In their own words

Just after filming the Anthology TV series in 1996, the three surviving Beatles sat down in their Apple office to write their…

Just after filming the Anthology TV series in 1996, the three surviving Beatles sat down in their Apple office to write their own story. Over the following five years they met in secret, dredging their memories, playing old tapes, flicking through photos and going through their personal diaries to come up with the real story behind the biggest and best pop group in the world. Co-opted into their meetings were the key figures of Neil Aspinall (tour manager), the late Derek Taylor (press officer) and George Martin (producer). Crucially, they also sought and got approval from Yoko Ono to use quotes from John Lennon, whose contributions are sewn into the story. Paul, George and Ringo also raided the archives of their record company (EMI) and Apple, their own label, to come up with rare documents and memorabilia and have illustrated the book with 1,300 photos - the majority of them from the band's personal collection and never published before.

With worldwide sales expected to top 25 million, this is the publishing event of the year. Mainly written in direct speech, the book takes us back to the band's Liverpool childhoods, their early musical forays and how they met to form the band that would change the course of musical history.

The early Cavern and Hamburg days are remembered affectionately, as is their dizzying rise to fame in Britain and the US - all set against the backdrop of screaming teenage Beatlemania. They speak eloquently about the musical and social changes of the early to mid-1960s, how they matured as musicians and songwriters, their bizarre meetings with Elvis and Bob Dylan, the making of the Sgt Pepper album, their dabbling in drugs and religions and their painful break-up. Not just another book on The Beatles, The Anthology is a cultural review of the 1960s, an insight into the nature of friendship and a treatise on fame and celebrity. It's an astonishing read.

In the first extracts below, the band affectionately remember their early days: hustling for gigs, travelling endlessly up and down motorways in a van, staying in dodgy guesthouses and the struggle to be taken seriously. Drugs, the Maharaji, in-fighting and law suits were very far away . . .


Paul McCartney: It was never an overnight success. It started in pubs; we went on to talent contests and then to working men's clubs. We played Hamburg clubs, and then we started to play town halls and night clubs, and then ballrooms. There could be as many as 2,000 people in a ballroom, so if you did a gig there, the word really got round. Next up from that was theatres, and Brian took us through all these steps. When we began to headline bills on theatres, we felt we had really arrived. The next ladder to climb was radio. It was a gentle thing; we had conquered the clubs, we'd conquered the Cavern and we had gradually became quite known, so it was, "Well, what's left? Radio!" We wanted to be on Brian Matthews's Saturday Club. This was a huge radio show, and the thing I loved about listening to it was that I could wake up after a week of school and have a lie-in. I had a radio by my bed and I would lie there until about 11. The most delicious lie-ins of your life are those teenage lie-ins: wake up feeling great, turn the radio on and Saturday Club is still on for an hour. So we really wanted to be on that, and we knew it had a huge audience.

Neil Aspinall: They'd sold a lot of records for Love Me Do to get to Number 17, which was great for a Liverpool band - they'd made the charts! Now that The Beatles were known nationally, not just in the Northwest and Liverpool, they were being played on the radio and people everywhere were hearing them. In 1963 they started doing BBC radio shows, playing live.

George Harrison: After the Hamburg period we were driving up and down, doing gigs at the BBC in London. We got a better van and made more money and then a better van still.

Ringo Starr: There are lots of driving stories. This is how a band gets close: in the van, going up and down the M1, freezing your balls off, fighting for the seats. A lot of madness went on in the van, but it got us together. We had a Bedford and Neil would drive. There'd be the passenger seat for one of us, and the other three, whichever three, the rest of us, would sit behind on the bench seat, which was pretty miserable.

We would go everywhere in the van and the amps and everything would fit in it with us. I remember sliding all over Scotland. It was bloody freezing in the winter.

