Beatles fans have had an embarrassment of riches competing for their entertainment dollars over the past few months thanks to the 50th anniversary of the Fab Four invading (and conquering) America in 1964 — special magazines (People), a TV concert (“The Night That Changed America”), books (“The Beatles Anthology”), DVDs (“A Hard Day’s Night” reissue) and CDs (“On Air — Live at the BBC, Volume 2”). Not to mention myriad online offerings.
It’s hard to believe all of the cultural shifts the Beatles led from the mid-1960s through the end of the decade, a scant six years or so. And then the Beatles were no more. The breakup was announced in April 1970, around the time “Let it Be,” the last official Beatles album, was released.
And it’s fair to say that in the ensuing 50 years, Beatlemaniacs (forgive me for using a term as worn out as “Trekkies”) have been oversaturated with all things John, Paul, George and Ringo — collectively and individually.
Is there really anything else to add? Is there something we don’t know?
Probably not. But that doesn’t keep “new” stuff from filling the shelves every other week.
The latest is “I’m Not the Beatles: The John & Yoko Interviews with Howard Smith, 1969-1972,” an eight-audio CD set of unfiltered, unedited, freewheeling chats between rock journalist Smith and Lennon and Ono during five radio interviews taped between May 1969 and January 1972. A 20-page booklet helps put it all into perspective. (There is some coarse language.)
These are post-Beatles interviews, and nothing is particularly revelatory, but Lennon and Ono do talk about the Beatles, from specific songs and what they meant, to the hazards of the touring lifestyle, to Lennon’s feelings about subsequent solo projects, both his own and those of the other guys.
Casual fans might prefer something edited, so that, say, all the comments about the Beatles were cobbled together. But die-hard fans will enjoy the wide-ranging discussions from Lennon and Ono’s various peace protests (bed-ins, the peace vote) to their fad diets (brown rice, vegetarianism) to the experimental, avant-garde art exhibits and eccentric films.
And there’s something appealing about the shaggy-dog inclusion of every inch of tape that makes you feel as if you’re in the room with them while microphones are being set up, and a bit of small talk precedes and closes out the interviews, and tape reels are changed, and as they react to interruptions or pause to eat something.
Lennon’s playful side surfaces when a doorbell rings and he says, “Cuckoo, cuckoo, Avon calling,” and as he casually comments on a shrimp plate he’s enjoying (do vegetarians eat shrimp?).
An unexpected aspect of “I’m Not the Beatles” is Smith challenging Lennon and Ono when they say or do something he thinks is off kilter. Several times, Smith asks what, in practical terms, has resulted from their peace protests. Still, their enthusiasm for the movement is unbridled as Lennon says, “We’re selling this peace thing like soap.”
Lennon has unhappy recollections of the Beatles’ four years of touring the world: “Touring was a drag,” he says. “It was just complete, like, madness from morning till night, with not one moment’s peace.” He adds, “Of course, there were great moments, you know, and whenever we talk about it, it’s all great laughs. But when you get down to the physical reality, it was all pain.” He also felt the music suffered. “Half the time we just mime on the mic because your voice had gone, the kids would be howling.”
In the September 1971 interview of “I’m Not the Beatles,” Lennon explains his song “How Do You Sleep,” which was an answer to McCartney’s “Too Many People.” Both were released earlier that year.
The McCartney song is on his second solo album, “Ram” (and the flip side of his single “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey”), and includes some jibes at Lennon, such as “Too many people preaching practices,” and “You took your lucky break and broke it in two.”
The Lennon response is on his album “Imagine,” and includes a line that references two McCartney songs, the Beatles tune “Yesterday” and McCartney’s solo hit “Another Day”: “The only thing you done was yesterday, and since you’ve gone you’re just another day.”
Lennon explains, “It’s just a moment of anger, but I just put it down on paper. I’m also answering Paul’s last album.” After repeating McCartney’s lyrics, Lennon says, “So I wrote a reciprocal song, and I think some of the funniest lines on the album are (the 'Yesterday'/'Another Day' lyric), I just think it’s the funniest thing I’ve ever heard. I don’t think that about Paul all my life or all the time. I wrote it in immediate response to his messages coming off his album.” Lennon concedes that it’s “an angry song” but emphasizes that it’s not serious, and he feels McCartney will get the joke.
There’s much more, of course, as Lennon talks about the “myth of the Beatles,” his fight to get “Revolution No. 9” on the Beatles' double album (known as “The White Album”), he praises George Harrison’s Bangladesh charity concerts, and he chuckles about the reactions of people on the street when he cut his hair. And Ono contributes quite a bit as well.
There is no music here, per se, although snippets of Beatles songs can be heard from a radio in the background of the final interview, and an occasional tune does seem to guide some of the discussion. Lennon also sings a line here or there and twice turns up the volume of a television playing an episode of “The Saint,” humorously allowing random dialogue to speak for him.
Such quixotic, spontaneous touches give “I’m Not the Beatles” a personal vibe that brings the listening audience a bit closer to Lennon’s world.
Hard to believe Lennon has been dead nearly 34 years now. And this isn’t a bad way to remember his artistic legacy.
Chris Hicks is the author of "Has Hollywood Lost Its Mind? A Parent’s Guide to Movie Ratings." Website: hicksflicks.com