305. Rod Stewart – Reason to Believe/Maggie May (1971)

Sir Roderick David Stewart, aka ‘Rod the Mod’, was one of the biggest-selling artists of the 70s and 80s, with over 120 million records sold worldwide, and six number 1 singles. And yet his first chart-topper, Maggie May, was tucked away as a B-side. Were it not for its appeal shining through, Stewart may not have become as big a superstar as he did.

Stewart was born at home in Highgate, London on 10 January 1945. He was the youngest of five children, the other four having been born in Leith, Edinburgh, Scotland, where his father Robert, a builder, came from. After he retired, Robert bought a newsagent’s shop, which the Stewart family lived above. His youngest’s main hobby, which he still loves, was railway modelling.

Stewart’s other big obsession was football, and he became captain of his school’s team. His first musical hero was Al Jolson, but he soon got into rock’n’roll, and he saw Bill Haley & His Comets in concert. In 1960 he joined a skiffle group called The Kool Kats, and would play Lonnie Donegan covers.

Stewart left school at 15 and had various jobs working in the family shop, as a silk screen printer and at a cemetery, but he longed to be a professional footballer. In 1961 he decided to try his hand at singing, and along with The Raiders he auditioned for eccentric producer Joe Meek, but he wasn’t impressed.

Soon after, Stewart turned into a left-wing beatnik, listening to the folk music of Bob Dylan, Ewan MacColl and Woody Guthrie and attending protest marches, getting arrested three times between 1961 and 1963. He later confessed he often used the marches as a way of bedding girls. In 1962 he took to playing the harmonica and would busk at Leicester Square with folk singer Wizz Jones. They took their act to Europe, and Stewart found himself deported from Spain for vagrancy in 1963. Around this time, he was considered as a singer for The Kinks, then known as The Ray Davies Quartet.

Later that year he became a full-on Mod, adopting his trademark spiky hairstyle and becoming enthralled with soul and R’n’B music. He found his first professional job as a musician in The Dimensions. This was his introduction to London’s R’n’B scene, where he would take harmonica tips from Mick Jagger.

In January 1964 the 19-year-old had been to a Long John Baldry gig and was playing harmonica at Twickenham Station when Baldry himself heard him and invited him to join his group. Over time, Stewart overcame shyness and would dress up more, and would sometimes be billed as Rod ‘the Mod’ Stewart. He made his recording debut with Baldry and the Hoochie Coochie Men that June, uncredited. Two months later, after a performance at the Marquee Club, he was signed as a solo act to Decca Records. His debut single was the blues standard, with a terribly dodgy title, Good Morning Little Schoolgirl, which featured John Paul Jones among the session musicians.

Baldry’s group broke up, but he and Stewart patched up their differences and in 1965 became part of the line-up of new group Steampacket alongside Brian Auger. Steampacket were conceived as a white soul revue, and while supporting The Rolling Stones he had his first taste of crowd hysteria. Due to all being signed to different labels, Stewart’s group were unable to record any material. His solo career continued, but without making much impact. In 1966 he jumped ship from Steampacket to Shotgun Express, whose line-up included future Fleetwood Mac members Peter Green and Mick Fleetwood.

It was The Jeff Beck Group that finally gave Stewart his break when he joined their ranks in February 1967. He formed a long-lasting friendship with guitarist Ronnie Wood, began writing material, and his vocal technique developed into the rough rasp that made him stand out. However, he and Beck didn’t get on, and when Wood was announced as Steve Marriott’s replacement in Small Faces in June 1969, Stewart joined him a few months after as their new singer, and they became Faces.

At the same time, Stewart was making inroads with his solo career. Now with Mercury Records, he released his first album, An Old Raincoat Won’t Ever Let You Down, a mix of well-received original material and rock, folk and blues covers.

1970 saw the release of both Faces’ debut LP First Step and his solo follow-up Gasoline Alley, which introduced the mandolin to his sound. Faces quickly amassed a dedicated following at their gigs, and Stewart was one single release away from becoming a household name. The plan was for (Find a) Reason to Believe to be the first single from his forthcoming album, Every Picture Tells a Story, with Maggie May as the B-side.

Reason to Believe (the bracketed bit dropped upon its single release) was the final track on the accompanying album. It’s a cover of a Tim Hardin track, which the folk singer had released on his debut album in 1965, and The Carpenters covered it in 1970.

Stewart plays the wounded lover, whose girl has lied to him. His gravelly voice suits the song well, and there’s some nice Hammond organ and piano work courtesy of Faces’ Ian McLagan. It’s a good album track, but it was never going to light up the charts the way its flip side did. So much so, the single became a double A-side as word spread.

