On page 14 of issue 656 of Plavi Vjesnik (Blue Herald) published on 20th April 1967 in Zagreb there is a short report by Veljko Despot about The Beatles from Abbey Road Studios where they were recording the now legendary album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. He was lucky enough to chat with them and discuss the as yet unreleased recordings outside and inside the studios.
I have translated this article direct from a printed copy of the weekly magazine – including the titles of some songs as they were published. I believe this is the first time the text has appeared in English anywhere.
ALL THE WAY FROM YUGOSLAVIA?
One young Englishman sent a letter to the music paper Melody Maker saying:
“Classical music has achieved complete independence with the works of Stravinsky, Bartók and Schoenberg. Electronic music was formed by Stockhausen and John Cage, and jazz by Bob James. It seemed that there was nothing else left to say in music. But suddenly, so to speak, out of nowhere, Strawberry Fields Forever appeared. This is a new and revolutionary form of songwriting.”
The little record by The Beatles with the songs Penny Lane and Strawberry Fields Forever, released in the second half of February, has so far sold several million copies. Even before it appeared in American shops, The Beatles won a gold record with it because over a million copies were sold in advance!
The long-awaited record has pleased all of The Beatles’ fans, and most certainly those from Liverpool. The Beatles did not forget their hometown or their fellow citizens and dedicated both songs to Liverpool. John wrote Strawberry Fields Forever and Paul wrote Penny Lane. About which John says:
“We’ve been intending to write a few songs about certain places in Liverpool for a long time. I started working on Strawberry Fields in October, during the shooting of the film in Spain, and Paul finished Penny Lane before the New Year.”
Penny Lane is a little street in Liverpool that Paul used to walk down as a child, whilst Strawberry Fields is located right near John’s former house where he lived as a boy.
Whether that young man was exaggerating in his letter or not, we leave it up to you, but the fact is that Strawberry Fields really is something new, something that has not been heard in pop music before. With both of these songs The Beatles have gone further than all other bands, and so far for many that they won’t be able to reach them if that’s even possible for any of them.
Strawberry Fields Forever has attracted attention because of its melodiousness and the special sound that the whole song creates. With the special recording technique of John’s voice, the electronic recording of Ringo’s drumming and the use of various instruments, as though a dream was trying to be described in the language of music. This was greatly contributed to by the Mellotron, an instrument that can produce sounds similar to many instruments – in this case the flute.
Penny Lane, one of the nicest songs that The Beatles have recorded so far, has John playing on the piano as a basic accompaniment, however, in addition to the usual guitars and drums, you will also hear a trumpet, double bass, piccolo and horn. The solo is sung by Paul, and for a good part, John does too. The text is simple and therefore appealing. It is, in essence, the description of a small street in a big city and the life on it.
The very release of the record and the success that followed dispelled the doubts of even the greatest sceptics about the continued existence of The Beatles as a group. The frequent rumours about the breakup of the group ended when manager Brian Epstein signed a contract with the company E.M.I. in January about recording records. About which George Harrison said:
“This contract should put an end to all the rumours about the breakup of The Beatles. Brian signed a nine-year contract with E.M.I. for us. This means we will make records – as a group – right up until 1976!”
The Beatles went to work and the first result was Penny Lane and Strawberry Fields. However, they have not stopped there. For several months already, John, Paul, George and Ringo have been working on recordings for their new LP. They have settled in E.M.I.’s studio no. 3 (sic) in St. John’s Wood in London, where they arrive every day around 7 in the evening to stay until 4 or 5 in the morning.
For any interview with the Fab Four, you must contact their press officer Tony Barrow, who will explain to you that every minute of The Beatles’ time has already been arranged and if you want you can come back sometime at the end of August “to see what can be done for you.” There was nothing else for me to do but set off to St. John’s Wood.
Paul was usually the first to arrive and the last to leave. As his house is located near the studio, Paul sometimes arrived on foot. This little walk passes without consequences because few people on the street recognise Paul due to his thick black moustache that gives him a stern and dignified appearance. Once when he was entering the studio like that, I asked him to tell me how many compositions they had recorded so far.
“Six compositions have been recorded completely, and now we are finishing four more.”
These six compositions are: A Day in the Life – John sings solo accompanied by a 41-member orchestra, directed mainly by Paul McCartney! There is another string ensemble in the composition She’s Leaving Home. Paul sings When I’m 64 solo, and Good Morning, Good Morning, Good Morning (sic) is sung by John and Paul as a duet. The composition, which has taken exactly one month to record, and which is sung by John, is called Meter Rita (sic). And one more composition – Sergeant Pepper’s Blues (sic).
Until his departure for his concert in Zagreb, Ravi Shankar, the greatest living sitar player, attended these recordings along with The Beatles producer George Martin and their permanent technical staff. Shankar is George Harrison’s teacher and used to stay in the studio until the wee hours of the morning, watching him play the sitar.
“How many of your compositions will be on this album?” – I asked George as he locked his dark green Ferrari.
“We are working on my composition right now and it will probably be my only thing. I say “probably” because we still don’t know if the record will have 12 or 14 songs.”
Ringo will also sing one song on this record, but it’ll be recorded last because it hasn’t been written fully yet. Cute Ringo is very petite and short, and almost always timid. He also grew a moustache, and critics say his nose looks smaller now.
As always this time too, The Beatles are not without their fans. Every evening, around thirty girls, who want to see their idols, gather in front of the studio. They most faithfully bring blankets, thermoses with hot coffee and sandwiches with them, waiting for them to leave the studio, even if it is at 5 in the morning!
When a big black Rolls Royce with black windows appears at the end of the street, it means that John is coming. The girls gather around the car, and when John gets out, they calmly separate and make way for him. Always in a good mood, John cracks a little joke or signs a picture or leg cast for some of them. During a break between two recordings, I entered the studio building and met John in the hallway. I told him that I was from Yugoslavia, which surprised him.
