Monday 27 October 2014

A Bite Of 'Apple'


It seemed like one of The Beatles' better ideas at the time. Instead of simply paying taxes, why not put all that spare loot into one overall company to be owned by The Beatles that could do anything: release records, films, clothes - at one time there was even going to be an 'apple' school. Despite what documentaries have since made out (and the Rutles special hasn't helped), Apple was a happy experience at first. All four Beatles were eager to find an identity outside the group and all of them signed their own groups to the label as well as producing or playing whenever time allowed. Also, far from being a folly which Brian Epstein would never have approved of, their manager was all for it and lived to see the first 'release' 'All You Need Is Love' in mid-1967 (well, a single manufactured by EMI with an 'Apple' logo on it anyway - 'Hey Jude' is the first release made from start to finish for the new label). A place where the band's friends who'd remained loyal for years could finally be rewarded (with road manager Neil Aspinall getting the job at the top) and where new interesting 'hip' artists would enhance the band's reputation (and where the band could be doing good by 'helping' those from the generation after them): Apple was an idea that ticked an awful lot of boxes. For a time it was the most successful record label ever too: two of the label's first four releases (all of which came out on the same day) made number one - a feat that seems unlikely to ever be equalled ('Hey Jude' was one and Mary Hopkins' 'Those Were The Days The Other', by the way).

So why an 'apple'?  No one wanted anything as boring as just 'The Beatles' company'. The idea was Paul's. A keen art collector, he'd struck up a deal with dealer Robert Fraser (later jailed for possession along with Mick 'n' Keef but not let out when the Stones were) for any painting that would match his 'tastes' and would pay the next time the pair met. Magritte was one of McCartney's favourite painters so when a Magritte painting of an apple came along ('Le Jue De More' to give it its proper name, a translation of the 'au revoir' message written through the fruit), Fraser knew he'd like it. However McCartney was out that day so, undeterred, he got the housekeeper to let him in and propped the painting up on a table for him to see. After a busy journey home, trying to think up a suitable name and logo, Paul saw the image the minute he opened the door and knew it would be perfect. For a start it's a recognisable symbol all around the world. For another, it's particularly English ('A is for apple' is how many of our children's reading books start, although of course everyone knows the letter really stands for 'Alan's Album Archives'). Thirdly it enabled the band to slightly differentiate and personalise each record they released: apples come in all sorts of colours and varieties and so did these records: some white, some green, some red, one of them (Ringo's 'Blast From Your Past') in blue, while the Apple 'tradition' was to feature a full unopened picture of the fruit on the 'A' side and one 'cut in half' on the 'B' side (as if you'd used half of it up). Finally and fourthly there was also a typically excruciating pun at the centre of it all: officially the company is registered as 'Apple Corps', with the second word pronounced by all right minded businessman as the word 'core'.

However too many people took advantage of this system, with lots of 'new' friends and even some old ones living off the company's profits and abusing The Beatles' name (having bought quite a few fab four records everyone felt entitled). The Beatles weren't exactly stingy with their cash either and - after years of coaxing Brian for an allowance - they could now spend what they wanted whenever they needed to (although one Beatle tended to get at least one other member to sign off larger costs). Overstretched as 1968 grew on and 'The White Album' grew longer and longer The Beatles had less and less time for their grand schemes and the label released less and less by non-Beatle bands into 1969 and beyond. A lot of bands that had broke through there left anyway, appalled at how easily their own profits were being sucked up into the band's hedonistic lifestyle. The advert that went out in early 1968 promising to listen to every tape unsigned bands could send to them was a victim of its own success: a mountain of tapes grew up without anyone assigned to listen to them or assess them. A lot of the staff put into senior positions by way of a 'thankyou' simply weren't right for the job (although many more did prove their worth over the years). Something had to change and in 1969 that something was a new leader: a figurehead who knew how to cut down costs and make money for the band again. The real problem with 'Apple' came with what happens next. Paul wants to hire his new father-in-law Lee Eastman, a lawyer with a grasp of finances. John wants to hire The Rolling Stones' manager Allen Klein (who spoke to Lennon out of the blue and impressed with a knowledge of his songs - by contrast the day John was set to meet Mr Eastman Paul's in-law was busy and sent his less knowledgeable, younger son - something that annoyed the hell out of Lennon). John got the backing of George and Ringo and another old Beatle tradition - that when 3 out of 4 agreed the other had to join in - kicked in. But Paul was, rightly, concerned with the borderline illegal aspects of what Klein was doing and the fact that so many of the band's nearest and dearest were losing their jobs (often through no actual fault of their own). What had once been a happy bonding experience turned into a sea of litigation and contracts that deadened the band's enthusiasm for the company and for each other. In truth, the switch - just weeks after returning from Rishikesh India - may have been too much and Apple spread itself too thinly, with fingers in too many pies. However Apple did a lot of good that's often forgotten so here is a run-down, in chronological order, of what non-Beatle releases came out on the label between 1968 and 1974 and what Beatle involvement took place on each. Note, there's only studio albums here - no live records or compilations although actually there weren't many of either during Apple's lifetime. Oh and Yoko's getting her own mini-reviews in the Lennon book so we won't re-produce them here (there's rather a lot of them).

