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Interview: Robert Rodriguez on first decade of the Beatles' solo careers, part 1

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(Introduction: Robert Rodriguez's latest book, “Solo in the '70s: John, Paul, George, Ringo 1970-1980,” is a detailed, through look at the careers of each Beatle through the decade. The book covers everything: the music, the members, lawsuits, concerts, Apple Records and much more. We questioned Rodriguez by email.)

Q: What's the idea behind "Solo in the '70s"?
Robert Rodriguez:
“When I began getting into the Beatles back in the ‘70s, I could count on one hand the number of good books there were on them. I don’t believe any ended with their break-up, apart from maybe Richard Dilello’s magnificent 'The Longest Cocktail Party.' Books like 'An Illustrated Record,' 'All Together Now,' 'The Beatles Forever,' 'Growing Up With The Beatles' and others carried on with their story post-1970, recognizing that the works produced by the four ex-Beatles were simultaneously the start of solo careers as individual artists and an extension of what they’d started during the ‘60s.

“The 1980 murder of John Lennon served as the slamming of a door on so many levels. First, obviously there was no chance of a real reunion happening. But also, it relegated the group to history. From then on, there was no escaping their being spoken of in past tense. And so the books began to be cranked out, covering their history from inception to the split. Only books that took on the ex-Beatles individually - mostly on John, but to a lesser extent, Paul and then George - talked about the post-disbanding era at all, seen through the prism of each individual.

“With my book 'Fab Four FAQ 2.0,' I put their story back together, presenting them, yes, as individuals, but also within the context of the residual Beatlemania that went on from one end of the decade to the other, including a few real peaks, such as in 1974 and 1978. That book covered the era in great detail, particularly the music, but I never felt that it told the whole story and all there was to know.

“Context is key, and with 'Solo in the 70s,' I widened the lens. While music is certainly discussed, I wanted to also showcase the individuals around them: who they chose to work with, to sponsor, who followed in the Beatles‘ footsteps and left their mark on the era, as well as to, for example, glean some understanding into how they saw their work by exploring its presentation: the jacket art and promo films, for instance.

“There were events shaping their art throughout the decade that I wanted to dig into: the lawsuits going on between them being one thing; John’s fight against deportation being another. But I also wanted readers to experience this time through the eyes of the fans, who doubtless by and large wanted nothing more than for them to put aside their differences and work together again.

"At the end of his life, John seemed dismissive of the notion, at least publicly, chalking it up to nostalgia and people wanting to live in the past. But I can see where it’s also possible that the fans astutely recognized the value that they brought to each other’s art by working together. Those four were each other’s best sounding boards - no small thing.”

Q: Who got off to the best start in the solo years and who floundered?
Robert Rodriguez: “John, after beginning his withdrawal from dominating the group circa 1966, was first out of the gate with extracurricular activities, though these did not rise to the level of anything more than experimental novelties until 1969, with the Plastic Ono Band singles. 1970’s “Instant Karma” was worthy of being a Beatle record, but ironically, it was he of the four that was last to score a #1. Ringo had two before John had one.

“One cannot underestimate the toll that his immigration fight took on him as an artist. “By the time he won the case, he was exhausted; it happened to coincide with the expiration of his recording contract and the long-desired prospect of raising a child with Yoko becoming reality. Had he been able to focus full time on a recording career instead of battling the Nixon administration, he may have fared better commercially.

“But I also think that John and Paul did themselves no favors by slumming with their choice of collaborators. Instead of looking for artistic equals to raise their game, they worked with sessioneers or journeymen that didn’t challenge them. Maybe that was what George Martin intuited when he advised Paul to ditch Wings in 1981 for 'Tug of War' and work with people that had actually made names for themselves, like Stevie Wonder, Stanley Clarke, Eric Stewart, and so on.

“Paul put the world on notice that the Beatles were no more with the 'McCartney' album, a collection with which he unwittingly revealed how badly he needed a strong collaborator in order to operate on a Beatle level. As far as the critics were concerned, his non-musical activities, announcing the Beatles were done and then suing his three ex-bandmates, ptt him in a defensive position that would take years to claw his way out of.

“That left George, the talent hiding in plain sight, to knock the world on its ear. Perhaps his one track per Beatle album side had the effect of lowering expectations, but when 'All Things Must Pass' arrived - this majestic and elegantly packaged triple record set - he showed the world that he was not only Lennon and McCartney’s equal, but also a gifted tunesmith with a unique artistic voice, bolstered by some heavy collaborators (and much echo).

“Looking at it from a psychological perspective - to the extent any outside observer can with any accuracy, I feel that once he won the validation he’d never really gotten from John, Paul or George Martin, he’d conquered his particular Everest. Henceforth, he felt no need to again compete with either the ghost of the Beatles or John and Paul’s concurrent activities. He made music that pleased himself, while growing increasingly weary of playing any commercial games.”

Q: Up to when John was murdered, who had the most success?
Robert Rodriguez: “Well as I’d mentioned, George weighed in heavily with his debut. The goodwill spilled over into 1971 with the Bangladesh event, but that ended up drawing energies away from his sustaining career momentum. By the time he was ready to get back on track, Paul was in ascendancy with the one-two punch of the 'My Love'/'Live and Let Die' singles, followed by year's end with 'Band on the Run.'

“That same year saw Ringo come out of the gate, crushing everything in his path. While 'Band on the Run' did well over time, spawning three hits in the US, the self-titled album from Ringo totally eclipsed John’s concurrent 'Mind Games' album, which must’ve been quite the shock. It yielded back-to-back number one singles, an achievement none of them had experienced, and sustained Ringo’s viability for another couple years, until changing tastes and formula fatigue did him in.

“John regained his commercial mojo, punching through his troubles, which by then included the separation from Yoko for eighteen months, bouncing back with “Walls and Bridges,'the only album of his lifetime to both go to number one and produce a number one hit with 'Whatever Gets You Thru The Night.' Had he not gotten sidetracked by the other stuff going on that year, including the possibility of working things out with Paul, who knows where he might have taken it.

“Paul was thereafter on a roll, sustaining a string of chart-topping singles, hit albums, and in 1976, a fabulously successful worldwide road show. He stayed much more attuned to what was going on in popular music, segueing from rock to soft rock to even disco as the market dictated. In John’s lifetime, before the eighties began, Paul was honored as “the most successful composer and recording artist of all time” - it’s hard to deny that particular honor as the ultimate quantifier.”

(Watch for Part 2 in this space soon. In it, Rodriguez gives his opinion on each Beatle's best solo album, John and Yoko vs. Paul and Linda and Ringo Starr and George Harrison's best solo moments.)

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