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Live and Let Sing

Following up on Paul McCartney's right to play Beatles songs: Who played what and when, and more.

12:00 AM, Aug 27, 2002 • By VICTORINO MATUS
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LAST JUNE, I wrote about how it seemed wrong for Paul McCartney to perform Beatles songs in concert. Herewith are a few reader responses, clarifications, and an update.

First, the responses: "You're insane!" "You're out of your mind!" "You're just a Paul-hater!" And those were just from my friends in the office.

Out on the web, it was worse. "Full of hot air" was how Dean Esmay described me on his website. "The most asinine article I've ever read," wrote Beatles fan Aaron Pillar. And on and on. Sure, there were some supportive e-mails along the way, but one major bone of contention concerned where and when ex-Beatles started performing old songs--and indeed, it has been pointed out to me several times now that McCartney was not the only one to do so and may not have been the first.

According to a history professor from Connecticut, John Lennon recorded "I Saw Her Standing There" on the B-side of Elton John's rendition of "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" in 1974. Many readers have also pointed out that when Lennon performed live with Elton John at Madison Square Garden, he referred to Paul as that "old fiancee of mine." And George Harrison performed Beatles songs at a fundraiser for Bangladesh around the same time.

One reader theorizes that Lennon and McCartney were disinclined to play many of their old numbers in the 1970s not out of sentimentality, but because of legal wrangling. "It all has to do with publishing rights," says Thad Ficarra, who works on Capitol Hill. "Recall that Northern Songs, formed in 1963 by Dick James, handled all Lennon/McCartney songs. James put Northern up for sale in 1968 resulting in a furious bidding war among different publishers as well as John and Paul. Everyone was snapping up as many shares as possible." Ficarra notes that Lennon compared this with playing Monopoly but with real money. "In the end, John and Paul didn't have enough shares and the sale of Northern went to ATV Communications. And all current royalties were frozen and held in litigation. It wasn't until the 1980s, in an undisclosed private settlement, that ATV paid McCartney and Lennon's estates millions of dollars in back-publishing royalties." As a result, McCartney played more songs from the Beatles than from Wings on his 1989-1990 world tour.

It's interesting to note that when the Fab Four broke up, McCartney's first thoughts were, "Well, this will be the start of a new phase now. The Beatles won't be recording together again, so do I leave the music business and not work again? I'm too passionate about it." As he notes in "The Beatles Anthology," "It's just a bug I've got. I knew I had to carry on in some form or other." Compare that with Ringo's first thoughts, also relayed in the "Anthology": "I just wandered off home, I believe, and I don't know what happened after that. I sat in the garden for a while wondering what the hell to do with my life. After you've said it's over and go home, you think: 'Oh, God--that's it, then. Now what do you do?' It was quite a dramatic period for me--or traumatic, actually."

Another reader recalls that "In the early 70s when the four each started their own solo careers, Ringo played drums on most of George's albums and on one or two of John's albums. George also played guitar on one of John's albums as well as on one of Ringo's albums. The only one whose bands never consisted of fellow ex-Beatles was Paul." Not that he is totally to blame. One Beatles fan says that on McCartney's 1989-1990 tour, Paul suggested that the three living ex-Beatles might come together. According to this reader, Harrison quipped, "there will never be a Beatles reunion as long as John Lennon remains dead."

Not that any of this will have an impact on McCartney's upcoming "Feelgood Factory" tour. In fact, tickets will be selling faster than ever precisely because fans do want to hear him play "Yesterday" and "Blackbird" and the rest. "I'd rather hear him sing any Beatles number--even 'Why Can't We Do It In The Road?'--than anything he produced with Wings or alone," says Beatles fan David Michaels, who reminds us of "post-Beatles dreck like 'Ebony & Ivory,' 'The Girl Is Mine,' and 'Pipes of Peace.'" Says Donny Broome of broomeman.com, "Simply put: McCartney hasn't written anything really good in years. He's pretty much stuck with performing Beatles tunes. That's what we (fans) want to hear."