John Lennon: But we always got screams in Scotland. I suppose they haven't got much else to do up there. Touring was a relief just to get out and break new ground. We were beginning to feel stale and cramped. (1967)

Ringo: We never stopped anywhere. If we were in Elgin on a Thursday and needed to be in Portsmouth on Friday, we would just drive. We didn't know how to stop this van! If we had a day off and we were going to Liverpool from London, we would just drive. There was only a small piece of motorway in those days, so we'd be on the A5 for hours. Some nights it was so foggy that we'd be doing one mile an hour, but we'd still keep going. We were like homing pigeons; we just had to keep getting home. One night I remember, when it was very, very cold, the three of us on the bench seat were lying on top of each other with a bottle of whisky. When the one on top got so cold that hypothermia was setting in, it would be his turn to get on the bottom. We'd warm each other up that way; keep swigging the whisky, keep going home.

Paul: Quite an image. People think of stardom as glamorous, and there's us freezing lying literally on top of each other - a Beatle sandwich.

George: As a band, we were tight. That was one thing to be said about us; we were really tight, as friends. We could argue a lot among ourselves, but we were very, very close to each other, and in the company of other people or other situations we'd always stick together. If we were arguing, it was always about things like space: Who's going to sit on the spare seat? Because everyone else had to sit on the wheel arches or the floor all the way to Scotland or somewhere. We used to get ratty with each other, pushing, protesting: "It's my turn in the front."

Paul: There were a lot of laughs in the back of the car, just naming albums and chatting about birds and other groups' music and things. I can't remember many deep conversations. There was a lot of giggling, though. I do remember one incident: going up the motorway when the windscreen got knocked out by a pebble. Our great road manager, Mal Evans, was driving and he just put his hat backwards on his hand, punched the windscreen out completely, and drove on. This was winter in Britain and there was freezing fog and Mal was having to look out for the kerb all the way up to Liverpool - 200 miles.

Neil Aspinall: They did some funny gigs. I remember the worst show was when they played Crewe. There were only five people there. There were more of us than there were of the audience, but they still went on stage twice, and the five people stayed. When we went back there a month later, there were 700 people. (Probably including the original five.)

Paul: Birmingham was a hard gig. Whenever we played there, they would double-book us: two places very close together, they thought Wolverhampton and Birmingham, say, or Wolverhampton and Coventry. It would be quite good for us in as much as we'd get a double-pay night, but it was very hard. If the latter of the venues had a revolving stage, we'd have to set up while the other band was playing, trying to tune up by holding the guitar close to our ears, over the din of the other band. And when they swung the stage round we'd be praying we hadn't got all our leads caught up. On the longer journeys we would stop at service stations such as the Watford Gap to get a nice, greasy meal. Occasionally we might see Gerry Marsden and the guys or other Liverpool bands there, and we'd have a laugh and exchange jokes.

These extracts from a later section in the book, The Beatles in Retrospect, cover the period of the band's break-up

George: I don't remember about John saying he wanted to break up The Beatles. I don't remember where I heard it. Everybody had tried to leave, so it was nothing new. Everybody was leaving for years. The Beatles had started out being something that gave us a vehicle to be able to do so much when we were younger, but it had now got to a point where it was stifling us. There was too much restriction. It had to self-destruct, and I wasn't feeling bad about anybody wanting to leave, because I wanted out myself. I could see a much better time ahead being by myself, away from the band. It had ceased to be fun and it was time to get out of it. It was like a straitjacket.

Neil Aspinall: It was a sad thing that there was now talk of breaking up. We'd all been together for a number of years going through the most incredible series of situations and successes and everything else, and for that to be over meant there was a certain amount of sadness and apprehension. It was a bit scary for everybody. The split was a slow process. For a start, Paul's not signing with Allen Klein didn't mean The Beatles had split up, because they then made Abbey Road. And John was working more and more with Yoko rather than with The Beatles, but he still made Abbey Road with the others. So there wasn't one moment in time; it was gradual, and then they just weren't together any more after Abbey Road. I couldn't see them actually going into a studio and working together again.

