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The Beatles, Badfinger And The Byrds: An Interview With Peter Asher

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Peter Asher, CBE, began his show biz career as a child actor in Britain in the 1950’s. In the mid 60’s, he and Gordon Waller achieved worldwide fame in music as pop duo, Peter and Gordon. At this time, his sister Jane was seeing Paul McCartney, and Paul came to live with the Asher family at their home in London. Paul wrote a number of hits for Peter and Gordon, including “World Without Love”. Peter went on to work for the Beatles at Apple Records, as head of A & R. After Apple, he became a manager and record producer, working with some of the most successful artists of the 1970’s, such as James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt. Recently he’s been a regular radio host on Sirius-XM’s Beatles Channel and has written a book called The Beatles A-ZED. It’s a delightful read which includes his take on many Beatles songs, as well as songs from each of their solo careers. The book also reveals some first hand memories of Paul and John composing and playing their songs for him at the Asher House in Wimpole Street. We tried jogging his memory a bit more in the following telephone conversation.

Stereo Embers Magazine: Let’s start with The Beatles A-ZED, if we may. The idea for the book came out of your radio show, didn’t it?

Peter Asher: Yes, Sirius-XM asked me to do the radio show when they finally closed the deal to have a Beatles channel, which of course they wanted for a long time but they needed permission from Apple and that kind of thing.  So they figured all that out and then they asked me if I would be interested in doing a show and I said I would give it a try.  I checked with Apple and the Beatles first to make sure the request was coming from them and not just the radio. It was and so I started doing the show.  The book wasn’t my idea at all.  A book publisher came to me and said that the 28 episodes I had done for the Beatles A-ZED  radio show would make a good book.  I thought that sounded interesting, so I said yes.  It turned out to be a lot more work than I expected. I vainly imagined that you would take the radio show and sort of transcribe it and there would be a book.  And of course when you do that it needs a lot of rewriting from scratch because when you talk about a song on the radio, you can play it but in a book you can’t–you have to explain it.   I realized I was committed to write a book and that’s what I did.

SEM: Had you done radio before… had your our own radio show?

PA: No. As an actor I had.  I’d done radio plays and stuff and I’d been on a million radio stations, of course, but I hadn’t had a regular program on a radio station, no.

SEM: The book doesn’t take seem to take itself too seriously, or rather, it doesn’t take the concept seriously.

PA: No, it’s quite lighthearted.   I’m not one of those experts that knows lots of stuff.  There are books that claim to know, and often do know, exactly which guitar somebody played on a particular track, that kind of that kind of super-nerdy Beatle knowledge that some people pursue very effectively– and I admire them for it.  But I’m not one of those people.  A lot of it is me looking stuff up, doing research, or me being interested in something. There are certain bits I can add because I was there at the time or because I knew the people involved or whatever, but it doesn’t purport to be one of those expert books that’s full of secret knowledge.

SEM: Speaking of, have you read Mark Lewisohn’s book, Tune In?

PA: Bits of it.  I’ve not read the whole thing.  It’s incredibly detailed. I know Mark, I’ve talked to him a lot. His research, the depth and his knowledge…he’s a real historian. Extraordinary.

SEM: Has he interviewed you for the next volume?

PA: I’ve talked to him several times.  I always forget which was for which but I’ve talked to him several times and I’m happy to tell him whatever it is I know.

SEM: It sounds like Paul and Ringo won’t talk to him. 

PA: I understand there was a bit of a falling out between Apple and Mark.

SEM: Getting back to your book:  Everyone remembers hearing “I Want to Hold Your Hand” for the first time.  Your first time hearing it was anyone’s first time, wasn’t it?

PA: I think so, yes.  I believe that to be true.

SEM: And it was Paul and John playing it for you on piano after they’d just written it.

PA: Yes.

SEM: How different was it? Same tempo and arrangement?

PA: It was the same tempo as the finished record. It was different because the da da da da da… [sings the little climbing riff between “I’ll tell you something” and “I think you’ll understand“] …that guitar on the record was done on the left hand of the piano, as far as I remember.  So it was different, but the arrangement was essentially the same.

SEM: Wow, so they did have that part already.

PA: I think so.  I might be misremembering…thinking backwards…but I think so.  I only heard it once.  Unfortunately no one recorded it.  In the modern era, of course I would have had my phone out.  But I think that lick was already in there, I seem to recall.

SEM: Do you remember if they had the intro?

PA: I don’t think so.  I don’t know.

SEM: In the book you tell us that Paul played “And I Love Her” for you, minus the bridge. He played it for all of you there at Wimpole Street [the Asher house]?

