The Beatles: What If?

WHAT IF?  Always an exercise in frustration, but fun at the same time – What If?.  You can’t change history, but how many interesting movies, TV shows and books have been devoted to that prospect?  I have to assume that most of us have at some time engaged in speculation about what things would have been like if something from the past were to have been different.  As a for instance, I always contend that if one could have eliminated one of these murders: Martin Luther King, John Kennedy and Bobby Kennedy, the one that would have perhaps made the most difference was of the person who may have been the least influential at the time – Robert Kennedy.

I have to feel that if Bobby lived, he as a Democrat would have been elected President instead of Nixon the Republican.  This would have likely lead to an entirely different slate of future Presidents and an entire different slate of political agendas.

Ah, but Civil Rights folk/Black activists might argue that the murder of MLK was the biggest game-changer and had he lived the rioting of the late 60s would have at least been less fierce.  He may have even moved into politics himself.

Then again if you think about it in another way, the murder of JFK could have had the biggest impact of them all -but not politically.  His death may have changed the course of music and culture. Why, you ask?  Read on and speculate about THE BEATLES – WHAT IF?

 Throughout the history of the Beatles, there are many chance occurrences, lucky breaks and random crossroads that lead to what we know about our generation’s biggest cultural icons. I have no secret knowledge of what the world would have been like without the Beatles, but I am certainly grateful to have lived through an era when their music existed.

What If Paul and John never meet?

The most legendary concert in the history of the Beatles (and perhaps in music history period) is the July 6, 1957 Garden Fete at Woolton Parish Church for it was there that Paul McCartney was introduced to John Lennon laying the foundation for the Lennon/McCartney partnership plus bringing in Paul’s friend George later.  What if Paul decided not to go and watch the Quarrymen play that day?  Perhaps they would have met some other way, but if they never cross paths would John and Paul have ever been music stars without each other?  As much as John loved music, he also loved art and you can easily see a future for him in that direction if his band never got beyond the talent level of the Quarrymen.  John tended to lose interest in things if he wasn’t getting rewarded immediately.   A creative and satirical artist, his career may have been a struggle, but you have to assume he would have been recognized and become successful.  Paul, on the other hand, has always been a skilled musician with a love for rock and roll but also a love for pop.  One can see a world where Paul joins a dance-band as guitarist and singer then goes out on his own like Cliff Richard did to solo stardom.  Paul’s friend George may well have joined that same band, but without the Lennon/McCartney example to feed on it is hard to see him become more than a quality sideman on guitar.

What If Ringo emigrates to Houston, Texas?

As a teenager, Richard Starkey seriously looked in to moving to Houston and working in a factory.  He was enthralled by cowboys and country music and had seen on the back of a Lightning Hopkins LP that he came from Houston, Texas.   The U.S. Consul told him that you needed a job to emigrate so he was looking at factory work.  As someone slight of build and sickly as a child, Starkey would not have been cut out for hard physical labor so one assumes that after a time he would have attempted to catch on with a country band and it isn’t hard to see his strong steady beat behind some Texas singer.  This of course would have left the Beatles with Pete Best (had they have so decided to not dump him) and perhaps they would have used someone like Bobby Graham in sessions since he played drums on many early hits by the Dave Clark Five, the Kinks, etc.  Without the likable Ringo, it is hard to see the Beatles as the four-headed personality monster they became on TV and in the movies, however, so Texas’ loss was our gain.

What If Brian Epstein does not go to the Cavern Club or, worse, goes and hates the band?