Stewart has rather pissed away his potential over the years, and growing up in the 80s, I saw him as a ridiculous figure. However, Maggie May is a classic, and it’s the best number 1 he’s had. There’s no chorus, but it’s a compelling story, with a memorable mandolin intro courtesy of Lindisfarne’s Ray Jackson.

Stewart had been inspired to write the song while working out some chords with guitarist Martin Quittenton of Steamhammer. He recalled his experience of losing his virginity in 1961 to an older woman at the Beaulieu Jazz Festival. The song isn’t named after her though. Stewart took it from the old Liverpool folk song about a prostitute (as briefly heard on The Beatles album Let It Be). Amazingly, you can see him taking part in the event here. The festival, not the self-confessed very brief sex… Also on the recording, which was only added to the album at the last minute, are Wood on bass and 12-string, McLagan and drummer Micky Waller, who played a drumkit with no cymbals, which were added later.

The original version of Stewart’s song opened side two of Every Picture Tells a Story with a 30-second guitar intro from Quittenton, named Delilah. In full, it’s over five minutes long, but the single edit cuts off some of the detail.

However, Stewart’s tale of love for an older woman remains fascinating. He gets you interested right from the start with those famous opening lines, revealing he was in fact a schoolboy when he was sleeping with Maggie. More mature than your average love song, Stewart finds time to insult Maggie only to remind her how deep he feels about her before she has chance to slap him:

‘The morning sun, when it’s in your face really shows your age
But that don’t worry me none in my eyes, you’re everything’

Stewart resolves to get over May by, among other things, joining a ‘rock’n’roll band’ (mission accomplished), and although he claims he wishes he’d never seen her face, you don’t believe him, and as that beautiful mandolin rings out over the fade, you’re left wondering what happened to the singer that wrote such a great song.

A song that’s taken on new meaning to me of late, as my in-laws fell in love when this was in the charts (Maggie was my father-in-law’s name for his future wife) and it was played at his funeral, 48 years later. It’s difficult to listen to anymore without welling up.

Maggie May established Stewart both here and in the US, reaching number 1 in both while he also held the number 1 album spots – a rare feat. Above you can see the famous Top of the Pops appearance of the song, in which he’s backed by his Faces bandmates and Radio 1 DJ John Peel miming the mandolin.

Written by:

Reason to Believe: Tim Hardin/Maggie May: Rod Stewart & Martin Quittenton

Producer: Rod Stewart

Weeks at number 1: 5 (9 October-12 November)

Births:

Fashion photographer Simon Atlee – 9 October
Comedian Sasha Baron Cohen – 13 October
Big Brother winner Craig Phillips – 16 October
Actor John Alford – 30 October
Archer Alison Williamson – 3 November
Footballer Michael Jeffrey – 8 November

Deaths:

Independent MP AP Herbert – 11 November

Meanwhile…

13 October: The British Army began destroying roads between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland as a security measure.

21 October: 20 people were killed in a gas explosion in the town centre of Clarkston, East Renfrewshire in Scotland.

23 October: When a car failed to stop at a Belfast checkpoint, Mary Ellen Meehan, 30, and her sister Dorothy Maguire, 19 were shot dead by soldiers.

28 October: Prime Minister Edward Heath scored a big victory when the House of Commons voted in favour of joining the EEC by a vote of 356-244.
Also on this day, the Immigration Act 1971 restricted immigration, particularly primary immigration into the U.K. and introduced the status of right of abode into law.
Plus, the UK became the sixth nation to launch a satellite into orbit using its own launch vehicle, the Prospero (X-3) experimental communications satellite.

30 October: The Democratic Unionist Party was founded by the formidable Reverend Ian Paisley in Northern Ireland.

31 October: A bomb, likely planted by the Angry Brigade, exploded at the top of London’s Post Office Tower.

10 November: The 10-route Spaghetti Junction motorway interchange was opened north of Birmingham’s city centre. The interchange would have a total of 12 routes when the final stretch of the M6 was opened in 1972.

283. Simon & Garfunkel – Bridge over Troubled Water (1970)

The first classic number 1 of the 70s, Bridge over Troubled Water‘s message of the importance of friendship in times of emotional pain made it one of the most famous songs of all time, and yet it did further damage to Simon & Garfunkel’s already strained relationship, and helped quicken their disintegration.

