What If The Beatles Hadn't Broken Up?
An Alternate History of the The Fab Four
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Paul’s triumph wasn’t lost on The Beatles. “Ringo,” John said over the phone, “we’ve got to get back together and make another Beatles album. We can’t have people thinking Paul is still a Beatle.”
“What should we do about a bass player?” Ringo asked.
“You figure it out,” John snorted. “You’re the bandleader.”
Ringo drove up to Friar Park on March 26, 1973. George ushered him inside, and as soon as they sat down to the usual tray of tea, Ringo pulled an album out of his brown-leather shoulder bag. He waved the copy of Brinsley Schwarz’s Silver Pistol over his head and declared, “I’ve found our new bass player.” He slipped the LP out of the green cardboard jacket and holding it by the sides with his palms placed it on George’s turntable. After a few songs, Ringo said, “That guy singing and playing bass: that’s our guy: Nick Lowe. He’s just a kid, but that’s what we need: some young blood to perk us up. He’s just like we were in Liverpool when we started the band: a British kid in love with American soul and country music, not quite able to copy them so he comes up with something new. He’s perfect.”
“Who wrote those songs?” George asked. “They’re pretty good.”
“Nick wrote most of ’em,” Ringo replied and immediately saw his mistake as George scowled.
“I don’t know, Ringo, the last thing I need is more competition for getting my songs on the album.”
“Well, it’s not like we had an overflow of good songs last year, you’ll remember. Anyway, he’ll understand that he has to stand at the back of the line when it comes to songs. Look, Paul has been stealing our fire with Band on the Run. We’ve got to get back on the horse and make a new Beatles album or else people will start to think of Paul as the real Beatle.”
“Fuck Paul,” George said. “Leave the album here and let me think about it.”
After a similar conversation with John and a follow-up talk with George, Ringo got the go-ahead to approach Nick. The first time Ringo called, Nick was sure it was a prank. “Brinsley,” he said, “I know that’s you. Very funny,” he sneered and hung up. Ringo had Allen Klein call up Nick to clarify matters in his tough-guy American accent, and a very sheepish Nick called Ringo back to apologize. Lowe, who had just turned 24 two days earlier, sounded dazed. “You want me to join The Beatles?” he asked as if afraid to say the thought out loud. “Can you give me 30 seconds to think about it?” he asked in his typical dry humor.
On May 14, 1973, the fourth edition of The Beatles gathered for the first time at Abbey Road Studio. It was the first time Nick had ever met John or George, and he bashfully told them, “I’m a big fan.”
“We don’t allow any fans in here,” George told him. “Just musicians.” John sniggered.
As they were warming up, John said, “I can’t hear your bass, Nick, can you turn it up?” He turned it up a bit, but John said, “I still can’t hear it.” Nick was puzzled, because the bass sounded fine to him, but he kept inching it louder and louder, but John said he still couldn’t hear it, and Ringo and George agreed. Before long, Nick’s bass was so loud that it became a screechy roar, drowning everything else in the room out. He turned around and found his three new bandmates collapsing in laughter. He’d been had. He wore a shit-eating grin and accepted the hazing gracefully.
Soon they got down to business. Billy Preston was absent, but George Martin was back behind the control board. Nick proved an even simpler, more down-to-earth bassist than Klaus, and he quickly proved a strong harmony singer. He injected a subtle country-rock feel, a bit of twang and bit of swing, into the music, and that well suited Ringo and George, who were well known fans of the Band, Buck Owens and Carl Perkins. When George sang his new composition, “Sunshine Life for Me,” he played mandolin: John played acoustic guitar; Ringo played brushes and Nick brought in his pals Bob Andrews and B.J. Cole to play accordion and pedal steel guitar respectively. That worked so well that George used the same approach on “You and Me (Babe)” and “Sue Me, Sue You Blues,” the latter a barbed satire of The Beatles’ ongoing litigation with Paul.
John wanted to record his new song, “I’m the Greatest,” but George Martin pulled him aside and said, “It’s a good song, John, but if you sing it, it’ll come across as pompous, and I don’t think that’s the effect you want. If you let Ringo sing it, the humor you want will come across better.”
“Then what will I sing?” John said, half angry, half whining.
“I know,” George Martin said. “You can sing Ringo’s song ‘Oh My My,’ which needs a better rock’n’roll voice than he can provide. I mean, I love Ringo, but he’s not the world’s most agile vocalist. Plus it’ll keep the fans guessing with him singing your song and you singing his song. ‘Mind Games’ is a great song, but these others aren’t up to snuff. You need to go home and write something else.”
John came back three days later with secular hymn called “If You’re Poor” and a romantic ballad called “The Circle of Your Arms.” He made a deal with George that the latter could sing the hymn if John could sing George’s new song “Photograph.” Ringo, who had helped George write the verses for “Photograph,” was tickled that the band was swapping roles like this. It felt like a real band again rather than collection of solo careers, as it had on The White Album. John and George had lost their passing fancy for Phil Spector’s monumentalism and were willing to sound more like a live band on their studio sessions. Because they knew they’d be hitting the road in the fall, they were interested in making a record that would sound like those shows.
