It was 20 years ago today…Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play…
More like 25, I guess, but time flies when you’re having fun.
In the space of a few short weeks, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band, or as some know them, The Beatles, will have a revival. Not that their music ever died. The remaining Beatles are releasing a new album on Capitol next month in conjunction with a television special. The anticipation has already begun and will build to a fever pitch by showtime.
Who would have thought it when they were first signed? A four-piece band playing pubs in Liverpool would become the greatest musical event ever. Nearly 30 years after their first release, The Beatles still rock. Several of their albums go Gold every year. Their catalogue accounts for a huge percentage of Capitol’s yearly sales. All of this from a group that stopped recording together in 1969.
Together, John Lennon and Paul McCartney formed the most prolific songwriting team in the history of music. Not only did they write hits, but their songs changed the face of music. The same guys who wrote “I Want To Hold Your Hand” also wrote “A Day In The Life. “ They wrote “I Saw Her Standing There” and “Eleanor Rigby.” Go figure.
Their recording techniques were way pas the cutting edge. They introduced feedback, overdubbing, backward masking and a ton of other recoding innovations long before anyone else ever thought about them. Today, studios routinely use 48-track machines. The Beatles did all their creating on four.
I first heard The Beatles when I was in junior high school. When I saw them on The Ed Sullivan Show, I was done. I bought a guitar, grew my hair long and was first accused of being, what they called in the South, a juvenile delinquent. My father called me a reprobate. I didn’t know what it meant, but it sounded cool.
I got to meet my favorite Beatle (everyone had a favorite) some years later. I was, coincidently, in New York at a Billboard convention. It was about midnight and I was in bed in my room when the phone rang. Al Coury, then VP Promotion for Capitol Records, was on the line, inviting me to the lobby for a drink. I was programming KHJ Los Angeles at the time and I figured Al was all revved up to hammer me on the latest Anne Murray cover. I quickly refused, citing exhaustion as a lame excuse.
Al said, “Aw, that’s too bad, Gerry. I was going to take you over to the Record Plant and introduce you to John Lennon.”
I was in the lobby in three minutes.
John Lennon, my favorite Beatle (did I already say that?), was deep, deep undercover at the time. He was dodging extradition from the U.S. and had been hiding out in New York City. Few had seen him in the previous years.
Standing in the lobby, waiting for a cab, I was as nervous as a schoolboy on his first date. My breath was shallow, my heart was pounding in my chest, my face was flushed and I was using all my energy to pretend I didn’t really care. Those emotions were minor compared to what was coming.
Al introduced me to an agitated John Lennon in the studio where they were mixing the Walls And Bridges album. Lennon shook my hand quickly and told me to have a seat on the couch. Al stepped outside and I sat there in a coma, listening to John argue with the engineer about how the sax should be mixed. He wanted it high, the engineer wanted it low. I was in heaven.
Suddenly, Lennon swung around toward me and said, “What do you think, Gerry?”
I almost wet my pants. “Loud,” I managed. Like I was going to disagree with John Lennon.
He clapped his hands and shouted. “Fine then, we’ll let you mix it.”
It was the start of a long friendship.
Several months later, Paul Drew and I were discussing who would fill in for the KHJ morning man while he was on vacation. Drew suggested asking recording stars to host. This was long before acts appeared on Top 40 stations. It had never been done before.
I called record companies and managers for days. No luck. Nobody wanted to do it.
So I called John…not to ask him. Certainly John Lennon wouldn’t want to be a deejay, but to get his advice.
He said, “I’d love to do it.”
We spread the word that John Lennon (who hadn’t done a public appearance in years) would be on the station and everyone who had said no originally quickly changed their minds. I had to give the morning man an extra week off to accommodate all of them. The tapes of John’s show are unbelievable. His appearance made national news. Coury never forgave me for wearing a Warner Bros. jacket when NBC televised it.
The unique thing about this was that John didn’t do it for publicity or for a hidden agenda. He did it to help a friend.
Before going on the air, he wrote me a letter listing his favorite records of all time, asking if he could play some of them. (Like I’m going to disagree with John Lennon!) I still have the letter. Some people say it’s worth a lot of money. To me, it’s priceless.
I spent a lot of time with John after that. I was the booth when he did his famous Monday Night Football interview with Howard Cosell, was thrown out of the Troubadour with him when he put a Kotex on his head, listened for hours as he worked with Phi Spector on the Shaved Fish album and was there the night “someone” went berserk and shot up the A&M studio. I drove him home after the incident.
It was the last time I saw him.
There are other stories to tell, but we’ve got time for that later.
This week, Hollywood Records released a tribute album of John Lennon songs entitled Working Class Hero. It’s featured on our cover. There’s also an interview with Lindy Goetz, the executive producer.
The album, and the season, have made me more than a little nostalgic. Maybe it’s the full moon. Maybe it’s the Billboard convention. I haven’t been to one since I met John Lennon.
How could I top that?
I can’t imagine.