We finished part 1 of this article with the release of Let It Be in May 1970, but that was not the end of musical activities by The Beatles members that year. We have solo albums by three of the fab four released in the second part of 1970, and we start by the only member who released two solo albums in 1970, this time following his passion for country music.
Six months after releasing his debut album, Ringo Starr followed up with another album far removed from the music he made with the Beatles. He brushed with American country music on a few occasions on Beatles albums, singing songs such as Act Naturally, What Goes On and Don’t Pass Me By. None of them would make any credible list of top Beatles songs list, but they showcased his love of that genre of music. In 1970 Ringo had a fateful meeting with American pedal steel guitarist Pete Drake, one of the most sought-after backup musicians of the 1960s and a member of the Nashville A-Team. Drake travelled to London on the invitation of George Harrison to play on his forthcoming album All Things Must Pass (read on for a lot more about that fantastic album). Ringo picks up the story: “It all came together because I sent my car to pick up Pete Drake at the airport when he came in to record with George. He noticed I had a lot of country music in my car. Everyone always knew I liked country music.” Realizing that he found a kindred spirit, Drake suggested to the drummer to come down to Nashville and record an album: “I gave him a hundred songs to choose from. He took them to his hotel room and listened to every last one of them. Eventually he managed to whittle them down to a dozen.” The result was Ringo’s second solo album, Beaucoups of Blues.
Ringo wasted no time and showed up at Music City Recorders studio in Nashville, Tennessee at the end of June 1970. The studio was founded six years earlier by guitar legend Scotty Moore, known for his recordings with Elvis Presley. Asked about his work with Ringo and his thoughts about the Beatles, Moore was all appreciation: “It was the first time I’d met Ringo or any of The Beatles. When their first records were released over here, people were saying well peep up today and gone tomorrow, I said ‘Well you’d better stop and listen again, you know, because it’s definitely good music’. It might be a bunch of noise to some folks but if you really listened deep to it they had their own feeling.”
The work ethic in Nashville was still rooted in what the Beatles experienced at the very early part of their recording career. As they became increasingly sophisticated in the studio, the Beatles spent months recording a single album. In Nashville Ringo had to re-learn the craft of recording multiple songs a day. Nashville session musician guitarist Charlie Daniels, later of Charlie Daniels Band fame, recalls: “Those were pretty typical Nashville sessions. You know, three songs in three hours. It was go in, sit down and work. Here’s the songs, here’s the chords, let’s get it done. It was not a Beatles-type leisurely session. It was work.”
Ringo, surrounded by an army of seasoned country musicians, including seven guitar pickers, two drummers and three fiddlers, embraced a strategy of humility. Another Elvis Presley legendary musician, drummer D.J. Fontana, was also in the studio. He remembers: “We were thinking he was going to be a jerk. I mean, The Beatles, the No. 1 act in the world. This guy’s got all these big monster records. But he came here and it was, ‘Whatever you guys want to do, let’s do it. You guys play the way you’ve been playing and I’ll try to catch up.’’
The result was a quite more satisfying album than his debut, and reviews were very positive. Melody Maker: “Ringo sings with terrific confidence, sometimes adopting a hilarious quasi-Tennessee accent, and the backing musicians, with much steel guitar and dobro in evidence, play beautifully.” Rolling Stone magazine, in its review of the album in December 1970, singled out one track: “Beaucoups of Blues opens side two with what will doubtless be one of Ringo’s greatest hits, ‘$15 Draw,’ about a Nashville Cat who neglects his home life to sit and pick his guitar. It’s a terrific rocker, and who really cares if it’s Jerry Reed and not Ringo Starr who plays the fantastic guitar riffs on $15 Draw? There’s a nice photo of Ringo fingering a C chord on the inside cover.”
And we come to the most ambitious and successful Beatle of 1970, who amassed enough material for not a single, not a double, but a triple solo album. Years of sparse room on Beatles albums to feature his songs left George Harrison with plenty of unrecorded material. Impressed by Phil Spector’s work on john Lennon’s Instant Karma! and the Beatles Let It Be album, he asked the studio wizard to co-produce his new coming album. Spector remembers: “I went to George’s Friar Park, which he had just purchased, the estate, and he said, ‘I have a few ditties for you to hear.’ It was endless! He had literally hundreds of songs and each one was better than the other.”
The album, All Things Must Pass, included the first Beatle single to top the charts, a mega hit that became the biggest-selling single of 1971 in England. My Sweet Lord was conceived during a time Harrison spent with Delaney & Bonnie when he joined them on their European tour at the end of 1969. Assisted by Billy Preston and influenced by the Edwin Hawkins Singers’ performance of the Christian hymn ‘Oh Happy Day’, Harrison came up with a song that could speak to all believers of God regardless of their religion. Harrison: “I was thinking of a way to combine Hallelujah and Hare Krishna, which is just simplistically the West and the East, and how to get everyone to sing Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, and then suddenly shove Hare Krishna in and catch them before they realize.”
The song first appeared on Billy Preston’s album Encouraging Words, released in September 1970. Harrison co-produced that album and also gave Preston the title track for his own album, All Things Must Pass. Preston’s album did not make much of a dent in the charts, but the version released by Harrison only two months later was a different story. The combined production of Harrison and Spector and the excellent cast of musicians on the track, including Eric Clapton, Peter Frampton, Gary Brooker, Bobby Whitlock, Klaus Voormann and Ringo Starr, sold a million copies on each side of the Atlantic.
I am purposely going to leave alone the court litigation that ensued regarding My Sweet Lord. You can read about it elsewhere and none of that dragged out story can take anything from the beauty of George Harrison’s song. To my ears that song has much more of the mood, spirit and message of the spiritual ‘Oh Happy Day’ than a girl pop song like ‘He’s So Fine’, regardless of chord progression and notes.