On November 9, 1961, two genteel customers attended the afternoon Beatles scrum at the Cavern Club in the personages of Brian Epstein and his assistant Alistair Taylor (looking totally out of place in their smart suits).  The story goes that earlier a young man named Raymond Jones had gone to Epstein’s NEMS record store and requested a copy of the new record by the Beatles – “My Bonnie”.  Finding out that the record was actually by Tony Sheridan with backing by the Beatles, Epstein was intrigued to see the group in person after finding that they were local faves.   Eppie is quoted later as saying “I was immediately struck by their music, their beat, and their sense of humour on stage – and, even afterwards, when I met them, I was struck again by their personal charm.”  When he became their manager, he had the where-withal and credibility to push the Beatles to stardom.  If Brian doesn’t manage the Beatles it is hard to imagine that someone with clout would not have filled the management void eventually.  Whether another person would have had the devotion to the boys and the name recognition (Brian being head of a large record store) to get them signed to a label is hard to say, however.  It is thought that Brian knew enough about the charts to manipulate the sales of the debut single “Love Me Do” making it hit the U.K. at #17 – another manager may not have known about this and the record along with the Beatles may have sunk without a trace.

What If Dick Rowe & Mike Smith signed the Beatles to a recording contract before George Martin?

One of the more famous blunders posited in music history is the rejection by Decca records execs Rowe and Smith of the young Beatles –  instead they chose Brian Poole and the Tremeloes.  Had the Beatles signed with Decca, they would likely still have recorded “Love Me Do” and “P S I Love You” for their first single (though who knows if Ringo would have been in the band since it was via George Martin’s rejection of Pete Best’s drumming that the weaker drummer was ousted bringing in the charismatic Starr).  Even if that single still had gone to the lower rungs of the U.K. charts, the follow-up certainly would have been very different and may have sunk the band’s fortunes.  It is widely reported that Lennon brought a slow Roy Orbison-influenced version of “Please Please Me” to Martin for the next Beatles single and that George M. wisely helped shape the song into a faster snappier pop hit that kicked off Beatlemania.  You can assume that producer Mike Smith may not have been so astute in rearranging Lennon’s dirge thus dooming their 2nd single to be a flop.  More than likely the label would have cut them loose or demanded they record outside material for a do-or-die 3rd single – this would have put a crimp in the growth of the Lennon/McCartney songwriting partnership.  It can’t be stated enough the importance that producer George Martin had in shaping the Beatles.  He became a true fifth Beatle playing keyboards, arranging and helping to create new sounds – something, you assume, the more conventional producer Smith may not have done.   Thank you Decca for not signing the Beatles.  Indirectly this also probably helped out the career of the Rolling Stones who did get signed to U.K. Decca in an attempt to make up for the loss of the Fab Four.

What If President Kennedy is not killed?

Many writers, when searching for the reason the U.S. belatedly went insane for the four mop-tops from Liverpool (early in 1964), point to the need for something to come along and snap our country out of the grief gripping us following the tragedy of Nov. 22, 1963.  Up till “I Want To Hold Your Hand” (the fifth single by the Fabs), there was very little interest in the Beatles on our side of the Atlantic.  Capitol records finally released that record nearly a month after it came out in the U.K. when the demand for Beatles product started taking off.  Somehow the killing of Pres. Kennedy has always seemed like an odd excuse to spark Beatlemania in the U.S., but it may well have helped push us into the deep-end quicker then if the President wasn’t killed and we weren’t in a state of depression.  I still believe that we would have inevitably succumbed to the same mania that gripped virtually every corner of the world.  The Japanese, the Greeks, the Malaysians, you name it – they all got caught up in the fever pushing Beatles songs to the top of the charts.  Why would we have been any different? The Ed Sullivan show exposure sure helped push them in to our living rooms Kennedy or no Kennedy.   Cliff Richard was never as big here as in the U.K., you counter.  Well, he simply wasn’t as dynamic on record or in person as the Beatles.  Okay, you say, ABBA were never as big here either.  Sure, but they still managed to become sizable stars in the U.S. just as I believe the Beatles would have been.

What If the Beatles do not take drugs?