Paul Frederic Simon was born on 13 October 1941 in Newark, New Jersey. Arthur Ira Garfunkel was born 5 November in New York City, also 1941. They grew up three blocks from each other in Queens, New York and attended the same schools and admired The Everly Brothers. They became friends in 1953 when appearing in a sixth grade production of Alice in Wonderland. In addition to forming a street corner doo-wop quintet called The Peptones, Simon and Garfunkel began performing as a duo at school dances. In 1956 they wrote their first song, The Girl for Me and signed with independent label Big Records aged only 15.

As Tom & Jerry (Garfunkel was Tom Graph, Simon was Jerry Landis) the duo had some success with 1957 single Hey Schoolgirl, but were unable to follow it up. While both at university, and still officially a duo, Simon released a single under the name True Taylor. This can be seen as the first crack in their relationship, as it caused some resentment with Garfunkel.

They went their separate ways for some time, recording under a variety of names and working with other acts. Then in 1963, they both graduated from university and began to work together again. By now they had moved on from rock’n’roll and were both enjoying the burgeoning folk scene in Greenwich, and billed themselves as Kane & Garr. One of the songs they would perform was The Sound of Silence. Columbia Records producer Tom Wilson, who later helped Bob Dylan in his transition to electric, was impressed by the duo, and helped get them signed to the label.

In 1964, as Simon & Garfunkel, they recorded their debut LP, Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M. Featuring compositions by Simon and covers, it bombed, and Simon decided to move to the UK soon after, going solo once more.

Fast forward to 1965, and Simon had released solo album The Paul Simon Songbook, which hadn’t done too well. Garfunkel, who had been to visit his friend in the UK, was at Columbia University. Then everything changed.

The Sound of Silence was gaining in popularity with colleges on the radio, and Wilson decided to make a remix featuring electric instruments and drums, without telling either of them. Simon was horrified when he found out, but then the new folk-rock version hit number 1 in the US in January 1966. He hastily returned to the US, and they reunited to quickly record a new album, Sounds of Silence. Featuring remade versions of tracks from Simon’s solo LP, including I Am a Rock, it was a rush-job, but extremely popular, and they were famous at last.

They decided to take time over their third album, and became more interested in production, while making Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme, released that October. With their version of Scarborough Fair/Canticle, and a remade Homeward Bound among the included material, it was one of their best collections.

Simon developed writer’s block while working on the next album, but managed to pen material for Mike Nichols’ smash romantic comedy The Graduate in 1967, including Mrs. Robinson. Fourth album Bookends eventually surfaced in 1968, and included the title track, America and Hazy Shade of Winter.

By now huge recording and touring stars, their partnership began to suffer, thanks in part to Garfunkel’s acting career. Simon was to join him in Nichols’ Catch-22 (1970) but found his part written out. Matters were exacerbated by the filming taking longer than expected. Eventually they began work, with members of The Wrecking Crew and producer Roy Halee on their fifth and final album, turning down an invitation to perform at Woodstock Festival while doing so.

What was to become the title track began originally as a gentle two-verse guitar number that had been inspired in part by a line from 1958 song Mary Don’t You Weep, a gospel track by the Swan Silvertones: ‘I’ll be your bridge over deep water if you trust in me”. Simon later presented singer-songwriter Claude Jetter with a cheque to acknowledge his inspiration. The civil rights unrest and political assassinations in the stormy years leading up to this time also helped Simon come up with a message of hope.

Over the years, the duo have both given different stories over what happened next. Simon claimed he thought it would be perfect as a solo spot for Garfunkel’s angelic voice, but that he didn’t want to do it, and Simon felt hurt. Garfunkel says Simon was gracious when Garfunkel told him politely that he felt Simon should do it as it sounded lovely performed by him. Who knows – but I do know from reading and seeing interviews that both men can be oversensitive and precious.

Simon & Garfunkel, musicians and production crew assembled at CBS studios to work Bridge over Troubled Water out in November 1969. The final track to be recorded for the album, but the first to be completed, it was felt that, as nice as it was, the song should feature an extra verse, and open out to become a real epic in the style of a Phil Spector number. And so Simon wrote the ‘silver girl’ verse at Garfunkel’s suggestion, but wasn’t too keen. While some say it’s a reference to a drug user’s needle, it’s apparently an in-joke – Simon’s wife Peggy Harper had noticed she was turning grey. Simon seems to regret ever adding a third verse, and he’s not alone in that.

