Myth No. 1
The Beatles objected to trading leather outfits for suits and ties.
“In the beginning,” John Lennon told Melody Maker, the British music magazine, in 1970, Brian Epstein, the Beatles’ manager, “. . . put us in neat suits and shirts, and Paul was right behind him. I didn’t dig that, and I used to try to get George to rebel with me.” Lennon later complained to Rolling Stone that by giving up leather for suits, “we sold out.” Soon, the story of the Beatles chafing against Epstein’s directives was part of the lore.
The other Beatles — and sometimes, Lennon himself — remembered things differently. “It was later put around that I betrayed our leather image,” Paul McCartney said in “The Beatles Anthology,” “but, as I recall, I didn’t actually have to drag anyone to the tailors.” George Harrison said that “with black T-shirts, black leather gear and sweaty, we did look like hooligans. . . . We gladly switched into suits to get some more money and some more gigs.” Lennon put it this way to Hit Parader in 1975: “Outside of Liverpool, when we went down South in our leather outfits, the dance hall promoters didn’t really like us. . . . We liked the leather and the jeans but we wanted a good suit, even to wear offstage.” To which he added, “I’ll wear a . . . balloon if somebody’s going to pay me.”
Myth No. 2
Ringo Starr was not a good drummer.
Perhaps because he joined the Beatles just before they rocketed to stardom and was never a showy virtuoso like Cream’s Ginger Baker or Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham, Starr has often been portrayed as a so-so drummer who became “a living symbol of good luck,” as Craig Brown called him in a 2005 column in the Telegraph. Discussions of Starr’s drumming often include a quotation attributed to Lennon, who supposedly said: “Ringo was not the best drummer in the world. He wasn’t even the best drummer in the Beatles.”
Mark Lewisohn, the author of “Tune In,” discovered that this quote originated not with Lennon but in a 1983 television appearance by the British comedian Jasper Carrott. What Lennon did say, in one of his final interviews , was that “Ringo is a damn good drummer,” and he noted that Starr had already been a professional, playing in one of Liverpool’s best bands, when the Beatles were taking their musical baby steps. McCartney told Rolling Stone in 2016 that Starr “has a feel that nobody else has.”
When Starr was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, in 2015, several of rock’s most highly regarded drummers — among them Dave Grohl, Taylor Hawkins, Questlove, Tré Cool, Max Weinberg and Chad Smith — made a video in which they extolled Starr’s virtues as an inventive drummer whose contributions helped illuminate the Beatles’ music.
Myth No. 3
George Martin recognized the talent right away.
Martin’s perspicacity in signing the band, after the rest of London’s record producers turned them down, is a pillar of the Beatles legend, based on Martin’s and Epstein’s telling: When Epstein turned up at his office with recordings of the group, Martin writes in “Playback,” his 2002 memoir, he was not initially impressed but heard “something different about them, an unusual sound that intrigued me.” Epstein, in his autobiography, “A Cellarful of Noise ,” quoted Martin as saying, “I know very little about groups, Brian, but I believe you have something very good here.”
But Kim Bennett, a song-plugger for EMI’s in-house publisher, said Martin had turned Epstein down, according to Lewisohn’s research. Epstein had also played his recordings for Sid Colman, Bennett’s boss. Colman wanted to publish some of the Lennon-McCartney songs, but without a record on the market, it would be difficult to sell the sheet music. So Colman tried to interest EMI’s producers in recording the group, with no more success than Epstein. Eventually he persuaded Len Wood, EMI’s managing director, to take them on. Wood was upset with Martin — thanks to a difficult contract negotiation and the discovery that Martin was having a romance with his own secretary (who later became the producer’s second wife). Wood assigned the Beatles to Martin’s Parlophone label as comeuppance.
Ron Richards, Martin’s assistant at the time, and Norman Smith, his chief engineer, confirmed the story. Lewisohn hoped to discuss his findings with Martin, but the producer was in poor health, and they were unable to meet.
Myth No. 4
Yoko Ono brokeup the Beatles.
“Yoko Ono knows what you’re probably thinking,” a report on Ono’s 2014 art exhibition in Florida began. “She knows people still blame her for breaking up the Beatles.” Last year, when the National Music Publishers Association gave Ono a co-composer’s credit for “Imagine” — in keeping with Lennon’s claims that the idea for the song was hers — news reports around the country referred to this persistent belief. One commenter on a report in Variety went so far as to suggest that McCartney and Starr collaborate on a new song, to be called “Imagine John Hadn’t Married A Tone-Deaf Person Who Broke Up The Group.”
Lennon’s inseparability from Ono during the Beatles’ final 16 months — particularly his insistence on bringing her to every recording session (when she was ill, a bed was brought in) — unquestionably contributed to the tensions in the already fractious group. But given everything else that had been going on — Harrison’s growing resentment about his songs being ignored, fights about how (and whether) to stage a live concert for the conclusion of the “Let It Be” film and, most of all, business squabbles — the breakup cannot be pinned on her. “She certainly didn’t break the group up,” McCartney declared in an interview with David Frost on Al Jazeera in 2012, later adding, in a 2016 interview on the BBC “Mastertapes” radio program, that “the business thing split us apart.”
The “business thing” was that Lennon, with the support of Harrison and Starr, wanted to engage the American manager Allen Klein to oversee the Beatles and their company, Apple, while McCartney wanted to hire his new in-laws, the show business lawyers Lee and John Eastman. For McCartney, the villain was Klein.
Myth No. 5
'Abbey Road' was named for the Beatles' recording studio.
“We take it as a great compliment that The Beatles should choose to name what turned out to be their last album after our studio,” Ken Townsend, the former general manager of EMI’s Abbey Road Studios, said in “Abbey Road: The Story of the World’s Most Famous Recording Studios,” by Brain Southall, Peter Vince and Allan Rouse. Alistair Lawrence made a similar assertion in “Abbey Road: The Best Studio in the World.”
Originally, the LP was to have been called “Everest,” the engineer Geoff Emerick has said, in honor of the brand of cigarettes he smoked. John Kurlander, another engineer who worked on the album, told me in 1987 that “the Beatles knew that this album was going to be their swan song, and by calling it ‘Everest,’ they were telling the world that they were going out at their peak.” The band agreed to fly to Mount Everest to take the cover photo, but as the album neared completion, they decided that the trip was not worth the trouble.
As Emerick remembered it, Starr suggested that the group just go out to the street outside the EMI Recording Studios for the cover shoot. McCartney quickly made a sketch of how the cover might look, and photographer Iain Macmillan was commissioned to shoot it, which he did on Aug. 8, 1969, as the Beatles filed across the Abbey Road crosswalk. EMI changed the studios’ name to Abbey Road in 1970, to capitalize on the interest created by the album.