“All the way from Yugoslavia? That’s quite a long way away, isn’t it?”
I asked him when we could expect the release of the record that they were preparing.
“At first we thought that we would finish it by the end of March, but as things stand now, the record will not come out until the end of May. As for us, we will finish our recordings by the middle of April.”
Those who have heard some finished recordings say that it is something completely different from what people expect from The Beatles. They think that the record, which is called SERGEANT PEPPER’S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND, will be excellent and that the vast majority of people will be surprised.
The Beatles have not disappointed their audience yet and they in return still believe in them.
Issue 935 of the Yugoslav informative weekly VUS – Vjesnik u srijedu (Herald on Wednesday) published in Zagreb on 1st April 1970 contained an interview with Ringo Starr by the Croatian journalist Konstantin Milles (Miles) at Apple’s offices in London. This interview has seemingly never been published in English. So, I decided to translate the text as it was printed in VUS. It would seem that this interview was conducted just weeks before The Beatles announced their separation because the LA première of The Magic Christian and the police raid of Lennon’s Bag One exhibition are mentioned – i.e. January 1970. Barrie Wentzell’s photographs are seemingly dated to 1969.
Obviously my translation will not be an exact transcript of the original conversationbut Ithink it contains insight into Ringo’s life and The Beatles at this critical point in time. If anyone can provide extra details I would be grateful 🙂
Ringo Starr – THE MUSICAL BEARD
Konstantin Miles’ conversation with Ringo Starr, the simplest and most modest Beatle, who finds the meaning of life in his family and “kids.” (Photographs by Barrie Wentzell)
When I entered the room into which I was led by secretary Derek Taylor, the Beatles’ “press chief,” something almost unbelievable happened to me. I was well aware that Ringo Starr had changed his look. I had seen at least thirty photographs of him in recent months with a “new edition” – that is, with a beard. Just a short time before that, I’d looked at his photos taken in Los Angeles at the United Press headquarters, at the gala premiere of the film (The Magic Christian – 29th January 1970) in which he stars with Peter Sellers – and in those photos, of course, he had a beard. But anyway, when he suddenly approached me now, in this big office in Apple, I still looked around, looking for him, even though he was standing right in front of me, offering me his hand.
The Ringo Starr, which was standing in front of me, was a bit confused because he (maybe) realised that something was going on, this Ringo Starr was completely different from the shaggy drummer I’d seen in hundreds of photos. The difference is not only that he now has a beard, and it should be emphasised that it is very neat, his beard – is a beard that could have been worn by some respectable and serious French statesman from the end of the last century. (This beard is something completely different from the famous beard that Lennon had when I interviewed him in Amsterdam: it is the beard of a man who, obviously, looks after himself and to the tidiness of his appearance.) There are also other reasons. Today, Ringo has a carefully groomed hairstyle, and he dresses with a discreet, measured elegance (of course by modern terms and standards, which means that no university professor or reputable banker would dress like that yet, but from today’s youth’s point of view, these clothes are quite conservative). A month before Derek Taylor spoke to me about Lennon: “Did you see his haircut? And what he’s wearing!” He said this almost with surprise, and then he added: “Well, he’s dressed kind of like you!” I burst into laughter: “So like some old philistine, a square, right? Is that what you want to say?” “No, I didn’t mean to say that…”Taylor began but then burst out laughing too. “The main thing is that we understand each other!” I said. Derek Taylor hadn’t told me that by accident. His statement “fell” into the context of the conversation we had had with him. And that again was all in the context of the events that have been going on with the Beatles lately (actually the last few months), about all kinds of rumours about them and so on. I don’t mean that stupid rumour about the death of Paul McCartney that had resonated so sensationally. I was not interested in that rumour, simply because I suspiciously thought that it was “mounted” by the Beatles’ propaganda service, and therefore ultimately my interlocutor Derek Taylor. (Truth be told, I have to admit that I don’t think so now, but since McCartney is “alive and well,” it doesn’t matter anyway.) I was with Taylor for the last time shortly before Lennon’s interview. After leaving that interview, I cursed myself because of inexplicably circumstances I had simply forgotten to ask him why he always used the past tense whenever he spoke of himself as a Beatle. The events that were taking place in the “Beatles Empire,” the various rumours that were circulating, made this very issue more and more important.
Especially the rumours that the Beatles were “in crisis”, that the disintegration of that band is “imminent” (a rumour that is completely absurd), that the Beatles have “came to a dead end,” that they are facing “financial ruin”…
But then things began to happen that were, to say the least, interesting: first there was a “court coup” in Apple, allegedly to save the entire concern from financial ruin that it almost ran into due to the long-standing “bohemian” leadership. The financial management, precisely with dictatorial powers, was taken over by a completely new man, brought in from America – and he then in a short time laid off half of the staff and liquidated half of the companies that belonged to Apple. Now the financial situations are reportedly settled (which is not difficult to achieve in the situation where money, after the release of each new long-play record, flows into the kitty like a torrent). As a Yugoslav, it was not difficult for me to notice the differences between the former “working atmosphere” at Apple’s headquarters (it was almost a “club” atmosphere, about which domestic readers do not need much explanation) and that of today’s. Many familiar faces have disappeared, such as the Greek inventor, with whom the Beatles had created a fantastic laboratory, spending several hundred thousand pounds on it. Since I had a big interview with him, I was interested in his subsequent fate, and more so because talking to him, I noticed that he was under a lot of nervous pressure, in a real situation of “non-stop stress,” “Where is Alex?” – I asked. “I don’t know,” answered Taylor. “I heard he was somewhere in London.” I didn’t ask any further. However, when Taylor told me that George Harrison was just in the process of buying a “new house” (a 120-room country mansion) that would cost him £150,000 – it became absolutely clear to me that, despite the rumours, the financial circumstances of Apple (and the Beatles) were absolutely fine. However, the disappearance of that bohemian “go and come” atmosphere, due to which Apple had always been my favourite place for business visits in London, it’s not just the atmosphere that rules in Apple. Although, not everything has changed. And not all the colourful creatures that gathered here have disappeared. For example, I was glad to find the young Londoner with the hair of a Papuan cannibal (which makes his head half a metre in diameter), who still serves drinks there, and in the meantime types up letters with one finger on each hand. Beat compositions were still constantly echoing in the rooms, and since my last visit, someone had mounted a small moving film projector that throws psychedelic optical effects on the walls. However, the beat music today is mixed with the constant brisk typing of typewriters, urgent business conversations being made over the phone – everything is somehow different, “business-like.”