Use of benzedrine and amphetamines were common for the young pre-Fabs to conjure enough energy to play long grueling sets in Hamburg.  It’s hard to know what effect that had on their early songwriting or playing.   From then on there are at least three levels of drugs that were taken by at least one member of the Beatles.  The lowest level drug that all four Fabs were involved in was marijuana.  As opposed to former Pres. Clinton, there is no doubt they inhaled.  If you believe what George Harrison said in a 90s interview, he felt that all it did was focus their attention on the music.  In contradiction I have friends that tell me that the use of weed, however, tends to sap your drive and lower your desire to do much more than smoke more drugs.  Looking online they say that side effects are paranoia, memory and relationship problems, lowering of IQ, impaired thinking, etc.  Whether this tended to make them write more languid songs such as John’s “I’m So Tired”  or stupider songs like “Wild Honey Pie” is up for debate.  The next level of drugs, however, had a big impact on the music – LSD.  Without acid perhaps they would have written more classic conventional pop songs like early in their career – or not since they still seemed to want to broaden their subject matter regardless of the chemicals they ingested.  You can obviously pick out the songs of John and to some degree George that would not have come about without mind-altering chemicals (“Tomorrow Never Knows”, “Only A Northern Song” et al).  You wonder if the Indian spiritual side trip the band went on would have happened without LSD.  It is harder with Paul but doubtless it impacted his writing as well perhaps on things like “Fixing A Hole” (we know that “Got To Get You Into My Life” was about marijuana).  Looking at how Brian Wilson, Peter Green and Syd Barrett (to name a few other sad musical examples) had their brains negatively altered by too many trips, it is hard not to assume that some of John’s mental anguish might have stemmed from overdosing his neurons.  It may have robbed him of his drive to top Paul who increasingly took control of the band from Sgt. Pepper on – something the old John would not have simply sat back and let happen.  You figure a clearheaded John would have gone toe to toe in the song writing at least.  This of course was nothing compared to the third level of drugs – the hard stuff.  It seems they all had some relationship with cocaine starting with Paul during the making of Sgt. Pepper.  Articles paint the other three as using a lot of cocaine in the 70s mainly and online it says side effects include euphoria and energy followed by paranoia and anxiety.  Paul seemed to benefit from the increased energy levels around this time but after the Beatles broke up he plunged in to a depression, it is written.  Who knows if drugs played a part.   You certainly can see hard drugs all over John’s behavior and music especially around the Plastic Ono Band time.  That he also used heroin for a time was even worse on his ability to create great music or even function well.    You hate to think that the use of drugs robbed us of alot of great music, but it seems clear that after some sparking of creativity it may have lead to a drop.

What If Brian Epstein doesn’t die?

On Aug. 27, 1967 just a couple of months after the release of Sgt. Pepper (when the Beatles were in Bangor with the Maharishi), their manager either took his own life or accidentally overdosed.  John is later quoted as saying he knew this was the beginning of the end for the Beatles.  Had Brian lived we do know that he had already merged NEMS with Robert Stigwood’s management company which made the Fabs angry as they reportedly despised Stigwood.  For that reason, Epstein continued to manage the Beatles while stepping away from his other acts.  The four lads were fiercely loyal to Brian even though he frankly bungled many of their business dealings (Northern Songs and Seltaeb’s laughable merchandising contracts to name two).  The whole misguided Magical Mystery Tour idea of Paul’s may not have happened or at least have been better organized with Brian and company overseeing.  With a living Epstein, if Apple is still created it is a much tighter ship not bleeding money with him in charge.  Certainly you wouldn’t see Allen Klein ever enter the picture which had nearly as much to do with breaking up the band and their interpersonal relationships as anything else.  I still think they would have split for a time to do solo projects, but under Brian they would have had a clearer incentive to regroup from time to time and make more great music.  As a band they were more than the sum of their parts as is clearly seen by the huge drop-off in quality from 1970 on without JPG&R feeding off each other and hope that they would not have ever released inferior music under the Beatles name.  Oh that “Ebony & Ivory” and Kisses On The Bottom never happened.

What If John Lennon and Yoko Ono don’t get together?