1) James Taylor: "James Taylor" (December 6th 1968) James Taylor was signed by Paul to Apple after the guitarist submitted a demo tape to Peter Asher (then head of A and R at Apple). Taylor was one of the label's bigger finds, although his career didn't really take off until he left the label, leaving along with Peter when Allen Klein came into the Beatles' company in 1970. This folky debut is one of his better records, most famous for hit single 'Carolina In My Mind' and the song 'Something In The Way She Moves', the title line of which was 'borrowed' (with permission)  by George Harrison as the opening line to his 'Something' (though the two songs are quite different thereafter)

2) The Modern Jazz Quartet "Under The Jasmine Tree" (December 6th 1968) A blast from the past, this ensemble had formed in 1952 but prided themselves on 'label-switching' and made all sorts of one-off deals throughout the 1960s. This is another, handed to 'Apple' as a fait accompli and without any real Beatle involvement. One of the rarer Apple LPs, its never come out on CD and I've never actually heard it.

3) Mary Hopkin "Postcard" (February 21st 1969) Paul was very much involved in Mary Hopkin, though, his big hope for Apple. Signed after an appearance on UK TV show 'Opportunity Knocks', Mary was one of the label's biggest non-Beatle success stories, scoring three top two hits. The first of these - the number one 'Those Were The Days' - appears on this LP which was produced by McCartney. There are too many pre-war standards and way too much Donovan, but some nice moments too including a rare George Martin song 'The Game'.

4) Jackie Lomax 'Is This What You Want?' (March 14th 1969) George's big hope for the future was a fellow Liverpudlian who'd been bordering on success for many years without quite breaking through. Sadly even with George's help Jackie's career still didn't amount to much and this actually very promising debut album has been all but forgotten. Jackie has a great, gruff soulful voice that works particularly well on ballads like the Beatle-like ballad 'Goin' Back To Liverpool'. The album's most famous moment, though, is 'Sour Milk Sea', a song George  wrote while in India and on which he produces and plays guitar. It's one of the better songs the Beatles 'gave away' and a terrific demo version really should have made it to 'Anthology'.

5) Billy Preston 'That's The Way God Planned It' (August 22nd 1969) Another natural choice for George to sign was his keyboard-playing buddy, who had recently appeared on 'Get Back' and was already quite famous after stints in Little Richard's touring band and three solo records that sold poorly but always got good reviews. The best of Billy's records, this is an uptempo gospel-flavoured album that's infectious - especially the hit title track, later sung at George's 'Bangladesh' benefit shows. George is one of many big name guest stars (others are Keith Richards, Eric Clapton and Ginger Baker)

6) The Modern Jazz Quartet 'Space' (October 24th 1969) A sequel that again Apple had little to do with and is conspicuous by its absence from all Apple re-issuing programmes. As a concept album about the moon landings with song titles like 'Visitor from Venus' and 'Visitor From Mars', though, it all sounds rather fun!