The fact that Lennon cut his hair and dresses “like a philistine”, Ringo’s great tidiness in the way he dresses, the strange and perhaps slightly sad seriousness that reigns today in Apple (where for weeks they say the staff have been using the black humour question instead of a greeting: “Haven’t you been fired yet?”) – all of this suggests that great things are happening in Apple. I told Taylor this openly, and then suggested that he arrange interviews with at least two Beatles and Apple executives, because I wanted to write a report on the subject of WHAT ARE THE BEATLES ACTUALLY PLANNING? Taylor answered: “Yes, that would be a great subject, but you’ll have to be patient.” “How long?” I asked. He replied that he didn’t know, that he could not say for sure, but then, in a later conversation, in a different context, he informed me that this month the Beatles were meeting “for important decisions… very important decisions”… and that because of this, as cardinals when electing a new pope, they will be unavailable to outsiders, primarily to journalists, for a time. “Does this mean that a big turnaround is indeed being prepared? That the Beatles have found themselves at the end of the road… at least this current time? Of this stage?” I asked. “Something new and significant is sure to happen, but what…” “The Beatles themselves don’t know that yet, do they?” I said. Taylor looked at me and shrugged.
In this atmosphere of great changes, of which only the external symptoms I could see, and there “on the spot,” there where it has a completely different and greater meaning, more weight than in newspaper columns, in this atmosphere it was inevitable that I didn’t recognise Ringo at first glance, that I almost asked him where Ringo was, and when he would arrive. We sat down, or more precisely sank into huge armchairs at a large teak table that stood in front of the fireplace where real logs were burning. The Beatles had bought the only large three-story house, built in the Georgian style, in Saville Row several years ago, then they remarkably tastefully remodelled and modernised it, however, they left many things reminiscent of the past, most notably the fireplaces in the luxurious “boss” offices. Today this white building is one of the most beautiful in the City. Just as guardsmen are on duty in front of the royal palace or the Horse Guards barracks, there are always a few girls in front of the entrance to this building, waiting to see the Beatles “come to work.” On the very ground floor, at eye level, are the two windows of Lennon’s office with a typical “Beatles stunt”: the windows have been replaced with mirrors, and when a girl climbs the iron fence in front of the house, wanting to peek inside instead of Lennon or Yoko Ono’s they see their own face: something that always happens to little provincials. Ring’s office is located on the mezzanine floor but facing the courtyard of the building. Harrison holds court in a room next to Taylor’s, whilst Paul McCartney reportedly doesn’t have his own office at all, and when he comes to Apple, he borrows someone else’s. But this has been very rare lately anyway. In fact, only Lennon and Ringo Starr “sit” in the office every day, whilst the other two work from home.
We began to chat, waiting for the Papuan to bring us drinks.
MILES: There is a lot of talk about you and the other Beatles, and much is being written too. For example, like you feel that you’re losing touch with your audience, as though you consider you’ve moved away from the “source,” that you’ve retreated into some ivory towers. It is said, for example, that you lament for the good old days when you performed in public, went on tour…
STARR: If you were in our shoes then, you wouldn’t think so now. That was something scary. Something we certainly couldn’t stand anymore. We were young then. We are, admittedly, still today… aren’t we?… but still not so young…
MILES: Still, I have the impression that you feel some nostalgia for those times. And yes, you recently performed at some concerts and drummed in front of the audience…
STARR: Yes, but not with The Beatles. I did indeed go on one little tour with another group. I did it out of curiosity… maybe out of nostalgia too… but going on new tours with the Beatles… it’s simply out of the question. Touring is something terribly hard, something that is for people younger than us.
MILES: I wasn’t thinking that you’d really go on tour. I was thinking of the rumours that you were organising public concerts in front of an audience again… Now and then.
STARR: We won’t do that.
MILES: Is it because your music has become so complicated and so dependent on electronic gadgets that it would be impractical?
STARR: That is one of the things that we’d take into account if such a thing came to mind. But, that’s not the only thing. There is something much more important. We could be able play more simply, and so we could therefore perform in front of an audience, and yet our “sound” would be good, interesting, attractive. After all, you also know that some of our new compositions are very simple.
MILES: So what it is about then?
STARR: About something infinitely simpler. We know what such concerts would look like. These would not be concerts at all, just as our former performances in front of the audience were not concerts at the time when we were still Beatles… Man, we didn’t even hear ourselves in that hellish noise! They were not concerts. It was a circus. We are serious enough today that we wouldn’t want to put up with that.
MILES: You said: “Whilst we were Beatles…”Why do you and Lennon use the past tense when talking about yourself and the Beatles? After all, you’re still Beatles, aren’t you?
STARR (laughing): Of course we are, and yet we’re not… we’re not in the old sense. When we say that we were Beatles, then we mean those Beatles who raced around the world and performed in front of audiences, the Beatle-moptops, howlers… in that sense. We mean the young Beatles, the green Beatles, the red-faced Beatles…
MILES: But, isn’t that connected to something else? With something that only in a certain sense relates to the past, but is actually about what happened after that past, that affects the present, and even more, actually concerns the future. It is said that nothing could be said about you today that someone once… then… said wittily about you: that one does not really know whether you are one head with four bodies or one body with four heads; you used to be inseparable. Today you no longer are. You were inseparable in what you did. Today you all do your own thing.
