The Beatles are the fascination that lingers. I’ve been listening to them since August 1968, when my parents gave me Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band for my seventh birthday, the original Capitol Records pressing with the souvenir cutouts, the paper mustache, the epaulettes. It takes a certain type of fan to obsess about such things, and once upon a time that’s who I was. Obsessive enough to track down every recording John ever played on, every song he and Paul wrote for Cilla Black or Peter & Gordon, every Teddy Boy bootleg: Hamburg, The Decca Sessions, This Is the Savage Young Beatles, with its garish yellow cover, the band clustered in their leathers, looking not quite dangerous enough to be a street gang, not quite polished enough to be the pop phenomenon they became.
This is one version of the fantasy Beatles, the early Beatles, the tough-guy rock-and-rollers, the amphetamine-eating wild boys who played eight hours a night in the Star Club, John with a toilet seat around his neck. This is the prehistory, vague and filmy, glimpsed in black-and-white photographs and fragmentary sound clips: the chime of a guitar, three seconds of harmony that seem almost familiar, prescient, like a sign of times to come. We almost feel as if we know them, as if these are the kids in high school who went on to sign a record deal. They appear to be accessible to us on human terms; as John told Jann Wenner in 1970, “We were just a band who made it very, very big, that’s all.”
Of course, the Beatles have never been accessible to us on human terms, at least not in America; they were famous from the moment we met them, Beatlemania 1964. Still, those early images and bootlegs suggest an alternate history, a way we might remake them as our own.
The Beatles don’t have to be the band that took the world by storm. Or maybe they are, but didn’t fall apart; maybe Abbey Road or Let It Be—depending on your dissolution myth—doesn’t have to be the final word. This is the other version of the fantasy Beatles, equally shadowy and indistinct. What if they had stayed together and made records until John decided to become a househusband in 1975? It’s not entirely out of the question: by the mid-1970s, John and Paul had come to an accommodation. They were together the night Lorne Michaels jokingly offered the Beatles three thousand dollars to appear on Saturday Night Live; it’s said they considered showing up at NBC. A few years earlier, on March 31, 1974, they even reunited for an evening in a Los Angeles recording studio, along with Stevie Wonder, Harry Nilsson, Jesse Ed Davis, and Bobby Keys; the resulting booze- and coke-addled session, featuring standards like “Cupid” and “Stand By Me,” is available on a bootleg called A Toot and a Snore in ’74. It isn’t much to listen to, except for when those harmonies kick in. Here we have the nature of pop stardom—to be a mirror for the audience’s desire.
So why not play a game of let’s imagine? If the Beatles hadn’t broken up, what would their 1970s albums have sounded like? I’ve been asking myself this question off and on since I was a teenager. It became the subtext of every Beatles’ solo album, from the experimental mish-mash of Two Virgins to the treacly textures of McCartney II. It’s endlessly tricky, because the key to an album – and that includes imaginary albums – is the flow. You can’t just throw a bunch of songs together; that’s why Greatest Hits records rarely work. When I was younger, and less willing to forgive Paul his sentimentality, I used to dream about a band with John at its center: hard-edged and political. But even then, I understood that this isn’t what the Beatles were. Neither were they the spiritual supplicants of George’s early solo work, nor the loose jam band of Ram and Wild Life. (As for Ringo … well, let’s just say that they were never Ringo’s band.)
Many of the songs on these records, no matter how good (“Three Legs,” “I Found Out,” “Maya Love”) would never have made it onto a Beatles album. They’re too personal, too distinct from the identity of the whole. Any invented record has to make sense as a Beatles album, to reflect the amalgam the band was, the formulas on which they relied. For all their innovations, the Beatles were formulaic as well, building albums that had a standard architecture (one or two songs from George, a balance of John and Paul, and a quick dash of Ringo). You can’t forget that when considering what they might have done.
And then there’s this: For all the work John, Paul, George, and Ringo did in the 1970s, a lot of it isn’t very good. That’s the other problem with my John-led fantasy band; with the exception of Walls and Bridges (and, later, Double Fantasy and Milk and Honey), not much after Imagine is worth listening to. The same is true of George, who released only one truly great solo album (All Things Must Pass) and Ringo, who peaked with his eponymous 1973 album – which, with all four ex-Beatles making cameo appearances, is as close to a reunion record as there ever was. In fact, if you take all the solo stuff from the late 1960s (starting with “Cold Turkey”) through the dissolution of Apple Records (George’s dreadful Extra Texture was the label’s last release), it’s striking just how little of it would work as material for the band. Maybe that has to do with everyone shaking off the shackles of group identity, or perhaps it’s a matter of being famous enough to be granted absolute self-indulgence to make a triple album or release a recording of a baby’s heartbeat in the womb.
Still, I’ve come to conceptualize four records the Beatles could have made, four records that feed back to the whole. The first would be a late 1970 album called Instant Karma, released around Thanksgiving, let’s say, and dominated by John, who had a better year than anyone in 1970. George gets two cuts, likely what John and Paul would have allowed him, notwithstanding the enormous backlog of All Things Must Pass. There is nothing from Ringo, whose two 1970 albums, Sentimental Journey and Beaucoups of Blues featured standards and country covers respectively. Paul, too, is a vestigial presence – there’s just not that much good, finished material on McCartney – although his joyous anthem “Maybe I’m Amazed” would have been the single, with a “Cold Turkey” b-side.
