1970 was a difficult year for the Beatles. After completing the recording of Abbey Road in August 1969, the four members of the band did not visit a recording studio as a group. More time was spent with lawyers, accountants, business managers and everything but music. The events leading to their breakup announcement generated a lot of drama in the media and music magazines loved covering these non-music tidbits, as music magazines go. But – as solo artists the fab four were quite busy making music, with all members releasing solo albums that year. We will review the recordings in their chronological order of release in the year 1970, and first is a song written, recorded and mixed in a single day.
John Lennon started the year with what the Daily Mirror described as “the most sensational scalpings since the Red Indians went out of business”. On January 20th he acquired a new look while on a trip to Denmark, where he spent time with Yoko Ono visiting her former husband Tony Cox and her daughter Kyoko. The visit also gave birth to Lennon’s next song, inspired by a conversation with Cox’s then-wife Melinde Kendall about the immediacy of fate.
Lennon later said about the origin of the song title, Instant Karma: “Everybody was going on about karma, especially in the Sixties. But it occurred to me that karma is instant as well as it influences your past life or your future life. There really is a reaction to what you do now. That’s what people ought to be concerned about. Also, I’m fascinated by commercials and promotion as an art form. I enjoy them. So the idea of instant karma was like the idea of instant coffee: presenting something in a new form.”
One week after he shorn his hair, Lennon was back in England. Waking up on the morning of January 27, he had a song in his head. Putting the idea of instant karma to practice, he decided to record it the same day. A call quickly ensued to George Harrison, who picks up the story: “I was in town with Phil Spector and I said to Phil, ‘Why don’t you come to the session?’” Other musicians were invited to the impromptu session, including drummer Alan White and long-time Beatles friend bass player Klaus Voormann, who continues: “When I arrived, there was this little American guy in the control room, very busy, twiddling knobs and telling Alan, ‘Turn your cymbal up’. No one had told me who was producing the session and I didn’t know who this busy little guy was, except that on his shirt were the letters PS.”
Enter an important figure in the Beatles’ musical ventures in 1970, producer Phil Spector.
The studio wunderkind, famous for his Wall of Sound productions in the early 1960s, first met the fab four in 1964. He was on the plane that took them over the Atlantic to conquer America when they performed on the Ed Sullivan show. The band was quite impressed with the 1966 hit ‘River Deep – Mountain High’ which Spector co-wrote and produced. Lennon gave him one of the highest praises he could give: “If we ever used anybody besides George Martin, it would be Phil.”
The recording session of Instant Karma! was quite a quick one. Lennon: “Phil Spector came in and said, ‘How do you want it?’ And I said, ‘1950s’ and he said ‘Right’ and BOOM! … he played it back and there it was.” Lennon wanted a simple, minimalistic approach to recording, in contrast to the lengthy, meticulous sessions the Beatles were famous for. In December 1970 he told Rolling Stone magazine: “Phil doesn’t fuss about with fuckin’ stereo or all the bullshit. Does it sound all right? Then let’s have it, no matter whether something’s prominent or not prominent. If it sounds good to you as a layman or a human, take it, don’t bother whether this is like that or the quality of this, just take it.”
One of the highlights of the song is Alan White’s drumming and odd fills during the second verse. He got that unique sound by placing a bath towel over his tom tom, on Spector’s suggestion. He said about his performance on the song: “It was one of those things where you are playing a rhythm but when it comes to a drum break, you play in a different meter. It came naturally.” Lennon loved this unexpected break in the song. “Alan, whatever you’re doing, keep doing it”, he told the young drummer. Talking to Melody Maker magazine in February 1970, White spoke of Phil Spector’s commanding aura at the studio: “He spent a long time fiddling around with my drums to get the right sound and in fact he got one of the best drum sounds I have ever heard. He just took over and made the whole session.”
Spector was full of creative ideas in the session, one of them to differentiate between the bridge and the verses with a chorus. Billy Preston and Mel Evans, also present in the studio that day, were sent to Hatchetts, a popular London night club. They came back with a gang of strangers, who together with Yoko Ono and Mel Evans sang at the top of their lungs and clapped hands. Alan White was skeptical about a horde of club drinkers being able to perform in the studio but was happily surprised: “I thought it was going to be a total mess, people are going to be out of tune, out of time. We went through one run-through and I went ‘Oh my God!’ We could not believe it – they were re all singing in time and in tune.”
