In the 2014 film Boyhood, Ethan Hawke’s character gives his son a CD compilation of John, Paul, George and Ringo’s best solo work, called ‘The Black Album’ – as the actor had done for his own daughter, Maya. Here he explains why the post-breakup years are such a significant part of the Beatles story…
Paul McCartney always says, “People ask me what have I done since The Beatles, so I say: what have you done since The Beatles?” The work of the individual Beatles after the band split isn’t a footnote to their story, it’s a whole new story. On one level, it represents how brilliant they all are individually. On another, it shows that working together was what made them so special. And they were all brilliant on their own. In particular John and Paul, but also George and Ringo had a couple of Number Ones too.
What made them so special in the Beatles years was their ability to work with each other. Bob Dylan never had to sing backup, but Lennon and McCartney did that. Lady Gaga never had to play rhythm guitar, but these guys did that for each other too – total card-carrying geniuses though they were. That kind of celebrity – whether you’re talking about Marlon Brando, Elvis Presley or Michael Jackson – it destroys the psyche. But because they had each other, I think they kept each other sane. What’s it like to sing backup on ‘Hey Jude’, a song written about you and your family situation by somebody else? [It was written for Lennon’s estranged son Julian by McCartney.] I’m sure it was really humbling, and really awkward. But it keeps it honest. It’s that thing about respecting another person’s talent and another person’s voice that most big shots are never asked to do. They’re never asked to expose that kind of humility.
In the letter accompanying ‘The Black Album’ in Boyhood, I touch on the clichés about each Beatle’s character, but it’s more complicated than that. Lennon is considered to be the one with bite, but he wrote some of the schmaltziest solo songs. ‘Grow Old With Me’? Like, come on. I think what’s so wonderful about their solo work is that if you put them next to each other – if you put ‘Pipes Of Peace’ next to ‘Imagine’, for example – you see how similar they all are. They were always writing about the same things, just very simple human things. I think Lennon has, like, seven songs about waking up in the morning. They cared about each other, politics, themselves and love. And their silly love songs are the best, because they were so serious about falling in love and being in love, whether you’re talking about Yoko or Linda. Their partners became characters in their songs – ‘Lovely Linda’ and ‘Oh Yoko!’ – which was pretty radical because it’s wildly self-referential to the point of being navel-gazing in a kind of absurd way. But I could listen to ‘Oh Yoko!’ right now – I love that song.
The idea of ‘The Black Album’ was to collect the best of the solo years, but I do have favourites within that. I’d say ‘Crippled Inside’ is just a classic Lennon song – it’s the potency of that word ‘crippled’, and the weird, almost country sound to the production, even though it’s more of a blues song. His ability to use very few words to great impact is unprecedented.
For McCartney, it’s ‘The Back Seat Of My Car’, a lesser-known song that is absolutely phenomenal. ‘Every Night’ is another underappreciated McCartney track – it has the feeling of ‘She’s Leaving Home’. A lot of Lennon’s best work has been widely promoted because of his passing and because there’s not as much of it, but you know, McCartney’s ‘Junk’ – what an amazing song that is. It would have been a Beatles song if it hadn’t all gone to pot for the band.
For Harrison, you have to look at ‘All Things Must Pass’ – it’s one of the greatest songs that any of them came up with. And when the third-best songwriter in the band is cranking out ‘All Things Must Pass’, you’re doing alright.
And you can’t write off Ringo. In the same way that ‘Octopus’s Garden’ is an essential element of ‘Abbey Road’, they would always give Ringo a track per album. It puts that little element of unprofessionalism in the group, makes them seem like they’re your friends. Coldplay is so perfect, U2 is so perfect, but The Beatles were never perfect, and it’s because of that friendship. For me it all comes together on ‘With A Little Help From My Friends’. John and Paul wanted to give Ringo a Number One song, so they wrote it all in C. It’s the easiest song to sing in the world and it’s totally profound. I wish I had two friends do that for me.
If you want the best of Ringo solo, look at ‘It Don’t Come Easy’, which he did with George. There’s the distinct impression that those two had a lot more to prove, so they tried harder. I think it was hard sitting in the back seat with Lennon and McCartney in the front seat.
To pick a favourite Beatle is to misunderstand The Beatles. It’s their juxtaposition that makes them so significant. One of my other favourite McCartney quotes is when they asked him, “Do you think of John when you write?” He says, “I think of John every time I write. I think, ‘Oh, John would hate this.’’’ Left to himself, McCartney can be really silly, and John Lennon can be really self-serious. Together they make something that we’re still talking about. So the idea that there’s a favourite, it’s like, you’re better off talking about their outfits.
The bitchiness of the McCartney-Lennon divorce played out on the ‘Let It Be’ album, but you’ve got to remember that they recorded the happier ‘Abbey Road’ after that. In a way it can be kind of healing to realise that they actually did find a way to get together and support each other even after ‘Let It Be’ tore everything apart. I feel pretty certain that, had Lennon been able to live, the bitchiness of it all would have ended eventually. The closest thing we have is ‘Real Love’, which the three surviving Beatles recorded over an original Lennon vocal for the ‘Anthology’ albums. A lot of people were down on it, but I like it – it moves me.
Would they have recaptured the old magic if they’d got back together properly? How could they not?!