Bridge over Troubled Water has been criticised for being calculated and manipulative – a glossy exercise in tugging the heartstrings, and that it’s too epic, too, that it would have been better in its original incarnation. I understand all these points, and it’s certainly been used since in countless covers as the go-to song to make people emotional, but I think it’s simply a beautiful song and that no amount of stories of two stars whose egos were incompatible can spoilt it for me.

Simon is right in that the first verse, in particular, is the most moving. Garfunkel’s always beautiful voice is perfect here, and I admire the technical brilliance of being able to wring every bit of emotion out of each syllable. Garfunkel later claimed this verse took the most amount of takes, whereas the finale was the easiest. Wonderful support on the piano by Larry Knetchel, too. The performance makes me imagine that the person Garfunkel is singing to is so fragile, his almost hushed tones are all they can take.

He/they grow in strength in the second verse, adding meaning to Simon’s already powerful words, and the cymbal crashes from Hal Blaine suggest the message is getting through. Then the strings come in, courtesy of Jimmy Haskell, who had misheard the name of the song and labelled his arrangement Like a Pitcher of Troubled Water. Bass enters the fray, and Blaine gets on the drum kit. Its unclear whether that’s double-tracked singing from Garfunkel or Simon finally getting his voice heard, but I think it’s the former. Yes, the lyrics don’t match what came before, but the music picks up the slack, and then the epic rousing finale, in which Garfunkel gives it his all, leaving the darkness behind, with Blaine creating that unique drum sound by slapping the chains from his snow tyres on to his snare drum (used again on The Boxer). If this track hasn’t at least once made you want to cry when your defences are down (or just very pissed), are you even human?

The song was complete, and despite being over five minutes in length, label boss Clive Davis insisted it was too good to be anything but the first single from the album. He was totally correct, of course. It went to number 1 in the US in February, then the UK a month later, and like Wand’rin’ Star before it, it kept The Beatles’ swansong single, Let It Be, from number 1. Clearly, the mood of the time was for gospel-influenced, big message songs. The Beatles may be the greatest band of all time, but Bridge over Troubled Water was the better song here. It rightfully went on to be one of the biggest-selling singles of all time.

And the album named after the song was also huge. It was the bestseller of 1970, 71 and 72, and until Michael Jackson’s Thriller it was the biggest of all time. But Simon & Garfunkel had had enough of each other for the forseeable. In 1971, the same year their final LP won six awards at the Grammys, they split.

Simon would confess to Bridge over Troubled Water causing him to feel jealous – he resented sitting in the wings watching Garfunkel getting adulation for performing his song. You’d be forgiven for thinking he needed to get over himself. But it’s also proof that you can be an incredible songwriting talent and still be as petty as any other human, I suppose.

The duo got back together in 1972 for a benefit concert for Democrat hopeful George McGovern, but it was another three years before they spoke to each other when they visited a recording session by John Lennon and Harry Nilsson. They collaborated in the studio once more, and came up with a new single, My Little Town, which was a hit. For the rest of the 70s they would occasionally make rare TV and live appearances. Garfunkel would have a UK number 1 in April 1979 with the beautiful Bright Eyes from animated movie Watership Down (1978) – it was number 1 on the day I was born.

The 80s began with both Simon and Garfunkel’s solo careers in decline, until they were persuaded to perform at a free concert in Central Park, New York City in 1981. An incredible 500,000 attended the show – the largest ever at the time. They tried to capitalise on the renewed interest with a world tour in 1982, but old tensions rose and they barely spoke to each other throughout. Warner Bros. pushed for a tour extension and reunion album, but after early recording attempts, Simon opted for a new solo LP instead, with Garfunkel’s refusal to give up cannabis among the reasons given. Simon would go on to be very popular for the rest of the decade, particularly for his crossover world music album Graceland in 1986.

Simon & Garfunkel were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990, and managed to perform three songs together, despite Simon being pretty snide in his speech, and the duo refusing to speak to each other afterwards. A year later Simon did his own Central Park show, pointedly refusing an offer from his former partner to join him there. However in 1993 they were touring once more. Guess what? They fell out again for the rest of the decade.

In 2001 Simon was inducted into the Hall of Fame as a solo artist. He thanked Garfunkel, but ended up saying he wasn’t in a rush to make peace with him, either. Nice. A lifetime achievement Grammy for the old friends/sworn enemies in 2003 resulted in another halt to their Cold War. They toured the US and Europe for a year, and performed at a Hurricane Katrina benefit in 2005. Their final performance as Simon & Garfunkel took place at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival in 2010, with the latter struggling with vocal cord paresis. Further dates were postponed indefinitely, and it would be four years before his voice was back to full strength.