Look at Me (John)
Teddy Boy (Paul)
Working Class Hero (John)
What is Life? (George)
Cold Turkey (John)
Beware of Darkness (George)
Instant Karma (John)
Maybe I’m Amazed (Paul)
In 1971, the solo Beatles made a strong showing, with John putting out Imagine and Paul releasing Ram and the understated Wild Life. The imaginary album this engenders, entitled Too Many People and released, like its predecessor, toward the end of the year, reflects a growing sense of individual identity, even within the context of the group. Looking back, it’s fascinating that both John and Paul (and even Ringo, with “It Don’t Come Easy”) were wrestling with similar questions, as if for all the fallout from the Beatles’ self-immolation, they ended up in a similar place. Hence, “Crippled Inside” leads into “It Don’t Come Easy,” which takes us into George’s “All Things Must Pass” (a holdover from 1970) and Paul’s “Another Day.” Side two picks up the theme, although it ends with reconciliation: Paul’s “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey” and “Monkberry Moon Delight,” the two latter-day songs that sound the most like the Beatles. Here they come off as a bit of connective fiber, a call-back.
TOO MANY PEOPLE
Crippled Inside (John)
It Don’t Come Easy (Ringo, co-written with George)
All Things Must Pass (George)
Another Day (Paul)
Too Many People (Paul)
Jealous Guy (John)
Gimme Some Truth (John)
Awaiting on You All (George)
Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey (Paul)
Monkberry Moon Delight (Paul)
After 1971, things start to fall apart. First, the work gets sparse: There are no 1972 solo albums except for John’s Sometime in New York City, a strident record with little to recommend it other than his killer live version of “Well (Baby Please Don’t Go).” Then it just gets bad—Red Rose Speedway and Mind Games, anyone? Fortunately, there’s Band on the Run and Ringo, and Paul’s 1972 single “Hi Hi Hi.” But George’s Living in the Material World yields just the lovely title track, making this a period in which he is the least prominent Beatle of the four.
So how do we make a record out of all of this? First, we take a year off, and like the real Beatles, essentially write off 1972. It’s not until late 1973 that there’s enough material for an album. Called Let Me Roll It, it features ten songs, four by Paul and four by John (including the Ringo-sung “I’m the Greatest”), and for the most part has a poppy, radio-friendly feel. In a lot of ways, this is Beatles-lite, except for “Woman is the Nigger of the World” and “John Sinclair,” which highlight John’s alienation from the band. If 1971 was a year in which they seemed if not together than at least on the same trajectory, by 1973, the Beatles have started to fall prey to the dissolution of the age.
LET ME ROLL IT
Band on the Run (Paul)
Let Me Roll It (Paul)
Woman is the Nigger of the World (John)
I’m the Greatest (Ringo, written by John)
Mind Games (John)
Hi Hi Hi (Paul)
Living in the Material World (George)
John Sinclair (John)
And now we come to the last of the imaginary Beatles, the end of the fantasy. So why not imagine that they’d know it and would offer up a statement of goodbye? In 1969, after the debacle of the Let It Be sessions, Paul went to George Martin to propose making an album “the way we used to” so the band could “go out on a high note.” The result, of course, was Abbey Road, which I’ve always felt is the finest Beatles album, in part because they understood that there would be no more. By 1975, the songwriting is no longer on that level, but it’s possible to construct an album that retraces the history of the band. The template is already there, in Paul’s Venus and Mars, an underrated record that offers a structure to the final Beatles album, called What You Got, and released in early 1975.
Here, we see a conscious reference to Sgt. Pepper, an album designed to mirror a live performance. Such an idea is explicit from the first track: Paul’s “Venus and Mars/Rock Show,” which is echoed at the end of the record with “Venus and Mars Reprise.” Like Sgt. Pepper, the concert conceit is more a matter of convenience, but it frames some of the strongest Beatles music since the early 1970s, keyed by John’s contributions, taken from Walls and Bridges, another record that’s unfairly overlooked. George contributes “Dark Horse” and the lovely “This Guitar Can’t Keep From Crying” (a sequel of sorts to “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”). And the whole thing concludes with John’s 1975 b-side “Move Over Ms. L.,” a 1950s-style rave-up that is both encore and knowing look back to the band’s roots, playing Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran songs at street fairs in Liverpool.
WHAT YOU GOT
Venus and Mars/Rock Show (Paul)
Steel and Glass (John)
Dark Horse (George)
Nobody Loves You (When You’re Down and Out) (John)
No No Song (Ringo)
Goodnight, Vienna (Ringo, written by John)
# 9 Dream (John)
What You Got (John)
This Guitar Can’t Keep From Crying (George)
Venus and Mars Reprise (Paul)
Move Over Ms. L. (John)
Real life, of course, doesn’t work this way. In real life, the Beatles shattered beneath the weight of precisely the sorts of expectations that are at the heart of an exercise such as this. It was too much, living on the other side of the mirror, too much to exist as that obscure object of desire. I can’t say I blame them — but even now, forty years after I first heard them, at an age John never got to, they remain both the fascination that lingers, and I can’t help wondering what it would have been like if they’d stuck around.