STARR: It’s obvious that we have distanced ourselves from each other in a certain sense and to a certain extent. But the conditions were different then. We were constantly on the road, so that must have been one of the reasons that we were constantly together. We were mostly unmarried. We didn’t have families, we didn’t have wives, we didn’t have children. In that respect, we were freer, yet on the other hand, we were more restrained, more attached to each other… because of that we were constantly physically together… in the same hotel, on the same planes, under siege. There’s none of that today.
MILES: But even when you stopped touring and returned to London, you were still inseparable. At least for some time. You lived close to each, like neighbours, were constantly together, had dinner and lunch together, listened to records together… Today there’s no more of that…
STARR: Yeah, today there’s none of that really. I repeat: we got married, started families, widened our interests that are not always exactly the same. It’s one thing to keep four guys together, even if each has a steady girlfriend; it’s another to bring together four men who are already approaching middle age and even more their wives. And their children. But we are still connected… and not just because of business, so to speak.
MILES: So the rumours about the breakup of the band are unfounded?
STARR: Not only unfounded, but absurd too. We can do all kinds of outside activities. I, for example, am performing a bit in films, as an actor. John is leading the fight for world peace and organising exhibitions…
MILES: Which the police have raided… (Bag One – raided by police 16th January 1970)
STARR: … However, we know very well that we can only survive or fail as The Beatles, that it all starts and ends there. If we stop being Beatles… if we suddenly stop being Beatles… we would be left without a foundation.
MILES: And according to that…
STARR: … according to that we’re remaining The Beatles, and we will be for as long as the audience wants us. And they show us that they do want us by the successes achieved by each of our new records.
MILES: You mentioned your tours with other groups, and you didn’t, let’s say, mention anything else, which in your case is quite new: that you suddenly discovered you were a composer. How is that only now? And then immediately with such success. Haven’t you had inspiration before, so to speak? Has your muse only now started working?
STARR: I’ll tell you something you won’t believe: I’ve had ideas for compositions before, but I just didn’t know how to make them real…
MILES: What do you mean? That sounds quite unbelievable…
STARR: Melodies and tunes came to my mind… but I didn’t know how to… how can I explain… how to put them on paper, write them down, set them to music, that’s it…
MILES: I still don’t understand…
STARR: I only know how to play the drums. Did you ever hear of some composer composing with a drum?
MILES: Come on, please: you’re not going to claim that you don’t know any instrument other than the drum? And if you really need an instrument: if a melody comes to your mind, you could whistle it nicely to Lennon or McCartney… and they’ll make sure that it’s set to music.
STARR: That’s right, but I haven’t done it. That’s how my melodies came and went… but I just remained Ringo the drummer…
MILES: Whilst the others composed… That didn’t bother you? It didn’t bother you that, for example, it was said that the Beatles have three composers and one performer?
STARR: That I’m a little dull, right?
MILES: Not quite that, but…
STARR: I’ve never had any kind of complex about that. I am a simple and unambitious man… unambitious in the sense that I have no kind of pretensions, no intellectual pretensions, no creative pretensions… and I take life as it comes. That’s how I approach life and I deal only with what makes me happy…
MILES: And that is?
STARR: First of all, my family. I am crazy about my family! I just can’t wait to get back home, you know?
MILES: And what do you do there?
STARR: I deal with the children. I chat with the wife.
MILES: And do you, for example, listen to music… other people’s music?
STARR: I have all the possible electronics and stereo systems, high-fidelity and so on at home… and a huge number of records… but I don’t listen to much music. In fact, I never listen to it in the sense of sitting down, putting the turntable on and then listening. Nobody actually does that any more today. I eventually “listen” to music as a soundtrack to something else…
MILES: And what kind of music do you like to listen to the most in that sense?
STARR: I like rock ‘n’ roll… I like blues… I like country music… I like ballads…
MILES: Are there some performers or composers or groups that you especially like?
STARR: I’m afraid they don’t exist. At least they don’t come to mind now.
MILES: Tell me something that really interests me. Do you, the Beatles, still meet up… I mean in a social sense… with wives, friends… I mean not only for business.
STARR: We still meet, although less and less.
MILES: OK. So, can I ask you a question that just came to my mind… that is, whilst you were saying that you don’t listen to music. Do you, at these kinds of meetings, get-togethers, then play music… I mean for your own enjoyment, for your own pleasure?
MILES: I wanted to say: do you have jam sessions?
STARR: Yes, of course we do. Believe it or not, we love to play.
MILES: And what do you play then?
STARR: Just rock ‘n’ roll.
MILES: I expected that answer. But doesn’t that mean that rock ‘n’ roll, the music that you started out with, is the only music that really makes you happy, that really excites you… and that all that other stuff is intended for the audience?
STARR: I don’t think that could be said. We are also excited by that other music, but differently…
MILES: It’s actually about nostalgia for… let’s say… first love… and the fact that you can’t resist the raw power of rock ‘n’ roll, its originality. But, Lennon told me, his life was decided the moment he heard Elvis Presley’s first record… when he first heard rock ‘n’ roll. At that moment, he decided to buy a guitar and become a musician. Was it so sudden for you too?
STARR: I played in all sorts of groups even before Presley appeared. At the time, I didn’t think I would make a living from playing for the rest of my life. I should have become an engineer. But then the Beatles took me in… as you know, I was the last member of the group to join… they even ditched the guy who played before me…
MILES: You told me you were a simple guy, with no pretensions. But still, you can’t ignore the fact that as a Beatle you are one of the most influential Britons. All the polls prove this… even today. How does that affect you?
STARR: I don’t think about that. That is, I’ve never really thought about it much… I take care of that today…
MILES: In what sense?