Simon announced his retirement from touring in 2018. Does that mean we’ll never see them on stage ever again? Who knows. They’re both approaching 80, and it seems Simon in particular is unlikely to want to do so, but it would be nice to think they could end their days as friends once more. Hopefully it would be for genuine reasons, rather than the money.

If it doesn’t happen, best to take comfort in the fact the duo were able to produce some brilliant songs, had real alchemy together, and that despite the result it had on their relationship, Bridge over Troubled Water has helped so many people for 50 years.

Among the multitude of covers, it’s been number 1 twice since, for great causes – making up part of A Bridge over You, the 2015 Christmas number 1 by Lewisham & Greenwich NHS Choir, and in its own right in 2017, when stars including Robbie Williams, Rita Ora, Roger Daltrey and Stoemzy united under the banner Artists for Grenfell.

Written by: Paul Simon

Producer: Roy Halee, Paul Simon & Art Garfunkel

Weeks at number 1: 3 (28 March-17 April)

Meanwhile…

April Fool’s Day: Everton won the Football League First Division title.

10 April: Paul McCartney announces that he has left The Beatles, marking the end of the Fab Four.

11 April: Chelsea and Leeds United drew 2–2 in the FA Cup final at Wembley Stadium, making it the first to require a replay since 1912.

16 April: The controversial Dr. Ian Paisley entered the Parliament of Northern Ireland after winning the Bannside By-election.

272. The Beatles – The Ballad of John and Yoko (1969)

The Beatles went to number 1 for the 17th and final time with John Lennon’s The Ballad of John and Yoko. It was a sure a sign as any that the Fab Four were about to split up, and yet it proved that Lennon and McCartney were still able to put aside their differences and work together.

Lennon and Yoko Ono had married in Gibraltar, Spain on 20 March that year. Soon after Lennon wrote The Ballad of John and Yoko as a kind of travelogue set to a Chuck Berry sound, covering the wedding, the honeymoon in Paris, and their first bed-in a few days later at the Amsterdam Hilton.

An excited and impatient Lennon visited McCartney at home on 14 April, three days after Get Back had been released, in the hope of getting the song finished. Surprisingly, not only did they finish writing it, they went to Abbey Road that afternoon with producer George Martin and engineer Geoff Emerick (for the first time since he’d walked out of sessions for The Beatles) and recorded it, without George Harrison (who was on holiday) or Ringo Starr (he was filming The Magic Christian). The Ballad of John and Yoko was done and dusted by 9.30pm.

Lennon sang lead, played lead and rhythm guitar, and made percussion sounds by slapping the back of an acoustic guitar. McCartney provided some excellent harmony vocals, bass, drums, piano and maracas. Appreciating the irony of being the only two band members involved, Barry Miles noted in Paul McCartney: Many Years From Now (1997) the following exchange: Lennon (on guitar): ‘Go a bit faster, Ringo!’ McCartney (on drums): ‘OK, George!’

After months of torturous misery during the Get Back sessions, how come the duo were able to knock up a single so quickly? The fact they were two down simplified matters obviously, but McCartney was probably so relieved that Lennon was enthusiastic for the first time in a fair while, he was bound to jump at the chance, even if the lyrics made it plain that Lennon was growing apart from The Beatles. He may also have known that Lennon was likely to go ahead and record it anyway with somebody else, and he was determined to keep the band together despite the tensions.

The Ballad of John and Yoko is a real oddity in The Beatles’ catalogue. With it’s self-centered lyrics, you could easily call this the start of Lennon’s solo career really. I find it a real shame that, after all my blogs on such classic material, this is the final Beatles song I get to write about for this blog. I mean, it’s only half the band! Let It Be would have been a far more appropriate way to end the number 1s of the greatest band of all time.

Unlike many though, I’m not here to bury it. It’s not a bad song, and it’s not my least favourite Beatles single. I think I prefer it to Get Back, because it has more energy. Ironically, it’s McCartney who shines here. His rhythm track has real punch to it, and I’ve always enjoyed his drumming (I’m certainly not knocking Starr though). And I really like the final verse when he joins Lennon to sing. I admire the chutzpah of Lennon to write a chorus which mocks the whole ‘Bigger than Jesus’ scandal of 1966 too. It showed how far music had come in three years, and the Beatles led the way for most of that time (having said that, many radio stations would either censor the song or refuse to even play it).

Maybe in a way it is an appropriate song to end on, with the Fab Four’s chief songwriters working together so closely again. Those days had been few and far between for some time, and sadly, there weren’t any more to come.