7) Badfinger 'Magic Christian Music' (January 9th 1970) Discovered by Beatles roadie Mal Evans (who is the de facto producer for most of this record), Badfinger were one of the more successful Apple signings, although their story is a sad tale full of contractual hold-ups, blown opportunities and suicide. Here, though, Badfinger sound just like any wide-eyed kids hired by their biggest idols and given a song by one of them to sing (Paul's 'Come and Get It', reportedly tossed off demo and all within an hour and a #2 UK hit for the band - although in retrospect this rather paranoid and nasty song couldn't be further away from the gentle and epic tone poems the band would go on to write). This album is also a soundtrack to a film Ringo made with Peter Sellers for Apple Films which is quite funny, in places, even though only four or so songs are actually heard in the film.

8) Doris Troy 'Doris Troy' (September 11th 1970) I hoped for big things from this record. For those who don't know Doris was a big American soul star of the early 1970s and who was on the verge of stardom for many years without quite taking off (the closest she came was with 'Just One Look', a #2 hit for The Hollies in 1964). However this album doesn't really take off either: the material is generally wrong for Troy's voice (although a cover of obscure Buffalo Springfield protest song 'Special Care' - with Stephen Stills playing and producing - is more like it!) George co-wrote and produced a rather flimsy sequence of songs (reportedly made up on the spot!) , occasionally with Ringo who also drums on the album and Klaus Voormann who plays bass. His solo song 'You' also started life during these sessions before being 'borrowed' by Harrison to finish off later. Doris also recorded a version of 'Get Back' left unreleased at the time but re-issued on the CD: a hilarious take with George singing a guide vocal and sending up Paul's song in the process is sadly only available on bootleg! ('Mal, get a cloth and a glass of orange juice, it's happened again!')

9) Billy Preston 'Encouraging Words' (September 11th 1970) Billy's second album isn't quite as interesting as his first although there's actually more of a Beatle presence and sound on it. George produces again and provides three songs for the album: the still-exclusive song 'Sing One For The Lord' and previews of two of his most beloved solo songs: 'All Things Must pass'; and 'My Sweet Lord' (the last one, played with a real gospel swing, is the moment when George is meant to have realised what a fine single it might make!)

10) John Tavener 'The Whale' (September 25th 1970) In case you were wondering what Ringo was up to while Paul and George were busy, he was off making his own increasingly eccentric solo albums and taking up an interest in classical music. Composer John Taverner was by far the biggest name signed to Apple and 'The Whale' (premiered in 1966) already one of his most famous concert pieces. Amazingly though no one had thought to ask Taverner to record it until Ringo came along. While absent from the recent CD re-issue bonanza, the record was re-issued in 1977 on Starr's own label 'Ring o'Records'.

11) Badfinger 'No Dice' (November 27th 1970) is a big improvement on their debut, with the band finding their own identity and now with guitarist Joey Molland in the band giving them a four-way composing attack. This album's song 'Without You' is arguably the most famous Apple release not by The Beatles, although it was never chosen as a single by the band and sadly co-composer Pete Ham didn't live to see it become a worldwide hit for Harry Nilsson later in the decade. There are better songs than that, though, including power pop single 'No Matter What' and the moody 'Better Days'. Mal Evans and Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick both produced this record, which has no actual fab four input.

12) John Taverner 'Celtic Requiem' (May 14th 1971) Another classical piece organised by Ringo this piece is actually quite a light and fluffy one by the composer's standards despite the name: it's not actually a eulogy for anyone but a general piece about lost childhood featuring children's games and singing.

13) 'The Radna Khrisna Temple' (May 28th 1971) is, if you hadn't already guessed, another one of George's albums that bizarrely is about the most common Apple LP after 'The White Album' and 'Abbey Road' courtesy of a 'charity' re-issue at a budget price later in the decade. This album has been re-issued a few times now, in fact, each time with a slightly different track listing (while this is the Temple advocates' only album they released many singles). George produces the whole record but doesn't play or sing on it. Very hypnotic and surprisingly nice.