STARR: I’m trying, when I already have influence, to make that influence positive. You see, for example, I’m full of family virtues. Besides that, I’m hardworking. Besides, I don’t “perform”… I mean: crazy, I don’t go crazy.
MILES: And yet you did get involved with drugs. And as such as an influential man!
STARR: Yes, but I did free myself, I completely freed myself. Because I realised where it was leading. Because I realised that a man who gets used to drugs… that that man loses his freedom, that he eventually stops being a man, that he turns into a “vegetable” – and ruins everything around him.
MILES: So you didn’t drop the drugs just because of the trouble with the police?
STARR: No. I stopped them because I realised where it was leading. Now I smoke cigarettes.
MILES: When they compare you to the other Beatles they say: “Ringo always follows the others! He’s excellent… a supporting actor!”
STARR: That doesn’t bother me. I don’t have any kind of pretensions. If people think I’m dull and if it pleases them, then let it. Of course, I have my own opinion about that.
MILES: I didn’t mean to allude to something so vulgar. That didn’t even cross my mind. Rather, it is said that you, The Beatles are preparing some great new things… I don’t mean new compositions but something completely new… that you are about to make a great turnaround.
STARR: But we were always creating something completely new. We never stood still. And we won’t in the future either.
MILES: And what will it be new in this case?
STARR: We still don’t know. At least I don’t know. Take that as an answer. If that something already exists, if it is “in progress,” I wouldn’t tell you about it anyway. That’s clear, isn’t it?
This is the second interview I have uncovered related to The Beatles in old Yugoslav magazines. The first one was with John Lennon – you can read it here.
Issue 1005 of the Yugoslav informative weekly VUS – Vjesnik u srijedu (Herald on Wednesday) published in Zagreb on 4th August 1971 contained an interview with John Lennon and Yoko Ono by the Croatian journalist Konstantin Milles (Miles). This interview has seemingly never been published in English. So, I decided to translate the text as it was printed in VUS. Obviously my translation will not be an exact transcript of the original conversation but I think it provides an interesting insight into Lennon’s thoughts on communism, Yugoslavia, art, politics and of course The Beatles.
Konstantin Milles interviews John Lennon and his no less famous wife Yoko Ono. Lennon now claims that the “communist press” did not make much of a mistake when it previously wrote that the “Beatles were a weapon of capitalism and imperialism” and that he attacked his former colleague Paul McCartney for being a right-winger (read “conservative”) , that George Harrison immersed himself in religious mysticism, and he says that Ringo Starr never knew or understood anything. “I woke up”, Lennon says about himself.
“It be must here!” the driver said to me, turning around in his seat. “This wall looks doubtful!” Shortly before that we had rushed out of the centre of Ascot, about an hour’s drive from London, and now we were driving down a narrow road that meandered through an unusually dense and beautiful forest, with only glimpses of old mansions built like former castles and small country houses. Only the richest residents of London live in this blessed corner of England.
The wall was three metres high, made of stone, at least two kilometres long. When we got to the end of it, I spotted a group of American hippies, standing at the gate and staring “lost” inside. At that moment, I realised two things: that we had indeed reached Lennon (which in the given circumstances had only a practical significance) and that the persistent rumours about the decline of the Beatles’ popularity were not in the least bit true – even though they no longer existed as the Beatles but as John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr. Later, during the conversation, Lennon gave me a very convincing verification of the financial-statistical type, which surprised me a little… because pop music was always something I had never been “in to” to such an extent that it could satisfy any of its ardent admirers.
About three months ago I had sent Lennon a telegram asking to meet up again. I had been to London a few times in the meantime, but we still hadn’t met. I knew why: he had been travelling unusually a lot again lately, and that, unlike in the past, it was due mostly to “private business.” He had been in New York twice to track down Yoko’s son (sic – daughter) with the help of the local private and official police and fabulously expensive lawyers, and to take the boy (sic – girl) back from his (sic – her) father, Yoko’s first husband through the courts, (Yoko later told me that her “dad” was also involved, and when I asked her if it was true that her “dad” was a rather rich Japanese banker, she burst out laughing and said: “Well you see, John can’t complain that he’s poor, but his money is peanuts compared to what my family has in Tokyo. I know it’s not tasteful to talk about it, but, you see, when I was little, I was told at home that there were only three families in all of Japan, apart from the imperial family: the Mitsui, Mitsubishi and my family.” I said: “Then that means that together with the Mitsuis and Mitsubishis, it was, in fact, your family that prepared Japan to enter the Second World War!” Yoko Ono calmly replied: “Yes, that’s right! These have always been the three most powerful families in Japan… something like the Japanese Krupps or Rockefellers… the owners of real empires of banks, companies, industries. It is natural that my family is connected to them anyway, besides business. Let’s say my brother doesn’t work with his father, he works for Mitsubishi.” I couldn’t resist asking her how she got along with “dad” and “mum,” considering what she had “done” and what she was “doing.” She said: “In the beginning, they simply fainted, figuratively speaking. Then they, at least I think so, found a solution that suited them best: they concluded that we were nevertheless a family who could accept everything!”)
