The Beatles: It seems like yesterday

20 July 2021

The highly anticipated new documentary from director Peter Jackson, The Beatles: Get Back, is out this autumn. Here, close friends of the Fab Four give unique insights into the characters that made up the biggest pop group in the world.



George Harrison

Radio 1 DJ and journalist Annie Nightingale shares her memories of the Beatle known as ‘the quiet one’

George Harrison was no soft hippy-dippy. He was tough, shrewd and resilient.

He needed to be resilient; none of The Beatles' success came about through luck.

It took a degree of ruthlessness to become the four most famous people in the world. Harrison was the baby of the group, so how was he going to get a look-in when the Lennon-McCartney songwriting partnership hit its stride?

Well, he didn’t really, though I loved his early Beatles songs, such as Don’t Bother Me and Think For Yourself. George’s love of music and playing meant he would join in many a spontaneous jam or singalong, including with myself at a New Year’s Eve Beatles party. At another party, thrown by Billy Connolly and Pamela Stephenson, George approached me and said: ‘You’ve been very good to us, thank you’. I was astounded. ME? Good to THEM? The Beatles? They hardly needed my help!

I wasn’t even a DJ when they were together; I was in newspapers. It was connections to The Beatles that helped open the door to Radio 1. All I could think of was that I had remained loyal to them when cracks appeared in The Beatles image.

They had grown up into world superstars, all in the public eye. So when George grew his hair and moustache super-long, and pronounced his thoughts on mysticism, he was seen as a weird drop-out. Yet he was growing as an individual. He financed the Hare Krishna movement, and developed a love of comedy, befriending acts such as Monty Python. He took out a mortgage on his mansion, Friar Park, near Henley, to pay for the making of the hugely controversial film Life of Brian.

For George, the break-up of The Beatles was inevitable. ‘We had been together since I was 15,’ he told me. ‘I wanted to work with other people. The Beatles were a limitation. We had gone as far as we could go.’

But his solo success brought heartache. The hit My Sweet Lord was the subject of a 1976 court case, alleging the song’s origins were in The Chiffons’ He’s So Fine. In a BBC profile interview with me he said that many people subconsciously absorb tunes without any intended plagiarism.

‘If you think about it too much,’ he said, ‘you would be afraid to pick up the guitar ever again. I got so paranoid at that time.’ Then he said: ‘I haven’t had a private life since 1963. I don’t hide anything. When The Beatles split it was a relief. We should have done it years before.’

He died in 2001 aged 58. Isn’t It A Pity is one of my favourite George Harrison songs. Yes, it is – it’s a great pity. He was a wonderful, inspiring human being.

John Lennon

Writer and journalist Ray Connolly reveals a side of the peace-loving hippie that many might not immediately recognise

If John Lennon hadn’t become a rock star, he might have made a very good stand-up comic. Get him talking and off he would go into a funny, self-knocking soliloquy, in which he was often the butt of his own jokes.

‘I’m either a performing flea or a crutch for the world’s social lepers,’ he once told me.

So, when he suddenly evicted a group of once-welcome Hare Krishna hippies from his estate, he explained his decision with a joke. ‘They kept going around saying, “Peace, man, peace…” all the time. It was driving me mad. I couldn’t get any peace.’

That was John in a sentence. Sharp tongued, but funny with it. To interview him was a dream because he couldn’t help but speak in headlines. Nothing was ever simply good or bad with John. He was a life-long exaggerator. Hence the recording sessions for the album and film Let It Be (now recut and remixed as The Beatles: Get Back) were ‘the worst sessions ever’.

Always clever with the pithy line, John might also have made a career as an advertising copywriter or even a propagandist like Dominic Cummings, putting new phrases into the English language and newspaper headlines. ‘Give peace a chance’, he sang during his anti-war campaign; ‘All you need is love’, came during his hippy phase; while Ringo’s casual malapropism, ‘It’s been a hard day’s night’ became, in John’s voice, a worldwide hit and headline.

I was very fond of John, but I had no illusions, and if you like to think of him as the peace-loving, martyred saint of Yoko Ono’s rewriting of history, you’ve got him dead wrong.

His heart was in the right place, but he was never the ‘working-class hero’ as he professed, having been brought up in middle-class respectability. And, when asked by left-wing activist Tariq Ali what he was going to do to ‘destroy the capitalist system’, he simply sang the song Power To The People and moved on.

I always liked his comment in New York on the wealth he’d accumulated in the last years of his life: ‘Imagine no possessions…’ teased one of his oldest Liverpool friends on seeing a refrigerated row of John and Yoko’s fur coats. ‘It was only a bloody song,’ grinned the ex-Beatle.

