I’ve just finished reading “Still the Greatest: The Essential Songs of the Beatles' Solo Careers” by Andrew Grant Jackson (released in 2012).
The hook for this one is that Jackson has assembled a series of “fantasy” albums of the Beatles solo material if they’d never split up. While this is a common pastime for Beatle fans (not many of us wouldn’t have done this for a least one or two post-Beatle albums), as the basis for the book it makes for a bit of an arbitrary selection of the best post-beatle work. It’s constrained artificially by having 14 song albums with a rough break-up of 5 songs each for Lennon and McCartney, three for Harrison and one for Ringo. The spacing of the albums is also arbitrary. He proposes an album a year from 70 to 76, then one in 80, 84, 89, 97, ’05 and 11, meaning by the end the albums are just McCartney and Ringo songs, which tends to bust the whole idea really.
Before each album he gives a potted state of play of the four Beatles. There isn’t much new in any of this, he’s basically grabbing bits from various biographies. There’s also quite a bit of gossip of the various extra marital liaisons, which I suppose does provide context for certain elements of the Beatles' actions after they broke-up (Starr’s pulling back from working with Harrison for a few years after George shagged his wife, for example). Although Im not sure what the point was of recounting the Heidi Fleiss' gossip of George receiving oral pleasure at the mouth of one of her call girls at a party, as he played the ukelele. Besides being an amusing image of course.
That said there were a couple of tidbits I hadn’t read elsewhere, that Paul and George did try to write together ( a song All for Love) after the Anthology series but simply couldn’t get along professionally, with the session ending in an argument.
When it comes to assembling the albums the choices are of course his own. As expected, for the first half of the 70s they’re very hit heavy, moving more to album cuts and b-sides as the various Beatle careers waxed and waned. Most of the Lennon solo work is well and truly picked over now so there are no real hidden gems here. Some of his choices are good pointers to some lesser known later McCartney and Ringo songs. There’s a couple of Harrison ones most people would be less familiar with (“Poor Little Girl”, the b-side to Cheer Down for instance)
He gives no sense that, in assembling his albums, he was taking into account the order of the songs or the mix of styles to make a varied album. It seems to be just his favourites from the songs available in any given period. I’m also not sure why McCartney would have written Dear Friend and suggested it for a Beatles album if he and Lennon were getting along well enough to work together. Controversially, he doesn’t simply dump on Yoko Ono and Linda McCartney’s singing. He actually thinks Linda had a lovely voice for harmonies. And that Ono could sometimes sing ok with John, if overly vibrato-ed.
All in all it’s a bit underwhelming, perhaps reflecting much of the post-Beatle careers. He gives a short analysis of each song, primarily lyrical, with interpretations which might seem to some contentious. He suggests for instance that the McCartney's Riding to Vanity Fair, was about Heather Mills, when I thought Paul himself had said it referred to some other acquaintance.
After reading the Everett, Beatles as Musicians books and the Pedler, Songwriting Secrets of the Beatles several times, the lack of attempt to convey much of the music structure for the songs gave the analysis a bit of a slight feel. He doesn’t need to prattle on about mixolydian modes but a bit more than cursory description of the music would have helped the book, as well as conveyed why it would make a good album track. He doesn’t delve into how the tracks might have differed if played by the four of them as a band.
On the plus side he can be quite amusing in a sardonic sort of way with a couple of laugh out loud lines. He clearly loves the Beatles but isn’t blind to their faults and failings. As I so often do when reading more and more about the Beatles, and Lennon after the Beatles, my resolve to give Ono the benefit of the doubt with respect to her human qualities is sorely tested.
I wouldn’t call this a must read. It’s a reasonable presentation of Beatle solo work and a bit of fun for a light diversion. And it has prompted me to download a couple of lesser known tracks. So it’s worth it for that alone. And of course I might need to revisit my own Beatle fantasy albums...