When The Beatles made their debut in 1964 on The Ed Sullivan Show, I remember my father saying, “No daughter of mine is going to listen to the music of those long-haired Limey freaks.” And so I did what any passively rebellious tween would do. I went to my best friend’s house and listened to her records. For hours on end as we did our homework, we’d sing, “She loves me yeah yeah yeah” until her mother called up the stairs and told us to dial it down. Whereupon we retreated to the floor of her bedroom closet and continued, sotto voce, until dinnertime. Thus, what a treat it is to take a trip down nostalgia lane with author Gary Fearon’s new book, After Abbey Road: The Solo Hits of The Beatles. A must-read for anyone who needs a respite from the escalating insanity of 2020.
Interviewer; Christina Hamlett
Q: Wordsmithing, songwriting, broadcasting—Wow! Were any of these creative pursuits in your career plan when you were growing up or did you fall into all three of these naturally as an adult?
A: My entire family is artistic as well as musical, so I always had the opportunity to dabble in the creative arts to my heart’s content. Early on, I wanted to be a syndicated cartoonist. In time, music took precedence and I got into broadcasting soon after that. Each of my interests continue to come into play through my many and varied projects.
Q: What was your “Aha!” moment when you first realized you were living the dream?
A: Even as a kid, I took note of how doctors display medical degrees on their walls, and I equated those ornate framed documents as a measure of success, in the same way that drivers licenses and diplomas immortalize achievement in black and white. During my time as a radio DJ, I won the Billboard Award for Air Personality of the Year, and lo and behold, the certificate came in a frame, delivered personally by Wink Martindale. Although I’ve been fortunate enough to enjoy many acknowledgements before and after, I’d say that was the moment that suggested I had “arrived.”
Q: Who or what would you say had the greatest influence on your perspectives about the world of entertainment?
A: Steve Allen, hands down. Most people will remember him as a TV personality, but he was also an acclaimed writer, songwriter, comedian, actor, DJ, and more. Steve was an entertaining example of how you don’t have to limit yourself to just one specialty. As part of a very early writing project, I ended up corresponding with him to ask permission to use an excerpt from one of his books, and he not only agreed but wrote me a three page letter with his fascinating thoughts on the subject. I never forgot his gracious gesture to help a budding young writer.
Q: A lot of parents discourage their offspring from, say, wanting to be a musician because they don’t want them eking out an existence. What’s your response to the advice to just get a day-job even if it makes them unhappy?
A: As they say, “Do what you love and the money will follow.” Everyone needs an outlet of some kind. Creative people have a particular need to express what’s inside. It’s not just a weekend hobby for them, it’s who they are. I say, please don’t stunt any right-brainer who aspires to be a musician, artist or writer, because that would be messing with their very soul.
Q: Is there a particular era of music and/or movies which personally resonates with you as “best of the best”?
A: Popular music is constantly evolving (and not always for the better!), but I feel it found its footing in the ‘60s. Among other things, that’s when many recording artists starting writing their own songs, so we got more honest and inventive music that has influenced Top 40 radio ever since.
As for movies I’d have to harken back to the Golden Age of Hollywood. I wasn’t around in the 40s but so many of the movies from that era were groundbreaking and continued to inspire today’s filmmakers.
Q: In your bio you describe yourself as being as fascinated with the closing credits of a film as you are with its camera angles. Why is that?
A: Funny you asked that at this moment. I just got off the phone with my brothers, who are also avid movie buffs, and this weekend we had all seen Hitchcock’s North by Northwest on TCM. Among our observations was the director’s (or maybe the cinematographer’s) decision to do this shot from overhead, or only show the legs of a person walking, things like that.
I’ve always been a behind-the-scenes guy, riveted by what’s going on behind the curtain. The mechanics of moviemaking and the infinite number of talents involved boggles the mind. Other people leave the cinema when the credits start rolling, but I’m ready for a refill on my popcorn. If nothing else, I want to know where the movie was filmed or who sang what song on the soundtrack.
Q: What do you normally listen to when you’re doing something creative?
A: When I’m trying to write and want mood music, I usually choose something I’m so familiar with that I can hear it without paying attention to it. Lately it’s an instrumental album like Herb Alpert or Chuck Mangione. But my most effective soundtrack of all seems to be the lawnmower, when I’m cutting grass! Maybe it works like white noise, I don’t know.
Q: We both grew up at a time when subjects such as art, music appreciation and theater were a regular part of the grade school curriculum. Suffice it to say, these are always among the first subjects to get cut when budgets are lean. How does this harm us as a society if subsequent generations aren’t exposed to what the arts can teach?
A: This gets back to outlets, and wouldn’t it be wonderful if all schools understood how important the arts are for a balanced society. Sports is an outlet, but it’s a passive one for everyone but the players and cheerleaders. I don’t know what I would have done had I not had Music, Art and English teachers who recognized and encouraged my creative side.
Q: Your newly released book, After Abbey Road, chronicles the colorful stories behind the 220 solo singles penned and performed by The Fab Four. Why this book … and why now?
A: 2020 is a year of milestones in Beatles history. This is the 50th anniversary of when they broke up and started their solo careers. John Lennon would have been 80 this year, plus it’s the 40th anniversary of his death. There will be new re-releases and even a couple of Beatles-oriented films before the year is out, so I’m grateful that my book is enjoying traction from these other avenues.