This single, backed with George Harrison’s superior Old Brown Shoe, was rush-released on 30 May, and was their first single to be in stereo only. Due to Lennon wanting the song to be topical, this meant the unusual approach of releasing it while previous single Get Back was still at number 1. Tommy Roe’s Dizzy knocked that from the top, but was only there for a week before The Ballad of John and Yoko hit number 1.

And here’s where the story of the world’s greatest band ends. Except obviously, it wasn’t over yet. The group had already agreed on McCartney’s suggestion to make another album, and sessions were under way. The Ballad of John and Yoko‘s success proved there was still fuel in the tank, and George Martin was glad to be back on board providing they went back to earlier methods of recording. In other words, stop the bickering of the past year. And they all got on much better… for a while, anyway. McCartney and Martin were keen on a long medley and Lennon wasn’t. Lennon didn’t bother turning up for sessions for Harrison songs either.

Before Abbey Road had been completed he released his first ‘solo’ single (as the Plastic Ono Band), the famous anti-war anthem Give Peace a Chance. Nothing was ever said, but there was a general feeling among all involved that Abbey Road would be their final work together.

McCartney had become the odd man out earlier that year after the other three had voted tough American businessman Allen Klein as their new manager, which put a huge strain on the band in addition to their other issues. On 20 September, six days before the release of one of their best albums, Lennon announced he was leaving and John, Paul, George and Ringo never recorded as a unit again.

Something/Come Together would have been a perfect number 1 single in October, but demand had been so high for its parent album, it missed out. One last song, Harrison’s I Me Mine, was completed minus Lennon in January 1970. This was done to make it part of the salvaged Get Back sessions, now to feature in a film and LP called Let It Be. Klein handed over the tapes to Phil Spector, who had recently produced Instant Karma! for Lennon. Smothering many of the songs with lush orchestral sounds, including Let It Be and The Long and Winding Road, McCartney was not amused, and beat Lennon to the punch by publicly announcing he had quit, the week before the release of McCartney, his first solo album, on 10 April.

The full story of the demise of The Beatles makes for a riveting but depressing read, and I recommend Pete Doggett’s You Never Give Me Your Money: The Battle for the Soul of The Beatles (2009) if you want to know more.

Despite many highly lucrative offers over the years, The Beatles never did reform. It’s likely they would have had Lennon not been murdered in 1980, with relations between he and McCartney thawing. The closest we got was the Anthology project of the mid-90s, and the singles Free As a Bird (1995) and Real Love (1996), where the remaining trio worked on Lennon demos provided by Ono. Although not up to the standard of their previous work, they’re decent enough tunes, and I still can’t believe neither made it to number 1. I guess the world had moved on. A bit.

A new romantic comedy, Yesterday, imagines a world in which they never existed. Pop would probably still have moved on from the doldrums of the early-60s, but it could never have become quite so innovative, so witty, so joyous and so magical without them. Nobody had, has, or ever will have the alchemy of the Fab Four.

The Beatles. 17 number 1 singles. They changed everything.

Written by: John Lennon & Paul McCartney

Producer: George Martin

Weeks at number 1: 3 (11 June-1 July)

Births:

Graphic artist Simon Taylor – 22 June

Meanwhile…

14 June: Burmese the horse was ridden by the Queen for the first time at Trooping the Colour, a role she held until 1986.

21 June: BBC One transmitted fly-on-the-wall documentary The Royal Family, made by the BBC and ITV to celebrate the investiture of Prince Charles on 1 July. It gave an insight into the Windsors that could only have been imagined previously. Viewing figures topped 30,600,500, but some worried that the overexposure could damage the throne, and the Queen pulled it off air in 1972. Only clips have been seen on TV since then.
Earlier that day, Patrick Troughton made his last regular appearance in Doctor Who. Banished to Earth by the Time Lords in the final episode of The War Games, it was also the final black and white episode of the sci-fi series.

24 June: After the referendum in Rhodesia had voted in favour of becoming a Republic, the Governor of Southern Rhodesia, Sir Humphrey Gibbs, left Government House. This severed the last diplomatic relationship with the UK.

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

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 on 2 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 Stills’ 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 on 6 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

Meanwhile…

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

26 April: Manchester City won the FA Cup with a 1-0 win over Leicester City at Wembley.

28 April: Leeds United won the Football league First Division title for the first time.

2 May: The famed ocean liner Queen Elizabeth II embarked on its maiden voyage, from Southampton to New York.

29 May: 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.