PA: Yes.

SEM: I don’t think you talk about “Good Morning Good Morning”, in the book.

PA: Maybe not.  I know I’ve talked about it on the radio show but maybe not in the book.

SEM: In that song, John mentions a British tv comedy show called Meet the Wife. He was really into comedy, wasn’t he?

PA: Yes.  We all were.  We were all big Peter Sellers fans.  Spike Milligan fans.  We all listened to The Goon Show, that was the biggest show.  That was one of the things that impressed the Beatles about George Martin, that he’d worked with those people.

SEM: In the book you mentioned Life With The Lyons in reference to Lennon’s Life With The Lions album.  Was that show a comedy?

PA: Yes, it was a radio show.  I think maybe towards the end it turned into a television show as well but I don’t remember that.  I remember it being on the radio.  It was about an American family living in London.  Ben and Bebe Lyons were the leads in the show and they were real Americans which at the time was quite unusual in London.

SEM: You were at some Beatles recording sessions…you talk about being there for “Hey Jude”.  Do you remember any earlier sessions?

PA: I do remember being there but to be honest, I don’t remember specifically which songs. It sounds funny, I know, but I end up wondering which ones I heard at home and which ones I heard in the studio.  I’m not really clear on that.  I was in a few.   The “Hey Jude” one was at Trident.  I was at Abbey Road a number of times but not a lot of times.  There’s one picture of me in the control room listening back.

SEM: There’s also a picture of you, Paul, and Mary Hopkin.

PA: Oh, that too.  I think that was when we were doing one of the foreign language versions.  I was put in charge of getting the French one and… whatever… done.

SEM: Peter and Gordon did some French records.

PA: We did.  At the time it was a thing.  The label would ask you, if they thought they could use it, to do a French version or a German version, or whatever.  They would send somebody over to check on the pronunciation and help you get it right.

SEM: So those French songs were ones you had already recorded in English?

PA: Yes.  Did we do any actual French songs? Maybe we did… there might have been one they asked us to do that was an actual French song.   Mostly they would ask you to do translated version of songs you’d done.  I should check out what we actually did in French.  I don’t remember.

SEM: You did some in German as well, didn’t you?

PA: Yes.

SEM: Back to the Beatles.  George Martin said the White Album would have been a single album had he had his way. As a record producer yourself, how do you feel about that?

PA: I don’t know. There’s a theory that every double album would be better if you just took the 12 best and made it a single album.  I don’t know.  These days all of that is out the window.  It’s funny that we always think of music conforming to certain blocks of time.  In the age of the lp it was about 45 minutes and in the age of the CD it was about an hour.  Now it’s whatever you want it to be.  You can release one 2 minute track or you can release three hours of music at once.  All those constraints are off.  So I think, in a way, it’s an outdated idea, even.   I know some people are trying to put records out— there’s a new Lady Gaga album and she’s saying, “Please think of this as an album and listen to it from beginning to end”.  I don’t think that’s ever really gonna come back.  Even when cd’s happened and people could decide which songs they wanted to permanently skip, they were doing their own sequencing.  I don’t know, I’m glad they put the whole thing out.  Now of course they’ve released all the outtakes and screw ups and false starts and everything anyway because people are interested.  And that’s kinda cool too.  It’s like a lot of jazz records they now put out.  Charlie Parker’s outtakes and stuff.  All the fans are fascinated by it.  In the end the more music that people put out, the better.  But I don’t know, maybe George was right.  It would work either way.  Nowadays everyone would want the double album because they want…everything.

SEM: That’s true.  You talk about “Martha My Dear”, off that album, in the book.  You mention traveling with Paul and his dog, Martha.

PA: Yeah, I knew Martha.  She came with us on the trip up to Bradford to do the Black Dyke Mills Band.  And then I met her a lot over at Cavendish Avenue [Paul’s house in London] obviously, too.  She was a nice dog.

SEM: Did you have a family dog or cats at the house in Wimpole Street?

PA: More cats.  We had a cat most often.  We never had a dog.  I’ve never been much of a dog person.  But Martha was amiable. My wife and my daughter have dogs now, so dogs are around.  A Portuguese Water Dog is our main dog.

SEM: You worked at Apple. How was it when Allen Klein came in?

PA: I left before he took over.  I was there when he was in and out of the building for meetings but once it was a done deal that he was coming in, over Paul’s wishes, and he was gonna be the new boss–I knew him by reputation –so I decided to leave.  I wrote a letter of resignation and James [Taylor] and I both left.   I met Allen in the building and I knew about him from New York but I was never actually there when he became the boss.