The very same glasses
I had a great, almost three-hour-long interview with Lennon in the spring of 1969 in Amsterdam. However, there then came the famous Beatles’ breakup (something he had hinted to me indirectly back in that first interview) and a series of Lennon interviews, mostly with the American hippy press and the most biting trends of the “new left.” I suddenly found Lennon interesting again. All the more so since in several interviews, he had mentioned his great desire to see what was happening in Yugoslavia. We drove through the gate past that group of American hippies. Suddenly a huge white, snow-white or lime-white house appeared in front of us — painted just like the walls of Apple’s building in London’s Saville Row. (I remembered that Lennon had always been fascinated by white.) I walked up to the door and rang the bell. Two minutes passed, but no one appeared. I peeked through the little window by the door. In the room I looked into all that could be seen was a forest of film cameras, spotlights, power cables, ladders – all in a terrible mess. I pressed the bell again, but I didn’t hear its ring. I began to bang on the door, louder and louder. Still no reply. We walked around the house. Through one window on the ground floor, I spotted Lennon and Yoko Ono. They were sitting at a wooden table in a huge kitchen with some unknown people. Music was playing. I knocked on the window, feeling like Santa Claus. Lennon noticed me, put his hands together jokingly as if praying me to do something, and gestured to me to go to the last, fourth side of the house and enter through the door that came out to the garden. There I was greeted by Diana (Vero?), Lennon’s secretary and runner, an attractive and still quite young girl with the look of a typical London “schizo.” A little later we were sitting at that big wooden table in the kitchen (Lennon explained to me that the house was “a real madhouse” because the whole lower part was being converted into a film studio, whereby three rooms would be arranged as the Yoko Ono Personal Museum. At that moment, I remembered that I had completely forgotten the fact that Yoko was a sculptor, but not only that. But, more about that later).
John Lennon is now 30 years old. Nothing much had changed since our last meeting. This claim categorically warrants an explanation. In Amsterdam he had long hair and a beard. Today’s Lennon only has relatively long hair, he is completely shaved, because his beard has disappeared, and quite thoroughly: today not only does he, let’s say, shave with an electric appliance but shaves to such an extent, probably with two or three shaves, that his face is as smooth as a newborn’s bottom. He maintains his sideburns, “typically English” and ginger. The glasses have stayed the same: the “anarchist’s design” from the last century with a thin, totally round metal frame. Through their lenses, the penetrating gaze of two blue eyes greets the interlocutor. The look is most usually suspicious: suspiciousness has probably, and he has had a reason for it, become Lennon’s “second nature.” Jeans and a plain shirt with an unbuttoned collar, close-fitting to a rather well-built, but nevertheless weak body, which, together with the physiognomy, still acts like a dynamo. Just like that, seemingly weak, but full of some inner dynamics, Lennon is actually the image and figure of a young man who is liked by today’s girls (if you can judge by what kind of young men the most beautiful girls go out with in London, Paris, Stockholm, Copenhagen… in fact, any Western European city – “Tarzans” seem to be simply out of fashion, and the glasses are more of a plus than a minus. Regardless of the fact that in England one of the great “sexual symbols” is Tom Jones, who still, let’s say, looks different, doesn’t he?) Lennon has his own opinion about this, which, admittedly, he expressed indirectly and inadvertently, almost inadvertently in one completely unrelated conversation. When we finished the interview and returned to the mansion from the park that surrounds it (it has the dimensions of Maksimir Park and like Maksimir it has its own large natural lake with reeds), we chatted for a while in the kitchen. Yoko told me how she met the famous Japanese writer who shook the world a few months ago with a failed coup attempt and then his successful hara-kiri. “One evening he was sitting right next to me, but he didn’t say a single word to me, which was just plain rude! He was otherwise a physically very handsome man!” At that moment, Lennon’s voice was heard: “Yeah, he was handsome. He was one of those crazy body-builders. He was in short – a homosexual! A notorious homosexual! I read somewhere that all the forces in the SS troops were like that! The most disgusting reactionaries and fascists were often like that!” Lennon said this calmly, as though the most banal of facts were being stated, but still, I could not escape the impression that not even hara-kiri could have saved the Japanese writer from Lennon’s aversion. An aversion that was not caused by the writer being homosexual, but simply because with his rude behaviour he had neglected the woman Lennon who loved to such an extent that the term “head over heels” is still valid today. It would be difficult for anyone who has not seen Yoko Ono in person to understand that she is actually a very handsome, physically attractive, beautiful young woman, full of that charming kindness that adorns all Japanese women, whether beautiful or ugly. The only misfortune is that – and I told her, and Lennon confirmed it with unusual zeal – that she is simply not photogenic. In every photo, she looks at least ten years older, the glow of her eyes is lost, the colour of her skin is distorted, the refined anatomy of her face is distorted… and millions of readers around the world wonder “what Lennon saw in her.”
Lennon wants to go to Yugoslavia
Whilst Barrie Wentzell arranged his cameras and I slowly set up the tape recorder, we sat and chatted.
“What’s new in Yugoslavia?” Lennon asked me.
“You have no idea how interested we are!” said Yoko.
At first I felt the temptation to simply reply: “Well come, and you’ll see!” Hic Rodhus, hic salta! But at first the main thought that run through my head was that their question was an expression of conventional decency, of attention towards a guest, who is from a small country, to which I am always allergic. Or that their various statements lately about wanting to visit Yugoslavia were in fact just mere affectation. However, I realised that they were both looking at me with serious, calm looks, with the look of someone who has asked an honest and serious question and who wants a serious answer has.
“What’s new, you ask?” Last time, in Amsterdam, I told you about the introduction of self-government in Yugoslavia. This is always new because it’s something in which something new is constantly happening. What is “old”, in a way, is that we want to show that something that no one has achieved so far can be achieved: communism plus personal freedom plus a high standard of living. But, we are not doing it in order to show the world that it is possible. We are doing for ourselves first of all. We’re not asking anyone to learn from us.”
“I have listened and read a lot about what is going on in your country. Yoko and I would be overjoyed if we could visit your country and see everything! So that we can talk to your people, to your students, workers and intellectuals, to tell them about our ideas, to show them our films…”
However later, in a completely different context, I realised that to Lennon some things about Yugoslavia were still not clear, although he sincerely loved Yugoslavia and its efforts (he told me that “strong vibrations” were coming to him from Yugoslavia, which has nothing to do with telepathy, as one might think, but is simply a term used by hippies when talking about someone or something who or what is doing some, most often mental activity that provokes their sympathy. In the broadest sense, “catching someone’s vibrations” means the same thing as “working on the same wavelength” in our jargon) however, some things connected to Yugoslavia are not clear. If everything about Yugoslavia was clear to him, he would certainly not have asked me the absurd question of whether the sale of his record Power to the People was permitted at home!