Additional overdubs ensued, including Lennon on grand piano, Harrison and White on another piano, Voormann on electric piano and Mal Evans on chimes. Phil Spector then continued on to mix the recording, applying his magic. Lennon: “We went in the control room and heard what he’d done. It was fantastic. It sounded like there were 50 people playing.” Spector was not done and asked to take the tape to the US and add strings to it. Lennon declined the offer, luckily.
Instant Karma! was released a week after it was recorded. It climbed to number 3 on America’s Billboard Hot 100 chart and number 5 on the UK Singles Chart.
John Lennon – lead vocals, acoustic guitar, piano, backing vocals
George Harrison – electric guitar, piano, backing vocals
Klaus Voormann – bass guitar, electric piano, backing vocals
Alan White – drums, piano, backing vocals
Billy Preston – Hammond organ, backing vocals
Yoko Ono – backing vocals
Mal Evans – chimes, handclaps, backing vocals
Revellers from London’s Hatchett Club – backing vocals
Here is a clip of the song performed (mimed, rather) on Top of the Pops, with Voormann, White, Evans and the ubiquitous Yoko Ono, blindfolded and knitting, what else? And don’t miss the blindfold itself. Kate Greer, BBC assistant producer, recalls: “When John Lennon and Yoko Ono did ‘Instant Karma!’, everyone thought Yoko was wearing a napkin over her eyes as a blindfold. It was actually a sanitary towel.”
While John Lennon took inspiration from instant coffee, Ringo Starr looked back to his childhood, seeking material for his first solo album. In 1990 he talked about the period at the end of 1969 when it was clear to the members of The Beatles that they are not likely to record together again: “I wondered, what shall I do with my life now that it’s all over? I was brought up with all those songs, my family used to sing those songs, my mother and my dad, my aunties and uncles. They were the first musical influences on me.” Ringo had the advantage of being a member of The Beatles. Who wouldn’t want to work on a musical project with a Beatle? He went to George Martin, pitching the idea of producing an album of standards such as Night and Day, Bye Bye Blackbird and Stardust, with each track scored by a different arranger. And what arrangers he got: Ron Goodwin, Elmer Bernstein, Quincy Jones, George Martin, Oliver Nelson, John Dankworth, Paul McCartney.
The album was released on March 27 1970 and featured a front cover photograph showing Ringo in front of the Empress Pub in Liverpool, not far from his childhood home. The album, which could be considered a novelty, made it to no. 7 and 22 in the UK and US album charts, perhaps on the strength of this being the first popular music solo album by a Beatle, following John and George’s experimental endeavors of the late 1960s.
Klaus Voormann was one of the musical arrangers, asked by Ringo to write a score for the song ‘I’m a Fool to Care’. He was quite critical of the venture: “I gave it a try. I thought if I showed it to George Martin he wouldn’t like it, but he said, ‘Oh, Klaus, that’s very good.’ But it’s awful, terrible.”
Just after the album was released, the UK TV show ‘Frost on Sunday’ aired a promotional film of the album. Ringo Starr acted as a crooner with a pink bow tie, prancing around a group of dancers on a shiny stage. Notice the three singers at the top of the stage, they consist of Doris Troy, Marsha Hunt and Madeleine Bell.
We talked about Lennon’s goal of recording songs fast, in contrast to the Beatles way of working in the studio. How about another Beatle venturing farther afield in the studio, going literally solo? On April 17, 1970 Paul McCartney released his self-titled debut, a collection of songs on which he is the sole songwriter, musician and singer (ok, Linda sings background vocals).
At the end of 1969 McCartney and family travelled to his farm in Scotland, where they spent nearly two months soaking in a familial bliss. McCartney needed that break after the Beatles stopped functioning as a musical entity. He said of that period: “I was going through a hard period. I exhibited all the classic symptoms of the unemployed, the redundant man. First, you don’t shave, and it’s not to grow a groovy beard, it’s because you cannot be fucking bothered.”
While in Scotland Paul started to write songs and record them on a 4-track tape machine. Linda, whom he married in March 1969, was ever supporting his musical efforts. He recalled: “I’d have a guitar and an amp in the house and she’d say, ‘I never knew you played guitar!’ Yeah, I’d play a few blues licks, you know? I’d say, ‘I did this and that, did the Taxman solos…’ She was very encouraging.”