SEM: In the book you mention Patrick MacGoohan coming in to Apple to talk about the next Beatles movie. Were they talking about The Hobbit?

PA: No, that was a separate discussion.  I think it was just an exploratory meeting because we were all big fans.  I wasn’t in the meeting.  I was there that day and said hello to him briefly, but the meeting, I think, was just him and the Beatles and maybe Peter Brown… I don’t remember.  I think it was just an exploratory meeting because we were all such huge fans of The Prisoner, the tv show that he’d invented and was in.  We loved that show so I think it was just a question of, ‘maybe he’s somebody we should work with’.

SEM: As far as the next film?

PA: Yes.  He was a director. He was a writer that we should talk to and see what his ideas are.  But nothing came of it so I imagine the meeting wasn’t viewed as a success.

SEM: Another tidbit from your book was that “No Reply” was originally offered to Tommy Quickly.

PA: Yes, I found that out somewhere. I didn’t know it at the time, I don’t think, but apparently it was. That was a question of research rather than personal knowledge.  But it sounds right because they were writing for other people.  And he was another Brian [Epstein] client.  It’s very likely Brian said, “Can you give me a song for Tommy Quickly?”

SEM: You guys, Peter and Gordon, were not managed by Brian were you?

PA: No, we were not.

SEM: When you were discovered by EMI, did you already have a manager?

PA: No.  We were discovered by somebody from EMI and Norman Newell. And they recommended a manager, a guy called Richard Armitage.  He became our manager.

SEM: At that time were you doing folk songs or pop songs?

PA: A mixture.  It was all quite folky.  It was just us and our two acoustic guitars.  We would be doing some Everly Brothers songs and other songs… just songs we liked, in every field.  We would also take requests and try and learn a song if somebody really wanted to sing it.  We were basically in the bar playing for tips.  We did songs we liked, songs that were hits, and so on.

SEM: Do you remember what songs you did at the EMI audition?

PA: I know we did “500 Miles” because Norman had mentioned that he was keen on that one. I think he was thinking that would be our sort of style, that we would be part of the folk boom.  He liked our version of “500 Miles”, which was quite good.  I’m not sure what else.  Might have done “Lucille”.  We had a good version of that. We sort of did the ones that had impressed him when he came to see us at the Pickwick Club.  It would be nice if I could remember, or if we had that demo, but we don’t. It would have been three or four, maybe five of the songs that we did every night. “Crying in the Rain” might have been on there.

SEM: And the first song you got from Paul McCartney was “World Without Love”?

PA: Yes.

SEM: In the book you say that that didn’t have a bridge… he wrote that part later, right?

PA: Correct, that had no bridge.

SEM: Did it have that little descending thing…that half step down before the verse starts?

PA: Yeah, I think it did.  I think that was in.

SEM: And that was your first single?

PA: Yes.

SEM: Did George Martin produce your records?

PA: No. Norman Newell, the guy who signed us.  He was an A&R guy at EMI.  He produced the first couple of records.  And then for some reason, we got switched over to John Burgess.  I’m not sure why.

SEM: Did you have the same engineers as the Beatles?  Norman Smith?

PA: Yes, Norman did some records and later on I think Geoff [Emerick] did one or two.  I forget the other guy’s name… they were all part of the same team.

SEM: What about the musicians?  Did you have the same players all the time?

PA: No. The players were chosen, initially certainly, by Norman.  They were all the main studio guys.  To be honest, I don’t know who played on all our records.  I wish I did.  I remember them but I don’t know the names of who played what on what.  In some cases, I do. Vic Flick was the lead guitarist on “World Without Love”.  For that session I think they booked two guitar players, Vic Flick and Big Jim Sullivan who were the sort of the A-team.  Not sure who played bass.  Might’ve been a bass player called Herbie Flowers, who did a lot of sessions.

SEM: Did you and Gordon play guitar in the studio sometimes?

PA: We didn’t play much.  On the folky ones like “500 Miles”, we played some guitar, but no, we didn’t play a lot on those sessions.  The tendency then was just to hire studio players.  Just like what happened to Ringo in the beginning.  When in doubt they would play it safe cause they didn’t want to spend hours getting things right. If there was a guitar part they would just hire somebody to play it.

SEM: So would you and Gordon just come in and sing?

PA: Usually. We played on some tracks but the default was kinda that you didn’t play– you just sang.

SEM: Did you overdub, or sing live with the band?