KM: So, the tape recorder is plugged in, checked and tested. We can start the interview. Please answer me one simple stupid question: “How are you?”
JL: I’m fine. And you?
KM: I’m fine too. However, please explain to me in a little more detail why you are fine.
JL: I understood the essence of your question exactly and I was just kidding. How am I you ask? In the full bliss of creative work! Me and Yoko are working like crazy. I get the impression we don’t have a minute to spare. Well, I just finished a new album (Imagine), which will be released in the autumn, we are finishing a TV film about that album… actually a film about ourselves, about us, Yoko has published a book that we will give you as a gift (Grapefruit) because we care about it a great deal, and two days ago she completed a theatrical piece (Film No. 12 – Up Your Legs Forever?) that will be premièred on Broadway in September. If you come, we’ll get you a ticket, I’m composing, we’re sorting out the house, Yoko’s making statues, which I’m sure you can see…
KM: If we can make an arrangement and you come to Zagreb, perhaps Yoko could organise an exhibition of her works there?
(Afterwards, I toured Yoko’s studio and “museum” in several rooms of the mansion. It is quite certain that an exhibition in Zagreb would be a sensation. And that even visitors who have little to do with art would come too. Due to certain circumstances.)
YO: Absolutely. Only some of your people might not like some of the exhibits! There might be some misunderstandings…
KM: I don’t believe that would discourage you. After all, you’ve already got used to it, here in London. But, you see, my consciously formulated question had one other subtext, so to speak. How emotional you are after everything that happened after our last meeting, particularly in recent times.
JL: We are in full creative bliss. And that, I think, means we’re emotionally excellent, too. Apart from that, I’m as fit as a fiddle.
KM: In many reports about you, in several interviews that you have given, the thought, like a leitmotif permeates, often highlighted in the title, that “the dream is over”, that “the dream has come to an end”, that you have “woken up”… all along those lines. Does that bother you? It’s almost as if the journalists agreed to point it out!
JL: But, that’s right! What happened before – was a dream! It was a youthful, pubescent dream. But, I’m not young any more: I’m thirty, man!
KM: You seem to be happy to talk about that dream!
JL: People think it that was a magical Hollywood dream. A story of four young men who succeeded fantastically. Yes: we had millions of dollars, millions of girls, at every step, after every performance, fame… but it was still a nightmare. Only we didn’t see it then…
KM: As you talk about it, you speak with bitterness. Everywhere, in every place. And you talk about it with some almost masochistic pleasure…
JL: I want to tell people the truth: that the Beatles’ dream was a mere illusion.
KM: Why do you think that?
JL: I realised that the ruling class was exploiting us, abusing us for its own purposes. You see, back then, at that time, we found it funny when the communist press wrote that we were “the tools of capitalism and imperialism.” I see they weren’t so wrong. We didn’t think we were creating revolution…
“We met conceited people”
KM: … and in fact, those who rule, those who hold the money and power, used you for their own purposes…
JL: It’s not so simple. The Establishment (the ruling class…. ) gave us a high medal, took almost all our money, gave us a medal instead of, let’s say, lowering our taxes… the people who we met on our tours were all just bureaucratic and plutocratic “money men”, police chiefs, diplomats, conceited… not real people. It was all so unreal! In the first ten rows at our concerts, there always sat the “money men”, “the fat cats”, their wives and daughters and they rattled with jewellery. In America, we were invited to a reception at the British Embassy and there we were treated like we were trained circus animals, penguins, even the ladies in gowns and their bastards cut off the hair of poor Ringo so that they could boast about it. Do you think that could happen to us in some working-class family in Liverpool, huh? But, nevertheless, it amused us, it was great for us. Now I’ve finally grown up. Now I will no longer allow anyone to exploit me for their own purposes, to fool me…
KM: You realised something more important. You, with your “Beatlemania”, as it was called then, in a way played the role of an “Establishment” tool because you channelled the amassed energy of the young people, the energy of dissatisfaction and protest, into safe and calm waters: long hair, guitar pounding, revolutionary clothing in place of revolutionary activity… And now you see, as you yourself said, that everything has stayed the same, that the same guys have the money and power, whilst others do not…
JL: In essence you’re right, but it’s not so simple. Maybe the “Establishment” thought so, however, we still played the role of a Trojan horse in some sense of the word. We did – and not only us but others too, nevertheless play a role that must be acknowledged – we helped young people to start thinking differently, to “liberate” themselves from the burden and compulsion of tradition, to start thinking more elastically, to start to see some things… Of course, we did wander ourselves… and that’s where I’m talking about myself first of all. Surely you remember: I was taking drugs, I tried to embrace some oriental religion… don’t you see how unhappy, confused, crushed I was by what had happened to me… and how desperately I tried to free myself, and that means to return to reality. At times it seemed to me that I was riding on an express train that was rushing towards a collision, and I couldn’t jump out of it. So, I repeat: we taught young people to start thinking differently.
Conflict at the end of the road
KM: You said that as a young man you were “class conscious”, and then you simply forgot about it…
JL: And who wouldn’t forget that, man?! Well, I was young, practically still snotty, when all of that fell on us. I completely lost my compass, all touch with reality.
KM: And do you think you have it again today?
JL: I think I do have it. I don’t dream any more. I’m no longer in a dream state. I’ve woken up and I think that’s enough… for a start.
KM: Did Yoko open your eyes, can we say that? I’ll try to remember. You The Beatles were actually Establishment pets, “decent kids”, darlings… whereas the Rolling Stones were persecuted!