Q: How did you come up with the idea and what was the biggest challenge in pulling together all of the content?
A: As a songwriter, I’ve always loved hearing the stories behind The Beatles’ hits. They found inspiration in everything from carnival posters to parking tickets, and those tales are readily found in the hundreds of Beatle books that already exist. But much less has been written about the creative spark behind their solo hits like “Jet”, “Imagine”, “It Don’t Come Easy” and so on. In all, they’ve released 220 singles since 1970 and it was my mission to unveil the backstory of each one of them, right up to Ringo and Paul’s latest singles.
The biggest challenge was indeed tracking down the stories behind some of the newer songs because the more recent the song, the less information was available. But after over six months of researching books, newspapers, magazines, videos, interviews and the Internet, it all came together, and After Abbey Road: The Solo Hits of The Beatles was released in May, the 50th anniversary of their last album.
Q: We tend to think of The Beatles as being together for much longer than they actually were and that the break-up was all Yoko’s fault. What’s your own take on why they went separate ways?
A: Great question. They were still just teenagers when they formed the Quarrymen and then became The Beatles. Throughout their 20s, they operated as one unit with little opportunity to explore their individuality. By the time they approached the age of 30, they had to separate just to find themselves. The different directions they took musically is just one part of the intriguing aftermath spelled out by their solo careers.
As for Yoko, she was certainly part of it but more of an accessory than the culprit. Now that I understand John’s insecurities better, I can appreciate why he was drawn to this strong and unusual woman who was so unlike his previous partnerships.
Q: Do you have a personal connection/experience with The Beatles’ music?
A: There was always music going on in my house, and The Beatles were the number one inspiration for my musician brothers and me. The songbook for Paul McCartney’s first solo album helped me learn how to play guitar. I’ve produced a number of radio specials about them as well as morning show parodies of their songs. I even had the pleasure of a phone chat with their producer George Martin shortly before he retired. It was almost in my DNA to write a book about The Beatles.
Q: What’s your favorite story-behind-the-song in this book?
A: It’s hard to pick! But one that comes to mind is a single by John called “Borrowed Time”. In 1980 he chartered a private yacht for a five-day voyage from New York to Bermuda. Two days in, they encountered a fierce storm with gale force winds that left the crew battered and seasick. John himself had to take the wheel for a six-hour stint that he said was the most terrifying and exhilarating experience of his life. Surviving the journey left him so inspired that he wrote two dozen new songs when he got to Bermuda, including “Borrowed Time”. Its Jamaican feel and the title itself borrows from a Bob Marley song he heard after he arrived.
Q: Assuming you could have lunch with George, John, Paul or Ringo, who would you choose, where would you go and what would you most like to ask?
A: I would invite John to the legendary Charlie Vergos’ Rendezvous in Memphis. John would appreciate its musical atmosphere and the fact that Elvis liked their ribs. Somewhere I’d slide into the conversation, “In 1970, you wrote lyrics like ‘Imagine there’s no heaven’ and ‘I don’t believe in Jesus,’ but in 1980 you sang ‘God bless our love, God bless our love.’ Did something change during those ten years?”
Q: What is it about The Beatles that distinctly puts them in a class of their own?
A: In the last 60 years, no other band has come close to matching The Beatles in terms of commercial success, critical praise, and a lasting impact on music and culture. They were leaders – and in today’s lingo, “influencers” – beyond any act before or since.
Q: How has popular music changed in the last 50 years?
A: Like everything, it keeps pushing the envelope, always trying to be edgier than what came before. One of the more interesting things I’ve observed is that songs no longer seem to express any kind of vulnerability. Up through the 1980s, songs might say “I can’t live without you.” These days, the message is “I don’t need you.” It seems to be all about empowerment and anger. Literally half the songs in the Top 10 this week include vulgarities and dark intentions. That’s not progress; that’s unhealthy for everyone. Thank goodness country music still contains messages that celebrate love and country in positive ways.
Q: What was your favorite part of writing After Abbey Road?
A: Since the research itself turned out to be the biggest challenge, it was a minor victory every time I got stuck on a song but then would find the very information I was missing, often from an unexpected source. Overall, though, the satisfaction of contributing something of value to the legacy of my musical heroes is a reward unto itself.
Q: Were you surprised by anything you discovered in your research?
A: Absolutely! Along with some eye-opening backstories – as well as discovering songs that have become new favorites (like a Ringo gem called “Imagine Me There”) – a closer look at the individual personalities of the four ex-Beatles was very revealing. For example, George really wasn’t the sullen “quiet” Beatle of lore, and Paul can be a taskmaster in the studio who has chased off many a bandmate. My favorite revelation, though, was observing how each of them promoted “peace and love” in their own unique way.
Q: What’s next on your plate?
A: I’m voicing the audiobook, which of course is another major undertaking. Based on the ones I’ve done for other authors, I expect it to be finished sometime in July.
Q: Anything else you’d like to add?
A: Yes! I’d like to invite my fellow fans of music and writing to Friend me on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/gary.fearon.9) and to sign up on my website (http://www.garyfearon.com/) for free songwriting tips. If you happen to buy a copy of my book, please drop me a line there so I can send you a link that will help you get the most out of After Abbey Road.
And thank you, Christina, for inviting me here!