PA: A bit of both.  You’d sing a bit and sometimes keep some of that.  We’d sometimes sing live in a booth built out of baffles so it wouldn’t all leak, and then re-sing it if needed.

SEM: Did you use headphones?

PA: Yes, we’d use headphones when we were doing the track but then when you overdubbed you always had the option of using a speaker on the other side of the microphone.  They would actually use those Vox column PA speakers sometimes because they were more directional.  So you’d have it on the dead side of the mic and then you could sing with the speaker if you wanted to.

SEM: What about live shows? Did Peter and Gordon have a band for touring?

PA: Different bands.  We had one band in the UK, and in America we’d usually end up with several different bands for different areas of the country and have a very brief rehearsal.  One promoter would put together the Midwest or whatever, and he would hire a band and you’d meet them the day before the first gig.

SEM: What about the arrangements?  Did you do them, or did Gordon do them?  

PA: We did the arrangements together.  In many cases there would be an arranger like Geoff Love. We’d work out stuff with him ahead of the session.

SEM: In “True Love Ways”, there’s a key change that’s beautiful.

PA: That was my idea.  That arrangement, where we made it build, was my idea. The [string] arrangement was done by… I don’t remember who.  Might have been Geoff Love or it might have been someone else by that stage.   Obviously a professional arranger did all the strings, but in terms of where the tune modulates and where the crescendos were and stuff, that certainly weren’t in the Buddy Holly version, that was my idea.

SEM: It was very big in America.

PA: Yes, it was.  Not so much in England, I don’t think, but it was big here.

SEM: It’s Everly Brothers meet Buddy Holly.

PA: Yeah. That’s it.

SEM: Do you remember a Peter and Gordon song called “Morning’s Calling”?

PA: Vaguely. I think it was mostly a Gordon write.  We wrote together but, as is often the case, some of them are more one than the other.  I think that was mostly Gordon’s song.

SEM: It’s very Byrds.

PA: Yes. I was a Byrds fan. The Byrds were influenced by us.  I know that because David Crosby told me so.  It was interesting: When he and Chris Hillman were singing together, I said, “Well you were probably trying to sound like the Everlys” and he said, “No, actually we wanted to sound like Peter and Gordon because the English Sound was the cool sound at that point in time”.  And I went, “Wow, that’s impressive.  That’s cool!”.

SEM: You guys did a very big production on The Everlys’, “Let It Be Me”.  A very dramatic approach.

PA: Yeah, I like that kind of thing.  It’s the same thing with “To Know You Is To Love You”.  It’s the opposite of the Phil Spector version which, strangely, was the very small version.  Essentially, I did later what Phil Spector the producer, would have done, I think, to the song that Phil Spector wrote all those years earlier.

SEM: Sometimes you guys sang solo. You sang, “Any Day Now”, for instance.

PA: Yes.

SEM: When Gordon sang solo did he sing differently than when he sang with you? Seems that way sometimes.

PA: I don’t think so.  I think it’s just… the two of us…the surprising thing is that our voices do blend which you wouldn’t necessarily expect because they are very different. Most duos, the vocals are somewhat similar. You can certainly tell Don Everly from Phil Everly.  They’re not identical but they’re not radically different, whereas Gordon and me… completely different.  He’s got this big big big voice and I’ve got this small, sort of choir boy voice. Surprisingly, the two of them added together add up to something different.  I think it’s more that than he is actually singing differently.

SEM: And he can stretch a little bit when–

PA: Yeah, when he’s on his own he can phrase anyway he wants, obviously, whereas when you have a duo you have to decide how you want to sing it.

SEM: In the studio, did you generally face each other with one microphone between you?

PA: Yeah, we put the microphone in what’s called ‘figure eight’.  That means both sides are alive and that’s how we usually did it.

SEM: You mentioned, “To Know You is to Love You”.  Are you doubled-tracked on that?  

PA: We both are. Yeah, most of our records are double-tracked.

SEM: Did you mostly work in four track?

PA: Yes.  Entirely. The first record I ever did on an eight track machine was as a producer.  All those Peter and Gordon records were made on half inch through the four track.  When I went over to Trident to do the James Taylor album, that’s actually how Paul got interested in Trident.  He came over to play on “Carolina On My Mind” for me– that was the first thing we’d ever used eight track for.  Then he brought the Beatles over and that’s when they did “Hey Jude”.

SEM: Was that the first song you heard by James Taylor, “Carolina On My Mind”? 

PA: No.  He wrote that after he’d already moved into my flat and we’d started the album. Then he wrote that song. The first song I heard was probably, “Something in the Way She Moves”.  He played me that and “Something’s Wrong”, “Knocking Around the Zoo”… that was the first stuff he played me.

