“We know The Beatles let it be, but what if they worked it out instead? This book gives life to every fan’s fantasy. It's a great new adventure full of twists and turns that never were, but might have been." Chris Carter, host, Breakfast with the Beatles & Chris Carter’s British Invasion (Sirius/XM Radio)
We all know the tragic story by now. After seven years as the most popular rock-and-roll group the world has ever seen, The Beatlestorn apart by personal and creative differencescalled it quits in 1970, never to play together again. The fact that their contemporaries like the Rolling Stones are still playing today makes their ending even more painful.
Once There Was a Way: What if The Beatles Stayed Together? is a story of another reality, the one we wished had happened, where the Fab Four chose to work it out rather than let it be. This book is no mere fairy tale, but a chronicle crafted from the people and events of our own history, shaped to create a brand new narrative in which John, Paul, George, and Ringo find a way to stay friends and keep the band together. Imagine there was more. Lots more. It’s easy if you try.
"Hold on to your hats, folks. You're in for quite a ride." Harry Turtledove, alternative history author, How Few Remain, on Surrounded by Enemies
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A DOLL'S HOUSE (1968)
They Blew His Mind Out in a Bar
In May 1968, Paul McCartney and John Lennon traveled together to New York City to tell the world that Apple Corps Ltd. was the new company behind the Beatles. The New York Post headline proclaimed "Beatles Pitch Apple in the Big Apple."
McCartney and Lennon labored through multiple press briefings and interviews to explain why they had done it. McCartney took the position that it was a natural extension of the brand, a way to control their own destinies. "The Beatles are more than records," he explained. "We're a bit of everything these days, aren't we? We have to watch out for ourselves."
The reality was that Apple had been conceived as a tax dodge shortly after the death of their manager, Brian Epstein, in the late summer of 1967. Truly on their own then, the Beatles had received sobering news that over £4MM would need to be paid in taxes by the Beatles unless the money was used for business purposes. It was simple survival math since corporate tax rates were far lower than those for individuals. Under the new arrangement worked out by lawyers and accountants, each Beatle would own 5 percent of a company known as "Beatles and Co." and Apple — owned collectively by all four Beatles — would own the other 80 percent.
This line of reasoning played out as far too mercenary and boring for John Lennon, who chose to cast the entire decision as primarily a creative one. "It's so people who want to make a record or a film, you know, don't have to go on their knees in an office, begging for a break. They can just come to us and sit in one of our chairs if they want."
There was pushback everywhere to this idea that, inspired by capitalism, Apple could be embraced by its owners as a counter-culture answer to capitalism, opening its doors and its cash reserves to strangers while almost simultaneously trying to extend its brand to everything from clothing to technology. It was clearly a risky affair, given that the primary talent of the Beatles, up to that point, was making music.
At a St. Regis Hotel press conference, American journalists seemed as skeptical as their English brethren that these drug-taking leftist musicians could manage a real-world business. Worse than the skepticism, however, was the palpable lack of interest. Most reporters seemed uninterested in the new venture but fixated on the idea that the behavior and the music of the Beatles were alienating them from their fans.
Only a few days into the New York visit, after some back-and-forth with the press, both Lennon and McCartney found their moods darkening. Playing businessmen was supposed to be fun. Otherwise, what was the point?
On Tuesday, May 14, the two Beatles were scheduled to appear on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, where eleven million viewers could hear their pitch. When Apple publicist Derek Taylor broke the news to them on Monday that Johnny was unavailable the next night and that they would be appearing with substitute host and former baseball player Joe Garagiola, John had had enough.
"Fuck that," he said. "Let's just go home."
With twenty-four hours' notice, the celebrated team of Lennon and McCartney sent their regrets to the bookers of The Tonight Show. A miserable staffer, Craig Tennis, was sent to the hotel where John and Paul were staying to plead for them to reconsider. According to Tennis, Mister Carson was performing in Gaithersburg, Maryland, outside of Washington, D.C. It was something that was booked long before they ever knew that John and Paul were coming to America. Tennis explained that his boss "feels strongly that you need to be at the studio as was negotiated."
John Lennon gave Tennis the middle finger. "Negotiate this."
Paul, ever the perfect host, sent the staffer away with this message: "You just tell them back at the show that we always wanted to meet Johnny, you know. King of Late Night, they say he is, don't they? So maybe next time we can do it. No hard feelings."
Johnny Carson, not a fan of guests dictating terms to him or his show, still knew history when it called, and while he had made his peace with Garagiola getting this big one, he would be damned if he was going to lose two Beatles as guests at the height of their popularity. Carson knew this was a "get" that would be good for both him and his show and might introduce him to a younger audience. He sent back the flustered Tennis with only one condition: Carson would come back if Lennon and McCartney agreed to do the entire show and promised to sing at least one song.