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Ringo Starr

The Beatles fan club secretary and Starkey family friend Freda Kelly waxes lyrical about the Beatles' gentle drummer

In July 1961 I was 16 and got a job as a typist on Stanley Street in Liverpool. The Cavern was close by and, one day, a boy at work told me that, at lunchtime, bands would play.

Liking music, I went down and The Beatles were on. I was hooked and I would defy anyone who saw them not to be. They were really good, but not only that, they looked great too. With some bands, there would be one or two good-looking ones, but with The Beatles, all four were!

I became a ‘Cavernite’ and got to know them and their manager, Brian Epstein, who, as he knew I was a typist, offered me a job working for him in the autumn of 1962. I took it – disobeying my father!

The Beatles were getting more and more fan mail, and Brian got me to reply to it all, sending out pictures of the band, and then putting together newsletters. I did that even after The Beatles split –the band might not have existed, but the fans still did.

It was through the fan mail that I really got to know Ringo, or, as I call him, Ritchie: his real name being, of course, Richard Starkey.

Some fans had got to know where The Beatles’ families lived and would post requests to their homes. Brian had me deal with the families, providing them with the pictures and stationery for replies, but Ritchie wanted me to help specifically with the fan mail delivered to his mother’s home.

‘Freda,’ he asked me one day when he came into the office, ‘could you do my home fan mail for me?’ I told him no, as I was so busy as it was. But then I saw the small amount he received, compared to the others, and felt sorry for him.

But Ritchie didn’t seem to mind. And that is him through and through. It is probably what made him such a good fit for The Beatles. He didn’t have an ego; he wasn’t a songwriter. If he had been the big ‘I am’, The Beatles would never have worked as well as they did.

I know and like Pete Best, who Ritchie replaced in The Beatles, but Ritchie was better for the band. And he was better than other drummers they tried out, partly because of his character. He was always happy, and that’s what the band needed. I don’t think they would ever have got so far without him.

In 2015, Ritchie invited me to Los Angeles, as he was auctioning off a lot of Beatles memorabilia for charity. When I saw him, it was though all the intervening years had never happened. He hunted me down, saying, ‘Where are you, Freda? Are you hiding from me?!’.

I have known Ritchie for six decades now, and he is the same jolly, easy-going, natural guy I met all those years ago.

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Paul McCartney

Beatles biographer Hunter Davies shares an anecdote or two

One night in December 1968, there was banging at the front door of our rented house in the Algarve, Portugal. A rough Scouse accent was shouting, ‘Hunter Davies, get up you lazy bastard.’

It was a bearded Paul with a blonde woman I’d never seen before, and her young daughter. When we had left London six months earlier, Paul was engaged to Jane Asher and I thought they were a lovely couple. This new blonde, Linda, turned out to be American; I assumed she was a one-night stand.

Paul had decided they should visit me and my family in Portugal, taking Linda’s six-year-old daughter Heather. All the flights had gone so Paul hired a private jet. They landed in an empty Faro airport with no local money, just a £20 note, which they handed to an official-looking person to change into escudos. Then Paul spotted a taxi and jumped in it without waiting for the money.

They had our address, 80 kilometres away, but we did not have a telephone. The taxi driver was getting worried, but Paul said the friend he was going to stay with would pay on arrival, without considering that I might be away.

Paul could be like that, impulsive. I opened up, paid off the taxi, and welcomed them in. They stayed for almost two weeks. Linda was edgy at first, desperate to have Paul on his own, and not keen on him having long intellectual chats with my wife Margaret. But we got to know her well, and liked her.

Despite our initial suspicions, we realised it was a love match, which lasted until Linda’s death. All the children loved Paul, climbing all over him, playing silly games. John, by comparison, was useless with young kids; he didn’t know what to do with them.

Paul always was popular, the charmer, the unofficial PR man in their early days. By this stage, in late 1968, he was holding The Beatles together. John and George wanted to go off, do their own thing. In the studio, during the recording of Sgt. Pepper two years earlier, it seemed to me that Paul was in charge, even showing Ringo how he wanted the drums played.

There was and is a theory that Paul was the soft, sentimental one of The Beatles – good on the love songs – while John was the gritty, original one.

In truth, John could do love songs, such as Julia, about his mother, and Paul could do the edgy ones, like Helter Skelter. They were, in a way, reflections of each other. I always thought Paul was the more talented. Music just flowed from him. John got stuck, bored, gave up. Paul is and was hard-working and disciplined.

A longer version of this article appeared in the July 2021 issue of Saga Magazine: subscribe today

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