SEM: Did he knock on the door at Apple and just play, or did he have a tape?

PA: It wasn’t Apple, it was my house.  I’m sure you know the story but it was Danny Kortchmar who’d played in one of the bands backing Peter and Gordon in America.  He and I became good friends and he was subsequently in that band called Flying Machine with James.  When that band broke up and James was going to London, Danny gave him my phone number and said “If you’re gonna be in London, call Peter– he’s a friend.”  So James called me up and came over to my flat and played me the tape. That’s when I told him that, by coincidence, I had this new job as head of A & R for a record label and I could sign people, and would he like a record deal?  And he said, “Yes, please”.

SEM: Who else did you sign?

PA: Well, he was the most… he was the first actual signing to Apple of anybody.  I was involved in everybody we signed, as head of A & R, but the only one I specifically discovered was James.  Mary Hopkin, of course, we all found on a tv show and it was Paul who decided he wanted to produce her so I was involved in signing her but it’s not as if I discovered her– I did not.

SEM: And the other bands that came in… Badfinger?

PA: Badfinger came from Mal Evans.  Jackie Lomax came through George Harrison…and so on.

SEM: Was there any discussion… did you guys sit around and say, “This act is great, this one is not so great”?

PA: Yes.  I had an A&R meeting once a week that as many Beatles as were around would come to, and we would play whatever tape was under discussion.

SEM: Did that always go pretty well?

PA: Yes.  Occasionally there would be disagreements but generally the Beatles were very tolerant of each other pursuing their own projects.

SEM: Let’s wrap this up with some guitar questions for the players out there.   There’s an old Peter and Gordon clip where you’re playing a banjo on “Lady Godiva”.

PA: That was just a prop.  I think it was a five string and I did try to learn five string banjo at one point from a Pete Seeger book and disc, which was how we all learned, but it’s hard.  My friend Steve Martin, of course plays it brilliantly, but I don’t.

SEM: And you got Paul in on a Steve Martin song recently.

PA: No, that was nothing to do with me.  Steve had written a song that everyone thought would be good for Paul to sing so he approached Paul and Paul said yes, but it wasn’t me.

SEM:  In Peter and Gordon, you played a Gibson J-160e and a Gibson 12 string acoustic, right?

PA: Yeah. The J-160e disappeared, I don’t know quite how.  Gordon ended up with two and I had none. But apparently he didn’t have mine.  So I don’t have the original one.  I have one now that I love, actually, which is a reissue from, I guess, fifteen years ago or something.  It’s not from the sixties but it actually sounds better to me than the old one I used to have.  The twelve string got stolen out of the back of our Cortina station wagon on tour one time but they did make me a new twelve string about twenty years ago–a custom one– which is beautiful, which I have. But it’s my second, not the original.

SEM: What did you use when you were first playing in the clubs before you got signed?

PA: Some kind of European guitar.  If you see a picture of us playing and it’s not a J-160 with the volume knobs on it, and it has a pickup– the kind that sits in the hole– that was our original guitar.  If you look at it, it has a kind of winged bird on the top of the head.  Some kind of European… it was very hard to get American guitars.  You basically couldn’t buy American guitars; they were luxury goods.  They were not imported. That’s why nobody had, like a strat or anything in the early days.  Cliff Richard and the Shadows were the first band we ever saw who actually owned an American guitar.  Cliff had brought a strat in from America.  So yeah, it was some kind of European model guitar and then, when we went to America for the first time, they gave us the J-160’s.

SEM: Was the European guitar a six string or a twelve?

PA: Six.  I didn’t have a twelve string back in those early days.

SEM: And did you plug in?

PA: Yes, into some kind of an amp.

SEM: So you were always plugged in?

PA: Not always. At the Pickwick Club we weren’t.  But as we started doing gigs we were. You couldn’t really plug much in to the PA so we’d plug the guitars into an amp onstage.

SEM: And you’re still playing today. Well, nobody’s playing right now.

PA: Oh yeah, I had a whole bunch of gigs planned for this year and a couple of cruises that I was hosting but…well…we’ll see what happens.

SEM: With Albert Lee?

PA: No, these were mostly my Memoir show that I do on my own.

SEM: And for a while you were playing with Jeremy, of Chad and Jeremy.  Is that a possibility again?

PA: Well, as you said, there are no gigs now but I might do some gigs with Jeremy, yes.

SEM: Okay, thanks again for taking the time. Loved the book, and it was great chatting with you.

PA: My pleasure, thanks for calling.