Fortunately for the NBC-TV network, Carson's stipulation gave the two Beatles a chance to get away from the irritating interviews with stodgy reporters and change the subject a bit. They had shown their dominance again the past November with a number one single featuring McCartney's "Hello, Goodbye" on the A-side and Lennon's "I Am the Walrus" on the B-side. John had never been happy with that, thinking that his song was the superior choice. Paul, having won that battle when producer George Martin sided with him, saw a chance to throw a peace offering to his partner.
"Let's do it, John. You sing 'Walrus' and we'll blow his mind."
As a result, on that Tuesday, Johnny Carson canceled a gig at the last minute, returning to New York City. And John Lennon and Paul McCartney got in a limo, smoked a joint, and cruised over to Rockefeller Center in Midtown Manhattan, where The Tonight Show was broadcast from NBC Studio 6B.
Although the show felt live, it was actually taped hours earlier than it aired, at 7 p.m. Mayor John V. Lindsay, a Republican, and half his staff were there. Simon and Garfunkel tried to attend, but imposters had taken their tickets and they were turned away at the door at the last minute. The two Beatles had to be smuggled in through an underground tunnel to avoid a possible public incident.
The show began with Carson asking a block of getting-to-know-you questions focused on why rock stars adored by millions of available women would want to start balancing spreadsheets. Lennon and McCartney described the state of Apple to Carson before the commercial break. Soon Carson and the two Beatles were reminiscing about their 1964 arrival at Kennedy airport and the appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. Lennon was as clever as his reputation made him out to be and McCartney was cheeky enough that every comment seemed to come with a wink. Carson seemed engaged and informed. McMahon chortled at everyone's jokes.
It was good television, and the show was only half over.
What Johnny Carson didn't know was how the two men sitting side by side on his couch were at a crossroads in their friendship. They were soldiering on with this trip to America, but back home they had been drifting apart for over a year or more. Carson saw them as close friends and pressed them for the secret of their friendship. He pointed out that he and Ed McMahon socialized together outside the show all the time. They'd had coffee just last week.
"Oh, we're great friends like that, we are," assured Paul.
Lennon did not miss a beat. "Although coffee's not exactly our drug of choice."
The audience held its breath to see how this confession from the long-haired Lennon would play with the straight-arrow Carson. The host timed it perfectly. "Of course not," he deadpanned. "Coming from England, you probably favor a strong cup of tea."
Another break, and then the magic came. Johnny asked them to play a song. Both Paul and John knew what a big deal it was. If they performed, it would be the first time they'd played before an audience of any kind whatsoever since they ceased touring in 1966.
"Well, you see, Johnny," Paul deflected, as if it hadn't already been discussed and decided, "it seems we've forgotten our guitars."
Doc Severinsen fixed that with a couple of instruments the band had procured in anticipation of the two Beatles playing on the show. In return, John reached behind the couch and presented Johnny with a tambourine. "We're not used to playing by ourselves. It's better when we have a quartet, you know?" He then turned to Ed. "Just sing along with the words that you know."
John began to pick out the opening chords to "I Am the Walrus."
"What does that mean," asked Johnny. "Why are you the Walrus?"
"We're all the Walrus," said John. "Maybe the Walrus was Paul."
"Johnny could be the Walrus," suggested Paul helpfully.
"No, no," the host said, waving them off. "The tambourine is all I can handle."
"It's just a word," John said, continuing to play. "It could be an Apple. We rather fancy that word now."
With that, John, Paul, Johnny, and Ed launched into a shockingly good but stripped-down version of "I Am the Walrus," complete with accompaniment from The Tonight Show band. Only this version banished the word "Walrus" in favor of "I Am the Apple."
As it ended, the audience gave the performance a standing ovation. Pumped up by the reception, it was John who suggested spontaneously that they do another. "Let's do the A-side," he said to Paul. "I wrote down your words, just in case." John produced a folded piece of paper with the lyrics written in his distinctive handwriting. "Your words" is how he had phrased it, not "our words." It was one of the first public acknowledgments that the unity implied by the Lennon-McCartney brand was part spin. The reality was clearly different.
John and Paul then delighted The Tonight Show audience with an acoustic version of "Hello, Goodbye" that they managed to turn into a Lennon-McCartney song instead of a McCartney solo.
Paul: "You say yes ..."
John: "I say no ..."
Paul: "You say stop ..."
John: "And I say go, go, go ..."
Paul/John: "Oh, no ... You say goodbye and I say hello ..."
As the broadcast came to an end, Johnny asked John and Paul if they were working on a new album. Not yet, they said, but both talked about all the new material they'd written while away in India. Ed McMahon wanted to know what they would call it.
"Well, we might call it A Doll's House, couldn't we? Or anything else that we might imagine," said Lennon. "Because it'd still be a Beatles album no matter what we call it." It was the same argument he made for changing "Walrus" to "Apple" in the song lyrics. Names were just labels and labels were not reality.
After the show, at Carson's suggestion, Carson, McMahon, Lennon, and McCartney went to The Tonight Show host's favorite watering hole, Danny's Hideaway. There, Carson and McMahon introduced the two Beatles to their favorite drinks — vodka sours and J&B scotch and water.