Photograph was released on September 11, 1973. Side one was “I’m the Greatest,” “Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth),” “Mind Games,” “If You’re Poor,” “Sunshine Life for Me (Sail Away Raymond)” and “Oh My My.” Side two was “Photograph,” “Sue Me, Sue You Blues,” “The Circle of Your Arms,” “One Day (At a Time),” “Don’t Let Me Wait Too Long” and “You and Me (Babe).” Most of the reviews theorized that Paul’s album with the Meters had spurred The Beatles to make their best album since Abbey Road. The album topped the charts for four weeks; the title track and “Mind Games” were both number-one singles, and “Sunshine Life for Me” went to number-eight.
The fall tour began at Albert Hall on September 14. This time, instead of Yoko and Ravi, the opening acts were Harry Nillson and the Monty Python Troupe. It was Nick’s coming-out party; instead of shrinking from the catcalls about Paul as Klaus had, Nick moved to the front of the stage and grinned in the face of the jeerers. When he did that, John would stroll over with his guitar and lean his left shoulder into Nick’s left, as if joining forces to stare down the past. From the opening numbers, “Photograph” and “Mind Games,” through older Beatles songs such as “A Hard Day’s Night,” “Isn’t It a Pity,” “I’m a Loser,” “Working Class Hero,” “Taxman,” “Imagine,” “Only a Northern Song” and “Jealous Guy” to the encore versions of “Imagine” and “I’m the Greatest,” it was a triumphant show. To the five cities of the first two tours, The Beatles added stops in Liverpool, Toronto and, in a taunt to Paul, New Orleans.
Paul and Linda snuck into the back balcony of New Orleans’ Saenger Theatre to see the last of the four shows there. Wearing sunglasses and upturned collars and surrounded by bulky security guards, they weren’t bothered by anybody. Paul kept muttering, “You hear that? They got that chord wrong” and “That bass line doesn’t go like that.” They caught a cab on Canal Street after the show, and he asked his wife, “What did you think?”
“I think they heard Band on the Run and upped their game. I thought they sounded real good. That new kid doesn’t sound like you, but he leaves more space for John and George to do their things. I think you’ve got your work cut out for you to top them.”
“Are you fucking crazy?” Paul shouted, his face flushed with anger, his finger wagging near his wife’s nose. She stared him down and he sank back into the taxi’s back seat. In a quieter voice he said, “Yeah, I guess you’re right.”
He went back to work the next day with Allen Toussaint. Within two weeks, they’d co-written three songs set in Louisiana: “My Sweet Alligator,” “Treme Backyard Barbeque” and “The Saturn Bar,” the latter about the psychedelic tavern in the city’s Ninth Ward, the bar where the McCartneys and their new friends could drink without being bothered. Paul had a fistful of his own songs, such as “Venus and Mars,” “Rock Show,” “Letting Go,” “Call Me Back Again” and “Listen to What the Man Said,” that he thought were ready to go. He thought he had learned enough from the first go-round with the Meters that he could anticipate their arrangement, but once again they changed the tunes in ways he never expected. Once again, he resented it at first until Linda could reassure him that the songs were better for it.
The resulting album, Venus, Mars and the Saturn Bar, was released by Paul McCartney & the Meters on April 23, 1974, and a new tour was launched with another big show at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Jazz Festival that following Saturday. Though the reviews were more measured than the enthusiasm for Band on the Run, the album quickly rose to number-one on the pop charts and even topped the R&B charts. “The Saturn Bar” became a number-one single and “Listen to What the Man Said” came in at number-nine.
The Beatles responded with What’s So Funny About Peace, Love and Understanding in September. The tite track, written by Nick and sung by John, became the anthem of the fall, sitting at number-one on the singles chart for five weeks. The album took its cue from another of Nick’s compositions, “Play That Fast Thing (One More Time),” presenting most of the tracks in punchy, stripped-down version that had the bass and drums more prominent in the mix and the guitars playing succinct fills and choppy chords. There was an energy to the results that had some prescient British critics calling it “pub-rock.” Benefitting especially from this approach were John’s duet with David Bowie on “Whatever Gets You Through the Night” and George’s duet with Nick on “Dark Horse.”
The rivalry was on. Every spring, it seemed, Paul and the Meters would release an album followed by a short tour, and every fall, The Beatles would answer with the same. Every time John, Paul and George seemed to be lapsing into rock-star grandiosity, either Nick or the Meters would puncture the balloon with a sharpened rhythm. Every time John, Paul and George got lazy about their songwriting, one of the others would write something that fired the competitive juices. The beneficiaries were not just the musicians directly involved but also musicians and fans everywhere who found in The Beatles and the Meters models of creativity and collaboration that kept the spirit of the ’60s alive long after the calendar said it was over, long after heroin, Nixon, Vietnam, cults and consumerism had threatened to kill it for good. Like the counterculture they were so often asked to personify, The Beatles stumbled and bruised themselves in the early ’70s but picked themselves up and kept going.