John: I started the band. I disbanded it. It's as simple as that. My life with The Beatles had become a trap. A tape-loop. I had made previous short excursions on my own, writing books, helping convert them into a play. I'd even made a movie without the others, but I had made the movie more in reaction to the fact that The Beatles had decided to stop touring than with real independence in mind, although even then my eye was on freedom. When I finally had the guts to tell the other three that I, quote, wanted a divorce, unquote, they knew it was for real - unlike Ringo and George's previous threats to leave. I must say I felt guilty for springing it on them at such short notice. After all, I had Yoko, they only had each other. I was guilty enough to give McCartney credit as co-writer on my first independent single, Give Peace A Chance, instead of giving it to Yoko, who had actually co-authored it.

Ringo: We didn't go public about the break-up immediately. Allen Klein had this thing: Split up, boys, if you want to, but don't tell anybody. People didn't want us to break up, but I don't think that was too much of a pressure. We felt: we've done this so long, so we keep doing it. That was why we kept on and on a lot of days, even with all the craziness it really worked. But instead of working every day, it worked, say, two days a month. There were still good days because we were still really close friends, and then it would split off again into some madness.

Ringo: It was a relief once we finally said we would split up. (I think that was as much a relief as Strawberry Fields/Penny Lane not making Number 1; that was a huge relief.) I just wandered off home, I believe, and I don't know what happened after that. I sat in the garden for a while wondering what the hell to do with my life. After you've said it's over and go home, you think: "Oh, God that's it, then. Now what do you do?" It was quite a dramatic period for me - or traumatic, actually.

George: My feeling when we went our separate ways was to enjoy the space that it gave me, the space to be able to think at my own speed and to have some musicians in the studio who would accompany me on my songs. It sounds strange, because most people would like to be in The Beatles, or at that time it looked like such a great thing to be in. And it was. But it was also a great thing to get out of just as when you grow up and leave home and spread your wings.

Paul: I felt - Well, this will be the start of a new phase now. The Beatles won't be recording together again, so do I leave the music business and not work again? I'm too passionate about it. Even now, I couldn't do that easily. It's just a bug I've got. I knew I had to carry on in some form or other. I spent a lot of time up in Scotland where I have a farm. I normally go for holidays, but I began what was to be a whole year up there, just trying to figure out what I was going to do, and that was probably when it was most upsetting. I really got the feeling of being redundant. Luckily, Linda's very sensible and she said: "Look, you're OK. It's just the shock of The Beatles and all of that." After a while I thought: Jesus! I had better really try to get it together here, and that took the form of making a record, the simplest way.

. . . For about three or four months, George, Ringo and I rang each other to ask: Well, is this it, then? It wasn't that the record company had dumped us. It was still a case of: we might get back together again. Nobody quite knew if it was just one of John's little flings. Eventually we realised, Oh well, we're not in the band any more. That's it. It's definitely over. I started thinking, well, if that's the case, I had better get myself together. I can't just let John control the situation and dump us as if were the jilted girlfriends.

John: I really never thought we'd be so stupid, like splitting and arguing. But we were naive enough to let people come between us and that's what happened. But it was happening anyway. I don't mean Yoko, I mean businessmen. It's like when people decide to get a divorce: quite often you decide amicably, but then when you get your lawyers and they say: "Don't talk to the other party unless there's a lawyer present". (1971)

Ringo: In the end we did get rid of Allen Klein. It cost us a small fortune but it's one of those things that we found all through life: two people sign a contract and I know exactly what it means and you know exactly what it means, but when we come to split up, magically it means something else entirely to one of you.

George: John phoned me one morning in January and said: "I've written this tune and I'm going to record it tonight and have it pressed up and out tomorrow - that's the whole point: Instant Karma!, you know. So I was in. I said, OK, I'll see you in town. I was in town with Phil Spector and I said to Phil: "Why don't you come to the session?" There were just four people: John played piano, I played acoustic guitar, there was Klaus Voormann on bass and Alan White on drums. We recorded the song and brought it out that week, mixed instantly by Phil Spector.