Coming back to London after Christmas, Paul continued to record additional tracks on his rudimentary recording machine, relying on none of the state of the art equipment that a professional studio could offer: “Talk about honest. You couldn’t get more honest than plugging right in the back of the machine, and if the snare was too loud you moved the mic away from it a bit.”
In stark contrast to the production of the Abbey Road album only a few months earlier, McCartney’s recording process was as DIY as it gets. Linda McCartney gave an example: “In fact, on the track Lovely Linda, which was one of the first to be recorded, you can hear the squeak of the garden door opening and closing.”
The album includes several songs that truly sound like demos or sketches, sometime not even complete songs. There is an endearing low-fi quality throughout the album. McCartney talked about the inclusion of the various song snippets: “You’ve got people who say ‘Oh, I love The Lovely Linda’ and silly things that were just little asides on the album. Or ‘That Would Be Something.’ They were almost throwaways, you know. But that’s why they were included – they weren’t quite throwaways. That was the whole idea of the album. All the normal things that you record that are great and have all this atmosphere but aren’t that brilliant as recordings or production jobs. Normally that stuff ends up with the rest of your demos, but all that stuff is often stuff I love.”
When better recording environment was needed, Paul visited Abbey Road but kept the DIY approach and the family atmosphere. In an interview for Evening Standard in April 1970 he said: “When we had to go to the studios, Linda would make the booking, and we’d take some sandwiches, and a bottle of grape juice and put the baby on the floor, and it was all like a holiday. So, as a natural turn of events from looking for something to do, I found that I was enjoying working alone as much as I’d enjoyed the early days of the Beatles.”
For me the crown achievement of the album is the song Maybe I’m Amazed, one of Paul’s best love songs. Considering his vast arsenal of beautiful and classic love songs this must be a heck of a song, and it is. The song is an ode to Linda McCartney. When Paul was asked about her contribution to the album he said: “Strictly speaking she harmonizes, but of course it’s more than that because she is a shoulder to lean on, a second opinion, and a photographer of renown. More than all this, she believes in me – constantly.”
Paul considered Maybe I’m Amazed as the most successful song off the album. The song was not released as a single at the time, but a single of a live version by from Wings Over America was released in 1977.
Paul McCartney – vocals, acoustic guitar, electric guitar, bass guitar, drums, piano, organ, percussion, wineglasses, Mellotron, effects
Linda McCartney – harmony vocals
The album cover included a large collection of photographs taken by Linda while the McCartney family was on vacation in Scotland, Portugal, Antigua, France and Greece. The front cover shows a bowl of cherries placed on a low wall in their holiday cottage in Antigua to feed the birds. If you are curious, these are glacé (candied) cherries that the couple picked in a bar.
The back cover photograph became iconic, and was originally intended for the front cover. The McCartneys gave their holiday photos to their friend David Puttnam, future producer of films such as Chariots of Fire, The Mission, The Killing Fields, Local Hero and Midnight Express and a member of the House of Lords, to pick his favorite one for the cover. Paul: “He got back the next day and said, ‘There’s only one.’ Well which one? ‘That one, you and the baby, in the jacket, that’s incredible.’”
We come to the final studio album released under The Beatles name. On May 8 1970, a month after the Beatles announced their break-up, they released the album Let It Be. It included recordings the Beatles previously made as part of an aborted album/movie package titled Get Back in early 1969. The story will be told in detail when I get to that year in the Beatles career, so let us focus on the album’s production work and release in 1970. This brings us again to Phil Spector. After his involvement with John Lennon’s Instant Karma!, Lennon and Harrison were impressed enough by his work that they decided to give him the tapes of the recordings they made for that project to see what he can come up with. The result was either professional and slick, or the worst imaginable, depending on who you ask.
Given the history and the original goal of that project, it is easy to understand why critics were dismayed by the use of a large strings orchestra and choir on some of the songs. The plan was to show the Beatles playing the songs in a live studio situation, very few overdubs, with the additional goal to play them live. The resulting film indeed achieved that goal, and all music in it features simple arrangements that allowed the Beatles to play the songs without much of studio wizardry as in their previous albums.