John Lennon wanted a mother apparently.  Seemingly this man felt unresolved abandonment issues from the time of his youth when his mom gave him up to be raised by his Aunt & Uncle (and then was later killed by a car).  Since Paul had also lost his mom at a young age, there was an unspoken connection there.  John’s wife Cynthia must not have fit that role for him and we all know the stories about how he became obsessed with Yoko after a fateful meeting at the Indica Gallery Nov. 7, 1966.  This led to the breakup of his marriage and likely the band he belonged to as well (or at least it didn’t help group harmony any with Yoko wanting to caterwaul as a band member ).   As my friend Dan C posits, what if John climbs up the ladder to look at the tiny word on the ceiling and it says “No” instead of “Yes” (John made a big deal about how positive Yoko’s art was, after all)?  What if he thought this woman whose idea of art was appearing in a plastic bag or putting an apple on display was just another poser and he left vowing to not waste any more time on her?  What if he thought her strangled cat screeching vocals sounded like nails on a chalkboard?  Sadly, it never happened.  It is hard to see John and Cyn staying married even without Yoko as he never really wanted that marriage in the first place and only did ‘the right thing’ when she became pregnant with Julian.  If it wasn’t Yoko it would have been someone else, but maybe he doesn’t feel a need to spend every waking moment with that person or take heroin for his pain.  Maybe that person isn’t so controlling and doesn’t stifle his creativity or pull him away from his friendships within the band.  All four would still have gone their own way for a time.  John would never have played on trash like “Bip Bop” or “Silly Love Songs” so Paul would have had to do solo records.  George would have certainly wanted to do an outside project since he felt stifled within the Beatles (especially by Paul), but loyalty to the brand would have brought them back together off and on.  Listening to Lennon songs like “One Day At A Time” and “Mind Games”, you can hear classic Beatles songs waiting to get out if played with George, Paul and Ringo and produced by George Martin.  One can only dream of a great rock and roll covers album in the 70s since they all loved to rock and did those rockers well – something the solo John couldn’t pull off.  It is reported that Yoko kept Paul from reaching John if you believe many of the books which is a true crime.

What If John Lennon isn’t shot fatally in 1980?

When John was killed, he was one of my heroes.  Other than Abe Lincoln, I now idolize no one, but in death John Lennon has faded as an object of worship after reading about his human foibles (a lazy naivete, aggression that lead to physical outbursts, cruelty to women, etc.).  This is a tragedy as the rest of us have had nearly 37 years to grow as human beings while John is caught in time as being what he was at and before age 40.  Frankly I don’t see him as having a long life anyway since he was a huge chain-smoker and we know how this robbed us via cancer of his musical brother George Harrison at age 58.  During the time we would have had with John going forward, however, you can see him getting much more involved in music again.  It has been reported that he and the other Beatles were planning a 1981 reunion to see about recording – a very exciting and ultimately sad prospect.  He would have patched things up with the band and son Julian.  Indeed you can imagine how proud he would have been to see Julian’s chart run in the mid-80s and likely they would have done some work together just as Brian Wilson and his daughters have done.  Had he lived long enough to work with Sean as well, it is hard to see him allowing the acrimony that developed with Julian and his second family – they would have found a way to make peace you assume.  You can see flashes of the old John coming back musically before his death.  “Grow Old With Me” never got beyond the demo stage, but would have become one of his masterpieces given time to record it properly.  John Lennon was a rocker and you can see him revisiting that music of his youth perhaps working with Carl Perkins as George and Ringo did so winningly in 1985.  A John Lennon/Dave Edmunds collaboration would have been my dream mix.

 There are many other What If speculations you can think of.  What If the police don’t stop the Beatles’ Jan. 30, 1969 rooftop concert?  Were they planning to play more songs or had they essentially finished their set?  If not, then what would they have played?  What If Paul married Jane Asher instead of Linda Eastman?  If nothing else he benefited from his Eastman in-laws handling his money.  What If they don’t go to India?  So much of the double album The Beatles came from there that you have to wonder what direction their next album would have taken without it. What If they do something other than the ill-fated Let It Be film sessions?  Would they still have imploded as a band?  

You can think of more questions and answers – I welcome your comments.