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Do you remember? Apple Records

the Beatles' experiment in 'Western communism' may have been doomed to failure, but it was fun while it lasted. By Simon Evans

By the middle of 1967, The Beatles were at a creative and commercial peak, with the Sgt Pepper album topping the album chart, and All You Need is Love perfectly capturing the spirit of the Summer of Love.

Dark clouds were gathering, however in the form of a sizeable tax bill from the Inland Revenue. The group’s accountants recommended forming a company that could act as a repository for its sizable income, attracting a much lower rate of tax than the 90 per cent prevalent at the time for the highest earners.

Initial ventures for the company that would become known as Apple Corps included a short-lived boutique and a more lucrative music publishing company, which, in May 1968, would form the basis for the creation of a full-blown record label. In the idealistic spirit of the time, Apple Records was intended to be an artist-friendly operation, somewhere that would-be musicians, poets and writers could go to find a sympathetic hearing rather than, as the typically acerbic John Lennon told a press conference full of cynical Fleet Street reporters, “having to go down on their hands and knees in someone’s office, probably yours.”

Paul McCartney described Apple as an experiment in “Western communism,” an enlightened company that would change the rules of how businesses were run. That was the theory. Unfortunately what it meant in practice was that the band’s old pals from Liverpool, employed to fill various posts at Apple, enjoyed what was later memorably described as “the longest cocktail party’, consuming oceanic quantities of drink, drugs, cigarettes and lavish food sent over from Fortnum and Mason, all at the Beatles’ expense.

For a while, however, it seemed as though The Beatles were onto something. For one thing, Apple was a brilliant exercise in branding. The Apple logo – based on a Magritte painting owned by Paul McCartney – was striking and instantly recognisable. And although The Beatles were still contracted to EMI, agreement was reached that their records could be released on Apple, which made the label instantly fashionable.

As part of the launch of Apple an advert had been taken out in the music press requesting demo tapes, poetry, manuscripts or artwork to be sent to the company’s new headquarters in swanky Savile Row. Inevitably Apple was soon deluged with material, which was promptly dumped in a storage room and forgotten about.

Artists that eventually signed to Apple were either discovered independently by The Beatles and their circle, or, in the case of James Taylor, an early Apple acquisition, via their talent scout Pete Asher, a former pop star who was also the brother of McCartney’s then girlfriend Jane Asher.

Mary Hopkin, one of Apple’s most successful artists, came via Twiggy, who had seen her on the Opportunity Knocks talent show and recommended her to Paul McCartney. Mary was just 17 at the time – and a big Beatles fan – so to be summoned to meet Paul at Savile Row was every schoolgirl’s dream. Paul offered Mary a song he had heard in a Mayfair club, an adaptation of an old Russian folk song called Those Were The Days, and hired a young music student, Richard Hewson – who would go on to become one of the industry’s most distinguished producers – to write the arrangement.

The single was released on the same day as The Beatles’ own Hey Jude, a novelty instrumental, Thingumybob, written by McCartney for the Black Dyke Mills brass band, and Sour Milk Sea, a George Harrison song recorded by Jackie Lomax, an old pal from Liverpool.

Advertised by Apple as ‘Our First Four’, the singles got the new label off to a flying start, even if only two of them were hits. Hey Jude went straight to the top of the chart and was only knocked off the top by Those Were The Days.

Sour Milk Sea and Thingumybob were both flops, however, and this set a pattern. Aside from The Beatles, only Mary Hopkin and the Welsh band Badfinger, who were discovered by the Beatles ex-road manager Mal Evans, would consistently deliver hits for the label.

Badfinger’s career was given a major boost when Paul McCartney gifted them a song, Come and Get It, written for the film The Magic Christian, in which Ringo Starr featured alongside Peter Sellers. Badfinger would enjoy further hits with No Matter What and Day After Day before becoming caught up in the chaos that would later engulf Apple.

The label soon came to epitomise all that was good and bad about the late Sixties counterculture; a willingness to experiment, to put the artist first, to do things differently, but also a flakiness, a freakiness that all too easily degenerated into sheer self-indulgence.

On any given day Apple would be full of Hare Krishna devotees, hippies, hustlers and a fortune teller called Caleb, whose predictions would play an important part in Apple’s business decisions. Then there was the chap who set up camp on one of the filing cabinets in the press office for a couple of weeks, and a representative from the San Francisco chapter of the Hells Angels who, tired of waiting for his turkey at the Apple Christmas party, got into a fight with John Lennon, who was dressed as Santa Claus at the time.

As for the donkey that one day appeared in reception, no one batted an eyelid.

The problem was not so much the general air of craziness, but that, by early 1969, Apple was losing vast amounts of money and the Beatles themselves were breaking up. And since it needed two Beatles to green light any Apple project, activity at the label ground to a halt.

In the case of one would-be release, a cover version of Golden Slumbers, a track from the Beatles album Abbey Road, the Beatles could be played off against each other. Press officer Derek Taylor, and his aide and ‘house hippie’ Richard DiLello, were both admirers of the band in question, Trash, and when Paul McCartney turned it down they simply went to John Lennon, who at the time was hardly speaking to McCartney. Just to annoy his estranged old friend he commanded Taylor to “put it out”. Needless to say the record flopped.

Because of the chaotic way in which Apple was run – and the difficulty extracting a decision from its bosses – several soon-to-be superstars slipped through the label’s hands, including Fleetwood Mac, David Bowie, Queen and Crosby, Stills and Nash. One of the biggest British bands of the Seventies, Hot Chocolate, released their first single through Apple, a reggae cover version of John Lennon’s Give Peace A Chance (they were even given their name by an Apple receptionist), but it flopped, and the group made their name with another label.

James Taylor, who became one of the biggest artists of the early Seventies, only made one album for Apple, which included one of his best-loved songs,Carolina On My Mind (featuring an uncredited Paul McCartney and George Harrison). Fed up with a lack of support from Apple he started recording a second album with Pete Asher in Los Angeles and walked away from his contract. The LP was Sweet Baby James, and when eventually released, by Warner Brothers, it became one of the biggest-selling albums of the Seventies.

During her time on Apple Mary Hopkin enjoyed a string of hits, including Temma Harbour, the McCartney-composed Goodbye and the Eurovision song Knock Knock Who’s There, as well as a Top Five album, the McCartney-produced Postcard before, in late 1971, leaving the music business to start a family with her husband, record producer Tony Visconti. Badfinger, however, never achieved the success due to them, although their song Without You became a massive hit for, first, Nilsson, and then Mariah Carey.

During the Beatles break-up, of 1969-70, ruthless American businessman Allen Klein was brought in to stem the hemmoraging of cash out of Apple. He slashed the staff and roster of artists so that, by the end of 1972, Apple was little more than a vehicle for the solo Beatles’ records. It still exists today, and is responsible for overseeing the group’s lucrative archive reissues but the pioneering spirit that inspired its creation is long gone.

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