Enter Phil Spector, who spent hours with the tapes in the Apple basement in February and March of 1970. None of the songs, spare the title track, were previously released, so the world at large had no point of reference for the changes Spector made. In some cases the difference, while significant, did not modify the original intent for the song and kept it very much in the spirit of a Beatles production. An example is Let It Be, with the album version featuring a second guitar solo overdub by Harrison, fewer backing vocals, a delay effect on Ringo’s hi-hat, and more prominent orchestration.
The same argument is hard to make in favor of Paul McCartney’s The Long and Winding Road. On April 1 1970 Spector entered the studio with 18 violins, 4 violas, 4 cellos, harp, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones and a choir of 14 vocalists. They played an orchestration by Richard Hewson, who previously worked on early Apple productions including Mary Hopkin and James Taylor. A few weeks later Paul McCartney, who wrote and sang the song, told the Evening Standard: “The album was finished a year ago, but a few months ago American record producer Phil Spector was called in by John Lennon to tidy up some of the tracks. A few weeks ago, I was sent a re-mixed version of my song ‘The Long And Winding Road’, with harps, horns, an orchestra and women’s choir added. No one had asked me what I thought. I couldn’t believe it.”
Glyn Jones was the sound engineer on the original Let It Be recordings, and later in 1969 was given the tapes to mix, a project that was aborted. He was much harsher in his critic of Spector’s production liberties: “After the group broke up, John gave the tapes to Phil Spector, who puked all over them, turning the album into the most syrupy load of bullshit I have ever heard.” Lennon, on the other hand, said this about Spector’s contribution to the album: “He was given the shittiest load of badly-recorded shit with a lousy feel to it ever, and he made something of it.”
Paul had to wait until 2003 and the release of Let It Be… Naked to show the world the beauty of his original version. Here is the released take of the song from 31 January 1969:
But we have to be fair to Phil Spector. He knew his craft and on other songs all these overdubs made perfect sense. A fine example is my favorite song on the album, John Lennon’s Across The Universe.
The song was recorded on February 4th 1968, much earlier than the rest of the songs on the album. Lennon said of the writing of the song, which took place one early morning: “It’s like being possessed; like a psychic or a medium. The thing has to go down. It won’t let you sleep, so you have to get up, make it into something, and then you’re allowed to sleep. That’s always in the middle of the bloody night, when you’re half awake or tired and your critical facilities are switched off.”
Lennon and McCartney wanted female harmony vocals to sing ‘Nothing’s gonna change my world’, so McCartney held an impromptu audition among the girls gathered outside EMI Studios. The girls were Lizzie Bravo, 16, and Gayleen Pease, 17. They were the only Beatles fans ever invited to contribute to a recording session.
The song was first released on the World Wildlife Fund album ‘No One’s Gonna Change Our World’ in December 1969. Only The Beatles could skip releasing a fantastic song like this on two consecutive albums before putting it out 2 years later. Fast forward to the same April 1970 date when the overdubs were recorded for The Long and Winding Road. This time the overdubs sound pretty good, and although I still like the original naked version, Spector’s additions here are in good taste.
Ringo Starr was the only Beatle participating on that recording date, and he did more than overdubbing. Brian Gibson, Abbey Road engineer, recalls the session and the flamboyant producer: “He wanted to hear it, while it was being recorded, exactly the way it would sound when finished: with all the tape echo, plate echo, chamber echo, all the effects. This was horrendously difficult in studio one which is, technically, quite primitive. Spector was on the point of throwing a bit wobbly – ‘I wanna hear this!’, ‘I must have that!’ – when Ringo took him quietly aside and said, ‘Look, they can’t do that, they’re doing the best they can. Just cool it.’”
Lennon was quite proud when he spoke about the song in an interview he gave Rolling Stone magazine in December 1970: “It’s one of the best lyrics I’ve written. In fact, it could be the best. It’s good poetry, or whatever you call it, without chewin’ it. See, the ones I like are the ones that stand as words, without melody. They don’t have to have any melody, like a poem, you can read them.” Here is the version of the song as released on the album Let It Be, overdubs and all:
Sources: https://www.beatlesbible.com/, a great resource for details about songs by The Beatles.
Let It Be 50th Anniversary Deluxe Edition booklet, 2021
McCartney Deluxe Edition book, 2011
John Lennon / Plastic Ono Band Deluxe box set book, 2021
All Things Must Pass Super Deluxe Edition book, 2021
In part 2 of this article we will review Ringo Starr’s Beaucoups of Blues, George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass and John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band.
Categories: A Year in Music