JL: If you think that Mick Jagger is interested in politics and if they ever interested him – you’re wrong. He was just “performing”… and it was so brutal and vulgar that the Establishment was appalled. You see, let’s take the question of our medals. Okay, they gave them to us, but that’s why they were ignorant. A few months before that, the book Love Me Do was published, a brilliant book, which went unnoticed at first and only became known later. In that book the author published his conversations with me, in which I said clearly how much I hated the Establishment, the Queen, the palace, aristocrats, the “big money men.” If they had read the book, they would never have given me the medal. This way they just gave me a chance to give it back to them at the most convenient time for me.
KM: Derek Taylor (the Beatles’ former press chief) once told me that you were a communist by conviction. Don’t be offended, but I couldn’t believe my ears. And even after that, I couldn’t believe it.
JL:I don’t belong to any party, not even the communist one, but all my sympathies are on the side of communism. I believe in communism as a system to which the future of humanity belongs. Of course, I believe in that real communism… in the one that I believe that you Yugoslavs are trying to create right now.
KM: But, let’s talk a little about the breakup of the Beatles.
JL: We are talking.
KM: You see, when I heard that you’d broken up, I felt sympathy for you. Suddenly it was as if I realised you were an honest, fair guy. Don’t get me wrong, but to kill a goose that lays golden eggs… you know what I mean… So my question would be: Regardless of what was said and written, regardless of the rumours, there must have been something fundamental in that breakup, something more important than a simple personality conflict between you and Paul, a conflict over whether his brother-in-law would become Apple’s director or your man… that there was something fundamental and serious… something connected to art and something maybe connected to politics.
JL: Yeah, you guessed correctly. That’s right. Yeah, it was about politics and art. You see, Paul is simply right-wing (read “conservative”) and that’s it. I couldn’t take it any more, I couldn’t work with him any more. And as for the music, so art, let’s say…
KM: You came to a dead-end as a group, you came, put more precisely, to the end of the road.
JL: Yes. And that’s right. I wouldn’t hesitate to say that. We came to the end of the road. We couldn’t go any further if we wanted to go forward. But when we talk about politics, then it was a conflict between Paul and me, because he is right-wing (read “conservative”). The other two had nothing to do with that. George was completely immersed in religious mysticism, and as for Ringo… he never knew or understood anything anyway.
KM: Let’s return to the prosaic stuff. How are you doing today – financially? This is about the golden goose, of course!
JL: Believe it or not, I can tell you this: today we, by making records as individuals, when it all adds up… are actually making more than we ever earnt as the Beatles. Think of it: even Ringo’s records sell in their millions!
KM: I will say something about what others are talking about, but also what I also sensed in some unrelated conversations at Apple. The Beatles fell apart when Yoko appeared on the scene. Before that, you were talked about as one body with four heads, that is, four bodies and one head… Lennon’s.
JL: Yes, that is what was meant and in some way it was true.
KM: This other?
JL: Yes. You see, I don’t suffer from false modesty, but maybe from too much honesty… that’s what Yoko has just encouraged in me… which isn’t always healthy… but that’s how it was. Of course, it must have bothered Paul, it must have eaten away, God, it must bite. Whilst we were together, in order it went: me, then Paul, then George a little. Ringo never meant anything, but he’s such a great guy that he never got mad about it. He was always, so to speak, conscious of the limits of his abilities. However, if you think Yoko made us fight, you’re wrong: a woman cannot come between four adult men if they have some strong common interest. Besides, they also, as a matter of fact, had their wives, so that means nothing. We came to an artistic end as a band when we recorded our last double album. Later I broke up with Paul because he is right-wing (read “conservative”). There, so it was that simple!
Perhaps the most valuable thing was that we helped the young people to become mentally free so that they stop thinking in the patterns that tradition has wound them up in. – John Lennon
In July 1985 the interviewer Konstantin Milles was interviewed by Denis Kuljiš in Studio magazine:-
DK: Surely your most famous interview was with John Lennon and Yoko Ono.
KM: I had two interviews with them. The first was when I found out through some fellow journalists in London that Lennon was travelling to Amsterdam with his wife. I was just about to buy a Burberry coat, but instead, I spent that money on a plane ticket and went to the Netherlands. I was asked for a visa at the airport there, but I didn’t have one. They took me to a supervisor who was a civilized native of Papua, very kind, who allowed me to stay. I found Lennon in a hotel, through his press manager, who allowed me to stay for ten minutes and talk about the act of lying in bed by which John Lennon and Yoko Ono were protesting for world peace… However, I stayed for three hours. I somehow managed to get a very good vibe from him, he was a very bright, and actually very handsome man. When I told him he was a pantheist, he didn’t hesitate at all to ask what that was. Yoko Ono was lying in her nightgown, and he was in his pyjamas, we were talking, whilst the head of the press kept winking at me to go out… Then Lennon threw him out of the room.
DK: When did you have the next interview?
KM: The Beatles had just split up, and Lennon had bought a house in Epson. In the beautiful ambiance, there was a white piano – Lennon played on it with one finger and sang to me. I intended to go and meet him in New York, for a third interview, but he was murdered in the meantime. He was pleased with our first conversation, he had said that it was one of the best he had given for a newspaper. I did send him a translation of the interview, it was about 40-50 pages long…
DK: Has everything been published?
KM: Only one part.
DK: Did you ever think of publishing a book of your interviews?
KM: Nobody made me an offer, and I didn’t want to. I’m quite lazy.
(Konstantin Milles died in 1989, he had no heirs because his son and daughter died before he did, both committing suicide. Konstantin’s widow died in 2017. Was his 1969 Amsterdam interview with John and Yoko published in VUS magazine – where are those interviews and tape recordings?)
On a lighter note, in 1969 John and Yoko posted 2 acorns to Yugoslavia’s President Tito (1 of 50 world leaders at the time) to be planted as part of their quest for world peace.
NB: In May 2022 I found another interview from the same magazine this time from 1970 with Ringo Starr here
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