and Baldry’s forenames and became Elton John.

So, it’s clear that Baldry was moving in the right circles (he also appeared on a TV special by the Beatles in 1964, had a fling with Dave Davies of the Kinks and introduced the Rolling Stones on the US live album Got Live if You Want It!), and yet fame still eluded him. And so he wound up on the cabaret circuit with a harmony group called Chimera backing him, and started working with pop producer Tony Macauley, who had produced Baby Now That I’ve Found You by the Foundations, and co-wrote it with John MacLeod. Together, they also wrote Let the Heartaches Begin, and gave it to Baldry to record.

I have to confess to knowing next to nothing about Baldry, other than him being a fascinating and important figure in R’n’B, so it’s fair to say I wasn’t expecting Let the Heartaches Begin to sound anything like it does. It’s a big let down, and it seems Macauley thought he could turn Baldry into an Engelbert Humperdinck, or a Tom Jones-style figure. You could draw similarities to Johnnie Ray too, with the over-the-top, mock histrionics on show here, set to syrupy backing, but with less impact than Ray’s recordings. But the singer is clearly revelling in the fact he has a broken heart, much like Ray in the 50s. Apparently Baldry had to knock back a fair bit of booze to record it, so it’s likely he wasn’t entirely comfortable with this new direction either.

In spite of this, it was well-timed, with 1967 being the year of Humperdinck, and it earned Baldry his place in chart history, so who am I to argue with Macauley? In fact, this single earned he and MacLeod two consecutive number 1s in a row… no mean feat at all.

Baldry stuck to this new balladeer style for the next few years. In 1968 he and Bernie Taupin came to the aid of Elton John, who was struggling with his sexuality. The duo talked him out of marrying Linda Woodrow to cover up being gay, and John was so grateful he wrote Someone Saved My Life Tonight to thank them.

Baldry returned to his beloved blues in 1971 with his most well-known album It Ain’t Easy with Elton John and Rod Stewart producing a side each. They did the same again on 1972 follow-up Everything Stops for Tea. He claimed to have been the last person to see Marc Bolan alive on 16 September 1977, having interviewed him for US TV just before he got into his car for the final time.

After stints in New York and Los Angeles, Baldry moved to Vancouver, British Colombia in 1978. Bar a brief spell in psychiatric hospital (he recorded the album Baldry’s Out shortly after release), he seemed happy and remained there the rest of his life. He released several albums in the 90s (including It Still Ain’t Easy) but his main source of income was in voiceover work for adverts and animated children’s TV series Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog (he was Dr Robtonik) and Bucky O’Hare and the Toad Wars. Plagued with ill health in his later years, he died of a severe chest infection in 2005, aged 64. Only a one-hit wonder in the singles chart, Baldry nevertheless left an impact on music to match his considerable stature.

Written by: Tony Macauley & John MacLeod

Producer: Tony Macauley

Weeks at number 1: 2 (22 November-5 December) 

Births:

Politician Shahid Malik – 24 November

Deaths:

Phonetician Daniel Jones – 4 December 

182. The Rolling Stones – Little Red Rooster (1964)

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The Supremes’ sugar-coated soul of Baby Love was knocked from the top spot by something altogether more low down and dirty. The Rolling Stones’ second number 1 holds the distinction of being the only blues song to ever get to the top of the charts. That’s a testament to just how big the Rolling Stones were quickly becoming.

Little Red Rooster (originally The Red Rooster) is a blues standard credited to Willie Dixon. It did however share similarities with Charlie Patton’s Banty Rooster Blues from 1929 and If You See My Rooster (Please Run Him Home) by Memphis Minnie in 1936. It had first been recorded by one of the group’s heroes, Howlin’ Wolf, in 1961. Two years later soul singer Sam Cooke recorded a more poppy, uptempo version that was a hit stateside. At around this time, the American Folk Blues Festival, featuring Dixon and Howlin’ Wolf, was touring the UK, and among its attendees were future bandmates Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Brian Jones.

Fast forward to 1964 and the Rolling Stones had just scored their first number 1 with Bobby Womack’s It’s All Over Now. Jagger and Richards were making tentative steps towards writing their own songs regularly, but were still in thrall to blues artists, particularly those on Chicago’s Chess Records. Lots of Delta blues made it on to their early material, but now they were planning to follow up It’s All Over Now with a faithful, uncommercial cover of Little Red Rooster. Producer and manager Andrew Loog Oldham wasn’t best pleased. Call it arrogance, call it a desire to put their money where their mouths were, but the UK’s biggest blues act went ahead and recorded it anyway.

Little Red Rooster was blues purist and multi-instrumentalist Brian Jones’s chance to shine. It’s him playing the bottleneck guitar that resembles a rooster crowing and a dog barking, and the harmonica, and you can’t help guessing that it was his idea to release it as a single. Bill Wyman later rightly said this song was one of Jones’s finest hours. Jagger is also on form, adding a typically louche, lazy air to proceedings. So much so, in fact, that the general belief is that the red rooster in question is in fact Mick singing about his cock. Which makes the fact this got to number 1 even more unbelievable. But then again, this was the year The House of the Rising Sun got to number 1 too, and the charts were increasingly becoming ‘anything goes’ territory. It was their last cover song to be released as a single in the 1960s. Jagger and Richards were about to rival Lennon and McCartney, and Jones’s importance would slowly diminish within the band.

Written by: Willie Dixon

Producer: Andrew Loog Oldham

Weeks at number 1: 1 (3-9 December)

Deaths:

Poet Edith Sitwell – 9 December