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Uncontrolled Weirdness


new internationalist
issue 212 - October 1990

Uncontrolled weirdness
It was 23 years ago today Sergeant Pepper taught the band to play.
It was the Summer of Love and the Beatles had a plan for 'a kind of Western
communism'. Alan Hughes and Chris Brazier recall how it turned out.

Hey man, I've got a real groovy idea. Positively far out. Let's, like, build our own company that will look after the interests of creative people like us. An underground company that isn't dominated by grey men in suits tripping on money. Let's call it Apple Corps Ltd. Apple Core, dig?

The language is so degraded now, itself so far out that it is impossible to take seriously. And the blissed-out mid-Atlantic tones it conjures up hardly do justice to the Beatles' own thick and sardonic Liverpudlian accents.

Nevertheless when it comes down to it the Beatles and their Apple Corps bear some responsibility for the ridicule now habitually visited on that kind of language and the culture that spawned it.

'A beautiful place where you can buy beautiful things. a controlled weirdness. a kind of Western communism.'

Paul McCartney's vision of Apple.

Project yourself back to 1967. For some of you that may be a truly cosmic journey back into and beyond the womb (a journey utterly in keeping with the spirit of that most cosmic of years). Those who have actual memories of the year are unlikely to have been party to the Party that was supposed to be the mythical Swinging Sixties - one of the authors was still unafflicted by puberty while the other was into his third year in a sheet-metal factory, so we certainly weren't invited.

No matter, because we're asking you to project yourself into the very heart of the Swinging Sixties myth - into the lives of the Fab Four themselves. In 1966 the Beatles had given up touring, a practice that had consumed their lives ever since they'd been catapulted into celebrity in 1963. It had left them some time to take stock of their lives. This helped them as a creative unit - in 1967 they came up with arguably their greatest single Penny Lane/Strawberry Fields Forever and with the album Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts' Club Band which, though it hasn't aged particularly well, was certainly a quantum leap forward for popular music at the time. And they took part in the first worldwide television broadcast, singing All You Need Is Love live to an estimated audience of 150 million.

But giving up performing also helped them develop personally in other directions: John Lennon acted in a film called How I Won The War (of best-forgotten quality); George Harrison travelled to India to study the sitar and encounter Eastern religion; Ringo Starr concentrated on his expanding home and family; and Paul McCartney wrote some film music and travelled in Africa, though he also felt rather lost (he tried to think about God, he said, but nothing came).

All four of them experimented with drugs, most particularly with the hallucinogen LSD, which was the single greatest chemical contribution to the Sixties. And all four of them discovered the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and his brand of Transcendental Meditation - and took it seriously enough to fly to India and study at his feet in Rishikesh (John and George stuck it out for two months, Paul for one and a homesick Ringo for only ten days).

All of this was a sign that they were taking control of their own destinies instead of being swept along by a tidal wave of money, fame and popular enthusiasm. And Apple (the name was inspired by a Magritte painting that McCartney had recently acquired) was born out of that sense that the Beatles had to start taking responsibility for their world instead of being acted upon by a panoply of 'men in grey suits'.

'The aim isn't just a stack of gold teeth in the bank. We've done that bit. It's more of a trick to see if we can get artistic freedom within a business structure - to see if we can create things and sell them without charging five times the cost.'

John Lennon.

Apple would be everything to everyone. It would be a record label for their own music and for the struggling artists just waiting out there for the benevolent despotism of the Beatles to pluck them from obscurity. It would be a film producer, an electronics company, a retailing outfit and a publishing house. It would be a huge multinational company -and by 1969 Apple had opened offices in Canada, the US, France, West Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Sweden and the Netherlands.

But most important of all it would be the business embodiment of the Youth Revolution which the Beatles helped kick into gear. It would be proof that things could be run in an informal, creative and non-materialistic way. And if a multinational company could be run like this then why not governments, why not the world?

Why not indeed? It was the Summer of Love and the young were setting the controls for the heart of the sun. Money couldn't buy you love but maybe the Beatles' bottomless pockets could buy the world a new order. Or maybe love was all you needed after all.

