Get Lit: Beatles for Sale by John Blaney
Another Beatles book? Doesn't the world already know everything it possibly can about the Fab Four, from the nickname of their favorite Hamburg pill dealer to the mustache style of the cab driver who took George through the streets of Rishikesh?
Well... no. And as long as interest in the band continues to flower - and pass along to new generations - Ye Olde Beatles Bookshelf will continue to groan under the accumulated weight of its tomes. Beatles for Sale, though, is the first one to make a comprehensive study of the group through the prism of its finances. Publishing, record contracts, Apple, Inc., merchandising, management, movies and even their fan club are studied with an accountant's eye.
The result is actually not dry and pretty fascinating - mostly how the biggest group in the world, before or since, made blunders that even today's MySpace minions wouldn't fall for. You never give me your money? Not unless it's in the contract, baby.
Rocks Off spoke with Beatles for Sale author and all-around Fabs expert John Blaney (Lennon and McCartney: Together Alone - A Critical Discography of Their Solo Work) about a wide range of money matters that would make a Liverpool taxman orgasm with delight.
Rocks Off: With so many hundreds of books already written about the Beatles, what made you decide to concentrate on their financial life?
John Blaney: It's a fascinating aspect of The Beatles' story that's never been covered in-depth. Money is like sex. None of us think we are getting enough, and when a group like the Beatles comes along, we all want to know how much they're getting and what they do with it.
The fact that The Beatles could have been even richer is also intriguing. Where did it go? And when you look into their business deals, you realize how they were controlled by businessmen and lawyers from the word go. They didn't stand a chance.
RO: The Beatles made many bad business decisions that even a struggling band today would never make. Do you think it's because many of these areas for bands - publishing, merchandising - were relatively new at the time?
JB: To be fair, The Beatles didn't make the mistakes. Their manager, lawyers, and accountants made the mistakes because nobody, with the exception of Elvis Presley and the Disney Corporation, had ever done anything like this before.
The Beatles had to rely on advisors, who for the most part didn't appreciate just how much the group could earn. It wouldn't happen today, because everyone has learned from the mistakes made by [manager Brian] Epstein and his advisors.
RO: Brian Epstein: how much "blame" should he really get for his bad or uninformed decisions?
JB: The buck stops with Epstein (right). He constantly said The Beatles were going to be bigger than Elvis, and yet he constantly undervalued the group. While it's true that he was breaking new ground with some of his business deals, a businessman would have fought for better deals than Epstein secured.
It's easy to blame him in hindsight, but contemporaries like Don Arden and Allen Klein would have cut better deals. But whether they would have been better for The Beatles is unlikely. If nothing else Epstein was honest, open and a gentleman.
RO: Epstein also signed away a shocking 90 percent of the Beatles' merchandising sales to the Seltaeb company. Is this his biggest blunder?
JB: It sounds like a massive blunder, but the real shocker is the fact that Lennon and McCartney ended up losing the rights to their own songs. The last time Sony/ATV, which owns Northern Songs, was valued, it was said to be worth $30 billion!
What they lost in merchandising is peanuts compared to what they lost in royalties when they lost control of Northern Songs. The merchandising bubble would have only lasted a few years at best, but the royalties from songwriting will keep pouring in for as long as their music lasts. And it looks like that is going to be a long time.
RO: I was surprised to find out that Paul McCartney only co-owns outright the publishing on two songs - "Love Me Do" and "P.S. I Love You". Do you think he's just resigned to this fact today, or does it still drive him that he could get the rights back?
JB: McCartney has said he's happy to sit back and wait, because in a few years, some of the rights revert back to him. Why he didn't buy ATV/Northern Songs when he had the chance [in 1981] is a mystery. He could have sold off ATV and effectively acquired Northern Songs for next to nothing. But he was adamant that he only wanted Northern Songs. Somebody else stepped in. and he lost the chance to buy back his "babies."
RO: What do you make personally about Northern Songs honcho Dick James not notifying the Beatles of the earlier original sale?
JB: Dick James had a pretty good hunch that without Epstein to guide them, the Beatles would split up - and he was right. However, the gentlemanly thing to have done was give them first refusal. That he went behind their backs says a lot. I think he was only interested in looking after himself. But how short-sighted he was.
Surely, he must have known that Lennon and McCartney's songs would continue to earn vast sums of money regardless of whether or not the Beatles were a working band. He's another example of what the Beatles were up against - the fast buck rather then long term investment. But that was the nature of the music business at the time.
RO: You mention that the Beatles sold more records in 1996 than in any other year up until then. There is only a finite amount of material that can be packaged and repackaged. What are your thoughts on that?
JB: I think Apple has done a good job, so far. But in my opinion, they seem to be struggling to give the fans what they want. The Love project was a real disappointment. I'd rather hear the 20-minute version of "Helter Skelter," no matter how bad it is, or "Carnival of Light," than an uninspired Giles Martin remix of "Because."
I think the release of the re-mastered albums, whether on CD or as downloads, will be the last big push from Apple. I really can't see the Beatles topping the 1996 sales figure ever again. The market is changing, their audience is getting older, and there's only so many times you can get people to pay for something they already own.
RO: Any other comments?
JB: This is a story that will run and run. Beatles for Sale only scratches the surface. We will never know the whole story, because too many interested parties want to keep it secret, and who can blame them? John Lennon was right, the Beatles made a lot of people millionaires. The group probably still generates more money than some Third World countries, and nobody wants to harm the golden goose.
And that includes people like me who have made money from them. It's an irony that's not lost on me, I can assure you! - Bob Ruggiero
Beatles for Sale: How Everything They Touched Turned into Gold, by John Blaney. Jaw Bone Press, 288 pp., $19.95.