14) Mary Hopkin 'Earth Song/Ocean Song' (October 1st 1971) With Paul so busy, Mary took an age to release the follow-up to her best-selling album. However a mixture of his decreasing time and her increasing interest in making music results in a much more likeable sequel, closer to the folk style that Mary had been brought up to love. There isn't much of a Beatle connection to this one but you can hear a rather nice interpretation of Cat Stevens' 'The Wind'.

15) Badfinger 'Straight Up' (December 13th 1971) Badfinger's masterpiece (and a tie with 'The White Album' as best Apple album ever) makes the most of the same cast and crew and philosophy as George Harrison's 'All Things Must Pass' album (a good half of the album is produced by George). Long slow hauntingly beautiful ballads and some truly poignant lyrics result in a consistent album where nearly every song is a career highlight and Pete Ham is on especially good form. 'Baby Blue' is the hit single that should have been, 'Day After Day' the future standard in waiting and 'Name Of The Game' is one of the most gorgeous songs in my collection. Proceed straight to HMV, do not pass go...(A full - well fuller - review appears on the Alan's Album Archives website but, truly, that's all you need to know for now!)

16) David Peel and the Lower East Side 'The Pope Smokes Dope' (April 14th 1972) At last, a Lennon discovery. Any fans of John and Yoko's 'Sometime In New York City' album (there must be some out there somewhere - mustn't there?!) will love this album, which is full of provocative lyrics (the title for a start...) and funky streetwise sounds (the group were discovered busking on New York's streets). 'The Ballad Of New York City' is, in many ways, a sequel to 'The Ballad Of John and Yoko', relating how the pair came to live there and that at last you are 'among your people' (which is very sad given the events of eight years later). The CD re-issue includes the song 'Amerika' (with Yoko on vocals) and a brief four-minute interview with Lennon from the David Frost show where he talks about the David Peel band.

17) Lon and Derrek Von Eaton 'Brother' (September 22nd 1972) More friends of George's who played on a great number of his early solo records. Buried by Apple's legal problems and with George's intended production cut short after various legal hassles, the album deserved better (George even sent a telegram to Allen Klein simply saying 'what the???' when he heard that the label were giving it no publicity whatsoever). Beatles fans do have some interest though: unable to attend himself George sent instructions through his old friend Klaus Voormann, who gets his first production credit for his hard work.

18) 'Elephant's Memory' (November 10th 1972) Another Lennon discovery, this is the band whose retro 50s-style backing on 'Sometime In New York City' divided so many fans. A full album is probably a bit much and this record always seemed to be missed put from the usual Apple re-issue programmes. Lennon produced but doesn't play.

19) Badfinger 'Ass' (November 26th 1973) Finally Badfinger's much-delayed fourth album came out long after everyone else had stopped caring (in fact by the time this album did come out Badfinger were already partway through their next album for Warner Brothers simply titled 'Badfinger'). There are no Beatles connections this time around and the whole record is something of a step backwards, but Pete's poignant song 'Apple Of My Eye' about his devotion to The Beatles and his upset at how things turned out is the perfect eulogy for a business empire that had lots of great ideas but ultimately was something of a failure.

That's the albums - now for the singles! Don't worry we won't list them all, but a few key Apple bands never did release full LPs and it would be a shame to miss them out...

1) The Black Dyke Mills Band 'Thingumybob/Yellow Submarine' (August 26th 1968) Part of the 'first four' releases by Apple in the summer of 1968, this release shows just what an eclectic bunch of records Apple released. This one is a brass band who as well as covering a Beatles song on the flipside get an entirely unreleased McCartney song for the 'A' side, a short but jolly little tune that would have sounded at home on Pau's soundtrack for the 'Family Way'.