'We want to help people but without doing it like a charity. We always had to go to the big men on our knees and touch our forelocks and say "Please can we do so and so.?" We're in the happy position of not needing any more money, so for the first time the bosses aren't in it for the profit. If you come to me and say "I've had such and such a dream", I'll say to you "Go away and do it".'

Paul McCartney.

On 7 December 1967 the Apple Boutique at London's 94 Baker Street opened its doors to the world, selling all the bright colours and bamboozling gaudiness of that most extraordinary period in the history of fashion. All was floppy and shapeless, beads and flowers, rainbows and kaleidoscopes, thoroughly and wonderfully absurd. Lennon called it a 'psychedelic Woolworth's'.

The following April the Apple headquarters was established at 95 Wigmore Street. Grey suits were conspicuous by their absence, though the Beatles emulated the corporate way in one respect - the 15 directors were all men. The Managing Director and his Assistant were the band's two roadies. The Head of Talent for the record company was Paul's girlfriend's brother. It was that kind of place. Friends of friends wandered around. Eternal dreamers were taken at their word. Everyone and his Long Tall Sally came to the party and got driven to their executive lunches in fancy cars at the Beatles' expense.

It didn't take long for the cracks to show. Anyone with enough nerve could lay claim to the merchandise. And they did. Two of Apples cars simply disappeared. A house was bought and no-one knew to whom it belonged. Perhaps the most outrageous scam was operated by the post boys. Arriving with sacks full of mail, they quietly left with those same sacks filled with lead from the Apple building's roof.

'Apple was full of hustlers and spongers. people were robbing us and living on us. Eighteen or twenty thousand pounds was rolling out of Apple a week and nobody was doing anything about it. All our buddies that worked for us for years were just living and drinking and eating like fucking Rome. It was just hell and it had to stop.'

John Lennon.

Apple Records got off to a fine start when its first release, Hey Jude, sold three million worldwide in its first month. But selling Beatles records was the easy part, since EMI Records basically still did all the distribution work. The other divisions were a disaster area. The electronics and publishing projects never got off the ground. The Apple boutique closed down after only eight months, most of the clothing having simply vanished. The company's investment decisions were ludicrous and its executives were about as efficient at management as the Board of General Motors would be at writing and performing a Number One single.

As an example to the world that the young were powerful, that money was not the be-all and end-all, Apple could hardly have been a bigger failure. In the middle of 1969, faced with utter chaos, the Beatles made the ultimate capitulation and called in middle-aged capitalist men in grey suits to straighten things out. Paul invited New York lawyers Eastman and Eastman to take control (his girlfriend's father's firm). A few weeks later John asked the notorious rock manager Allen Klein to do the same. George and Ringo sided with John, and Klein launched into a ruthless purge clearing out the parasites and the dead wood - but consigning any trace of idealism to the trash can as well.

'We decided to close the shop down. We're tired of playing shops.'

John Lennon.

It wasn't just the end of the Apple adventure - it was the end of the Beatles. Within eighteen months McCartney was in court dissolving his connection to Apple and the other Beatles. And as the Beatles died, so too did the decade: youthful optimism and a passion for 'liberation' gave way to the oil crisis, Watergate, unemployment and disillusion.

When people of the late 1970s and 1980s remembered those heady times it was the ludicrous lack of realism that they recalled rather than the idealism - 'hippie' had become simply a term of abuse. And a new generation of grey suits exerted greater control than ever before, as if the Apple saga had been read as a fable in which Youthful Naivety got its comeuppance from Business Sagacity.

The pendulum has swung from silly dreaming to grinding pragmatism. But, who knows, the 1990s may yet see a synthesis of the two. Imagine all the Apple seeds bearing fruit 25 years on. Wow, like cosmic, man.

Chris Brazier is co-editor and Alan Hughes graphic designer at the NI. One of them still has a kaftan in the closet.

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New Internationalist issue 212 magazine cover This article is from the October 1990 issue of New Internationalist.
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