My favorite song on the album, and the last one written before recordings began, is Beware of Darkness. Harrison is again joined by musicians he met at the Delaney & Bonnie and Friends tour, a similar cast that will soon form the fantastic Derek and the Dominos with Eric Clapton. On board are Carl Radle on bass guitar, Bobby Whitlock on piano, plus Eric Clapton on lead guitar, Dave Mason on lead guitar, Gary Wright on organ and Ringo Starr on drums. Bobby Whitlock remembers: “Beware Of Darkness was the first time I ever played piano. They needed a piano player for that, and I decided that’s what I’m going to do. That was my first recorded piano thing.”
John Barham, a classical pianist who was a friend of Harrison since 1966 and himself a disciple of Ravi Shankar, is in the arranger seat. He talked about how the two worked together: “We discussed arrangement details, as George wanted them to be finalized before the session. He conveyed his musical ideas to me by singing, playing guitar or piano and I would make my suggestions at these sessions. I was surprised by the songs’ originality, but not by their spiritual feeling. By this time, I was convinced that George was a genuine spiritual seeker, one of the very few that I have ever known.”
Klaus Voormann, who played six string bass guitar on the track, recalled the command that George Harrison took in the studio, in comparison to Phil Spector’s erratic behavior: “George was in control of All Things Must Pass – Phil was an incredible guy, a genius, but he is uncontrollable. I think he broke his arm in the Apple control room – George was doing some overdubs, Phil came in and was completely drunk and just fell over backwards. And, in the end George got irritated by it and Phil sort of disappeared. So, George finished the album.”
We finish with the artist who started part 1 of this review. Only two weeks after the release of All Things Must Pass, another classic Beatle solo album hit the shelves. In 1970 John Lennon and Yoko Ono spent several months in Los Angeles with Dr. Arthur Janov, author of the book ‘The Primal Scream. Primal Therapy: The Cure for Neurosis.’ During the intense therapy Lennon wrote a number of songs and on the couple’s return to England they recorded Lennon’s first post-Beatles album at Abbey Road studios. The album title was the name of his pseudo-band that was first introduced with the single ‘Give Peace a Chance’ in 1969 – Plastic Ono Band.
Talking about the experience of writing these songs, Lennon later recalled: “I had to look into my own soul. I wasn’t looking at it from a mystical perspective . . . or from a psychedelic perspective or being-a-famous Beatle perspective or making-a-Beatle record perspective. . . . This time, it was just me in a mirror.” The songs were deeply personal, sang from a first person point of view. In a lengthy interview for Rolling Stone magazine in December 1970 Lennon said: “I’m a Loser, Help, Strawberry Fields, they are all personal records. I always wrote about me when I could. I didn’t really enjoy writing third person songs about people who lived in concrete flats and things like that. I like first person music.”
The album includes a number of key songs in Lennon’s discography, starting with Mother, the only single released from the album. Lennon’s mother Julia died in a car accident when he was seventeen. He later said of that loss: “I lost her twice. Once as a five-year-old, when I was moved in with my aunty, and once again where she actually physically died.”
The song opens the album and was the first one to be recorded. It starts with a funeral bell, about which Lennon said: “I was watching TV as usual, in California, and there was this old horror movie on, and the bells sounded like that to me. It was probably different, because those were actually bells slowed down that they used on the album. They just sounded like that and I thought oh, that’s how to start Mother. I knew Mother was going to be the first track.”
Another key song is God, in which Lennon enumerates a long list of things he does not believe in, namechecking Jesus, Hitler, Kennedy, Elvis, Zimmerman and of course, the Beatles. Lennon said of that song: “God was put together from three songs almost. I had the idea that ‘God is the concept by which we measure pain,’ so that when you have a word like that, you just sit down and sing the first tune that comes into your head and the tune is simple, because I like that kind of music and then I just rolled into it. It was just going on in my head and I got by the first three or four, the rest just came out.”
The song features fantastic contribution by Billy Preston on piano. Bass player Klaus Voormann, who played on that session, talked about the gifted keyboardist: “John said, ‘Come on Billy, do a little of your gospel piano, it’s about God.’ Billy grew up with gospel music and played piano and organ in church. He really believed in God and that’s the way he played on the song God – so perfect and beautiful.”
My favorite song on the album is ‘Working Class Hero’, a song that could have come from an early Bob Dylan album. The song is famous for the inclusion of the f word not once but twice, and is one of Lennon’s rare forays into the style of acoustic folk music. He said of the genre: “Anybody that sings with a guitar and sings about something heavy would tend to sound like this. I’m bound to be influenced by those, because that is the only kind of real folk music I really listen to. I never liked the fruity Judy Collins and Baez and all of that stuff. So the only folk music I know is about miners up in Newcastle, or Dylan.”
Critics found many meanings in the song, but Lennon pointed to something that may have escaped most of them: “The thing about the song that nobody got right was that I was supposed to be sardonic. It had nothing to do with socialism, it had to do with: if you want to go through that trip, you’ll get up to where I am, and this is what you’ll be – some guy whining on a record, alright?”
Even on an album that employs very basic production and minimal arrangements, the song is unique for featuring only Lennon singing and playing a guitar. Yoko Ono, who has been a constant support during that time in Lennon’s life and was present during the recording of the album, talked about the song: “I was quite impressed when John first recorded this on tape. It’s just him strumming the guitar and singing. It just sort of happened this way, really simple. In that moment I realized he was just so talented he didn’t need a whole orchestra behind him, he didn’t need lots of re-takes in the studio, it was just simple and beautiful.”
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
Categories: A Year in Music