Friday, December 8, 2017

Chaos to the Core: The Zapple Diaries by Barry Miles

Beatles's manager Allen Klein, John Lennon and Yoko Ono in 1969

The title is long but The Zapple Diaries: The Rise and Fall of the Last Beatles Label, the story of The Beatles’s failed business endeavor by Barry Miles, is a fascinating first-hand account. Miles was a personal friend of Paul McCartney when he opened the Indica Bookshop in London that featured art installations and poetry books by the leading avant-garde artists of the day. (One of those artists was Yoko Ono.) He started the bookstore in 1965 with Peter Asher, brother of Jane Asher, McCartney’s girlfriend at the time. Miles reflects on those early days with a kind of pragmatic fondness, “There is no question that without Paul McCartney’s support Indica Books would have gone under several years before it did . . . in 1970.” He says that the Beatle’s involvement was “kept quiet.” But the seeds for starting a new business to record new poets were planted and McCartney was particularly enthusiastic about supporting the Miles/Asher partnership in this manner. While Asher kept the store going, The Beatles hired Miles when they formed Zapple, an imprint of Apple, in 1968. Zapple was created to release “more experimental material” such as spoken word recordings and his job was to approach and record American poets for the new label. His book is about that gig, the artists he recorded and the office politics of The Beatles’ risky new business.

When it comes to his own life and times, Barry Miles is a great storyteller. His writing specialty is biography with individual studies on Paul McCartney, William S. Burroughs, the Beat Poets, Frank Zappa, and Allen Ginsberg published in between his own diaries, In The Sixties (2002) and In The Seventies: Adventures in the Counterculture (2011). His latest “diary,” published in 2016 by Abrams Image, looks back on his years at the Indica but more specifically addresses the months from January to June 1969 when he travelled to the United States to record some his favourite poets of the era. They included Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and, from Los Angeles, Charles Bukowski, whom Miles describes as “forty-nine but [he] looked ten years older.” Miles prides himself on his attention to detail, including picturesque descriptions of the houses, apartments and neighborhoods he visited.

Miles’s book features his road stories but the strongest and most revealing parts of The Beatles’ business operation are about the people who worked at Apple Inc. at the famous white building at 3 Saville Row, London. Miles offers up critical evaluations of the staffers, visitors (including the Hell’s Angels, who often stayed there) and the circus-like atmosphere of the office. By his measure, it was a pretty disorganized and mad affair; money was out of control and the decision-making process was inconsistent. The Beatles may have been a tight band, but their management decisions were loose, for which Miles reserves the harshest criticism: “The Beatles were probably the last people in Britain who should have attempted to run a company: they didn’t have the slightest idea of how to go about it, and terrible mistakes were made. They had no knowledge of business or money, no understanding of management or delegation, no concept of budgets or costings [expenses] or any other elements that are required to manage a company.” By 1968 the band had the resources and influence to change the music business, but their dreams were “na├»ve,” as Lennon described it, and their judgment was often flawed.

No diary of The Beatles would be complete without a few words about Yoko Ono, John Lennon’s constant companion at the Apple office. Lennon often accused the people at Apple who hated Yoko because she was impolite and bossy of “racism.” Miles puts Ono’s behaviour into perspective: “She was brought up with servants, and that’s how she treated the staff of Apple . . . whether Yoko was ever aware of the disruption her presence caused to the Beatles’ working practices I don’t know.” Miles suggests that she may have been trying to separate John from the other members of the band. It was no secret that her appearances in the studio during The Beatles' recording of TheWhite Album in ’68 didn’t help either. Nevertheless I think Miles is fair in his commentary about the people behind Apple and how his commission to record six spoken word albums was almost thwarted by the manager, Allen Klein.

When he was on the road for Zapple, Miles handled everything from a bulky reel-to-reel tape recorder to document the poets at their homes to hiring studios, when the expenses were approved, often under the full support of McCartney or George Harrison. But while these recordings held great artistic promise, the Zapple label, which fell under Klein’s aggressive management, did not. (The book includes the story of Miles, Allen Ginsberg and Klein’s hostile first meeting.) The label was closed by Klein, writes Miles, “without informing me or anyone in the Apple office” after the release of two Beatles solo albums, John Lennon’s Unfinished Music No. 2: Life with the Lions and George Harrison’s Electronic Sound. To this day those are the only official Zapple label releases. When Klein shut down the label, Miles was fully committed to the project and had about a dozen reels of tape ready for release to two commercial labels that expressed interest. Apparently Klein was agreeable to “leasing” some of the recordings to EMI and MGM. But the Charles Bukowski album wasn’t released until 1998 (on CD), while two other recordings, by the poets Ken Weaver and Michael McClure, were never released.

Miles takes pride in his service to the artists he met and recorded. Zapple was merely the conduit and Paul McCartney the motivator on an assignment he would have probably done for nothing since his love of the poets and their work was so strong. He thoroughly enjoyed the process of documenting American poet and scholar Charles Olson at his home in Massachusetts and he considered the record with Richard Brautigan (San Francisco) the most satisfying, if most expensive, record he produced. His stories about Allen Ginsberg are particularly glowing and the gem for Miles was the poet’s recording of William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience (MGM-Verve, 1970) that was re-issued in 2016. Frank Zappa recommended to Miles the Apostolic Studios in New York, where it was recorded.

The Ginsberg sessions included a number of arrangers from the jazz world including Bob Dorough, but it was Miles’s story about Charles Mingus that was memorable for me. Miles and Ginsberg went to Mingus’s apartment to play him a demo tape to see if the bassist was interested in participating. After carefully listening to Ginsberg’s poor vocal with a harmonium, Mingus took a pass but made a strong recommendation in favour of Herman Wright, who played with the sax player Yusef Lateef at the time. Miles often reached out directly to people without going through corporate channels, and I was struck by his casual assertiveness in this story and others contained in the book.

Despite Miles’s attention to detail, he does gets some of his facts wrong. He cites the day that John Lennon and Paul McCartney launched Apple on American television. Miles writes that they appeared on the “Today Show on May 14” (1968). It was actually May 15 on The Tonight Show with guest host Joe Garagiola (which he does get right). On top of that, he adds the wrong transcript from the interview regarding the Apple launch. I was puzzled by this error, so I looked it up on for the complete conversation, including Lennon and McCartney’s pitch for their new business venture. Despite this factual error Miles tells us about the impact of the two amateur businessmen, soliciting for new material: “Naturally they were inundated . . . sackloads of cassettes were stored, never to be listened to. They received hundreds of poetry manuscripts, even though book publishing was not one of their announced areas of activity.”

Music was the most successful part of the Apple story. It granted McCartney the chance to release Mary Hopkins’s single “Those Were The Days,” which became a worldwide hit. Mal Evans, who worked for The Beatles as their assistant, discovered Badfinger, the British pop band who released their first four albums on Apple Records in the early seventies. When The Beatles called it a day, each member released solo records on Apple until the company officially stopped issuing new albums in 1976. (A full discography is on Wikipedia.)

The Zapple Diaries: The Rise and Fall of the Last Beatles label is an important addition to music history from one of its best eyewitnesses. Miles provides insights, reproduces press releases by The Beatles’ publicist Derek Taylor and expresses his excitement for the endless possibilities of the era all supported by the band's enthusiasm for trying a new independent label. It’s a pity it all came to an end so quickly from a business perspective, but for Miles “the beat goes on.”

 – John Corcelli is a music critic, broadcast/producer, and musician. John is also the author of Frank Zappa FAQ: All That’s Left To Know About The Father of Invention (Backbeat Books).

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