Neil Aspinall: Phil Spector was involved with Allen Klein on some business level or another, and was brought in to remix Let It Be. I have no idea whose idea it was for him to get involved.

George Martin: That made me very angry and it made Paul even angrier, because neither he nor I knew about it till it had been done. It happened behind our backs because it was done when Allen Klein was running John. He'd organised Phil Spector and I think George and Ringo had gone along with it. They'd actually made an arrangement with EMI and said: "This is going to be our record." EMI came to me and said: "You made this record originally but we can't have your name on it. I asked them why not and they said: Well, you didn't produce the final thing. I said I produced the original and what you should do is have a credit saying: Produced by George Martin, over-produced by Phil Spector. They didn't think that was a good idea.

Paul: I had now made the McCartney record, my first album after The Beatles, and we had a release schedule on it; but then the others started buggering that around, saying, you can't release the McCartney album when you want to. We're releasing Let It Be and Ringo's solo record. I rang Neil, who was running Apple, and I said: "Wait a minute, we've decided my release date!" I had an understanding: I'd marked my release date on the calendar. I'd stuck to it religiously, but they'd moved it anyway. From my point of view I was getting done in. All the decisions were now three against one. And that's not the easiest position if you're the one: anything I wanted to do they could just say, No. Ringo came to see me. He was sent, I believe, being mild mannered, the nice guy by the others, because of the dispute. So Ringo arrived at the house, and I must say I gave him a bit of verbal. I said: You guys are just messing me around. He said: No, well, on behalf of the board and on behalf of The Beatles and so and so, we think you should do this, etc. And I was just fed up with that. It was the only time I ever told anyone to get out! It was fairly hostile. But things had got like that by this time. It hadn't actually come to blows, but it was near enough.

Ringo: It was just two guys pouting and being silly. Paul: I got so fed up with all this I said, OK, I want to get off the label. Apple Records was a lovely dream, but I thought, Now this is really trashy and I want to get off. I remember George on the phone saying to me: "You'll stay on this f**king label! Hare Krishna!" and he hung up and I went: "Oh, dear me. This is really getting hairy."

John: We're all individuals. And in The Beatles we grew out of it. The bag was too small. I can't impose far-out films or far-out music on George and Paul if they don't want to do it. Vice versa, Paul can't impose on me whatever he likes, especially when there's no common goal any more. (1971)

George Martin: The split arose from many contributory things, mainly that each of the boys wanted to live his own life and had never been able to. They'd always been having to consider the group; so they were always a prisoner of that and I think they eventually got fed up with it. They wanted to live life like other people, where your wife is more important than your working partner. As Yoko came along, as eventually Linda came along, they were more important to John and Paul than John and Paul were to each other, and the same went for the other boys too.

Ringo: Yoko's taken a lot of shit, her and Linda; but The Beatles break-up wasn't their fault. It was just that suddenly we were all 30 and married and changed. We couldn't carry on that life any more.

John: The Beatles were disintegrating slowly after Brian Epstein died, it was slow death and it was happening. It's evident in Let It Be, although Linda and Yoko were evident then, but they weren't when we started it. It was evident in India when George and I stayed there and Paul and Ringo left. It was evident on the White album. It's just natural. It's not a great disaster. People keep talking about it as if it's the end of the Earth. It's only a rock group that split up. It's nothing important. You have all the old records there if you want to reminisce. (1971)

Paul: No matter how much we split, we're still very linked. We're the only four people who've seen the whole Beatlemania bit from the inside out, so we're tied forever, whatever happens.

John: The Beatles is over, but John, Paul, George and Ringo - God knows what relationship they'll have in the future. I don't know. I still love those guys! Because they'll always be those people who were that part of my life.

The Beatles Anthology is published by Cassell on October 5th, price £35 in UK

Brian Boyd

Brian Boyd

Brian Boyd, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes mainly about music and entertainment