2) Brute Force 'The King Of Fuh/Nobody Knows' (May 16th 1969) This single should have been big - John and George both picked out of the pile of records sent in unsolicited to Apple and the latter produced the strings overdubbed onto the original demo. Brute Force - aka Singer Stephen Freidland - rather cheekily got around the radio airplay ban on swearing with the chorus 'There was a king of Fuh, everyone called him the 'Fuh King'. You can imagine Lennon falling off his seat at that one! Sadly censorship boards didn't admire this song's cleverness and simply banned it anyway! The B-side is a nice slice of paranoid psychedelia in the Syd Barrett fringe too - all in all a very under-rated release.

3) Trash 'Golden Slumbers-Carry That Weight/Trash Can' (September 26th 1969) Far from being rubbish, this cover of part of the Beatles' Abbey Road medley was useful publicity for the fab four - it came out the same day as the LP and helped them get a tiny piece of extra airplay. The B-side's quite fun too, an atonal prog rock epic in several parts.

4) The Hot Chocolate Band 'Give Peace A Chance/Living Without Tomorrow' (October 10th 1969) This one's an interesting one - yes this is the same band as the one who later (much much later) have a hit record with 'You Sexy Thing'. Few people know that their first release was for Apple where, very cleverly, the band decided to cover a Lennon song in the hope that he'd like it and release it (which he did). However, how closely Lennon listened to this new version is a moot point: about halfway through this cover changes gears and starts to become a diatribe against drugs ('Ever seen a funky junkie son? Childish!') Given that this is Lennon's biggest year for drug-taking I'm surprised it got past John! (perhaps he was just pleased they didn't cover one of Paul's?!)

5) Ronnie Spector 'Try Some, Buy Some/Tandori Chicken' (April 16th 1971) Appearing a full year before the song appeared on George's 'Living In The Material World' album, this is Harrison trying out a new idea with his producer Phil Spector's wife Ronnie. In truth she's not cut out for the song and the Harrison/Stephen Stills jam on the B-side is truly awful despite the in-jokes ('I told Mal, my old pal...')  but this is interesting for fans of that album to compare.

6) Bill Elliott and the Elastic Oz Band 'God Save Oz/Do The Oz' (July 7th 1971) Released on Ringo's 31st birthday, this is Lennon rushing to the aid of a subversive underground magazine called 'Oz' facing closure after a court case on obscenity charges (think 'Private Eye' if you're British). Sadly Lennon rushed a little too quick and neither composition - designed to rake in lots of money - is that successful on any level. The A-side features some funny Lennonisms though ('Let us fight for Mickey Mouse!' he adds apropos of nothing after a verse about standing up for your rights), while the B-side is a rather tuneless jam with the only lyrics coming from the title shouted over and over. Lennon plays and produces these recordings, but more interesting to fans will be the 'Lennon Anthology' box set which features versions of both these two tracks).

7) Ravi Shankar 'Joi Bangla/Oh Bhaugowan/Raga Mishri' (August 27th 1971) Appearing surprisingly late in this list, here is the only time George's friend Ravi Shankar released any music on Apple under his own name (although he appears on the various artist Bangla Desh concert of course). This three-track single is very much in Shankar's usual style - if you like that sort of thing you'll love it; if not you'll hate it!

8) Chris Hodge 'We're On Our Way/Supersoul' (June 9th 1972) Not much is known about this Marc Bolan soundalike who might have scored a hit with this poppy A side had Apple been better placed to promote it. Chances are it's Ringo who discovered him, given that he was working on his own T Rex film 'Born To Boogie' in this period, although interestingly it very much doesn't sound like his playing but does sound a little like George's. There was also a follow-up, 'Goodbye Sweet Lorraine', that sadly I've never heard.

9) The Sundown Playboys 'Saturday Nite Special/Valse De Soleil Coucher' (October 31st 1972) I've not even been able to find this one and can't tell you anything about what it's like!

As a postscript, the busy Beatles year of 2009 saw the re-release of many of these albums on CD for the first time, complete with bonus tracks in many cases as well as a whole run of best-ofs for many of the artists as well as a general one titled 'Come and Get It' that featured all the best-selling non-Beatle singles gathered together in one place. However half the fun of these albums is of hearing the even more obscure forgotten releases that are still waiting for that first CD release...

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