Years later, Ed McMahon would still describe the night as "fraught with danger." By that, Carson's sidekick meant that it soon became obvious to him that the famed Lennon and McCartney partnership showed distinct signs of having run its course. "These two brilliant young men had been placed under such pressure in extreme circumstances over the past five years that they were about to explode," he said. "They needed to push back against something and, particularly for John, that was Paul."
McMahon saw his own partner, Johnny Carson, wink at him before he turned to Lennon and McCartney and raised the first of several glasses. "A toast," said Carson, "to showing up."
Showing up, Carson and McMahon explained to Lennon and McCartney, meant that friends turned up for friends even when it was not convenient or fun or even appreciated. That's what Johnny and Ed had done for each other over the years. They joked that with all the marriages they had each been through, showing up to each other's respective weddings was the ultimate test of their commitment to their friendship.
What started out as an arduous return to New York for Lennon and McCartney had turned into a blast. McCartney never tired of talking about the night, always making himself the audience, and not the star, of the experience. The sixty-eight-year-old did so again for the 2010 edition of Rockstar:
[Paul] "It was magic times magic. The two Johns — John and Johnny — just hit it off, and Ed and I were the two Macks — McCartney and McMahon. Ed seemed like he'd always been happy being Johnny's number two, but he could see that would never do for me. He told me to show up for myself but to also show up for John and that John would always act like it pissed him off, and that I should ignore all this and show up anyway."
Because of the delay in the show's time, John, Paul, Johnny, and Ed were all safely at their table in Danny's Hideaway when The Tonight Show aired. These two great partnerships watched the episode in the bar, with staff and other customers buzzing at the outer fringes of the action.
Over the evening, the men all signed autographs, took photos with Danny for the Hideaway Wall of Fame, and generally caroused like they were old friends. "We blew his mind out in a bar," quipped Lennon to Apple's new managing director Neil Aspinall the very next day. The two Johns and the two Macks stayed out until 2:30 a.m.
As the show aired in different time zones across the country, the reviews came to Johnny from a special phone that Danny had installed for his regular celebrity guests. Everyone who saw the show loved it. What the seventy minutes (the broadcast minus commercials) showed was John and Paul having a great time with Johnny and Ed. It was that rare piece of television — an authentic party in progress, unstilted and impromptu, full of high spirits and camaraderie.
One can only imagine how different the atmosphere might have been had John Lennon and Paul McCartney spent their air time with Joe Garagiola and his scheduled guest that night, Tallulah Bankhead. Rather than being a positive mood lifter in the lives of Lennon and McCartney, the experience could have been remembered as the ultimate downer.
NBC had a policy of recycling the videotapes of their shows, and it is possible that this convergence of celebrities might have been lost to history. Carson writer Dick Cavett, however, realized immediately that this show was different and afterward made certain that the tape was put on a special shelf and saved. The Sunday after the Beatles returned to England, NBC aired the episode in primetime as an edited one-hour special, replacing a repeat of The High Chaparral. It won the time slot against Mission: Impossible on CBS and The Sunday Night Movie on ABC. The edited version did not include John's comment about their drug use.
The success of the Lennon and McCartney appearance made it clear that Apple Corps, no matter how idealistically conceived, needed a product to sell. Not that there was anything wrong with other musicians being signed, like Jackie Lomax or Mary Hopkin, but the product the world was interested in was the Beatles.
As the American audience watched John and Paul pitch the Apple story, the bottom line seemed to be that the Beatles were now going to use their influence and wealth to help young people reach their artistic dreams without the usual limitations to artistic freedom that they, themselves, had labored under.
That night on NBC television, the Beatles laid down their marker for the world. They were putting their own money on a dream to end artistic suppression and tyranny. And if straights from another generation did not dig it, then so be it. They were not asking for anyone's permission anyway.
"You sound like a couple of dreamers," said Carson as he thanked them for a great show.
"We're not the only ones," replied Lennon and then made a face to the audience.
The Call of the Shire
Before their trip to New York, the Beatles had done something that seemed oddly dangerous given their sudden founding of Apple Corps. They ran away and tried to forget about it.
In February, all four of the musicians and their respective wives and girlfriends packed their bags and left for Rishikesh, a place in northern India that overlooked the Ganges at the foothills of the Himalayas. They went to attend an advanced Transcendental Meditation training session at the ashram of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, whom the Beatles had first met the year before at a retreat in Wales, only to have Brian Epstein's death cut short their introduction.
Although this more extensive retreat was George Harrison's idea, it seemed to make sense for everyone else in a cosmic 1960s search-for-enlightenment way. Off they went over halfway around the world with so much to consider and sort out amongst themselves — only to spend their days trying to clear their minds and let their thoughts float upstream.
Excerpted from "Once There Was a Way"
Copyright © 2017 Bryce Zabel.
Excerpted by permission of Diversion Publishing Corp..
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